For his company's next world premiere this season, artistic director Robert Battle made a bold choice. In selecting Kyle Abraham, one of the most distinctive, fresh and inventive younger choreographers to make his mark in recent seasons, Battle introduces the ready-for-anything Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater's members _ and their audience _ to an important contemporary voice. The choice seems ideal _ a chance for the dancers to stretch in new directions, and for Abraham, closing out a year of achievements, to bring his work before a wider audience.
Another Night, which will have its first performance on December 5, is a vibrant work for 10 dancers set to Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers' 1960 recording of Dizzy Gillespie's "A Night in Tunisia." Abraham, whose strong connection to his native Pittsburgh often figures in his work, was drawn to the music of fellow Pittsburgher Blakey _ a significant and influential jazz drummer who performed with such legends as Miles Davis, Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk before forming the Jazz Messengers. That longstanding ensemble had an evolving roster over three decades, and its members often went on to become major jazz figures in their own right. One example: a young trumpeter named Wynton Marsalis.
Abraham was intrigued by the idea of choreographing to the extended drum sections in the music; Blakey's version of Gillespie's often-interpreted piece opens with a drum solo lasting over two minutes. "At the very beginning, before I even made any material, I was really interested in drums," Abraham said during an interview at the Alvin Ailey headquarters, midway through his second week of rehearsals. "And there's something about what Art Blakey does; there's so much counterpoint going on. It just seems so rich. There's so much texture to all that he's doing with the drums. I feel like he's really pushing these boundaries and exploring how full you can be with percussion. That's interesting to me. And really just the fact that he was putting his own stamp on a jazz standard."
Abraham, who created The Corner, a juicy urban slice-of-life piece, for Ailey II last year, draws on an unusually wide array of techniques and influences in creating his dances. During an interview, he is as likely to mention Merce Cunningham as Prince, and he often acknowledges important teachers _ particularly at SUNY Purchase, where he received his BFA in dance. A mesmerizing performer himself, he danced in the companies of Bill T. Jones and David Dorfman. His choreography for his own ensemble, Abraham.In.Motion _ notably The Radio Show, his acclaimed first full-evening work _ is thoughtful and intricate, yet permeated by the sheer joy of dancing in its fluidity and spontaneity. In Abraham's hands, the expression of ideas through movement comes across as both challenging and inevitable.
He was surprised when he got the initial phone call from Battle about a year ago _ and deeply moved. "It's a great honor. For him to have this kind of faith in me and in my work _ that blew me away. That is the most moving thing for me about this experience."
Another Night marks the first Ailey work to receive commissioning support from City Center, under the 10-year agreement announced in 2011 that solidifies and expands the already extensive partnership between the Ailey company and its long- standing New York home base.
"It makes official what has been a very strong relationship for years," says Arlene Shuler, City Center's President & CEO.
"We consider it a partnership."
The feeling is mutual. "Being named New York City Center's Principal Dance Company solidifies the important relationship between the two organizations," says Ailey Executive Director Sharon Gersten Luckman. "It honors Ailey as the leader among the many wonderful dance companies that perform each year at this landmark theater."
The promise to commission a work annually "was something that we discussed with the company as a way in which we could demonstrate an even stronger commitment to them," Shuler adds. "We're very excited about this _ and we're thrilled that the first one is Kyle. He performed in an early Fall for Dance Festival, and we've been following him since then. He's really developed as a choreographer."
Plunging into choreographing for unfamiliar dancers, Abraham found so much ability and individuality that he created three distinct casts, so that all 30 Ailey dancers get to perform the piece. "There are so many talented dancers, and a lot of folks really got the stuff I was going after," he said.
During a rehearsal just prior to this inter- view, the company had already displayed a spontaneity and commitment that pleased Abraham. They were clearly absorbing his approach to Blakey's music, with its rich counterpoint. This did not have to do with counts, he explained. "I listen to the music over and over, and I have time markings for different things in the music. I'll specify an accent of the horn, or when the piano comes in _ and play with that. The dancers know there are certain landmarks. But there are moments that we can color here and there. I wanted the dance to say, this is how I hear the music. So you're getting a sense of all the influences that I have in my work. You see them all in this; there's [Merce] Cunningham curves and tilts _ all these different motifs that come into play." Abraham had in mind a specific time and place for his take on Blakey's music. "The inspiration is an atmosphere; I'm thinking about a certain time period in Pittsburgh _ Blakey's time, when all these famous jazz musicians were coming from Pittsburgh, and living there at a certain point. Lena Horne was there, Billy Strayhorn. We want to evoke a vibrant, fun community on the stage. That ideally is what we're seeing. There are no sorrowful moments in this dance at all!"
Susan Reiter covers dance for City Arts and contributes articles on the performing arts to the Los Angeles Times and other publications.