Hip hop trips from the margins to the mainstream
Ask Kyle Abraham how hip hop has influenced his choreography and a wry smile appears. That question again. “I wouldn’t regard myself as a hip-hop dancer, but I am am certainly connected to its culture,” he says.
The 35-year-old Pittsburgh man is in Dublin to create a new work, Outsider, for John Scott’s Irish Modern Dance Theatre (IMDT). Their association was cemented through a professional friendship after the pair met in New York four years ago.
Abraham is now hot property in the US, having recently received a generously funded New York Live Arts residency and a commission from the prestigious Alvin Ailey Company. As his artistic stock rises, the phrase “hip-hop choreographer” is increasingly found beside his name, but the label and consequent stereotype don’t fit. He has an almost preppy appearance and a gentle, respectful relationship with the dancers, but began dancing at raves and listening to rap long ago.
He acknowledges, however, that the aesthetic has seen its culture of community replaced by commercialisation. “I think hip hop and rap began to change when gangsta rap became such a huge thing,” he says. “Hip hop, even though it has bravado, is still inviting. Gangsta rap is clearly not.”
Although he studied classical music and contemporary dance, Abraham has an aesthetic that is firmly rooted in his carefree social dancing. For him, hip hop dance is a way of feeling rather than learning a set of moves.
“Hip-hop class for me is just a stylised exercise class, as it is like putting someone in a box. Even if you’re changing the dynamics or timing, you’re not being self-expressive.” He also recognises pluses and minuses to break-dancing, “but I like both the pluses and the minuses.
“The one thing that used to drive me crazy was, when people started break-dancing, they would take over loads of space from people who just wanted to dance and interact with each other. On the other hand, there is a lot of support through cyphers,” he says, referring to the circles of people around break-dancers.
Break-dancing, gangsta rap and graffiti might be well-known reference points, but the influence of hip hop can be found in theatre, literature, poetry, photography and journalism. It has also been accepted, albeit cautiously, by the mainstream: middle- of-the-road audiences can watch the rapper Mos Def in Topdog/Underdog because the play has the safety seal of a Pulitzer.
And, although it mightn’t have retained its cultural potency, it clearly outlasted the rapper Nas’s 2006 album, provocatively titled Hip Hop Is Dead. Naturally interdisciplinary, its practitioners mix influences and break everything down into bits and bytes to rebuild something new. Even if hip hop isn’t part of our vocabulary, it is still part of our sensibility.
The mixing of influences is evident in Abraham’s choreography. He played classical cello during the years he was break-dancing and sees no separation between different art forms or genres of dance.
Instead he tries to blend influences in a way that focuses on one versus another, or on how one complements the other. This will probably be illustrated best in two solos he will perform in Dublin, one an as-yet-untitled premiere that spans his history making solos and combines genres. The other is a section of a larger work that parallels Pinocchio’s duality with that of a dancer’s quest for acceptance in the world of hip-hop celebrity.
Abraham still dances with his own company, Abraham.In.Motion, and when he choreographs he tends to create material for his own body first and then teach it to other dancers. “The dancers in my company are fantastic at replicating the material in the exact same way I am giving it,” he says. “But there is always that point where I’m sick of seeing me.”
While working with IMDT’s four Irish dancers, Philip Connaughton, Liv O’Donoghue, Ryan O’Neill and Rebecca Reilly, he has discovered that they can generate material. “I could give them a task and they could create movement. They are also choreographers, so they love these assignments and can create variations to give me a new voice.”
He sees all four as individual dancers and attaches less importance to tight unison movement. “I’m not interested in getting them all looking the same,” he says, adding that in the US choreographers can come under scrutiny if their unison isn’t slick.
This more relaxed synchronicity appeared in a previous work, Pavement, in which he allowed his dancers to dance at their own pace rather than strictly in time.
Like other choreographic decisions its root lies in his earliest dancing experiences rather than in his training. “When I am creating movement it’s still coming from that feeling I used to have dancing at raves. You have to discover what it is within you that is making you want to move.”