It can be sweaty, painstaking, unglamorous. The steps are stymieing when they won't knit together. You're half dancing, half hanging around. It's always the same people; they never go away. It takes incessant tweaking to get it right. Welcome to the art of choreography, a labor-intensive affair that requires real-time interaction, patient collaboration.
This honorable adventure happened earlier this year in a dance studio at the edge of downtown Los Angeles. The room -- white-walled, black-Marley-floored, strewn with ladders, scaffolding and other construction leave-behinds -- was workplace to visiting artist Kyle Abraham. The hugely in-demand Brooklyn-based choreographer, who yesterday was granted the MacArthur "genius" award, has been setting a new work on the happening L.A. dance troupe, BODYTRAFFIC. The piece, "Kollide," will have its world premiere October 11 at Santa Monica's Broad Stage.
Lots of continental criss-crossing set up the commission. Abraham was at REDCAT delivering "The Radio Show" in October 2011 when BODYTRAFFIC co-directors Lillian Barbeito and Tina Finkelman Berkett first invited him, hope against hope, to work with their burgeoning company. Then the BODYTRAFFIC'kers started showing up in Abraham's neck of the woods, booked three times, at various festivals and events, at the Joyce Theater dance-mecca in Manhattan.
Barbeito and Berkett earn bonus points for getting onto Abraham's calendar early. Because in 2012 his career took off. He was honored the Jacob's Pillow Dance Award during the festival's 80th anniversary season. He was named one of 54 United States Artists. And he's in the first of a two-year stint as Resident Commission Artist for New York Live Arts, relishing a perk that any performing artist pines for, an annual salary.
"The thing I like most is having an office," says the affable Abraham smiling slightly. He's chit-chatting during rehearsal lunch break. "I have a desk," he says giving off a feeling that can only be labeled happiness. "And my own cubicle. I don't have to work out of my house. I have somewhere to go."
Abraham, who earned his dance degree from Purchase College, SUNY and a master of fine arts from NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, raps brightly about a favorite subject, music: "I've been listening to drumming," he says. "Max Roach, and of course Art Blakey [the jazz drummer whose rendering of Dizzy Gillespie's "A Night In Tunisia" Abraham recently used for "Another Night" choreograhped for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater]."
A pair of cool Max Roach-style spectacles reinforces Abraham's thoughtful demeanor: "I have to tell some dancers that the action's not on the beat; drumming's just the impulse, it's a vibe." Swapping from the arcane to the street, he admits, "I've even been listening to beating on buckets, turned over."
* * *
BODYTRAFFIC dancers Melissa Bourkas, Guzmán Rosado and Andrew Wojtal pile back into the studio, joining Abraham, Barbeito and Berkett for the afternoon session. Abraham rehearses the dance he's created thus far, an astonishing amount of material in just two days of work. Watching, he calls out, "Beautiful." He stands to demonstrates a body wave, his arms curving near his torso like a pair of parentheses. "When you do this," he says, still undulating, "why don't you go into a high arch?" he says, pushing his face toward the sky.
Wojtal, slender, red-bearded, takes a stab at it.
"You like it?" the choreographer asks.
"Yeah, I love it," the dancer responds.
A trio of dancers perch lightly, poised to skitter like roadrunners. Abraham looks their way. Every ear in the room is piqued. "Can I see the material you do with Mel going this way?" the choreographer asks, then facing the other direction, "Now, can I see it going that way?"
"Just change your front," he states flatly.
The dancers comply. The old inside-out flip-flop trick. An even bigger puzzlement: Abraham has not yet selected music for his dance. It exists so far only in steps. A sound score will come later. BODYTRAFFIC, on command, spools the choreography, first, to supersonic spacey contemporary chamber music by an Icelandic composer. Then they do it to a nasty rap song whose lyric recycles the "F" word. Finally Abraham puts on "a house, dancey sound [that] I sometimes teach to," he explains to no one in particular. The bubbly beat pokes the dancers like a vitamin-B shot. Up ramps the room's energy level.
The dance-lingo wonks up as well. Says Abraham, "Let's spend a little time working on where the trio is joining this material. Just go from the fourth [ballet foot position]. If we are doing it turning-wise, it'll work." Addressing a brown-haired twosome, Berkett and Rosado, who stand at left, Abraham instructs: "You two -- up up down down. When you finish, join in, you know, hop, skip, five. Now go from the fourth again."
This onslaught of kooky talk the dancers calmly absorb. One asks, "Do you want a specific direction?"
Noodling with his laptop music queue, Abraham replies in a vague tone, "No not yet."
The dancers again plunge in. Abraham, motionless in his chair, watches, his expression blank, his eyes flitting from body to body. "Can we go from the fiver thing?" he asks. "It got trigger happy. Think Doug Varone.
"Brother Andrew [he's addressing Wojtal], can you teach everyone that second half? I'll break it up later and tell everyone who does what."
* * *
Upon arrival in Los Angeles, Abraham created three duets. These he transferred to BODYTRAFFIC immediately. For efficiency's sake, he video-recorded a solo and handed it off via an IPad. The dancers cull yet another slice of choreography directly from the video-camera monitor. Slowly slowly the creation swells.
The afternoon wanes and the air in the fluorescent-lit dance studio feels un-fresh. "Y'all look good," notes Abraham, his slight drawl kicking in perhaps from fatigue. "I need to make a thing to lock that down and get to Lillian's solo. Do it one time without the music ... just so we can physicalize it?" he asks, his voice rising with the question.
The answer may have to come the next day. Barbeito, high at day's end from the collaboration, bubbles with praise for Abraham: "He's so real and intelligent and he does so much research. His work is politically charged and he really does believe and need to express himself through movement. Kyle has so much going on. And it all comes from his roots. He's very passionate and generous. He comes off as nonchalant. But he's not."
Debra Levine is a Los Angeles-based arts journalist blogging about dance, film, music and urban culture on arts•meme.