The holiday season can trigger certain, sometimes painful childhood memories for choreographer Kyle Abraham — it was the time of year when his mother would receive a phone call from her brother in prison. “Once the phone calls ended, the sadness set in,” he says. “On both ends.”
That palpable feeling of separation helped inspire his latest work for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, “Untitled America: First Movement” (watch an exclusive clip from a rehearsal, below). The piece is the first of a three-part modern dance series that will explore the impact of prison on families.
To prepare for the project, Abraham commissioned filmmakers to record interviews with former prisoners about what it was like to be removed from their loves ones for long stretches of time. Abraham studied the footage, looking for body movements that he could translate into dance.
“There were maybe two or three videos where people were really fidgety,” he says. “There was so much that they’re still dealing with that didn’t allow them to feel at ease. But there’s something to that when you’re putting that on the stage.” In “First Movement,” dancers often reach outwards, as if grasping for family members, or jerk rhythmically, as if struggling against strings.
This isn’t the first time that Abraham has used themes related to social and criminal justice in his work; for his 2012 piece, “Pavement,” he combined modern dance and hip-hop to create a dance about gang violence and policing in black neighborhoods. A year later, he was awarded a MacArthur “genius” grant for his politically charged choreography.
“There’s this thing about theater, where you go to the theater to escape,” he says. “But it’s also a great place to find our most honest selves.”
“Untitled America: First Movement” premiered on Dec. 9 at New York City Center and runs through Jan. 2, 2016. The second and third movements will premier in June and December, respectively.