Conversation with Hank Willis Thomas
City Talks: New York
PLUS: What is the first thing you do in the morning?
Kyle Abraham: A lot of the time, the first thing I do is try to make a list of what I have to do. I guess that’s not too exciting. Well, my yoga practice, I guess in an ideal world. A lot of the time, the first thing I end up doing is something like checking Instagram.
P: Where is your go-to place to eat and why?
KA: This is tricky given the pandemic, and I do a lot of take-out. “National Thai” is probably one of my favorite spots. It’s owned by the same people that own another Thai restaurant, Joyo. And when I lived in Forest Hills for seven years, that was a twice-a-week thing one of the first places I would think to order from the second I got back into my apartment after a tour. And now since I’ve moved to Fort Greene, I’m so close to the National that I mean, I’m ordering there twice a week.
P: So the next question would be What attracts you to New York?
KA: I think that it always changes. I mean, in a lot of ways right now, I’m drawn to Brooklyn because I moved back to Brooklyn this year. I think for me, there are so many histories that come up when I think about Lincoln Center Plaza, which is where I was living for the last couple of years. I think about the proximity to the old Ailey building when it was on 61st Street, which is where I was when I did the Ailey summer program when I first came to New York at 19 years old. That summer had such a big impact on me. There’s LaGuardia High School right around there too. There’s just so much exciting history in that neighborhood. So often, I feel like the art of dance in particular is like the bastard stepchild of the art of America in some way. It’s nice to see such a beautiful hub for dance that so many people can be drawn to.
P: What inspires you to do what you do every day?
KA: I started dancing as a form of expression when I was going through a lot of different emotions. I can be a pretty melancholy person. So, moments when I was the most depressed or needed to try and breakthrough to something, that is what motivates a lot of my dancing; my emotions, my experiences, and my frustrations
P: So it’s primarily your personal experiences that inspire you?
KA: Most definitely, my hardships, my history.
P: Before you develop a dance routine, what do you need to determine?
KA: I think the tricky thing is that where I’m at with my career now is very different in every way than when I was starting a company. And one of the only positives of this time that we’re in is that in some instances I had more freedom to do what I wanted Like this summer, I just said, ‘I think I’m just going to go outside, I’m going to make a dance. I’m going to reach out to a couple of dancers and make something.’ And I didn’t have to think about all the bureaucratic rigmarole that one has to do when having a company structure.
Not to be super hippie-dippy about it, but another thing I need to determine is energy. When I’m bringing a dancer into space with me, especially in these times where I can just call up someone and just say “let’s make something,” I want to make sure that I feel really safe with that person and that there’s going to be a certain type of reciprocity in the creative process. I want there to be a sense that I know that the energy that I’m giving to them will come back to me and sometimes even more.
P: And when you say safe, do me like it, like going along with what you said about energy, like same energy to save energy.
KA: Yeah, I think we get to dance and general dance making particular is more is a more vulnerable thing that people even realize because y you have to try not to think about what you look like doing the material If I could do it really well, I probably would still be on stage at night and having other people do the things they feel like that. you were exposing yourself with all of your flaws to someone else and you’re trusting them to not judge you for how you’re doing it or what you’re asking them to do and being that it’s such an abstract art form. As I said before, I am making a lot of material through my emotions and my experience. Sharing that with someone is such a vulnerable thing and you want to make sure that you do feel supported and safe in that kind of sharing
P: What do you see as the relationship between music, dance, and visual art?
KA: I feel like they’re all one and the same in some way. Each thing inspires the other in a really beautiful, reciprocal way. There are times when I’m dancing in silence but there’s a musicality to that silence. When I’m listening to music, there are times that I instantly see dance or I’m drawn to move.
When I am stuck in the creative process, one of the best things for me to do is to listen to music or to study an art catalog that I might have or just take the time to stare at a painting. One of my first jobs was working at the Andy Warhol Museum as an educator, and I was asked to help patrons find movement in the paintings that we had in the gallery. I also started out in music. I grew up playing cello for a number of years.
P: How has the role of choreographer changed over time
KA: Well, the first dance I remember making was at a church camp when I was maybe nine or 10 years old to Bell Biv DeVoe’s song, Poison. It was me and my friends making this dance to this somewhat risque song. I mean, I loved that experience and I love even thinking about the first dance I made as someone who had studied dance. And it was a solo to a Prince song for a Christmas show that they were doing at my high school. It was my first time dancing in front of an audience and I wasn’t nervous at all. It didn’t occur to me that I should be. And I think I’m definitely far past that point. I think over the years, the more eyes that get put on the work, the more expectation there is for it to be something. So as the years go on, I have become more and more insecure and have Developed stage fright. So that’s a thing.
The work has always been collaborative in a lot of different ways, but I think it’s become more collaborative in some ways the art of that stems from the time that I spent dancing for David Dorfman because he is such a collaborative dance maker. He really wants to know what everyone in the room thinks and values everyone’s opinion. That is something that I brought to my practice after working with him.
For several years, I was generating all of this material that was for the company, and at one point in 2009, I changed that and I started videotaping myself doing material and improvising and having the dancers learn those improvs as part of the process. And that’s something that I learned from a teacher in college, Neil Greenberg. Thinking about these different ways of making has shifted my choreographing process over the years.
P: What are you trying to explore with your movement?
KA: I think authenticity. When I am creating and generating from my body, in particular, I want it to always seem that it keeps its authenticity, its dynamics at the heart of the work. While at the same time, I want to make sure that the work continues to evolve. When dancing for David Dorfman he would say to us, whenever we would be improvising, that if something felt familiar, you needed to move past that and find something new. So when I’m making work or thinking about what the next thing is that I’m going to make, I do when we get in the process, try and find ways to add some new element to the process so that the work can stay fresh. You don’t want people to, you know, come to the theater and think that it’s the same dance that they saw the year before.
P: How do you approach these new elements?
KA: It’s In some cases, I’m bringing in improvisation Sometimes I’m asking the dancers to generate material based on different words or actions. Sometimes I’m generating all of the movement. It can really vary. There are so many great choreographers that came before me that I can look to see what some of them have done in their process over the years and think about what that might look like in my work. Sometimes I’ll look at Patricia Brown’s work and the way that she reversed movements. That’s something that we can play within our process
P: So what is the one thing that you would like to see more of in creative industries nowadays?
KA: I’d like to see more acknowledgment and respect of the source of things, I think, right now because of the instantaneous nature of social media, there are a lot of artists and writers who aren’t doing the research part. I think it is really important. I think everyone is so excited about saying that someone is the first this or that, but they haven’t necessarily done the research to see if that’s really a true statement. . So we have to really think about who came before us. And if you have an exciting idea, maybe do the research to see if it’s been done before and how you want to either honor that or what new elements you want to bring to that idea. But you have to acknowledge that someone might have done something very similar to what you did already.
P: What would be the three things that you’re thankful for in yourself?
KA: One, I’m thankful I woke up this morning. I’m thankful for my desire to be organized and I’m thankful that I’m not complacent ever in life.
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