Hip hop trips from the margins to the mainstream
Kyle Abraham’s distinctive hip-hop choreography is a merger of influences that mines dancers’ sensibilities
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.