At the gala for choreographer Kyle Abraham and his dance company, one question could boggle the mind: Were there more artists onstage or in the audience?
It might have been a draw: Dancer-actress Bebe Neuwirth, iconic Fosse dancer Ben Vereen, visual artist Carrie Mae Weems, choreographer Robert Battle and more gathered on Oct. 16 to celebrate the acclaimed Abraham and to raise funds that were going to a good cause: Health insurance for company members of Abraham’s company Abraham In Motion (A.I.M.).
“Dancers rarely have health insurance,” said the company’s executive director Joe Stackell. “It’s one of Kyle’s priorities.”
Guests gathered at the penthouse of 80 Fifth Ave in Manhattan for cocktails followed by dinner and silent auction, as well as performances by the company.
The feeling of being captivated by Abraham, a 2013 MacArthur Fellow, is well known to this crowd. His movement blends meticulous contemporary-dance training with cultural messages, often related to the need for social justice, equality, greater humanity between people or the quest for positive change.
His choreographic voice is what sparked Bebe Neuwirth and her partner Chris Calkins to become active supporters (and now board members) after they saw his work at the Fire Island Dance Festival years ago.
“The movement is unique to Kyle,” said Neuwirth, who was drawn to his honesty in expressing his thoughts onstage. “Nothing is arbitrary. Nothing is wasted.”
One of the event’s honorees was Robert Battle, artistic director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. He was introduced by another dance legend, Sylvia Waters, whose career with Ailey started in 1968 as a dancer, then continued for 38 years as the head of its second company, where she commissioned Battle.
Battle said when he saw Abraham’s work at the Joyce Theatre, he was taken aback by its power. He knew he wanted to use his position as head of the Ailey company to commission Abrahams — pending of course that he actually got the Ailey job. He did. And Abraham has since created “Untitled America” on the Ailey company, which will perform the piece again in December at New York City Center.
“The work he is doing is so important and connected to what Alvin Ailey had in mind for the company,” said Battle.
His fellow honoree was art photographer Carrie Mae Weems, the first African-American female artist to be given a retrospective exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum. Weems was introduced by Studio Museum in Harlem head Thelma Golden and artist Glen Ligon. As a tribute to Abraham, Weems read a poem called “While We Can.”
Throughout the speeches and dinner, dancers performed expects of Abraham’s work on a long floor space between the seated guests, allowing everyone an up-close view of the dancers.
Portions of “Dearest Home” and “The Gettin’” were performed, but of course, as the evening’s host and Broadway triple-threat Brenda Braxton pointed out, there’s nothing like seeing a choreographer perform his own work.
Abraham performed a solo to “Ne Me Quitte Pas.” Its sinuous curves are juxtaposed with gestures that cry out for understanding and moments that look to the earth as a place of solace.
Watching Abraham dance in such an intimate space makes clear what one longtime patron, Laurence Lang, said of Abraham’s choreography before the event began: “He’s created a vocabulary that is uniquely his. He’s in a space that is occupied by very few people.”