The Lost Art of Writing Love Letters
Observations from Kyle Abraham’s Residency work with Michigan LGBTQ Youth
Never before have I found myself in a group of “strangers” whom I felt I actually knew quite well. We were sitting in a large circle in a white, bright room in the Affirmations center of Ferndale, Michigan, roughly 40 minutes out from Ann Arbor.
The group was richly diverse in age, style, perspective, and gender. Many in the group were young people from the Metro Detroit area who identify as LGBTQ. Others in the group were UMS staff and adult leaders and volunteers of the center. Regardless, after just a few days of experiencing workshops together under choreographer Kyle Abraham’s lead, participants were comfortable with sharing something they loved about the people sitting next to them. At the beginning of our first meeting earlier that week, we had shared only our names and preferred gender pronouns. In the time between, Kyle and some of his company members had created a transformative, interactive experience for their dance research and for the hearts of each participant.
Kyle’s New York-based contemporary dance company Abraham.In.Motion has a mission to “create an evocative interdisciplinary body of work.” To help deepen the development of Kyle’s newest work, which he currently calls Dearest Home, UMS hosted the choreographer and four of his company members for one week.
The artists spent nearly ten hours at Affirmations, where they shared the progress on their choreography, asked for feedback, led discussions on the core themes of the work, and even taught some movement to the group who had gathered to participate. As a former 21st Century Artist Intern with UMS, I was lucky enough to sit in,observe, and absorb. (My colleague Sophia Deery spent a whole summer with Kyle in the same program. You can read about her experience.)
To start, Kyle led an open conversation about healthy relationships, a vulnerable topic but a productive discussion. The group ultimately came to important conclusions, for example, happiness is an identifier of love, not a product of love, which led us into our next activity. Kyle directed us to a table full of magazines, color pencils and markers, envelopes, scissors, glue sticks, and more. He asked everyone to write a good old-fashioned love letter, a gesture he described as a lost art. He turned on a playlist and let all of us, including his company members, sit together and work on our small expressions of love. We wrote love letters to friends, romantic interests, and even ourselves. Some words that were thrown around in the reflective discussion that followed the activity were “insecurities, easy, hard, weird, nice.”
Kyle’s playlist continued filling the room as we transitioned into our next activity, which involved huge, white pieces of blank paper taped to the walls. Kyle asked us each to recall some of the words that were used in our first group discussion and to visualize them, as literally or as abstractly as we wished, on the wall. Within minutes, the walls were full of “blooming, touching, dream, cuddle, risk,” and more.
Kyle’s dancers then shared a trio of choreographed movement that they had worked on in the dance studio that week. More word associations were thrown out from the group in response to the choreography. Some of the group saw petals in the dance, others saw comfort and support, and others saw the healing powers of touch and love.
The next excerpt of choreography, this one a duet, got drastically different reviews. First danced for us in silence, this duet was associated with “anxiety, separation, unsettling.”
Kyle asked the dancers to execute the same choreography again, this time to music he had used while creating it. He explained to the group the significance and influence of this music on his choreography. He shared that he sometimes spent years working on a playlist for a dance piece before actually beginning his work on the movement, and the playlist doesn’t necessarily become that dance’s sound score, but may be used otherwise in the final product. For example, he had the playlist used to create the dance piece Radioshow as pre-show music at the theater, music that played as the audience filed in. The dancers felt that their silent run-through of the choreography made them more dependent on each other’s timing and left a lot of decisions to their creative imaginations. The run with music, alternatively, provided them with more context and drive. Some members of the group preferred the intimacy of the silent run-through, and others appreciated watching the influence of the music.
The discussion on music continued as Kyle asked us each to create our own Love Playlist for TODAY by gathering a collection of music that was relevant to our feelings in that exact place and time. I thought about all the channels of love I felt in that specific moment: love for family, friends, self, dance, people, romantic love. I began jotting down as many relevant songs as came to mind. We each shared highlights from our playlists with each other and bonded over mutual musical interests. I remember smiling and shaking my head in disbelief at the fact that just from hearing some song titles that came to mind when people thought about love, I could get a strong context for how they are doing and feeling in their personal lives.
Kyle then showed videos of his previous works, including Radioshow and Watershed, a piece that was presented recently through UMS. He explained that within his creative process, he has also used his playlists to improvise movement, and then his dancers learned choreography by studying videos of his improvisations.
He also teaches the dancers new phrases bit by bit, as he invents on the spot, and asks dancers to “catch what they can” throughout his improvisation. He showed us an example, as he improvised and then Penda, one of the dancers, created her own adaptation of that phrase. Suddenly, the company had a multiplication of movement material to work with and develop furthermore for the growing piece.
Another strategy that Kyle uses to generate movement in this piece is retrograding a phrase of choreography that already exists. This essentially looks like the same movement, just done backwards, as if on a rewind function. Additionally, Kyle uses action words like “dive, jump, snake, slide, and twerk” to direct his dancers in improvisational exercises to create new movement. He is also inspired by simple, human gestures; pedestrian movements that we all see every day like a nod of the head or a wave of the hand. The dancers showed examples of movement created from all of the above strategies. We even got to learn an excerpt of the gestural phrase and get up and try dancing across the room to some of Kyle’s action words.
Kyle later returned to the topic of our individual Love Playlists. He instructed the dancers to show us some choreography while each of us listened to a song from our personal playlists. Some participants were amazed at how musical the dancing was, even when the dancers themselves could not hear our individual songs that were playing through our personal earbuds and headphones.
This connection between the music and the dancing, both revolving around the theme of love, inspired us to create album covers for our playlists. I looked over my colorful album cover, my collage of words in my love letter, my playlist of happy and sad love songs, and I realized that my own experience with the themes that are fueling Kyle’s new work channeled through my own life in so many ways over the course of that week. The majority of the room had the same experience.
Kyle’s new piece seems to be a love letter in itself. It is full of vulnerability and honesty. It is inspired by the pieces of his personal life that are closest to him: his history, his home, his identity. It explores and celebrates just how human the art form of dance is. I felt validated as a dance artist because I could see the change in the participants of Kyle’s residency. Their closing remarks revolved around a majority opinion that they now saw dance as relatable, emotional, and human. This new work is sure to be a love letter to that sentiment.