Freeing Up Creativity: Kyle Abraham and Gianna Reisen on Returning to Choreograph for New York City Ballet

The New York City Ballet Fall Fashion Gala on September 28 is a major event celebrating the tenth anniversary of the company’s annual music, dance and fashion festival. Since 2012, when master couturier – and ballet lover – Valentino designed costumes for an entire evening of dancing, more than 30 internationally renowned designers have collaborated with an equally impressive roster of choreographers to create new ballets with a heightened visual element.

This year’s gala features world premieres from two choreographers who have created ballets for the Fall 2018 fashion event. Choreographer Kyle Abraham, founder of acclaimed dance company AIM, returns for his fourth NYCB assignment with costumes by London-based designer Giles Deacon, creator of the striking black-and-white looks The RunawayAbraham’s Ballet 2018. Gianna Reisen, who at 18 became the youngest choreographer in NYCB history Composer’s holiday, her luminously confident ballet for the 2017 fashion gala, costumed by the late Virgil Abloh, is back in her third work for the company. In addition to the costumes created by Spanish designer Alejandro Gómez Palomo, her new play will be set to music by Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter and visual artist Solange Knowles, with an original score.

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The evening also includes resident choreographer Justin Peck’s live performance premiere solocreated for NYCB’s 2021 Virtual Spring Gala, featuring new costume design by Raf Simons and excerpts from George Balanchines Symphony in Cwith the glittering white satin tutu by costume director Marc Happel.

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A lot has happened since Abraham and Reisen developed their last fashion gala ballets. What are you up to? And what can we expect when the curtain rises?

The home base for Kyle Abraham remains his 17-year-old company, the incubator for his unique, cross-genre choreographic mix that includes contemporary dance, street dance, modern dance, ballet and more – a style that is fully showcased in AIM’s latest edition, full-length works, Requiem: Fire in the Earth’s Air and A love without title. A 2013 MacArthur Fellow, Abraham has created pieces for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Paul Taylor American Modern Dance, and Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, among others.

New York City Ballet at Kyle Abraham’s The Runaway; Abraham and Giles Deacon at the NYCB Costume Shop
Paul Kolnik; Erin Bayano

And since The Runaway, which was Abraham’s first ever work for a ballet company, also received ballet commissions, including two works for London’s Royal Ballet and solos for the American Ballet Theatre’s principal dancers Misty Copeland and Calvin Royal III. Abraham also choreographed When we fell for NYCB’s 2021 winter digital season, invited to exhibit at the prestigious Venice Biennale, and Ces noms que nous portonsa Lincoln Center and NYCB-commissioned solo featuring principal dancer Taylor Stanley.

“I love working in ballet,” says Abraham. “I am attracted to the pointe shoe. I love how it plays with center of gravity and speed.”

What does he like about working with NYCB? It refers to the experience of creating When we fell during a three-week bubble residency in Kaatsbaan, a rural enclave in Tivoli, New York, in the winter of 2021. “What’s so beautiful is that the dancers have been so caring and generous. I knew I had people in the room who wanted me and the play to succeed. I knew I could ask questions and that we could solve problems and challenge each other. And that unleashes creativity.”

The remoteness, intensity and snowy tranquility of the Kaatsbaan also made for an excellent working environment. The result? Abraham left with plenty of material – “more than people are likely to see” – including ideas for the fashion gala.

The emphasis on costume makes choreography for the gala an atypical creative experience, says Abraham. “It’s a shared vision, and it takes that fashion gala-ness to work.” That’s one of the main reasons he’s reunited with Deacon, who has also designed costumes since working on two AIM plays The Runaway. “Giles has such a fabulous imagination. It’s great to see how our worlds can connect and play together,” he says.

Composer’s holiday and Judah, the two ballets that Reisen choreographed for the company in 2017 and 2018 were destined for fall fashion galas, but this year’s commission presented the 23-year-old dancer with different challenges — and creative opportunities. “I’m the kind of choreographer who usually works with existing music and has everything in his head that derives from that music selection. This is the first time I’ve worked with original music,” she says.

Alejandro Gómez Palomo and Gianna travel at the NYCB costume shop; Harrison Ball and Company in Reisen’s Judah
Erin Bayano; Paul Kolnik

Reisen came into contact with Knowles on several occasions – “we hit it off immediately because of our love of jazz” – and as the music took shape her attention turned to costume design. Inspired by a recent collection for his label Palomo Spain, Palomo designed boxy tutus and square-shouldered suits with pointed shoulders covered from top to bottom in Swarovski crystals – half a million of them thanks to a generous donation from the company.

The imposing costumes mean that partnering must be kept to a minimum. But Reisen was eager to tackle the challenges presented by Knowles’ opulent outfits and theatrical free-jazz score. “The most important thing for me is how bold this project is and how far I am out of my comfort zone. But I’m at a point in my career where I’m willing to take big risks.”

Four years ago, Reisen divided her time between performing with the LA Dance Project and creating choreography (in addition to NYCB, she has choreographed pieces for LADP and the School of American Ballet, her alma mater). But when the pandemic hit, she made the decision to double down on dancing, though she still warms up and improvises ballet to fuel her dancer self. “Dance has never fulfilled me as much as choreography,” she explains. “I love creating things and I like being in control of the work. And I love working with the dancers, the music, the lighting designers, the costume designers and how all those aspects come together in a fully realized thing.”

Reisen looks forward to working with NYCB dancers again. “I’ve been into ballet a lot since moving back to New York, and I’ve watched many of the dancers I’ve worked with develop and grow as I have developed and grown,” she says .

In the future, she looks forward to exploring different dance styles in her work, including modern dance and contemporary ballet, which she enjoyed performing with LADP. “I would like to do a work for barefoot,” she says. But ballet is at its core. She concludes by saying, “I’m a Balanchine girl at heart.”

Terry Trucco writes regularly about art and travel.

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