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Kyle Abraham Wants You to See Another Side of Misty Copeland

The choreographer Kyle Abraham is a Misty Copeland fan. One of his favorite fan memories is of a Prince concert where Ms. Copeland appeared as a surprise guest artist. This was before she was a superstar — before 2015, when she made the cover of Time magazine and became the first black woman promoted to principal dancer at American Ballet Theater. So maybe not everyone in the audience knew who she was. But Mr. Abraham did.

“I started screaming,” he recently recalled. “You would have thought I was 12 years old.”

Unlike most Misty Copeland fans, though, Mr. Abraham, 42, gets to work with her. In 2012, he invited her to be a guest with his contemporary dance company, A.I.M. (Then it was called Abraham.In.Motion.) Busy schedules didn’t align that time, but he got another chance this year, when New York City Center commissioned him to make a solo for Ms. Copeland, 37. It premieres Tuesday (and repeats Wednesday) on the first of five programs in the theater’s popular, bargain-priced Fall for Dance festival.

Those programs are sold out, as is the opening night of A.I.M’s week at the Joyce Theater (Oct. 15-20), when Ms. Copeland will reprise the solo, fulfilling Mr. Abraham’s original dream. She is indisputably a draw. But he is a major figure himself, a 2013 MacArthur fellow whose choreography is constantly in demand. After rehearsing with Ms. Copeland at City Center one morning last week, he was off to the Paul Taylor Dance Company, which will debut an Abraham piece at Lincoln Center later this fall.

While Mr. Abraham comes from the world of contemporary dance, this isn’t his first experience with world-class ballet dancers. He worked with Wendy Whelan, the former New York City Ballet star, as a choreographer and a dancer on her “Restless Creature” project in 2013. Perhaps more significantly, he made “The Runaway” for City Ballet last year, becoming one of very few black choreographers to create a work for that company, and the first in more than a decade.

Mr. Abraham was aware of the pressures that distinction put on him (pressures that Ms. Copeland might understand). In response, “The Runaway” danced around expectations. The music juxtaposed a quiet contemporary classical composition by Nico Muhly and playfully aggressive hip-hop by Jay-Z and Kanye West. The choreography discovered commonalities between ballet and ballroom vogueing. Its central role for Taylor Stanley, a mixed-race dancer, was mercurial, slippery, hard to classify. The dance was a hit.

As it happens, Mr. Stanley is in another of this season’s Fall for Dance commissions, a duet with his City Ballet colleague Sara Mearns, created by Kim Brandstrup. Robert Fairchild (who used to dance with City Ballet) and Stella Abrera (who still dances with Ballet Theater) are part of the cast for yet another commission, “Unveiling,” by Sonya Tayeh, the choreographer of “Moulin Rouge” on Broadway. Such special-occasion combinations are a standard feature of Fall for Dance, and putting Mr. Abraham and Ms. Copeland together could be seen as formulaic.

Yet there seems to be something unusually meaningful about this pairing, especially to the paired, as was evident at a rehearsal last week.

It was a giggle fest. Not that the solo is a comedy. Set to droning, staticky music by Alva Noto and Ryuichi Sakamoto, it’s a searching work with, in Mr. Abraham’s words, “a simmer to it.” Throughout the dance, Ms. Copeland keeps shifting shape, her sinuous arms suggesting a ballet swan one moment and a street dancer the next. More than once, she looks over her shoulder anxiously. Yet all during the rehearsal, even as she grew frustrated with a section and they had to work out a solution together, they were making each other laugh almost continuously.

The humor was a sign of comfort, even shared perspective: With a different choreographer, Ms. Copeland might not have jokingly referred to race, including kidding about the possible meanings of the title “Ash.”

After rehearsal, the laughing continued as they sat to talk about the pressures they feel at this point in their careers; about dealing with audience expectations; and about what each artist means to the other. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Kyle, now that you finally get to make a solo for Misty, is it as you imagined?

KYLE ABRAHAM It’s better. In 2012, I imagined her coming out with a boombox to this remix of the Ciara song “Goodies.” That would have been a strictly a show-off kind of thing, and I don’t think either of us feel we have to do that now. The more I get to know Misty, the more I want to show aspects of her artistry that people aren’t always given the chance to see. That’s why I wanted to make something with a simmer to it.

MISTY COPELAND There are these expectations of what people have seen you do or what they think you can do. But I’ve been realizing what’s valuable to me and what kinds of works I want to be a part of. I love the tradition of ballet — the deep, rich history — but there are some things we have to let go of. So I feel this is the perfect moment to delve into something different and a new language for this generation.

Like what Kyle did in “The Runaway”?

ABRAHAM I was thinking about what people might want or assume I would be doing for my next piece in the ballet world. With “The Runaway,” a lot of people talk about Kanye, but the first half is classical music. So [for “Ash”] I wanted something with bass, with electronic sounds, but also with strings. Just like we play with different modes of movement.

Are there similarities between “Ash” and “The Runaway”?

ABRAHAM It wasn’t until yesterday’s rehearsal that I realized, “Wait a second, that’s the same beginning.” But if moments are similar, why are they similar? Both Misty and I feel there are things we have to prove to ourselves and to other people. I think it’s O.K. to have moments that are reference points in your life. This work has a lot of those ideas of shift and transition in it.

Is that how it feels to you, Misty?

COPELAND It’s been nice to find ways of expressing what I’m going through, whether or not people get it. It’s a very transitional moment for me now, at 37. I feel like if I had been promoted to principal at a younger age I would have processed this a lot sooner.

And it’s so important to be with an artist who is empathetic and vulnerable. I can’t think of another choreographer that could have handled all I’ve been going through better than Kyle!

With someone else it might have gone badly?

COPELAND Oh, yeah! Because of my journey. The older you get, the more self-critical you get. So I’ve started to panic a little and worry about what I’m saying [as a dancer]. But Kyle has been so calm.

ABRAHAM I think it’s about wanting to see you, Misty, and going beyond the person I see onstage. It’s about seeing how the piece looks in your body, what the experience can be for you versus me.

COPELAND And I appreciate that, because as ballet dancers we’re always just told what to do. It’s nice to have freedom.

Working with Kyle has been different?

COPELAND Different from any process I’ve ever experienced. It’s been amazing to work with the dancers in his company, too. [What they do] is coaching, but it’s so different from the coaching I’m used to. In the ballet world, you’re coached and it’s like, that’s the answer. This is more collaborative. At this point in my life, it’s nice not to have as many rules.

Fall for Dance

Through Oct. 13 at New York City Center, Manhattan; nycitycenter.org.

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