Rachel Straus - Dance Writer

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Published: June 1, 2010
Category: profile

New Artist of the Month: Kyle Abraham

By Rachel Straus

It’s not enough to describe the work of choreographer Kyle Abraham as possessing chameleon charms. The 32-year-old dancer’s ability to instantaneously channel a hip-hop gangsta’s bravado, a cross dresser’s hyper-femininity, and an elderly person’s fragility feels real, as though he is these people. Abraham’s emotional identification with these characters gives his work a mesmerizing quality; similar to a master monologist’s slipping in and out of voices he has known and understood. For someone so attuned to the temperament of others’ lives, it was surprising when Abraham said, “I don’t like to show my emotions on a social level.” But then the New York-based artist was referring to speaking about emotions not dancing them.

Abraham’s breakout moment came in 2007 at New York’s City Center. Chosen to perform his 2006 solo “Inventing Pookie Jenkins” at the Fall For Dance festival, Abraham swaggered down the cavernous stage—bare-chested, in a floor-length tutu, and shouldering a boom box. His performance, to East London rapper Dizzie Rascal, received a roar of applause. Living in the hood and dancing à la “Les Sylphides” rubbed shoulders: momentarily, humorously and sometimes poignantly. The City Center exposure catapulted Abraham’s career. Today Abraham is racing from one commission to the next. In the next seven months, he will make five new works, gestating the first at the Firkin Crane Blank Canvas residency in Ireland. In August his pick-up company Abraham.in.Motion will premiere a work commissioned by the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival. Last February, Abraham’s group held its first full-length evening at St. Mark’s Church. Called “The Radio Show,” New York Times dance critic Claudia La Rocco described it as “smart, and self-aware, and luscious” where “the cast of seven was as fierce as the choreography.”

Abraham is feeling the heat of his success. “It’s kind of overwhelming,” he confirmed. But the soft-spoken dancer—who performed in Los Angeles with David Dorfman Dance over one weekend; then developed and premiered a 45-minute solo in St. Petersburg, Florida days later—is not one to crumble in the face of mounting challenges. As a consequence, the performing arts community has embraced him. Recently, Dance Magazine called Abraham one of their “25 to Watch;” the Jerome Foundation gave him a travel grant, and the Pennsylvania Council for the Arts offered him a fellowship. OUT magazine described him “as one of the best and brightest creative talents to emerge in New York City in the age of Obama.”

Abraham grew up in Pittsburgh. His father, a social worker, encouraged him to study the arts. He began with the cello; then tried his hand at the violin, piano and the French horn. “You don’t want to be a quitter,” he recalled his father counseling him. When Abraham started taking dance classes, the experience of moving to music with other people made the difference. “It was the one thing I couldn’t do in my room,” Abraham said. Making dances is a highly social endeavor and in “The Radio Show,” Abraham contrasts being in the throws of community to being alone with one’s thoughts. In the first section, three women get ready for a night on the town, preening with attitude to a Pittsburgh radio’s Motown sounds. In the second, Abraham tentatively walks alone in a circle, like a man lost in the sea of his mind. The piece is dedicated to Abraham’s father who was diagnosed in 2000 with Alzheimer’s. Its theme of dual losses—of a father’s memory and the closing of community radio stations—never fully congeals. Nevertheless, it’s ambitious scope garnered praise from every reviewing critic in attendance.

Unique to Abraham is the uncategorical-ness of his movement language. While better-known choreographers such Alexei Ratmansky and Christopher Wheeldon work in the ballet idiom, Abraham’s work draws on hip hop, release technique, Merce Cunningham’s renowned austerity, and ballet. “It takes a lot of time to get my dancers to move like me,” Abraham said wistfully. The choreographer’s whipping spine undulations, swooping transitions, and initiations from the gut rather than the feet require a contortionist’s sensibility. Abraham began developing his style at Purchase College Conservatory of Dance and then at Tisch School of the Arts. His mentors include the late American Ballet Theatre principal dancer Gayle Young, and choreographers Kevin Wynn and Bill T. Jones, who he performed with in 2000 as a member of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company. All three men encouraged Abraham to tackle a range of dance techniques in order to develop his voice.

But it was former Boston Ballet dancer Alexandra Wells who ushered Abraham to the next artistic level. Wells, the curator of a Montreal-based choreography residency called Springboard, gave Abraham the courage in “The Radio Show” to demand of his dancers that they dance like him. This seems like an obvious request, but it no longer is. Today, freelance dancers work with up to five choreographers. Too often they don’t realize a choreographer’s style because it is extremely time consuming, and the performances for which they are hired usually last no more than a weekend. Yet a dancer’s ability to embody a choreographer’s voice is key, counseled Wells. “Kyle’s emotions initiate his steps,” she said. “I don’t know what is going on inside of him, but dancers need to recognize the emotion” and to develop it in their own bodies. In “The Radio Show” they did. Consequently, Abraham moved into new territory. He proved that his performers could dance the broad emotional spectrum of his world. Being privy to this development was proof of Abraham’s exponentially growing artistry.

Copyright © 2011, Musical America

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