Rachel Straus - Dance Writer

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Juilliard Dance

Published: August 15, 2010
Category: profile

Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival: Kyle Abraham


by Rachel Straus

The PillowNotes series comprises essays commissioned from our Scholars-in-Residence to provide audiences with a broader context for viewing dance.

For someone so attuned to others’ inner lives, it was surprising to hear Kyle Abraham say, in a recent interview, “I don’t like to show my emotions on a social level.” But then the artist was referring to speaking about emotions, not dancing them. Abraham’s ability to travel well below the surface of ordinary life, physically and emotionally, was evident by his senior year at Purchase College Conservatory of Dance. Asked by a choreographer to embody the character of a soldier unwittingly caught in friendly fire, Abraham began shuddering his ribcage, mirroring the ceaseless barrage of imaginary machine gunfire. Then Abraham decided to transform his shuddering into a sob. This transition was astonishing. It showed that taking an idea, giving it bodily shape, and honing in on its gut significance is second nature to Abraham—much like breathing is to the rest of us.

When the dancer/choreographer graduated from Purchase College, he immediately embarked on a European tour with the Bill T. Jones/ Arnie Zane Dance Company. Being a dancer for a renowned choreographer was a dream come true, but Abraham’s reaction to the day-to-day life surprised him. He felt artistically at half-mast. Performing, he realized, was only half of what drove him. In 2001 Abraham returned to his native Pittsburgh, where his father, a high school social worker, had encouraged him to study painting, the cello, and to make a career in dance. Back home Abraham began articulating his choreographic vision, formed by the academically sanctioned techniques of ballet, Graham, Cunningham and Limón, but equally inspired by the street—specifically hip-hop’s muscularly rhythmic, improvised isolations of the upper body, known as popping and locking.

In 2006 Abraham’s development reached a tipping point. Graduate studies at New York University along with performance work in David Dorfman Dance, Nathan Trice/RITUALS, and the Kevin Wynn Collection had nurtured him. Abraham began performing his solo work. The dance community buzzed. Critics took note that Abraham’s physical vocabulary and theatrical incisiveness shaped an uncommon narrative picture. In his breakout solo Inventing Pookie Jenkins (2006), Abraham swaggered across New York’s cavernous City Center stage.

A homeboy in drag—bare chest, white, floor-length tulle tutu—Abraham’s undulating torso and staccato gesticulations revealed a churning imagination. He invoked Martha Graham’s slicing arms, Michel Fokine’s Dying Swan, and Michael Jackson’s infamous crotch grab. Like a Cubist portraitist, who fractures a face into jagged planes, Abraham’s fractured Pookie contained a multiplicity of selves: macho man / gay man / human within a tripartite dance vocabulary: ballet / modern / hip-hop. Not merely a pièce de résistance for Abraham’s seamless, fusillade-fast phrasing, Pookie became a launching pad for his evolving aesthetic, rooted in the push-pull of diametric movement systems: ballet (which emphasizes bodily harmony), and hip-hop, (which highlights its disjunction).

The year of Abraham’s City Center debut, the choreographer launched his company Abraham.In.Motion (A.I.M). His talent for blending “high” and “low” revealed itself in his group dances’ eclectic musical selections: Arvo Pärt and Beyoncé, J.S. Bach and the Japanese sound artist Ryoji Ikeda, Britney Spears and Gladys Knight & The Pips. Abraham’s recent choreographic advisor Alexandra Wells, a Juilliard School teacher, says music is central to Abraham’s vision. It drives his sense memory, releasing a kinesthetically emotional response.

In The Radio Show, Abraham delves into memory and its corresponding feelings of loss and joy. Like Marcel Proust’s channeling of his youth upon biting into a Madeleine cookie in Remembrance of Things Past, Abraham comes home through the sounds of Motown, Disco, R&B, and rap in The Radio Show. Taking place in Pittsburgh, the work confronts twin losses: the recently shuttered urban radio stations Hot 106.7 FM and FM WAMO, which Abraham grew up listening to, and the deterioration of his father’s memory from Alzheimer’s disease.

The playlist of songs, from the 1950s onwards, provides Abraham with time-travelling power. In once section, it’s the present day; Abraham embodies the frail steps of his father. In another, a couple passionately intertwines as the ballad reunited by the 1980s group Mtume plays. When The Radio Show received its New York premiere last March, it became another watershed moment for Abraham. Critics praised his first evening-length work where his six dancers fully transmitted the broad emotional spectrum of his world. “It takes a lot of time to get my dancers to move like me,” said the choreographer. Not one to toot his own horn, Abraham credits Alexandra Wells with helping him bridge the divide between making work for himself and successfully imbuing it onto others.

While Abraham was making The Radio Show, he realized that material inspired by Eadweard Muybridge’s stop motion photography needed to be put aside. During a Creative Development Residency at the Pillow, Abraham returned to Muybridge’s systematic images of men wrestling and women dancing and created another work. “The Radio Show is such a personal project,” says Abraham. “This work is not.” Called Op. 1, after Ryoji Ikeda’s 2002 composition, it begins with a game of telephone where each dancer instantly replicates another’s unplanned movement. In both of these new dances, blink-of-the-eye physical initiations (at the hand, the hip, or the chest), and the qualities they elicit (sultry, surrendered, abstract) are central. “The movement is only half the work,” says Abraham. The place where the idea, the body, and the feeling join forces is when the work begins to churn. Where something mysterious rises to the surface. Call it second nature.

© 2010 Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival


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