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Published: August 20, 2013
Category: profile

Kyle Abraham at Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival


by Rachel Straus

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

Like the cinematically abrupt scene changes in T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, Kyle Abraham’s shifting dance portals in Pavement foster a dreamlike landscape.  In his newest work, Abraham employs paradoxical moods and images that cohere for each viewer as narratives, albeit different ones.  This multiplicity of viewer interpretation isn’t surprising.  Abraham avoids didacticism and linear storytelling models.  He employs music, from blues and jazz to opera and rap, as structuring devices.  He steers his accomplished dancers through intricate peregrinations, where their interrelations communicate the conflicting impulses in human experience.

Abraham’s ability to dig below the surface of ordinary life, physically and emotionally, was evident by his senior year at Purchase College Conservatory of Dance.  After graduating, Abraham immediately embarked on a European tour with the Bill T. Jones/ Arnie Zane Dance Company.  Being a dancer in a renowned troupe was a dream come true, but Abraham’s reaction to the performing life surprised him.  He felt artistically at half-mast.  Performing, he realized, was only part of what drove him.  In 2001 Abraham returned to 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 focused on articulating his choreographic vision, informed by the academically sanctioned techniques of ballet, Graham, Cunningham, and Limón, but also inspired by the street—specifically hip-hop’s muscularly rhythmic, improvised isolations of the upper body.

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 presenting his solo work.  The dance community buzzed.  Critics took note that Abraham’s physical vocabulary and theatrical incisiveness shaped a unique vision.  In his breakout solo Inventing Pookie Jenkins (2006) Abraham swaggered across New York’s cavernous City Center stage. Appearing as a bare-chested homeboy in drag—thanks to a 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 / hu-man 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, he launched his company Abraham.In.Motion (A.I.M) with a performance in his hometown of Pittsburgh.  Another tipping point came when A.I.M. had its 2010 Jacob’s Pillow debut.  That year Abraham won a Princess Grace Award for choreography and New York’s Bessie Award for his critically acclaimed The Radio Show (a work partially created through a Creative Development Residency at the Pillow).  The honors kept on coming.  In 2012, Abraham became a USA Ford Fellow, won the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Award, and became a New York Live Arts’ 2012-2014 Resident Commissioned Artist.

With the support provided by these awards, Abraham created Pavement as a rumination on the Hill District neighborhoods of Pittsburgh.  Like Harlem, the Hill District blossomed artistically in the 1920s; like Detroit, its residents built strong communities in concert with the city’s emergence as an industrial powerhouse; and, like too many urban communities during the 1970s, its people became demoralized with the loss of industrial and manufacturing work.  Abraham also found inspiration in the provocative portrait of a gang-ridden community in John Singleton’s 1991 film Boyz n the Hood.  Like Singleton, Abraham creates hauntingly intense scenes in Pavement.  His dancers appear to run through empty lots and buildings, from and toward invisible threats.  “I was thinking about buildings as self-portraits,” Abraham explains about work’s visual landscape, created in part by his longtime lighting designer (and unofficial set designer), Dan Scully.  For Abraham the buildings in the Hill District resemble distinct individuals, with similarly personal and layered life cycles.  Abraham says about the neighborhood’s stages, “There were venues where the amazing jazz from the 1920s to the 50s grew.  These places have so much historical resonance for our community, and now there they are all spray-painted or boarded up.”

Towards the end of Pavement a projection of a 20-story public housing project, part of the Hill District’s Urban Renewal zone, tumbles to the pavement—like a slain giant.  Abraham channels this explosive intensity and subsequent eerie stillness into his dance.  However, he’s not interested in finality. He says he perceives history as “cyclical.”  Perhaps that is why he layers his sound score with Baroque music (Bach and Vivaldi), sung by countertenor Philippe Jaroussky, an excerpt from Benjamin Britten’s 1945 opera Peter Grimes, and the plaintive ballads sung by 1960s artists Donny Hathaway and Sam Cook, who paved the way for black recording artists.

Judging from the acclaim for Pavement, many people find inspiration in Abraham’s complex dance.  After the show, audience members want to talk with the 35-year-old choreographer about related events, both historical and current.  “Some people recognize,” says Abraham, “certain scenes in Pavement as a commentary on Trayvon Martin’s fatal shooting.”  Since the dance was underway well before the Florida incident, there is no intentional connection.  But Abraham, like other powerful artists, has tapped into the zeitgeist. His work brims with its paradoxes.  His dance scenes portray individuals that, like the facades of buildings, bear scars as well as the solemn grandeur of experience.

© 2013 Rachel Straus and Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival



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