Kyle Abraham is on fire. In the past few years, he’s been named a 2013 MacArthur Fellow and honored by Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival and the Ford Foundation. College dance departments across the country can’t get enough of the young choreographer—and neither can major dance companies: Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, The Martha Graham Dance Company and Hubbard Street Dance Chicago have all commissioned work from Abraham. He was even the resident commissioned artist at New York Live Arts, NYC’s postmodern dance hub. Dance Spirit caught up with Abraham to find out what drives his historically and emotionally charged work. —Jenny Dalzell
“Many of my works have some sort of Pittsburgh influence in them, since that’s where I’m from.”
“The Radio Show was initially inspired by two things: the one urban radio station in Pittsburgh going off the air, and my father, who had Alzheimer’s and aphasia. I was thinking about what happens when a community loses its voice, as well as my memories of the songs I grew up listening to. The radio station had both AM and FM feeds—the AM station played old soul music, by artists like The Shirelles, and the FM station played music by Jay-Z and Kanye West. So my work was broken in two parts, using music from both stations.”
"David Dorfman, whose company I danced with, always said to live in the uncomfortable and divorce the familiar when improvising or choreographing. Sometimes choreographic block hits—and when nothing is coming, you can’t force it. You just have to be patient. That can be frustrating when you’re paying for studio space, but patience can also be really rewarding in the long run."
“Pavement evolved from looking at the 1991 film Boyz N the Hood; reading W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk; and thinking about my experience in Pittsburgh in 1991, which was my freshman year of high school. I wanted to create a work that explored the time period between the film and the book, as well as the history of Pittsburgh’s black community.”
“I’m a big fan of mythology, and I’ve been a history geek since elementary school. The piece I created for Wendy Whelan’s Restless Creature, ‘The Serpent and the Smoke,’ came from a myth I thought I’d heard: A snake becomes enchanted with smoke and thinks it’s seeing another snake. As it turns out, this myth doesn’t actually exist—I made it up.”
“I love working with Chalvar Monteiro, who was in my company for a little over four years, and with one of my current dancers, Tamisha Guy. I love their versatility: They’re trained in Cunningham and Graham techniques, and they’ve worked with Kevin Wynn, who’s a huge influence on my work. They’re great movement generators, too.”
“I created Another Night for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater while I was making Pavement. It all stemmed from the same ideas. But Another Night was much lighter. It addressed the vitality and the community of an earlier era—the time when jazz artists like Art Blakey and Billy Strayhorn were performing in Pittsburgh.”
“I was initially inspired to dance by Joffrey Ballet’s Billboards, with music by Prince. I was a huge Prince fan, and I identified with the music first—that’s what pulled me in to dance. I’d never experienced that before, and it stuck with me."
“The repertory program When the Wolves Came In and the evening-length The Watershed were both inspired by Max Roach’s album We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite. The subject matter—the civil-rights movement, the Emancipation Proclamation and apartheid in South Africa—was tricky. I didn’t want to tap into all of that too literally. Instead, I wanted to create work that nodded to the album.”