You’d think that winning just about every big prize the American grant-making community offers would put to rest any financial anxiety plaguing choreographer Kyle Abraham. Close to a million dollars in cash and in-kind services between 2012 and 2018 should take care of his dance company’s money worries, you’d expect, at least for a while. But you’d be wrong. “You have to come from money to not worry about money,” he says, enumerating the new expenses that come with his troupe’s recent growth.
See also: The 2014 Fall (Arts) Issue: An Index
The choreographer, whose troupe, Abraham.In.Motion, emerged as a contender for attention and awards about five years ago, makes a major shift with new works later this month at New York Live Arts (NYLA), where he’s the resident commissioned artist. Until now Abraham’s dances have centered on the travails of urban American youth — coming-of-age issues among homeboys (and -girls), both gay and straight.
The first of Abraham’s pieces to garner broad attention, The Radio Show (2010), blended the soundtrack of a Pittsburgh adolescence spent listening to a local pop station with a chronicle of his father’s descent into Alzheimer’s disease. The powerful Pavement (2012) drew on themes from the groundbreaking 1991 film Boyz n the Hood and W.E.B. DuBois’s The Souls of Black Folk, embedding them in an exploration of the fraught lives of urban youth.
But the 50th anniversary of the famed Freedom Riders has stirred him to action in a broader context.
Abraham typically likes to listen to music for extended periods before he starts devising movement, and says he was already immersed in drummer Max Roach’s 1960 protest album, We Insist: Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite, when he visited the Hector Pieterson Museum in Soweto, South Africa. (The 13-year-old Pieterson was shot and killed during the 1976 uprising protesting the imposition of Afrikaans as the medium of instruction in black schools.)
“We Insist is really an album of a painful history that is very much connected with its present,” notes Abraham. “The emotion and frustration you feel in that record connects me with these preconceived notions that things are ‘OK’ now… and that we’re all seen as equal. But even looking at the events [in Ferguson, Missouri], we know that is far from true.”
Abraham’s new dances move to a much larger historical and aesthetic milieu, inspired by the Roach album, which celebrated the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation and burgeoning civil rights movements in South Africa and the United States. The Watershed, a full-length work, blends ’60s R&B with contemporary classical and hip-hop, juxtaposing social dance with choreographed movement. The second NYLA program, When the Wolves Came In, includes a dance to a choral work by Nico Muhly; another created with jazz musician Robert Glasper; and a trio, set to gospel songs, exploring queer urban dance aesthetics. Conceptual artist Glenn Ligon provides visual design for all four pieces.
“The Watershed is a metaphor for tension in the history of a structure,” Abraham says. “There’s a duality. You’re thinking about what happened to Native Americans; I’m very well aware of the fact that I’m a black, gay American man. Things in each of those signifiers have certain freedoms to them. At the same time, I’m aware of the struggles of all those things, and all of the opposing forces. We’re fighting for the right to be married, but in other countries they’re fighting for the right to be gay; women are fighting for their independence. I’m trying to be inclusive in a way that doesn’t make a really watered-down dance. You get a sense of history and struggle and relevance.”
In the five hours I spent with Abraham one summer afternoon, the most startling moment came when he shifted suddenly from his calm, educated diction to the cadences of a Pittsburgh thug kid. It’s something he does in lecture-demonstrations, to make a point about his upbringing on a border between middle- and working-class neighborhoods. The second most startling was his confession that though his financial picture is improved, “I do not spend money. When we tour, I only bring what I can get in a carry-on. I don’t want to have to pay for shipping.”
In rehearsal, Abraham’s calm demeanor sometimes gives way, erupting into fits of giggles. A resident of Boerum Hill with a long-distance sweetheart in Los Angeles, it’s safe to say he’s a happy man.
“I actually really love to work,” he tells me. “I don’t like to make mistakes. I love feeling that I’m at my best, so it’s hard to sleep when there’s more work to be done.”
A self-described “big rave kid from Pittsburgh,” Abraham came out when he was 15. His style fuses the abrupt tropes of hip-hop with sustained, lyrical phrases more typical of formal dance. “I want to make something that’s realistic, honest, rooted in realism. There’s a certain longing, a perspective based on my being a black gay man from Pittsburgh.”
Trained in classical music and visual arts, Abraham came late to dance—specifically, after watching the Joffrey Ballet perform Billboards, which he attended because it featured a soundtrack by Prince. He graduated from SUNY Purchase and later earned his MFA from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, finishing with $200,000 in student-loan debt. His recent winnings—the MacArthur Fellowship, a United States Artists award, the NYLA residency, and a 2012 prize from Jacob’s Pillow—helped reduce that debt, but it still looms; he told Katie Couric in a 2013 interview that he was reliant on food stamps as recently as a few years ago.
Both of Abraham’s parents worked in Pittsburgh middle schools, his mother advancing from teacher to guidance counselor to principal, his father a social worker and coach. Despite Abraham’s comfort with his sexuality, there are still situations in his hometown when he keeps gay signifiers under wraps, fearing for his safety. “I know better than that,” he says.
Collaborating intensively with the members of his ensemble, Abraham is the rare choreographer who rewards dancers for their contributions. “Because of the collaborative aspect of the work, I set up a royalty system that lasts throughout the lifespan of the work,” he explains. “For instance, if you helped create the work and stayed through the premiere, you’ll receive a royalty as long as the work tours, even if you’ve left the company.”
The nine-member troupe tours the East Coast, Scandinavia, and France this fall, winding up in Florida just before Christmas.