Dance preview: Kyle Abraham is young, talented and always striving
Choreographer Kyle Abraham: "The first time that I ever saw dance in my life was because the Dance Council brought the Joffrey Ballet to Pittsburgh."
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Choreographer Kyle Abraham is to the dance world what designer Jason Wu is to fashion.
Both are young and talented, and just when people think they've reached their peak, they outdo themselves and make headlines again.
In Mr. Abraham's case, recent headlines include a review of his latest piece, "Pavement," in The New York Times, and a feature in Vogue in December about his work for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, as well as stories in Vibe and Jet magazines. There also was news of his selection as the 2012-14 New York Live Arts Resident Commissioned Artist, an honor that provides nearly $280,000 in salary, health benefits, residency time and the opportunity to create and premiere a new work. He's one of 54 artists in the nation to receive a USA Fellowship worth $50,000 in unrestricted grants, and he received the 2012 Jacob's Pillow Dance Award of $25,000.
For Mr. Abraham, it all comes back to Pittsburgh, his hometown and pool for inspiration. He gets a bit emotional talking about his New York-based company, Abraham.In.Motion, performing "Pavement" on Saturday at the Byham Theater as part of the Pittsburgh Dance Council's 2012-13 season.
"The first time that I ever saw dance in my life was because the Dance Council brought the Joffrey Ballet to Pittsburgh," he says.
It was "Billboards" danced to Prince music, which is what attracted him to the show. The Dance Council also introduced him to Bill T. Jones, whose modern dance company he later performed with. Seeing those shows gave him the nudge to take his first dance lessons.
"I don't think they know how much impact they've had on my career," Mr. Abraham says.
"Pavement" premiered in November at Harlem Stage Gatehouse in New York, just days after Superstorm Sandy walloped the Northeast. Part of the set got stuck in New Jersey, and some audience members coming from across the country had flights canceled because of the storm. The show, however, went on with sold-out crowds.
Bringing it to Pittsburgh stirs some apprehension for Mr. Abraham. He's nervous about a poor turnout.
"It's hard because it's such a personal thing. I want people from Homewood to come. I want people from the Hill District to come. I want people from East Liberty to come."
These urban African-American communities are important to him because they were the backdrop of his childhood. The 35-year-old attended Pittsburgh CAPA, Schenley High School and Pittsburgh CLO. They also make up the setting for "Pavement," which Mr. Abraham describes as a juxtaposition of "The Souls of Black Folk" by W.E.B. Du Bois from 1903 and John Singleton's 1991 film "Boyz n the Hood."
Together, these pieces create a timeline of where African-Americans were then, where they are now and where their communities could be heading, he says. He brings these themes to life in the context of Pittsburgh, particularly through how these neighborhoods were bustling with people decades ago. Now much of that activity has dissipated, leaving behind vacant buildings.
In "Pavement," "bodies are used as dilapidated buildings for me, and vice versa. I think they're one in the same," Mr. Abraham says.
His choreography is a fusion of street and balletic movement and the music is a mix of hip-hop and opera. Through them, he explores the connection people in these once-lively neighborhoods feel to the downtrodden buildings that surround them.
"How do you see [the buildings] as a reflection of yourself? Does it make you feel like leaving? Do you feel drained? Do you feel like staying and building something up? That's a lot of what the work is to me," he says.
Projections of local landscapes shot by Pittsburgh filmmaker Chris Ivey further illustrate this idea. But it doesn't matter if people recognize them. "I really wanted it to be this thing where it didn't matter where this dance was being performed. You would know the story of these buildings."
Likewise, audiences don't have to be African-American or live in a city to engage with "Pavement."
"I'm always interested in the conversation that happens afterward," Mr. Abraham says. "It's not that I want everyone to be an activist, but I want everyone to be active. How can we engage in conversations and talk about community and talk about our history as a city?
"What is important to us? What is important for your children to know? All of those things are really important, and I hope they become discussions for the people in the audience."
First Published February 10, 2013 12:00 am