Pittsburgh's Kyle Abraham among MacArthur fellows



It you watch choreographer, dancer and "genius grant" winner Kyle Abraham's video on the MacArthur Foundation website, look closely at his T-shirt in the dance scenes. It's from Pittsburgh's Ozanam summer basketball program, which his father used to coach -- a tribute to the man, who died in 2011, and to the city where he grew up and that shapes much of his work.

"I wanted my father to be present for this," Mr. Abraham, 36, said yesterday in a phone interview about his surprise $625,000 award, to be spent however he likes. "And Pittsburgh is still my favorite city."

The native of Lincoln-Larimer who founded and runs his own New York dance company, Kyle Abraham/Abraham.In.Motion, went through the Pittsburgh Public Schools, attending Liberty Elementary, Frick Middle and Schenley High, where he became interested in dance his senior year. Much of his work reflects his formative years in those places, and he says so often in interviews.

Mr. Abraham -- who was living on food stamps just three years ago despite acclaim for his work -- is one of two dozen genius grant recipients across all disciplines who are being rewarded this year "for seeing things others haven't, asking questions others haven't asked and finding new solutions to old problems."

His next performance in Pittsburgh will be March 22 with Wendy Whelan at the Pittsburgh Dance Council.

His choreography is known for its combination of styles -- classical, hip-hop and modern -- that he calls "post-modern gumbo." Through these movements, he explores identity and personal history, reflecting the urban dance of his adolescence and his strong grounding in modern dance technique.

His MacArthur bio specifically cites "The Radio Show," his 2010 work set in Pittsburgh, that juxtaposes two losses -- his father's decline due to Alzheimer's disease and the abrupt departure of WAMO, the city's only urban radio station, which served a central role for the African-American community. Partly developed in Pittsburgh at the Kelly Strayhorn Theater's first Artist Residency program in 2009, "The Radio Show" won a prestigious Bessie Award, given for New York dance and performance.

The bio also cites last year's work, "Pavement," calling it "a moving and powerful portrait of urban life consumed by gang and police violence." The dance, based on the violence he remembers in Homewood and the Hill District, uses baroque opera, contemporary compositions and R&B, along with multimedia and the spoken word. He performed it in February at the Byham Theater, Downtown.

After high school, Mr. Abraham earned a bachelor of fine arts degree from State University of New York at Purchase and a master of fine arts from New York University. He's won numerous grants and awards, and in addition to his own company and Kelly Strayhorn, his works have been performed at Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival, the Joyce Theater, Harlem Stage, Danspace Project, On the Boards and REDCAT in Los Angeles. But Pittsburgh still has his heart.

"I love Pittsburgh because it's a humble city," Mr. Abraham said. "It's really grounded in its rich history and culture."

Dancer and choreographer Martha Graham, who lived on the North Side, is one influence he mentions. Another is Andy Warhol, whose art is made from found images in everyday life. "I worked at The Warhol after college as an arts educator," he said. "It helped me think differently about visual arts and movement. I've totally taken that into the work I do with my company."

Some of his youthful experiences were more problematic.

"Middle and high school is a time of people telling you who you are before you know who you are," he said. "I was in advanced classes at Frick and Schenley, and people would say I was trying to be white because of the way I spoke. Or they'd say I was gay."

But he had his group of friends. "We went to raves at random places all over town where the culture was accepting of everyone."

When he discovered dance, he said, everything changed.

"I didn't have good grades until I started dancing, because I didn't try, I didn't see the point. Once I realized why I wanted to go to college, I started to study and do well. I knew I had to have a certain GPA to get in."

Friends in Pittsburgh describe Mr. Abraham as kind, generous, funny and supportive, passionate about his work, extremely talented but utterly without pretense. Good fortune, they say, couldn't have come to a more deserving person.

Janera Solomon, executive director of Kelly Strayhorn, said her New Moves dance festival owes a big debt to Mr. Abraham.

"When I wanted to start New Moves in 2009, a lot of people thought it wouldn't work," Ms. Solomon said. "But Kyle was so enthusiastic and helpful. He introduced me to several artists who he thought would be great, and he came himself. I still have those relationships. He was so supportive to me as a presenter -- not all artists are like that."

Their faith was borne out, she noted. New Moves will hold its fifth annual festival next week -- with 41 dancers and 17 choreographers.

"It's been fabulous to watch Kyle's career trajectory," said Attack Theatre's co-founder Michele de la Reza, who worked with him on a new piece in 2001 that was presented at the Hazlett Theater. Its name was "Left of Fall," which makes more sense in the context of its music, "Rite of Spring."

"He's not only a gorgeous performer," she said. "His bold, personal ideas create a unique theatricality that's always emotional but never sentimental."

Staycee Pearl, founder and director of the Staycee Pearl Dance Project in Pittsburgh, met Mr. Abraham 10 years ago at Attack Theatre. He choreographed several pieces for her student dancers, and to this day considers her family, the first person he sees on every visit.

As is true for many American artists, Ms. Pearl said, all the articles, awards and acclaim were not paying the bills.

"When he told me how much he still owed on his student loans I almost crashed my car," she said.

Now, he said, he can pay off the loans, stop sweating the rent and put some resources into his company.

"I can think about the infrastructure of my dance company, build on that in a better way and make a future for it," he said.

theater - breaking - region

Sally Kalson: skalson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1610. First Published September 25, 2013 12:00 PM


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