Pittsburgh product Kyle Abraham hits the big time in the dance world


By Steve Sucato

Kyle Abraham’s career has tipped.

That is, it has crossed the threshold into the dance world’s version of the big time. In the span of several years, the Pittsburgh native and his New York-based dance company Kyle Abraham/Abraham.In.Motion have gone from self-presenting in small venues to catching the eye of major dance presenters in the U.S. and abroad. The company’s résumé now includes the Pittsburgh Dance Council, whose line-up of world-class, often international talent includes the local premiere of Abraham’s latest creation, Pavement, Feb. 16 at the Byham Theater.

Abraham, 35, grew up in Lincoln-Larimer and graduated from the Pittsburgh Creative and Performing Arts High School, SUNY Purchase and the Tisch School of the Arts. He made a name for himself as a dancer with the prestigious Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, and later joined David Dorfman Dance, with whom he continued to dance until last year. Meanwhile, Abraham ran the increasingly in-demand company he founded in 2006 and managed a skyrocketing career as an independent choreographer that has him booked through 2015.

Wound up: Following recent successes, Pittsburgh native Kyle Abraham returns with his new show, Pavement. He's pictured inside Pittsburgh's Pearl Arts Studio. Photo by Heather Mull
Wound up: Following recent successes, Pittsburgh native Kyle Abraham returns with his new show, Pavement. He’s pictured inside Pittsburgh’s Pearl Arts Studio. Photo by Heather Mull

With his riveting blend of classical modern-dance styles, hip hop and ballet, Abraham has the choreographic chops and passion to move audiences with works that have emotional staying power. But it’s difficult to say when his career tipped.

Perhaps it was with the overwhelming positive reaction to his first large work, 2010’s Bessie Award-winning The Radio Show, or the Princess Grace Award for Choreography he won that same year. There is also the seemingly sudden avalanche of dollars from major funders; perhaps most notably, Abraham was recently awarded some $280,000 in direct support (including two years’ salary) as the 2012-14 New York Live Arts Resident Commissioned artist. Then there was the recent commission by Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater that produced Abraham’s critically acclaimed 2012 short work “Another Night.” And his company has performed on stages as lofty as the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival and New York’s Fall for Dance Festival, and at venues in Germany, Jordan and Japan.

Abraham himself sees the tipping point as Pavement. Perhaps ironically, the show that bids to be his highest-profile work yet harks back to his hometown. “It’s a show that is really thinking about Pittsburgh,” said Abraham recently via telephone from the Alabama Dance Festival, where the company was performing the work.

Abraham is an unofficial ambassador for Pittsburgh. His large works The Radio Show and 2011’s Live! The Realest MC were each born out of Abraham’s personal experiences growing up in the city. (Both also world-premiered at Pittsburgh’s Kelly-Strayhorn Theater, where The Radio Show was partly developed during an artist residency.)

Along with personal experience, Abraham took further inspiration for the hour-long Pavement from essays in W.E.B. DuBois‘ The Souls of Black Folk and from John Singleton’s 1991 film Boyz n the Hood. Abraham re-imagines the film as a dance work set in Pittsburgh’s historic Homewood and Hill District neighborhoods.

Set to a mostly operatic soundtrack, the multimedia work seeks to capture the grit and social consciousness of Singleton’s movie while advancing Abraham’s own thoughts and feelings on violence and genocide within the black community.

On his website, Abraham writes that Boyz n the Hood “depicted an idealize[d] ‘Gangsta Boheme’ [about] the state of the Black American male at the end of the 20th century. Twenty years later … I am focused on investigating the state of Black America and a history therein.”

Abraham says that when he was a kid, he would accompany his father, who coached youth basketball, to the Hill District, where he’d witness the neighborhood’s dilapidated buildings and ponder its history.

Abraham says Pavement is more refined than his earlier works, with a keener sense of visual imagery and use of metaphor when it comes to incorporating that history. Video clips of Pavement also suggest that the company’s style has changed for the better. Now, the other seven dancers in the eight-member cast dance like Abraham, rather than Abraham dominating audiences’ attention.

Pittsburgh Dance Council Executive Director Paul Organisak has followed Abraham’s career for years. He says Abraham’s increasing profile as an artist and Pavement‘s Pittsburgh theme signaled it was time to make Kyle Abraham/Abraham.In.Motion a part of the Dance Council’s season.

Photo by Carrie Schneider
Photo by Carrie Schneider

Abraham is not quite an A-list artist on par with a Bill T. Jones or Paul Taylor. But with the sort of gigs and recognition he’s getting, he’s well on his way. He is currently at work on several new projects, including choreographing a pas de deux with New York City Ballet star Wendy Whelan.

Of Pavement, which the company will tour in Europe next year, Abraham says, “I really think it is the best thing I have ever made and might ever make.”

Kyle Abraham/Abraham.In.Motion perform PAVEMENT, 8 p.m. Sat., Feb. 16., Byham Theater, 101 Sixth St., Downtown. $19-48. 412-456-6666 or trustarts.org

This article first appeared in Pittsburgh City Paper February 13, 2013. Copyright Steve Sucato.

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