Some say that people are best defined and understood by their passions. But there are individuals who show the world their passions without ever really exposing themselves. Choreographer and dancer Kyle Abraham fits neither category, and this is what makes him so intriguing.
A man of many interests and talents, Abraham caught the attention of the downtown New York dance scene after studying at SUNY Purchase and New York University’s famed Tisch School of the Arts. He has become a notable player with bookings at Danspace Project and the Joyce Theater. And he is a regular at the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, where I first saw him perform with the robust Camille Brown last summer.
His signature piece, “The Radio Show,” received a Bessie Award in 2010, and he will perform it with his company, Abraham.In.Motion, February 23-25 in the Dance Studio Theater at Emory University’s Schwartz Center for Performing Arts.
The most intriguing and compelling element of “The Radio Show” is how it reflects Abraham’s personal journey. It deals with the power of nostalgia and the loss of communication. When he began the piece in 2009, he knew he wanted it to revolve around his history — a common thread in his works. He wanted it to reflect his urban Pittsburgh upbringing, his father’s fight with Alzheimer’s disease and aphasia, and the discontinuation of popular radio station WAMO.
In a telephone interview, Abraham said the music of his childhood has informed his choreography.
“I knew certain songs I wanted to use for the project because of my memories associated with them,” he said. “I also thought about how music can lend itself to personal memories. Some of those memories for me were thinking about growing up in the ’80 with my parents in the car with my sister and singing to songs like ‘Juicy Fruit’ and that kind of stuff. Those memories are funny to me and really sweet to remember.”
After the death of his father last summer, Abraham revisited “The Radio Show” in September with deeper, more reflective emotions. He’ll sometimes weep during the opening moments. “It sits differently in my system now that he is not here,” he said. “There are so many things to think about. My character feels a lot different.”
As an impulse-driven dancer, Abraham also feeds off the emotions he feels from an audience. “Sometimes people laugh, sometimes they are freaked out, sometimes I am crying and sometimes I am not,” he said.
His choreographic complexities carry over into his musical choices. Set to a mixed score of classic soul and hip-hop, “The Radio Show” also features contemporary classical compositions by Ryoji Ikeda and Alva Noto.
Throughout the musical transitions and mood shifts, Abraham’s rippling arms, hips and shoulders will suddenly break into tough, stiff flicks, reflecting the clash in physical form. In 2008, dance critic Deborah Jowitt aptly described his movement as “a simultaneous process of becoming and falling apart.”
These ever-present complexities make his works appealing. They are gentle and yet rough, sharp and yet soft, and emotional and yet emotionless. The Boston Globe described “The Radio Show” as “tender and boisterous,” and The New York Times called its movement “voluptuous and yet formalist.”
At once highly personal and utterly distant, Abraham’s choreography blurs boundaries of dance styles as much as he blurs emotional boundaries. At times, his blend of modern dance, hip-hop and lyrical jazz is so direct and confrontational that it can feel like an assault; at other times, his gentle eye contact and the soft, fluid drag of his arms and legs across the stage can feel like an embrace.
Such contradictions bring a lushness and emotional depth to Abraham’s work. As he continues to resolve the loss of his father through “The Radio Show’s” nostalgic lens, it will be interesting to see where, in this week’s shows at Emory, this ambitious choreographer will arrive on his personal journey.