MacArthur Fellow Kyle Abraham Opens Up a Dialogue Through Dance (Nov. 15-16)

CFA Arts Administration Intern Chloe Jones ’15 talks to DanceLink Fellow Stellar Levy ’15 about Kyle Abraham/Abraham.In.Motion. Tickets for all three performances by the company this weekend are sold out.

Kyle Abraham/Abraham.In.Motion "Pavement." Photo by Steven Schreiber.
Kyle Abraham/Abraham.In.Motion “Pavement.” Photo by Steven Schreiber.

With a basketball hoop in the background and beat-up sneakers on their feet, seven dancers take the stage this weekend in the Patricelli ’92 Theater for the Connecticut premiere of Pavement, an evening length performance by dance ensemble Abraham.In.Motion.  One of these dancers, Kyle Abraham, is the founder and artistic director of Abraham.In.Motion and a 2013 MacArthur Fellow.

Cecilia A. Conrad, Vice President of the MacArthur Fellows Program, said of this year’s Fellows: “They are artists, social innovators, scientists, and humanists who are working to improve the human condition and to preserve and sustain our natural and cultural heritage.”  As an artist concerned with issues of identity and history, both personal and shared, Mr. Abraham certainly fits this description.

Born in Pittsburgh in 1977, Mr. Abraham’s artistic upbringing reflects a diverse range of influences, from classical music to hip hop.  He draws from these influences to create dynamic and deeply personal choreographic works such as Pavement.

Informed by John Singleton’s film “Boyz N The Hood” and the writings of W.E.B. Du Bois, Pavement takes place in Pittsburgh’s historically black neighborhoods, Homewood and the Hill District.

On one hand, the history of these neighborhoods is one of culturally rich moments — Ella Fitzgerald’s performance in one local theater, Duke Ellington’s in another.  On the other, it is about desolate realities, many of which persist today — extreme poverty, gang violence, and drug abuse.  Pavement is an attempt to narrate this past, giving voice to an urban culture faced with a history of discrimination and conflict.

I spoke with DanceLink Fellow Stellar Levy ’15, who worked closely with Mr. Abraham and the members of Abraham.In.Motion as an intern this past summer in New York City where the company is based.

“I think what’s setting him apart right now is his ability to combine dance vocabulary and something that relates to people who don’t necessarily have that vocabulary,” says Ms. Levy.

There’s something approachable, maybe even familiar, about Pavement.  The dancers wear everyday clothes and sneakers and perform with a basketball hoop as their backdrop.  Even the movement plays with this familiarity, much of it derived from interactions that happen on the street and other everyday encounters.  In this way, the stage is transformed into an urban sidewalk, a literal pavement.

Through her internship, Ms. Levy had the opportunity this past summer to see Pavement performed on three different occasions (and countless other times in rehearsals).  While working at the Lincoln Center Out of Doors performance in New York City and the Huntington Arts Festival in Huntington, Ms. Levy was approached by enthusiastic audience members who wanted to express their thoughts, feelings, questions, and excitement about the piece.

“It’s definitely a way for people to start thinking, whether or not they understand the piece or think that they do,” Ms. Levy says.  “It opens up dance as a way to communicate. It says, ‘This is a conversation we’re having.’”

And it’s an important conversation, one that asks challenging questions about what it means to grow up in an underserved neighborhood, about gang violence, drugs, and discrimination, about equality and seeking freedom, about sexuality and human relationships, about how we tell history and how we make it, how we identify ourselves and how we are identified, questions about being an individual and a member of society, and perhaps more than anything, questions about the importance of community.

“There is a sense of the whole,” Ms. Levy says.  “You leave feeling like part of things, or at least like part of something.”

Click here to watch a video of Kyle Abraham and company member Matthew Baker discussing Pavement on YouTube. Interviews conducted by Stellar Levy.