Once on Food Stamps, Now He’s a ‘Genius’

Dancer and MacArthur fellow Kyle Abraham talks to The Root about how his life story informs his work.

Kyle Abraham (courtesy of the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation)
Kyle Abraham (courtesy of the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation)

As his website describes it, “Reimagined as a dance work and now set in Pittsburgh’s historically black neighborhoods, Homewood and the Hill District, Pavement aims to create a strong emotional chronology of a culture conflicted with a history plagued by discrimination, genocide, and a constant quest for a lottery ticket weighted in freedom.”

In the 1950s, both neighborhoods experienced cultural shifts, he explains on the website. That is when jazz legends like Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington performed at local theaters and where Billy Strayhorn spent most of his teenage years.

“Over a century later, those same theaters are now dilapidated,” Abraham writes. “And the streets that once strived on family run businesses and a thriving jazz scene now show the sad effects of gang violence and crack cocaine.”

Another work from 2010, The Radio Show, juxtaposes his feelings of loss as he witnesses his father’s decline due to Alzheimer’s alongside the abrupt closure of a beloved urban-radio station that had been an important part of the community.

Abraham received a bachelor’s degree from the State University of New York at Purchase and a master’s from New York University. His choreographic works have been performed by both his company, Kyle Abraham/Abraham.In.Motion, Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, the Joyce Theatre, Harlem Stage, Danspace Project, On the Boards, the Kelly-Strahorn Theater and REDCAT, among many others, according to the MacArthur Foundation.

Besides the MacArthur fellowship, Abraham has received the prestigious Bessie Award for outstanding performance in dance for his work in The Radio Show, and a Princess Grace Award for choreography in 2010. The previous year he was selected as one of Dance Magazine’s 25 to Watch for 2009 and received a Jerome Travel and Study Grant in 2008.

Abraham began his dance training at the Civic Light Opera Academy and the Creative and Performing Arts High School in Pittsburgh after encouragement from friends, he said. “I used to go to raves and other social dance events, and people used to encourage me to take dance lessons,” he recalled. “After getting a role in a high school play, I started to take lessons. I’m glad I listened, because things just keep getting better.”

Watch the video about Kyle Abraham below:

Lynette Holloway is a contributing editor at The Root.