“Post-modern gumbo.” That’s dancer/choreographer Kyle Abraham’s description of his company’s genre-bending work that fuses classical and modern dance techniques, traversing ballet and hip-hop set to music ranging from Bach and Mozart to Kanye West and Jay Z.
But even that does not fully capture the restless spirit of an artist whose evocative work explores not only what it is to be an African American man in the 21st century, but also unmasks the multidimensionality of all categories of identity.
In his life and work, the creator of A.I.M (formerly Abraham In Motion), explodes limiting notions of race and masculinity by mining his own experience as an African American who grew up in Pittsburgh during the hip-hop infused 1970s. While he embraced the music of his generation, he also studied classical cello and piano along with modern dance and ballet.
Building on the rich legacy of Alvin Ailey – whose ebullient celebration of African American culture expanded the vocabulary of modern dance – Abraham widens the frame of possibility for a younger generation of artists.
Abraham became the first African American choreographer in more than a decade, and only the seventh in its 70-year-history, to create a work for the New York City Ballet for its 2018/2019 season. Other commissions have included works for the Martha Graham and Alvin Ailey American Dance companies. He recently toured The Serpent and The Smoke, a pas de deux he created for himself and Wendy Whelan, the former principal dancer of the New York City Ballet. Abraham has also toppled walls between disciplines through collaborations with contemporary visual artists like Carrie Mae Weems and Glenn Ligon.
Abraham is the recipient of numerous honors including a 2016 Doris Duke Award, a 2016 Princess Grace Foundation Special Project Award and a 2013 MacArthur Award which noted his “breathtaking skill as a performer,” and his “highly physical dance vocabulary” grounded in hip-hop and modern dance technique.
Abraham’s NYU Skirball debut marks his return to New York University, from which he received his MFA from Tisch, and to Live! The Realest MC, an autobiographical work that premiered in 2011. It’s inspired both by Pinocchio’s quest to become a real boy, and by Abraham’s own challenges as a gay adolescent navigating masculinity in an environment in which an artificial bravado caricatured manhood. Abraham, then, uses the full arsenal of personal experience, dance techniques and musical genres to strike a universal theme of what it means to be human.
Pamela Newkirk is a journalist, author, and professor of journalism at New York University. Her most recent book “Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga,” was selected as a Best Book of 2015 by NPR, The Boston Globe and The San Francisco Chronicle and won an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Nonfiction Literature.