In September 2009, Pittsburgh’s only urban-format radio stations, WAMO-FM and its AM affiliate, went silent. For dancer-choreographer Kyle Abraham, their closing was a palpable loss. Not only had the stations laid down the soundtrack for his Pittsburgh childhood, complementing everyday life at home, family get-togethers, and endless time in the car, but they also represented the voice of a community, providing a forum for local information that engendered discussion and brought people together.
In response to the stations’ demise, the New York-based Abraham, 35, did what he does best: He made a dance, the evening-length “The Radio Show,” which World Music/CRASHarts presents at the Institute of Contemporary Art Friday and Saturday. It will be the Boston debut of his seven-member company Kyle Abraham/Abraham
The show plumbs personal history, cultural identity, and the creation and loss of community. Its score reflects that context, mixing recordings of classic soul and hip-hop with contemporary soundscapes by Ryoji Ikeda and Alva Noto that often feature electronic drones interrupted by static and silence. Woven throughout are snippets of radio chatter.
The roughly hourlong, multilayered work for three men and four women, which premiered in Pittsburgh in 2010, also reflects another, even more intimate kind of loss. It was created while Abraham’s father was in his last years of life, suffering from the aphasia of
Alzheimer’s disease. Throughout the work, there is a sense of something interrupted, which is the parallel Abraham draws between the disrupted radio frequency and his father’s
“With Alzheimer’s,” Abraham says, “you’re present one moment, then in the blink of an eye, you have no idea where you are. You’re in a different head space.”
The connections and underlying references in “The Radio Show” are often subtle. The work has no narrative, no sets, barely any props. Abraham, who won a 2010 Bessie Award for his dancing in “The Radio Show,” grooves to the strains of Motown in the piece’s opening solo. Moving with a loose-limbed ease, he periodically segues into motions that take on a hard edge of frustration, anger, and despair. Abruptly, he melts into the dejected slump of old age, back curved, head down.
The solo’s emotional arc seems like a microcosm of the piece, especially the autobiographical thread. “I’m thinking about my dad and what it would be like to live in his skin,” Abraham explains. “Even after he was diagnosed, if you put music on, he would just start dancing. I don’t want to impersonate him, but to feel like what his experience might have been.”
Sara Crawford Nash, the manager of New England Foundation for the Arts’ National Dance Project, has seen this personal vein in Abraham’s work for five years, since she was a producer at New York’s Dance Theater Workshop and Abraham did a series of weeklong residencies in Japan and the United States through an exchange program with the Japan Society. She calls “The Radio Show” Abraham’s “break-out” piece.
“There was so much buzz about it,” Nash says, “and it captured a lot of attention. It’s an incredibly strong, exciting work where he solidified his voice as a choreographer, and his work is really standing out. His movement quality is mesmerizing. He brings together the different material and artistic and conceptual influences he works with in a way that’s very moving. When you’re in the audience, you’re really affected by what you’re seeing, captivated and present. And the way he makes connections about loss, you as an audience member have your own experience with it.”
Last summer Abraham won the prestigious Jacob’s Pillow Dance Award, joining a list that includes past recipients Merce Cunningham and Bill T. Jones. But, surprisingly, Abraham didn’t have any formal dance training until his last year of high school. He preferred to make up dances in his room and at parties.
“I was a rave kid, and you just dance; you’re not caught up in the steps,” he recalls. “My parents encouraged me in the arts, and they kept taking me to the performing arts school to see dance classes, but they always looked so unruly and unorganized. Even though I’m a fun person — I hope — I like order.”
So Abraham spent much of his childhood immersed in sports and music. He played cello in the school orchestra, and took piano and art classes on the side. After watching his best friend in several of the school musicals, he was finally persuaded to try out for a production of “Once on This Island,” and he was cast as the only male dancer. He was hooked. He was given a scholarship to study dance the following summer, and spent his senior year taking dance classes.
Abraham credits his late start in dance with fueling his sponge-like absorption of dance experiences, from technique classes in Limón and Cunningham to hip-hop and street dance. “I was just loving dance. I just took it all in,” he says. “It really fed me. I didn’t make distinctions; I saw a lot of connections.”
For Abraham, integrity is key. “My goal is to keep making honest work,” he says. “And even at its most abstract, it has to mean something. Hopefully I can stay connected with that. Otherwise, why am I doing it?”