The last time Kyle Abraham/Abraham.In.Motion performed in Pittsburgh, in 2013, the troupe sold out the Byham Theater. Since then, company founder and Pittsburgh native Kyle Abraham has premiered more than a dozen new works for his own company, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, the Martha Graham Dance Company, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago and others. The burning question is, why has it taken four years to bring back one of the city’s most celebrated native sons?
It’s a question Abraham himself has pondered. “It’s kind of sad we haven’t performed in Pittsburgh since 2013, especially being from Pittsburgh,” said Abraham recently by phone from his alma mater, the State University of New York at Purchase, where the company was performing. “The work has been received well in the past, and there are places like New York and Los Angeles where we perform every year.”
Whatever the reasons, Abraham says he is thrilled to be bringing the company back for Nov. 10 and 11 performances at the August Wilson Center. “I wear my Pittsburgh pride on my sleeve in a major way,” says Abraham.
It’s perhaps fitting that the performances will take place at the Wilson Center. In some respects, what the late Wilson, a Hill District native, is to the theater, Abraham, a Lincoln-Larimer native, is to dance. Their works highlighting the challenges of growing up in what was for them a somewhat tarnished Steel City have earned them international fame and, perhaps ironically, made them two of the city’s most notable ambassadors.
Abraham left Pittsburgh for New York to pursue a dance education and career; he founded his New York-based company in 2006. He’s since been showered with critical praise and accolades including a 2010 Bessie Award for Outstanding Performance in Dance for his Pittsburgh-themed work The Radio Show; a 2012 Ford Fellowship; a 2013 MacArthur “genius” grant; and a 2016 Doris Duke Artist Award. He will receive yet another accolade this week, when Pittsburgh City Councilor Dan Gilman declares Nov. 10 to be Kyle Abraham Day in the City of Pittsburgh.
At the Wilson Center, Abraham and company will present a program that is especially meaningful to Abraham in that it was the last of the company’s works that his mother, Henrietta (“Jackie”), saw performed before she died, in 2016.
The program, presented by the Pittsburgh Dance Council, includes Abraham’s 2011 work “The Quiet Dance,” a 12-minute piece for five dancers, set to jazz pianist/composer Bill Evans’ rendition of the Leonard Bernstein classic “Some Other Time,” from the 1944 musical On the Town. “If we are keeping it real, the work is my favorite on the program,” says Abraham. “It’s a beautiful thing to have an opportunity for this work to have a voice in Pittsburgh, where I grew up and both my parents are buried, but it’s a little tricky for me to watch; it gets to me too much.”
Abraham’s 30-minute multimedia work for six dancers, “The Gettin’” (2014), references events from the Emancipation Proclamation and the civil-rights movement to apartheid-era South Africa and the death of Eric Garner. It’s set to music by Grammy-winning jazz artist Robert Glasper and his trio, who reimagined Max Roach’s “We Insist! Freedom Now Suite.”
Abraham, who recently turned 40, says he is taking a step back from performing in the company. The lone work on the program in which he will make a cameo appearance is 2015’s “Absent Matter.” Danced to an original jazz composition combined with samples from Common, Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar, the 17-minute multimedia work for five dancers looks at race through the lens of those who feel unacknowledged and unvalued.
“This whole program came about as a way to celebrate live jazz and hip-hop music, an urban-American songbook of sorts,” says Abraham. “The goal has always been to perform it live. … It’s unfortunate that isn’t happening.”
Even without live music, Abraham feels the program really showcases his current company lineup. “It’s a really dedicated group of artists I am working with,” he says. “The company has had more and more exposure, and younger dancers going to colleges and universities are seeing the company, and we have become their dream company [to work for] and that is really exciting.”
Finally, in the wake of that 2013 Byham sell-out, Abraham says, he would love to figure out a way to have the company in Pittsburgh more. “Pittsburgh is a place I want my dancers to know,” says Abraham. “It’s a place I want to stay connected to. I want my reasons to be coming back to Pittsburgh to be something other than funerals.”