Pittsburgh Emerging Arts Leaders Network

Connecting emerging arts managers with skill-building and leadership development resources.

An Interview with Kyle Abraham

Choreographer Kyle Abraham brings his company, Abraham.In.Motion, to the Byham Theatre this Saturday, February 16th, to perform ‘Pavement’, a piece set in Pittsburgh that weaves together movement, music from sources ranging from Bach to Sam Cooke, the writings of W.E.B. DuBois, and clips from the 1991 film ‘Boyz In The Hood’, among other elements. The New York Times said of ‘Pavement’: ‘sourced in contemporary dance and the street, twisting together aggressive male posturing with the kind of hip-hop moves that summon comparisons to ballet, it expresses confusion with searching, eloquence.’

A native Pittsburgher, Kyle Abraham was recently awarded the USA Fellowship, having previously been awarded a residency at New York Live Arts and a Jacobs’ Pillow Dance Award. He formed his company in 2006 after having danced with (among others) Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, David Dorfman Dance, and Pittsburgh’s own Dance Alloy and Attack Theatre. Kyle began dancing in CLO classes, studied dance at SUNY Purchase, and received an MFA in Dance from Tisch University in New York City.

I spoke with Kyle on the phone in January as he and the company were preparing to perform in Birmingham, Alabama. What follows is a condensed version of that conversation.

Do you consider yourself an arts leader?
Well, I’m not a follower! I have my own vision of things – to try and be assertive, to push forward new ideas.

What are some lessons you learned along the way about being a leader in the arts? Can you tell us about some challenges that you’ve faced?
Ultimately, you want to find collaborators that really get your work. Working with these dancers that are younger and younger – its more than that. I just had auditions a month ago, and the thing that I found was that when I find a dancer who is not afraid to be ugly, I was more interested. I am more interested in [the dancer] being more fully invested. Bring yourself 150%, bring your face in there – I’m more interested in that than a younger dancer per se, or in someone clean. I am looking for someone uninhibited. Now that I am working with dancers on doing my roles, I have to find a dancer who is okay with movement and text and working that kind of way.

The company had a big turnover in 2010, and it did make me think of a lesson I had learned from [director] John Scott, he said to me, ‘as soon as things start going well, going well, that’s when people leave.’ That made it okay for me to not take it so personally when people started leaving. That was hard. That and the sad reality of being a choreographer – most of the company is ten years younger than me, and then they’ll be twenty years younger, and so on.

I remember being a guest artist on a show, I did a solo, and I remember watching the rapport [this choreographer] had with her company – they were friends and had a family vibe. I was touring a lot as a solo artist in 2008 and 2009. Now, if I am touring on the road [with my company], I want to be with people I have a strong rapport with – people that have a sense, a source of where my knowledge is coming from, where my movement is coming from. That changed the work for me, thinking of company members as collaborators. If I don’t think we have a good relationship, if I’m concerned with how you feel or how you might respond to what I do movement wise, that’s not good – that’s not healthy – that takes away from what I want to do.

So, Pavement, which you are bringing to the Byham on February 16th, is set in Pittsburgh, as is The Radio Show, one of your earlier works. Can you tell us a little more about growing up in Pittsburgh?
Everything I make is inspired by my life in Pittsburgh. A lot of my work comes from my high school years. That transition from 8th grade into high school – when I think about all of the changes that happen for people in that time, it’s a rich time to be thinking about. I went to Frick Middle School, which is not even called that anymore. At that point, I was in the International Studies program, which was a hotbed of students from all the different neighborhoods and communities coming together. My elementary school was in Shadyside … there weren’t too many black students, but there were people from all over coming together to be at my middle school – that brought more people and more tensions. Schenley [High School] as a school was separate in a bizarre way, the higher academic track was on the 3rd floor, the only other classes that weren’t academic were the art classes on that floor. I lived in the Lincoln neighborhood and went to high school in the Hill. So I was all over the city.

I always love seeing Pittsburgh people [outside of Pittsburgh] – today I saw a guy with a Steelers coat and a Pirates t-shirt and we started talking right away. People are very approachable. In Pittsburgh, we just say hi to each other. I keep doing that, no matter where I am.

What personal qualities would you suggest to our emerging arts leaders that they should cultivate? Any advice for emerging leaders and artists?

Meet with people and get their advice. Make sure that each work follows the next one – that you are not just entertaining yourself. From a business point of view, the next show I want to make must be different from the one I just made. Keep challenging yourself.

Come out – make sure the work is being done. I don’t want to rest on coming up to Pittsburgh and there being word about the show. You send press kit out so many months in advance in New York City, then you follow up a month before, and then two weeks before. New York City is so much about immediacy. I just have to have my stuff together more.

Not to be concerned with what everyone else is doing. It’s such a distraction – if someone gets a grant someone else didn’t get, decisions about touring vs. not touring – that is only taking time away from the work.

And come to shows! That drives me crazy when I see the dance community not going to performances, especially for troupes from out of town. You don’t know what you are missing not to go. See it and be inspired, or not – either way, be proactive.

So, PEALs and others, reading this over, I am struck with how many of these words can apply to all of us, particularly about supporting our work and the work of others, being realistic about one’s collaborators, and being proactive. What are your thoughts and takeaways?

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