Growing up in Pittsburgh in the 1980s-influenced New York City-based choreographer Kyle Abraham's life in more ways than one.
From Pittsburgh, Abraham moved to New York to attend SUNY-Purchase for college as a dance major and lived in a plethora of cities before moving back to NYC for graduate school at the prestigious Tisch School of the Arts ( NYU ). He is now firmly planted in Brooklyn, but never denies Pittsburgh as the place from where he comes.
Talking with Windy City Times, Abraham recalled listening to soul music on his local radio station, and on family road trips from Pittsburgh to Detroit. He cited classic soul music as the voice of his community, and a source of communication within his family. The sudden closing of the radio station coincided with his father developing Alzheimer's disease and aphasia ( loss of ability to speak ), creating a multifaceted loss in his life. As his father's ability to communicate deteriorated so, too, had the voice of a community whose memory was steeped in its music.
These are the two events that form the inspiration for Abraham's The Radio Show, which is stopping at the Museum of Contemporary Art ( MCA ) Feb. 20-23. The once-struggling young choreographer is now living a Cinderella story that includes esteemed accolades such as the Jacob's Pillow Dance Award ( 2012 ), a Princess Grace Award in choreography ( 2010 ), a 2010 Bessie Award for Outstanding Performance in Dance for The Radio Show and, most recently, a MacArthur Foundation "Genius Grant"a five-year, $625,000 unrestricted grant awarded to exceptional creative individuals. Although The Radio Show comes from a deeply personal place, Abraham's work addresses themes that affect and speak to us allthemes such as voice, identity, community and urban Americana.
At some point, according to Abraham, national and urban cultures became two different things. When and how this shift occurred is unclear, as is the commercialization of modern-day hip-hop. The current form is unfamiliar to him, and yet Abraham still simply said, "I am hip-hop." As a child of the late 1970s, he feels close to the B-boy culture and doesn't necessarily identify with the current commodity hip-hop has become. Why did it change? "People realized you can make money off of it," he said. Growing up, there was no such thing as hip-hop class. Hip-hop is often the thing that drives Abraham as a contemporary dance maker and roots his choreographic aesthetic, yet he has no formal training.
In addition to the engagement at the MCA, Abraham will speak on a panel titled "B-Boys, B-Men: Moving with/in our Masculinities" as part of an international hip-hop festival The Dance Center of Columbia College Chicago is hosting. The line-up includes France's Compagnie Kafig and Philadelphia's Raphael Xavier plus special events, dance jams and discussion sessions. The topic of masculinity is often associated with hip-hop, but Abraham's identity has one foot firmly planted in the hip-hop culture from which he rose, and one foot in the Queer community. To him, hip-hop often exudes an archetype of what a black man in America is "supposed" to be. Masculinity is a misconstrued perception that supersedes sexual orientation, and it is assumed that the stereotypical Man ( capital M ) pervades hip-hop.
What, then, is hip-hop supposed to be?
"Hip-hop is a social commentary. hip-hop is fun, and love, and unity and freedom," Abraham said.
So hip-hop, according to Abraham, is an embracing community that allows anyone of any race, creed, or orientation into its fold. Hip-hop is a source of empowerment that was something urban kids could pour their emotions into; it was a place to express anger and frustration in a healthy way. When put in this light, it would seem that the hip-hop community and the queer demographic could be besties if they wanted to.
This trip to Chicago will be the first time Abraham is presenting his work here, but it's not his first visit to the Windy City. A tour with David Dorfman Dance brought him here once ( or twice ) before, and while here he embarked on a tour of Chicago-style pizza parlors. Of Giordano's, Pizzeria Uno and Lou Malnati's, the best pizza, according to Kyle Abraham, comes from Lou's. Next on his list? A tour of restaurants owned by chefs who appeared on Top Chef. This guy is a genius in more ways than one.
Kyle Abraham and Abraham.In.Motion present The Radio Show Feb. 20-23 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago Ave. Tickets are $28; stop by the MCA Box Office, call 312-397-4010 or visit www.mcachicago.org . A limited quantity of $10 student tickets is available. One free museum admission is granted with an MCA Stage ticket stub, valid up to seven days after the performance.
The B-Real Festival hosted by the Dance Center of Columbia College Chicago takes place Feb. 17-March 1. All B-Real events are free and open to the public. Call 312-869-8330 for more information. Performances for Compagnie KÃ¤fig and Raphael Xavier are ticketed; see colum.edu/dance_center.