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A Choreographer Asks About Black Men's Lives

By: Susan Reiter
Date: Nov 09, 2015

The urgency and beauty of Kyle Abraham's program at the Joyce


Kyle Abraham's conversation moves at warp speed as he speaks from Dallas the morning after the first performance of Absent Matter, which has its New York premiere this week at the Joyce Theater. He's already had two morning meetings, and he is contemplating a crucial change he hopes to make for that evening's second performance.

Absent Matter emerges from Abraham's engagement with issues that are all too prevalent in today's headlines. "A lot of it came from conversations I was having about looking at the celebrated hip-hop artists and the prophesying of their deaths at a young age, as black men," he says. "I'm drawing a parallel with all of the millions of lives that have been lost – violently lost – within the black community that have gone unnoticed."

Like the other two pieces that his company Abraham.In.Motion will perform at the Joyce — The Gettin and The Quiet Dance —this one features live jazz music. But Absent Matter features an additional element. Abraham is collaborating with composer/pianist Kris Bowers and drummer/composer Otis Brown III on a score that includes samples of music and spoken segments by celebrated hip-hop artists.

Speaking of Bowers, Abraham says, "We've had a lot of conversations about different influences on me, choreographically, and so he was totally game at jumping in on research and trying to really find the best way to connect a hop-hop element with live music, which is its own challenge."


Abraham's personal history, and connections to his native Pittsburgh, played a role in his earlier major works.The Radio Show (2010) captured the essence of a vibrant Pittsburgh radio station and its role in the black community, while Pavement (2012) drew inspiration from the 1991 film Boyz in the Hood and evoked Pittsburgh neighborhoods of that era.

Abraham observes that such earlier pieces weren't specifically intended to evoke current concerns. "The objective was making a work that was looking at history, and it just so happens that events start happening in current times that make us think that I'm making something about what's happening right now. The sad reality is that it's about previous times."

Now, though, he's consciously addressing the present moment. "Absent Matter is really focused on the here and now," he says. "There are so many more groups that are coming to the forefront of the conversation that may not have had a voice before. So it's a really hard thing to try to make a work that addresses all of that. So I think I wanted Absent Matter to be more of a work coming out of that frustration."

Abraham's upcoming project for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Untitled America, will also engage with contemporary struggles. According to the company, it "explores the lasting impact of incarceration in the prison system on individuals and families across generations." Abraham envisions it in three "chapters" that will premiere over subsequent Ailey seasons. The initial segment (premiering on December 9 at City Center) is more of an appetizer before the main course. "This is a just a small work that connects to the over-arching theme," he says.

Abraham himself will dance at the Joyce in Absent Matter, as well as a solo called Prelude. Meanwhile, The Gettin' features a score by jazz artist Robert Glasper, and Abraham says the piece "works really well on this program for a host of reasons. It really connects thematically with Absent Matter."

It also underlines the reason that live jazz is so essential to this program. As Abraham says, "When you look at the brilliant and accomplished musicians that you're getting to hear performing live, it's a whole beautiful conversation we can have about jazz music and how transformative it is as a music genre."


Susan Reiter regularly covers dance for TDF Stages.

Photos by Sharon Bradford. Top photo: A scene from Absent Matter.

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Susan Reiter covers dance for TDF Stages.