Two Works by MacArthur "Genius" Kyle Abraham Get West Coast Premiere

Ian Douglas

Award-winning choreographer celebrates the Emancipation Proclamation and the end of apartheid with 'The Watershed' and 'When the Wolves Came In.'

When choreographer Kyle Abraham was in South Africa at the 2012 biennale, he found himself listening to a lot of music by jazz drummer Max Roach, particularly “We Insist: Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite,” a recording from 1960 celebrating the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation, which was still three years away. Coincidentally, South Africa was getting ready to celebrate twenty years without apartheid in 2014 and that’s where Abraham got the idea for two racially-loaded dance pieces, The Watershed and When the Wolves Came In, celebrating their West Coast premiere Feb. 12-13 at UCLA Center for the Art of Performance.

“The music just really spoke to me, where I was at choreographically and personally in my life,” Abraham tells The Hollywood Reporter about Roach’s opus. It turned out to be a pivotal year for the then 35-year-old kid from Pittsburgh. While in Johannesburg he was working on a piece called Pavement, based on the movie Boyz n the Hood, which premiered to wide acclaim at Harlem Stage in November of 2012. At the same time he was invited to work with Alvin Ailey Dance Theater and was offered a coveted residency with New York Live Arts. The following year he won a MacArthur “Genius Grant”.

The first night of the UCLA program features The Watershed an evening-length work for nine dancers consisting of Abraham.In.Motion company members Tamisha Guy, Catherine Ellis Kirk, Jordan Morley and Penda N’diaye, joined by guest dancers Matthew Baker, Winston Brown and Jeremy Neal moving to a varied mix of Civil Rights era R&B, contemporary classical and hip hop. Conceptual artist Glenn Ligon’s tree made of pipes marks the passage of time with falling leaves while stripes of shadow like prison bars, chains falling from the catwalk and a chopped watermelon help complete the portrait of two turbulent eras.

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The Feb. 13 show includes three pieces, When the Wolves Came In, The Gettin’ and Hallowed, all dealing with similar themes. “I wanted to create four different works that could be looking at one subject matter in particular, but really crunching it out so that you’re hopefully creating four different works that don’t look alike but use the same inspirations,” says Abraham, who is noted for using a variety of styles. “I love drawing inspiration from anything and everything around me. Some people think there’s this hip hop thing in my work, and then they see the curvilinear work and movement, that kinetic way of diving in a little bit.”

While most of his dances deals with issues of race, Abraham feels it’s a subject he cannot easily avoid. “From day one my face was race. There’s no way around being a black gay man,” he says, especially in the wake of last summer's riots in Ferguson, which occurred during the world premiere of The Watershed in New York last September. “The crazy thing is that those events have always gone on,” he says about the death of Michael Brown. “One thing positive with cell phones is that people are actually recording these injustices that have happened, and people are more aware of it and talking about it more openly.”

The past year made Abraham notice that while race has been a driving component of his oeuvre, something was missing. “The work I’ve been making over the years hasn’t necessarily been about what’s happening right now, but more so the past,” he says, teasing what’s to come. “There’s a work that I’m making now that is kind of in response – a new solo work or a duet that is more focused on how I’m feeling about issues now.”

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