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Motion with a Message

MacArthur Fellow Kyle Abraham’s groundbreaking choreography tackles social themes and inspires audiences
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performing “Untitled America” Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performing “Untitled America”
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performing “Untitled America”

Written by Sean Brenner

Dance can stir audiences through its beauty and grace, its power and elegance. Kyle Abraham’s choreography incorporates those elements, but it also enthralls viewers and critics because of the powerful subject matter he tackles.

“Untitled America,” which was commissioned for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and had its West Coast premiere in January 2017, delved into mass incarceration. His earlier “Pavement” presented a view of violence, police and gangs in urban America. So in addition to having earned wide acclaim, Abraham’s work has prompted audiences to have important conversations about vital social issues.

“It’s always inspiring to hear that what we’re doing can encourage people to speak loudly or listen more intently,” says Abraham, who joined the UCLA School of the Arts and Architecture faculty in 2016 and is the founder and creative director of the Abraham.In.Motion dance company. “It’s a wonderful thing that people can connect to the work, see themselves in it, see someone they know or gain a different perspective. I think that’s very important with the arts in general.”

Kyle Abraham Kyle Abraham

Abraham, who won a MacArthur Fellowship (the so-called “genius grant”) in 2013, has described his choreography as a “postmodern gumbo” — it blends ballet, contemporary and even social dance, inspired by his experience at raves and clubs during his teens.

And while each new work he creates captivates viewers — the Los Angeles Times recounted audiences’ “explosive ovations” for “Untitled America” — Abraham has embraced his teaching role at UCLA. Some of his students will become dancers, others will pursue careers outside of the arts. But he hopes the lessons he imparts to them about imagination, achieving goals and innovation stay with all of them.

Dancers Connie Shiau and Jeremy Jae Neal Abraham.In.Motion dancers performing Abraham’s “Absent Matter”

“It can be hard at times for students to see their potential when they are studying as much as they are, or dealing with how to pay for school or take care of their families,” he says. “But a major component of education is imagination, and if we can provide insight into imagination and forward thinking, the possibilities become endless for our students.”

One exercise in his technique class might be a metaphor for the life lessons Abraham gives his students. It’s focused solely on moving from one end of the room to the other. “Even if they’re forgetting which step comes next, the impetus is to move,” he says. “To trust yourself to get across the floor and to trust your training.”

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