The Miami Herald Jordan Levin column
Mar 30, 2012 (The Miami Herald - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
As a choreographer and dancer, Kyle Abraham has made communicating without words his life's work. But the ability to speak, whether literally and physically, or with the integrity of your own identity -- and the painful consequences of losing that voice -- are at the heart of The Radio Show, the acclaimed dance work that Abraham and his troupe Abraham.in.Motion bring to the South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center this Saturday.
At the heart of The Radio Show are the loss of two voices intrinsic to Abraham's youth in Pittsburgh. One is that of his father, who was usually the one to pick up his son after the boy's myriad after-school activities, in a companionable routine filled with the sounds of R n' B, soul and hiphop songs from Pittsburgh radio station WAMO, music by Prince, Erykah Badu, and others that thrilled the music-loving teen.
Around 2000, Abraham's father lost his ability to speak to Alzheimer's and aphasia, a language disorder that impairs the ability to talk, sometimes completely. A few years later, their beloved WAMO was shut down, and with it the source for the less commercial music and community news Abraham loved. And a part of his past, and who he was, had been silenced.
"You get scared when you think someone may be lost but not able to ask questions, sick and falling but not able to tell someone what they feel," says Abraham. 34. "There are certain songs I can't hear anymore because they remind me too much of [my father]. I was thinking about the loss of voice in the community, and my father's loss of voice."
The Radio Show premiered in 2010, and brought Abraham, already a buzzed about choreographer whom Dance Magazine had selected as one of its "25 to Watch" in 2009 and Out Magazine had dubbed "The best and brightest creative talent to emerge in New York City in the age of Obama", a new level of cultural audibility. The piece won a "Bessie" award, the dance and performance world's equivalent of a Tony, and New York Times Claudia La Rocco called it "smart and self-aware, and luscious too: the complete package."
Eric Fliss, the general manager of the South Dade Center, says Abraham completed a triumvirate of black modern dance choreographers the venue has presented this season; the veteran, revered Garth Fagan last fall; the middle-aged Ronald K. Brown, known for his combination of spiritual and community themes with African and modern dance, this winter; and now Abraham.
Fliss, who has made relevance and outreach to his South Dade audience a touchstone of the center's programming, believed these artists would appeal to the area's strong black and Caribbean communities. "I thought what a great message it would send to the community in South Dade to see these three strong black male choreographers running companies with their names," Fliss says. "I thought they would be great role models."
Fliss also believed The Radio Show would speak to a once sleepy, isolated area that has seen significant development and gentrification since Hurricane Andrew devastated South Dade in 1992 -- changes that the opening of the Center last fall has been a part.
"It's another community trying to define itself, where you lose some things to gain other things," Fliss says. "There's this idea of the battle over something you've held close to you and something you've lost.... You're trying to embrace the new without feeling like you're completely losing and turning away from your past."
Abraham has his own experience with stifling ones voice. Though his parents, educators and social workers, supported their artistic son, who played cello before turning to dance in high school, Abraham wasn't always comfortable with his identity. If he had to take a public bus to school, or use a strange barber shop, Abraham would drop his high-pitched voice and use hiphop slang he never used elsewhere, pretending to be someone other than a educated, middle-class, gay artist.
"We lived in this circle of houses for middle class black families trying to have a nice quiet neighborhood," Abraham said en route to rehearsal in New York, where he has lived since graduating with degrees in dance from the State University of New York in Purchase and New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. "Being in Pittsburgh, the way I talked, I was always being scrutinized -- black folks said I sounded white, and white folks said I sounded gay.... So I'd get on those public buses and this character would come out."
The need to express himself pushed Abraham to switch from music to dance in ninth grade. Unlike many contemporary choreographers who focus on abstract aesthetic and performance issues, his pieces are often based in emotional and personal history. And though he jokingly says that as a teen he just wanted more space for dancing than his bedroom, he was really compelled by the possibility of letting out what he thought and felt. "That's the thing that drew me to dance more than other mediums," he says. "That's why we dance in our rooms -- you need that release. Only dancing does that."
At least, for him. But whatever the medium, Abraham says, everyone needs to find their own voice. "You need to speak up for yourself," he says. "People need to know who you are, and where you come from. I mean that for everyone. We need to understand each other."
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