No matter where Kyle Abraham goes, Pittsburgh is never far from his mind.
These days, the 40-year-old dancer/choreographer goes lots of places. For much of the year, he tours the world with his New York-based company, Abraham.In.Motion. When he’s not creating for his dancers, he’s making dances for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and other top companies. This winter, he’s teaching at the University of California, Los Angeles.
He’s racked up a laundry list of accolades: Bessie and Princess Grace awards in 2010, a Jacob’s Pillow Dance Award in 2012 and a MacArthur Genius Award in 2013.
Many of his works were inspired by his upbringing in Lincoln-Larimer. Those who knew him then aren’t surprised at his success. Even when he was just a boy, they saw something special in this kinetic kid and have been cheering him on ever since.
Before he ever took a dance class, Mr. Abraham thought he could be a choreographer. Or a fashion designer.
“Those were the two things that always interested me for whatever reason,” he said in a recent phone interview from his office at UCLA. “I loved making up dances.”
His family nicknamed him Cagey because he couldn’t be controlled.
“He was just busy moving all the time. He couldn’t sit still,” said his older sister, Keshia Abraham, who spoke proudly of her brother’s accomplishments in a phone call from her home in Miami, where she is the director of strategic initiatives for the Council of International Education Exchange.
Back then, Lincoln-Larimer was called “the end of East Liberty before you get to Penn Hills,” she said. There weren’t a lot of kids in the neighborhood close to his age, so he hung around with his sister.
They were encouraged by their parents, the late Samuel Gregory Abraham and Henrietta “Jackie” Abraham. He was a social worker for the Pittsburgh board of education and she held various positions in the Pittsburgh Public Schools, retiring as a principal.
“I had asked for a little sister and was very specific. Then they called me from the hospital and said, ‘You got a brother.’ I said, ‘Take it back. I didn’t ask for a brother,” she said, laughing.
“But I wouldn’t give him back for anything. He was just around all the time.”
The Abraham kids were busy with lots of classes — piano, cello, French horn, singing, painting.
“My parents were pretty progressive. They were really pushing the arts,” Mr. Abraham said.
He loved the music of Prince. So when the Pittsburgh Dance Council brought Joffrey Ballet here to stage “Billboards,” he had to see it. The Dance Council also introduced him to the work of famed choreographer Bill T. Jones. Watching a friend perform in a musical at Schenley High School cinched it: Mr. Abraham took his first formal dance class a month or so before he turned 17.
Instantly hooked, he went on to earn a summer jazz dance scholarship to Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera and began splitting his school days between Pittsburgh CAPA, then in Homewood, and Schenley.
“Kyle had this unique style of movement,” said Leslie Anderson Braswell, the first dance teacher hired at Pittsburgh CAPA and still there 38 years later. “Kyle had that instinct of‘ ‘I’m not afraid. I’m going to go for it.’ That’s why he’s the genius that he is.”
His early days in dance earned him another nickname, Energizer Bunny.
“He never got tired. If you said, ‘Kyle, we’re going to dance until midnight,’ he’d be happy because he had such energy,” Ms. Anderson Braswell recalled.
He was ambitious, too.
“He used to tell me everything he was going to do. He wanted to be a clothing designer. He wanted to own a restaurant,” said Buddy Thompson, another of Mr. Abraham’s early instructors, who was director of education at Pittsburgh CLO at the time and taught at Pittsburgh CAPA. These days, he owns and operates Butler Center for the Performing Arts.
“I used to say, ‘OK, but right now you’re going to be a dancer.’ He sort of had that magnetism to him. He was new to the disciplines of ballet, jazz and modern, but he had those sorts of qualities in him.”
Their mentorship — on and off the dance floor -— motivated Mr. Abraham to keep on moving.
“After school at CAPA I would get in their car, and they’d take me to Civic Light Opera. Leslie would give me a ride home sometimes. That’s a whole other level of support. That’s so rare to have people believe in you that much.”
Finding a path
His sister saw that same spark his teachers did.
“The first time I saw him really perform on stage, it was clear to me then that this was something he needed to keep doing,” she said.
“Both of my parents were very clear about us having academic backgrounds, so the challenge was, ‘OK, so now this kid who is college age [is on a different] path and needs our support in a completely different realm than we’re used to,” said Ms. Abraham, who holds a doctorate in comparative literature from Binghamton University – State University of New York.
Everyone else in the family had attended historically black colleges, so he tried to find a dance program at one. He picked Morgan State University in Baltimore because he was told he could take extra dance classes at a nearby college. He also wanted to study business and anthropology. He soon discovered that Morgan State had only one dance class and that he had to walk or bus to off-campus classes.
Mr. Abraham had a friend who was studying visual arts at the State University of New York at Purchase. He also knew that many dancers from the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company had attended that college, so he checked it out.
“I just fell in love. The school is and was more than I ever could have imagined,” he said. “I love the techniques the students are exposed to. The student body is really diverse, and it’s really inclusive.”
His family supported the switch, often driving or flying there to see him dance.
“When he figured out it was Purchase, well, we’ll all go up to Purchase,” said his sister. “I don’t know how many not good performances of his we went to. But we went.”
He graduated from SUNY Purchase in 2000, still unsure of his future. Should he stick with dance? Maybe try to make it as a music producer? He loved the music of the early 1990s rave and club scenes.
Through a series of serendipitous events — one dancer was injured and another fired — he was hired by the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company. But he soon learned that liking a dance company doesn’t mean you will like dancing with it.
“It wasn’t what I thought it was going to be. I realized my goal was to be in the room creating with [Mr. Jones] but not to be a dancer in the company.”
He was fired the same day he signed a lease for an apartment in New York City. Around that same time, he found out his father back in Pittsburgh had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. It was Christmas 2000.
He stayed in New York City for a while, working minimum wage jobs.
“I had enough money for subway tokens to Tower Records and would rent a whole TV series,” he said. “I couldn’t afford to go anywhere, so I’d eat a can of tuna and watch those shows all night. That was even before the binge-watching trend.”
He took a break from dance and eventually from New York. He returned to Pittsburgh and did more odd jobs, including a stint at The Andy Warhol Museum on the North Side. He spent time in England, too.
Eventually he found his way back to dance -— or maybe dance found him again. He was hired to perform a solo at The Warhol to accompany the exhibition “Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America,” which opened in September 2001. He also worked a bit with the now-defunct Dance Alloy company.
“I started thinking about the idea of [starting] a company,” he said. “Do I want to make dance? Do I want to be a dancer? Do I want to be in New York?”
To find an answer, he enrolled in graduate school at New York University’s Tisch School for the Arts. By 2005, he was building his own company, Abraham.In.Motion. He graduated with a master’s degree in fine arts in 2006.
The burgeoning troupe’s first evening-length work, “The Radio Show,” debuted at the Kelly Strayhorn Theater in East Liberty in 2010. It dealt with the demise of Pittsburgh’s urban radio station WAMO and his father’s battle with Alzheimer’s disease. He later took the show on the road to New York City.
“That show really catapulted the company in the craziest way,” Mr. Abraham said. “Lots of opportunities came after doing that show.”
As he churned out new works, more opportunities came his way, along with some prestigious awards. In addition to his own company he danced with the David Dorfman Dance company for five seasons.
“I was still on food stamps when those accolades were coming in. That’s just the reality of being an artist in America.”
Today, Mr. Abraham has unequivocally made it in the dance world. His shows garner national headlines in newspapers and dance industry magazines and are in demand worldwide. He takes it all in stride, quick to acknowledge those who’ve helped him along the way.
“Nothing is promised. I’m not one to be resting on any kind of laurels.”
His goals range from choreographing an opera to getting back into yoga, sleeping more and brushing up on his French. Improving the quality of life for his dancers is another constant on his to-do list.
“A lofty goal for me is to figure out how to set up some kind of retirement plan for the dancers in the company and figure out how to increase their pay,” he said.
Personally, a “major beast” is balancing his professional and personal life, particularly while on the road much of the year.
“It’s hard to figure out how to do that without the work suffering,” he said. “I am longing for love in my life, but I want it to be the right person and the right way. I don’t want to be in another relationship where I’m feeling pulled too often in a way that can be a distraction from either thing being successful.”
He doesn’t get back to Pittsburgh as much as he’d like, but home isn’t quite the same anymore. His father and mother died in 2011 and 2016, respectively.
“I wish I had more time with my mother and father before they both passed. My mother didn’t want me to know how ill she was because she didn’t want me to miss an opportunity,” he said. “I never missed a Christmas with my family.”
He’s hoping to make up for lost time in Pittsburgh with more shows, more often. His company last performed here in fall 2017 at the August Wilson Center for African American Culture.
“To see people who were my parents’ friends who I consider to be aunts and uncles, it definitely was one of my first times to not get super depressed about my parents not being there because I felt their presence,” he said.
“It’s wonderful to see so many familiar faces and to feel so supported and to feel that people are excited about what I have to say and what I’m doing.”
Sara Bauknecht: firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter and Instagram @SaraB_PG.