For Kyle Abraham, one of the country’s most celebrated young choreographers, Purchase College has always been an emotional place. “I cried my first day of school because I was so happy; I actually felt at home,” recalls Abraham, who graduated from Purchase in 2000. “There was hip-hop, dance, ballet; people were singing, acting; you were just immersed in art, and everyone was so supportive. I remember calling my mom, crying and telling her I was so at home. It’s kind of ironic that we are doing this piece.”
Abraham is referring to his latest work, Dearest Home, which will be performed on October 20 and 21 at the Performing Arts Center at Purchase College. Focusing on the difficulties of forging relationships, the work was described in the New York Times as full of “intimate revelations.” “One of the interesting components of Dearest Home is that the work is so focused on love, longing, and loss,” says Abraham. “It can’t be performed in a large venue, and it won’t.”
This makes the Performing Arts Center’s intimate 500-seat Repertory Theatre — also known as the Black Box — the ideal location for such a performance. “I think that when we do Dearest Home there, it’s going to be a very different experience for lots of reasons. One of which is that I am not dancing in this program, so I can actually look at it with much more of an outside eye,” explains Abraham. “It is being performed in the Black Box space, which was always my favorite. I went to probably every theatrical production that was happening while I was [studying at Purchase], and most of those took place in that theater.”
For Abraham, returning as a performer to a space where he was so often a spectator was a surreal experience. “We performed a successful work called The Radio Show there. I was in that work, and I was put in the same dressing room as when I was a senior dancing in the spring concert and performed on the same stage, so I felt like I was in The Twilight Zone.”
Although he is now widely considered an intellectual, Abraham’s abiding love for dance actually began in the clubs rather than classrooms. “I wasn’t exposed to dance really, except through social dance,” he shares. “I loved going out and dancing with my friends. It wasn’t until I went to go see the Joffrey Ballet when I was 16 that I first saw [classical] dance — and I only went to see them because they were dancing to Prince’s music, and I was a big, big Prince fan.”
Abraham refers to his innovative style “as a post-modern gumbo, because it’s coming out of a post-modern lineage.” He notes that Patricia Brown, Bill T. Jones, Bebe Miller, and Ralph Lemon heavily influence his work, as do artists from “more extreme choreographic lenses,” like Ethan Jones.
After graduation, Abraham earned an MFA from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and danced for The Kevin Wynn Collective, Attack Theatre, David Dorfman Dance, and the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, among others. Once he began focusing on choreography, Abraham was soon met with an avalanche of accolades, including a Bessie Award, Princess Grace Award, and a Jerome Foundation Grant. But in 2013, when Abraham was awarded the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship — known unofficially as the genius grant — people really began to take notice.
“It was a wonderful honor, though it definitely made me feel unworthy,” says a characteristically humble Abraham of the fellowship. “It was a lot of recognition for someone my age; I didn’t really know if I deserved it. I am still 39.”
As for what lies ahead for the company, Abraham is undoubtedly not one to rest on his laurels. In fact, he is simultaneously working on a host of varied projects. “We are making a new work that will premiere right before we get to Purchase. It doesn’t have a name yet,” says Abraham. “So, we are working on that and then another work, as well. Right now I am calling that one Meditation. I am also working on a new solo for myself because I still want to be dancing.”
When asked what compels him to dedicate so much time and thought to his chosen medium, Abraham is quick to respond. “I don’t think any other art form can connect me as genuinely to my emotions as dance,” he says. “It goes back to the beginning of dance for me. Being really emotional and dancing alone in my room, without any knowledge of what’s right and what’s wrong, what’s technical and what’s not technical, or what lines are in a body. I still do that now, just with a more working knowledge of what dance vocabulary is, and I think that allows me to color those emotions all the more.”