Life has changed for Kyle Abraham since he and his dance company came to town last year to perform the transcendent “Pavement” at Dance Place. In September, he was named a MacArthur Fellow, which bestows on him the unofficial title of “genius,” not to mention $625,000 over five years.
In its announcement of the award, the MacArthur Foundation pointed to Abraham’s “breathtaking skill as a performer,” saying his “highly physical dance vocabulary reflects the youthful energy of the hip-hop and urban dance he encountered in his adolescence as well as a strong grounding in modern dance technique.”
Abraham’s company, Abraham.In.Motion, returns to Washington this week with “Live! The Realest MC,” a 2011 show commissioned by Dance Place. The Brooklyn-based dancer-choreographer, 36, recently took a break from rehearsing in Chicago to discuss the pros and cons of being a “genius.”
The “genius grant” isn’t something you apply for, so it must have felt a bit out of the blue. How did that phone call go?
It was really special. I was out in Los Angeles at the time, out to meet [jazz pianist and producer] Robert Glasper. That in its own right — I’m about to go meet Robert Glasper — and then just to get this phone call in the morning in L.A. to tell me that I won the MacArthur. I was laughing, then I started crying. Cecilia Conrad [vice president of the MacArthur Fellows Program], who called me to give me the news, she could tell I was just a mess.
How has it affected you?
[I’ve been] thinking about, what do I want my future to be in dance? Or in general. And luckily, with the MacArthur, you’re able to really ask that question and you can hopefully find time to answer it. I think what I’m struggling with now is trying to find the time to get to the root of what my personal goals are.
Has the grant changed the way you approach your work?
It’s a funny thing really. I think I’m still figuring that out. The blessing and the curse is that more people see the work. If they see it for the first time they might be seeing it and thinking, “They gave a genius award to this guy?” That’s pressure. I always want to do my best at all times, so the amount of pressure I put on myself kind of intensifies that much more, but it also frees me up. There are opportunities to speak or to get things accomplished.
Can you talk a bit about your inspiration for “Live! The Realest MC”?
It premiered in 2011 . . . kind of looking at masculinity through my middle school and high school years, and even still today, and thinking about what the influence was from my peers and people in my community. There was a point where I felt like I needed to put on this hip-hop bravado to be more of a man, and so this is really my take on the story of Pinocchio. But instead of his quest to be a real boy, I made it my quest to be a “real man” and thinking about what that is. And kind of flipping it in a sense. It’s really about the falsities of this caricature that you’re putting on to be seen as more of a man, when in actuality it’s making you more of a puppet — this kind of generic robot. I sometimes say it’s a gay industrial story of Pinocchio seen through a hip-hop lens.
What’s it like to revisit a piece you created a few years ago?
Things have shifted for sure. It’s been really interesting to revisit the work, especially now that I’m on to another project with my company — one too many projects with my company [laughing]. It is really different from the other works in terms of the movement quality, and all of us have this weird anxiety. The dancers say the same thing. As soon as the music comes on, your heart starts racing. It’s a heavy piece, and physically it’s really challenging for all of us.
I was seeing artists like [choreographer] Luciana Achugar for the first time when I was starting to make “Live!,” and she’s a really — not every artist wants to be referred to as a dark artist — but there’s something really mysterious in her work. So that was a source of inspiration, and I’d been listing to a lot of Pan Sonic, and that’s a lot of the music you hear in the show, this really dark, driving music.
You’re working on five new works. How do you keep all of them straight?
I’m trying to figure that out myself. But I have two notebooks! I have one for commissions and one for Abraham.In.Motion. But all of the works for my company are based on the same theme. I’m making a series looking at [composer and drummer] Max Roach’s “Freedom Now Suite.”
One is evening-length and then three others make up another program, and in that mixed-rep program, there’s my first-ever ballet work that uses L.A. Master Chorale’s “A Good Understanding.” Then a trio that uses gospel hymns, and it’s a really meditative trio. Some of the movement quality is kind of pop-and-lock. And then a new group work where I’ve commissioned Robert Glasper to reinterpret the Max Roach score, and the visual artist Glenn Ligon is making a scenic world for the programs. So it’s really exciting. It has me really charged.
Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 4 p.m. Ira Aldridge Theater, Howard University, 2455 Sixth St. NW. 202-269-1600. www.danceplace.org. $30.