Falteringly, haltingly, Kyle Abraham begins to move. His body, his being, seems to reject itself, a pained, primordial entity adjusting to the uncomfortable feeling of his own skin. Blending deep-seated emotion with controlled technique, Abraham pulls from his own experiences and personal history to tap into a relatable, intimate agony – the clash of the individual with rigid social exhortations. In Live! The Realest MC, he takes inspiration from the Pinocchio fable to explore the concept of being “real,” within the context of masculine expectations, heteronormativity, and the performance of identity in hip-hop. Upright and sparkling in gold Abraham provides a marked contrast to the cool black tracksuits of his company members. As he begins to walk, he welcomes us to follow him on this journey.
Now in its third year, the Walker Art Center’s SpeakEasy program regularly invites audience members to participate in open post-performance conversations facilitated by Walker visual arts tour guides and local members of the performing arts community. In conjunction with this weekend’s performances by Kyle Abraham/Abraham.In.Motion, we offer this pre-performance blog highlighting a few themes connected to the work. We hope that you will join us after the show on Saturday, March 16, in the Walker’s McGuire Theater Balcony Bar for a discussion led by choreographer Blake Nellis and Walker tour guide/choreographer Ray Terrill.
Placing the work
Drawing from his conservatory training and youth immersed in the emerging hip-hop culture of Pittsburgh in the late 1970s, Kyle Abraham creates interdisciplinary work that “delve[s] into identity in relation to a personal history.” This weaving of diverse media and material is manifest in works such as Pavement, which incorporates opera, the early writings of W.E.B. Du Bois, and the 1991 film Boyz N The Hood, as well as Live! The Realest MC, with its mixture of dance, projections, and monologues.
Speaking of his interest in the work of visual artist and Walker Art Center regular Kara Walker, Abraham reflected upon identity and influences: “I am inspired by how she is able to create such provocative situational environments in her work with a willingness to evoke anger, laughter, and a whole swelling of emotions…her work deals with historic references, representation, and stereotypical content that make me reflect on my position in life…and more so in this country, as a gay black American man who grew up in an urban environment marginalized by race, poverty and sexual orientation.”
Abraham’s background provides fodder for Live! The Realest MC, a piece that both confronts issues of hypermasculinity and comically questions what being “real” in hip-hop may be. Yet behind this humor and orbiting this piece are a variety of rigid expectations and potentially cruel consequences, what Amy Villarejo has termed the “terror of the normative.” The story of Live! The Realest MC began to develop in the early solo piece Inventing Pookie Jenkins, but took on a greater significance in the context of recent suicides connected with bullying and homophobia. Abraham explained, “I began to think about a time in my life when I prayed that I could go unnoticed. Hoping that if I get my voice to sound like the other male students around me, I wouldn’t be found out. I just wanted to be a robot… a puppet…”
Being “real” in this sense becomes convoluted, not simply the assertion of some genuine selfhood, but, a “yardstick” that measures one’s relationship to a variety of notions of authenticity. To “be real” morphs into an imperative to fall in line and the individual must decide how to respond.
Although brought into dramatic relief in relation to expectations that one resists, the individual in society is continuously engaged with the demand “to prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet” (T.S. Eliot). Embedded within myriad sets of relationships, the self is developed and performed through quotidian practices and in contrast or kinship with others. In this regard, for Joanne Finkelstein, the “controlled body” becomes a “passport to sociability.” If one knows social codes, and can successfully adhere to them, doors may open, even if merely for a performance that comes at a great personal price.
When does hip-hop become intertwined with identity or a lifestyle and how is this relationship performed? When is it personal, taking a set of concepts and practices into one’s own definition of self, and when is it public, portraying a role to be understood by others or assuming qualities and practices from demeanor, to speech or consumption? Abraham’s work pulls meaningfully from specific roots, yet the aforementioned questions apply to any range of accepted or desired roles. Where does the “real self” end and the “performed self” begin? Given that one is born and lives in situ and in relation to others, is the notion of such divisions simply an illusion?
When asked in an interview for New York’s Amsterdam News how race may factor into his dance life, Abraham replied, “It is inevitable that the work of any choreographer will come from a place of their individual journey. My personal story is growing up as a middle-class, Black, gay man from a spiritual family upbringing in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Whether I chose to create a work about my life experiences in a literal fashion [or not], the work is inevitably a derivative of all that I am.”
While “placing” Abraham’s work may mean providing a context for it in terms of histories, norms, and social forces that have shaped his experiences, the work is not limited by these parameters. Speaking of the larger relationship between audience and art, Abraham broadened the scope: “the same great thing can be said about dance as it can about the visual arts… I want my work to have an individual effect. It’s not imperative that people walk away seeing or feeling the same thing. Art, in all forms to me, is about evoking something…either with in yourself or within those who stumble upon your vision.”