When choreographer Kyle Abraham gets in a rental car — as he often does, touring with his company Abraham.In.Motion across the country — he immediately turns on the radio and starts scanning for the local urban stations. It's his favorite way to tap into the culture of a place, a habit he picked up as a youth in Pittsburgh, where the now-defunct WAMO stations played a huge role in his coming-of-age.
"It was a station that was highlighting new artists, new soul and R&B artists," Abraham remembers. "They needed radio to really help push them and get their voices heard. And still for that genre of music, radio is really necessary and needed, without even thinking about how much radio can impact our knowledge of what's going on in an urban community." Urban radio celebrities of his youth, he says, managed to be funny and entertaining while highlighting important issues — and keeping entertainers' egos in check. "It's something I hope people are still able to access."
Abraham loosely channels his memories of WAMO and all that it signified in The Radio Show, which premiered in 2010. Using a soundtrack of modern hip-hop, classic soul, and bursts of static, the show is split into two halves — AM and FM — that explore themes like memory and the loss of communication between individuals and communities.
The cast is made up of seven dancers, and Abraham usually performs quite a bit himself. "I give myself a lot of freedom," he says. "If I don't want to do something, I'm not going to do it." It's a highly personal, emotional performance for the choreographer, in part because of the show's secondary focus: Abraham's relationship with his father, who died last summer after battling Alzheimer's and aphasia. His father's illness paralleled the shuttered radio stations in that Abraham had once again lost a vital form of communication.
"The last time I saw him, he wasn't doing well, so there are times when I'm performing it or in the pre-show where I'm thinking about the last time I actually saw him," Abraham says. "So that in its own right kind of changes my state in performing the show. It's shifted a lot emotionally in the pre-show and throughout the performance now. It's hitting me in a different way."
Abraham fell in love with dance relatively late in life, but his father encouraged him to pursue his passion. "My relationship with my father really changed for the better once I started dancing," he says. "I think he saw that I was really committed to something."
He started out casually dancing at raves, but it quickly became an emotional outlet for the artist. "Being depressed, being frustrated about X, Y, and Z, I would just go in my room and dance, or go to the club and dance. I try to keep that intention whenever I'm performing because it keeps that honesty.
"That's how The Radio Show is built," he adds. "A lot of the movement and material came out of videotaped improvisations that the dancers learned, and I would structure them in a certain kind of way. So all of the movement is generated from that same place. And the solo section that I'm doing, although I'm incorporating throughout the show gestures of movements that I saw my father doing in his latter years, some of them I'm just responding to either the audience, the sound, or a score I've set up for myself."
Channelling his father, Abraham says he taps a blend of older and more recent memories. "My dad loved to dance," he remembers. "Once the Alzheimer's started setting in, the weirdest thing was ... any time a song came on, he would get up and dance, and it would be hard to get him to stop dancing. That was really interesting for me to see as a dancer."