UMKC Conservatory Dance Professor Wins Guggenheim Fellowship

Gary Abbott (photo by John H. Carmody)

Gary Abbott, professor of dance at the UMKC Conservatory, is a 2022 Guggenheim Fellow.

The awards were announced in April. “I was so surprised, I had to check the spelling of my name a few times,” Abbott laughed. “I never win anything.”

This was his first time applying for a fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, founded in 1925. Abbott was one of 180 fellows selected this year from a pool of nearly 2,500 applicants.

“It’s completely focused on the artist,” he said. “It feels as though they trust you and that they’ve looked at your work and said, ‘This person has potential to continue to grow, regardless of what that growth was in the past.’”

Abbott is the first professor of dance at UMKC Conservatory to receive this award, joining a cadre of six other professors in various disciplines who’ve won in the past.

The project he proposed is “Breaking the Dam: Mass Incarceration,” which he described as “a movement statement on the racist history of policing and the proliferation of privatized prisons.”

The work speaks to “the devastation of the criminal system and prison on communities of color, personally. What their lives are like when they have a member of the family incarcerated, what impact that has on them as a community, as individual people, and what it is like to be caught up inside the prison system, what an actual day-to-day experience is like,” said Abbott.

This is a continuation of his 2015/2016 project “Breaking the Dam,” a response to police violence on communities of color in the wake of the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014.

“It’s been a five-year journey to get me to this place right here, where I can finally find time to create this piece the way that I want to create it,” he said.

In the project description, Abbott wrote: “The piece will be presented through a series of stories told by those who have experienced them first-hand whether as inmates, friends, or family members.”

He is in the process of researching: reading, visiting prisons, interviewing individuals in prison and families with incarcerated members. “I really want to immerse myself inside of this entire process.”

The piece will involve dance, of course, but also newly composed music (in the original “Breaking the Dam,” he collaborated with composer Paul Rudy, UMKC Conservatory professor who was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2008), spoken word, images and artifacts. The location is to be determined, but it won’t likely be a traditional theater setting.

“My vision is . . . building an entire environment, that once you walk in that door, you will get that sense of being incarcerated, that sense of being in prison,” he said.

The performance is tentatively set for summer 2023, with members of his Chicago-based company Deeply Rooted Dance Theater, a selection of Abbott’s UMKC students, and others, “fused into a cast of dancers, poets, and other community allies who will lend their voices expressing the community’s frustrations and fears as well as their hope for relief,” he said.

Though the work reflects on experiences in the Black community, the performers will have mixed representation from different communities. “We all need to be involved,” said Abbott. “The African American experience is just that, the African and the American experience. It’s not just Black people or brown people who should speak on this, everybody should speak on this. Because it is going to affect us all.”

It’s important to Abbott that he include his students so that they have experience with the subject matter and also with working with professional dancers. As a lifelong teacher (including 11 years at UMKC), he knows too well the importance those mentoring opportunities play in a young artist’s development.

That’s another reason he’s so grateful for this award and the recognition it confers.

“This is affecting to me, in a deep sort of way, especially when you look at the people who’ve won this prize in the past” — including Alvin Ailey, Martha Graham, Ronald K. Brown and Christopher L. Huggins. “It’s been humbling, and it’s been an affirmation for my mentors, people who got me to where I am,” said Abbott.

The award is particularly poignant as he reflects on the loss of his first dance teacher, Barbara Sullivan, who died in April of this year.

“I know I would not be anywhere without her help and her investing in me and pouring into me,” said Abbott. For the last four years or so, he said, he’s been “hyper-aware of what people have done for me.”

“It just makes sense to me to find myself in this grateful period of my life. Plus, I’m 66 years old, I should feel grateful, for surviving all the things we have to survive to be able to be here, still dancing around and getting on people’s nerves.”

To learn more about the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation fellowships, visit www.gf.org.

Libby Hanssen

Originally from Indiana, Libby Hanssen covers the performing arts in Kansas City. She is the author of States of Swing: The History of the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra, 2003-2023. Along with degrees in trombone performance, Libby was a Fellow for the NEA Arts Journalism Institute at Columbia University. She maintains the culture bog "Proust Eats a Sandwich."

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