When Bessie award-winning choreographer Kyle Abraham created “Live! The Realest MC” he may have had questions like these in mind: Who am I? Who am I supposed to be? Who do I want to be? If I am true to myself will others accept me for who I am? Seemingly simple inquiries with complex answers lie at the heart of this deeply affecting 2011 work created in collaboration with members of Abraham.In.Motion and presented by Walker Art Center.

One of the reasons “Live!” connects is its intimacy. Abraham contemplates what it means to be black and gay in the context of hip hop culture by approaching the topic from two perspectives: his own and the fictional character of “Pinocchio” (a wooden puppet who wished to become a real boy). As the work progresses Abraham’s lifelong conflict between his vulnerable internal being and external expectations about masculinity become apparent — sometimes painfully so. But there is also humor, like a hilariously awkward hip hop instructional video.

The dancing, set to a variety of gritty electro-beats, is fierce, made even more electric by sequined costumes that generate contrails of shimmering light. Athletic hip-hop moves blend seamlessly with the clean angles of contemporary modern dance (Abraham danced for Bill T. Jones and David Dorfman). Brittanie Brown is a powerhouse, commanding the stage with her knowing eye. Rachelle Rafailedes channels her strength into a smooth glide. Chalvar Monteito and Maleek Washington play off one another deftly, especially in a duet contrasting how similar movement, done with different intention, can open up a fascinating conversation about identity, sexual orientation, stereotypes, and realness or personal authenticity.

Abraham employs a compact choreographic style filled with surprises — especially in the opening solo when he seems manipulated by unseen strings. Pulled all the way up onto his curled toes, he obeys for the moment, but this work is about cutting societal ties that bind. As the evening closes, Abraham approaches a microphone and voices traumatic memories — he’s a frightened and abused child, a beaten man — transforming himself into a deep-voiced tough guy who intones repeatedly “They held me down,” finishing quietly with, “They tried to get the best of me.” But they didn’t. Thankfully. 

Caroline Palmer writes about dance.