Reviewed by Adrienne Totino
For the choreographic duo, Jamie Murphy and Renee Smith, sound matters. Murphy deals with hearing loss in her left ear. And Smith’s grandfather has suffered from hearing damage since serving in the war. In the dance collective’s latest piece, See What I Hear, the two explored ways in which we are affected by sound or silence.
The evening-length work took place at the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater for two nights and one child friendly matinee. Seven dancers took to the stage with an array of musical accompaniment. Gordon Nunn composed the pre-recorded sound, and the dancers performed live, using their own voices.
Large sheets of paper created the set; some dangled from the rafters and some lay crumpled at the back of the stage. One long, thinner sheet created a pathway from the back right corner to the front left. The dancers moved in and around and on top of the sheets, which added another layer to the soundscape.
To begin, we heard rushing water and hushed but excited voices. The dancers entered gradually, a few from the audience. As a group, they performed a gestural movement phrase that mimicked each sound they made. For example, we heard the creak of a screen door opening while the dancers used a pulling arm motion. Without the beat of traditional music, the dancers had to tune into each other with heightened sensibility.
Later, Smith performed a solo while five dancers voiced the accompaniment using a deep but breathy “whoosh,” a high-pitched “boop boop boop,” and more. When they noisily crescendoed, Shana Simmons tried to shush them, then yelled “Stop it!” which put an end to the racket. Eventually that led to a duet between Murphy and Smith. They manipulated each other with simple but interesting partnering, a calm after the sound storm.
One particularly compelling section used video projection to show how different sounds affect different people. Abigail Adkins moved lightly and freely to the image of birds chirping. Laura Warnock used pointed gestures to accent a smart phone’s many tones. When presented with the image of war and repetitive gun shots, Lamar Williams and Brady Sanders were jolted into spastic motion. In a humorous moment, Smith had a frenetic solo of fist pumping and hair pulling to the sight and sound of a Jerry Springer show. Eventually the solos and sounds overlapped and the audience was bombarded with a barrage of noise that ended in screaming, laughter and a blackout.
The lights came back up slowly. Murphy, Smith and Sanders all moved quietly on top of the sheets of paper. Sanders performed a lovely solo; paper shifted underneath him as he appeared weightless on his feet.
Each dancer re-entered, making their way to the diagonal pathway across the stage. Their individual movement phrases, combined with unison and moments of contact, showed how communication through touch is important. To end, they frantically tore down the paper, ripped it, and kicked it in a final wave of sound before the lights went down.
In a day and age of buzzing smart phones, beeping texts and dinging email notifications, the show reminded us to broaden our senses and heighten our awareness. I personally walked out with an appreciation for the bustling sounds of East Liberty, thankful that the Murphy/Smith Dance Collective created art that demanded a level of mindfulness important for all of us.
Reviewed by Adrienne Totino
Gia Cacalano and her multimedia ensemble brought new work to the Wood Street Galleries this past weekend. The show was a continuation of a piece they presented last March called “The Frequency of Structure and Flow Part 2.”
The piece was created as a deliberately pared down version of the first. Or, what one of the dancers, Vincent Cacialano, described as “the skeleton.” Back in the spring, the ensemble collaborated with French artist, Miguel Chevalier, whose video installation covered the walls in bold and bright images.
This time, the performers were given a blank slate, as no visual artist was currently in residence. Cacalano explained that she wanted to let the space dictate the performance. The result was simple and quite stunning.
Five dancers performed, four from the regular group – Cacalano and her brother, Vincent, from the UK, Wendell Cooper from NYC, and Jil Stifel from Pittsburgh. Newcomer, Joanna Reed, also joined the ensemble for the first time.
Philadelphia musician, Michael McDermott, created the music, some recorded and some mixed live during the show. And Wendell Cooper created black and white video footage that was projected against the walls.
Because all of the movement was improvised, the show differed each night. However, the group did work within a structure of five or six sections to keep an overall shape and cohesiveness to the piece.
Like all of Cacalano’s work, the themes were loose, open to interpretation and focused largely on the movement connections between each dancer. The quality always has a meditative feel that is gracefully hypnotic. Although there were definite dynamic changes within the hour long show, the through-line felt like Zen stillness.
Perhaps that is because of each performers’ heightened awareness of each other that puts our smartphone culture to shame. Each dancer took their time exploring the space as if it had been the first time they stepped foot onto the gallery floor. The connection they had to one another was astonishing, considering their long distance working relationships.
The piece began with slow and purposeful walking that gradually expanded into small movement gestures and eventually larger phrases and powerful fast moving sections. Solos organically shifted into duets and group segments, each as interesting as the last.
A few moments stood out in particular. Cacalano and Stifel shared a duet of discovery that had a soothing sense of calm, and ended as they seemed to disappear while the sound and images faded.
Afterward, Cooper, Cacialano and Reed entered the space in near silence, simply standing for what felt like a few minutes. With incredible patience and a comfort level reserved for only the most seasoned performers, they allowed the audience to watch the movement of their breath and subtle shifting of weight and expression. The effect was completely engrossing.
That moment steadily built into a high energy group section with all five dancers weaving in and out of each other. The video images flashed bright while each performer managed to effortlessly stay composed despite the beautiful chaos.
The section ended with an exciting solo from Cooper who seemed to defy gravity with his light-footed, off-center style. He ended up lying center stage while Cacalano soloed around him. She eventually pulled him to standing, cradling Cooper in her arms and pulling him offstage in a completely gratifying ending.
The audience exhaled, relaxed into the same present state of mind as the performers, and waited silently for a bit before sharing their grateful applause.
Reviewed by Adrienne Totino
Sidra Bell is more than a choreographer; she is a philosopher who thinks deeply about life and art. In addition to her MFA in choreography, she holds a degree in history from Yale, lectures at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia and was an adjunct professor at Barnard College. Her smarts come through in the dances she makes, but not in a traditional or predictable way.
Bell first worked with the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater in 2009 for the newMoves festival. Since then she has been back several times, in various locations. Last week, she and her dancers rehearsed a brand new piece at the Alloy Studios that will premiere in the spring of 2014. To culminate the week-long residency, her performers showed the work-in-progress, “Garment,” on Friday.
The dance was mainly about identity, specifically how we shift identities. Audience seating was not only in the round, but a few chairs were situated right in the middle of the dance floor, to allow for more active viewing.
“The passivity of culture bothers me, and affects how I approach dance,” Bell says. The seating arrangement worked to fit her goal. The five dancers weaved in and around the chairs, approaching the audience directly, breaking our perceived personal space, and sometimes even touching us. “Touch is a strange phenomenon in our society,” she says, admitting that she considers dance making a place to break rules and “misbehave.”
Lucky for the company, our Pittsburgh dance community was up for it. One woman watched intently as a dancer crawled onto the empty chair next to her. Another seemed totally at ease when a dancer sat in her lap.
Most of the thirty-minute piece was that up close and personal. Much of it was a whirlwind of frenetic solo movement. And although there is truth in the saying, “everything in art has already been done,” there were some truly unique moments.
Dancer and Associate Artist Director of the company, Alexandra Johnson, had a wild solo that half resembled krumping with her free, hard-hitting and uninhibited style. Slower partnering phrases seemed to happen accidentally, the dancers molding into each other.
At one point, the performers manipulated one another in slow, hypnotic waves, adjusting body parts, clothing and even hair. Because there was so much to see, in every part of the studio (Bell likes to “split focus”), the one unison phrase was deeply satisfying.
It will be fascinating to see how the piece changes and grows from now until next spring. As always, the dance community will welcome Sidra Bell Dance New York back to Pittsburgh with an eager and open mind.
Reviewed by Adrienne Totino
Texture Contemporary Ballet is just two years young, and the company is already taking huge balletic steps. They have impressed the local dance scene, but have been noticed nationally as well. The Jacob’s Pillow Inside/Out Festival in Massachusetts will host the company as one of only a few groups from Pittsburgh.
In fact, hot off their latest performance at the New Hazlett Theater, the group is set to hit the world renowned festival this Friday.
“Perpetual Motion” ran for four consecutive shows over the weekend and featured four world premieres. The choreography was mostly split between Alan Obuzor (Artistic Director), Kelsey Bartman (Associate Artistic Director) and Gabriel Gaffney Smith (Dancer and Composer for the group).
In the first piece, “Mulberry Way,” more than ten dancers took the stage. In Part 1, the large group showed off their classical and contemporary skills, blurring the lines between genres.
Using a more melancholy sound by the rock band, Elbow, the following two sections slowed down, and had a more emotional component. In a lovely trio (Part 2), Amanda Summers moved through two doors and between two partners with beautiful technique and a relatable lack of clarity.
Part 3 featured a quartet of difficult partnering that was both inventive and emotive. To close the piece, the entire group entered for a playful section that ended on a deeply satisfying note.
“Wash” was the second dance on the program, a duet between Bartman and Smith and music by Bon Iver. The two moved smoothly in and out of the floor, alternating between quick and sharp to slow and sweeping dynamics. Their relationship had believable tension.
The third piece, “Broken Mirror,” was the highlight of the evening. With solid choreography reminiscent of the late great Merce Cunningham, the large cast used walking patterns to transition in and out of movement phrases. The dance had a slow build that crescendoed near the end and eventually subsided into the subtle partnering and solo movements of the beginning. In its simplicity, the audience was lulled into a mesmerized state.
The program ended on a high note with live music by Meeting of Important People. Although the piece, “MOIP,” went on a bit too long, the dancers’ energy was infectious. Some parts had humor that required acting and more jazzy technique. Some parts were downright contemporary, practically non-balletic, and proved the span of each performer’s experience.
Mostly, though, “MOIP” was a celebration of movement that ended with an elated fall to the floor and quick blackout. The dance was a testament to the energy of Texture and their staying power among the city’s finest dance companies.
Reviewed by Adrienne Totino
After a week of on and off rain that is typical for Pittsburgh’s annual Three Rivers Arts Festival, the sun shone brightly on Point State Park for Saturday’s activities.
As one of the final dance performances of the week, Continuum Dance Theater hit the Second Stage at Gateway Center to perform an excerpt of their latest work, “Objects of DESIRE.”
The piece will premiere in full at the New Hazlett this December, as part of the theater’s first ever “CSA: Artist Harvest” performance series. Through interviews with local community members, the company has gathered material about what we desire most in life to inspire their choreography.
For an audience of mostly festival patrons (with a few familiar dancer faces), Continuum showed a small section of their work, but also polled us on our own “American Dream,” using those answers to inform their movement.
To start, dancer Jess Marino lay buried in a heap of bras, eventually digging her way out and performing a solo amongst the sexy lingerie. The image brought to mind the unfortunate reality of women as sexual “objects.” Shana Simmons joined her and the two continued in a duet that took them right off the small stage and into the audience. Despite the concrete and lack of space, they managed to show off their partnering skills and even some floor work.
After the short excerpt, the audience was asked to write down something that they desired in the past, right now, and for the future. From the collection of responses, Marino and Simmons chose a few words and promised to incorporate them into a movement section they would perform near the end of their hour long set.
Before that, they gave the audience another chance to influence the show. In a game of improvisation, a few patrons were given small signs, each with one word written in large print – balance, pursuit, union, consistency, and others. During that section, audience members held up their signs, one at a time, and the dancers let that particular word affect their movement. For example, during “balance,” they teetered precariously from the edge of the stage, mostly dancing on one leg.
To finish the show as promised, Marino and Simmons revealed their chosen responses to the question of what we, as an audience, truly desire. They picked several meaningful answers: a family, wisdom, true happiness. And some humorous: girls, a bigger butt.
With those words in mind, they performed the same excerpt they began with, using our responses to change the quality of their movement. One moment resembled “wisdom,” when Simmons perched thoughtfully at the edge of the stage. And there was definitely a nod to “bigger butt,” when Marino shook her not-so-large backside center stage.
Among the visual art that fills the festival, it was nice to have live performance also included. To be a part of Continuum’s choreographic process was clearly fun for everyone who eagerly watched, nodded, and applauded as the dancers simultaneously educated and entertained us.
Check out the Continuum Dance Theater website for details of the full-length show this December: http://continuumdancetheater.blogspot.com/.
Reviewed by Adrienne Totino
In the dark quiet of late Saturday night, The Pillow Project welcomed an intimate crowd for their latest work, a study about distance and connection titled: ( ).
Director of the Project, Pearlann Porter, has always been curious about a relationship quality she refers to as “the space between us.” Her philosophical nature leads her to create work that is both inquisitive and passionate. Despite the lack of storyline that may confuse a non-regular audience member, everyone leaves feeling the emotion of the performers.
Although a distinct feeling comes through in all of Porter’s work, it is not because of any overdramatic performance style by the dancers. It’s actually the opposite. The movement is minimal, but the lighting, set-up and music always provide a meaningful tone.
This show opened with three couples, each wrapped in an embrace, under individual and very dim spotlights. Pedestrian and street sounds accompanied their subtle movement – a slight turn, a shift of the head and neck, a touch of the cheek. The closeness of each couple, both physically and emotionally, was palpable and quite sensual.
As the lights went down soft string music began, eventually revealing David Pellow playing live upright bass while two dancers took the center of the space. The couple maintained close contact at first, and seemed to be engaged in a gentle struggle of push and pull. Eventually they broke apart, but remained connected by a long band of fabric looped around their bodies.
The slow pace of the music picked up and the dancers responded with quick bursts of movement. Eventually the two freed themselves from the fabric connecting them, but ended up coming back together physically at the end of the section.
For the rest of the show, each couple took their turn entering and exiting the space, sometimes leaving their partner alone for a moment of solo material. Atmospheric music eventually pulsed a rhythmic beat, giving opportunity for the dancers to react with more prominence and weight.
Even when left alone, each performer maintained their connection to the group, sometimes mirroring a couple’s movement from afar, sometimes simply keeping eye contact. That was all part of Porter’s larger point – that despite the distance between us, that empty space remains full and alive.
Like much of Porter’s work, the show lulled the audience into a hypnotic dream-like state, and eased us back to reality slowly with stillness from the dancers, followed by a revisit to the sound that began the show, and finally a gentle lifting of the lights.
As always, Porter thanked the audience and invited everyone to stay for coffee and discussion. While the rest of the world is home on their “pillow,” Porter and her artists find inspiration in the late night musings of life and art. What happened Saturday night after the lights came up will likely be fodder for her next show.
Reviewed by Adrienne Totino
Executive Director of Pittsburgh’s Kelly-Strayhorn Theater, Janera Solomon, met Kate Watson-Wallace eight years ago at the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival. Solomon was impressed with her creative idea for a dance trilogy called “American Spaces,” where she would create work in a house, a car, and a store. The two developed a relationship, and since then, Watson-Wallace has performed in Pittsburgh several times.
This time, she and her company, Anonymous Bodies, spent a year in residency at the theater, working on her world premiere of “Mash Up Body,” an installation piece that ran this past weekend for an intimate crowd at the Alloy Studios.
The studio was transformed into a theater-in-the-round, with black curtains draped over the floor to ceiling windows, new lighting, and a full sound board for collaborator and musician, Christopher Sean Powell.
The hour long show took place in two “acts.” In the first half, partially inspired by a David Lynch film, the performers dressed in all black, casually entering and exiting the space from the audience seating. The shape of the phrasing did have a “Lynchian” feel, random like a dream sequence, at times baffling, but always entertaining.
In creating the piece, Watson-Wallace was interested in the “random ways in which we use our bodies to play people we are not.” The dancers did use traditional movement styles, but just as we would start to see a classic contemporary phrase, the performers would suddenly stop, pose in an unusual way, model a runway walk, or even talk to an audience member. Each performer showed us their many distinct qualities, sometimes spastic and sometimes quite vulnerable.
Mostly, the work was humorous. In one section, Devynn Emory spoke into a microphone, directing the other dancers in random tasks – breathing in and out; lifting one another; and lying down to snuggle. The audience even joined in for the “tonal work,” poking fun at the vocal spiritual practice.
The second half was mostly improvised, with the idea of “mashing up” or wrecking the first half. Cori Olinghouse entered the space in loud pink and purple clothing, an orange chair slung over her shoulder before she threw it violently to the floor. The rest of the cast entered in the same bright colors, trashing the space with cords, clothing and more chairs.
One hilarious moment came near the end when Marjani Forte mimicked Watson-Wallace in a classic question and answer forum that often follows dance performances. “Thank you for having us…Yes, I was interested in having a variety of bodies on stage…Thank you so much to the Kelly-Strayhorn.”
The music grew louder over Forte’s voice on the microphone, and suddenly the entire cast was dancing, party-style, to Janet Jackson’s “All For You.”
If it all sounds like sixty minutes of random absurdity, I assure you it wasn’t. In fact, it didn’t go on quite long enough, and Watson-Wallace could have been on stage much more often.
Of Watson-Wallace’s work, Solomon said it best: “Even in the moments when she pushes her audience, she’s not simply toying…she’s inviting us into her world and asking us to consider seeing her (and ourselves) differently. I appreciate that opportunity.”
The audience clearly appreciated the opportunity as well, showering the performers with excited applause. Although we may have been unsure of what we had just witnessed, it somehow resonated with us deeply. And that kind of resonance, to me, equals success.
Reviewed by Adrienne Totino
With all the American contemporary dance happening in Pittsburgh lately, New Zealand company, Black Grace, came as a welcome surprise Saturday night.
Founding Artistic Director and Choreographer, Neil Ieremia, was born and raised in New Zealand, but attributes his signature style to his Samoan heritage. Growing up, singing and dancing were part of his traditional culture.
The company was formed in 1995, and for years was comprised of all men. When the original dancers’ careers came to a close, Ieremia found it difficult to find many new male dancers. He joked that in New Zealand, men are usually “growing beards and playing rugby.” Admittedly, I haven’t seen a rugby match since college, but the athletic style of Black Grace seemed equally, if not more, physically taxing than the extremely vigorous sport.
Ieremia asserts that the women he added to the company bring elegant lines to the choreography. But the men were equally impressive in that area. The entire company had an incredible athleticism that barely slowed during the two hour show. To develop the speed and stamina necessary to perform the work, the dancers cross-train, running hills and even wrestling to stay in shape.
The first half, called “Pati Pati,” was influenced by traditional Samoan dances that use body slapping and seated motifs. To the beat of a drum, the dancers pounded the floor, clapped their hands, and stomped their feet in complicated rhythms.
A particularly intricate section that used snapping and chanting came from an old piece about children’s hand games. The dancers had precision and power unlike anything I’ve ever seen. In repetitive jumps and falls to the floor, the energy didn’t waiver even once.
The second half began in silence, with a slower rhythm and partnering sequences using smaller groups of dancers. One visually beautiful section used a large light blue cloth. The dancers weaved in and around it, wrapped themselves inside of it, and lifted one another over top of it. Eventually, they held the cloth still, while images of varying landscapes were projected onto it. To the sounds of nature, scenes of mountains, oceans and seasons changing gave a break from the more vigorous movement.
Act 2 included more contemporary material, proving Ieremia’s talent in multiple genres. The tempo varied, and his use of space expanded from large group unison to interesting duets and trios. Although the program was a touch too long, the audience rose to their feet at the end, in awe of the uniqueness and dynamism that is distinctly Black Grace.
Reviewed by Adrienne Totino
Staycee Pearl’s latest evening length work, “…on being…” began as an exploration of post-blackness in America, a concept even Pearl had trouble defining because of its broad meaning.
She and her company spent months researching black art, music, literature, dance and more. While they gained insight and inspiration, none of them could come up with a singular definition of black culture in the 21st century. As one dancer, Mariana Batista, said, “I have many more questions now than when we started.”
In modern dance, there certainly isn’t a clear characterization of black movement. Established African-American choreographers of today have their own signature styles, from Camille A. Brown’s rhythm to Kyle Abraham’s intricacy, to Sidra Bell’s theatricality.
Pearl’s choices usually bring a mix of past and present. Within a phrase of her movement, one may see a big, technical leap reminiscent of her time at the Alvin Ailey school. And in the next second, her dancers may sink to the floor with the release styles more prevalent today.
“…on being…” suited the cast, all of whom excel at multiple genres. But what they brought to the stage in terms of self-exploration was even more exciting. Her dancers realized they could not define themselves by their race, when so much factored into their artistic experience. Gender played a role in their work, as did sexuality.
The result was a non-narrative piece focused on the individuality of the dancers. Although the five of them come from varying life experiences, they were strong as a unit. Perhaps that was the point. “We are all very round, whole people,” Jessica Marino wisely noted.
Herman Pearl, Staycee’s husband and collaborator, mixed music that ranged from recognizable soul to hypnotic waves of atmospheric sound. Each dancer had plenty of solo moments wrapped around duets, trios and a few sections featuring all five of them.
One particularly memorable duet was between Seth Grier and Ethan Gwynn. To a spliced version of “Natural Woman,” the two moved simplistically, allowing the audience to ponder notions of sexuality and gender without hitting us over the head with any overt message.
The quiet and lovely Jasmine Hearn also had some beautiful moments, many quite theatrical. She seemed to step outside her comfort zone, showing growth in her performance ability.
Jessica Marino and Mariana Batista were equally breathtaking, most notably in a duet of unique floor phrasing.
The most interesting part of the evening came when Internet persona, Hennessy Youngman, talked (via video footage) about how to be a “successful black artist.” He sarcastically instructed his audience to fall back on slavery as something white people are likely interested in. His humor was a reminder of cultural stereotypes still present in our day and age.
Pearl’s piece worked because there was no direct message. The choreography explored themes that she couldn’t, and may never, define. Because she was comfortable with that, the audience was, too.
Reviewed by Adrienne Totino
There’s just something about Pearlann Porter. Her company, The Pillow Project, presents work unlike anything else on the Pittsburgh dance scene. Her latest evening length show was the product of a 16 year work in progress. The result was hypnotic.
“Backlit in a Whole New D” premiered this past weekend, and was set to music that captured Porter’s attention back in 1996. It might be difficult to imagine five contemporary dancers improvising to a punk rap group. But The Beastie Boys’ lesser known instrumental album, “The In Sound from Way Out,” feels more jazz and funk than hip-hop.
After several attempts at choreographed material, Porter realized that the music called for improvisation. By that time, her style of “free jazz” had solidified and she had a host of dancers perfect for the job. Rather than moving to the music, she teaches her dancers to play the music with their bodies. This doesn’t come easily for all trained artists. Porter says it requires a certain “honesty.”
What adds a unique dimension to Porter’s work is the “luminography” design by collaborating artist, Mike Cooper. Cooper uses a camera and several projectors to light the dancers in unusual ways, often creating stunning visual effects. His work in this show was the most complex I had seen.
Like most of the performances that take place at The Space Upstairs (the Pillow’s home), the vibe was more communal than concert dance. The couches, chairs and high top tables gave the space an intimate bar feel. In fact, martinis were served after the show.
Audience members snuggled in with their complimentary 3D glasses, and watched as the company casually entered from various parts of the large room. Under low light, the movement began with what felt like good old fashioned groovin’. Immediately evident was just how much the music fed the dancers’ souls.
What was even more impressive was how each performer connected with the lighting. Depending on where they landed a phrase of movement, one dancer’s hand lit up in red, while another’s face was bathed in blue.
But that wasn’t even half of it. Eventually, the images of the dancers were projected onto the back wall, and then multiplied. The effect was like watching the dance through a kaleidoscope. Black and white images came in waves, on and off the wall. The 3D glasses, which we were instructed to wear when we pleased, gave it a colorful, even hallucinogenic look.
The dancers seemed to be conversing among themselves through movement that ranged from shadow boxing to playful taunting to flat out jamming to the contagious beat. One stunning and tribal moment came when they all clumped together and pounded the floor, shouting in ecstasy.
Each individual grabbed the audience’s attention in different ways. The young Grant Haralson rolled up his shirtsleeves and performed a short solo that showed off his technique and theatrics. Riva Strauss simply strutted forward and slipped off her jacket, and the crowd was sucked in. And, as far as I’m concerned, Taylor Knight could improvise for hours to the sound of nothing, and it would be impossible to look away. Near the end of the show, he improvised with a cigarette, and somehow made smoking look like an art form.
“Backlit in a Whole New D” was one of The Pillow Project’s most innovative works to date. I’m looking forward to what Porter dreams up next.
Reviewed by Adrienne Totino
Philadelphia based dance company, IdiosynCrazy, shook up the local contemporary dance scene this past weekend in their hilarious and haunting new work, “Private Places.”
Audience members gathered in the lobby of the Alloy Studios, much like travelers huddled around the entrance gate to an airplane. The piece was inspired by just that – the inside of an airline cabin. Not only was Artistic Director, Jumatatu Poe, interested in people who work in tight, enclosed spaces, but also how flight attendants in particular are trained in “emotional management.”
We’ve all heard stories of passengers losing their cool; maybe we’ve even witnessed it. And we’ve seen the calm, but strange smiles on the faces of the flight attendants taught to deal with such outbursts. Think of the Saturday Night Live airline skit from the early 90’s – David Spade and Helen Hunt as disgruntled attendants, rushing passengers out with a snarky “Bye-Bye.”
The eight performers of IdiosynCrazy took that idea about one hundred steps further, deeply investigating human relationships and what might happen if psychological madness ensued during a regular commercial flight.
Each audience member was assigned a letter – A, B, C or D – which indicated our seating during the performance. Three dancers greeted us in the lobby, with the kind of insincere smiles that indicate something boiling underneath. One group at a time, they ushered us to our seats.
The third floor studio was transformed into an airline cabin. A long, rectangular space was enclosed by large plastic sheets. Movable chairs were lined up in four rows. Dancers sat us individually, with a blank stare that sometimes lingered a bit too long. We waited and watched, as others were greeted and sat in the same peculiar manner.
Right away, the neuroses of the performers developed. In a robotic tone, three dancers circled each other maniacally, repeating the phrase “Do you need anything from me?” Others moved about as if drugged, making strange sounds one would imagine hearing in the hallways of a mental institution. Another trio danced a slow unison phrase of overly sexual movement. Poe was inspired by a dance form called J-Setting, a club culture that pushes boundaries of masculinity and femininity, and is popular in the gay community.
All of this happened in the small aisle space in between seating, to the lulling tic-tock sound of a metronome. Dancers bullied audience members, asking them to get up and move, and invading their personal space. Somehow it was funny, and the group of us were willing to go along for the ride.
As the piece continued, the dancers appeared to be breaking down emotionally, moaning, crying and shouting. The physical and sexual barriers continued to fall away. Costumes came off, revealing bare breasts and bottoms. And in an escalation of fury, the entire cast came together and stripped completely.
The revelation was slow enough that we didn’t feel like voyeurs. Perhaps it was because the disorder was well underway when we arrived. We were invited into it. By the end, we certainly had more questions than answers. But for reasons I’m not even sure of, the whole thing made sense. Maybe in our own “private places,” we can relate to the chaos in this crazy world.
Reviewed by Adrienne Totino
“There is something about when you are soaked by a heavy rain. You give in…realize that sunshine is not coming. There is an empowerment that comes with it. I think of passion that way,” says dancer and choreographer, Luke Murphy.
The Ireland native and Point Park graduate brought his latest duet, Drenched, to the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater this past weekend, for its US premiere. Murphy showed snippets of the piece as part of the East Liberty Live Series over the summer, leaving audience members intrigued and excited for the full length version.
The hour-long finished product did not disappoint. Murphy and his dancing partner, Carlye Eckert, brought their quiet passion to the stage in an exploration of romance. The aim of the piece was to deconstruct idealistic notions of romantic relationships portrayed by the media, arts and literature.
Sometimes humorous and other times beautifully realistic, Murphy and Eckert revealed how passion can, indeed, feel like being “drenched” by a downpour.
The piece opened with a more conventional image of a romantic partnership, an embrace. The two dancers swayed slowly center stage as the lights rose gently, then fell not long after.
A solo by Eckert led into a very funny section where Murphy wrote love letters to a woman named Agnes, as Sinead O’Connor’s Nothing Compares to You blared over the speakers. What began as amorous affection, ended in name calling and beer drinking when Murphy realized that Agnes didn’t feel the same way.
Another hilarious part came later in the evening when popular movie scenes were projected onto a large screen. When Rose and Jack, main characters from Titanic, moved into the famous “flying” scene, Murphy and Eckert acted the parts while a robotic voice gave them stage directions – Take two steps forward; close eyes; tilt head; hands on waist. The section used incredible wit to expose the insincerity of the scene.
To break up the moments of dry humor, the dancers used effortless partnering, and impressive movement phrases to convey the more genuine aspects of a relationship. Two of those sections stood out.
The first came after a scene from Gone with the Wind, when Clark Gable spoke the line, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” Murphy and Eckert moved through a mostly disconnected duet, as rose petals fell from the rafters over their bodies. An honest sense of letting go came to mind.
The second was near the end of the show, when the dancers performed a more intense section, representative of an argument. Devoid of melodrama, the two pushed and pulled against each other, using quick and bound energy to depict an emotional struggle. The effect was authentic, and quite moving.
To close, Murphy cleverly brought back the image from the opening, this time with a more realistic version of what it means to be in a partnership. In what appeared to be a balancing act, the two leaned against one another, working to stay afloat despite the water that had soaked them.
Preview by Adrienne Totino
“No matter how much we seem to annihilate ourselves, there is always a rebirth,” says Pearlann Porter, Artistic Director of the Pillow Project. Her latest work is, in fact, a revival. The piece, “Twenty Eighty-Four,” was originally created in 2008, but will premiere in its newest incarnation for six more shows this week.
The evening length work was originally inspired by Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, and Orwell’s1984. Porter describes the main theme of the show as “the disconnected feeling we have about our place in this very isolating, yet demanding time….the panicky need to embrace this information age, knowing that we might lose our sense of real interaction.”
There are two main characters in the cast of seven. Riva Strauss plays the part of the information obsessed, overcome with the fear of getting left behind and not knowing what is going on in the world. Zek Stewart plays the opposite role, detaching himself from the age of information, resigned to the fact that he cannot change the world we live in. But despite their differing points of view, they find themselves in the exact same place – isolated, and feeling numb.
Although the piece is quite dark, it doesn’t come without Porter’s optimistic side, inspired by the science and philosophy of Carl Sagan. “To grow, as a whole, you need to fall,” Porter says. “Maybe we need to go down this road, to go off a cliff together, then step backwards and try it all again.”
As always, Porter has created a highly elaborate set for the performance. At her Point Breeze location, The Space Upstairs, huge walls create a semicircular stage, with the audience placed in two corners. The walls are covered from floor to ceiling with propaganda designed by local artist, Jordan Bush. Decaying papers are scattered all over the floor.
The look feels very “menacing and archaic,” says Porter. There are a mountain of old televisions in one corner, all obsolete. The dancers’ clothing is worn out and unwashed, to convey the sense of a tired and battered humanity.
Although the movement will be improvised, the piece was meticulously directed by Porter, perhaps her most technical work to date. In collaboration with lighting designer Mike Cooper, Porter has created moments where the entire space is lit, and times when the audience can only see a small part of a performer. News channels blare on large screens, while live tweeting occurs throughout.
Porter is highly regarded in Pittsburgh for creating stunning visual landscapes through technology. And despite the strong opinion in her work, she finds a way to free herself from the self-absorption sometimes found in politically charged art. As a deep and critical thinker, she isn’t capable of righteousness.
Of the directorial process, she says, “I ask myself three questions – is the work simple, clear, and open? By simplifying the feel, it allows everyone to contribute their own perspective. I think that’s the role of the artist. We’re supposed to speak of our time, but transcend the specifics of words.”
Where? The Space Upstairs – 214 N. Lexington Street in Point Breeze, Pittsburgh.
When? October 22, 24, 25, 26, 27 & 28. Doors open at 8:00 p.m. The show begins precisely at 8:30. Latecomers will not be allowed entrance.
How much? $15 general admission, or $10 for current students.
*Enter the code “STUDENT” and present your current student ID at the door for the discount.____________
Reviewed by Adrienne Totino
The Kelly-Strayhorn Theater welcomed Camille A. Brown back to the Pittsburgh stage for the world premiere of her latest work, “Mr. TOL E. RAncE.” Brown says her relationship with the theater happened “very organically,” when she first performed a solo in 2009 for the newMoves Contemporary Dance Festival. This past Friday and Saturday night, Brown brought her entire company to perform.
When Brown originally set out to create a piece about the first blacks on Broadway, one of her board members directed her to a book by Mel Watkins called On the Real Side: A History of African American Comedy from Slavery to Chris Rock. She immediately tore through the material she needed, but came back to the book later, curious about what she’d missed. That, in turn, led her to more research, and ultimately broadened her theme to the history of African American humor.
The show was, in fact, humorous. Brown is known for her love of theater. She knew when she began choreographing that the piece called for theatrical comedy. Sprinkled in, though, were definite moments of poignancy, thought-provoking and heartfelt.
Act One opened with live piano by company collaborator, Scott Patterson. The dancers entered gradually, wearing gray pants and tops, suspenders and matching caps, costumes that resembled old minstrel show clothing. Their movement was slow, suspended, and darkly lit, to not compete with the musical performance.
As the sound suddenly crescendoed, so did the dance. In fast, furious movement, inspired by the tap genre, all seven dancers performed frenetic phrases of intricate, rhythmic steps. Most impressive was that the piano eventually quieted; the dancers didn’t follow any beat, but remained in unison by listening to the sound of their breath and the stomp of their feet. The section was a nod to famous black duos, like the Nicholas Brothers.
The piece slowed down as video projection took us through the years of black television sitcoms: Diff’rent Strokes, Good Times, The Cosby Show, Bernie Mac, and the classic Fresh Prince of Bel Air. The dancers hilariously shouted the lyrics to the theme song of the latter, and parodied the moves of that time with a quite perfected “running man.”
Act Two began with a different feeling. What started as an amusing disagreement between two dancers turned into an all out fight between the entire group. The scene set up a section about stereotypes in the black culture. The company mimicked an “awards ceremony,” wearing white gloves that were common in blackface shows, when white men mocked African Americans in offensive acts of racism.
One of Brown’s goals was to not only give an historical context, but to also show how current media and entertainment biases still exist. After some satirical booty shaking, crotch grabbing and ass smacking, the dancers came to an abrupt and powerful stop, leaving one male performer on the stage as the lights dimmed. The deliberate, yet simple gestures of the dancer were projected on the back curtain as the solo unfolded. The image had a reflective quality, as if he were looking into the future at himself, from a different time. Would his former self be pleased with society’s forward progress? Or saddened by old conventions still fixed?
The curtain eventually lowered, revealing the rest of the company in shadow, emerging slowly from the back as Erykah Badu’s “On & On” played in spurts. The movement of the group depicted struggle as they advanced. Six dancers fell to the ground, leaving Brown and Patterson to close the show.
Patterson played the simple melody of “What a Wonderful World,” providing just the right amount of hope, with a sense of realism, to end. Brown moved clearly and unhurriedly as the audience held their breath. She removed her white gloves, and the lights faded.
Reviewed by Adrienne Totino
Friday night at the Kelly Strayhorn Theater (KST) came as a wonderful and relieving surprise. It had been a long time since I’d seen anyone under twenty take the dance stage. In the day and age of Dance Moms and So You Think You Can Dance, watching children and teens perform has become an all and out spectacle – mostly tricks and sexy outfits, without depth or artistry.
Thankfully, the pageant feel was non-existent in East Liberty over the weekend. YouthMoves, a program the KST began four years ago, brought to the stage five young companies from the Pittsburgh area, in an effort to give young dancers a professional performance opportunity.
To open the show, resident choreographer of the theater, Staycee Pearl, presented her pre-professional company, SPdp2. The group performed three short pieces, all in the contemporary style, with Pearl’s signature, but very subtle, infusion of hip-hop. Each dancer had their moment of solo material, and displayed impressive technical integration that often comes much later in a dancer’s career. The movement ranged from slow and deliberate, to more high energy, and included simple partnering and interesting gestures.
Elena’s Dancers Elite, a company located in North Huntingdon, PA, performed twice on the program. The group studies dance styles more typical of kids – tap, jazz, hip-hop, and ballet. Although competition companies oftentimes emphasize performance over technique, these young girls had both. Their first work was a high energy, jazzy routine without a “showboat” feel. The second was more lyrical, sweet without the sugar coating.
Visionary Dance Academy also presented two works. Their studio emphasizes technique, while allowing each student to recognize his/her own unique style. That individualism showed. In brightly colored costumes, this large group excited the audience with hip-hop, contemporary and African movement. The kids’ lively confidence imbued the theater, and their message of positivity uplifted everyone in attendance.
The second half of the show brought two distinctive styles, ballet and musical theater dance, to round out the program.
Mid-Atlantic Contemporary Ballet Company featured a trio of young girls. Their technical mastery was evident from the moment they began. Bathed in deep red lighting, they effortlessly moved from classically long lines, accentuated by pointe shoes, to more modern parallel legs and flexed feet. The piece was dramatic, solemn but not glum. The dancers were sophisticated performers without any of the shyness that comes with being onstage at that age.
To close the show, Alumni Theater Company wowed the audience with scenes from the hit musical, Rent. The troupe had just performed the full show at the New Hazlett Theater a week earlier. While the bigger group dance scenes were impressive, it was hard to ignore the talent of the three featured singers. The scenes “Out Tonight,” and “Tango: Maureen” were particularly animated. The performers proved that the lost art of singing and dancing simultaneously is still possible.
The energy in the audience left the theater buzzing with enthusiasm. A dance party broke out on the stage. A new wave of young dancers received their congratulations. And another successful dance event at the Kelly-Strayhorn came to an upbeat end.
Reviewed by Adrienne Totino
“Second Saturday” at the Pillow Project keeps getting better and better. To call it a “happening,” rather than a performance or show, is right on target. Who else in the city combines the most happening art, dance, music and culture, and turns it into something that feels like the hottest underground club in town? Pearlann Porter, that’s who.
The company’s Point Breeze hub, “The Space Upstairs,” was jam packed Saturday night. Not surprising, as they are typically full for the regular monthly event. The theme this time, “The Speak Eazy,” featured sounds of the 1920s to the 1950s by musical guest and host, Vie Boheme.
Boheme and her band kicked off the evening by explaining the subject matter they considered before putting the show together. Prohibition, public drunkenness, and “the threat of the woman’s mind” all made the list. To go along with the topic, Porter announced that there would be a secret password to receive the “bathtub gin” after 10 p.m. The stage was set.
“Can I have some movement?” Boheme ad libbed as her band began a smooth swing. Audience members lounged throughout the space on vintage couches, chairs, high tops and floor pillows, waiting for the first dancer. “I said. Can I have some movement? Boheme asked again.
As usual, the dancers seemed to appear out of nowhere, like they walked in off the street and decided they had to express themselves through movement that instant. All of the dance was performed in Porter’s signature style of “jazzing the music,” a technique she created that uses improvisation to physically express sound.
This show happened to coincide with the Pillow’s Summer Intensive Study Program, which meant that Porter’s students had the opportunity to perform alongside professionals. One by one, they made their way to the open space, reserved for artists, and let the keyboard, bass, drums and horns infuse their bodies with early jazz. Boheme, also a dancer, interacted with each performer, singing to them in acknowledgement.
In between band sets, DJ Jay Malls provided sounds of that period on original 78 records. The quintessential scratchy sound accompanied classics like “Come Rain or Come Shine.” Boheme encouraged people to mingle, enjoy a drink at the bar, or even a hot dog from the Franktuary truck parked outside.
To add to the entertainment, Jordan Bush created spontaneous drawings throughout the space. Special guest, Alaina Dopico, read her poetry while a duet of dance emerged. And new “fellow” of the Pillow Project, Riva Strauss performed part of a solo to premiere in full this fall. She described the piece as “an awakening…coming to a conscious understanding.” Dressed in a long, blue, fitted gown, she danced on a gold structure, raised from the ground. Although her face was masked, the intensity and articulation of her body communicated the emotion clearly.
It is hard to say when the evening ended. Porter’s functions can go on well into the early morning hours, and only the most passionate last that long. I was asleep before the stroke of midnight, filled up with the thriving art of Pittsburgh’s unconventional, and the hope that the secret of “Second Saturday” makes its way, in loud whispers, around the city.
Reviewed by Adrienne Totino
The Art and Style Dance Studio might be tucked away from the bustle of Pittsburgh’s South Side, but inside the nondescript building on Jane Street is a sense of liveliness unique to ballroom dance. Terry and Rozana Sweeney, the owners, hold classes and performances in latin and ballroom styles, for students of all ages and levels.
The space lends itself brilliantly to performance and competition. A sprawling wood floor provides plenty of room for the sweeping rise and fall of a waltz. The tall ceiling and round balcony compliment the regal nature of a fox trot. Even a sizzling salsa grabs the attention of the audience, seated up close and personal.
Friday marked the studio’s ninth annual showcase, where students competed with their partners in the style of their choice. The Sweeney’s choreographed each number, then coached the couples in technique, style and performance for a month prior.
Said Rozana Sweeney, “Compared to the competition we run every March for competitors from all over the country, this event is a more personal one for our students.”
The evening featured fourteen routines in an array of styles ranging from cha-cha to jive. Dancers competed as “amateur adults,” or “juniors.” Audience members were responsible for choosing the winners, via voting cards.
A group number opened the show. Two couples danced the bolero, a romantic and slower tempo latin dance. The women wore black flowing dresses with multicolored scarves at their waists and flowers in their hair. They rocked and swayed in their partners’ arms to the gentle lilt of the music.
In a more animated routine, dancers Mike MacConnel and Gena Melago danced a jive. MacConnel, an energetic performer, played the part of the quintessential nerd. The two brought sass and laughter to the audience.
Maria Chaderina and Adam Glatz danced a cha-cha, wowing the crowd with their fluid limbs and sultry hip undulations. Originally from Russia, Chaderina recently received her Ph.D in Finance from Carnegie Mellon University. She is clearly talented in many ways.
The crowd pleasers of the evening were seven-year-old Christopher Paluselli and nine-year-old Alyse Fay. The juniors danced a paso doble, and exhibited all the intensity and sharpness the style demands. Although they showed well practiced technique, their cuteness gave them an edge.
The overall winners of the evening were Becky Stern and Mike MacConnel. Their tango told the story of one woman’s fantasy. MacConnel played the part of a flirtatious restaurant waiter, while Stern was a customer bored with her date. They danced to “La Cumparsita,” a famous and instantly recognizable tango. In using both the ballroom and Argentine style of the dance, the two traveled through the space with drama, interspersing moments of close hold and articulate foot patterns. Their theatrical skill, in addition to the crisp clarity of their bodies, won them the show.
For anyone with a desire to cultivate their own inner ballroom dancer, check out Art and Style Studio. The Sweeney’s continue to teach students, regardless of their level, how to move with grace and flair. Each performer floated through the evening with poise and confidence.
Reviewed by Adrienne Totino
Modern dance devotees flooded The Kelly-Strayhorn Theater over the weekend for the 4th annual newMoves Contemporary Dance Festival. The three day long celebration brought sixteen choreographers and over 40 dancers to the bustling East Liberty sprawl.
Program B took place on Friday, and hosted a range of national and international performers and companies from Pittsburgh, NYC, Philadelphia and, for the first time, Budapest, Hungary.
The evening felt significantly more bold than in previous years, with work that ranged from technical to theatrical and in some cases, an impressive blend of both. Each piece fit into the festival’s unexpected theme of “identity.” Exploration of one’s individuality seemed fresh on the minds of the young dancers and choreographers involved.
The show opened with the August Wilson Center Dance Ensemble from right here in Pittsburgh. The company performed “TORQUE,” choreographed by Point Park professor, Kiesha Lalama.
To the sounds of traditional Irish and West African rhythms infused with electronic beats, the piece investigated how we try to escape the “daily grind.” Through a combination of slow, snaky undulations, and quick, fierce gestures, the company once again displayed their physical prowess. The tight unison of their movement proved the likeness of each dancer, despite their physical differences.
From Philadelphia came IdiosynCrazy Productions and Anonymous Bodies, two different duets that shared an edgy dance theater style.
IdiosynCrazy explored the theme of “sameness” in their work, “Plastic City.” The duo wondered how they might appear more similar despite their different anatomies, skin colors and movement habits. They succeeded in their quirky but seamless floor work and the unpredictable humor interspersed.
Anonymous Bodies presented a piece that used mostly dramatic elements to communicate their themes – a static TV screen, laptop computer, American flags and silver wigs that concealed the two dancers’ faces. They examined “theories of identity” with repetitive and often pedestrian movement mingled with moments of striking stillness.
Marjani Forte, of NYC, performed a solo about self-acceptance entitled “EGO.” Through the study of fear, change, growth and insecurity, Forte unearthed a wide range of movement dynamics, presenting herself as complex yet well-rounded and able to accept herself fully.
All the way from Hungary, in their first U.S. tour, Bloom! Dance Collective closed the show with their award winning full length dance, “CITY.” The company described the piece as a “political pamphlet entwined with movement,” and dealt with issues of belonging versus discrimination in urban life.
In light of the recent and frustrating immigration debates, the company managed to present the topic with hilarious mockery that had the audience doubled over with laughter. Perhaps it was the full frontal nudity right from the start. Body parts flipped and flopped as the dancers stood confidently front and center, bouncing to circus music that set the stage for satire.
The piece did take a more serious tone at times, revealing the intelligence of the choreographers. A robotic voice, similar to an automated and unwanted telemarketer, repeatedly shamed one dancer who only wanted to be part of the group. The voice taunted – “Nobody wants you here,” “Put your clothes on,” and “You look like a criminal.” Although the work was largely theatrical, the movement quality was sweeping, with an ebb and flow that not only carried the piece, but held it together in a clean and clear way.
The success of the closing dance in particular raised the standard for newMoves, and brought attention to what will continue to “bloom” for the festival’s future.
Reviewed by Adrienne Totino
It might be an oxymoron to say that Gia Cacalano is both a throwback and an innovator, quietly claiming her place on the Pittsburgh dance scene. But part of me was transported to Greenwich Village circa 1963 Saturday night, where the Judson Dance Theater met in rejection of modern dance restrictions of the time.
“BLINK,” a multimedia dance happening was performed at the Wood Street Galleries downtown and also brought a glimpse into the future. Gia T. Presents, Cacalano’s ensemble, performed in and around the gallery’s latest installation. “In Transit” largely used technology to transform the space with unusual light projection against the stark white floor and walls.
At Judson there weren’t any MacBooks involved, but the live atmospheric sound of Cacalano’s five musicians evoked a John Cage feel with their electronic beats, non-traditional instruments and interspersed moments of silence.
Both the music and the dance were entirely improvised. Although two of the dancers came in from out of town, only rehearsing with the ensemble for a few days, the cast came together brilliantly.
One highlight transpired when Vincent Cacialano (from Amsterdam and England), and Wendell Cooper (from New York) engaged in a powerful duet. The two men exploded through the space with the athleticism of a breakdancer and grace of a ballerina. Difficult to imagine? Picture them diving into the floor, pressing into handstands and leaping through the space without bravado or gimmicky tricks.
Ms. Cacalano and female counterpart, Jil Stifel, were equally mesmerizing. With intricate floor work and quick moments of partnering, the two sensed each other with the highly tuned focus of seasoned improvisors. Shadows raced across the ceiling like storm clouds over a black sky. Text and street sound layered the musical blend of percussion, horns and vibes.
When the four dancers came together, they seemed to be of the same body. Bathed in white, blue and fluroescent green light from the installation, they shared a whimsical, otherwordly quality. Like abstract visual art, the piece was open to the interpretation of each audience member. I saw elements of exploration and awakening in the rise and fall of their bodies and fluidity of their transitions.
Pittsburgh dancer, or “moving installation,” Allie Greene, bookended the evening by introducing the dancers and acknowledging their end. Costumed in bubble wrap, the silvery glow gave her a futuristic and omniscient feel.
“BLINK” succeeded in many ways. Cacalano chose an ensemble with equal skill and matching style, while managing to showcase each dancer’s individuality. The show had a performative quality that is oftentimes missing in improvisation. The ensemble proved that to execute dance spontaneously at a professional level, one’s skills and technique must be honed.
As an accomplished performer with a vintage feel, Cacalano brought to mind a venerable era in modern dance, with the promise to advance the future of this lesser known style.