On Stage: Mini Pillow

June 12, 2010

It was a quote that I never thought I would hear as a dance writer.

“I wanted to create a piece that would behave like quantum physics,” said Pearlann Porter of her latest Pillow Project event, titled “Micrography,” and set to unfold in bite-sized pieces at The Space Upstairs.

That means that she will be addressing some new dance properties, like existing in two places at once. Or chaos. Randomness. “There’s no order; there’s no predictability,” she mused. “How can you make a piece that can’t be determined or predicted? It’s very difficult.”

The process began with a crash course in quantum physics, the study of the fundamental properties of matter-like substances, at Carnegie Mellon University. There three dancers sat across the table from scientists like Dr. George Klein and tried to find a middle ground.

Once they got past daunting topics concerning forces and fields, the scientists writing furiously on chalkboards and the dancers responding with their notebooks, Pearlann found a commonality. “Dance is abstract movement — it’s all we do,” she said. “And it’s actually quite easy to do movement on a small scale.”

Maybe for Pearlann, who could be considered quite diminutive herself, despite a larger-than-life personality. But she’s thinking of vibrations that cannot easily be seen or determined. Or a flail. Or a muscle twitch that’s more random and spastic. “It’s actually a place to go — it makes sense for us.”

But will the audience get it?

“If you wanted to view it from that scientific place, then you could see what we’re trying to go for,” Pearlann explained. “But if you were not a fan of science, you could still view it as this very interesting, unexpected movement.”

Her reasoning is “since we view it from a scientific place, it’s automatically going to create original movement. While it definitely has this science spin to it, it will test your idea of how small you can get in scope. Sound-wise. Movement-wise.”

“We try to play around with the idea of small and not just be small.”


On Stage: Science Begets Art

April 23, 2010

Pearlann Porter was in a scientific mood for the opening of her Second Saturday series, “Jazz on the Pale Blue Dot,” but she was oddly low-tech in her presentation. There were her wall-length blackboard, covered with complex equations (Maxwell’s, Lorentz, Drake) and a couple of overhead projectors, sometimes used to create slowly-morphing galaxies. The dancers even passed notes on movable wires strung overhead.

You might say school was in.

The real fascination is always about what is inside Pearlann’s mind anyhow — just read her discourse of jazz in a corner of the Space Upstairs the next time you attend an event there above Construction Junction. For this one, she also apparently tapped some academics to conceptualize this chapter of her always-thoughtful artistic journey.

I didn’t want to say dance journey, although Pearlann is first and foremost a choreographer, because her motion is part of a larger picture in an extremely fertile mind. At times though, the subject matter seemed distant, the connections almost forced.

The jazz, more abstract, lay like a nebula in the room. Peter Ahn, trumpet, Jason Rafalak, bass and guitar and Gordon Nunn, percussionist, were widely separated in different areas of the room. They deliberately entered and exited each piece with little fanfare, as if they were trying to blend into the background as a subliminal force. Often they made those entrances and exits individually. That also meant the pieces were largely devoid of rhythmic energy. Cool bordering on cold.

Much of Pearlann’s energy, and deservedly so, went into a group piece that conveyed an otherworldliness. Filled with angular squats and tangled groups, it conveyed our need for communication in an increasingly isolated society that relies on Twitter and Facebook, even email for a misrepresented idea of bonding.

Maybe Pearlann is on to something, and if you’ve talked with her, you’ll know why. Maybe we need to talk face-to-face, not Facebook. Where a couple sitting in a restaurant is Twittering instead of conversing. Where acquaintances meet on a street and one suddenly whips out an iPhone to text and ignores the other.

Science and the technology born of the scientific mind are certainly the wave of the future. But Pearlann may be on to something — we simply can’t lose sight of  humanity.


Off Stage: Dance MVPs 2009

January 4, 2010

In you case you missed it, my Top Ten in dance appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in December. Now we can discuss the performers who infused that choreography and their considerable contributions to a vibrant local dance scene. Kudos to the women, who were extraordinarily strong during 2009.

Woman of Steel. Pearlann Porter is proud of her P’s — prolific, petite, paraphrastic (she can talk about her art at the drop of a hat), perceptive, party hearty, polychromatic and, of course, The Pillow Project. She also moved at a prestissimo pace in 2009, directing, performing and/or choreographing half a dozen full-length extravaganzas at the Space Upstairs, initiating a four-month Urban Experiment (improv dancing in the streets), teaching at Point Park University and then venturing out to choreograph for the Dance Alloy.

Man of Steel. Attack Theatre’s Peter Kope chooses his dance moments carefully these days. But he is now emerging as a talented director with a creative impulse as sharp as they come. Although the Attackers are a wonderfully collaborative group of performers, it is Kope who whittles the productions down to display colorful theatrical threads. He also spearheaded the move to Pittsburgh Opera, which included a second rehearsal studio, outfitted by this master carpenter, just down the alley. And he is, first and foremost, a great dad to Xander.

Dancing Classrooms. With numerous titles to their credit, international ballroom dancers and owners of Art & Style Rozana and Terry Sweeney  showed championship form while teaching fifth grade students in six Pittsburgh Public elementary schools this fall. For 10 weeks and 20 lessons they brought elegance, responsibility and respect into the lives of more than 300 students. This was the inaugural year (hope you saw the documentary “Mad Hot Ballroom” on which the lessons were based) and it set a high standard.

Mata Hari. PBT’s Alexandra Kochis had more disguises than this celebrated spy. I still recall her fresh-faced, independently-minded Juliette and the silent scream at the end of “Romeo et Juliette,” one that carried to the back of the orchestra section at the Benedum Center. She was also a winsome Aurora in “Sleeping Beauty,”  layering her interpretation with great delicacy and detail. But the most surprising was her ensemble work in “Light/The Holocaust & Humanity Project,” where she tossed aside the clarity of her technique for the emotional angles and grotesqueries needed for choreographer Stephen Mills’ contemporary style. She may be the most versatile dancer in Pittsburgh.

The Stanislavski Dancer? Stephanie Dumaine has become a dancer who internalizes the “theater” in Dance Alloy Theater with great finesse. She has created extraordinarily luminous moments in her solo work during the past year, like Stanislavski, building from the “inside out” and the “outside in.”

Best Move. Attack Theatre transported its energetic and effervescent style to a new home at Pittsburgh Opera. The company’s inaugural program, “Incident[s] in the Strip” displayed the space, a blend of historic exposed brick with contemporary and theatrical touches, at its very best. If you haven’t done so, check it out Jan 29 (see Listings) when the company puts on “Game Night and the Seven Minute Dance Series” at its new home in the Strip District.

The Big Switch. It was the big news of the year as the Dance Alloy Theater board summarily dismissed artistic director Beth Corning and instated education director Greer Reed-Jones in her place, the first time the company had not staged a national search for a replacement. But Reed-Jones came with her own resume (Dayton Contemporary Dance principal dancer, CAPA, Pittsburgh Dance Ensemble, independent choreographer) and Corning has re-emerged with her own vision, The Glue Factory, which will assemble internationally-known dancers over 40 in March. We’ll watch for the results during 2010.

Pointe in Time. Always one of the highlights of the Pittsburgh party circuit, there were some reservations when PBT’s fall event was transferred from the elegant black and white ballrooms at the William Penn Hotel to the  more traditional Hilton, where the ballroom there was draped in tons of chiffon. Nevertheless some of the formality disappeared as the guests definitely “got down” to the sounds of Gary Racan and the studio-e Band.

Reaching for the Sky. The energy was literally bouncing off the Dance Alloy walls at the Jones Intensive this past July. Sixty students, all on scholarship, spent two weeks honing their dance skills, capped by a performance at the Kelly-Strayhorn. Wish we could bottle it.

Gone But Not Forgotten. Dancers come and go, but I still find myself luxuriating in the memory of the quartet of PBT dancers who moved on this past May. Maribel Modrono, Christopher Rendall-Jackson, Daisuke Takeuchi and Kaori Ogasawara each left an indelible footprint, both in their artistry and off-stage demeanor, that has formed a chain link of memorable moments.


Dance Notes: First Night, Kennedy Center, Tome

December 28, 2009

DANCE OUT THE OLD. Pittsburgh Cultural Trust’s First Night festivities will include diverse interests in dance like Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, featuring Christine Schwaner and Alexandre Silve with PBT grad students (Byham Theater, 7 p.m.), Attack Theatre’s Bag Attack Boogaloo, an interactive event for all (Fifth Avenue Place, ongoing), The Pillow Project and improvisation (905 Penn Avenue windows, ongoing),Ballroom Dance into the New Year (Arthur Murray Dance Studio - 136 Sixth Street, ongoing), Swing Lessons with Bobby D (Trust Education Center – 805/807 Liberty Avenue, 6:30 p.m., 9 p.m.),  Dance Cafe Salsa Lessons (Trust Education Center, 7 p.m., 8:30 p.m., 9:30 p.m.), Moquette Volante Bellydance Workshop (929 Liberty Avenue, 6:30 p.m., 10 p.m.) and Performance (7:30 p.m., 8:45 p.m.), Japanese Sword Dance: Momentum (Catholic Charities Building – 821 Liberty Avenue, 7:15 p.m.),  Steel Town Fire (9th and Penn Parking Lot, 6:45 p.m., 9:30 p.m.), Pittsburgh’s Largest Soul Line Dance Party (9th and Penn Parking Lot, 7:30 p.m. 8:45 p.m.) and  Oriental Star Dancers (August Wilson Center, 6 p.m.). For more information check the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust website.

CENTER ON DANCE. John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts has a number of attractive offerings on its roster this year, along with some notable performers. Since it’s only four hours away, it’s a doable day trip for the avid dance fan, some of whom might have a friend or relative in the area. So I’ve decided to include some of the events on CrossCurrents’ Listings page. First up is American Ballet Theatre (Jan. 26 -31) with a nifty triple bill (Sir Frederic Ashton’s “Birthday Offering” with a galaxy of ABT stars, “Seven Sonatas” by the choreographer of the moment, Alexei Ratmansky and “The Brahms-Haydn Variations,” a Twyla Tharp classic) and Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s epic “Romeo and Juliet.” You could do a two-for-one, because Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan will have its first appearance at the Kennedy Center in 15 years (Jan. 29-30). The program, “Moon Water,” sounds mesmerizing.  Also keep your heads up for February and the Bolshoi Ballet‘s “Spartacus,” featuring a Baryshnikov-in-the-making (although with the panache of Rudolph Nureyev), Ivan Vasiliev. No he is not related to ’60’s superstar Vladimir Vasiliev, but seems on his way to making a global name for himself. Apparently only 20, he will perform opening night (Feb. 16) plus Feb. 19 and 21. Check out a performance on youtube.com.

CONTACT IN KOREA. Former Pittsburgher Tome Cousin is making quite a career out of staging Susan Stroman’s award-winning Broadway dancical “Contact” around the world (he also did a great job with a Point Park University cast). But South Korea with a home-grown cast? Apparently he’s enjoying it.


On Stage: Five Go-o-olden Years

December 16, 2009

They were selling Christmas trees outside Construction Junction, but The Pillow Project already had its own, a remnant from its “Sophisticated Junk” concert in October. It was a Charlie Brown tree, decorated with electrical cords and computer odds and ends. The real thing, with a twist.

That statement could easily be applied to The Pillow Project, which came up with “Sorta Saturday” last weekend.

When it comes to the holidays, there are parties galore. But Pearlann Porter and her Pillow Project contingent staged an urban-style soiree, with homemade hors d’ouerves, for the group’s  fifth anniversary celebration.

As usual, a Pillow Project production comes wrapped in a multitude of ways. This one had an open-floor plan, focused, more or less, around DJ Sorta (a.k.a. Anthony Sorvala). He led a contingent ofKaylin Horganalumnae who made major contributions to the gritty look of the Pillow — the indestructible Beth Ratas, lean and lanky Ben Wegman (now of Liz Lerman Dance Exchange), hip hop artists Dionna PridGeon (now operating out of Chicago) and  Angela Essler (still hanging around Pittsburgh– a bonus) and the baby of the bunch, Kayla Horgan (Point Park University).

I think it may have been my favorite arrangement thus far — furniture groupings scattered around with performance areas in their midst. It allowed a lot of play for Porter’s current interest — improvisation. This time things were structured quite nicely, all of it emanating from Sorta’s dynamic assemblage of tunes that allowed for various textures and tempi to inspire the movement.

And inspire it did.

DJ Sorta with Dionna PridGeon on the "Pillow"Like PridGeon’s solo where the other dancers periodically helped her get “unstuck,” and a peekaboo table dance with Horgan, PridGeon and Wegman. I loved the way the petite Horgan fearlessly went toe-to-toe with Wegman and PridGeon and how Ratas moved gracefully out of her comfort zone. At the end, Essler poured some water on the floor and they all began imitating Sorta’s considerable scratch technique with their sneakers.

Even tiny Chris Valle joined a growing list of audience members who were lured into the dance action. And PJ Roduta showed up with a scientific duet on rhythmic equations (PJ, DJ — get it?).  It all ended with art, seen through the dark lenses of Kevin Wenner. Part Jackson Pollak, part Sigmund Freud and sporting a variation on a gas mask, Wenner proceeded to cover one large face with another and then strip it away. Extreme art/compelling drama.

All photos by Derek Stoltz.Scratching with Chris


On Stage: The Pillow at Five

December 11, 2009

By Derek StoltzPearlann Porter is, without a doubt, the busiest choreographer on the holiday scene. (If you missed it, she was part of Dance Alloy’s concert at the New Hazlett Theatre, which appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.)After four months of the outdoors Urban Experiment and a series of five Second Saturdays pushing the dance envelope at The Space Upstairs, she is concluding her 2009 season by looking back at the first five years of her own company, The Pillow Project.

Catching Porter on the fly, as usual, I asked her what was in store for this weekend’s audience. She took a few minutes to explain that this will not be a literal retrospective, in other words, a concert of reconstructed dances. Instead Porter will be drawing upon a “feeling,” using some of the people who “had a heavy influence on the Pillow Project’s style.”

Even the title indicates that — “Sorta Saturday.” DJ Sorta was one of the originals and will instigate an all-vinyl program. Others will include Dionna PridGeon, coming in from Chicago, and Ben Wegman, who currently performs with Liz Lerman Dance Exchange in Washington D.C. Of course, long-time staple Beth Ratas will be on board.

Porter says she is coming “full circle. It’s jazz, but not Fosse,” she explains. “It’s more in the vein of [jazz musicians] Miles Davis and Charlie Parker, who had a live and spontaneous acknowledgement of the present. Besides, it’ll be a smart alternative to a heavy-duty holiday season.

Check Listings for more information.


On Stage: Everything Old Was New Again

October 15, 2009

Maybe it was the environmental aura about The Pillow Project’s latest installment of its Second Saturday series, but a healthy crowd gathered at The Space Upstairs to sample some “Sophisticated Junk” last weekend.

It was the perfect fit, with The Space being upstairs at Construction Junction, Point Breeze’s ultimate recycling location that houses everything from nifty architectural details to toilets. Porter and friends were channeling those very green thoughts while recycling various materials, choreography and a year’s worth of Pittsburgh Post-Gazette newspapers.

Could that make it a conflict of interest for this former PG critic and current contributor? The daily editions were stacked against the long chalk board wall, seemingly ready and willing and I found myself able as a result.

Of course, the use of “found objects” was originated by Marcel Duchamp in the early 20th century. But these days, with the help of Rachel Carson, Al Gore and their peers, all things renewable, recyclable and reusable have achieved a vaunted prominence in today’s world.

Pearlann Porter and friends, of course, put their own plentiful twist on things. The Space was decorated with masks assembled from rusty metal pieces, among other finds. But the most scintillating figure was a real tree, sans leaves and wrapped in assorted electrical cords. Like a mad lab experiment, it seemed to grow out of a laptop (courtesy of Porter and hubbie Derek Stoltz). And situated as it was dead center, audience members sometimes had to look around it to ferret out the dance — no big deal for this amenable audience.

Although it was still fun to see Michael Walsh’s recycled and increasingly arch solo about dancers, there was a reusable grocery bag full of concepts from the prolific Porter. Laura Stokes prowled the space in a nifty suburban housewife dress and apron made entirely of newspaper. She was continually obsessive while pestering patrons with coupons, before imploding at the end.

Porter graduated from the Post-Its at the last event to papering a long wall with newspapers. The increasingly inventive PJ Roduta and the ageless Charles Hall immersed themselves in a corner filled with everyday percussion ala “STOMP” (and actually all from Construction Junction).

Then they drove the dancers into an escalating frenzy during which they ripped at the pages on the wall and improvised collectively. It was, in Porter’s own words, about the  “slow disintegration of print media and information.”  Hm-m-m. It was a little long, but the reality of the situation will probably go on even longer.

But my favorite was still “Lonely People,” a piece that Porter previewed at the Dance Alloy a short time ago. Using projection techniques to conjure up imaginary characters that the Beatles might have alluded to in their famous hit, Porter depicted alienation, primarily in a series of solos.

Enjoy a series of photos by Pillow Project photographer Derek Stoltz.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 144 other followers