On Stage: From Pittsburgh to Paris and Back

From Paris to Pittsburgh with Pearlann and the Pillow

The letter “P” plays an important part in Pearlann Porter’s life. Pillow Project. Pittsburgh. Point Park University. So the recent inclusion of a trip to Paris should come as no surprise.

Well, maybe that’s stretching the alliteration just a bit.

Actually Pearlann is bringing a bit of Paris back to Pittsburgh at The Space Upstairs for her current Second Saturdays production, which appears to be packed with plenty of  juicy tidbits.

But then, we get ahead of ourselves.

The French connection began when Pearlann met Moe Seager, East Liberty native and Paris legend. A writer and musician, Moe has published three books of poetry, several short stories and 20 or so plays in the U.S. and abroad. He decided to try Paris after the French Ministry of Culture published his epic-length poem, “Rio Escondido.” Moe stayed and is now known for his provocative poetry and crowd-pleasing jazz performances, along with being a commentator for RT TV, Paris.

It all led to a four-day stay in the City of Lights, where the differences were, as you might say, illuminating. “It was really surprising and exciting and it changed the way we feel about what we want to do with our dance in Pittsburgh, what we want to create with it,” exults Pearlann within minutes after her return here from New York (more on that later).

The connection led to communication. “The work was perceived so warmly, so differently,” she explains about the Pillow Projects series of performances in France. “Everyone wanted to talk about it. They wanted to ask us about jazz and American dance.” (Although the Pittsburgh dancers explained that they were trying to do something different.)

They seemed to go everywhere — dancing in the streets, in Metro stations, on Metros, at small poetry slams and a “crazy, free jazz concert in the back of a seedy warehouse which made The Space Upstairs look like the Taj Mahal.”

While Pittsburghers generally thought they “were up to something” when the Pillow dancers performed in the streets, French observers immediately approached them. “I’ve never seen dance here before — this is so wonderful!” “What do you call it?” When the dancers responded, “post modern,” it led to a discussion of post modern art.

Even if there were language barriers, people were almost desperate to talk, leading to mime, almost charades, to get a point across.

Pearlann and the Pillow defined themselves as “free musicians, free jazz dancers because our work plays on not being the beat literally, not being the music literally. We’re finding our own way in it and playing on something you may not even hear, but it contributes to the sound.”

One of the musicians said, “I’ve never seen dance to free jazz that looked like it was free jazz. I’ve seen dance to free jazz, but I’ve never seen anyone dance free jazz.” As Pearlann tells it, the dancers were on stage with a dozen or so musicians where they could have physically touched the bass or the drum. “They were right in the thick of it. They looked so completely at home.”

Through Moe, they met Sabir Mateen, renowned free jazz stylist, along the way. He exclaimed, “I have to come to Pittsburgh! When is the next performance — I’m there!” His name sounded familiar to Pearlann and, as it turned out, she had “half of his stuff” in her iTunes. So they can recreate some of the things they did in Paris (with Moe, no less) and “tap into the crazy, visceral energy” they found there. Also on the program is a preview of Pearlann’s next project, “The Fifth in Jazz,” which plays with time, and “The Memory of Paper,” a dance recollection by Brent Luebbert of last year’s “Paper Memory.”

Speaking of memory, Pearlann’s favorite involved little Parisian preschoolers who happened to be in an adjacent schoolyard during a performance. One little girl became transfixed, then, one by one, brought her school mates over to the gate. When they couldn’t reach out and touch, the tiny tots capitalized on a French tradition of tossing money into a hat to show appreciation and support for the artists, in this case the Pillow Project. But they didn’t have any money. So they threw pebbles and stones, which the dancers appreciated just as much.

If things work out, the Pillow Project will head back to Europe for a month next year. Pearlann says they’ll do a “trifecta,” head to Paris, then Brighton, England, where “dance is hungry to be something different,” and then swing over to a jazz festival in Cork, Ireland.

But one thing’s for certain, the Pillow will ramp up its face in its home city as well.




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