On Stage: Pearlann Part I

Pil10w 2 PEARL LAYING

Yes, it’s been 10 years since Pearlann Porter and The Pillow Project invaded the Pittsburgh dance scene. We’ve run the gamut of “P’s” — prolific, Pittsburgh, progressive, Point Park and more — since then in describing the journey that has been well-documented on CrossCurrents (just click on her “lustrous” name or Pillow Project) since 2008 and, prior to that, in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

It all began at Attack Theatre’s studios in Garfield. Originally scheduled for two performances, an overflow crowd of 75 people patiently waited for a third to be added for them.

POINT PARK BEGINNING. As a New Jersey-ite who found her way to Point Park, the tiny fireplug of a dancer found that she wasn’t very “usable” for the choreographers. “I was in the lowest level classes. I never got cast in anything. I was sort of the bottom dregs of the dance department.” So she and her roommate would entertain themselves and break into the studios at night (which you can’t do anymore) and just dance and play around. One night Pearlann took her pillow (people told her she danced in her sleep) to the studio at around 2 a.m. and created “Zzzz.”” When everyone saw my piece, they rethought me. I was hooked.”

After that, “I just felt so alive choreographing. I got to do all the pieces I wanted to be in. My voice wasn’t muted anymore.” She  would dance with her cast up until a performance, when she would be in the audience watching it.

Pearlann choreographed like “a mad person for every little function, every little talent show, everything in the cafeteria, every studio performance.” For her finals, she took them “super-seriously” with props, lighting design. She had  costume changes for mid-terms. She went over-the-top all the time. It was all about being clever and funny and doing things that were novel.

Pearlann became a part-time faculty member. She would get together those students who weren’t being cast in anything and do impromptu performances in the studios. Pearlann had never done anything outside Point Park’s performing facility, The Pittsburgh Playhouse, but when the dance department decided to eliminate that opportunity for part-time faculty…

THE FIRST PERFORMANCE. Pearlann got an opportunity to do a night at Attack Theatre’s home in Garfield.  “I loved the look of my work being done in a crazy-ass space. It made me realize why can’t I just do this? Why can’t I just take my lights, find a location and just do this? I didn’t need a stage and a proscenium and wings and a lighting designer, a Marley floor and rehearsals in mirrored rooms. I could do something totally different and not be restricted by it.”

“I thought of all these ideas and made a little mixed variety show. At the time I used the students who had gone to my class and really liked what I was doing.” Pearlann had been told by students for years, “If you ever start a company, I’m in.” So she made some phone calls. A bunch of them came out for it, stayed in Pittsburgh for it, looked at Pittsburgh differently and wound up sticking around.

It changed the trajectory of local dance.

It was a whirlwind. “I never did seven pieces at one time. I really relied and trusted that the people working with me were in it. It was this conglomeration of people who would go to the ends of the earth to see something happen.” It wasn’t so much about the performance, but the process.

Hence The Pillow Project and not The Pearl Ann Porter Dance Company. “That’s what made it so fun — we didn’t know what we were doing.”

Literally.

So she was clothes-pinning gels to the lights from Home Depot and used a ton of extension cords. Attack Theatre’s Peter Kope came up to her and said, “Uh — what are you doing?” He and Michele de la Reza had given her a lot of leeway, but he noted that “you’ve got an extension cord situation.”

She had about 20 industrial-strength extension cords like spaghetti in the corner, running up the stairs, onto a ladder and into an electrical box. “It looked like madness.”

“I remember that we had one shot at getting it right.” She flipped the switch and “nothing turned on. And the things that were turning on were the things that weren’t supposed to be turning on.” She had a moment of “I don’t know what we’re going to do — the pieces are all going to be in the dark!”

Exhausted, she stepped outside. “What are you going to do? None of this works. The audience is coming in an hour and none of this works.”

Ten minutes later, one of the dancers ran out onto Penn Avenue and said, “We figured it all out. It’s going to be fine everything’s great!”

“To this day, I don’t know what they did, but they all made it happen. Once that happened, I thought, Well, then anything is possible. This is part of it — just improvising and learning and figuring it out as you go and having no blueprint and just trusting that everyone will make it all happen somehow.”

THE VISION. Pearlann and some friends, including Ryan Hose and DJ Sorta set up shop in her living room with a bunch of mismatched furniture (which served as the prototype for her current performing place, The Space Upstairs). DJ set up his table and Pearlann would dance and Ryan would be sketching. “That’s what we lived in without thinking about it.”

They walked the walk — they simply lived artistically. “When you have the backing of people that you love and they love you back…and you all believe in the vision, you can go as big as you want. Size becomes irrelevant.” So, armed with a collective passion the size of Mt. Washington, she hit the ground running at the ginormous Hunt Armory and most recently took over the Carrie Furnace.

“I call it artistic Tourettes. It wasn’t that we were a bunch of people making big shows. We felt big and our hearts were big and our enthusiasm was big. So the show had to contain that.”

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