Whenever the Kelly Strayhorn Theater chooses to produce its newMoves Contemporary Dance Festival, it has a profound effect on Pittsburgh dance. This time was no exception. Tune in to newMoves via the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
I never forgot the image of Moroccan runner Nawal El Moutawakel, who won a gold medal in the 400 meter hurdles during the1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. I remember my admiration as she ran in a traditional track uniform — tank top and shorts — and knowing that she was breaking multiple barriers for Muslim women with her performance.
By the 2012 Olympics in London, every Muslim country was represented by at least one woman athlete, although Afghanistan sprinter Tahmina Kohstani elected to run in a hijab and long clothing.
There is still a long way to go on the international stage.
We got a fierce morsel of their struggle as Moroccan choreographer Hind Benali danced in the intimate confines of The Alloy space courtesy of the Kelly Strayhorn Theater,
The result was a fully-formed and informed woman, representing the best that her country and, moreover, what she, had to offer.
Her group was officially named Hind Benali/Fleur D’Orange; the piece, created especially for her American tour, titled Identity, would combine traditional and contemporary dance.
It’s not often that we see crossover companies like this. Most memorable, via the Pittsburgh Dance Council, was India’s Nrityagram in 2002, which was primarily rooted in Odissi dance, but bravely ventured into the modern idiom and, in 2013, New Zealand’s Black Grace with its seamless blending of old and new.
In a way, this was more dangerous.
Hind brought composer Mochine Imrharn and hip hop dancer/flutist Soufiane Karim with her. Together they had a soulful opening, immediately reminding one of a deep history and windswept sands. Mochine‘s score was particularly evocative, giving Hind a supple platform for her dance, filled, as it was, with so much, including melismatic singing and cave-like drips.
The petite dancer was crouched to begin her journey, She stood up, almost encased in a lavish traditional costume,her hands scooping up and thudding against her chest. She tucked the skirt into her waistband and began quivering.
It was locked into her tradition. But her distress became more apparent as she took off the skirt and embraced it. Soufiane provided an interlude with some hip hop, a contrast to be sure and a trend, but not particularly connected. Later though, she would use him as a foil for her emotion.
When Hind emerged again, she was crawling, like an animal wild and free. Yet she never lost sight of ritualistic elements and eventually revealed a black leotard, allowing us to see a rather lovely modern technique. At times she seemed to be shedding layers of tradition. Other times she tried to embrace her conflicting role in life and her feelings often burst through with uncommon force.
Occasionally that made Identity seem conflicted. Yet, at its heart it was truly symbolic of women in the Muslim world, who are gradually and collectively building toward their own brand of freedom. I also applaud the men in Identity, so versatile that the production seemed larger than three artists, and so important for their support and interaction.
So it was personal. It was political. Best of all, it was art.
HAPPY. It was a monumental birthday, the Kelly Strayhorn Theater’s 100th, and KST sponsored a cocktail party by some of the singular individuals who helped to make it the adventurous arts establishment and community center that it is today. Along with board chair Cabot Earle and executive director janera solomon, they all paid tribute to a theater that has seen a lot of changes in East Liberty. Honorees included Mayor Bill Peduto, Stephanie Flom, David Nash and Janet Sarbaugh.
KIMONO. No longer are choreographers closeted away in a rehearsal studio until the day of a dance premiere.They are sharing more and more, opening their works-in-progress to input, not always from friends and family, but from eager audience members. Mark Thompson was the latest example in his work-in-progress, Kimono, at The Alloy Studios. (He has plans to present the final version next spring.) However, there was much to see and say about the production, technically in its infancy. Schooled in ballet, Mark is best known as a mime. However, Kimono showed a transition, moving the mime into more of a movement phase. Along with Anna Thompson and Taylor Knight, he traced parallel threads involving an artist who must overcome the encroachment of the world around him, filtered through a French and Japanese backdrop. The movement itself was spellbinding, although at this point, the dramatic continuity could be tightened.
FLYING. Shana Simmons Dance knows how to throw a party as well. The company recently held a fundraiser for its upcoming November production, Passenger, at the Aviary. Called Freak in Feathers, the company gave a sneak peek in the intimate confines of Wigle Whiskey in the Strip District (loved the fake white eyelashes!). Chef Eric (Shana’s talented fiance from Bonnie & Clyde’s restaurant in Wexford — they will be married in the spring) and Chef Kayla served up chicken with white truffle sauce and roasted garlic mussels. Delish(!) — along with yummy appetizers and dessert framing them. In keeping with the feather theme (some attendees were dotted with them), the company projected Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds on a wall, with Point Park live and suitably dramatic piano accompaniment.
This was a program with a heavy-duty sense of purpose. Addiction. Poverty. Mental illness. But in the hands of Marjani Forte, being Here… /this time was woven together like a feather-light pashmina. It’s something that we don’t find much in American choreography, which likes to be direct, almost obvious in its intention. Here there was almost a sense of beauty about this project, despite the subject matter.
It induced a sense of respect for those suffering.
Audience members had the chance to see the work from beginning to end from three different perspectives. Chairs divided The Alloy’s spacious studio. My favorite was the first, where the seating backed against Everett Saunders’ 3-D audio installation, allowing for the widest physical perspective. Viewers wore a headset in this section, making for a spellbinding sensory experience. There was text: “It’s okay. You’re okay.” Laughter (a monkey/baboon?). Mixed with piano. It had the ability to subtly grab the attention, but not away from the three dancers who moved about the room. (And something I’ve never encountered.)
For the second installment, I headed to the foyer, where Marjani herself had set up shop (actually a chair) on top of a bench in a very confining space. The musical accompaniment came from (probably) her iPod and a ghostly slide played next to her on a loop. This was the most difficult segment to watch. “I had some weary days.” “I had hills to climb…” She grabbed her mouth. Her body shook. She was physically bound and emotionally bound to the material. And there was nowhere to escape for those of us who gathered around her, even mentally.
I watched the final segment from the diagonal slice of chairs that cut the studio in half. This put the emphasis on partially-bound wheelchair dancer Alice Sheppard and the luminous Jasmine Hearn. They were performing again, but I had a partial view before. This time it heightened the dramatic impact as we wove through the laughter, through stoicism and ultimately through strength.
One of the best programs of the dance season.
It was a carefully staged entrance to a show. Kelly-Strayhorn Theater patrons received their tickets at an adjacent storefront where a retro hostess bid them “Welcome!” on a video loop. Beneath the video, a live female performer seemed to hoard assorted clothing.
Next door to that there was a 5-minute loop of three live performances, real twist on window dressing. As it turned out, they were flash forwards of the performance that was about to begin.
With these sneak peaks in place, it was time to dive into another “Store,” this one directed and choreographed by Kate Watson-Wallace on the theater stage. It didn’t have the conventional arrangement of a store with racks and shelves and clerks. Watson-Wallace displayed an array of clothing carefully arranged in rows of color-blocked samples. The packed floor was backed with cardboard boxes and pockmarked with several television sets.
Shades of Andy Warhol! Watson-Wallace was taking the idea of pop art, that which surrounds us and is part of our culture. But instead of familiar names and faces, the Philadelphia artist granted anonymity to her store (no neon sign), the clothing labels (too small to make an impression) and her performers (who began with their faces covered).
The performers emerged from the clothing rubble, although one barreled in from the back of the theater. The movement often hinted of social dance, but given more structure. This “Store” was, at its best imaginative in its perspective, at other times awkward, perhaps because the audience was removed from the activities in the usual theater setting. I would have seated some of them on the stage, perhaps collected on box-like risers, so as to be a part of the production.
“Store” was actually performed in an abandoned Rite Aid, and this, I think, would have given it more immediacy and more punch, particularly in the “emcee” section. As such, “Store” looked like a crumpled bit of American society that had lost its way.