It's a treat, even a privilege, to get to see dancer and choreographer Abraham and his Abraham.In.Motion company on a regular basis, even as this Pittsburgh native blips onto the national dance radar. Their performance Sat., Jan. 24 -- a result of the Kelly-Strayhorn's first-ever artist residency -- was at least the fourth public performance here in the past couple of years. And recently, Abraham, who splits his time between Pittsburgh and NYC, earned a rave in The Times and, better still, was named one of Dance Magazine's "25 to Watch" for 2009.
The Kelly-Strayhorn residency program was engineered by the theater's new executive director, Janera Solomon (a sometime CP contributor in visual-art coverage). Its product, the show's first half, was created in just a couple days here, and was a nice showcase for the wonderfully athletic company consisting of Abraham and seven other dancers (six of them women). "The Radio Show" (working title) opened with an Abraham solo, lit only by a big worklamp hand-held by another dancer. Abraham took the lamp for others' solos -- then passed it to an audience member who followed him through the aisle of the darkened theater, where he soloed to a Lauryn Hill song whose refrain goes "I'm in love with another man." (Snippets of live Hill provided much of the soundtrack.)
By highlighting dancers' contours, the spotlight gimmick gave as much in atmosphere as it took away in visibility. A little more problematic (especially for those of us seated at floor level) was how Abraham's tour of the aisle frequently put him out of sight, behind other ticketholders' bodies, and even behind us. Still, Abraham in motion remains as viscerally thrilling as when I last saw him, in late 2007 at the New Hazlett Theater. His mercurial shifts between street dance, street-corner attitudinizing, hip hop and more canonical gesture are occasionally stunning, and I feel like I'd recognize the style as his even if someone else were using it.
Part two was the latest version of Abraham's "The Dripping Kind," a group work highlighted by four brief, sinous duets -- also spread out across the house floor -- that served as engrossing mini psychodramas, often beautiful to watch.
The theater was nearly full, with an admittedly partisan crowd, some of whom have known Abraham since his Schenley and CAPA days. (He grew up in Lincoln-Larimer.) Abraham performed the show's second half in an orange "Ozanam" basketball T-shirt, partly in tribute to the Hill District hoops league and to his dad, who coached there. He wears one most performances, he said in a post-show talk-back; if we're lucky, we'll see still more of them in the years to come.
The style of music John Adams is known for, and which he composed for his opera Nixon in China, will be broadly familiar to anyone who's heard a Philip Glass film soundtrack (like Thin Blue Line or The Ice Storm): spare clusters of notes repeated, often across stately chord changes, to somewhat hypnotic effect. It's usually called "minimalism." But if Nixon, excerpts of which Adams conducted this past weekend at the PSO (where he is composer of the year), is a pretty rich work, it's due not only to the music, but also to the fascinating verse libretto, by poet Alice Goodman.
The Jan. 16 Heinz Hall show excerpted the 1985 opera's opening scene, with President Nixon and his wife, Pat, arriving for their historic visit, to be greeted by Premier Chou En-lai. The singers merely stood in a row, the orchestra behind them, and only baritone John Maddalena, with his long nose and hooded glower, looked much like the historical figure he played. (Mao was sung by tenor Russell Thomas, who's African-American, his wife, Chiang Chi'ing, by fair-skinned blonde soprano Hila Plitmann.) "News has a kind of mystery," goes Goodman's opening line for Nixon, and she and Adams proceed to flesh out a man who perceives himself as an actor on a world stage, his sense of majesty banal but his paranoia honed to a fine edge on the stone of his political pragmatism. Nixon, especially, repeats lines of verse, echoing Adams' arpeggios but also suggesting a certain disquietude; when he sings "my hand is steady as a rock," the orchestra bursts in discordantly on "rock," as if to mock him.
Pat Nixon, too, is given a good deal of depth: Goodman provides her with almost surreal visions of the America she and her husband are representing. ("The Prodigal. Give him his share: The eagle nailed to the barn door. Let him be quick. The sirens wail as bride and groom kiss through the veil," she sings in one scene.) But in Act III, performed here entire, President reduces First Lady to decoration: "There isn't much that I can do, is there?" sings soprano Jessica Rivera, when Dick tells Pat her lipstick is crooked. "Who's seen my handkerchief?"
Later in the act, the music gets more complex, more traditionally "orchestral," as the presidential couple recall their World War II experience, Pat stateside while Nixon did noncombat duty in the Pacific. Goodman also gives Dick some poetic lines -- "Picture a thousand coconuts like mandrill's head or native masks ..." -- but mostly, we're being shown these characters' limitations, how they're most comfortable in, hence trapped by, the past.
Adams, a trim, cheerful and silver-haired figure, introduced the work as "an opera for Republicans ... and Communists." He prefaced the performance (whose second half was his thrilling Doctor Atomic Symphony) with helpful commentary, so that we could more easily pick out the big-band-style saxophones that gave voice to a president's nostalgic memories of the days before the Cold War.
It's unfair to single out just one piece in Fe Gallery's impressive In the Making: 250 Years, 250 Artists (which closed Jan. 10). The sheer scope and massing of the exhibit -- 250 (mostly) recent artworks by an equal number of local artists, hung salon-style on the Lawrenceville storefront space's walls -- all but precludes it. But I will mention one work which, though it might easily be overlooked, instantly struck me as potent.
Wendy Osher's "Fruit for All Seasons" consists of 20 orange skins arranged in a small grid. The skins, long aged to that rust color to which dessicated orange peels are fated, had been sewn back into spheres, but in a very particular way. These skins were arranged to permit gaps through which blossomed tumor-like masses of sickly pink polystyrene (like packing material, or foam insulation). The stitches, meanwhile, were in threads of deep red -- an aesthetic complement to the skins themselves, but also, when combined with the template of each leathery peel, suggestive of a baseball.
Osher's previous work, widely exhibited around town, often deals with our regard and disregard of nature. But this piece communicated to me more strongly than any of the others I'd seen. With the "oranges" embodying a rather pathetic human attempt to reconstitute, even reanimate the natural world, "Fruit for All Seasons" intimates warnings about tampering with nature in general, and about things like bio-engineering in particular.
And yes, I'm aware that most agricultural crops are the result of human-guided cross-breeding. But it's self-evident that initiating plant sex is a much more benign sort of intrusion than putting fish genes in tomatoes, say -- or polystyrene genes in citrus sprouts. Osher's shrivelled, malformed little baseballs manque are like seed pods stuffed with sterile faux flesh. With them, she viscerally suggests that with such techno-tampering -- in trying to remake the world to our ends -- we not only destroy our materials, but lessen ourselves as well.
First Night is always part recap, part scouting session: stuff you missed all year plus early versions of what's to come. Some of the performers are predictably booked -- we seem likely to get Amish Monkeys and Pure Gold until that last, eternal ball drops on us -- but the First Night cross-section I saw during the first couple hours of the Cultural Trust's 14th annual New Year's extravaganza did have some new wrinkles.
I liked WYEP's music showcase in that brick-walled, sixth-floor event space at 121 Seventh St. -- Good Night, States (whom it was my first chance to hear) played its first set of melodic pop-rock to a small but appreciative audience. Over at CAPA, people were taking swing-dance lessons in the black-box theater, and the new Creative Reuse Pittsburgh group awaited visitors to turn salvaged microfilm reels, flooring samples and garden hoses into decorations. Up Penn Avenue, a slightly surreal scene, as a couple dozen heavily jacketed and scarved folks took outdoor line-dancing lessons from a guy who stood on a low stage facing a blank wall. His dancing shadow was rather ominously cast on that wall, I thought; it looked like a square dance as filmed by David Lynch.
In a nearby storefront, I got a preview of a provocative in-progress work by local documentarian Chris Ivey (East of Liberty), this one (titled Starved) about the challenges faced here by black artists of the past and present.
Out on Ninth Street, on the stage set up between Penn and Liberty, the world's coldest reggae band (a.k.a. Wizdom) ran in place perking through Bob Marley's "Three Little Birds." On Liberty, ArtUp had jammed its borrowed storefront with live jazz, a video booth and photos and illustrations honoring Pittsburgh's labor heritage.
As with any festival, much of First Night's appeal is its transience, as a concatenation of unrepeatable little moments in unlikely places -- a parade, in fact, and one much like the night's own chilly procession up Penn, giant puppets, marching bands, fire trucks.
But a highlight was something you can still see for a little bit: In the storefront gallery at 709 Penn, visiting artist Amy Trompetter has installed a deeply moving tribute to Anna Politkovskaya, the Russian journalist who defied death threats to report on the war in Chechnya and was murdered in 2006. Suspended from the gallery's ceiling are papier-mache horse heads, screaming a la "Guernica," while banners and murals fill the space with rampant soldiers, cowering victims ... and skyborne angels, rendered in a style suggesting Russian Orthodox iconography.
Attendance at First Night seemed a little thin to me, though maybe it was just because most of the 125 events took place indoors. In any case, the Cultural Trust claims 35,000 patrons showed. I hope that as many as possible saw Trompetter's work.