The famed dance troupe's first performance in Pittsburgh in eight years was characteristically joyful. But it was also tinged with sadness, serving partly as a tribute to its visionary Pittsburgh-born co-founder, Jonathan Wolken.
Wolken died in June, at age 60. The second act of last night's performance was preceded by a short video tribute to the Peabody High graduate, who grew up in Shadyside. He went on to Dartmouth University, where as a philosophy major he wandered into a dance class, met co-conspirators including Moses Pendleton, and created the group whose signature bodysuits and freewheeling, sculptural style would make it world-renowned. (At the Byham, I ran into local artist Carolina Loyola-Garcia, who'd previously seen the group perform in her native Chile.)
Still, Pilobolus has changed a lot. The leadoff work at last night's Pittsburgh Dance Council show, "Contradance," felt more like circus plus dance-theater than the trademarked "Pilobolus" style. The six performers wore mostly stage-bumpkin costumes, and combined clowning, props and modified square-dance forms. They moved to a score alternating between square-dance music, string-band waltzes and roots rock (the latter by Dan Zanes). And the work told a spare but easily discernible story about an outsider who falls in love. It was funny, charming and winsomek, and just avoided corniness.
Early Pilobolus was represented by "Pseudopodia," a 1973 solo Wolken himself choreographed (and which we glimpsed him performing in that video). Dancer Jun Kuribayashi moved beguilingly through this intense series of tumbles and yoga-derived passages, all set to Wolken and Pendleton's driving, percussive score.
The act ended with 1992's "Duet," an emotionally intense worked Pittsburgh audiences might know from a few performances of it by our own Dance Alloy Theater. Like the four-dancer "Gnomen" (1997), which opened act two, "Duet" was in the classic Pilobolus vein: People making themselves into human statuary -- or organic machines, like the three-man wheel (hands linked to partners' ankles) that traversed the proscenium in "Gnomen."
Throughout its history, Pilobolus divided critics and dance purists, and it's easy to see why. The troupe was founded by people with scant formal training, and frequently engages in what looks like spectacle for spectacle's sake.
And of course that's a big reason audiences like Pilobolus. The sudden and enormous popularity of a troupe purveying a form of dance punctuated with slapstick comedy (even in more somber works like "Gnomen") couldn't have charmed the dance intelligensia, either.
In fact, works like "Duet" and "Gnomen" are quite moving at times. But it's probably also fair to say there's dance out there that's more intellectually provocative, or plumbs the human condition more deeply.
Still, there's certainly something in us (and it probably goes back to our brachiating ancestors) that loves merely to see what the body can do. It's like the excitement of wandering through the woods and suddenly spotting a new species of bird.
And so if you ever wondered what it would look like were seven people, lying on their backs shoulder to shoulder, to open a dance work by wriggling in unison from the wings like inchworms, last night's closer, "Megawatt," was for you.
Wolken was the lead choreographer on this hyperkinetic 2004 work, set to music by Primus, Radiohead and Squarepusher. In historical terms, there was perhaps little to identify it as a Pilobolus work, except in its celebration of the sheer fun of being alive.
Most likely, you won't be able to get in the door at Bricolage for either of the troupe's remaining two "live radio" performances of The War of the Worlds. It's been selling out its intimate Downtown space. So little point here in praising the fine production, which I was fortunate to see last week.
But before the run ends, here's a few tidbits about the Mercury Theater on the Air original that didn't fit in my feature story on Bricolage and its Midnight Radio project (www.pittsburghcitypaper.ws/gyrobase/Content?oid=oid%3A86631).
The main reason we remember Mercury's1938 version of WOW, led by Orson Welles, is the panic it caused: An estimated one million listeners -- one out of every six people who heard the broadcast -- thought it was a newscast of a real Martian invasion. Many fled their homes.
The ruckus was so great that it propelled Welles -- till then a theatrical wunderkind largely unknown to the general public -- to national celebrity. This fame was surely the main reason he was signed by a Hollywood studio a couple years later. That makes WOW indirectly responsible for Citizen Kane and the (underappreciated) remainder of Welles' cinematic ouevre.
As I noted in the article, WOW scriptwriter Howard Koch, Welles and the rest of the Mercury troupe were playing with dynamite by structuring the play as a series of "urgent bulletins."
Not only was radio itself a new medium (scarcely older than widespread Internet access is now), but radio news itself was pretty rare. (Most people still got their portion from the daily rags.) The "urgent bulletin" was a quite recent innovation, created to broadcast news from Europe, where Hitler was on the march. And the infamous Hindenburg broadcast, the first-ever catastrophe to air live, was fresh in people's minds.
But the panic wasn't due merely to the cleverness and verisimilitude of the Mercury broadcast. It also involved a nifty bit of timing.
Mercury aired against one of the nation's most popular shows, Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy. (Ventriloquism on the radio!) And a few minutes into every Edgar-and-Charlie, some chump singer came on and people changed channels for a couple minutes.
The Mercury broadcast led off, responsibly, with an announcement that the show was an adaption of the H.G. Wells classic. But the first urgent bulletin broke in on the show's faked concert ("Ramon Raquello and his orchestra") seconds after Bergen's musical guest sang his first notes. Just in time to catch unsuspecting channel-surfers.
And Mercury's WOW didn't let up with its frenetic mock newscast, or again announce that it was a dramatization, until a good half-hour later. By which time everybody who was going to get suckered surely had.
Coincidence? I don't know that anyone associated with the broadcast has ever admitted otherwise. Still, in the immediate wake of the uproar the show caused, Welles denied Mercury wanted to fool anyone. Then, years later, he changed his tune, and said the troupe meant to point out that people shouldn't believe everything they hear on the radio.
The populist pundit's talk here last week provided some rays of hope for progressives in this dispiriting election season. But not the sugar-coated kind.
Hightower has been a national progressive voice for two decades now, ever since he ended finished his second term as Texas agricultural commissioner and turned to making his newsletter, The Hightower Lowdown, writing books and talking on the radio (and in person).
He plays the role of Texan. On Oct. 20, he took the dais before about 150 people in a Point Park auditorium while wearing his trademark white cowboy hat.
Hightower's core message lately is that the real divide in America isn't between left and right, liberal and conservative. It's between high and low, or up and down on the economic spectrum.
And he emphasizes that right-wingers who shill for corporate-friendly policies and tax cuts for the rich have no business calling themselves "populists," regardless of how many tea bags they wave around.
"Too few people control too much of the money and power," says Hightower, and such people use such tools to get more of what they already have.
Against policies like what he humorously calls "tinkle-down economics," his alternative is democratic control of that money and power. He defined the American ethos we should be upholding as "economic fairness, social justice and equal opportunity."
Hightower isn't the first speaker in this Point Park Global Cultural Studies Program speakers' series to espouse such ideals. In the past year or so, professor Channa Newman has brought in no less than Ralph Nader and Harper's editor emeritus Lewish Lapham, both of whom sounded similar themes.
Hightower is a good deal folksier than those fellows. But if his talk was peppered with shopworn quips ("I was happier than a flea at a dog show"), it also had real power, mostly in his prescription for fixing what ails us.
Though he's a registered Democrat, Hightower's solution isn't solely of the ballot box. And it's not something we can manage in even a few months of feverish activity like what it took to elect Obama. "Obama's only gonna be as good as we make him be."
Rather, he spoke about the long haul: everyday people living their values, and the institutions and other organizations that can help them do it. For examples he drew heavily on his book Swim Against the Current: Even a Dead Fish Can Go With the Flow, which profiles people finding new ways to work in business, politics, religion and more.
One approah Hightower praises is cooperatively owned enterprises – co-ops. A local example is the member-owned East End Food Co-Op, but Hightower says the U.S. has 73,000 co-ops, with 120 million members.
Some of his poster children are Organic Valley, the farmer's cooperative. He also cited a Madison, Wisc., union-organized taxi-cab co-op; San Francisco's Lusty Lady strip club; even the Austin, Texas' Black Star, the nation's first cooperatively owned brew pub. (Hightower proudly counts himself a member.)
Among grassroots activists, he mentioned Pittsburgh's Mary Savage, a Homewood woman who's created community gardens to revitalize her troubled neighborhood.
Hightower acknowledges things in the U.S. are grim, both politically and economically. But he relishes the challenges.
"Battling the bastards is just about as much fun as you can have with your clothes on," he says.
His long view, meanwhile, took two tacks. One, he believes that no matter how bad things look, the democratic cause is advancing.
When George Washington became president, he noted, only about 4 percent of the population could even vote -- landowning men, a category that excluded Native Americans and blacks as well as women. Now everybody over 18 can vote.
The catch is, it takes time. Hightower noted, for instance, that not one of the legendary 19th-century suffragettes, like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, lived to cast a ballot herself.
Nonetheless, he asserts, Americans want real democratic change more than the media leads us to believe: "People are astonishingly progressive in this country."
"We don't have to create the progressive movement," Hightower said. "It's out there. It's not connected....If we join with others we can build our strength."
"It's up to us....It always has been."
Wexler is a graduate of Pitt’s Creative Nonfiction MFA program and a staff writer for Allure magazine. Living Large: From SUVs to Double Ds, Why Going Bigger Isn’t Always Going Better began as her her master’s thesis. It was published this week by St. Martin’s Press. Wexler, who reads at Joseph-Beth Booksellers on the South Side at 2 p.m. Sat., Oct. 30, recently spoke with CP.
What drew you to this topic?
I’m from the D.C. suburbs, and I had gone home on Christmas break once and it was like a completely different place than where I’d grown up. A lot of the houses had been bulldozed and McMansions were popping up. It seemed like in everyone’s driveways there were giant SUVs that never went off-road. And when we went out to eat it was to places like the Cheesecake Factory, where the plates were enough to feed five people. I started connecting some of these things in my mind: I think we know a lot about super-sizing with fast food, and how portion sizes are getting bigger, but I didn’t think we had looked at this systemically.
What was the biggest surprise you encountered in your research?
When I lived in Pittsburgh, I had an SUV, and I’d go shopping at the Waterfront when I was bored. I’d go not even looking for anything, I’d just go to Target and spend a couple hundred dollars. One of the things I was most surprised about was how detrimental it is to communities when big box stores like that go up. Even their parking lots, they’re covered in gas and oil from cars, and when it rains these huge sheets of runoff go off into the water.
And you have some idea that a lot of these products are being made abroad, not in the best conditions, but I think most people feel like it’s not really hurting the local community. But a lot of studies show that big-box stores don’t use local businesses. If they need fliers or banners made, the job goes to their national headquarters. Unemployment goes up when a Wal-Mart comes into town, voter participation goes down, activity in PTA groups goes down, and the infant mortality rate goes up. That kind of stuff was honestly shocking to me and made me change my behavior.
So is going big always bad?
I thought I’d come away from this research thinking that all of the ways we super-size are bad, but I don’t. Some of them I think are fairly harmless and quintessentially American. I’m one of those people who will always stop at the world’s largest whatever — those roadside attractions. I think some of the things like that are just fun Americana. Some others are a little more dangerous: American women on the whole get the largest breast implants of anyone in the world. Women who get breast implants have the highest suicide rate of people who get any kind of cosmetic surgery. There’s something much darker going on there — researchers have found a correlation, but not causation.
It’s not condemning living large, or saying we all have to drive a Prius and live in a shack in the woods made from reclaimed materials. But it’s a call to right-size. When I first heard that term I was repulsed; it’s like corporate jargon and a lot of times it’s used for layoffs. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized it’s the perfect word for what we need to do. We should take a look and see what "large" things are harmless and fun and which are dangerous to the community, economically, environmentally, and maybe scale back to the right size.
Sarah Wexler reads at 2 p.m. Sat., Oct. 30. Joseph-Beth Booksellers, 510 S. 27th St., South Side. 412-381-3600
Bors, whose smart and feisty strip "Idiot Box" is syndicated in 10 publications nationally including City Paper, hits town Wed., Oct. 27, with the new graphic novel he illustrated.
But the critically acclaimed War Is Boring (New American Library), written by conflict journalist David Axe, doesn't reflect any war experiences Bors himself had.
In fact, at the time War is Boring came out, the Canton, Ohio, native and Art Institute of Pittsburgh grad had never even left the States.
His first overseas trip, however, was a doozy. In August, Bors, 27, joined fellow cartoonists Ted Rall and Steve Cloud for a month-long trek across Afghanistan.
The trio were unembedded -- on their own except for whatever English-speaking driver they could hire in a given town, Bors said in a recent phone interview. The three Americans dressed in Afghan garb and hired drivers who spoke English.
Avoiding the country's south, where fighting is heavy, they traveled mostly in the north, to small towns and to big cities like Herat, and later spent some time in Kabul.
One goal was to meet regular Afghans, and they did. Often, Bors says, the three cartoonists were the only Americans the locals had ever met who weren't military or with nongovernmental organizations.
"The objective was to avoid the military, really," says Bors. He means the American military, which tends to attract gunfire and explosions.
Afghans, meanwhile, whatever misgivings they might have about the American occupation, cottoned to the three Yankees. "Afghans were just really friendly and welcoming," Bors says. "They can separate us from our government easier than we can with Iranians, say."
Another objective was to draw. A couple of Bors' sketches accompany this post. (See more at mattbors.com.)
No surprise to Idiot Box fans, Bors opposed the 2003 invasion of Afghanistan and the occupation, and still does. But he acknowledges that while some Afghans want the U.S. out, others are afraid what will happen when the U.S. leaves.
As to personal risk for the travelers, Bors describes the trip as no more dangerous than necessary. The travelers stayed in hotels with bullet holes in the windows, and a couple times had to alter travel plans because of reports of Taliban in the area.
The risks, however, were constant. "You can be stopped or robbed or killed at any moment, but you get used to that," Bors says.
Bors now lives in Portland. His time in Pittsburgh included some illustration jobs for CP, including a couple covers.
He hasn't visited Pittsburgh in years, but he returns with a resume burnished by War Is Boring, which among other plaudits was named a "hot graphic novel" by Rolling Stone. (Here's my post: www.pittsburghcitypaper.ws/gyrobase/Content?oid=oid%3A83390).
From 5-8 p.m. on Wed., Oct. 27, Bors will visit Oakland's Phantom of the Attic, 411 S. Craig St. (412-621-1210) to sign copies of War is Boring. The place is an old hangout from his AIP days.
This leading American essayist and writer of literary nonfiction gives a free reading at Carnegie Mellon University on Wed., Oct. 27.
If you read at all, there's a good chance you've come across Lopate's essays, prose, fiction, poetry or criticism.
His work is widely anthologized, and has appeared often in many of the major magazines and journals that publish literary nonfiction, from The Paris Review and Harper's to Vogue and Esquire.
Lopate was recently featured in Pittsburgh-based journal Creative Nonfiction, making a forceful argument against the widespread practice of fabricating dialogue in nonfiction, in particular in memoir, a genre Lopate helped revive.
His books include the novel The Rug Merchant (1987); a collection of his movie criticism, Totally Tenderly Tragically; and the 2004 biographical monograph Rudy Burckhardt: Photographer and Filmmaker. Also in 2004, Lopate published Waterfront: A Journey Around Manhattan, a book about walking that island.
The Lopate reader Getting Personal: Selected Writings was published in 2003.
The Brooklyn-born Lopate, a professor of English at Hofstra University, is best known for his essays. The most recent of his published collections are 1989's wonderfully titled Against Joie de Vivre and Portrait of My Body (1996). He also edited the anthology The Art of the Personal Essay.
Lopate reads at 7:30 p.m. Wed., Oct. 27. The venue is Porter Hall 100, in Gregg Hall, on the CMU campus. A book signing and reception follow.
The event is part of the Adamson Visiting Writers Series, organized by CMU's English Department. For more info, see www.cmu.edu/hss/english/events.
Like most pop-culture phenomena, Marilyn Monroe's appeal is both completely transparent and strangely inscrutable – a combination that only gets more complex as time adds its inevitable layers of mourning and irony.
So you had to like it that the splash artwork/performance piece at The Andy Warhol Museum's free 24-hour opening party for Marilyn Monroe: Life As a Legend was a bed mounted on the wall whose contents were One Beloved if Self-Destructive Star, Parodied.
The bed, an affair of white satin and white fur, was mounted on the wall that confronts you as you enter the museum. When I arrived, at about 10:30 p.m. last night, the bed was empty but for an odd, not-quite-priapic stump whose outlines were visible beneath the sheets.
Shortly, out of the crowd emerged four young women in curly blonde wigs, each with a Warholian bar of aquamarine eyeshadow dampening her lids, and masking-tape eyebrows above that. Each wore a white halter dress fit to billow over a steam grate. These were the attendants for a figure whose even larger, if egg-yolk-colored, wig had a pillow pre-attached to the rear. She wore identical makeup and a white corset-style night garment.
She doffed her sheer, white-feathered robe. Working with stepladders, and help from the four, The One climbed up, straddled that post, slunk under the sheets, and from that high perch lengthily held court like a sort of crucified clown-saint.
And the people did gather 'round.
The installation's creator was its star. Appropriately enough for the Warhol, Ariel Brickman is a former Pittsburgher who moved to New York City to further her art career. Now an artist's assistant, the former Warhol gallery attendant learned of the Marilyn show and pitched her Wall Marilyn to Eric Shiner, a museum curator.
From her vantage point, Brickman munched popcorn from one of the cinema-style boxes the museum provided, all the while conversing casually with patrons. Meanwhile, the four attendant Marilyns sat at her feet, one holding a big plastic jar reading "Goodnight Moon Rx" and full of little red pills.
"Yeah, I been takin' em all night," Brickman candidly told one visitor. She also painted her nails.
Brickman's piece cheekily and effectively complemented the show itself, a big touring exhibit that often echoed, though more somberly, the Pop Crucifixion theme.
The 24-hour party, free courtesy of the Allegheny Regional Asset District, had begun at 10 a.m. that morning. By 11 p.m., Shiner told CP, about 1,500 people had come through the doors, with not quite half the party left to go.
Other highlights included an announced but quite informal Marilyn look-alike contest. There were seven contestants, one of whom was a Barbie-sized Marilyn doll, rather unceremoniously wielded by a platinum-wigged Warhol impersonator; another was a wiry, phlegmatic fellow in a pink sheath dress, with full-sleeve tattoos and 8 o'clock shadow.
Four of the contestants, it should be added, did not need wigs, including the winner, a laughing Rubenesque young woman in leopard-print stilettos and a sort of New Wave 'do.
Thompson, the artist behind The Sandman, visits Pittsburgh Comics, in McMurray, on Sat., Oct. 23.
Thompson also created Scary Godmother, a popular series of children's and comic books. The series originated in the late '90s and has since spun off into a stage show and two animated TV specials.
Her Pittsburgh visit comes on the heels of Dark Horse Comics' release of a new hardcover Scary Godmother compilation. Copies will be available for signing, and Pittsburgh Comics owner Colin McMahon says Thompson will draw a free sketch inside the hardcover for anyone who pre-purchases one.
Besides doing the art on Neil Gaiman's classic The Sandman, Thompson's credits include The Invisibles, with Grant Morrison, and Wonder Woman, with George Perez.
Her appearance is the first big event at Pittsburgh Comics, McMahon says in a release. The store was launched four years ago, but split from New Dimension Comics just last month.
Thompson's Oct. 23 visit is from 2-5 p.m. (www.pittsburghcomics.com). Pittsburgh Comics is located at 113 E. McMurray Road (724-941-5445).
Week's end brings two free readings by the well-regarded area poet best known for works about her homeland, Liberia, whose civil war she survived before emigating to the U.S.
Her fourth book, Where the Road Turns, is new from Pittsburgh-based Autumn House Press. In it, Wesley returns to the timeless theme of people who have lost home. In "Been Wandering Too Long: A Song," she writes:
Been wandering so long, I'm like the antelope
whose leap is only in the desire for flight,
but a leap often mistaken for the harvest dance.
So what if I came wandering because somehow,
someone taught hard about this world
before setting my town on fire,
before tearing the roots out of the roots
of what used to be my home?
Much of Wesley's work is about war, of course -- based on her own experiences and on interviews she's conducted with women victims of the conflict.
Yet other poems in the book address the violence of people wrenched from home by things like urbanization. "One day my wife, Cheede, will run away / to Monrovia, that swallows its victims whole / down boa-constrictor bellies," says the speaker of one such verse.
Wesley teaches at Penn State Altoona. She reads tonight, Thu., Oct. 21, at Downtown's August Wilson Center in a program titled "Impact of Violence on a Community." The reading is at 7 p.m. The first 120 attendees will receive a free copy of Where the Road Turns (www.augustwilsoncenter.org).
On Fri., Oct. 22, Wesley joins visiting poet George Bilgere in a reading at CCAC's Allegheny Campus (on the second floor of the Forester Student Center Building, on Ridge Avenue, North Side). The CCAC reading is at 1:30 p.m.
Bilgere, who teaches at John Carroll University, in Cleveland, has a new collection too, The White Museum, also on Autumn House.
I knew Donald L. Gibbon a little. In Pittsburgh it was hard not to, if you traveled in environmental circles or paid attention to the local-food movement.
Gibbon was active in both. I saw him most frequently at environmentally themed events, such as when he testified passionately at a public hearing last year about mountaintop-removal coal mining. The force of his testimony belied his thin frame and sometimes labored speaking voice, the result of the throat cancer he'd battled for years.
Don was very active with the Sierra Club's Allegheny Group. The last time I spent more than a few minutes with him was this past spring, when (at his invitation) I spoke at the group's monthly meeting about a wilderness canoe trip I'd taken. He even gave me a ride home afterward.
But I met Don through the Apple Fest, which he founded, and which will take place for the fifth straight year this Sat., Oct. 23, despite Don's death, on Oct. 13.
Don, 73, lived in Point Breeze with his wife, Linda Bazan. In his professional life, he had a multifaceted career in electron microscopy, teaching geology and more. He was an accomplished photographer. And he was as opinionated about apples as he was about preventing environmental degradation: He started the festival, he said, because you couldn't get a good apple pie in this town. The problem, he said, was largely the homogeneity of the commercial apple supply, exemplified by the ubiquitous red delicious.
One goal of the festival was to reintroduce people to older, lesser-known but much tastier varieties of apples, like the Stayman and the Connell Red. In fact, the last time I interviewed Don, just last month, it was about his initiative to bring to Pittsburgh 10 young Black Amish apple trees (www.pittsburghcitypaper.ws/gyrobase/Content?oid=oid%3A85932).
The Apple Fest was never a one-man show. But Don's death definitely leaves big shoes to fill.
"He was one of a kind," says Virginia Phillips, a friend of Don's and a co-founder of Slow Food Pittsburgh, which co-sponsored the fest.
This past Wednesday, Phillips said that "an army of volunteers" was mobilizing to handle many of the details and errands Don would have managed. Folks like Claudia Kirkpatrick, she said, were picking up apples from 10 orchards to be sold at the event, held 11 a.m.-2 p.m. at the Union Project, 801 N. Negley Ave., Highland Park.
For a $5 entry fee ($2 for students and kids 12 and under), fest-goers can sample apples and cider from area growers.
As in years past, the event also includes live music and other entertainment; treats like locally sourced pulled-pork sandwiches and ice cream; and of course the famed apple-pie contest. (Winners will be announced at 12:30 p.m. There's still time to enter; see www.slowfoodpgh.org for details.)
"The only thing that's missing is Don," says Phillips.