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Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Pillow Project's Paper Memory

Posted By on Wed, Nov 17, 2010 at 9:38 PM

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Interesting things are happening with Pearlann Porter's six-year-old multimedia-oriented dance troupe. If early shows, like The Concept Album Tour, traded in spectacle, this latest production demonstrates how far Porter's come: Paper Memory feels visionary at times. Notwithstanding one complaint I'll get to in a minute, this show is one to catch before it closes this weekend.

The "performance installation" for three dancers is built around a deceptively slender romantic narrative. Dancer Taylor Knight portrays a writer, while Brent Luebbert and Breanna Short seem to be dancing the roles of the troubled couple he is writing about (with Luebbert, of course, a fictionalized version of the writer). The wistful, searching piece explores memory as it's transformed by regret, wishfulness and the very process of remembering.

While the dancers are good, Paper Memory might be most notable for its staging. In the loft-like confines of its Space Upstairs (atop Construction Junction), Porter has created a proscenium-style performance space several times larger than the seating area (which consists of three rows of chairs).

Meanwhile, the floor-level stage is nearly three times as deep as it is wide, permitting (to use a cinematic term) a kind of deep-focus staging in which we can at once clearly see action happening an arm's length away and stuff going on practically in the next neighborhood.

Porter uses this to full effect to open the show. Far away, at the rear of a pitch-black stage, a tiny light flashes -- a small LED light hand-held by Luebbert. This portends a solo, which Luebbert lights himself solely by flashing the light on and off, strobe fashion. The effect is very cool -- again, cinematic, the live equivalent of jump-cuts.

 Another breathtaking gambit finds the dancers interacting with animations projected on movable walls behind them. Knight sits at a desk composed of thick, hand-drawn lines that seem quiveringly alive. (It's actually a real chair and desk, outlines by the animation.) Luebbert stands against a wall, looking like he's part of a piece of scribbled-on paper -- until the paper (complete with sound effects) is crumpled by an unseen giant hand, as Luebbert folds up with it, only to uncrumple and repeat. And so on.

Porter also uses the stage well. Knight is usually in our face -- often at his desk, downstage to our left, while Luebbert and Short, the fictional characters in this meta-fiction, remain well outside our grasp. And a climactic scene emphasizes the stage's depth by "paving" it from mid-stage to upstage with a trail of writing paper, after which Knight vanishes in a compelling reprise of the strobe effect.

The show also features a terrific original score by P.J. Roduta, full of emotion, intriguing texture and beguiling rhythm.

I won't estimate how deep all this is intellectually or emotionally, but it was a wowzer to watch.

Except for one thing: The lights. Not those hand-held LEDs, which worked fine. And with one brief exception, the staging and the lighting design meshed much better than in "The Itch of the Key," a piece Porter choreographed last year for Dance Alloy, and whose lighting design too often kept us from seeing what we want to see: dancers in motion, full frame.

The trouble here was the spotlights that illuminated the rest of the show: They might as well have been summer-porch buglights. Over the past several years I've seen hundreds of stage shows, and this is the first one that gave me eye strain. I know the space needs to be dark for the projection sequences to come off, but a few higher-watt bulbs could make this evening even better.

Paper Memory concludes with two performances this weekend, at 8 p.m. Fri., Nov. 19, and 8 p.m. Sat., Nov. 20 (www.pillowproject.org). The shows are at the Space Upstairs, 214 N. Lexington St., in Point Breeze. 

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