Friday, August 26, 2011

Dance Alloy Theater To Merge With Kelly-Strayhorn

Posted By on Fri, Aug 26, 2011 at 9:20 PM

City Paper has learned that the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater is merging with Dance Alloy, which for years has been Pittsburgh's premiere modern-dance troupe. While the move leaves intact the Alloy's long-running dance school and community-engagement programs, its future as a performance group is uncertain.

The Alloy, whose board had earlier approved the merger, is set to become part of the Kelly-Strayhorn under the leadership of Kelly-Strayhorn executive director Janera Solomon. The Kelly Strayhorn's board voted last week to approve the merger; a formal announcement is expected next week.

The merger is "an opportunity to expand our programming and do some really exciting things for dance in this community," says Solomon.

The impact on the city's dance scene remains unclear, however. Dance Alloy acting board president Cabot Earle said today that the group does not anticipate retaining any of its staff, and has already decided to forgo its traditional fall mainstage performance. The seasonal contracts of its five dancers, which expired last spring, have not been renewed. As to whether a spring show will be staged, "Our plan is that there will be," said Earle.

The Alloy, which celebrated its 35th anniversary this year, is the city's oldest and most storied modern- and contemporary-dance troupe.

Solomon says the Alloy's board approached the Kelly-Strayhorn about a merger. Asked why, Earle said, "We thought that there was good synergy between the two organizations." He noted the Alloy's history of performance and education, and the Kelly-Strayhorn's growing role as a presenter of dance.

Meanwhile, times have been hard for arts groups. In April, the Alloy held its spring mainstage performance in its home building, in Friendship, rather than its usual venue, the New Hazlett Theater, which is larger and would have had to be rented.

Earle acknowledged that the Alloy faces "financial challenges." But he says that the Alloy's funding struggles have been comparable to those of other nonprofit arts groups in a tough economy. He said Alloy board members looked to Solomon, who has overseen a successful rebirth of the Kelly-Strayhorn.

"We saw an opportunity with Janera and her leadership to provide a level of management and leadership expertise that would help carry Dance Alloy forward," he said.

The Alloy was founded in 1976 as a dancers' collective; by the 1980s it had grown into an artistic force. In the '90s, the group flourished under artistic director Mark Taylor. Its impact on the local dance scene has been considerable. Among its roster of dancers, for example, were Peter Kope and Michele de la Reza, who both danced for Taylor in the 1990s -- and who went on to found locally based, internationally touring Attack Theatre.

"I moved here because of the Dance Alloy. Michele moved here because of the Dance Alloy. Without Dance Alloy there would be no Attack Theatre," says Kope.

Other Alloy spin-offs included former Alloy dancer Gwen Ritchie's long-running but now defunct LABCO.

In 2003, the Alloy weathered a crisis that followed Taylor's resignation. The group was near financial collapse, but its fortunes appeared to revive under the leadership of newly hired artistic and managing director Beth Corning, a Minnesota-based choreographer with an international resume. In 2008, the group was one of five U.S. companies featured in a Dance Magazine article titled "Great Troupes Come in Small Packages."

Corning resigned in 2009 and was replaced as artistic director by Greer Reed-Jones. Reed-Jones retained the post after being named head of dance initiatives at the August Wilson Center for African American Culture, where she has launched a new dance troupe, the August Wilson Center Dance Ensemble. This past December, Reed-Jones oversaw a 35th-anniversary show featuring works by Taylor, dancer-turned-choreographer (and Pennsylvania Dance Theater director) Andre Koslowski and other Alloy alums.

Meanwhile, under Solomon, the Kelly-Strayhorn was building a reputation as a presenter of new dance, with initiatives like artist residencies and its annual newMoves dance festival.

Merger talks between the Alloy and the Kelly-Strayhorn began in May and weekly meetings continued all summer, Solomon says. She adds that the Kelly-Strayhorn had been approved for a $34,000 grant from the Allegheny Regional Asset District to pay for merger costs, including attorney fees and office-system upgrades.

Solomon said the merger might not be official until September.

The Kelly-Strayhorn will run the Alloy's education and community-outreach programs, including programs in the Pittsburgh Public Schools. It will also take over the Alloy's Friendship building. Located on Penn Avenue, the two-story structure has a large sprung floor and is suitable for classes, rehearsals and performances for small audiences.

What the merger means more broadly for dance in Pittsburgh is uncertain. Much depends on whether Dance Alloy re-emerges as a performance troupe.

Attack Theatre's Kope praises Solomon's commitment to dance at the Kelly-Strayhorn. But he notes that the Alloy was the only group that brought in big-name, cutting-edge choreographers to set new or older works on local companies -- rather than simply hosting visiting troupes. When such choreographers set work on a local company, the experience benefits the dancers, and hence audiences, for years.

Kope says he and de la Reza still talk about the work they did through the Alloy with artists like Elizabeth Streb and David Dorfman. If no one else fills the Alloy's role, he says, "That's gonna be a big loss."

On the other hand, Kope notes the marketing difficulties facing such repertory companies, which -- because they stage works by multiple choreographers -- forgo the ready identity of performing under a single artistic vision.

Still, if the merger does somehow lead to more dance in Pittsburgh, he says, "I think it's gonna be a good thing for everybody."

The Moth Launches New Pittsburgh Initiative

Posted By on Fri, Aug 26, 2011 at 5:07 PM

While last night's local installment of the popular New York City-based storytelling series was a hit, it was nearly upstaged by an announcement made right in the middle of the show.

Host Rudy Rush told the sellout crowd of 550 at the New Hazlett Theater that in October, The Moth will launch one its story slams right here in Pittsburgh.

The new slam is a sign of The Moth's love for Pittsburgh, where all three of its live shows since 2009, presented by Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures, have drawn hundreds and sold out. In fact, The Moth has authorized only four other cities for slams: New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Detroit.

The Pittsburgh slam is so new it's not even on The Moth's website yet (www.themoth.org). Nor is there a specified launch date. But WYEP 91.3 FM -- a series co-sponsor, along with Essential Public Media -- confirms that the venue is Club Café, on the South Side. 

Each slam will have a theme, with examples from other cities including "Drive," "Food," "Firsts" and "Chutzpah." WYEP General Manager Lee Ferraro says aspiring storytellers at each open-mic style event will put their names into a hat, and 10 names will be drawn. Contestants will perform for a panel of local judges. 

"It's really kind of a workshop for writers and story-tellers," says Ferraro. The events are ticketed ($8 seems like the default price elsewhere.)

Why couldn't Pittsburgh just start its own story slam? Story-telling, after all, is the original art form; we hardly need the Moth brand, swell as it is, to give us license.

On the other hand, brand names boost visibility, and a little institutional oversight couldn't hurt with quality control.

Case in point is the very nice show The Moth put on last night. Obviously, Pittsburgh is literate and loquacious enough to tell its own stories; just as obviously, The Moth brought out angles and talents we might have forgotten about, overlooked or underdeveloped. (Series producers work with tellers over a period of weeks to hone their stories.)

So we got Said Sayrafiezadeh, who grew up in Pittsburgh but had long since left town when his 2009 memoir, When Skateboards Will Be Free, was released to critical acclaim. (Here's CP's short feature on book and author: www.pittsburghcitypaper.ws/gyrobase/Content?oid=oid%3A64118.)

Sayrafiezadeh -- who said that his third-grade teacher from East Hills Elementary was in the audience -- told a painful if sometimes wry story about being singled out as Iranian, and a outsider, at Reizenstein Middle School during the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis.

Veteran Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter and columnist Sally Kalson wittily told of the professional crisis occasioned some 20 years ago when a couple who were close friends with Kalson and her husband told them, "We are not who you think we are." (They were fugitives from the law, living under assumed names.)

And former City Councilor Sala Udin (whose resume also includes numerous stage credits) displayed actorly pacing in a story that centered on his experience as a Freedom Rider in Mississippi in the mid-1960s, and the redemption he found in a life of political activism.

Only two of the five tellers had no big local connections. One, Kimberly Reed, recalled events surrounding her father's death, until which her sex-reassignment was still unknown to her brother or the other residents of the small Montana town where she'd grown up male. The alternately comedic and poignant tale also involved former members of Reed's high school football team, which she had quarterbacked, reuniting some 15 years later. 

While Moth tellers work without notes, arguably the evening's most craftily wrought story came from writer Elna Baker. The author of memoir The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance is in fact a devout Mormon, and she began by saying that she is 25 and has never had sex.

Yet while Baker's story involved considerable discussion of God, it was also frequently hilarious. "It's kind of hard to live in New York City as a Mormon," she admitted. That's because of all the things Mormons must say "no" to, including but not limited to alcohol, caffeine and sex outside marriage.

Baker's premise was that she was thus free to say "yes" to everything else, encompassing both white lies that got her swag at job fairs to and the bigger fib that got her a seat on a 7-11 corporate-convention dinner cruise around Manhattan.

Her story also included a romance. The fact that its rom-com set up had anything but a Hollywood ending was as moving and aesthetically gratifying as we'd hope from a true story.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Squonk Opera, Post-America's Got Talent

Posted By on Wed, Aug 24, 2011 at 4:08 PM

Never mind Sharon Osbourne, let alone Piers Morgan. In the wake of July's appearance on its biggest stage yet -- the nationally televised NBC talent contest -- the art-rockin' stage troupe is back to work, touring old shows and developing a new one.

But first, a few words about AGT, and those judges' comments.

"We knew we could never win," admits Squonk co-founder Jackie Dempsey. In fact, to this day the group known for its complex musical compositions and surreal stagecraft is in the dark about who decided to ask it (a year ago) to audition for a show typified by ballad singers, acrobatic dancers and novelty acts. America's got talent, sure -- but the Americans who cast phone-in ballots for reality shows seem to prefer the familiar to the outré.

But what the hell, thought the Squonkers -- they'd already incongruously played Broadway, right across the street from The Phantom of the Opera. And the group, after all, has toured internationally for years, to critical acclaim.

Squonk survived early AGT auditions, including one in Minnesota for judges Morgan, Osbourne and Howie Mandel. And when the six musicians and their gear were shipped to Las Vegas for a second audition, they were mysteriously promoted to the Hollywood round -- the one on TV, featuring this season's top 48 acts -- without even having to perform.

To this day, Dempsey told CP this week, the group doesn't know who at AGT was advocating so hard for Squonk, despite the group's idiosyncracies.

In AGT land, said idiosyncracies included refusing to cover someone else's music, despite being repeatedly asked to do so by AGT personnel. "You'll get a lot more votes from America if you do a cover," Dempsey says they were told.

"The show doesn't really seem to celebrate creativity," Dempsey adds. Once, she says, she saw Osbourne tell another contestant, a female singer-songwriter: "We really love your voice, we think you're really talented, but we can't judge you unless you play a song we already know."

"Songwriting is actually a talent," Dempsey says. "But they just don't see it that way."

"If we would have played ‘Billie Jean' or something, we could have won a million bucks," she jokes. (The show's grand prize is $1 million.)

Instead, on its July 12 TV appearance, Squonk performed a truncated, 90-second version of "Majesty," the finale to its newest show, 2011's Mayhem and Majesty. The production came complete with video projections on screens rising from the stage, singer Autumn Ayers riding on the moon, and co-founder and horn-player Steve O'Hearn doing his best impersonation of a cherub, complete with wings.

Then the judges spoke.

"It really was not good, the song," said Osbourne. "It messed with my head."

"This is what I imagine hell is like," said Morgan.

 While Osbourne did praise Squonk's musicianship, the only judge who didn't "buzz" the group was Howie Mandel, who puckishly told the performers, "When you watch you, it's kind of like a drug, and I didn't know where I was."

Dempsey says she was really surprised only by designated "mean guy" Morgan's jabs at Squonk's technical proficiency, including his comment that Dempsey had missed every third note on her keyboard. "I was really taken aback, because that wasn't happening," she says.

While AGT doesn't reveal audience-vote totals, Squonk didn't make it to the next round. Six weeks later, this season's remaining AGT contestants included motorcycle daredevils, the splashy Miami All-Stars dance troupe and a jump-rope team.

Meanwhile, as of Aug. 23, the YouTube page featuring the group's appearance had garnered 36,042 views and similarly divided responses. There were 170 "dislikes" ("dreadful," "HORRIBLE") and 118 "likes" ("exciting," "not as good as jackie evancho but alright I guess").

Interviewed this week, Dempsey wouldn't bite on the question "What would you do differently?" But she did acknowledge that Squonk's production design wasn't ideal for television. The group always performs live, in person, and O'Hearn designs the set in a sort of widescreen format. "We're used to people seeing the whole picture all the time," she says. But with TV cameras isolating performers and stage elements, "That's not what America saw."

Still, no regrets. "We got what we wanted in terms of exposure," says Dempsey, adding, "We're glad to move on from it."

And moving on they are … with new promotional materials that include the quote: "‘Completely bonkers' -- Piers Morgan."

In fact, you can see Squonk (www.squonkopera.org) live as soon as next week. The troupe has two bookings for its extraterrestrial-themed show Astro-Rama, both just a couple hours' drive from home.

The first is Aug. 31 and Sept. 1, at Frostburg State University, in Maryland. (The "UFO" that crashes to promote the show is set to land on campus this weekend.) And on Sept. 16 and 17, Squonk performs Astro-Rama in Cleveland, as part of the new-media-themed Ingenuity Festival. "We're calling it our peace mission to Cleveland, to encourage Pittsburghers to come," says Dempsey.

Those shows will be your first chances to see Astro-Rama nearby since its Pittsbugh-premiere run, in October 2008 in Schenley Plaza. (The show was the subject of the inaugural Program Notes blog post: www.pittsburghcitypaper.ws/gyrobase/Content?oid=oid%3A54008.)

And that's not all the post-AGT Squonk is up to. It's still touring its celebrate-your-town show Hometown Opera Series (with the 22nd venue, in Elizabethtown, Ky., forthcoming). It's still touring Mayhem and Majesty. And it's starting work on a new project it hopes to premiere next summer, for the troupe's 20th anniversary, right here in Pittsburgh.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Quantum Theatre’s Twelfth Night

Posted By on Fri, Aug 19, 2011 at 4:02 PM

Probably the most intriguing anachronism in the delightful production of this Shakespeare comedy is the prop lists' inclusion of American Express cards.

Whenever the script calls for "gold" or a "purse" to be handed over, out comes the plastic.

It's not the anachronism itself that's interesting. Shakespeare himself put a mechanical clock in Julius Caeser, for crying out loud. And adaptations of his plays are famously reworked, often set in historical (or ahistorical) settings pretty remote from anything dreamt of in the Bard's Elizabethan dramturgy.

This production, however, isn't really like that. True, the costumes, by Robert C.T. Steele and Tyler Holland, are an entirely whimsical mix of everything from ruffed collars to corsets, hoodies and jeggings. Yet though the show's set in no explicit time period, it still takes place in an Illyria where no one has phones; characters are tricked by forged hand-written letters; and the copious music is played mostly on an acoustic stringed instrument (in this case, a ukulele, but still). 

The credit cards might reference the fact that several of the characters, including shipwrecked, each-presumed-dead-by-the-other twins Viola and Sebastian, are both travelers -- strangers in a strange land, of the sort who use plastic in lieu of cash. But native Illyrians Orsino and Olivia wield AmEx too.

Or maybe the cards are just a little joke by director Karla Boos, something to go along with the explicitly modern, almost featureless stucco-and-glass exterior of the vacant West Penn Research Facility building (in Bloomfield) in whose outdoor entry courtyard the play is staged.

But I'll bet it's that plus a commentary on the fact that the characters in this comedy are always spending money. Every other scene, it seems. I can't remember another Shakespeare play where the act of spending (as opposed to the more philosophical consideration of greed, as in Lear) is so commonplace. And certainly not one of the comedies.

If that's the reason for the plastic, it's a good call. There's no missing some of Twelfth Night's subtext -- the homoeroticism, for instance, in a play where the central character, Viola, is a young woman who, dressed as a young man, falls in love with the older man she's serving, who in turn has some erotic interest in the young man he believes his servant to be; even as Viola is likewise beloved by a woman who thinks she's a young man. But I might have missed the prevalence of financial interactions entirely if not for the underlining effect of those out-of-place credit cards.

Twelfth Night continues with three more performances through Sun., Aug. 28. www.quantumtheatre.com

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Sprout Fund Downtown Art Project Call for Artists

Posted By on Tue, Aug 9, 2011 at 3:30 PM

For years, Pittsburgh's City-County Building has faced a giant canvas many an artist would envy: the blank, beige side of Downtown's multi-story Law and Finance Building, which looms across Grant Street between Fourth Avenue and Forbes, over a small surface parking lot.

If you think you have what it takes to make that dull wall sing, now's the time to say. The Sprout Fund has announced a $100,000 public-art project for the site, and it's issued a call for artists with a deadline of Sept. 12.

You don't even need a design idea yet. All Sprout wants by Sept. 12 is your qualifications; an application is available at www.publicart.sproutfund.org. The nonprofit will then select three to five artists or artist teams to begin developing ideas for the wall.

While Sprout is best known for the dozens of murals it has funded and facilitated around town, don't limit your imagination, says Sprout Public Art Manager Curt Gettman. The winning idea won't necessarily be a mural. It could be a sculpture, perhaps affixed to the building. Or it could be an artwork that comes alive only at night, like a projection or a creation with LED lights. Or something else entirely.

The $100,000 budget covers the artist commission and material costs; other expenses, including installation, will be separate.

This is the largest single project Sprout has ever attempted. It's meant, Gettman says, to commemorate the group's 10th anniversary.

 Sprout provides small-scale arts funding for arts groups and individual artists; commissions public artworks -- more than 50 of them, mostly murals; involves community stakeholders in the creation of artworks in their neighborhoods; and hosts its annual Hot House fundraiser.

Community engagement is also part of the Law and Finance Building process. Once the finalists are selected, Gettman says, Downtown stakeholders will be invited to meet with them and provide input, probably in October. The designs are scheduled to be unveiled on Dec. 31, installation to begin next spring.

The site presents unique visual challenges, including that parking lot and the presence of other prominent artworks nearby, including the Oxford Center fountain and the City-County Building's own statue of former Mayor Richard Caliguiri.

 "Whoever is selected is going to have to think about context very carefully," notes Gettman. In light of such challenges, Sprout is encouraging applicants to work in teams -- a visual artist with an architect, say.

 "We have a responsibility to do something really good if there's going to be that many people looking at it," he says.

Applicants can direct questions to Gettmann at 412-325-0646 or curt@sproutfund.org.

In addtion, Sprout is hosting an informational session on the project at its office, at 5423 Penn Ave., in Garfield, at 6 p.m. Tue., Aug. 23.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Writer Horacio Castellanos Moya Leaves Town

Posted By on Wed, Aug 3, 2011 at 6:23 PM

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The acclaimed Salvadoran novelist who came to Pittsburgh in 2006 under the auspices of City of Asylum/Pittsburgh was scheduled to leave town today for greener (or at least flatter) pastures. Quite literally, in fact -- he's off to a teaching post at the University of Iowa.

Moya gave a final reading last week, appropriately enough sponsored by City of Asylum. On July 27, about 150 people sat under a tent on Sampsonia Way to hear him read from his latest novel, Tyrant Memory (New Directions Books). 

Tyrant Memory is the third of his 10 novels to be published during his five years in Pittsburgh, and the latest in English.

While he speaks fluent English, Moya writes in Spanish. New Directions' publication of Senselessness, his first novel translated into English, was the occasion of my 2008 feature story about him: www.pittsburghcitypaper.ws/gyrobase/Content?oid=oid%3A50720. That book brought Moya, who turns 54 this year, his first widespread acclaim in North America, with strong reviews in outlets including The Village Voice, The Nation and Slate. (Moya's other admirers have included the late Roberto Bolaño.)

 Tyrant, Memory, meanwhile, was the novel Moya was working on when he first came to Pittsburgh, from Frankfort, Germany. He says he wrote at least 70 percent of it here: "I could write this novel because I had a chance of getting distance from my country."

Moya originally fled El Salvador in after receiving death threats following the publication, in 1997, of his satiric novel El Asco, which took his country to task for … most everything.

Tyrant Memory is Moya's first historical novel. Most of it takes place in 1944 in El Salvador, a year of political upheaval that saw an attempted coup against the country's pro-Nazi dictator.

The book is structured chiefly as a series of diary entries. One set is by a 43-year-old mother whose husband is a poltical prisoner. Another series follows a pair of political fugitives; Moya read a section with the two holed up in a church attic.

His reading and brief talk suggested that the book was full of Moya's trademark dark humor and narrative and thematic complications. The political prisoner, for instance, is a former secretary to the dictator who left the country, returned as a Communist secret agent, and married a rich woman, herself a conservative Catholic.

At the reading, Moya thanked City of Asylum/Pittsburgh, whose establishment was spearheaded by local entrepreneur Henry Reese to give sanctuary to writers persecuted in their home countries. The group provided Moya with housing, a small living stipend and other benefits until he got on his feet. Moya also thanked University of Pittsburgh writing professor Chuck Kinder (who was in attendance) for help getting him teaching work at Pitt.

And, characteristically, Moya made a wry joke about his life in self-imposed exhile and his seemingly abrupt departure from Pittsburgh: "The last 20 years of my life I've lived in like six cities, and I just escape."

 

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