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."