In 2004, Beth Corning left Minnesota, toting an international résumé as a performer and choreographer, and came to lead Pittsburgh's Dance Alloy Theater. When the Pittsburgh International Festival of Firsts rolled around that October, it took the newcomer by surprise. "I thought, 'This is really exciting,'" says Corning. "It's like, 'Whoa, check this out.'"
Others on the local scene agreed with Corning's assessment of the event, which was the first edition of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust's multi-week program of U.S. and world premieres by international artists. Quantum Theatre's Karla Boos, for instance, calls the 2004 Fest "extraordinary." Now the second Festival of Firsts is due to start Oct. 10, with artists from six nations offering seven performance works and a visual-art exhibit, none yet seen in the United States. And Corning says she's already buying tickets for Dance Alloy's own guest artists.
Curator Paul J. Organisak -- the Pittsburgh Dance Council chief and the Trust's vice-president for programming -- and associate curator Ben Harrison sought work that would, to borrow words from Samuel Beckett, "find a form that accommodates the mess" of modern life. Harrison, associate curator for performance at The Andy Warhol Museum, says that this Fest, like the first, is meant to complement the Carnegie Museum of Art's Carnegie International. It was also partly inspired by The Warhol's own Off The Wall performance series.
The first group Harrison and Organisak chose was Kassys, a Dutch troupe each saw at New York's Under the Radar series. The group's wild, movement-based "physical-theater" approach manifests in Liga, Oct. 16-18, at the New Hazlett Theater. Liga opens with video of actors who have just completed a show -- and continues interrogating the human condition by doubling back to present, live, the performance itself.
Also at the Hazlett: the U.S. premiere of The Department (Oct. 23 and 24), a classic dance-theater work by Norway's acclaimed Jo Strømgren Kompani that's set in "the innermost and secret office of an imaginary government" with surveillance tendencies. A more straight-up dance performance, meanwhile, is Ballet Maribor's Radio and Juliet, Oct. 10 and 11, at the Byham Theater. The Slovenian company runs Shakespeare's tragedy in reverse to a score of Radiohead tunes.
Those three shows -- like most of the 2004 Festival of Firsts -- will be staged in traditional theater spaces. That approach worked well last time: Tracy Brigden, whose City Theatre hosted British troupe Theatre 0, recalls that black-box-style performance as "an electric and wildly inventive evening of theater" that left "many moments and images ... still vivid in my mind four years later."
But the 2008 edition, says Harrison, is also about "taking theater out of the theater." Two shows exemplify that theme. With his Guided Tour (Oct. 13-15), British performance artist Peter Reder does for the Carnegie Museums of Art and Natural History what he's done for historic buildings in Edinburgh, Moscow and Bucharest: leads audiences behind the scenes to relate a "history" of the structure that mixes fact and philosophizing with outright lies.
Also intriguing is El Eco de la Sombra (Echo of the Shadow), a "performance tableaux" by Barcelona's Teatro de Los Sentidos. It's staged in Shadyside's cavernous Ellis School Armory on 10 dates (Oct. 15-25) -- with timed admissions for one patron at a time to a labyrinth full of performers where, says Harrison, your shadow follows you while a story develops in the interaction between patron and actors.
Rounding out the 2008 Festival are: a world premiere by New York-based saxophone star Rudresh Mahanthappa, who blends Indian classical music with jazz (Oct. 10 and 11); 13 Most Beautiful ... Songs for Andy Warhol's Screen Tests, a commissioned world premiere that pairs Warhol's famed portrait-style short films with original music by former members of rock band Luna, performed live (Oct. 24 and 25); and Gravity of Light, a large-scale installation by artist brothers Doug and Mike Starns, in a Strip District warehouse. Admission to Gravity of Light is free; tickets to other shows range from $19-40; most are in the $20-25 range, with package discounts available.
One thing this Festival of Firsts lacks is Asian or African artists; the 2004 model, for instance, featured Japan's avant-garde troupe Pappa Tarahumara. Harrison says he and Organisak pursued one African dance company, but couldn't find a U.S.-premiere work that matched the festival's needs. Similarly, he says, neither curator managed to scout Asian artists.
The 2004 Festival drew about 23,000 people, says Trust spokesman Mark Power -- about 13,000 of whom attended free, outdoor performances by Theatre Titanick, a German troupe which staged a carnivalesque interpretation of the sinking of the Titanic on a barge docked in the Allegheny River. Though there's no public spectacle on that scale this year, expectations remain high.
"Most towns don't get this [kind of showcase]," says Dance Alloy's Corning, who's actually worked with Jo Strømgren Kompani's namesake founder. But while she hasn't heard of most of this year's Festival artists, "That's even better, for my part."
Pittsburgh International Festival of Firsts. Oct. 10-25. 412-456-666 or www.pifof.org