There's nothing wrong with "business as usual" in art, and Pittsburgh saw more than its share of fine exhibits in established genres and forms, from skillfully rendered paintings and incisive documentary photography to labor-intensive sculptural installations. But the times they are a-changin', and some truly outside-the-box exhibits have been appearing around town ... not to mention podcasts, performances and web projects that fall outside the purview of this article. In no particular order:
Within (Janine Antoni at the Mattress Factory, Sept. 12, 2013-March 30, 2014). Antoni arrived as a revolutionary presence in the art world 20-plus years ago, and it's only fitting that she's the first artist to take over the townhouse at the Mattress Factory. Particularly notable was her room-by-room sequencing, which utilized the fact that there's only one route through the building, up the stairs to a dead end. By cutting a hole in the ceiling, she signaled that the sequencing was intentional and not something we brought to the table.
Alloy Pittsburgh (Carrie Furnaces, Rankin, Sept. 28-Oct. 26). Chris McGinnis and Sean Derry organized a monumental effort inside what's developing into a monument. Fourteen artists attended workshops, did research and created site-specific installations that variously enlivened and entertained, and in some cases changed the way I think about Carrie Furnaces and the history of the steel industry.
Glory Hair (Daniel Allende at 5139 Penn Ave., Oct. 11-12). The term "pop-up" has been tossed around a lot lately, covering just about every product and service imaginable, but I think of this as the first true art pop-up in Pittsburgh. Staged by Daniel Allende, who was transplanted to Pittsburgh for Carnegie Mellon's grad program (where I taught a class he was in), this unique event combined hair-themed murals, expressive, no-charge haircuts by professional barbers, and free beer and pizza served through a partition-wall glory-hole. A one-off by a one-off artist whose next project could be just about anything.
Terminal Moraine (Adam Welch at The Mine Factory, July 19-Aug. 10). What's an artist to do with an accumulation of work? Adam Welch brought a fresh, shall we say, "curatorial" perspective to the dilemma by repurposing a truckload of his paintings and sculptures into a labyrinth of sorts. It worked.
Oh Snap! (Carnegie Museum of Art, Feb. 21-May 12). Museums are plagued by the symphony/ballet/opera problem: Namely, how do you interest the younger generation? Seems that many don't care to be "interested" — but they might want to be involved. Starting with a handful of photographs from the museum's collection, the audience was asked to respond by submitting photos of their own, which were printed and hung near the inspiration. Billed as a collaborative photography project and "not an exhibition," this audience-sourced, um, exhibition got lots of submissions, many surprisingly good. Time will tell whether it's the beginning of the end — though I hope not — or a new beginning.
In a year filled with great dance programs, here are seven that transported audiences from their seats to worlds away.
Soap Opera (Attack Theatre, Feb. 2-10). Soap Opera mixed dance, mythology and opera music to tell the fictitious story of a terminally ill concert pianist — and his opera-singer lover's bedside efforts to keep him alive by reading colorful stories aloud. The work transported audiences into the stories, with the characters' inner lives culminating in a vision beyond the veil.
Pavement (Kyle Abraham/Abraham.In.Motion, Feb. 16). Pittsburgh native Abraham and his New York company re-imagined 1991 film Boyz n the Hood as a dance work set in Homewood and the Hill District. The work took its Byham Theater audience on a moving journey through Abraham's feelings on violence and genocide within the black community.
Moulin Rouge (Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, Feb. 14-17). Choreographer Jorden Morris asked what would happen if two innocent people were dropped into the boiling caldron of decadence, art and bohemian life that was Paris in the late 19th century? The answer was a marvelous ballet full of Parisian history, romance and intrigue, with lots of can-can dancing.
Frequency of Structure and Flow (Gia T. Presents, March 29-30). Gia Cacalano and her international troupe of improvisational dancers and musicians stepped into artist Miguel Chevalier's digital-media exhibit Power Pixels 2013. In the process, they took their Wood Street Galley audiences on an otherworldly journey of sound, motion, color and light.
Remains (CorningWorks, Jun. 5-9). Veteran Pittsburgh-based dancer Beth Corning teamed with Tony Award-winning physical-theater director Dominique Serrand to create this moving multimedia solo work. The performance transported audiences into a riveting realm of emotional loss, where physical reminders of departed loved ones haunted the living.
Compagnie Marie Chouinard (Sept. 28). As part of the Pittsburgh International Festival of Firsts, choreographer Marie Chouinard and her Montreal-based troupe blended drama, nudity and the bizarre in two U.S. premieres, respectively interpreting Henri Michaux's visual art and Erik Satie's music into cutting-edge dance.
The Jazz Furnace (The Pillow Project, Oct. 12). Director Pearlann Porter repurposed an icon of Pittsburgh's steel-industry glory days into a site-specific dance space on a gargantuan scale: Her Pillow Project unleashed its improvisational "Postjazz" movement style and video wizardry as a day-long extravaganza of dance and music, revisiting some of the troupe's most popular works.
Decades of reviewing have confirmed over and over the wisdom of Sturgeon's Law: "90 percent of everything is crap." So what keeps crusty critics going back to the theater again and again? It's the surprises. The bad ones make good party chitchat. The more pleasant reawaken the joy that reminds us why art is essential.
In no particular order, here are my favorite surprises:
A maturing master: Starting with his long-ago "Strindberg on a Shoestring" in a former upholstery-factory-turned-VFW-dancehall, Martin Giles' passion and affinity for dour Scandinavians has been no secret. Fast-forward to Quantum Theatre (always a mine for surprises) and Giles' bold direction of Henrik Ibsen's John Gabriel Borkman (Jan. 31-Feb. 24) with dry wit and, yes, surprising insight. A few months later, Giles' mercurial actor persona got its best display ever in Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre's production of The Kreutzer Sonata (May 30-June 22), a virtual one-man show by playwright Nancy Harris adapting Leo Tolstoy.
Polished nonsense: As a musical and as a play, Jake Oliver's Viva Los Bastarditos! (July 12-27) is a train-wreck of strained credulity, clichéd characters and boilerplate songs. But No Name Players' production was just so much fun. The energy level never fell below frenetic as the ensemble — mostly cast in multiple roles — overfilled the company's new home at Off the Wall Theater.
Perfect grace in classical drama: I'm always grateful for a chance to see and hear the works of the ancient masters, but was absolutely thrilled by Point Park University Conservatory Theatre's Hecuba (Nov. 8-24). At the time, I praised the chorus as the best I'd ever seen, but didn't name them: Erin Ulbert, Viveca Chow, Te'Era Coleman, Lexi Gleichauf, Linda Kanyarusoke, Aine Lafferty, Ariana Livingston, Corinne Scott, Kristin Serafini and Nicole Stouffer. Monica Payne directed them in Euripides' tale of revenge.
Learning something new: City Theatre's production of Daniel Beaty's Breath & Imagination (March 15-31) was a joy even without the revelation that it was a mostly true story about a real guy very much worth knowing. Roland Hayes rose from tenant farmer to international stardom singing both opera and spirituals, but was caught in the Jim Crow net in his native land. Vocalists Jubilant Sykes and Kecia Lewis were superb.
Cross-dressing and multi-casting: Daina Michelle Griffith is a beautiful, sexy woman who totally rocked as various men — whacked-out hipster/Nazis — in Off The Wall Productions' The Zero Hour (Oct. 25-Nov. 9). Madeleine George's play is a bit bony, but there's enough meat for Griffith and co-star Erika Cuenca to create a series of engaging characters.