Monday, May 4, 2009
Charles "Teenie" Harris was the artist as photojournalist and vice-versa. The Hill District native might have spent his working life doing studio jobs and, more famously, on assignment for the Pittsburgh Courier. But his workaday documentation was also a huge -- perhaps unparalleled -- statement about a diverse and vibrant community. Many of the shots were posed, but the tens of thousands of negatives credited to him, and now owned by the Carnegie Library, offer a rich counternarrative to the racial stereotypes about blacks that pervaded mass culture before and since.
Thus, one of many satisfactions of this dance performance, which got its Pittsburgh premiere at the Byham last Saturday. Acclaimed New York-based choreographer Brown understands that a primary value of Harris's images lies in the commonplace nature of the people and places they depict.
The photos were light on the famous jazz musicians and athletes he also shot from the 1930s to the 1970s. In fact, Brown's selections weren't even that heavy on Harris's most famous images of ordinary folks (a notable exception being that one of the tiny boy with the giant boxing gloves). A majority, instead, were along the lines of the smiling diner waittress, a pencil behind her ear, whose image opened and closed the jazzy "Free Spirits" section of Act I: Regular people whose dignity and personality "One Shot" Harris gave a moment in the sun of his single flash bulb.
Pittsburgh's August Wilson Center for African American Culture and other groups had commissioned Brown to build a show around Harris' photos, and to set it to music primarily by Pittsburgh-affiliated musicians. It's hard fault with the music, which ranged from Billy Strayhorn and Ahmad Jamal to Mary Lou Williams, Lena Horne and Phyllis Hyman. And Brown and his dancers certainly didn't disappoint. The solos, duets and group numbers beautifully combined the grounded style of traditional African dance with modern and ballet movement.
Big gestures were the norm. Brown himself exemplified this in his solo in before a montage of photos of children. His movements suggested a mixture of joy and praise, even as he occasionally halted simply to gaze at a projected image. Passages performed by various permutations of the company, wearing olive-drab outfits recalling military fatigues, followed. Images of everything from the dapper Harris himself to a funeral, and folks day-tripping in a park were the backdrop. Bedraggled street urchins (black and white); a woman at sedan-side, dressed to the nines; a street panorama with hulking mid-century automobiles, streetcar tracks and storfronts; and a 1966 anti-job-discrimination picket on (I think) Downtown's Smithfield Street were all in the mix.
At times, admittedly, the photos and dancers competed for viewers' attention -- especially the occasional mystifying image, like one of two sets of males, one consisting of adults and the other of children, side by side and each carrying size-appropriate white coffins. You wanted to search the frame for clues -- but you didn't want to miss the dancers, either. It was almost a relief during a couple passages when the screen went violet and you could just watch the dancers.
The show's tactic of zooming in and out of large images was sometime effective -- how else would we have seen the hilarious expressions on the faces of two young women in a back row of a group shot from Rodman Street Baptist Church? Other times, the show's tendency to section photos into "floating" heads and individual figures seemed a betrayal of Harris' photojournalism, severing them from their necessary context. It felt like we were getting whole bodies on stage and partial photographs on the screen.
Overall, though, what emerged powerfully -- through the costuming and repeated motifs of music and movement -- is the sense of a culture building on itself, inventing new forms of expression while somehow incorporating the old. That felt fully stated, and a fitting tribute to Harris' multidecade career.
Tags: Program Notes