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Saturday, March 27, 2010

Corning Works' A Seat at the Table

Posted By on Sat, Mar 27, 2010 at 1:50 PM

The debut of this intriguing new venture from former Dance Alloy Theater head Beth Corning, featuring Corning and five notable guest dancers, is structured around three processions. 

It opens with the first, Janet Lilly's slow, embellished walk across the length of a 25-foot-long table draped in black and placed, horizontally, far upstage from the New Hazlett audience.

Shortly, the other dancers emerge for a series of beguiling group scenarios. Some details are amusing -- everyone trucking about on foot-high wheeled stools -- while other gestures are poetically provocative. One that was used repeatedly involved a dancer reaching out imploringly with one hand (palm up) but with the other hand tucked behind his or her back, fingers wiggling connivingly.

There were also memorable solos, including one by former Martha Graham Dance Company principal dancer Peter Sparling, who clutched a briefcase to deconstruct macho corporate bluster, accompanied by a Kurt Weillesque version of the blues standard "Sittin' On Top of the World."

Second procession: The company moves slowly downstage, solemnly facing the audience. One of their number (dancer and educator Cathy Young) falls. The others look at her, then bless themselves, to knowing but slightly nervous chuckles from the audience.

More complex group work follows, like a tableau of simultaneous solos. There's also an amusing game of musical chairs (again, with very small chairs) in which all the joshing between dancers barely provides a veneer for the competitiveness. (It was all done to "Pop Goes the Weasel" as recorded in musical genres from chamber to heavy metal.) David Covey descends from the lighting booth for a funky little solo around the tiniest chair yet. Michael Blake (late of Jose Limón Dance Company and Donald Byrd/The Group) does a solo in a poufy pink gown.

All along, sections of the dance conclude with performers dumping costumes and other props in the metal trash can at stage left.

The tables are rearranged -- turned, if you will -- for the final procession, a Corning solo. It's a partial reprise of each of the first two, in which she walks along the surface of the long table, which now runs upstage to down. It culminates in a gut-wrenching solo sequence, the kind that was among the signatures of Corning's DAT work.

Seat is the first endeavor in Corning's reprise of her Glue Factory Project, an undertaking from her Minneapolis days in which she worked exclusively with dancers over 40 -- those who best understand, she believes, her style emphasizing expressive gesture and theatrical form over atheleticism and razzle-dazzle staging.

In Seat, that vision is wonderfully realized. For Pittsburghers, it's also impossible not to see in the show evidence of Corning dealing with her unhappy departure from DAT (whose board fired her last year, after her six critically and financially successful years at the group's helm).

While Seat (developed partly during Corning's visits to the other dancers' hometowns) was collaborative in nature, the imagery exploring the absurdities of competition, and the shedding of costume-skins, seemed to speak directly of Corning's experience, while remaining universal. So did the final stage imagery: the climactic splitting up of one big table into the three shorter ones it had actually been all along, each with its own adult-sized chairs.

A Seat at the Table is performed twice more, at 8 p.m. Sat., March 27, and 2 p.m. Sun., March 28. (The Sunday show is pay-what-you-can admission.) 1-888-718-4253 or www.newhazletttheater.org.

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Friday, March 26, 2010

Bricolage's B.U.S., Pittsburgh Playwrights' Valu-Mart

Posted By on Fri, Mar 26, 2010 at 9:55 PM

We're entering high season for Pittsburgh theater, so there's plenty going on, but here's a couple last or only chances for this weekend.

Both involve smaller companies that consistently do good work in the shadow of much bigger cultural institutions Downtown.

The last chance is for Valu-Mart, a Pittsburgh premiere by West Virginia-based playwright Sean O'Leary. The drama concerns a demographically mixed group of employees at a Wal-Martish superstore, all locked in a room because a display-case key is missing. It's gotten solid reviews as the kind of entertaining yet socially conscious work Playwrights is known for. (Here's CP's review, by Ted Hoover: www.pittsburghcitypaper.ws/gyrobase/Content?oid=oid%3A76591.)

Valu-Mart concludes with shows at 8 p.m. Fri., March 27; 8 p.m. Sat., March 28; and 2 p.m. Sun., March 29 (412-394-3353 or www.pghplaywrights.com).

The lone chance is for Bricolage Urban Scrawl. This is the troupe's annual fundraiser, but as fundraisers go, B.U.S. is as original, as ambitious, and as much about the art itself, as they come.

Each year for the past four, Bricolage braintrusters Jeff Carpenter and Tami Dixon have sent six playwrights on city bus rides on a Friday night, and ordered them to turn up 12 hours later, each with a completed one-act play inspired by the experience.

Then the playwrights -- plus six directors and a couple dozen actors -- get a whole 'nother 12 hours to hole up and mount the premiere of said play. And the six premieres constitute the fundraiser.

I attended the first B.U.S., in 2006, and recall it as a raucous affair. (Comedies, as you'd imagine, predominated.) This year's is similarly promising, with such seasoned playwrights as Lynne Conner, F.J. Hartland, Amy Hartman, Sloan MacRae, Dean Poyner and Tammy Ryan.

Moreover, Bricolage has also corraled some of the city's best directors -- John Amplas, Lisa Ann Goldsmith, Sheila McKenna, Robin Walsh, Mark Clayton Southers and Brad Stephenson -- and a host of top actors.

At $50, B.U.S. is pretty cheap for a fundraiser. For the talent on hand, that's an even smaller price to pay.

B.U.S. rolls at 7:30 p.m. Sat., March 27, at the Bricolage space, 937 Liberty Ave., Downtown. (412-381-6999 or tami@webbricolage.org)

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Nathaniel Mackey honors Thaddeus Mosley at Pitt Contemporary Writers

Posted By on Fri, Mar 26, 2010 at 7:01 PM

The demise last year of the International Poetry Forum left a gaping hole in the local literary scene. So it's good to see this series -- like the Drue Heinz readings, which recently hosted Elizabeth Alexander -- helping to pick up the slack.

Mackey, for instance, is a National Book Award-winning poet, for 2005's Splay Anthem. Last night at the Frick Fine Arts Building, he read from that volume and some of his other work, including From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate, an epistolary novel about an Art Ensemble of Chicago-style band.

Highlights included a poem about the work of another noted jazz fan -- Pittsburgh's own Mosley, a renowned sculptor. Mackey says he knows Mosley and had just visited the artist's North Side studio.

Mackey said the poem, "Double Staccato," was inspired by a Mosley wood sculpture that was in turn inspired by two jazz trumpeters. (He named both, but I caught only " Fats Navarro.")

Mackey, who teaches at the University of California -- Santa Cruz, celebrated Mosley's signature medium with lines like "wood's new kingdom come," "wood's walk talked," and described Mosley's piece, in part, as "a wobbly walk through the forest of semblances." The poem concluded, "dark woods spiking light, we leaned in. Dark wood's long way home."

I found a nice symmetry with this tribute in a moment during Mackey's concluding onstage interview with Pitt associate professor Ben Lerner, himself a celebrated poet.

Mackey writes frequently about historical events (From a Broken Bottle is set several decades ago, for instance) and is also much inspired by West African cosmologies and the ancient times that spawned them. Mosley, meanwhile, creates his beautifully sinuous sculptures from found wood (like driftwood). So when Mackey told Lerner, "This is a kind of animate debris I'm working with," he might just as well have been explicating Mosley.

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Thursday, March 25, 2010

Ali Spagnola releases The Ego

Posted By on Thu, Mar 25, 2010 at 9:05 PM

Working as I do in a clearinghouse for local music- and arts-related information, there's not a whole lot that blows my mind -- most acts you throw at me are things I've seen before. But sometimes an artist manages to defy convention to the point where I'm slightly confused, in a good way. Case in point: local musician Ali Spagnola.

She came to my attention when I was passed her new electro/dance CD, The Ego, which was released a couple weeks ago. The formal release show is this Saturday (March 27) at Alto Lounge in Shadyside. Digging back into her catalog, I realized that dance music wasn't always her gig; a few years ago, Spagnola released a pop album. More recently, she put out a record called Power Hour; this abum doubles as a drinking game. Shape-shifting? Beer drinking? Count me in.

The show Saturday at Alto has two parts: the earlier part, inexplicably, is the Power Hour drinking game concert. If you make it through that on your feet, the dance music part of the night begins at 11. The hooks on The Ego are pretty decent and the production is professional -- plus the lyrics are pretty sharp, if often nearly incomprehensible due to the digital effects added to the vocals. ("Bigger and better/ Too much is not enough/ I know I'm winning but I don't want the mercy rule," goes the bridge of the first cut, "I Want More.")

The first track is available as a download on Spagnola's site.

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Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Last-minute cancellation: April Smith

Posted By on Tue, Mar 23, 2010 at 3:13 PM

Hey, heads-up! When you look in tomorrow's CP you'll see that April Smith and the Great Picture Show are playing Club Cafe on Thursday. That will be a lie. Last night, April Smith was forced to cancel a few dates because apparently her tour bus is in sad shape. According to Opus One, the agency that booked the show, refunds will be available at point of purchase; if you already ordered tickets online or by phone, your money will be refunded automatically to your card.

Sorry we lied to you. Papers take a day or two to print!

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Is Democratic fundraiser blowing smoke in Buchanan's face?

Posted By on Tue, Mar 23, 2010 at 11:04 AM

Looks like Democrats are REALLY hoping that Mary Beth Buchanan becomes the Republican challenger for Jason Altmire in US District 4.

A May 5 Democratic Committee fundraiser, after all, will feature two of Buchanan's most prominent targets. According to a press release sent out by the committee yesterday: 

The Allegheny Democratic Committee will be hosting "Laugh Till You're Blue: An Evening of Comedy with Tommy Chong" on May 5 2010 at the IBEW #5, in the Southside of Pittsburgh.

... Dr. Cyril Wecht has agreed to be the guest emcee for this event.

"The announcement that Tommy Chong will headline our event, with Dr. Cyril Wecht as our guest emcee has already generated a great deal of excitement and we are expecting a good crowd." said Allegheny County Democratic Committee Chairman Jim Burn. "In addition to our traditional supporters, we believe that this event will appeal to demographic, particularly young voters, that we do not normally see at our traditional fundraisers."

Chong, of course, was nailed by Buchanan for his role in a bong-selling operation. Buchanan's widely-derided effort to prosecute Wecht, meanwhile, ended up with the charges being dropped. 

I like the in-your-face spirit of this line-up, though I'm not sure this is gonna connect with young voters the way Burn hopes. It's a better way to connect with voters who were young, like, a few decades ago. It reminds me a bit of Wecht's attempt, way back in his 1999 county executive campaign, to shore up his credentials with black voters by appearing with Johnnie Cochran. We know how that turned out.

On the other hand, Burn himself always amuses me. When I asked whether the line-up indicated that Dems wanted Buchanan to win the May primary, Burn said, "I never pull for Republicans to win. I'm hoping for a 0-0 tie."

 

Maybe Burn ought to do his own routine that night?

If you're interested, the fundraiser is slated to start at 8 p.m. (doors at 6:30 p.m.) Tickets are $30.00; for more, drop a dime on the Committee at 412-281-8901.

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Monday, March 22, 2010

Trying to find a silver lining for conservatives in healthcare vote

Posted By on Mon, Mar 22, 2010 at 4:02 PM

I'm a liberal, which of course means that I instantaneously side with the downtrodden, the outcast, the loser. (I used to be a Pirates fan for the same reason ... though there's only so much even I can take.) 

So although I'm happy that healthcare reform's victory seems assured, I can't help but feel sympathy for the conservatives who fought against it. All they can do now is await the onset of global socialism ... though perhaps some of them will be raptured by then.

In a gesture of bipartisan conciliation, I've been trying to find an upside for conservatives in all this, and I think I've found one, thanks to lefty media watchdog group Media Matters (motto: "We listen to Glenn Beck so you don't have to"). It comes courtesy of Pittsburgh's own Jim Quinn, who raises the possibility that healthcare reform will be bad for gays. 

Huh. You wonder why Rick Santorum didn't support it. 

Anyway, the folks at MM have been compiling previous right-wing warnings about what would happen if healthcare reform passed, and Quinn's predictions are featured prominently. He alternately warns of and counsels insurrection, and urges "rioting" in protest of the measure.  And then there are the gays. This is what Quinn had to say  in January about their fate:

Wait until what you love starts to impact on their [socialist baby-eating one-world government-run healthcare] system. That's right. Wait until what you love ... whether it's riding a motorcycle, whether it's being a gay man and engaging in gay sex, which is demonstrably -- at least some of it is -- a rather unsanitary act in many cases, and it could impact on our health care system. Now, I can't imagine the health care system coming after a preferred group, at this point, like gays, but you know what? Sooner or later, when the money starts to run out, they are the government after all, and you're not.

So there you have it, conservatives: Healthcare reform could, someday, give you the chance to punish gay people. So you've got that to look forward to, at least. 

Or do you? I mean judging from his caveat, there is some gay activity that Quinn feels is sanitary. Presumably, such activity would be outside government control. With luck, Quinn will devote an upcoming broadcast to that topic. Which I can then rely on Media Matters to listen to for me. 

In any case, Quinn's concern for gays certainly is a welcome change. As MM documents, as recently as 2008, Quinn was arguing that because "gay sex produces AIDS," insurers "should charge homosexuals more for their health insurance than they charge the rest of us."

Are you following this? If the private-sector punishes people for risky behavior (though heterosexual sex can cause AIDS too, Jim!), it's the genius of the free market at work. But if the government does it, it's an absolute goddamn outrage.

But in any case, keep reaching for that rainbow, Jim! 

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Healthcare reform passes, political headaches begin

Posted By on Mon, Mar 22, 2010 at 11:05 AM

Is it possible for something to be historic and yet not terribly surprising at the same time? That's how I feel about yesterday's healthcare reform vote in the U.S. House. 

Democrats got their shit together -- OK, I guess it was a bit surprising -- and passed the thing. Predictably, this was met with handwringing by the likes of Republican Tim Murphy, who lamented that, "A long time ago people stopped communicating and doors closed ... [W]e have to make sure this is not a moment that divides America."

(Note to Rep. Murphy: If you're worried about divisivenes, you might want to talk to the Tea Partiers. A Philly-based chapter of the movement sent out a blast e-mail observing that a pollster "has called the partisan vote 'a political Jonestown.'  We think that's an understatement." An understatement? How is alluding to the mass suicide of more than 900 people an understatement?)

Anyway, Democrat Mike Doyle voted for the measure, predictably. And Jason Altmire, predictably, voted against it.

I say "predictably," though a lot of folks were upset by Altmire's decision. But the conventional wisdom is that party leaders gave Altmire a quiet go-ahead to vote "no" on the measure. After all, as Nate Silver notes, the most useful factor for predicting how a Dem would vote on this issue was how Obama did in his or her district back in 2008.

In every district where Obama got less than 40 percent of the vote, the Democrat voted against healthcare reform. In districts where Obama got between 40 and 49 percent of the vote, the odds of a Dem voting against the bill were two-in-five. 

In Altmire's district, Obama took 45 percent of the vote, so he was right on the bubble.

Even if you regard Altmire's vote as cowardly, though, you have to admire the guy's finesse. His statement in opposition to the bill is a masterpiece. It begins with Altmire fretting over costs:

I ran for Congress in large part because I believe we need to find a way to bring down the cost of health care ... [While] the cost of inaction on health care is great, ... it would be an even bigger mistake to pass a bill that could compound the problem of skyrocketing health care costs.

Such bottom-line concerns are utterly consistent with what Altmire has been saying since last summer. Say what you want, the guy didn't flip-flop. (Of course, that's partly because you can't flip-flop unless you first take a position one way or the other.) 

Altmire follows with some blather about how the reform creates "winners and losers" -- as if the current system doesn't do the same thing -- but then hits his stride again. 

It has become clear that the vast majority of my constituents want me to oppose this bill. Particularly hard hit would be western Pennsylvania’s Medicare beneficiaries, which many experts believe would experience dramatic premium increases with enactment of this bill.

That bit about Medicare is a bit of a poser: Medicare recipients could see some improvements in the prescription-drug plan, for one thing, and the American Association of Retired People has been a consistent champion of the measure. But hey, it never hurts to play to the fears of cranky seniors. And truth to tell many of the cost-saving proposals meant to protect Medicare -- like reining in fraud and abuse -- are easier said than done. 

But my favorite part of Altmire's statement is this one:

I am acutely aware that my decision to vote against the health care bill will disappoint some of my constituents and alienate supporters of the bill. The politically easy vote would have been to vote with my party.

So just above, Altmire observed that "the vast majority of my constituents want me to oppose this bill." But taking an overwhelmingly popular position is an act of courage? Not sure that follows. 

Altmire's probably right that there's only lukewarm support for this measure in his district. And he's also consistently said that he couldn't support a measure that his constituents were strongly opposed to. Give him points for consistency, sure. But courage? Ehhhhh ...

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Sunday, March 21, 2010

Squonk Opera's Mayhem and Majesty

Posted By on Sun, Mar 21, 2010 at 12:17 PM

You might have heard that the Squonkers' newest show is somewhat stripped-down and nonnarrative compared to their usual extravaganzas. Nonnarrative, yes -- there's no thread of story binding this two-act program of 20 musical numbers at the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater. But as for stripped-down, M and M is approximately as carefully and opulently produced as stuff like 2008's Astro-rama.

This show, however, has a theme rather than a story, and it's all to the good. The intent is to visualize music, and the band and its rather large production team do this about every way you could imagine, from sound waves on a video screen to a giant pair of ear sculptures mounted on tall poles. The most interesting might have been the sand that vocalist Autumn Ayers sifted onto a little sounding board, which then formed into patterns from the vibrations of a speaker below.

How did we see this from our seats? The staging included frequent ingenious use of video projections. These were not only abstract epics emanating from mounted projectors, but live stuff shot by cameras deployed on stage -- including one tiny camera on wind-man and production designer Steve O'Hearn's wind synth (a sort of electronic clarinet). Others were wielded by band members. O'Hearn typically ran the video camera that was mounted on the end of a long, dolly-mounted boom, which gave us a bird's-eye view of keyboardist and chief composer Jackie Dempsey and percussionist Kevin Kornicki at work, as well as of the sand-covered board doing its thing. 

The band is rounded out by guitarist David Wallace, and the music was as good as ever. Maybe a bit better. Squonk plays a kind of art rock (my closest comparison would be early, Peter Gabriel-led Genesis), and the group ranges with ease from thunderous crescendos to delicate airs.

Dempsey contributed a number of shorter works, like little musical dramas for Ayers and the band. The costumes were funky and steam-punkish costumes, and new visual delights accompanied every song; favorites included Ayers' dance duet with motorized microphone stands, and another piece performed before a wall of photographer's umbrellas that slowly opened and closed like flowers. The show of just under two hours earned the packed house's standing ovation.

Squonk's about the only group in town (and surely among the few anywhere) that does what it does. There's one more chance to see this inaugural run of Mayhem and Majesty, at 2 p.m. Sun., March 21. If you can't make it, hope Squonk gives us another chance to see this splendid show. (They usually do.)

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Friday, March 19, 2010

Tomorrow: BRICKS benefit at AIR

Posted By on Fri, Mar 19, 2010 at 6:49 PM

Hello and happy Friday! Just dropping a quick post to let you punks, er, blog-readers that tomorrow (Saturday, the 20th) is a big day for BRICKS Pittsburgh, the cancer support/resource organization that my friend Charissa Hamilton-Gribenas founded last year after her husband, Rick, passed away from Hodgkin's lymphoma.

Tomorrow at AIR on the North Side, BRICKS releases its young adults cancer awareness/resource guide. It's been a year in the making, and a lot of local bands are coming out to celebrate: Coal Miner, Code Orange Kids, The Frantic Heart of It, Onodrim, Devil Deer and Shambolish are all playing the show.

It's an important organization and an important cause, and commemorates the life of an important guy (in addition to many others). I'll be there; come out if you can! It starts at 3 p.m. and runs until 10.

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