Program Notes: Arts Blog |

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Margaret Jenkins Dance Co./Guangdong Modern Dance Co.

Posted By on Wed, Oct 28, 2009 at 4:18 PM

The troupes' collaborative performance at the Byham this past Saturday, titled Other Suns (A Trilogy), was among the best dance performances I've ever seen, for at least two of its three movements.

The show grew out of collaborations between the San Francisco-based Jenkins company and Guangdong Modern, which is mainland China's first professional modern-dance troupe (founded 1992). The complete work's world premiere was in September, and this Pittsburgh Dance Council performance seems to have been the first time in Pittsburgh for both companies.

It was an enthralling introduction. Part one was performed by Jenkins' company, set mostly to minimalist music by composer Paul Dresher. The movement style was striking: at once big and sweeping and sensuous, with frequent flash-pauses for group tableaux that broke apart at the touch of a single dancer. The eight dancers moved through solos, duets and group passages of amazing complexity, also impressive for the near-absence of repeated movements.

Part two began with five Guangdong Modern dancers prone on the stage. As at the beginning of part one, the performers were harshly backlit. Where part one began with dancers in conflict (pushing, pulling), part two commenced with performers moving in unison, slowly, like creatures on the sea floor.

A series of impressive solos and duets followed, also to music by Dresher. Themes emerged, commenting on differences between the two cultures. Guangdong's dancers wore identical silver two-pieces, in contrast to the similarly earth-toned but slightly varied costumes work by the Americans. And the conflicts that emerged in part two felt more political than interpersonal, with a lone dancer left standing after the others had dropped to the floor, even as the music halted abruptly mid-passage.

Part three, danced by both companies together, seemed a synthesis. The costumes worn by all 15 dancers were now all similar to each other, but with slight individual variations. The music, though again composed by Dresher, became spacey, with the notable addition of a keening, Pink Floyd-style electric guitar. The group choreography (though a collaborative effort) recalled part one more than two, only much busier, on a much more crowded stage.

From my low-angle seat, in fact, a little too crowded -- going beyond the first act's pleasing stimulation to a kind of visual overload, and the sense that you were missing lots of interesting things going on upstage because of the dancers downstage. (I should note that others in the audience, in contrast, enjoyed this effect, and that the choreography was probably much more legible from the balcony.)

The movement style also became somewhat more familiar -- not so much because of movements repeated from earlier acts that created thematic unity, but because for the first time I noticed movements that were not unique to this piece: backwards running, slow walking, multiple pirouettes. Up till then, I felt I was seeing nothing I'd ever seen before that night.

Don't misunderstand: Act three was still fine, even splendid. It was just that the bar had been set high: There wasn't anything great about part three that wasn't already great about parts one and two. And with something as fine as Other Suns, that truly counts as a quibble.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Ralph Nader at Point Park

Posted By on Tue, Oct 20, 2009 at 2:53 PM

There was little in the legendary activist's talk to indicate that a half-century of battling injustice (and sometimes running for president) has discouraged him, let alone dimmed his sense of outrage.

In fact, his address (part of the school's Global Cultural Studies speaker series) was explicitly about spurring the mostly student audience to similar action.

Nader, 75, began with the story of how his law-school paper on automobile safety turned into the landmark consumer-advocacy book Unsafe At Any Speed (1965). Once he'd learned that cars were designed with marketing rather than safety in mind, Nader said, "It never occurred to me that the situation could not be changed."

"You're all capable of making similar advances" in fighting injustice, he told the packed auditorium. In fact, he added, otherwise "You are not a citizen."

Lacking the time or know-how for activism is no excuse, he said. "All social-justice movements start with people who have no power whatsoever," he said. "The difference between those people and today is, those people didn't make excuses."

In a talk titled "The Mega Corporate Destruction of Capitalism and Democracy," Nader acknowledged the many barriers to activism. These include the meager education our schools provide in civics and history, and our culture's implicit privileging of entertainment over education and civic involvement.

When the word "crime" makes us think of street crime rather than corporate malfeasance, and "welfare" of poor people rather than corporate giveaways -- even though the corporate kinds do more damage -- there's a lot of mindsets to be recalibrated. When big business calls the tune for government, says Nader, we live in "a corporate state" bedizened with consumer choices but little real civic freedom.

It was all cogent and uncompromising. Still, I was left wondering if there weren't a hint of discouragement in the plot of Nader's first novel, a 600-pager titled Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us! (Seven Stories Press).

The premise is that a bunch of real-life billionaires led by Warren Buffet (and including Ted Turner, Bill Cosby and Ross Perot) join forces to spark massive democratic reform of damn near everything.

The novel's protagonists, in other words, are the exact opposite of "people who have no power whatsoever."

The book's title is clearly tongue-in-cheek. Maybe it's all just Nader's way of making us imagine better possible worlds. But it also suggests more than a little worry on Nader's part that popular apathy is preventing change from the bottom.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Shepard Fairey at The Warhol

Posted By on Mon, Oct 19, 2009 at 11:07 AM

This past Saturday night, I was a bad arts editor and didn't go to the museum's big opening for Supply and Demand. But earlier that day I was involved in something arguably as interesting, as one of four journos doing a walk-through of the show for a documentary film on the artist.

The documentary is by New York-based filmmaker Jeff Feuerzeig, who some years back made the arthouse favorite The Devil and Daniel Johnston. Fairey led us and the film crew on the walk-through, a boyish 39-year-old dressed in a Clash T-shirt and muddy Jam Master Jay Adidas. He talked about his work; we asked a few questions.

Before a wall-sized piece on the Warhol's fourth floor, I asked what he thinks he gains or loses by moving from a street-art practice (that began 20 years ago with those "Obey Giant" stickers) to a gallery-based one. "The opportunity to make an impact is a bit more profound" on the street, he admits. On the other hand, he feels galleries provide a chance for useful "cross-pollination" in how audiences think about art.

The street work continues: As he did during an August visit, Fairey took advantage of his time in Pittsburgh to install a bunch of wheat-pasted murals around town, including several that significantly improved some naked brick walls in the South Side.

Other tidbits from the walk-through: In the context of Fairey's poster-style critiques of capitalism, I took his use of the famous slogan "Freedom of the Press is Guaranteed to Those Who Own One" on one large-scale piece in the cynical light it was first offered. But Fairey's interpretation is optimistically DIY: Buy your own damn press.

I was also intrigued by a four-image piece depicting the heads of four African-Americans. Two of them were recognizable -- Jesse Jackson and Angela Davis (the latter among Fairey's favorite icons). The impulse to imagine that the other two must also be political figures was mistaken: They were "two people from '70s haircut books," Fairey said, included to demonstrate how we "make assumptions based on presentation."

We also chatted before a version of the Obama "Hope" poster, the one Fairey's gotten in trouble over -- first for basing it on an appropriated news photograph, and just last week for admitting he'd lied about which photo he'd used. (He's been mea culpa-ing publicly about the latter.)

The poster, his first-ever endorsement of a political candidate, was a self-starter project, begun before Super Tuesday, when Obama was still a longshot. An early version said "progress" instead of "hope," Fairey told us. But someone in the Obama campaign he consulted suggested changing it because "progress sounded too close to 'progressive,' and that sounded too close to 'socialist.'" But it became "change" and "vote" before they settled for "hope."

Given how Fairey's work frequently criticizes militarism, I wondered how he felt now that Obama was the guy in charge of the guns we're still firing overseas. Fairey stands by his endorsement, but his feelings about Obama's performance are mixed. The artist who calls himself "unusually impatient" about getting art projects done has more of a long view about progress effected (or not) by the man he helped elect: "He has to be careful about how he expends his political capital."

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Jean-Michel Cousteau at the Pittsburgh Speakers Series

Posted By on Thu, Oct 15, 2009 at 11:47 AM

A couple times during this talk, I felt as though the ocean explorer and environmental advocate relied too heavily on video projections. He went to DVD four or five times, accounting for nearly half of the 90-minute program.

Sometimes he narrated the footage from his films. But much of the time, if you looked down from the screen on the Heinz Hall stage, you saw Cousteau just standing at the lectern, hands folded, his impressive head of silver hair bowed. Went to a lecture and a screening broke out.

Later, I reconsidered, based on something Cousteau himself said: Humans are visual creatures. And if we're talking about saving the oceans, we have to see what we need to save -- or to see at least the damage wrought by the invisible dangers we must save them from.

Indeed, the 71-year-old scion of the legendary Cousteau family nicely illustrated the concept by highlighting two different threats to the oceans. Both had to do, as he put it, with how "we are using the ocean as a dumping ground."

One video depicted the marine trash on the islands of Northwest Hawaii. Footage showed beaches of these uninhabited islands completely littered with the plastic detritus of some 52 nations -- plastic toys, cigarette lighters and more, which seabirds consume at their peril. Audience members gasped audibly to see it.

Perhaps more alarmingly, one beach was piled with thousands of tons of fishing nets. The nets, lost or discarded at sea by commercial fishing operations, had been retrieved by volunteers who'd cut them loose from coral reefs they were smothering.

Still, Cousteau said, "Much worse is what we don't see." In another clip dramatizing the risks of synthetic toxins, Cousteau, two of his female colleagues and one of the colleague's son underwent blood testing for PCBs and another chemical found in flame retardants.

Most dramatically, despite their age differences, Cousteau's blood levels were markedly lower than the young kid's -- most likely due to the child's exposure to flame retardants in consumer products and even household dust. Such toxins, we were also told, are found in concentrations hundreds of times higher in orcas such as those the clip showed majestically plying the ocean waters.

Even when not depicting or dramatizing environmental destruction, the video linked the audience to what Cousteau hopes to protect. One clip showed the endangered goliath grouper in its spawning grounds off the coast of the Florida Keys. A second took us to the coastal mangrove swamps 250 miles away where currents (rather miraculously) carry the huge fish's fertilized eggs to hatch, and where the fry spend several years maturing.

We never saw the construction projects or whatever threatened the swamps. But now we understood better why, as Cousteau said, "It is a mistake economically and otherwise to touch them."

Cousteau, an elegant but approachable-seeming figure, also spoke of collapsing ocean fisheries and the ocean acidification (linked to global warming) that's killing coral reefs. And he plugged his Ocean Futures Society,

He also recalled his role in convincing President George W. Bush to create, in 2006, the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in those same Northwest Hawaiian Islands -- mostly by screening his documentary at the White House and answering lots of questions about it.

But Cousteau's urgent call to action also asked us to acknowledge something that's not always visible to the naked eye: "We're all connected to the ocean, which is our life-support system."

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Cirque du Soleil's Alegría

Posted By on Thu, Oct 8, 2009 at 3:07 PM

Of course it's spectacular. We probably have a right to expect that from a show featuring dozens of highly trained acrobats and aerialists leaping about on trapezes, trampolines and springboards. In emotional impact, though, this production by the worldwide name-brand troupe fell somewhere between the two others I'd seen them stage here.

The first, Quidam (here in 2002), followed a young girl leaving her boring home. It wasn't much of a story, but it gave a shape -- a sense of purpose -- to the amalgam of otherwise unconnected acts, the fantastical costumes, the showy but well-crafted music.

Varekai, here in 2005, boasted feats similarly artful and thrilling. But the show spent so much time trying to suggest that it had a narrative that the absence of one was a distraction.

Alegría, by contrast, merely has a theme, and it's so ephemeral you can ignore it at the cost of only a little confusion. It's announced when the show's set, with enough rigging for a pirate ship, is taken over by a company of comic grotesques wearing some version of 17th-century aristocratic finery. Pompous and beribboned, long-nosed, haunches bulging beneath costumes, they seem to represent one side of the show's stated themes: "power versus weakness, the king versus his jesters, and age against youth."

But the mincing and disdainful "oldsters" are quickly and rather definitely sidelined in favor of what we came to the Petersen Events Center to see. A solo trapeze dance. A couple dozen acrobats (or so it seemed) bounding and bouncing across the stage in an intricate choreography. Two dudes twirling flaming batons. A contortionist pair making human origami.

As always, one is agog at the precision this all takes. The Russian Bars act, for instance, features two acrobats perched on long bars like flexible balance beams, both ends of each supported by one of two "catchers." First, you're amazed that the acrobats -- after each 10-foot toss upward and multiple somersault -- can land on the bar. Then you note that it's the catchers who are minutely repositioning the bar to within a quarter-inch or so of each acrobat's landing point.

Alegría is not all airborne. There's also some fine clowning, in particular a sequence where a wistful fellow, miming a sad farewell before a long steamship journey, manages to create an entirely separate character out of just his left hand and an old overcoat. What the snowstorm that closed the scene had to do with it, I wasn't sure, but it looked cool.

Another favorite moment came courtesy of the matched clowns who embodied all the qualities a certain kind of clown does: rude, anarchic, by turns contentious and conspiratorial. In short, both childish and childlike. In one of their several scenes, they fought with, and over, paper airplanes. When one stomped the other's aircraft with a big shoe, I laughed – but not as hard as did the little kid in the upper level, whose evil giggle confirmed the clowns had nailed it.

Except for the unsurprising fact that most of the performers are quite youthful, it's hard to see that the whole "age against youth" theme amounted to much. But then, if you're not going to make something of a story (as Quidam seemed to effortlessly do), why let the story get in the way? Audiences, perhaps, agree: Alegría, which premiered in 1994, is the longest-running of the quarter-century-old troupe's many shows.

Alegría continues with five more shows through Sun., Oct. 11.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Richard Parsakian Benefit

Posted By on Wed, Oct 7, 2009 at 2:34 PM

CP tends to shy from writing about straight-up fundraisers, especially pricey ones. 

But we'll make a deserved exception for the 6 p.m. Mon., Oct. 12, event at The Andy Warhol Museum. It's a fundraiser to help out Richard Parsakian, the longtime owner of Eons vintage-clothing boutique and a stalwart member of the local arts community.

If you're on the arts scene at all, odds are you've seen Parsakian, a tireless patron who cuts a stylish figure. There's almost as good a chance that you've seen his work as a costumer for local dance and theater troupes. (He's working right now on Quantum's upcoming Candide.)

Parsakian's provided unquantifiable amounts of help to such companies, but now he's in need of assistance himself. And the Oct. 12 benefit called (at his request) “It's a Wonderful Life" is putting a price on it: A $100 ticket gets you food, drink and entertainment. (There's also a $25 artist ticket.)

The event's fiscal agent is Pittsburgh Filmmakers. (See for more.) But all proceeds benefit the Richard Parsakian Fund.

It's a couple bucks in tight times, sure. But much of the arts community will be there, so -- like anything Parsakian is involved in -- it's sure to be a heck of a party.


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