Program Notes: Arts Blog |

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Horacio Castellanos Moya

Posted By on Wed, Dec 23, 2009 at 5:44 PM

The lead piece in The Nation's special Dec. 14 books issue is on Moya, a former writer-in-residence with City of Asylum/Pittsburgh.

The humanitarian organization shelters writers persecuted in their home countries. Moya, who's from El Salvador, fled there in the early '90s after receiving death threats for his novel El asco (Revulsion), a scathing, darkly comic indictment of Salvadoran politics and culture.

(Read a fuller account of Moya's story, and his art, in my August 2008 feature story:

The Nation piece is ostensibly Wimmer's review of Moya's newly translated novels Dances With Snakes (Biblioasis) and The She-Devil in the Mirror (New Directions). But Wimmer takes the opportunity for a wider appreciation of Moya's fiction, which dates back 30 years.

Wimmer is best-known as the translator of the late Roberto Bolaño's critically acclaimed novels The Savage Detectives and 2666. She fairly anoints Moya as a leading light of a new generation of Latin American writers.

The article is titled "Novelist from Another Planet," Wimmer's way of describing a sensibility highly tuned to the horrors of violence while avoiding either assimilating or romanticizing it.

Some of her assessment: "Like Roberto Bolaño, who was a friend, Castellanos Moya is an anti-rhetorical writer, determined not to settle for smooth turns of phrase ..."

She adds: "Castellanos Moya has turned anxiety into an art form and an act of rebellion, and redeemed paranoia as a positive indicator of rot. Despite his estrangement from his country and his merciless criticism of it, he has put El Salvador on the literary map, giving it an international existence independent from the front-page news."

Moya is currently teaching in Japan, but still has ties here, and I've been told he's returning to Pittsburgh in the New Year. The attention in a national publication was nice news for City of Asylum, a volunteer operation based on the North Side (and involving partners including the Mattress Factory.)

It's also worth noting that last week, City of Asylum/Pittsburgh became one of only six awardees for the 2009 MetLife Innovative Space program. The award recognizes "artist space development projects that exhibit innovation, affordability for artists, sustainability, and community impact" and is accompanied by a $10,000 grant.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Renaissance City Choirs 25th Anniversary Holiday Concert

Posted By on Mon, Dec 21, 2009 at 2:31 PM

The Carnegie Music Hall show this past Saturday felt like two or maybe three concerts in one, and not just because it featured both the Men's and the Women's choirs.

In the first place, it was a very full evening: If you came early for the pre-show reception, and stayed for the traditional post-show cookie reception, the two-hour-plus concert stretched to a four-hour shindig.

Yet even if one isn't especially invested in conventional holiday music, the fast-paced show flew by.

Sure, the 33-member men's choir led off with "Silver Bells" and "The Most Wonderful Time of the Year," and a first-act set-change was occasion for an audience singalong of "Silent Night." But artistic director Andres Cladera knows how to keep things moving with variety.

For instance, turns by first the men's and then the women's choir in the first act were followed by a beautiful collaboration with the Edgewood Symphony Orchestra. (How they fit everyone on the Music Hall's stage, we can only guess.) This sequence ended with the traditional Handel's "Hallelujah" chorus; other highlights included selections from Saint-Saëns "Christmas Oratorio."

And there was plenty of other gorgeous stuff, from a renditions of the Appalachian carol "I Wonder As I Wander" (with a solo by tenor John Mueller) to "Little David Play On Your Harp," another traditional tune (solo by soprano Elizabeth Rishel). I also loved the setting of poetry to music in James Mulholland's "Winter Night from Mementos of Millay." It all sounded great in the Music Hall -- hardly surprising, of course, but I'm sure I've seen more lectures than concerts there over the years.

Still, with all the heartfelt spirituality, the RCC concert swung into balance on Cladera's penchant for humor. P.D.Q. Bach's "Throw A Log, Uncle John" (about a drunken relation) was done a wry turn by the women's choir. The men's choir nailed the tricky rounds of the spoof "13 Days of Christmas," and soloist Jessica Fritz sassed things up as a discontented Mrs. Claus in Jason Robert Brown's "Surabaya Santa." Other comic highlights were the set-closer -- the vintage Tom Lehrer tune "Hanukah in Santa Monica" -- and the decidedly more contemporary "Come Out for Christmas," which manages empowerment, affirmation and comedy all at once.

Nicely done, folks. The cookies were pretty damn good, too.

Friday, December 18, 2009

WQED and Filmmaker's Corner

Posted By on Fri, Dec 18, 2009 at 5:58 PM

WQED announced yesterday that it's adding significant local programming. In fact, the public-TV station is launching a whole new weekly show to feature the work of local filmmakers.

Hosted by longtime QED producer Minette Seate and bearing the slightly retro name Filmmaker's Corner, it's set to premiere Jan. 23, with a one-hour installment of Chris Ivey's epic, multi-part documentary East of Liberty. FC will air at 10 p.m. every Saturday (minus pledge drives, of course).

QED says it's long wanted to feature work by local filmmakers, and now has the funding to do it.

I have to admit to a personal take here. For nine seasons, from 1998 through 2007, I curated and hosted Film Kitchen, a monthly screening series for local artists. Most of the shows were at Pittsburgh Filmmakers' Melwood Screening Room; Filmmakers was a sponsor of the series, as was City Paper, at the time. 

Running that series was a great way to learn how much film and video talent there is in Pittsburgh. Most of its practitioners working in the short form (in works from 5 to 30 minutes long, say), and don't have too many outlets for reaching audiences.

Back in March 2006, Film Kitchen even screened an early work-in-progress cut of Ivey's East of Liberty

The busy local filmmaker was inspired to make this documentary about the battles over redevelopment -- and gentrification -- in the neighborhood starting with the implosion of several apartment buildings there in the early '00s.

(Here's a link to the preview story I did:

Film Kitchen continues, by the way, every second Tuesday of the month at the Melwood, under the direction of filmmaker and Filmmakers staffer Matthew R. Day. 

For a year or so there was even a Film Kitchen TV, featuring interviews with Film Kitchen artists and excerpts of their work, on the public-access station PCTV.

QED of course reaches a much larger and broader audience, and it'll be interesting to see what Seate and company come up with for programming. Working in the short form, most local and independent filmmakers fly under the radar in a culture where the feature-length film is the standard. While many prefer the short form, as it's more conducive to experimentation, others work in it at least partly because that's what their resources allow.

But films of less than feature length don't have many outlets, even in film festivals. A one-hour television format would seem perfect for showcasing the work of artists who have several works of 10 minutes or less, for instance. Seate -- who once served as a judge for a Film Kitchen contest -- is well aware of this community and ought to do well highlighting it.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Sorta Saturday at The Pillow Project

Posted By on Mon, Dec 14, 2009 at 4:10 PM

Dancers at the Pillow Project's Dec. 12 performance.
  • Dancers at the Pillow Project's Dec. 12 performance.

Pearlann Porter and her dance-and-multimedia troupe found a great way to both extend their Second Saturdays season and mark their fifth anniversary. This pair of shows on Dec. 12 reunited some alumni of the company with DJ Sorta, whose apartment record parties Porter says were a key inspiration for starting Pillow Project in the first place.

Primarily, it was an evening of loose fun, with the five dancers engaged in well over an hour of sportive and sexily playful dance. Joining current Pillow members Beth Ratas, Angela Essler and Kaylin Horgan were alums Ben Wegman (now with D.C.'s Liz Lerman Dance Exchange) and Dionna PridGeon (who's moved on to dancing, choreographing and teaching in Chicago.)

Sorta provided the tunes, with interludes to demonstrate his skills on the turntables. The disciplines merged with the charming finale, built around the dancers mimicking turntable scratching with a wet hardwood floor and squeaky sneakers. Between the 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. shows, performance painter Kevin "The Nerve" Wenner created a large-scale work to an original soundscape.

Since founding the group, in 2004, Point Park alumna Porter has steadily built a reputation for shows that are accessible, fun and spectacle-oriented. (I first saw her approach a few years back with Concept Album, a classic-rock-themed show in Shadyside's Hunt Armory.)

This was my first trip to Porter's The Space Upstairs, a formerly ad hoc performance space over top of Construction Junction. Primarily to host these Second Saturdays shows, she's transformed the loft-style space into a half-polished, half-raw lounge, that flooring complemented by a bar and little circles of upholstered chairs.

The wonderfully informal atmosphere indeed made it feel much like you'd slipped into someone's flat and a dance show broke out. Keep The Space Upstairs on your checklist for when Second Saturdays resumes next year. (

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Blackbird at City Theatre

Posted By on Sat, Dec 12, 2009 at 4:21 PM

Sex with minors likely remains our culture's biggest taboo. So thanks to David Harrower for having the guts to address the issue in a sophisticated way in this play -- and to City for having the guts to stage it.

Blackbird is not, of course, an "issue play." For one thing, it's about singular characters, not theoretical positions. For another, it takes place years after the abuse, when a young woman who might or might not be named Una confronts a man now named Peter, who had sex with her when he was 40 and she was 12.

Nor does Blackbird ever claim that the abuse was anything but; even Peter acknowledges that the act, for which he served six years in prison, was wrong.

Rather, what's potentially radical about the play is simply that it asks us to see Peter and Una as human -- to know them as more than abuser and victim.

Again, this is all by way of the playwright's job of telling a story, and exploring human behavior. But such narratives as they are told in real life are usually drawn in black and white, perhaps understandably, given the heinousness of the crime.

Yet for audiences prepared to handle it, Harrower offers a one-time abuser who is not a monster, but a man full of regrets. And he gives us a victim who, though though she still bears scars some 15 years later, has begun tentatively to regain control of her life.

Perhaps more radical still is Harrower's intimation about the cause of those scars: not the sex act itself, but a psychologically fraught misunderstanding between an adult man and an adolescent girl.

Blackbird, smartly directed by Stuart Carden, takes place in a single 80-minute act in the break room of an anonymous suburban office building. (The note-perfect set is by Tony Ferrieri.) It features intense performances by Robin Abramson and Steve Pickering.

As of this writing, there are three more performances, at 5:30 and 9 p.m. tonight and at 2 p.m. tomorrow (

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

George Packer at City of Asylum

Posted By on Tue, Dec 8, 2009 at 2:11 PM

The acclaimed author and New Yorker staffer's small, salon-style reading last night on the North Side completed a nice thematic package. Packer visited Pittsburgh courtesy of his friendship with Khet Mar, the exiled Burmese author who's City of Asylum/Pittsburgh's current guest. And he read from "Drowning," the August 2008 New Yorker article that described how he and Khet Mar met: He traveled with her while she was doing volunteer relief work just after the devastating cyclone there.

"Drowning" is one of two dozen long articles dating from 2001 to 2008 and revised for inclusion in Packer's new book, Interesting Times: Writings from a Turbulent Decade (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Other pieces (written for several publications besides The New Yorker) include "Betrayed," about Iraqi interpreters, and "The Hardest Choice," exploring how the 2008 presidential campaign was playing out in Appalachia.

Broadly, the book is about how regular people affect -- or more likely, feel the fallout from -- nationally and internationally significant events and movements. At the reading, held at the home of City of Asylum founders Henry Reese and Diane Samuels, Packer said his journalistic method amounts to finding "the ordinary within the extraordinary and the extraordinary within the ordinary."

No one embodies this better than Khet Mar, who spent part of her young adulthood in prison as a dissident, and who appears in "Drowning" under the pseudonym Hnin Se.

Packer encountered her as she was working in May 2008 to feed and shelter victims of the recent cyclone, which killed 140,000. The article's main theme, however, was the military men whom Packer says constitute the "criminally negligent" Burmese government. He calls them a "terrible junta ... one of the world's three or four worst governments."

That government -- infamous for its continual recurring imprisonment of Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi -- had been the target of a widely reported September 2007 uprising led by Buddhist monks. Less than a year later, in the cyclone's wake, the government did worse than leaving their people to fend for themselves: Packer documents soldiers explicitly preventing volunteers like Khet Mar from feeding victims.

Yet, Packer told the reading's audience of about 60, "In every country I've written about there is a Khet Mar, who in the worst of circumstances [is] holding onto this frame, which is literature, which is truth, which is the cause of human rights and democracy, in their own modest way."

The cause of democracy in Burma is a difficult one. President Obama, Packer said, has switched course from the Bush years by attempting to engage Burma, rather than punish it with sanctions, while still avoiding support of the government. Packer said this route is made more difficult by Obama's failure thus far to pick up the mantle of human-rights defender that Bush dropped. In Afghanistan as well, Packer fears, Obama is seeming more and more "a cool calculator of American interests" rather than the idealist some hoped he was.

Meanwhile, in Pittsburgh, where Khet Mar is living with her two sons, things are going better. Thanks to City of Asylum, she told me, she can write without fear, and she's been giving public readings.

I bought Packer's book, which he signed. Then I got Khet Mar to sign it, too.

Monday, December 7, 2009

David Hajdu on Billy Eckstine

Posted By on Mon, Dec 7, 2009 at 2:01 PM

Hajdu is an author, cultural critic and the music critic for The New Republic, and last week I spent some quality time with Heroes and Villains (Da Capo), his new book of essays.

He's a perceptive critic and highly enjoyable writer. The lead piece alone, on Pittsburgh-born jazz legend Eckstine, is nearly worth the price of admission: Even most Pittsburghers who know of Eckstine probably don't grasp the full import of his groundbreaking career.

The writer's thesis in "Billy Eckstine: The Man Who Was Too Hot" is that Eckstine was dangerously ahead of his time. Not so much musically -- though he was that, too -- but, in typically tragic American terms, racially, too.

The Billy Eckstine Orchestra, founded in 1944, featured the likes of Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Sarah Vaughn (who was the "second singer," after Eckstine himself). Hajdu says that the group "virtually invented a new style called bebop." But because its commercial prospects were limited, in the late '40s Eckstine embarked on a solo career that briefly made him a crooner whose popularity was on par with Sinatra's.

This was remarkable: In pre-rock 'n' roll, pre-Montgomery Bus Boycott America, black musicians were still largely relegated to "race records," 78s put out by small, black-owned record companies. Eckstine was smashing boundaries. His record company was movie studio MGM, which also signed him to a lucrative film deal.

But in the wake of hits like "Everything I Have is Yours" and "Tempation," it all blew up. Hajdu traces Eckstine's seemingly mysterious fadeout to a single photograph, one of several that composed the April 24, 1950, spread on Eckstine. The image showed Eckstine -- who was devastatingly handsome, and a fashion plate too -- surrounded by a bevy of young female admirers, one of whom was touching him, and all of whom were white.

From that point on, Hajdu contends, the well dried up. And Eckstine's film career -- he was just 36 years old at the time -- never got off the ground, either. That was primarily because he refused the demeaning servant roles and such that were the only screen work a black actor could get in those days -- especially if he was a sex symbol.

Though Eckstine did do some film work later in life (including one in Richard Pryor's Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling), he spent most of the rest of his career on the lounge circuit. Things didn't go well for him financially: Hajdu dramatically opens his essay with the 1986 raid on Eckstine's Las Vegas bungalow by federal tax agents.

In 1992, after a stroke, Eckstine moved back to Pittsburgh. The kid who'd grown up in Highland Park died here in 1993, aged 78.

In a book that also tackles the cultural glories, ironies and hypocrisies of pop from Mos Def to Alan Lomax, and from Sting, The White Stripes, Joni Mitchell and Woody Guthrie to Lennon, McCartney, Elmer Fudd and Marjane Satrapi, Hajdu's account of Billy Eckstine stands out. It's especially tragic, and essential reading for not only Pittsburghers but students of race in America.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Dance Alloy Theater's Alloy Unlocked ... Part I

Posted By on Sun, Dec 6, 2009 at 7:54 AM

The long-lived troupe's first mainstage show under new artistic director Greer Reed-Jones was a qualified success.

Alloy Unlocked continues with shows at 2 p.m. Sun., Dec. 6, and 8 p.m. Mon., Dec. 7, at the New Hazlett Theater. (Full disclosure: The Alloy's still photographer, Renee Rosensteel, is my spouse.)

The show opens with two works from the group's repertory: choreographer Susan Marshall's "Arms" and Donald Byrd's "White Man Sleep." The former is an intense duet requiring precise timing, performed here by Christopher Bandy and Maribeth Maxa. The latter -- a trenchant take on different people's responses to 9-11 -- is composed of a pair of linked solos, as performed by Michael Walsh and Stephanie Dumaine. Both "Arms" and "White Man" were sharply rendered. (Adrienne Misko will dance the woman's part in "White Man" Dec. 6 and 7.)

"White Man," which the Alloy premiered in 2002, was among the works brought in by the Alloy's former artistic and managing director, Beth Corning. As the Alloy embarks on a new direction that Jones says will focus more on involving the larger community, it was good to see the group embracing that recent past.

Meanwhile, the evening's two longer works represented breaks with Corning's critically acclaimed six-year tenure. Where Corning's guest choreographers were usually internationally known names, like Byrd, Unlocked featured work by locals Pearlann Porter (of The Pillow Project) and Gwen Hunter Ritchie (of LABCO). Second, and with varying degrees of success, both longer works featured video projections -- common enough in dance these days, but the sort of multimedia approach Corning explicitly eschewed.

Porter's "Itch of the Key," which concluded the evening's first act, was cleverly staged, incorporating her own projection design. The dream-like narrative (set to music by Phillip Glass with the Kronos Quartet) was a kind of creepy Edwardian romance. The video started with a full moon and moved on to depict, all in silhouette form, a spooky forest, a crepuscular ballroom and, finally, the heroine's bedroom. Most of the sequences features long columns of shadow, running downstage to upstage, that the dancers disappeared into and popped out of.

Danced by the company, "Itch" was pretty, and Porter's play with light and shadow was frequently engaging, as when Misko (as the heroine) "peeked around" the "corner" of a shadow, or when a small spotlight focused on her hands. But the piece felt slow to develop. Moreover, too often the stage was so dark that I couldn't see what I'd come to see -- dancers dancing.

Of course it was Porter's intent to keep some things visible and some in shadow, but too often the selection seemed haphazard: If I'm seeing the upper bodies of whirling dancers, I want to see their legs, too.

 The evening's second act featured Ritchie's "Look Me in the Eyes," a take on compulsive behavior that began with all five dancers apart, each focused solipsistically on the sounds to be made with the plastic grocery bag each one held.

A subsequent series of duets featured one dancer as the practioner of such behavior (sometimes suggesting a child with autism, say) and the other as a caregiver, possibly a parent. Highlights included a stunning duet featuring Maxa and Dumaine, and an impressive solo by Walsh.

The trouble with the piece was the large-scale projected video that formed the work's backdrop for most of its running time. The first video sequence, for instance, featured the dancers in close-up, in what appeared to be rehearsals for this same work.

This was wildly distracting. At question isn't the quality of the video itself (created by Staycee Pearl, herself a dancer), or what role it might play conceptually in the work. It's one of simple cognition. I have fairly normal cognitive abilities, and there's no way I could pay attention to skilled dancers busting their humps; a sophisticated soundtrack (by Andy Hasenpflug); and gigantic, fast-moving color video right behind them. But there was also no way not to at least occasionally look at this video. And that felt, if nothing else, unfair to the live performers.

Incorporating video into live performance is quite difficult: While later video sequences in "Eyes" were more abstract and hence less distracting, it still wasn't possible to look at both video and dancers.

In all, though, "Eyes" is a powerful piece and contribute to a solid season-opener in this 35-year-old company's latest chapter.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Michael Koehler at moxie DaDA 

Posted By on Fri, Dec 4, 2009 at 11:14 AM


A few weeks back I attended the closing reception for the final show at moxie's North Side venue. The gallery is going virtual, so the last night of its wittily themed Dia de los Muertos show was the last chance (for now) to see it in any sort of physical incarnation.

Going back to its first location, in a Bloomfield storefront, moxie's typically done good work, and Muertos was no exception, featuring art by such local stalwarts as Kyle Ethan Fischer. But I was especially struck by the paintings of Michael Koehler, another young Pittsburgh-based artist.

Here's one that was on display, titled "Almost." The human figure with the robot head is featured in a couple of Koehler's paintings at moxie, and in fact the image recurs in his work.

I like the combination of his subtle palette and the surrealistically devastated, post-apocalyptic landscapes he uses it to render.

What's most intriguing about "Almost," though, is the ambivalence of the imagery. Obviously, there's a lot of tension in the frame; those rainbow-like arches are igniting the robot-man into flames, after all (and the figure is lashed to the ground).

But the "rainbows" probably aren't -- they're a sort of grayish green, with a texture closer to stone than to light. And look at the robot-man: His body is clearly human, while the head suggests a decorated box a kid might don to play a Halloween robot.

Yet the way the head and body are joined, it looks like one being, not an entity that could simply remove its mask and go back to "normal."

Perhaps in reaching for the dandelion, robot-man is trying to transcend his nature. To be reborn? Of course that's what moxie's show was all about. But with Koehler's paintings, it's just as rewarding to be unsure.


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