Program Notes: Arts Blog |

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

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:

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

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

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.

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.)

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Alex Blumberg and David Rakoff To Speak at Pitt

Posted By on Thu, Mar 18, 2010 at 3:09 PM

This broke too late for our humble print edition, but radio producer and journalist Blumberg and raconteur and essayist Rakoff -- both well known to fans of This American Life -- will give a free talk at Pitt at 6 p.m. next Tues., March 23.

The talk, sponsored by Pitt's English Department, takes place in Room L9 of Clapp Hall, at the corner of Fifth and Tennyson, in Oakland.

Blumberg is a veteran TAL producer, but he's best known lately for his work with NPR's Planet Money project, and the numerous awards he won for the show's "The Giant Pool of Money" episode, about the financial meltdown. Blumberg is also an adjunct professor of journalism at Columbia University.

The urbane and drily witty Rakoff, meanwhile, has written two essay collections (including Don't Get Too Comfortable) and is a frequent contributor to the New York Times Magazine and GQ. He's also a frequent guest on The Daily Show. And just because he's greedy, he's also an Academy Award winner for "The New Tenant," the 2009 short film he starred in and adapted for the screen.

The talk, which is open to the public, is titled "Telling a True Event." For more information, call 412-624-6508.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Silver Eye Fellowship Award show

Posted By on Wed, Mar 17, 2010 at 12:05 PM

Like the opening band that upstages the headliner, occasionally a runner-up in an art competition outshines the winner. I'd argue that's the case at Silver Eye's 2009 Fellowship Award Exhibition, which closes this Saturday (

The winning collection is Katrina M. d'Autremont's Si Dios Quiere (What God Wants), a series of 26 color images of her mother's family, in Argentina. All the photos were made inside what seems to be a single large apartment -- that of her grandparents -- or perhaps a couple such apartments.

The photos are wonderfully intimate; my first thought on seeing them was, "How did d'Autremont get into my grandparents' house from 1978?" (And my grandparents lived in Northeast Philadelphia.) There's the group family dinner shot ("La Mesa") but also subtle still lifes, like "Taza," with its familiarly chipped coffee cup resting on a patterned cotton tablecloth that still bears the imprint of water glasses.

Other images capture the overstuffed furniture (including a cupcake-shaped ottoman), the plush but worn carpet, the ceramic tchotchkes lovingly displayed. More formal portraits of individuals hint at the power of tradition, even as interior "landscapes," like a detail of a doorway in a shadowy hall, tell of loneliness.

Best of all, I think, is "Martin y Sofia." A teen-age girl and a toddler sit on adjacent armchairs, both facing the camera but heads turned to meet each other's gaze easily yet unsmilingly -- as only people very comfortable with each other might

Still, the familiarity in Si Dios Quiere can feel fetishized. There is nothing remarkable about the opened refrigerator, or the half-curtained view out a window, except that we know that it resonates for the artist, and that it happens to hang in a gallery. I was especially nonplussed by a shot of a disturbance in the nap of the carpeting, like something you'd notice during a dull moment in a family gathering. I doubt that was the artist's intent, but it emphasize a weakness in a generally solid show.

Meanwhile, I found more interest in a couple of the sequences of honorable-mention work playing on a flat-screen TV in the gallery. That's how Silver Eye generously exhibits the 10 honorable-mention artists' work.

If you're intrigued by a particular artists' work, it's a little inconvenient to wait through nine other artists' work for it to roll around again. But it's well worth the trouble in a few cases, in particular, Maureen Drennan's "Meet Me in the Green Glen."

The Brooklyn-based photographer documented the life of a pot farmer in California; her artists statement suggests that "Ben" and his associates live on the edge of the law and beyond the pale of social respectability. Drennan is working at a very high level of photojournalism here. Drennan deftly evokes the natural beauty of the rural surroundings with a powerful sense of socioeconomic insight, intimations of isolation, and clear-eyed character study. The subject matter and the intimacy she achieves, along with the curation of this imagery, should knock your socks off. 

Through Sat., March 20, Silver Eye also has a couple worthy smaller exhibits in its New Works gallery. Be sure espeically to catch Angela Buenning Filo's vivid, analytical images of rapidly changing urban India (like barefoot laboreres laying fiber optic cable).

Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Microscopic Opera Company

Posted By on Sat, Mar 13, 2010 at 7:25 PM

Opera isn't a genre we often turn to for something new. Aside from the occasional new work at the Pittsburgh Opera (like 2008's The Grapes of Wrath), we're mostly talking about work from the 1800s and earlier. Which is swell, especially with the wealth of talent on display in these parts, also through the likes of the Opera Theater of Pittsburgh and Undercroft Opera.

But this fledgling venture, created to showcase the shorter, contemporary "chamber opera" works seldom performed around here, does bring something new, and it's hit the ground running. With fine productions of the one-acts "The Proposal" and "To Hell and Back" at Lawrenceville's little Grey Box Theatre, Microscopic Opera announces itself as an important player.

Milton Granger's "Proposal" is a comic work in which a woman who's just been proposed to calls a meeting of her "board" – the various aspects of her personality, from 5-year-old to security guard to Sensuous Woman, each sung by a different performer. "To Hell and Back," by Jake Heggie (who composed the Dead Man Walking opera that Pittsburgh Opera staged several years back) is a harrowing piece for two singers. One is a battered woman; the other is the mother of her husband, the man who's doing the battering.

Intimacy is the watchword for Microscopic. And indeed, there's no getting away from the grand piano sitting 10 feet behind your ears, especially when pianist William Larson pounds out Heggie's thunderous score. (A few dissonant chords shocked some listeners right out of their seats.) And Carissa Kett and Erica Olden, as mother-in-law and daughter, filled the room with their powerful voices. They were singers, moreover, who could act, too, making for an especially potent performance.

Olden is a Microscopic co-founder, along with Andres Cladera, the troupe's musical director as well as the artistic director of the Renaissance City Women's and Men's choirs. And of course the cast reflected a fair amount of overlap with the local opera community at large: Undercroft opera founding and artistic director Mary Beth Sederburg, for instance, sang Sensuous Woman in "Proposal."

The only drawback to the March 12 performance I saw was sight lines. Grey Box's lack of either a raised stage or riser seating meant that if you were in the third or fourth row (out of four), you probably couldn't see any action that took place on the floor (which was more than you might imagine). And if you sat, as I did, behind someone 6'4", it was effectively obstructed-view seating.

But Microscopic's inaugural production shouldn't be missed. There are two more perfromances, at 8 p.m. Sat., March 13, and 7 p.m. Sun., March 14. ( 

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Two Downtown University Galleries

Posted By on Thu, Mar 11, 2010 at 7:26 PM

Here's a note on two visual-arts venues, one brand-new and one that might as well be.

The technically new one is Point Park's, located in Lawrence Hall. The entrance is on Wood Street, just before the Boulevard of the Allies; walk through the lobby, skirting a lounge area (with its own art display I'll get to in a minute) and down a short hall.

The airy, day-lit space just wrapped its inaugural exhibit, 16 oil paintings by the late Frank Herbert Mason. The longtime teacher at New York's Art Students League worked in a classical vein, with Bible scenes, landscapes and still lifes predominating. It's a nice start for the space, and it'll be interesting to see what Point Park does with it next. (The gallery is open 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays.)

Especially with the Mason show over, you're free to spend additional well-deserved lunch-hour time back in the Lawrence Hall lobby with Resurrected: After Exoneration

Export, Pa., painter Dan Bolick's show of vivid expressionistic paintings and drawings, from large canvases to framed prints, capture the intelligence, pain, anger and even humor of former death-row inmates who were later exonerated.

The men served from five to 27 years in places like Louisiana's infamous Angola State Prison. The prints include text apparently transcribed verbatim from Bolling's subjects themselves.

"I never though about freedom because I was faced with a natural life sentence," said Clyde Charles, who served 18 years. "And mostly, people who face a natural life sentence in this state here, they see the graveyard."

Dan Bright, who served 10 years at Angola, said, "No one has taken responsibility for the nightmare I lived … The cimrinal-justice system doesn't work for society as a whole. If it failed me, it is failing everybody."

The exhibit, sponsored by Point Park's Innocence Institute, is a smaller version of show last year at the Westmoreland Museum of American Art. It's up at Point Park through April 2. 

Across Downtown, meanwhile, is the Robert Morris Media Arts Gallery. It's in one of RMU's nondescript buildings, the one at 600 Fifth Avenue. The gallery's been operating for a couple years, but I first started hearing about it late last year, after RMU faculty member Carolina Loyola-Garcia became coordinator.

The latest exhibit, curated by Brigitte Martin of Lawrenceville's Luke & Eloy Gallery, stretches the definition of "media" to include ceramics. Ceramic Expressions is a cool little show featuring work by Pittsburgh's Laura Jean McLaughlin and out-of-towners Diem Chau and Joseph Gower.

McLaughlin's surreal style is familiar, but she continues to intrigue and unnerve with her permutations of human and animals bodies. Chau's contemplative evocations of domesticity are gossamer hybrids of fiber art and found china. Gower's more pop-art styled work includes large-scale takes on things like automobile hoods and tool chests.

The versatile little gallery remains pretty low-profile. Though you can sort of see it from the sidewalk on an admittedly gray streetcorner, there's no permanent signage outside. Still, now that you know, it'll be easier to make it over. It's open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays, and admission is free.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Ablaye Cissoko & Volker Goetze at Istanbul

Posted By on Tue, Mar 9, 2010 at 5:22 PM

I was drawn by the concept alone: a musical collaboration between a Senegalese griot singer who plays a traditional, 21-stringed kora, and a German-born jazz trumpeter.

Cissoko dons traditional robes for the performance, but not counting the video projection that accompanied one song, that was the lone adornment on the suddenly large- and bare-looking Istanbul stage. It was just the unassuming Goetze, hair slicked back, two trumpets (one muted) at the ready, and Cissoko, both seated.

The most intriguing presence might have been that of the kora. Its body was half a large gourd, the open face covered by calfskin, its neck about a yard long. Cissoko played it on his lap, the neck straight up, making it hard to see his face. He held it with three fingers of each hand grasping each of two small posts extending parallel to the neck from the body. He played the 21 unfretted strings with his thumbs and index fingers. 

The sound was beautiful, a high and clear cascade of notes, pretty close to Goetze's description of "African harp-lute." Most of the songs were traditional or in that style, Goetze complementing with smoky riffs. It was as mellow as it was deeply felt. Rusted Root's Colter Harper, who's traveled and studied music in Africa, sat in for two numbers on electric guitar.

The show (organized by CP contributor Manny Theiner) had come together late, perhaps accounting for the fact that only about 50 people showed up for the Pittsburgh stop on the duo's first world tour. (Their local visit, which included an interview on WYEP, was sandwiched between gigs in State College and Washington, D.C.'s Twins Jazz.)

The two met at a European jazz festival and have been collaborating for a while, though in some ways they're still getting to know each other: Goetze struggled at times to translate Cissoko's French, and needed help from an African-born man in the audience. But their partnership has already birthed an album, Sira (on Obliq Sound). And they're fundraising for a documentary about Cissoko, titled The Griot, whose progress you can track at

Friday, March 5, 2010

Squirrel Hill Theater Closes

Posted By on Fri, Mar 5, 2010 at 11:25 AM

This will be the first weekend since 1936 that the Squirrel Hill Theater (the one on Forward) won't be an option for moviegoers. The theater closed this week; its third-generation owner, Richard Stern, announced on Wednesday that the revenue just wasn't there.

Admittedly, the Squirrel Hill was never the best place in town to catch a movie; even the Stern-owned Manor, up Murray, always seemed more welcoming. (In the way of most neighborhood moviehouses, both were originally one-screen palaces, later subdivided to compete in the multiplex age.)

Even after it was renovated a decade ago, the place always felt a little on the dog-eared side. Some of the screening rooms were too small for the screens they contained. And then there were the bowling balls thundering away overhead at adjacent Forward Lanes, audible in some screening rooms. Depending on your perspective, and probably what you were watching, the din either complemented or ruined the audio of whatever you were watching.

Still, the staff were always friendly, and the prices were reasonable. Moreover, for those who prefer to patronize local, independent merchants in real, live neighborhoods, rather than cineplex conglomerates in mall-land, the Squirrel Hill was one of the last options.

Pittsburgh, like every other city, was once awash in neighborhood theaters. Even when I moved here, in 1991, there were still a few, including the Rex, on the South Side (before it turned to live performance), and a second-run joint in Bloomfield. The Manor and Pittsburgh Filmmaker's Regent Square Theater are about the only full-time first-run places left.

Still, while the Squirrel Hill's closure reduces our options about where we can see movies, it probably doesn't greatly affect what we can see. The theater did program some artier fare: The last thing I saw there, for instance, was Wes Anderson's The Fantastic Mr. Fox. It was one of my favorite movies of 2009, and the Squirrel Hill was at that point the lone first-run theater in town still screening it. But most of the time, you could find most of the same movies over the hill at the Waterfront.

It would be easy to blame the theater's demise on the Waterfront, or the rise of Netflix, and those no doubt played a part. (Though Netflix surely has done more damage to Pittsburgh's home-video landscape, which used to boast several indie outlets alongside a couple chains, but now seems to be down to just Dreaming Ant and a lone Blockbuster.)

But as the article in yesterday's Post-Gazette points out, numerous big vacancies in Squirrel Hill's business district can't have helped traffic at the theater: Poli's, around the corner, closed a few years back, and up the street the Panera and the big Barnes & Noble closed in just the past six months.

Ironically, for months now, many Pittsburghers had already thought the Squirrel Hill doomed because of a large planned commercial real-estate project on its block that would have displaced it. That project has yet to come to fruition; according to the P-G, neighborhood leaders say it's moribund. But the theater is lost anyway, and the local movie landscape is that poorer for it.


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