Program Notes: Arts Blog |

Monday, January 24, 2011

August Wilson Center Dance Ensemble

Posted By on Mon, Jan 24, 2011 at 3:35 PM

The Dynamic Men of Dance program this past weekend marked the ensemble's debut as a professional company, but already it's looking like a potent addition to Pittsburgh's dance scene.

That shouldn't be much of a surprise, given that artistic director Greer Reed-Jones doubles as artistic director of Pittsburgh's most venerable modern-dance outfit, Dance Alloy Theater. Moreover, some form of the AWC Ensemble has been performing for two years now, honing its chops and making an impression on local stages.

Still, it had to set some in the August Wilson Center audience on their heels to see a program this ambitious and polished from a company of dancers this young: At least three of the nine dancers are still in college, the rest in their early 20s.

While it didn't hurt to have strong material to work with, the program of four short works by emerging New York-based choreographers -- all world premieres -- was a challenge the troupe was up to.

For instance, a group of five dancers seemed to handle easily the athleticism of "Pulse," from Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company member Antonio Brown. Notable were Annalee Traylor and James A. Washington as the work's central couple, tasked with a series of sensual and combative sequences. Meanwhile, as she would throughout the program, Angela Dice stood out for her remarkably fluid movement.

Darrell Grand Moultrie's "Body and Soul," set to a jazz tune sung by Ruth Brown, was a lovely solo, danced by Kendra Dennard, a sort of extended swoon punctuated by staggers, stumbles and tremors.

Pittsburgh-born Kyle Abraham contributed "Function," a complex and vibrant work for eight dancers set to an electronic score. The piece explored group social dynamics with wit and passion. Abraham performs and choregraphs frequently in his hometown, and is always a welcome presence.

The show ended with Moultrie's "Regality," an exciting work for eight dancers set to three percussive acoustic-guitar numbers by Rodrigo y Gabriela.

Thus the AWC Dance Ensemble continues making its mark in Pittsburgh and, says Reed-Jones, beyond. In a talkback following the Sun., Jan. 23, matinee performance, she said that this year the Ensemble will play New York's popular SummerStage outdoor performance series.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

PCA Artist of Year Closing Party

Posted By on Sun, Jan 23, 2011 at 8:41 AM

While one must empathize with any arts event happening this Sunday, there's one I can recommend that won't interfere with your game-watching -- promise.

It's the closing event for the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts Artist of the Year and Emerging Artist of the Year shows, 1-4 p.m. Sun., Jan. 23 (at 6300 Fifth Ave., in Shadyside).

Both are good shows. The emerging-artist honoree is Gregory Witt, whose Things That Float consists of several of his cunningly weird, and weirdly cunning, machines that serve no functional purpose but to make you think about them and maybe laugh a little.

The machines are sort of avatars from an alternate universe. One, the room-sized "Room," uses gears made of drywall to slowly and slightly raise and lower some platforms and the metal arms attached to them, at the end of a couple of which are clusters of cinder blocks hung from stout ropes. The odd stasis of it all somehow makes you ponder the space you're in, though what conclusions you might reach I couldn't guess.

I am still more enthusiastic about Brian Dean Richmond's artist-of-the-year show. Richmond works in several media, though the show is dominated by his large-scale mixed-media paintings, most of which he creates in collaboration with nature – leaving canvas or paper outdoors, with objects on top and pigment selectively deployed. The effect is frequently stunning; the multi-panel paintings invoke the rhythm and mystery of nature perhaps even more than they incorporate it.

Still, my favorite piece might be Richmond's short film "Unter der Mittlerbrüke." It's a black-and-white work shot in an urban area, much of it on and around a river, and it's glorious. Richmond's characteristic layered imagery (multiple exposures, in effect), instinctive hand-held camera movements and other in-camera effects (like making light sources streak) create a nine-minute tour de force. In one sequence, a multiple-exposed water lily literally pulses with life.

In fact, I just stopped by the PCA today, and Richmond himself showed up and mentioned that he considers "Mittlerbrüke" his best film. Recommendation enough.

It was also Richmond who tipped me to the Sunday closing event, which he said will feature a "pots-and-pans marching band" and a performance by The Working Poor, the splendid band for which he plays bass.

And don't worry: It'll all be done in plenty of time to catch the 6:30 p.m. game: Richmond, a devout Steelers fan, doesn't plan on missing it either.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

5 AM

Posted By on Tue, Jan 18, 2011 at 5:02 PM

The 32nd edition of this venerable poetry newspaper, edited by Ed Ochester and Judith Vollmer, is out and as usual worth a look. 

The twice-yearly 5 AM, which has published continually for about 20 years, is devoutly democratic in its approach. By design, the work is accessible (i.e., non-academic). The tabloid-formatted publication is handsome in black and white on 32 heavy-stock pages, and includes lots of poems but no ads, with a wide range of new and established writers, 40-some of them in this issue.

The publication is in fact nearly the opposite of the poetry magazines parodied here by James Valvis in his "Some Poetry Magazines (Seen in Poet's Market)." It begins: "We don't want funny poetry, serious poetry, poetry that's funny but really serious, / serious poetry that's funny, sad poetry, depressing poetry, poetry that rhymes ..." (The poem ends: "please don't send us any.") 

Elsewhere there's work by locally based 5 AM favorites like Jan Beatty, Jimmy Cvetic, Dave Newman and Michael Wurster (plus two by the late Pittsburgh poet Christina Murdock). But the range is wide enough to include nationally known folks like Tony Hoagland.

In fact, 5AM includes poets from pretty much anywhere. The only criteria is that it's stuff that Ochester (who edits Pitt's Poetry Series publications) and Vollmer (a Pitt professor) like. It's political, observational, funny and not. There's even a page of "Quotes without Comment," gleaned from folks as diverse as the late historian Tony Judt, Jay Leno, Edith Wharton and Maya Angelou.

The work is mostly quite good. My only quibble is that I'd like a line of bio about each poet, even if just to learn where they are from.

The issue ends with three poems by Jeff Oaks, who works and teaches at Pitt. In "Crows," Oaks limns an owl:


Flies straight lines in the dark, hooks
the nerves of something tender.
The owl who can suddenly unthread

A breath all the way through
the middle of a thing.


Subscriptions are two issues for $12 (see

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Nichole Canuso Dance Company's TAKES

Posted By on Sat, Jan 15, 2011 at 2:43 PM

I'd never before seen anything quite like this Philadelphia-based troupe's new show, making its Pittsburgh premiere at the Kelly-Strayhorn this week.

The set was contained entirely within a 25-square-foot enclosure of sheer white fabric, the walls about 10 feet high. Thus the two dancers were completely confined and separated from the audience – most of whom, at this performance, sat on stage. And as Canuso herself and partner Dito Van Reigersberg performed for an hour uninterrupted, those walls doubled as the screens for almost continuous multi-projection of grainy black and white video whose only subject was the dancers' own bodies in motion, as captured on delay by cameras inside the enclosure.

Combine with a complex and varied soundtrack ranging from Latin pop to white noise, and there was more than enough to take in, even if the only set pieces were a few sticks of lightweight furniture inside the scrim.

But the novel staging and production style is no gimmick: While it's possible to imagine the dance work at its heart being performed without the accompanying sets and literally wall-to-wall video, the projections and music deepened the dreamlike narrative of a couple's tender and troubled relationship.

With the live dancers visible inside the scrim, for instance, the projections suggested they were dancing with their own ghosts. High points for me included a passage projecting multiplied images of Canuso's isolated limbs, suggesting ocean waves, and Van Reigersburg's luminously beautiful gestural solo to the Velvet Underground's "Sunday Morning."

This wasn't the first time I'd seen a show on the Kelly-Strayhorn stage while also sitting onstage: The 404 Strand troupe's adaptation of Faust, in 2009, put the audience up there, too. But TAKES went a step further by encouraging viewers to get up and take in the show from different angles.

Most people at this show didn't move around, as it happens. My favorite vantage point was from either of the two accessible corners, which best let you see all four projection-walls at once.    

As of this writing, two performances of TAKES remain, at 7 and 9 p.m. Sat., Jan. 15. The early show has stage seating, the 9 p.m. show is floor seating only.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

The Neo-Futurists

Posted By on Sat, Jan 1, 2011 at 11:16 PM

I spent about four hours at First Night and saw a bunch of stuff, but the highlight was the 7 p.m. show by five members of this Chicago performance collective. They're a group of writers who perform their own stuff – personal material, but not always in an obvious way, and completely unpredictable.

The show was called Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind, subtitled "Thirty Plays in 60 Minutes." They're not kidding: The stage at the O'Reilly was strung with a line about 9 feet in the air, and sheets of paper with the numbers 1-30 hung on it. The audience was instructed to yell out a number; a performer tore that sheet down, and away they went.

This wasn't improv; these were scripted pieces, some a few seconds long, other a few minutes. But you could get anything from the mad slapstick of the opener, "Half Naked Ninja Pudding Pie" or the word jazz of "Just Give Me A Jamaican Accent and a Calculator" to the Chaplinesque, audience-member-participation comedy of "Making Love Out of Nothing At All," the Dada-esqe "Sitting on a Rainbow" or the political one-liner "Republican Compassion in Action."

Almost everything worked, whether a bit of earnest spoken-word poetry or the raucously funny "Art, I Birth You," a take-down of pretentious artsy types that the cast delivered with each of them in a sort of gynecological position, one heel on each armrest of an unsuspecting patron. 

The wonderfully smart, up-for-anything cast included Megan Mercier, Lisa Buscani, Dean Evans, Jay Torrence and Jessica Anne. Torrence was an audience favorite – a linebackerishly built guy, shaved bald, who could do backflips (as a "ninja") and was seen in his underwear at least three times. Anne, meanwhile, showed a special facility for mad runs of language.

Especially gratifying was the audience response. I'd done a short preview of the group's two First Night shows, and I knew the troupe was unconventional and could be provocative. The crowd, as one might expect at first night, was pretty mixed, but mostly folks who, I'd imagine, see a lot more Steelers games than they do experimental theater.

Shows what I know: The crowd, by and large, was into it. (A few walk-outs did occur after a passing gibe at the Tea Party, and I sensed a certain audience unease when a piece that started out with the three women washing their hair turned into an indictment of military torture.)

In fact, a highlight came when an audience-participation piece involved a silver-mustached guy in Penguins regalia. Mercier performed "homo-paternus," a monologue about her dad's wariness about gay men, while sitting this guy in a chair on stage and adorning him in eyeliner, rouge and lipstick. And he hammed along like a vaudeville vet.

Sniff ... enough to make you proud of Pittsburgh (not to mention Penguins fans).

The Neo-Futurists have been around for years; this was, I think, their first appearance in Pittsburgh. If some presenter in town is smart, it won't be their last.


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