Program Notes: Arts Blog |

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Jesus Hopped the A Train at barebones productions

Posted By on Thu, Jan 26, 2012 at 11:00 AM


This prison drama marks the debut local production of any work by acclaimed New York playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis; it's actually a fairly early play (from 2000) from the man who wrote the 2011 Broadway hit The Motherfucker with the Hat, starring Chris Rock.

Jesus is in its final week at the New Hazlett Theater, and there's no point retreading the same ground as the positive reviews the show's gotten, including Ted Hoover's for CP.

I'll just note that while there's much to admire about this Derrick Sanders-directed production, it's worth seeing for Guirgis' amazing dialogue alone.

And I don't mean just the fiery exchanges between prisoner and attorney, prisoner and brutal guard, or even the two prisoners at the heart of the play, Angel and Lucius.

Rather, I'd single out one brief, quiet slice of dialogue as evidence of the poetry Guirgis can conjure. It's part of scene where Angel and Lucius meet. Lucius (played by Edwin Lee Gibson, pictured) is a hardened killer who's found God, while Angel (Raúl Castillo) is innocent and despondent, new to prison, awaiting trial.

The two men are in adjacent cells, getting their one hour a day of fresh air. There's a pause in their talk, then Angel says, "... I can't, I can't sleep. I can't in there, do you sleep?"

LUCIUS. I sleep.

ANGEL You breathe an shit?

LUCIUS. Mostly.

Jesus Hopped the A Train continues through Sun., Jan. 29, with four more shows starting tonight at the Hazlett, on the North side.

More info is at

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Photographer David L. Smith, RIP

Posted By on Wed, Jan 25, 2012 at 10:40 AM

Dave was a photographer of long residency in the Brew House, the South Side artists’ co-op. He was a nice guy. I remember him most for his telescope.

Smith, an active member of the Association of Amateur Astronomers of Pittsburgh, had a sizable scope, perhaps 4 feet long, mounted on wheels. Once, several years ago, I was at the Brew House for an art event and, as he often did, Smith rolled the telescope outside, onto a lot on 21st Street, so anyone could take a closer look at the night sky.

It was a memorable way to honor his passion for astronomy, and to share that joy.

Smith died Dec. 26, at the age of 66.

The Morgantown, W.V., native and graduate of West Virginia University ran David L. Smith Photography, specializing in portraits, fine art and commercial work. His credits, according to a release sent out by Smith’s friends at the Brew House, included portrait shoots with Terry Bradshaw and Muhammad Ali.

Smith also often documented paintings, sculptures and other works for local artists.

The soft-spoken Smith, an Army veteran, was a Brew House board member.

Friends at the Brew House are remembering Smith this Thu., Jan. 26, with a memorial gathering in the building’s first-floor gallery space. The event runs 6-8 p.m. The Brew House is at 2100 Mary St.

Smith’s friends ask that contributions to his memory be sent to WVU’s Division of Art Deans’s Fund, in memory of David L. Smith. Contributions will be earmarked for photography studies.

Mail contributions to: WVU Foundation, One Waterfront Place, 7th Floor, PO Box 1640, Morgantown, WV 26507. Note “in memory of David L. Smith” on the memo line.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Mike Daisey at the Byham

Posted By on Mon, Jan 23, 2012 at 12:17 PM


Something I probably emphasized too little in my CP preview of the monologuist's show The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs is just how funny he is.

Having not seen Daisey perform live before, I was delightfully surprised by his electric stage presence: Though his whole two-hour show this past Saturday was performed sitting down, behind a desk, Daisey's a one-man comedy troupe, from funny faces and hilarious sound effects to elegantly amusing hand gestures.

If he reminded me of anyone, I'd say that most often it was Jackie Gleason on The Honeymooners. Daisey had the same volcanic, fast-burn comic rage, landing on a single syllable ("WHAT," "HOW") like a blast of heavy artillery.

And indeed, the first half-hour of this show was almost unadulterated comic storytelling, mostly detailing Daisey's own life-long love of technology in general and Apple products in particular.

He was especially adept at mocking consumers' instant need for devices that didn't even exist yesterday. To watch him berate his own computer's operating system as "sooooooo slooooooow," minutes after learning that a faster one was available, was to watch an oversized 2-year-old execute an existential protest in his high chair.

But Daisey's as good as anyone I've seen at mixing funny faces and serious subject matter: The show's genesis was in his fact-finding trip to Shenzhen, China, the huge industrial city where half the world's electronics are manufactured.

There he met factory workers as young as age 12, and plenty of others only a year or two older. There he learned about the brutal shifts, sweatshop pay and deplorable living conditions workers exist under — so bad at a plant run by a corporation called Foxconn that suicides are common there — all so we can have the cheapest electronics possible.

This American Life recently aired a radio version of Agony and Ecstasy. Find it here.

After the show, I was loafing in the Byham lobby when Daisey himself emerged from the theater. He asked if we'd gotten the papers that theater staff were supposed to be handing out, and when we said we hadn't, he hustled off to see what had happened.

In the paper, titled "The Rest of the Story is in Your Hands," Daisey writes that shortly after the This American Life episode aired, Apple announced a new inspection and monitoring regime for its suppliers. News stories like this one cite Daisey and his show's role in the decision.

Daisey said Apple's announcement is nothing more than a good start. But he adds that you can do more.

For instance, Daisey encourages people to email heads of electronics firms, including Apple CEO Tim Cook.

He asks you to consider if you really need that next upgrade.

And he urges you to learn about rights groups like China Labor Watch and the Electronics Take Back Coalition ... and otherwise to simply "spread the virus" of knowledge about the shadowy side of digital-device culture.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Festival of Dutch Arts Announced

Posted By on Thu, Jan 19, 2012 at 4:25 PM


In past festivals of international arts, starting with 2004's Pittsburgh International Festival of Firsts, the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust has hosted plenty of memorable exhibits and performances. The most recent of these, the 2008 Festival of Firsts, for instance, included the much-talked-about experiential-theater work Eco de los Sombras, by Teatro de los Sentidos.

The forthcoming Distinctively Dutch fest formally announced yesterday, looks promising too: a solid three months encompassing 10 mainstage shows or gallery exhibits. And these works of dance, theater, music, visual art, film, literature and more are all new to Pittsburgh. Most of them in fact, are new to the U.S., and in some cases they're new to planet Earth.

Indeed, a young Dutch-born fellow I ran into at the Trust's reception — which drew a couple of hundred arts-and-culture types to the Trust Arts Education Center — said he hadn't even heard of any of the festival performers or other contributors.

The festival begins Feb. 18 at the Byham Theater, with the U.S. premiere of Anatomica, a Dance Works Rotterdam show choreographed by André Gingras.

That's appropriate, in that the show's presenter, the Pittsburgh Dance Council, has been, over the years, this town's main conduit for Dutch arts. But it's also unusual: Even the Dance Council doesn't host many U.S. premieres by internationally lauded troupes.

That show is followed quickly by a world-premiere stage show: Detroit Dealers, the Wunderbaum theater troupe'swork about the romance of the car and the rise and fall of the U.S. auto industry, seen from a Dutch perspective (Feb. 23-25). 

In March comes the U.S. premiere of Diespace, a puckishly titled work by six-member "tech-theater collective" PIPS:lab (who are pictured here). The troupe, which grew from Amsterdam's underground party scene, explores social networks, "life, death and the Internet."

April brings much more, including: another Pittsburgh Dance Council U.S. premiere, Last Touch First, a collaboration by choreographers Ji ří Kylián and Michael Schumacher; a pair of visual-arts shows at 707 Penn Gallery and Wood Street Galleries, Girls 'N' Guns and Global Navigators; and the world premiere of a "video opera" by composer Jacob Ter Veldhuis. Jacob TV's The News combines sampled and manipulated video and sound bites from broadcast news with the composer's own avant-pop music (played live by a chamber ensemble and two vocalists). 

There's more in May, including Dutch acts at the Pittsburgh International Children's Film Festival and Dutch Women of Jazz at the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild. But that's enough for one post.

I will add, however, that if you're wondering how the Trust can afford to bring all this to town in straitened economic times, thank government funding of the arts. Dutch government funding, that is: According to the Trust, the key supporters for the Distinctively Dutch festival are the Kingdom of the Netherlands, Performing Arts Fund NL, Music Center for the Netherlands and Theater Instituut Nederland. 

(Full disclosure: City Paper is among the fest's several local sponsors.)

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Computer Artist Scott Draves to Speak at CMU

Posted By on Wed, Jan 18, 2012 at 1:40 PM


The internationally recognized Draves, who grew up in Monroeville, speaks Mon., Jan. 23. The talk prefaces dedication of his latest algorithmically generated artwork, to be displayed in the school's Gates Hillman Center.

The poster says Draves will discuss the software behind his famed "Electric Sheep" project, but Draves says non-geeks shouldn't be intimidated: He'll also illuminate the philosophy behind his work, which employs computers to demonstrate the collaborative possibilities between machines and humans — and is ultimately all about letting computers do beautiful things we haven't programmed them to do.

In 1976, when he was in second grade, Draves encountered his first computer: the school's lone Apple II. "Nobody really knew what to do with it," Draves says by phone from New York, where he lives. "I started programming."

But even in 1990, when he enrolled in a computer-science doctoral program at Carnegie Mellon, Draves didn't conceive of the machines as having artistic possibilities. He credits his graduate adviser, the late Andy Witkin, with encouraging him to submit his work to an international art festival.

When Draves walked away from the Prix Ars Electronica with an honorable mention for his Flame algorithm, he says, "I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is art and it's worth working on it.'"

Now computer art is Draves' profession, typically video works generated by software, often with human input.

For years, until quite recently, one of his works the "moving painting" titled "Dreams in High Fidelity" — was displayed in the lobby at Google's corporate headquarters. Another work is currently exhibited at the Los Angeles County Museum of Contemporary Art; other venues have included art competitions in Montreal, Brazil, Madrid and Tokyo. 

Draves' new commission from CMU, "Generation 244," is actually his second from the school (a still accompanies this post); "Generation 243" is also displayed at the Gates Hillman Center, on the fifth floor.

Both those works are drawn from Draves' best-known ongoing project, Electric Sheep. In 1999, Draves activated software that created complex, abstract digital animations; some images suggest celestial forms, others microrganisms.

But the work is not "his," exactly. "I want to create an image that is beyond my imagination," says Draves. "I want to create something I couldn't think of."

Electric Sheep is actually a collaboration between Draves' software and, at latest count, some 450,000 computers and their users. The images are rendered as screen-savers that participants vote on. The images that are most popular "mate with each other and reproduce," as Draves has put it.

Draves is intrigued by the question of whether democracy and asthetics are compatible. He notes that the favorite Electric Sheep images tend to be "flashy [and] trashy" and symmetrically shaped — not his own preferences.

But for commissioned work, like those at CMU, he exerts editorial prerogative, curating and reshaping his favorites into high-definition video works.

The works are not loops, by the way: They're composed of a large number of sequences that combine and recombine in countless formulations.

And yes, Philip K. Dick fans, Electric Sheep is named in homage to the cult-favorite author whose story "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" inspired the 1982 film Blade Runner.

Ironically, Dick foresaw advanced technology contributing to a dystopia. Draves' outlook is rather sunnier.

"He's a kind of techno-pessimist," says Draves. "I'm sort of a techno-optimist."

Draves speaks at 4 p.m. Mon., Jan. 23, in 6115 Gates Hillman; the talk is preceded by a reception and followed at 5 p.m. by an art tour.

The talk is free, see for more information.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Jeffrey Vallance Exhibit at The Warhol

Posted By on Mon, Jan 9, 2012 at 2:45 PM


Visiting The Andy Warhol Museum yesterday two hours before the Steelers' big fail, I was surprised to find the place as busy as I've seen it.

Maybe I shouldn't have been: After all, many folks were probably there for the same reason as me, to catch the final day of shows like Heroes & Villains: The Comic Book Art of Alex Ross and The Pittsburgh Biennial: Gertrude's/LOT. (Funnily enough, two of the four people I met to watch the game at a local watering hole had also just been to the Warhol.)

Crowds for the Ross show should especially have been expected: Museum director Eric Shiner has said that it has been extraordinarily popular since it opened, in October.

And yesterday, you still had to shuffle around fellow patrons to view Ross's renderings of iconic comics heroes like Superman and Batman, smartly juxtaposed with work by Ross's own artistic heroes, including Norman Rockwell and Ross's mom (herself a professional illustrator), and even by the people who influenced them.

Add thematically linked Warhol work to the mix, and you had a partial but compelling history of the 20th century via commercial and comics art. For more, here's the interview of Ross by Nick Keppler that CP ran to preview the exhibit.

Likewise it was good to get a last glimpse of Gertrude's/LOT, a showcase for local women artists that Nadine Wasserman reviewed for CP last month. 

While those two shows have now closed, there's still plenty of time to see Vallance's exhibit, the latest installment in the Warhol's Word of God series, which spotlights contemporary artists' takes on religion.

Vallance's exhibit, a series of modern-day reliquaries, is both accessibly transparent and interestingly sly. The artist, raised Lutheran, is an inveterate collector (in which he's like Warhol) who's fascinated with the Catholic tradition of preserving and venerating the bones, clothing and personal effects of saints and the like.

Among the books on display, in fact, is one about the world-class reliquary at Pittsburgh's own St. Anthony's Church. But alongside his illustrations rendering Martin Luther, the crucifixion and such, Vallance's reliquaries are of an determinedly more mundane variety: The ornate glass-doored cases contain things like the bones of his late pet chicken, Blinky. (One of them is pictured here.) There are also items from Vallance's travels, including the boxer shorts he passed off as regular outerpants during an audience with South Pacific royalty.

And then there are secular relics without any personal connection to Vallance, like the ostentatiously authenticated little squares of hotel bedsheet The Beatles purportedly once slept on, and the nearly microscopic length of Elvis Presley's hair.

The cheeky but provocative exhibit is rounded out with some Warholiania, like a huge, 19th-century gilt Bible Andy collected, still in the metal box he stored it in. (The museum fears removing it could damage the book.)

The Vallance show is up still Feb. 5 ( — Super Bowl Sunday, and no worries about conflicting with the Steelers there.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Top Choreographer to Give Free Talk

Posted By on Fri, Jan 6, 2012 at 3:30 PM

Dwight Rhoden
  • Dwight Rhoden

Dwight Rhoden, the famed choreographer and frequent collaborator with Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, gives a free talk at 3 p.m. tomorrow at the Carnegie Library, in Oakland.

The talk, part of the library's People's University series, features a discussion between Rhoden and PBT artistic director Terrence Orr about the troupe's upcoming world-premiere production of Rhoden's "Uncommon."

Rhoden is a former principal dancer with the legendary Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and a founding artistic director of Complexions Contemporary Ballet, for which he's created more than 80 ballets. His work has been featured in television productions from PBS to So You Think You Can Dance.

Rhoden's work is familiar to PBT audiences, perhaps mostly for his works set to jazz and popular music, like 2000's StrayLifeLushHorn (set to the music of Billy Strayhorn) and 2005's Simon Said (with compositions by Paul Simon). Those are two of the many works he's made for PBT as world premieres.

But like 2001's 7th Heaven, "Uncommon" is set to classical music — the former to Bach and Beethoven, the new work to Bach. What makes "Uncommon" uncommon, says PBT spokesperson Aimee Waeltz, is that it features Rhoden's contemporary-ballet movement set to those classical strains.

"Uncommon," which will feature all 28 of the company's dancers, will also anchor the first PBT production to be performed at the August Wilson Center for African American Culture. The program also includes Dennis Nahat's "Brahms Quintet" and Mark Morris's "Maelstrom." Chamber musicians will accompany each of the three works.

Also unusual for the PBT (, most of whose shows run a single weekend, the forthcoming production will have nine performances over nine days, Feb. 3-12.

Rhoden's talk tomorrow — a fairly rare public appearance here, as far as I can tell — is in the Quiet Reading Room at the Oakland Carnegie (4400 Forbes Ave.).

Thursday, January 5, 2012

August Wilson Center Dance Ensemble Makes National List

Posted By on Thu, Jan 5, 2012 at 2:55 PM

The still-fledgling company continued its march to the big time this week when it earned one of the coveted spots in Dance Magazine's annual "25 to Watch" list. 

The magazine's Karen Dacko praised the company's "quicksilver agility, fierce athleticism, finely honed Horton technique [an approach popularized by modern-dance pioneer Lester Horton], and innate theatricality." 

Dacko also cited artistic director Greer Reed's artistic vision, a fellowship grant from the Center, and Reed's experience as a company member at prestigious outfits like Ailey II and Dayton Contemporary Dance.

Reed was quoted emphasizing the importance of Pittsburgh having a company rooted in the African-American dance tradition.

Pittsburgh talent is no stranger to this Dance Mag list: 2009 honorees, for instance, included Point Park faculty member Kiesha Lalama-White and Pittsburgh native Kyle Abraham — both of whom choreographed for AWCDE in 2011.

But it's still a nice shout-out: AWCDE was one of only two companies included on the list, the other being Portland, Oregon's tEEth. The list consisted mostly of individual dancers from the likes of the New York City Ballet, the Miami City Ballet and Hubbard Street Dance Chicago.

AWCDE isn't brand-new, having performed as a unit since 2010. But it's still all but the youngest company in town. Here's my blog post recapping the troupe's exciting debut as a professional company, a year ago this month:. 

AWCDE went on to big things out of town, too, with a performance at Manhattan's SummerStage 2011.

AWCDE's next performance is coming right up: Jan. 21's Suite Bill, a tribute to the music of the man who wrote "Lean on Me" and "Ain't No Sunshine." You might want to hurry to get tickets, though — the show's in the troupe's studio rather than the larger Wilson Center theater, and only 100 tickets will be sold.


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