Yesterday, Kelly Strayhorn Theater and PearlArts, the creative space for the STAYCEE PEARL dance project and Soy Sos, announced they would embark on a partnership as a way to “share resources and work together to reestablish East Liberty as a hub for the Pittsburgh arts community,” according to a press release. The decision was in response to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has sidelined many local arts organizations and canceled major events, performances, and programming vital to the city's arts and entertainment scene.
KST executive director Joseph Hall views the partnership as a way to preserve a historic community theater and local dance venue, as well as the integrity of a neighborhood many see as undergoing major changes related to gentrification.
Hall believes protecting spaces like KST, a longtime venue named after East Liberty natives, dancer and actor, Gene Kelly, and music great Billy Strayhorn, is essential to the health of the community.
“If you look around there are very few places that provide a space for community residents and business professionals to enjoy the arts in East Liberty. Kelly Strayhorn Theater is the only performing arts venue in the community,” says Hall. “In 2020, arts have been hard hit by COVID-19 but for many years they’ve held a precarious position in our rapidly developing neighborhood. Our partnership with PearlArts will expand opportunities for a multiplicity of artists and audiences, building on KST’s mission to bring diverse communities together through the arts.”
Staycee Pearl, co-founding artistic director of the STAYCEE PEARL dance project, says the work of PearlArts all came to a “screeching halt” in March 2020, when the pandemic first took hold. That included commissions, classes, touring, and in-studio programming,
“We were left not knowing how to proceed,” says Pearl. “How long was this going to last? We had no idea how to continue and we started questioning everything.”
She adds that PearlArts was able to stay afloat thanks to a Paycheck Protection Program loan from the federal government, and relief funding provided by the Pittsburgh Foundation and other groups. She also credits Hotline Ring, a virtual fundraiser spearheaded by KST back in July 2020, for raising $130,000 that went to PearlArts and several other local organizations.
Pearl says the arrangement was a way to keep planning and performing after the pandemic delayed a move out of the Mine Factory Building and into a new permanent space.
“We have been planning on moving to the community of Braddock, but the pandemic has delayed these plans, and we were invited to continue our work at the KST Alloy Studios while we re-strategize our move,” says Pearl.
She adds that while The Mine Factory was “glorious” and represented a “safe space for creativity,” KST Alloy Studios is “bigger and more centrally located, with ground-level entry in the East End, making it perfect for artists, audiences, and fellow dance makers to access.”
Pearl sees the partnership as mutually beneficial for KST and PearlArts, and also as a reunion for the STAYCEE PEARL dance project & Soy Sos, which debuted at KST and served as the resident dance company for three years from 2010-2013.
The program activities, including the return of The Alloy School, are aimed towards “reactivating KST’s Alloy Studios as a dance hub.” Among the promised offerings are morning and evening classes for dance professionals and community members, hourly rehearsal rentals for dance artists, and a “forthcoming subsidized rental program for small scale performances in KST's Alloy Studios performance space.”
The renewed activity is meant to “bring more artists to East Liberty regularly” and “impact neighborhood restaurants and other businesses.”
Through the partnership. Pearl says they are looking forward to teaching virtual classes, and conducting both KST and PearlArts programming virtually, at first, then, hopefully, in-person. Programming includes the KST Saturday School for youth and family dance classes and evening community dance clubs, as well as professional-level classes open to the community run by STAYCEE PEARL dance project and Soy Sos dancers.
She adds that the companies look forward to “being in person in theaters and in the studio the moment it's safe,” even though PearlArts has switched over to virtual presentations and educational programming during the pandemic.
“This opportunity afforded us the resources to experiment and expand, and now we return stronger than ever,” says Pearl. “Through this partnership, we will support the growth and development of Pittsburgh-based dance artists.”