For the latest Pillow Project show, NOW:PLAYING, it’s not the dancing that’s choreographed. In this case, it’s the lighting doing the heavy lifting. Lights provide structure to the piece as five dancers are free to move as they please.
But while the show continues the company’s post-modern jazz style of “improvography” — a portmanteau combining improvisation and choreography — its journey to Kelly Strayhorn Theater was hardly off the cuff.
“This has been a long time coming,” says Pillow Project founding artistic director Pearlann Porter, who also directs the show along with John Lambert.
NOW:PLAYING makes its world premiere Dec. 7-8.
Porter started developing NOW:PLAYING in 2013 by using two projectors on each side of the stage to provide what she calls a “playground” for the dancers. The idea, she says, differs from conventional uses of theatrical projection and lighting, as images are usually cast on the back wall of a stage.
“I wanted to preserve the idea of a fully ink-black background and the dancers being the only thing illuminated in space,” says Porter.
She adds that the approach makes the show “kind of a bizarre thing to look at.” Because of the way the light hits them, you may only see the upper body of one dancer, while the lower half of another dancer moves below them (this becomes even stranger when considering that each dancer wears different pairs of shoes). At one point, a single dancer is completely illuminated while beset by a flurry of disembodied hands belonging to the other dancers.
With no technical or professional lighting background, Porter had to explore the unfamiliar territory of technology in order to make her vision work. Even so, she wanted the concept – which involves four projectors playing at once – to be “as analog as possible.”
As a result, some of the projections are surprisingly low-tech, varying from a single band of light to footage of smoke curling from incense Porter burned in her home and shot with her smartphone camera.
It all unfolds over three sections, each meant to convey a different but linear theme. The first one erupts in chaos, with dancers moving to an original score by PJ Roduta, whose composition included adding drums to the sounds of tearing into the strings in a piano. The second section goes for simplicity with stripped-down jazz music consisting of two instruments, a saxophone, and upright bass. The third section finds a balance between the first two by going for a more structured, orderly tone.
While it took years to develop, Porter feels that the risk paid off and is confident audiences will see something totally different from previous Pillow Project shows.
“This isn’t a modern piece or contemporary piece,” says Porter. “To me, this is a new idea in jazz dance.”