In Pittsburgh, and other cities, site-specific dance has become commonplace. From small parks to large warehouses and everything in between, choreographers have taken their work outside the classical theater for many years.
This past weekend, Shana Simmons and her dance collective brought their latest piece, Passenger, to the National Aviary on the North Side. The evening-length show was part of a nationwide effort (Project Passenger Pigeon) to bring awareness to the centennial anniversary of the bird’s extinction.
The performance was broken up into four parts. Sections 1 through 3 took place in the atrium of the Aviary. Underneath a dome of glass, seating was arranged in a semi-circle. Feathers, twigs, and cloth created a border in front of the chairs; the dancers performed within that intimate space.
In the first part, “Bird Beauty,” the performers explored the movement of these unique pigeons, not only in flight, but also on the ground. Wearing elegant costumes of wide slit pants and fitted tank tops with a “tail” in the back, the dancers began with slow moving unison as if migrating together. The phrases used big extension of the arms that showed off their wingspan, and light, airy jumps.
Interspersed with the larger movements were quirky pecks of the dancers’ heads (beaks) and sharp twitches of their elbows (wings). The gestures were intriguing, technical but not cartoonish. Despite the literal interpretation, Simmons and the cast created something accessible without mockery – a difficult task.
Part 2, “Bird/Human Behavior,” explored relationships between the two. A few standout moments came in this section. The first was an ode to nesting behavior in humans and birds. Each performer gathered the materials lining the space, then used smooth partnering and floor-work to build their nest. They worked together with simple weight sharing and bigger lifts. Everything about the section felt organic, proving just how much research went into the project.
The other exceptional moment brought humor to the work. In a mating ritual, Brady Sanders and Ashley Kostelnik imitated the process of two birds coupling. A voice on the sound system described what was happening, informing us that either gender initiates contact and sometimes one bird might rebuff the advance. The other dancers vied for Sanders’ attention, flirting more like humans and highlighting the aspect of competition prevalent in most animals.
To transition into the third section, “The Last…Martha,” the dancers’ movement crescendoed as they ran forward in a breathless flight or fight for their lives. They pushed each other down repeatedly while feathers, from their hair and costumes, and from the ground, were frantically propelled into the air.
Finally, only one dancer remained. Jamie Murphy played the part of Martha, the last known passenger pigeon to die in 1914 at the Cincinnati Zoo. Murphy’s solo was accompanied by live vocalist, Anna Singer, who performed Rachmaninoff’s “Vocalise.” The song and the solo were both haunting. A sense of loneliness overtook the air of freedom that began the piece. As Murphy rolled to her back, the others blew feathers over her body, an ode to the loss of an entire species.
After the main performance, the audience was permitted to walk through the Aviary’s “Free Fly Zones” in a fourth and final section. While observing warblers, penguins, starlings, and other unusual birds, the dancers kept the performance alive by improvising throughout the space. Simmons and the dancers succeeded in both educating and entertaining the audience, another challenging feat.
Despite a somewhat abrupt transition between the second and third section, Passenger told a daunting story in an incredibly beautiful way. With streamlined choreography, skilled dancers, exquisite costuming and well-suited sound, everything about the piece worked. Simmons not only sparked my interest in the subject matter, but also had me longing to get back to the Aviary and learn more.