Reviewed by Adrienne Totino
There’s just something about Pearlann Porter. Her company, The Pillow Project, presents work unlike anything else on the Pittsburgh dance scene. Her latest evening length show was the product of a 16 year work in progress. The result was hypnotic.
“Backlit in a Whole New D” premiered this past weekend, and was set to music that captured Porter’s attention back in 1996. It might be difficult to imagine five contemporary dancers improvising to a punk rap group. But The Beastie Boys’ lesser known instrumental album, “The In Sound from Way Out,” feels more jazz and funk than hip-hop.
After several attempts at choreographed material, Porter realized that the music called for improvisation. By that time, her style of “free jazz” had solidified and she had a host of dancers perfect for the job. Rather than moving to the music, she teaches her dancers to play the music with their bodies. This doesn’t come easily for all trained artists. Porter says it requires a certain “honesty.”
What adds a unique dimension to Porter’s work is the “luminography” design by collaborating artist, Mike Cooper. Cooper uses a camera and several projectors to light the dancers in unusual ways, often creating stunning visual effects. His work in this show was the most complex I had seen.
Like most of the performances that take place at The Space Upstairs (the Pillow’s home), the vibe was more communal than concert dance. The couches, chairs and high top tables gave the space an intimate bar feel. In fact, martinis were served after the show.
Audience members snuggled in with their complimentary 3D glasses, and watched as the company casually entered from various parts of the large room. Under low light, the movement began with what felt like good old fashioned groovin’. Immediately evident was just how much the music fed the dancers’ souls.
What was even more impressive was how each performer connected with the lighting. Depending on where they landed a phrase of movement, one dancer’s hand lit up in red, while another’s face was bathed in blue.
But that wasn’t even half of it. Eventually, the images of the dancers were projected onto the back wall, and then multiplied. The effect was like watching the dance through a kaleidoscope. Black and white images came in waves, on and off the wall. The 3D glasses, which we were instructed to wear when we pleased, gave it a colorful, even hallucinogenic look.
The dancers seemed to be conversing among themselves through movement that ranged from shadow boxing to playful taunting to flat out jamming to the contagious beat. One stunning and tribal moment came when they all clumped together and pounded the floor, shouting in ecstasy.
Each individual grabbed the audience’s attention in different ways. The young Grant Haralson rolled up his shirtsleeves and performed a short solo that showed off his technique and theatrics. Riva Strauss simply strutted forward and slipped off her jacket, and the crowd was sucked in. And, as far as I’m concerned, Taylor Knight could improvise for hours to the sound of nothing, and it would be impossible to look away. Near the end of the show, he improvised with a cigarette, and somehow made smoking look like an art form.
“Backlit in a Whole New D” was one of The Pillow Project’s most innovative works to date. I’m looking forward to what Porter dreams up next.