Director of the Kelly Strayhorn Theater (KST), Janera Solomon, enjoys taking risks when choosing artists to perform at the thriving East Liberty space. Attracting patrons to the more unusual shows at the theater has become her specialty.
The Pittsburgh contemporary dance scene used to be small; we could count on seeing the same audience members at each show. Not true anymore, especially not at the KST. Friday evening, the lobby filled up with dance enthusiasts, community members, and what looked to be several newcomers.
Baker & Tarpaga Dance Project performed their latest version of an old work, “Beautiful Struggle.” Esther Baker, co-choreographer for the company (along with her husband, Olivier Tarpaga), was inspired lately by her role as an activist to dismantle white supremacy. Though the show could be described by some as “challenging,” people of all walks of life were engaged from the beginning.
The show started with an installation in the lobby. Baker stood on a 4×4 table, dressed in only underwear, a blonde wig, and red high heels. Volunteers instructed us to take a marker and write something directly on Baker’s body. Specifically, we were to write about a struggle of our own. Many went for it, without shyness. Others hung back and watched as Baker changed positions to offer different body parts.
From there, we progressed into the theater where the 45-minute choreographed piece took place. Tarpaga stood among the audience, playing bass and chanting rhythms with unique sound. Dancer, Lindsay Fisher, stood above him and watched while Tarpaga made his way to the stage and continued playing live music.
Fisher began a small phrase of movement that represented one of the major themes of the piece, our basic human struggle. In smooth and precise undulations through her torso, she scrambled around the front of the stage and then fell backwards as if knocked down by an outside force. That simple action escalated until Danté Brown joined her and the two skittishly crawled to the back of the stage, curled into fetal positions.
Eventually, Baker entered. She shook and twitched, hands tied by ropes to the table that had been used in the lobby. Her own distress was clear, but not specific. Perhaps she was putting movement to her own difficulties in life – navigating an interracial marriage and parenting a mixed race daughter in a world where prejudice still exists.
The voice of white anti-racism activist, Tim Wise, boomed over the sound of Tarpaga’s drumming, and Sabela Grimes’ live mixed beats. We heard one line repeatedly, “There is no such thing as the white race.”
Tarpaga and Grimes alternated between dancing and playing music. In one moment, Tarpaga performed an athletic phrase of African and contemporary movement. Later, Grimes had a short hip-hop solo that sent wavy motion through his chest and arms.
Brown, whose own work explores gender, provided the flash of comic relief. His solo reflected masculinity and femininity in their stereotypical forms. He shadowboxed with tight fists, and then sashayed like a model in the next second. All the while, he spoke to the audience. “You like this step? How about you, girl?”
The dancers came together at different times, sometimes in quick duets or smaller groups. Under a strobe light, all five of them showed off their individual styles in various movement sequences around the table.
To end, Fisher reminded us of the racial “struggle” still prevalent in today’s society. She staggered, fought, and fell down, again and again. We could hear her labored breath as the lights went down.
As Baker explained after the show, “beauty and violence can coexist.” The audience certainly witnessed both in the thought-provoking piece. Although the work was based on the personal journeys of the performers, the commentary was inclusive, compelling, and important for all of us.