It was a contemporary case of David versus Goliath as 30 or so members of the tiny arts collective called The Pillow Project took on the behemoth Carrie Furnace, which once employed 3,000 workers.
Saturday's two performances of The Jazz Furnace in Rankin would be a first in some ways, both for introducing dance and music performance to the former blast furnace and for attempting a nighttime event.
The logistics were nothing less than daunting. With no power, electricity had to be generated, and only yellow tape and a smattering of well-informed volunteers from Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area prevented visitors from entering still-dangerous areas.
But the October weather was perfect for vendors, food trucks and an enthusiastic stream of visitors, probably the best day of the year at the Carrie and an impressive start to what artistic director Pearlann Porter hopes will be an annual event.
By day the visitors each could have an individual experience over the course of five hours. The furnace itself was a dramatic, ever-changing backdrop which could look like a giant Transformer or a spaceship, with nooks and crannies full of pellets and pieces of glass, too much to take in during one visit.
It also had made the transition into a magnificent work of urban art, full of rust and grit and history. Thirteen installations comprising Alloy Pittsburgh's October art exhibit had already added more colorful layers. But the dancers, wearing gloves and boots in their sculptural meditations, added an unexpected human element. They were often inspired by their surroundings in constantly evolving pop-up performances.
Percussionists literally played the furnace, one of the whimsical elements that day, while melodies echoed throughout. And The Pillow Project brought an old piano, which will remain behind to decompose along with the furnace.
Smart visitors brought their cameras.
At night The Pillow Project moved to the Powerhouse, the largest building on site and big enough to house a jet airliner. Bob Steineck oversaw a stunning lighting design, with Zero Fossil adding its environmental juice while Pyrotopia brought on flames and fireworks.
Outside the buildings were awash in colored lights and accentuated with blue strips. Inside there was a wall of candles at the far end, with a fire pit inspired by blast furnaces. Uplighting captured the texture of peeling paint on the walls and rotating lights emphasized the graffiti, new (directed by Jordan Bush) and old, and a series of performances over the course of four more hours.
With live music by Blue Redshift and Chaibaba grabbing at Carrie's jagged edges, the dancers moved with them, but also took to re-imagined works from the Pillow's repertoire this year.
"The Green Swan" became "The Dirty Swan," with a charcoal tutu and a shortened time frame and nifty sounds by PJ Roduta and David Pellow. Mr. Roduta also provided "Ideaspace," an indication that The Jazz Furnace was moved by creative improvisation and total cool. But the great visuals didn't have the same impact on the Powerhouse's brick as in the Pillow's big black wall at The Space Upstairs in Point Breeze.
For an inaugural event, this day at the Carrie couldn't be beat, a great example of visionary thinking from all involved. The Jazz Furnace turned out to be a great place to hang out, but could benefit from more -- dancers, performance artists, etc.
The future possibilities are endless. Just remember to bring your camera.
Correction/Clarification: (Published Oct. 15, 2013) An earlier version of this story had an incorrect spelling for David Pellow's name. theater