Collaboration gives a sound performance at Kelly Strahorn Theater

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The Murphy/Smith Dance Collective has been presenting collaborations for several years at various Pittsburgh locations. But in the breakout performance of the year, Jaime Murphy and Renee Smith signaled that they had really arrived at the Kelly Strayhorn Theater Friday night.

Their latest piece was titled "See What I Hear" and, like the title, was visually and aurally arresting. Beginning with a kernel of an idea, hearing loss, the pair built a work that mixed that with the companion feeling of isolation. Then it progressed to sound and the lack thereof, a connection to communication problems, which can create barriers and resolution.

Some familiar things served as channels for the more abstract concepts -- cell phones and Jerry Springer, war and nature -- that could easily have descended into a whirlpool of sappy emotion. After all, barriers go back to the battle of Jericho in the Bible when those walls came tumbling down.

But the walls didn't tumble in this production. Instead, scenic and lighting designer Scott Nelson draped and twisted a handful of large white paper strips like thick ribbons, then crumpled some pieces along the back of the stage.

The lighting played over them, creating soft shadows as the audience entered. The effect was stunning.

The choreographers immediately established a point of view. The dancers entered, allowing us to hear snatches of something. Whispering. A quick story. A loud "cree!" "Then sh-h-h."

"Cree" turned out to be a creaking door, a sound that captured a memory. So they were all memories, also tumbling around, but carefully selected as part of the score. Composer Gordon Nunn was similarly fastidious -- environmental one minute, percussive the next -- always supporting, but clearly put together like a jigsaw puzzle, the kind with hundreds of tiny pieces.

A series of solos was wisely broken in two -- the first set performed in front of Ms. Smith's video collage, fractured as it played over the paper ribbons. Then Mr. Nunn provided a spare piano accompaniment during another set, beautifully performed by Ms. Murphy, Ms. Smith and Brady Sanders, as if they were letting loose, trying to comprehend their lives.

It showed the delicate balance of the collaboration further as Mr. Nelson assigned the colors peach, yellow and green for each dancer, then combined all three as the trio began to work together.

When the entire cast of seven assembled at the end around a diagonal path of paper, engaging with each other, it captured the spirit of cooperation and purpose. A lot had gone before, although there were a few spots in the middle that meandered.

But this artistic team had, for the most part, rigorously edited themselves in a manner far beyond their years ... and it showed.

Former Post-Gazette critic Jane Vranish can be reached at She also blogs at

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