Dance review

Baker & Tarpaga Dance Project involves audience from the beginning

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The Kelly Strayhorn Theater has become an indispensable cog in Pittsburgh's dance machine. Located in an intimate city that deservedly holds onto its traditions, dance often lacked the experimentalist nature and sense of raw adventure found in the urban sprawl of cities like Philadelphia and New York.

That is changing dramatically, what with KST's commitment to not only presenting new work, but by participating more fully in the creative process through commissions.

The most recent example was the local premiere last weekend of "Beautiful Struggle" by Baker & Tarpaga Dance Project, a transnational company based both in Columbus, Ohio, and Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, in West Africa.

The dichotomies that surge through this group begin with the co-artistic directors themselves, Esther Baker-Tarpaga and Olivier Tarpaga. It is most apparent in their racial difference, but also in the difference between the sexes and their cultural divide, all of which has been bridged magnificently.

All that has produced a delicate balancing act, where they take note of opposing perspectives and then weave them together in the singularly blended world that they have created.

"Beautiful Struggle" began before the official performance itself. There was a prequel of sorts in the KST lobby. As audience members arrived, Ms. Baker-Tarpaga was provocatively dressed in a platinum wig, brief top, nude panties and high-heeled red shoes. She stood on a table, slowly moving, often posing, always alluring.

The audience members were encouraged to write their own personal struggles on her exposed skin with a marker.

Later it was easy to see the connections between the prequel and the main events that followed on stage. For "Beautiful Struggle" was all about life memories and muscle memories and the effects that living has impinged on our bodies.

Many had already made that contact with Ms. Fisher, which made the performance itself so much more meaningful.

Upon entering the theater, Mr. Tarpaga seduced with his musical score, at first haunting and later demanding, full of rhythmic scintillation. Ms. Fisher sat on the stage, looking and listening, this time all in white.

She moved closer, but then began to dance. You could see her struggle, as if she were being jostled in a subway car. But she still had an inner strength about her, as Dante Brown began to prowl around, singing "Let My People Go."

Ms. Baker-Tarpaga pushed the prequel table onto the stage, then strained against shackles attached to it. Was it torture or a bizarre form of entertainment for an unseen audience (an effective tactic used throughout the evening)? Two men followed her with a tumbling duet, rife with violence. Then d. Sabela grimes, who we assumed up until then was a musician, took center stage with a hip-hop solo.

In lesser hands, those kinds of images -- political, racial, sexual -- could be adversarial. Yet there was a seamless effect to this "Beautiful Struggle" as it progressed.

Perhaps it was best seen in Mr. Brown's solo, where he ever so expertly morphed back-and-forth between masculine and feminine, gay and straight, staring into the audience and cheekily urging, "C'mon, girl."

Maybe it all held together because the audience had been involved from the very start back in the lobby, and were relying on their own brand of muscle memory. So when Ms. Fisher got the final solo, this time with boxing gloves for added visual interest, they understood the struggle.

And that it was beautiful.

Correction, Feb. 24, 2014: The dancer in the lobby was misidentified in an earlier version of this review.

Former Post-Gazette critic Jane Vranish:

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