Clad in red sequin mini-dresses and sensible shoes, Beth Ratas and Alyssa Mayfield were caught in a moving "Embrace" outside the side entrance of the Union Project on Negley Avenue. A runner blithely wove his way through the crowd gathered on the sidewalk. Then an emergency vehicle flew past, lights blazing. And of course, there was the stifling heat.
But it seemed that nothing could deter the performing artists from their rounds during Relative Positions, a multidisciplinary arts exploration of the historic church. Conceived by Shana Simmons, it was a loosely constructed series of overlapping works, each in a different room, ranging from the expansive Great Hall to a closet on the third floor.
The artists had a similar range, with Mary Miller, veteran choreographer for more than 40 years, sharing the program with Haley Harrison and Melanie Gallo, freshly minted graduates of Ohio State University.
It was much like live channel surfing, where audience members could explore the building at will, taking in only a few minutes of a work or staying for the full course of events.
Viewers benefitted most from seeing a complete performance of Murphy/Smith Dance Collective in a murder mystery based on the notorious 1922 case involving the killing of Episcopal priest Edward Hall and one of his choir members, Eleanor Mills. The suspects were acquitted and, to that end, a narrator asked an audience member to pick from assorted alternative conclusions.
And "For the Girl Who Sleeps in Snow," with its '50's aura of bomb shelters and understated parental discord, took great advantage of the pottery studio in the cellar and then moved the audience into the catacombs for a well-staged apocalyptic finale.
Onlookers were given flashlights for this collaboration of instructors from Hope Academy, which they played over the scene like World War II air raid searchlights -- all that was missing were the bomb sirens.
Audience interaction played a part throughout the evening, bringing art even closer to the people. Continuum Dance Theater had a grown-up work called "The Boardroom," where observers voted for the best presentation among a trio of performers. Those in attendance could add a personal touch to an interactive painting or have a one-to-one session with Andrew Huntley of Theatre Sans Serif in that third-floor closet.
Master improvisor Gia T. Cacalano was in vintage form as she explored the Great Hall, aided by longtime collaborator and percussionist Jeff Berman. And there was a group improvisation from the cast with the ethereal sounds of Eclectic Laboratory Chamber Dance, playing over the movers and groovers like a fine mist. Even the bartenders got into the act, tossing their bottles ala Tom Cruise in the movie "Cocktail."
Pittsburgh has had this kind of multidisciplary gathering before, if you think back to various Sprout functions or Melanie Miller's "House Party" themes and the memorable East End Event that moved from house to house.
But no one has ever explored a large communal space and its architectural peculiarities in quite this way. Pearlann Porter created evocative images in a dark, claustrophobic corner of the cellar with just three dancers and simple lighting.
Performance artist and poet Elizabeth Hoover concocted a surreal landscape in the one closet upstairs with eggshells, paper and words, while tripWire projected flames on its musical trio, in "Songs for the Fireside" downstairs. Conceptually interesting but best seen at intervals, Aimee Manion and friends created a painting with their bodies, most advantageously viewed from the balcony overlooking the floor of the atrium. In that same space, AMaisTwoOr, a promising new Pittsburgh collaboration, had luxurious images to play with, using a dancer, some scarves, cellist and a keyboard score playing out behind them.
There were 13 commissions, so Relative Positions was treated as serious art designed to intrigue. But most importantly, the evening summoned its own collective synergy in a fine first effort, one that promoted Pittsburgh as a vibrant arts city.theater