Dance review: Pillow Project shows great vision

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It's been a long and winding road on Pearlann Porter's latest choreographic journey to search for a singular jazz improvisational style, one that is nearing a decade of invention.

But Ms. Porter always had a big vision. The official beginning of The Pillow Project, the result of Ms. Porter's ultra-imaginative idea way of dreaming on her personal pillow, started in 2004 at Attack Theatre's old haunts in Garfield, where 20-plus Point Park University students followed her lead in a program that, at the last minute, turned into a double performance due to audience demand.

You might say it set a precedent for "bigger is better." She filled the Hunt Armory with rock 'n roll jazz (Led Zeppelin, The White Stripes), raided Construction Junction for "The Swank Easy," took to Pittsburgh streets for a few months and settled in the voluminous Space Upstairs to establish her "Second Saturdays" series in 2008, a monthly discovery zone.

All of this has made her among the most prolific of Pittsburgh choreographers. And it's all both casual and smart, a great breeding ground for young multidisciplinary artists and a jumping off point for places unknown, like scientific microcosms or Paris.

But it is starting to bear fruit, as evidenced by The Pillow Project's latest piece, "Backlit in a Whole New D." That's "D" as in dimension. Viewers were given a pair of 3-D glasses and were told to use them as they saw fit, which actually created another layer, audience interaction, on top of the "direction" (as Ms. Porter labels her choreographic insight these days), "Freejazz" improvisation from the dancers and Mike Cooper's Luminography, which played a weightier role here.

Mr. Cooper joined the group for "The Swank Easy" in 2007 and has been playing with light in his own inimitable way ever since. Luminography is created with one camera and two projectors to produce numerous special effects by manipulating the performers' images.

Simply by adjusting the camera on its stand and altering the shutter speed or using zoom lens, Mr. Cooper can create an almost endless repetition of images that might rotate or make them morph into abstract images and much, much more. The results were revealed on the giant wall opposite the audience.

This was a particularly fine interplay on opening night Friday at The Space Upstairs. When the Luminography was dense and dominant, I donned the glasses, which gave it a rose-colored, psychedelic atmosphere. When the movement took the spotlight, so to speak, I took off the glasses and relished the black-and-white way the dance was outlined.

With a judicious selection of tracks from The Beastie Boys' "Check Your Head," there was an abundance of tempo and texture that propelled the evening forward. Instead of being youthful artists flexing their individual muscles, there was perspective, balance and some particularly delicious moments.

I loved the use of the fall, which felt like an anchor throughout the evening. And Mr. Cooper employed a new technique, which resembled fabulous Rorschach inkblots, during much of the first half. He also had a delicious "duet" with Taylor Knight, who can make the most mundane of gestures, like smoking a cigarette, look like something alluring.

Apparently those grand Porter experiments are starting to pay off.


Former Post-Gazette critic Jane Vranish: She also blogs at


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