By Steve Sucato
For nearly a decade, Pearlann Porter’ s Pillow Project has been on the leading edge of dance in Pittsburgh. Founded by Porter in 2004, the company created an instant buzz, bolstered by large-scale rock ‘ n’ roll dance extravaganzas like 2005′ s Concept Album Tour, at Shadyside‘ s Hunt Armory. Then, the company transformed itself by producing intimate cutting-edge multimedia works such as 2008′ s Twenty Eighty-Four and 2010′ s Paper Memory at its own dance incubator/performance venue, The Space Upstairs, in Point Breeze.
Since 2011, Porter and company have assumed yet another incarnation. They’ve been producing salon-style dance programs like the Second Saturdays series and the upcoming The Green Swan, both utilizing an unusual movement style Porter calls “Freejazz.”
For Porter, 36, the Holy Grail long had been to have audiences “see the music” in the movement her dancers performed to. The problem, she determined after years of experimentation, was that she needed to teach her dancers to listen to music and improvise the way she did — or like jazz musicians do.
It’ s a process that she says dates to her childhood in New Jersey, dancing and improvising to her own mix tapes. Then, Porter felt unbound by a reliance on proper dance techniques. And that’ s something she says she never excelled at anyway, whether as a student at Clifton, N.J.’ s Dance World Academy or as a dance major at Point Park University.
That youthful dancing was the seed that would years later blossom into Freejazz. Porter describes this form of improvisation as “using the body as the instrument playing visual notes. Not dancing to the music but dancing within it.” (Porter uses “jazz” as a verb, and emphasizes that the approach is unrelated to the specific traditional style known as jazz dance.)
The idea of dancer as musical instrument is not a new one. Tap-dance great Savion Glover put forth that notion for years touring with a jazz band in which he fancied himself one of the musicians, tapping out notes with his feet as a trumpeter would on his horn. But Porter contends that the uniqueness of Freejazz lies in the viewer’ s impression that he or she is actually “seeing the music” on the dancer. In other words, that the viewer is watching music rather than watching dance.
This new direction for Pillow Project has resulted in a sort of bohemian approach, where performances are now late-night happenings in which traditional theater trappings — such as rows of chairs and theatrical decorum — are replaced by couches and the freedom of audience members to roam during performances. The approach attracts an audience that wants that level of engagement, such as audiences the troupe found on recent trips to Paris, London, Dublin and Amsterdam. There, Porter says, the company performed in the streets, forming connections with those city’ s jazz musicians and beat poets like Paris-based Moe Seager.
Porter also now sees her role in the company differently. “I don’ t choreograph anymore,” she says. “I direct.”
“Our work has changed because it is not these designed pieces we present anymore,” she adds. “It is more these expressions we create that are unique to the moment.”
Of course, anyone who does improvised dance says something similar. But for the Pillow Project, that embrace of spontaneity has spilled over into other areas of the creative process. For instance, longtime company videographer Mike Cooper, responsible for much of the Pillow Project’ s visual-effects wizardry over the years, has developed his own form of improvisation called “Luminography.” He describes it as “an original video-projection methodology that is completely improvised.”
The improv approach might be a hard sell to more traditional dance audiences. But Porter says she believes she could tour work like the company’ s latest Freejazz production, The Green Swan.
In the show, running June 28-30 at The Space Upstairs, Porter takes inspiration from the ballet classic Swan Lake. The hour-long solo is set to theremin music adapted from Tchaikovsky’ s original score and performed by recent Point Park graduate Lydia Rakov. The show (which contains nudity) follows the metamorphosis of a beautiful white swan into a “disgusting” swamp creature.
Rakov, 23, is a Montclair, N.J., native and is classically trained. She says that in the solo, she takes her dance training, and through Freejazz, pushes its look beyond what is considered normal. “I like to describe it as extreme ballet,” says Rakov. “Taking something so beautiful to a point where it ceases to be beautiful in the same way. How much more can I get out of a movement that may have been done the same way for a hundred years? How can I make it weirder?”
The Pillow Project presents The Green Swan, 10 p.m. nightly Fri., June 28-Sun., June 30. The Space Upstairs, 214 N. Lexington St., Point Breeze. $10-15. www.pillowproject.org.
This article first appeared in Pittsburgh City Paper June 26, 2013. Copyright Steve Sucato.