Pittsburgh PA (PGH), often associated with sports, the steel industry, and Heinz ketchup, has a surprisingly rich history in supporting dance and innovative artists. With affordable rent, access to arts funding and residency opportunities on the emerging level, Pittsburgh is an enticing incubator and home base for the emerging and full-time artist. This “big little city” fosters a vibrant burgeoning performing arts scene that renders the ripples of artists’ work more perceivable than in a more populous city. Due to its modest size and affordability, it allows for collaboration, experimentation, and an intersection of artists and creatives from varying backgrounds and disciplines. While artists are the fuel that drive these scenes, this is also thanks to innovative work within the presenting and funding landscape and its interest in cultivating young artists. Institutions shaping the landscape of local arts often create space for these artists to intersect with traveling and touring work, allowing artists to develop deep relationships within their city while also connecting to the national and international arts landscape.
Pittsburgh is the birthplace to modern dance pioneer Martha Graham, playwright August Wilson, jazz legend Billy Strayhorn, pop-art creator Andy Warhol, screen legend Gene Kelly, and current innovator of the dance field Kyle Abraham. The deeper you look into Pittsburgh’s dance history, the more fascinating it becomes to witness Pittsburgh’s ties to cultivating and supporting dance and its intersections with other art forms. For example, Jeanne Hays Beaman, founder of American Dance Festival and the Pittsburgh Dance Council, taught at University of Pittsburgh from 1961-1975 and created and conducted innovative research on computational choreography. Dance Alloy Theater, a modern repertory company, existed in Pittsburgh for 36 years, performing commissioned works by Bill T. Jones, Eiko & Koma, Elizabeth Streb, Tere O’Connor, and Robert Battle.
Pittsburgh also continues to be a city that houses an astronomical amount of private grant funding to support independent artists and companies. These foundations include the newly developed Opportunity Fund, which focuses on supporting the performing arts, contemporary craft and initiatives that exist at the intersection of social justice work and socially engaged art practices. Recently, a collaboration of 15 foundations and private donors came together to support the changes necessary to shift and adapt within Covid.
After years of research, Pittsburgh was named one of the most inequitable cities in the United States to live in for women of color, specifically black mothers. Statistics show that PGH has one of the highest mortality rates for black mothers in the United States and black men are at a higher risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease, and drug overdoses. This illuminates PGH's long history of inequality, segregation, medical racism, and the cyclical dismantling of African American Communities such as the Hill District and East Liberty via gentrification and strategic city development. These histories and collected data corroborate how structural and institutional racism continues to be at work within American cities in insidious ways. Long before this data was released, it was felt within the communities it directly impacts. Arts institutions and foundations have been at work for many years to create initiatives that address the inequalities this data presents. This, of course, is not enough—the process of dismantling the institutional and structural impacts of racism in America requires a thorough and multi-modal approach that is far beyond what the arts can solely offer or try to mend. Still, these initiatives should not be forsaken and with the support of deep pockets of the private foundations present in Pittsburgh, initiatives have innovated incredible durational funding initiatives such as the Advancing Black Arts Grant. Created by the Pittsburgh Foundation and Heinz Endowments to address granting inequality within Pittsburgh and our nation, the Advancing Black Arts Grant supports the development, documentation and sustainment of individual Black artists' and Black arts group’s work. It strives to cultivate and build community awareness of the Black arts sector, and “support efforts toward greater collaboration and the elimination of racial disparities within the larger arts sector”.
Two Black PGH based artists addressing these issues within their work include STAYCEE PEARL Dance Project, who is soon to premiere the new work, “CIRCLES,” thanks to a highly competitive NEFA Production grant with support from the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater, The August Wilson Center and the Joyce Theater. “CIRCLES” is a response to white supremacy and its cyclical effects upon the black community. It seeks to offer a path to self reclamation out of the distorting lens of the white gaze and systemic oppression via cultivation and representation of black joy. A dancer in that work and burgeoning artist themselves is Joy-Marie Thompson, who trained at Pittsburgh’s CAPA arts school and held her first exhibition at the August Wilson African American Cultural Center while completing undergrad at SUNY Purchase’s Dance Conservatory. The photo series, titled “Interpretations”, was created in collaboration with dance photographer Rachel Neville. Within this series, Thompson reinterpreted iconic photographs of African American dance visionaries and performers through her own body and contemporary lens. Thompson also directs and choreographs dance films. In the premier of the recent film, Linkt, she explores the dynamics of power, labor and privilege between white and black women. Within this work, an orange rubber band linking Joy and her collaborator, Sherah Shipman, represents how they are bound to each other by an energetic cord and how black women receive the snap back and more visceral impact of the wake of white women’s actions, inactions, and ignorance.
For emerging artists, there are several initiatives to present, produce and create experimental work with performance institutions within the city. Notable initiatives include the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater (KST) Freshworks Residency program. The KST website states about this month-long residency that “The program provides artists with studio space, production staff, lighting and sound design, professional development, and encouragement for creative risk taking.” Kelly-Strayhorn is keeping this seven year program alive in 2021, by reframing its structure to exist within the protocols of COVID-19, allowing PGH artists to have resources and a supportive platform during a time when developing work is continually challenged by the Global Pandemic. Additionally in 2021, Kelly-Strayhorn Theater brings the launch of their new “Mutual-Aid Residency” with STAYCEE PEARL Dance Project and Soy Sos / PearlArts Studios. KST is quoted on their website, stating, “Artist Incubation has long been a practice at KST, offering long term and custom support for artists, not only to realize a project, but to strengthen their infrastructure and facilitate the path to more sustainable ongoing operations.” Pittsburgh does not have the large population of dance companies, administrative development resources and management agencies like New York City or LA. Having a program that is committed to not only supporting the development of a new “piece” or “project”, but rather investing in the artists longevity and becoming a sustainable entity, is an exciting and necessary initiative for PGH dance. Following the loss of their studio space, it is incredible to see PearlArts Studios/STAYCEE PEARL Dance Project continue to thrive and grow via this innovative community partnership. Visit the KST website to get info regarding their Freshworks Spring 2021 cycle and their mutual-aid partnership with STAYCEE PEARL Dance Project and Soy Sos.
In addition to these initiatives for the creation of new work, there are also burgeoning spaces for self production, cultivation, community connection and exploration. For folks engaging in commercial dance, Millennium Dance Complex hosts workshops with visiting artists, many of whom are in town teaching and setting work at many of PGH suburb’s competition studios and/or the many film and TV productions that shoot in PGH. On another spectrum of spaces holding movement workshops and informal performances, the Space Upstairs provides a more cozy and off beat vibe, being an open format loft studio space with many cozy couches, a bar created from used and recycled materials from Construction Junction, and clip lights on a dimmer board. This space is the artistic home for the Pillow Project, a company run by Pearlann Porter, as well as resident artists slowdanger and Kaylin Horgan.
While there is much to celebrate about PGH’s nesting and cultivation of artistic voices, it continues to struggle, alongside most American cities, to examine and address the multitude of inequities caused by institutional racism and white supremacy that this country is based upon. Simultaneously, the biggest impact that can be felt as an artist in Pittsburgh is the real ripples one can create in their larger community. While many cities struggle to build audiences outside of the dance bubble, Pittsburgh has already sustained audiences such as this for many years. This allows for work to be continually intersectional and multidisciplinary and to feel like it has a real impact in its community. This, in combination with the funding opportunities to support such work, spring loads an artist’s impact and places them on the frontline for broader social change.