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A new arts residency combines movement and multimedia

“Most residencies want you to fit into bookends.”

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When Corinne Spencer put out a call for black women in Pittsburgh to take part in her movement-based video installation project, she welcomed trained and untrained performers alike. Spencer, a Brooklyn-based visiting artist in the inaugural Pearl Diving Movement Residency (PDMR) program, is not a trained dancer. Neither are the residency’s local artists, Almeda Beynon and Kevan Loney. Instead of plies or Senegalese hip twists, these artists will employ visual rhyming, virtual reality and other media in the April 2 showcase that culminates their month-long residency.

PDMR co-curators Staycee Pearl and Joseph Hall established the residency to give professional artists rehearsal space, technical support, mentorship and time to create movement-based work with a strong multimedia component.

Hall, a New York-based curator and producer, says, “Movement allows for more types of expression than dance. … [W]e want to support work that combined these forms of expression with new media and technology. We’re also tapping into new connections for Pittsburgh. For local artists who aren’t necessarily a part of the dance community, but also for visiting artists who we can build a long-term relationship with.”

Spencer’s project, “Hunger,” uses a series of short films and live performances to explore desire, connection, landscape and self. “‘Hunger’ engages with historical and political narratives, while also seeking to move beyond them, inward,” Spencer says. “The project frames issues of longing, separation, desire and the journey toward homecoming through the black feminine body and the black female experience in the world.”

In 2015, Spencer was commissioned to present the first phase of “Hunger” at Boston’s Arts Emerge Festival. Spencer, who previously presented solo, says, “I want to see what happens in this next phase when I add more performers.”

On their project, “Lovushke,” Beynon and Loney are working with an aerialist, a musical-theater student from Carnegie Mellon University and a CMU dance professor. It’s a dual audience experience in which a group of eight patrons will be onstage either experiencing the VR environment (wearing a headset), or staging green-screen moments that inform the VR experience. The “general” audience, meanwhile, will watch the entire machine of the performance being constructed. “The general [non-VR] audience will be able to see the movement piece with a trapeze artist performing with other actors against a set and green screen, all of which is infused live into the virtual environment for both audiences to enjoy.”

Corinne Spencer with the video component of her work “Hunger” - PHOTO BY RENEE ROSENSTEEL
  • Photo by Renee Rosensteel
  • Corinne Spencer with the video component of her work “Hunger”

Pearl, a movement artist and co-founder of PearlArts Studios, in Point Breeze, says the idea for the residency grew out of a need in the community. Local artists regularly ask her and PearlArts co-founder Herman Pearl for free use of their space. “And we gave it away without funding for years,” Pearl says. “But we wanted to create a bigger, more formal program.” So Pearl reached out to Hall, the former Kelly-Strayhorn Theater program director who now also serves as the Bronx Academy of Arts’ deputy director. “For three years, Joseph and I researched communities similar in size to Pittsburgh. … There’s really cool stuff happening, but we might not know about it because it’s not happening in New York City or San Francisco.”

After securing funding from the Heinz Endowments, Pearl and Hall designed a residency with a local and a national track for each round. They spread the word through arts groups in the residency’s target cities — Buffalo, New York City, Detroit, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Cleveland, Columbus and Baltimore, all “within a day’s travel from Pittsburgh,” Hall says.

Accessibility is a cornerstone of the residency. “A lot of programs give you time and space, but you’re on your own when it comes to funding,” says Spencer. “This makes the opportunity inaccessible to artists who have to juggle and figure out how to take off time from work.”

Loney, a third-year video and media-design master’s-of-fine-arts candidate at CMU, was attracted to PDMR’s “go-get-’em attitude and the safe space to experiment. VR is like the Wild West right now. Everyone is seeing what they can do with this technology.”

“They told us, ‘Come and create your art’,” says Beynon, a third-year graduate student in sound design at CMU’s School of Drama. “Most residencies want you to fit into bookends. But PDMR is very encouraging. They really foster the art.”

The Heinz Endowments has committed funding for PDMR for two years. This includes a $2,000 stipend for local artists and $5,000 for visiting artists. Pearl says that the “reasonable stipends honor the artists. They are free to engage in their process without external pressure. They also have a chance to show their work, get feedback and allow other people into their process.”

Work-in-progress performances of both “Hunger” and “Lovushke” take place Sat., April 2, at PearlArts Studios.

Applications are available for the second round of the residency, to begin this fall. The application and guidelines are posted at pearlartsstudios.com, and the deadline is May 29.

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