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In A Former Office Depot, A High-Tech Dance Takes Shape

Photo courtesy of Mark Simpson Photography
Left to right: Attack Theatre dancers Sonja Gable and Kaitlin Dann.

Over its 24 years, adventuresome dance troupe Attack Theatre has staged productions in some unusual places: outdoor plazas, old industrial spaces, a gallery at the Carnegie Museum of Art. But its latest venue is probably a first: a former Office Depot at The Waterfront shopping complex in Homestead.

"If / Maybe / Then" runs April 12-29 in the former Office Depot space at The Waterfront in Homestead.

The cavernous, white-walled, fluorescent-lit space–the dark footprints of its vanished shelving units still visible on its tiled floor–sits between Michael’s Arts and Crafts and Petco. But if you looked through the big front windows on a recent afternoon, you’d also see a handful of dancers rehearsing, right between some low-rise bleachers and a movie-theater-sized screen.

The show, titled If / Maybe / Then, itself involves new for the group. It takes an experimental approach to storytelling that incorporates virtual-reality technology and goes well beyond the group’s previous blend of video and live performance.

If / Then /Maybe features five dancers, each playing a different character. The work alternates between sections. First, the audience watches all together, and at interludes, patrons split into two groups. During the interludes, each group enters a small “chamber” where one or more performers enact a short scene that patrons in the other group never see. So when the audience reunites for the next act, each half of the audience has a different set of information about the characters.

“They literally get 50 percent of the backstory,” said Michele de la Reza, who choreographed the show with fellow Attack Theatre co-founder, co-artistic director and spouse, Peter Kope.

The idea behind this bifurcated approach is to leave audience members free to draw contrasting conclusions to questions like whether a given character is crazy or a genius–or supportive, or merely an enabler.

The high-tech elements come courtesy of Dane Toney, until now best known as an Attack Theatre company dancer. But Toney, a West Virginia native, is also a life-long gamer, and has been doing video work for Attack for years.

Toney joined the company a decade ago, after graduating from Point Park University. More recently, he studied interactive video at Carnegie Mellon University’s Frank-Ratchye STUDIO for Creative Inquiry.

The motion-tracking and virtual reality for If / Maybe / Then lets dancers do things like interact with text on a screen. In one scene, a magic act, the magician character gets to play with virtual fireballs.

“Our main thing with this performance that’s gonna be difficult is not creating something that is not just visual wallpaper,” said Toney, “but having something that lives and breathes that can be manipulated by the performers, that is very much a part of their world, that can change and develop throughout the show.”

Along with Kope, who plays a sort of host for the show, the dancers include Kaitlin Dann, Sonja Gable, Simon Phillips and Ashley Williams. Toney isn’t performing–he’ll be up at the control table for this performance–but said he does plan to continue dancing with the company. And the physical scenic design is by Britton Mauk.

As seen in rehearsals, the show, performed to a variety of music, including classical, features Attack’s characteristically playful, athletic choreography. If / Maybe /Then includes an unusual number of falls, but there’s a reason for that. De la Reza explained by quoting from a passage that will appear as the show’s introductory text.

“We fall into situations that we have no control over. We fall through our lives, we fall in love, we fall out of love. We fall down, we get back up again. We arrive, looking for ourselves but in others. We find ourselves in a new place, immigrants in our own head.”

Attack is staging If / Maybe / Then for 14 performances over three weekends at the Waterfront. The company holds the space via short-term lease. Kope said life as temporary tenants in an old Office Depot has been fascinating experience in terms of interactions with passersby, mostly shoppers who see the company as it loads in gear.

“People stop you: ‘Oh, what's going in here?’ ‘Well, we're a dance company, we're putting a show on.’ Like, ‘Oh, what's that about?’ ‘Oh, I love to dance.’ ‘Oh, my daughters love this, or I used to work on X, Y or Z,'” Kope said.

There are other advantages to staging a show at a sprawling shopping center, he added.

“We got free parking. There's plenty of places to eat. If you need to get some pet food or some crafts, we’re right between Petco and Michael's."

For tickets and more information, see www.attacktheatre.com.

Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: bodriscoll@wesa.fm