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Masked, Physically Distanced, Remotely Directed: Pittsburgh Dance Troupe Premieres Short Film

Attack Theatre is that rare established Pittsburgh arts group that moved its headquarters during the coronavirus pandemic. Now it’s showing off its new home in a short film whose production was itself an adaptation to the era of physical distancing.

Attack Theatre presents Janessa Clark's "I : I": 7:30 p.m. Fri., Jan. 22, and 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Sat., Jan. 23

“I : I” is a collaboration between the long-running contemporary dance company and Janessa Clark, a filmmaker and choreographer with international credits. (She said the title is a graphic that can be pronounced “One to One," “I to I" or however one prefers.)

In deference to the pandemic, Clark never met anyone from the troupe in person. In fact, the whole project was developed, shot and edited without her ever leaving her home, in Brooklyn.

“It’s one of the strangest practices we’ve embarked upon,” said Clark, whose credits include founding New York City-based dance collective Janessa Clark/KILTERBOX and the Stockholm-based nomadthenewcompany.

Attack, like most arts groups, has been filming work to present online. The group’s “Cello Diaries” series involved dancers filming themselves at home, for example. “I : I” was a bit more involved.

Credit Maria Baranova Suzuki
Filmmaker and choreographer Janessa Clark

Clark met the four dancers – Simon Phillips, Dane Toney, Sarah Zielinski and Attack artistic director Michele de la Reza – via Zoom, and each developed a solo contribution to the film from his or her home. Trust, too, had to be built remotely.

“Moving together while apart was really an important part of this process, and I have to say that these artists are incredibly adaptable and creative,” Clark said.

She did a video “walk-through” of the group’s new space – its stark concrete stairwells and landing, small rooms, and large, airy studio – with Pittsburgh-based cinematographer Joshua Sweeny. The landmark  building on the corner of 45th and Butler street, in Lawrenceville, was formerly the Boys And Girls Club of Pittsburgh.

“The space became a big part of the film,” said Toney, who also served as assistant director and editor. “It’s very much its own character.”

Rehearsals were also conducted via Zoom. And the shoot occurred with Clark present only via electronic devices.

“We had her on the laptop on a little rolling cart that we would move around,” said Toney. “It was very ‘Jetsons,’” he added, laughing.

The 15-minute film’s first section knowingly reflects the isolation of its creators, with the face-masked dancers soloing in confined areas. Later scenes show them coming together – but save for one distanced group dance, that involves some post-production work that makes it look like the dancers are in the same space when they actually performed there separately.

Composer David Shane Smith contributed his electronic score from Santa Fe, N.M.

The novel work situation demonstrates just one way artists have coped during the pandemic.

“I feel like artists have really come out of their shells and found creative ways to problem-solve this isolation in which we’re having to work,” she said. “I do believe it brought out the best in everyone to get together and make something beautiful to share with the public to provide an escape for the public. Just to say, 'We’re still out here, we’re still making work.'”

The video premieres with three online screenings Fri., Jan. 22, and Sat., Jan. 23.

Ticketing information is here.