Multimedia Dance Explores Symbiosis In Acclaimed Novelist's Work

Apr 11, 2019

Fans of novelist Octavia Butler love her explorations of alternate realities for what they say about the complex world we actually live in. In Pittsburgh, Butler aficionados include choreographer Staycee Pearl, who this week debuts her second work inspired by the late Butler’s writings.

“sym” explores concepts the African-American author developed in her final novel, “Fledgling,” published in 2005. The book depicts vampire-like beings called “ina” (pronounced ee-nah) and the humans with whom they are symbiotically intertwined.

“sym” isn’t an adaptation of the novel’s plot, but rather a multimedia work looking at factors that influence relationships between people, including race. And audiences needn’t have read anything by Butler to get something out of the show, Pearl says.

“We’re hoping they see a little bit of themselves and how they relate to other people, and how we relate to each other in the macro, and in our world, and that maybe we can use some of these things we see on stage as a model, for how we should,” she says. The story, she adds, “very much mirrors race relations in this world. But the way [Butler] does it, using different type of beings, makes you think about it in a different type of way. And see yourself in a different way.”

Pearl and her STAYCEE PEARL dance project previously tackled Butler’s work in 2011’s “Octavia.” With “sym,” she and her five dancers team with visual artist Barbara Weissburger and three musicians who’ll provide accompaniment with a live, improvised score. One of the musicians is Herman “Soy Sos” Pearl, who serves as the show’s co-director and sound designer. (He and Staycee Pearl are married.)

The show will unfold as a series of group dances, duets and solos, with video projected on the all-white costumes and sculptural scenery developed by Weissburger in collaboration with Staycee Pearl. Soy Sos and musicians Sadie Powers and Bonnie Jones will create the atmospheric score using both traditional instruments (including Powers’ stand-up bass) along with radios, various electronics, and amplified sounds made with various found objects. Soy Sos calls the music “very trippy, very soundscapey.”

“We’re actually responding to the movement, rather than the other way around,” says Soy Sos. “The sound is not fixed, the choreography is fixed.”

The company dancers are Jessica Marino, LaTrea Rembert, Quaba Ernest, Dava Huesca, and Joy-Marie Thompson.

“sym” will be performed nightly on Fri., April 12, and Sat., April 13, at the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater, which commissioned the work.

As usual at the Kelly-Strayhorn, admission is “pay-what-makes-you-happy.”