Outgoing Kelly-Strayhorn Head Changed Pittsburgh Dance Scene, And More

Dec 16, 2019

In 11 years as executive director of the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater, janera solomon changed more than just the prominence of that East Liberty performing-arts venue. She profoundly altered the Pittsburgh arts scene.

Within weeks of taking over the Kelly-Strayhorn, solomon established an artist-residency program for dance – one whose first recipient was a rising-star Pittsburgh native named Kyle Abraham, a few years before he won his MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant. Just months later in 2009, the theater hosted the inaugural newMoves Contemporary Dance Festival, which solomon had created as a showcase for cutting-edge work from around the country and beyond.

"She didn't say a lot, but when she spoke, people listened and they took notice"

Both the residencies and the festival are still going, even as solomon prepares to step down as executive director.

The Kelly-Strayhorn hosts more than dance, including music, theater, film screenings, and community events. And solomon has assumed other important roles, including helping to lead efforts to preserve the August Wilson African American Cultural Center. As an arts leader, solomon has been formidable, said Mitch Swain, executive director of the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council. In meetings of arts folk, he said, “She didn’t say a lot, but when she spoke, people listened and they took notice.”

But it’s in dance – by commissioning new work as well as by presenting troupes from Pittsburgh and around the world – that solomon perhaps made her biggest mark.

Randal Miller heads the Pittsburgh Dance Council, a program of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust and the region’s highest-profile presenter of contemporary dance. Miller calls the Kelly-Strayhorn’s programming under solomon “very significant.” The theater, he wrote in an email, supports artists who are too new, too local or too experimental for the Dance Council to present at its main venue, the Byham Theater.

"It was very diverse stuff coming through. It was definitely what the community needs."

“KST and PDC each occupy a different space in the dance landscape which are critical to a thriving community,” wrote Miller. There’s another connection, too: Miller considers solomon his first mentor in Pittsburgh, dating to when he interned at the Kelly-Strayhorn in 2009, during his first year as a Carnegie Mellon University grad student.

Others second Miller’s assessment. The Kelly-Strayhorn’s programming under solomon “was pretty groundbreaking for Pittsburgh,” said Staycee Pearl, whose Staycee Pearl dance productions has been a perennial favorite at the theater. “It was very diverse stuff coming through. It was definitely what the community needs.”

“It made people consider Pittsburgh in a different way,” said Pearlann Porter, director of the Pillow Project, whose recent show “NOW:PLAYING” was among the last full-scale productions there during solomon’s tenure.

"It made people consider Pittsburgh in a different way"

solomon (who’s gone by an all-lower-case name for years) was born in Guyana, grew up in Pittsburgh, and graduated from the University of Pittsburgh in 1998. She came to the Kelly-Strayhorn as an experienced curator whose credits included the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival. In 2007, she developed the First Voice International Black Performing Arts Festival, produced by the August Wilson Center for African American Culture.

The Kelly-Strayhorn – named for locally nurtured legends Billy Strayhorn and Gene Kelly -- had been born of efforts, dating to the 1990s, to redevelop a historic but vacant former neighborhood movie theater. In 2008, the nonprofit was still struggling to find its identity. Most of the developments that define today’s East Liberty for many – Target, pricey condos, and upscale boutiques – hadn’t arrived yet.

“I think there was still a question as to whether the theater concept could work, whether East Liberty could work as a neighborhood for arts and culture in 2008,” solomon said.

But she saw opportunity.

Pittsburgh in 2008 "had a kind of a really robust dance scene, but really not a strong place to showcase it"

Pittsburgh “had a kind of a really robust dance scene at the time, but really not a strong place to showcase it,” said solomon. Starting newMoves, “a festival that asked artists to make new work and show new work, seemed like the right thing to do, seem like the obvious thing to do, so we could spark some energy and spark some exchange between artists," she said.

While Pittsburgh at the time had dance companies that created new work – Attack Theatre and Dance Alloy Theater among them – a theater that commissioned and presented original choreography was a novelty. But solomon said she considered the residency programs she created crucial.

“Supporting emerging artists, new ideas, no matter where they come from, is a critical part of keeping a city, and keeping an arts community viable,” she said. “You can’t expect audiences to be fully engaged in artmaking that’s not fresh. That's not constantly innovating. That’s not changing and not being relevant to the issues that they’re facing to their lives today. People’s lives are dramatically different than they were 10 years ago, let alone 100 years ago. We want the artwork we're putting on stage to reflect those differences.”

The theater commissioned or co-commissioned new work by choreographers with national reputations including not just Abraham but also Camille Brown, Thaddeus Phillips, Sidra Bell, Sean Dorsey and Jaamil Kosoko. There were international artists, like Moroccan company Fleur D'Orange. There were locally based artists with growing national profiles, like Staycee Pearl dance project and Soy Sos, whose memorable shows included “Octavia,” based on the works of science-fiction author Octavia Butler.

"You can't expect audiences to be fully engaged in artmaking that's not fresh"

The theater also helped develop new work by Bill Shannon, an internationally known multidisciplinary artist based in Pittsburgh.

Many dance professionals recall solomon’s approach as a breath of fresh air.

“The whole dance community felt pretty exclusive to me at that time,” said Pearl. “It became a much more inclusive world, and I think the community is better for it.”

“I think [solomon] offered something at the right time, just at the right place,” said Porter, of the Pillow Project.

solomon also oversaw the theater’s 2011 merger with Dance Alloy Theater, a venerable group that was struggling financially. (The Alloy ceased operations as a dance troupe, though its name lives on via the Alloy Studios, its old space on Penn Avenue, in Friendship, now programmed by the Kelly-Strayhorn.)

"It's an intentional reminder that participating in the arts is making a full life"

Inclusivity was another hallmark of solomon’s tenure. Other signature programming included My People, an arts festival for queer and trans people of color, and Sunstar, a biennial festival for women in music. The theater regularly hosted African dance-and-drumming performances, and Suite Life, an annual birthday celebration for Strayhorn featuring live jazz.

solomon said she was largely inspired by the theater’s namesakes: Kelly, a dancer and star of Broadway and Hollywood, and Strayhorn, a gay, African-American jazz composer and pianist. “Being inclusive in our programming is a natural outgrowth of that, of our commitment to those two people,” she said.

solomon also found an innovative way to make the theater’s programming more accessible. In 2015, the Kelly-Strayhorn became the first arts venue or presenter in town to adopt full-time a policy of “pay-what-makes-you-happy.” Visitors can still pay whatever they want – or nothing at all – to attend any show or event produced by the Kelly-Strayhorn.

The policy was partly a way to make the theater feel more welcoming to long-time neighbors – or anyone with a tight budget – at a time when East Liberty was gentrifying rapidly.

“We just started to think about, ‘Well, what are the barriers to participation and how can we remove those barriers?’” she said. “And what we found is that cost is a barrier. But it's not the only barrier. … There’s also a sort of fear of not knowing what the thing is or what you might encounter or who else might be there. Those fears are also really attached to the ticket price. So we wanted to remove that both of those fears.

“Pay-what-makes-you-happy is about reminding everybody that we're in charge of how we feel about things, and that when we choose to participate in the arts, we are contributing to our own happiness,” she added. “It's an intentional reminder that participating in the arts is making a full life.”

While some observers expected the theater to lose money with this strategy, solomon said that both admissions and overall ticket revenue have risen.

That hasn’t affected the Kelly-Strayhorn’s financial condition much: While the annual budget during her tenure has risen from less than $300,000 to $1.35 million, about two-thirds of its revenue still comes from grants and other contributions, she said.

That can make for a bumpy fiscal ride.

“In the 11 seasons I've produced, we've never had a fully funded season at the start of the season,” solomon said. Arts management, she added, “is a case where you have to produce something and then people might fund it.”

But pay-what-makes-you-happy has benefits beyond the fiduciary.

“We have seen a kind of pride and attachment to the theater increase and grow. And people are willing to jump in and step in and help and volunteer and share resources,” she said.

solomon’s last day at the Kelly-Strayhorn is Dec. 31. The theater is well into the national search for a new executive director, and also looking ahead with its $500,000 Bridge to the Future capital campaign

solomon speaks optimistically of the theater’s future. “When I came here, I said, ‘I want to do something that makes a difference and firmly establishes this place as a place that matters,’” she said. “I've done that, and someone else can come and take it forward.”

As for solomon herself, she plans to spend more time with her family and return to her roots as an artist and curator. After all, she said, “I didn’t go into the arts to be an executive director."