“SKIN + Saltwater” is Staycee Pearl’s contribution to the new show by Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre. It’s a world premiere for the veteran choreographer, and also another significant first: Pearl is the first African-American woman to create a dance for the 51-year-old troupe.
The 18-minute work is part of PBT’s “Here + Now” program, which opens March 20, at the August Wilson African American Cultural Center. That’s a bit more than a year since Pearl was offered the opportunity, in a phone call from PBT executive director Harris Ferris.
Pearl has been a force on Pittsburgh’s dance scene for two decades, most of that with her own STAYCEE PEARL dance productions. She has taught and presented works around the country. Still, the PBT is the city’s largest and most prestigious dance troupe, and Ferris’ offer was a bit of a shock, she said.
“I'm thinking, ‘Is he for real?’” she said. “And then I realized, ‘I’m doing a piece for the ballet. This is amazing.’”
Also on the program are three other short works: Dwight Rhoden’s “Simon Said,” set to the music of Paul Simon; “The Quiet Dance,” by Kyle Abraham, a Pittsburgh native and good friend and former collaborator of Pearl’s; and Nacho Duato’s “Duende.”
While Pearl has a background in ballet -- her training includes stints with Dance Theatre of Harlem and Alvin Ailey American Dance Center of New York City – she isn’t known for working in the form. Her own troupe showcases original works in an eclectic contemporary style. Moreover, Pearl is black, and the ballet world remains overwhelmingly white. In an interview a few months after she accepted the offer, Pearl said she felt some pressure over her big “first.”
“I got a lot of love from the African-American community and [others] about me having this position, and it's sometimes a little bit overwhelming,” she said.
Pearl typically works with her husband, Herman Pearl, a musician and composer who provides the scores for their collaborations as PearlArts. Past dance works of hers have honored cultural heroes like jazz singer and activist Abbey Lincoln, and black science-fiction author Octavia Butler. Her piece for PBT, with original music by Herman Pearl, is inspired by elements of The 1619 Project, this past year’s New York Times multimedia series about slavery and its legacy in the U.S.
An online video image of ocean waves hitting the shore stuck with her. Pearl saw the image as symbolic of the Middle Passage, the centuries-long series of perilous transatlantic voyages that brought enslaved Africans to North America. She settled on the premise of an African man and woman who leap overboard to escape slavery.
“I was thinking of salt water, and personally how it would change my skin if I stayed in the ocean too long,” she said. “But also, what did it mean to those slaves who jumped over to their deaths, the harshness of salt water?”
To allow time to develop the new work, rehearsals began in the fall, at PBT’s spacious studios, in the Strip District. One big challenge was to get the dancers – the cast initially numbered nearly 20 – to move in her style, which incorporates everything from ballet technique to street dance.
The gestures working in slumped shoulders and undulating spines are a far cry from classical ballet’s ramrod postures. They were also new to the dancers, some as young as 18, who had spent years perfecting their command of ballet’s traditional vocabulary of precise movements.
“It’s very close to the ground. Very grounded, but also free, it’s very flowy” is how Grace Rookstool, a PBT dancer featured in “SKIN + Saltwater,” describes Pearl’s choreography. “In this, our torso goes horizontal all the time. … Bending all the way over, you don’t do that in ballet very often!”
Developing a new work also takes longer than simply rehearsing an established piece of similar scope, which might require only a couple weeks. Pearl’s preference for workshopping new pieces – with her own company, she often develops them in collaboration with her dancers – was also something new for many PBT dancers.
“This one, it’s out of our comfort zone,” said dancer Josiah Kauffman, who emphasized that he was enjoying the challenge. “And so it tends to lead to us running it more frequently, and over and over. And that gets exhausting, and starts to wear on our bodies more than I think all of us are used to, just because it’s very different movement, so our bodies aren’t quite equipped to it yet.”
By the time a second set of rehearsals began, in February, Pearl had simplified matters by cutting the show’s cast in half, to five women and five men.
“I had to gain control over the number of bodies in the room and on the stage,” she said. (The roster of people in rehearsal, however, has not changed much: In March, Pearl learned she’d be coaching two separate casts of the show, each of which will ultimately get stage time.)
The basic choreography and themes, however, will remain. “I’m trying to escape into a different space with what was actually happening during the Middle Passage,” said Pearl.
Not that “SKIN + Saltwater” is a work of documentary realism.
“I’m using all of that [history] to build some part of it, and then build it out into this magical place,” she said.
Despite the work's nonlinear nature, many in the audience will note that Pearl is telling a story about the African-American experience with mostly white dancers.
Most of the dancers in Pearl’s own company have been black. At PBT, just two of 32 dancers are black. But while Misty Copeland became American Ballet Theatre’s first black female principal dancer in 2015 – and is now surely the nation’s best-known ballerina — lack of racial equity remains a problem throughout American ballet. In 2018, 21 companies including PBT signed on to The Equity Project, a partnership to increase the presence of black people in ballet.
The PBT believes in the show: “SKIN + Saltwater” is also one of four works the troupe will tour to the prestigious Joyce Theater, in New York City, later this spring.
“I thought this was going to be a ballet of substance and something being said that was really very good for being at the August Wilson Center and the black community,” said Terrence Orr, PBT’s longtime artistic director.
Pearl has long experience with the often-segregated world of dance.
“I worked in all-white companies where I was the one black dancer many times. And then I’ve worked with other white companies as a choreographer,” she said. “I’m always mindful about the bodies in the room. … I think most white companies don’t event think about it. They don’t care to think about it, they don’t think it’s an issue. And that’s that. That’s just how it is for them, until someone makes it an issue for them.”
Pearl said there are far more black dancers with ballet training than their numbers in ballet troupes indicate. She recalls her experience at Alvin Ailey. “Many of my colleagues, and the students who were there when I was there, were ballet dancers who knew they weren’t going to get any jobs, so they went to the Ailey school instead.”
Pearl acknowledges that who the dancers are matters. “I would have to present it differently if it were on my own company, or on even a black ballet company,” she said. “I think there would be things that would be understood sooner and faster [if the dancers were African-American].”
But she said she didn’t hesitate to set the work on a mostly white troupe.
“This story is an American story, and these issues are American issues, and we should all able to tell them,” she said. “And I took it as a learning experience for myself, but also for them.”
“Here + Now” receives seven performances starting Friday, March 20. More information is here.
WESA receives funding from Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre.