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Pearl’s passion for art helps her aid dancers

Mark Kanny
| Saturday, October 17, 2015 8:11 p.m.
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Heidi Murrin | Trib Total Media
Staycee Pearl in her Pearl Arts Studio in Homewood Friday, Oct. 2, 2015. In rear right, is her husband Herman.
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Heidi Murrin | Trib Total Media
Dancers from left, Jessica Marino, LaTrea Rembert, Jil Stifel, and Jean-Paul Weaver practice under the watchful eye of Staycee Pearl, rear (on floor) at the Pearls Arts Studio in Homewood Friday, Oct. 2, 2015.
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Heidi Murrin | Trib Total Media
Choreographer Staycee Pearl directs dancer Jean-Paul Weaver at the Pearl Arts Studio Friday, Oct. 2, 2015.
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Heidi Murrin | Trib Total Media
Staycee Pearl directs dancer LaTrea Rembert at the Pearl Arts Studio in Homewood Friday, Oct. 2, 2015.
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Mark Simpson
'Playground,' choreographed by Staycee Pearl, premiered in 2014. The dance project compares and contrasts the uninhibited motion of children and the form of a professionally-trained dancer.
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Paul Kruse
'Octavia,' choreographed by Staycee Pearl, premiered in 2011.

Staycee Pearl is hard at work in the development phase of her latest dance work.

“Brink” is slated for a January premiere. The multimedia piece will address her feeling that we’ve been living on the edge for the past few years and that everything is moving very quickly.

Although formal rehearsals won’t begin until November, she’s already working in the studio with the dancers of her company, Staycee Pearl Dance Project. That’s because performers play an integral part in the way she creates dance.

“Her process is very collaborative, time consuming, democratic and inclusive in the way she brings dancers and their ideas, needs and abilities into the making of her works,” says Janera Solomon, executive director of the Kelly Strayhorn Theater in East Liberty and a longtime friend.

Pearl began creating dance works in Pittsburgh in 2001 as executive director of Xpressions Contemporary Dance Company. But her impact on the dance scene goes beyond the body of work she’s created, which includes providing choreography for two jazz-opera productions at the University of Pittsburgh.

She’s a nurturing figure as a teacher, helping children and young dancers develop their own artistic voices. She has played a similar role with dancers and emerging choreographers, such as Kyle Abraham, a 2013 MacArthur Foundation genius-award winner, and Darrell Moultrie, whose career is remarkable for the breadth of genres in which he’s flourished.

Yet, unlike many in the performing arts who begin dancing or playing an instrument by age 4, 5 or 6, Pearl didn’t find her calling until high school.

She was born in New Haven, Conn., to an artsy, intellectual family. Her father, Oscar Walters, earned his master’s of fine arts at Yale University and was the first African-American to hold a full professorship at the University of Connecticut. Her parents encouraged her to do what she wanted, what would make her happy.

Pearl had thought she would decide on a career, perhaps law or art, while studying at a university. A monthlong dance workshop in high school changed all that.

“I had a teacher who came to the school, kind of like what I do now,” she says. “I had been studying gymnastics, but once I discovered dance, that was it. I was drawn to it, loved it, went to performances and realized at 17 — this is what I want to do.”

Pearl studied for a year at the Philadelphia College of Performing Arts and briefly with the Dance Theater of Harlem before settling in at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater School for three years.

“The dancers and classes there taught me everything I know about dance,” she says. “I knew next to nothing about dance before I went there. Once I got to Ailey, I learned the pace of the actual career I was going into, the competitiveness and the extra passion, a collective passion. The people around me lived dance all day. But in some ways, I wasn’t ready for it. I didn’t grow up dancing.”

Pearl began her professional work dancing with several companies in Atlanta and found work in New York City, as well. But her career was put on hold by a health emergency: worsening kidney disease. She moved to Pittsburgh for a kidney transplant, and after waiting for nine months, she had the operation in 2001 at Allegheny General Hospital.

Coming to Pittsburgh was healthy for her in many ways. Here, she met her future husband, Herman Pearl, and formed a close friendship with Solomon. Her career also took a decisive turn.

Seven months after surgery, Pearl became executive director of Xpressions Contemporary Dance Company.

“I never wanted a dance company, never intended to run one,” she says. “Xpressions was an African-American repertory ensemble, which presented the work of emerging choreographers, such as Darrell Moultrie, Kyle Abraham, Renee Harris and others.”

After working with Pearl and Xpressions, Moultrie has gone on to win numerous awards for his choreography, and recently he spent two months as a choreographer for Beyonce. As a performer, he was part of the cast of the Broadway hit “Billy Elliott” and danced “West Side Story” at Italy’s most prestigious opera house, La Scala in Milan.

“I could go all day about Staycee,” Moultrie says. “She’s just completely open, and you can tell she cares about her dancers, each one. … She was passionate about her dancers, her company and what she wanted to say. And she wanted to bring in different voices to share with her dancers.”

Running Xpressions was like a mixture of graduate school and a playground for Pearl. The biggest lesson she says she learned is: “Not everybody is going to like you or like what you do, and that’s fine.

“I learned about composition and how to express yourself in ways you hadn’t thought of before. I could do whatever I wanted,” she says. “I had these dancers who were available to me. I got the experience of working with other creators and (seeing) what their process was.”

She also learned the business side of running a company, from marketing and budgeting to writing grants and working with a board.

“I went from worrying about how my body looked onstage to thinking about the bigger picture,” Pearl says.

Xpressions took Pearl to a new level of success. A performance at the Kelly Strayhorn led to a residence there, which in turn led to her fellowship at the August Wilson Center.

Teaching remains an important ingredient in Pearl’s life, even as her creative work takes more and more of her time.

“Staycee is an unusual teacher because she’s such a strong artist,” says Linda Addlespurger, program director of the Hope Academy of Music and the Arts in East Liberty. “It’s a funny thing with teachers. They’re usually really great teachers or really great artists who don’t know how to teach. Staycee brings an unusual blend of being a really great teacher and also an amazing artist. That’s unusual to find. I think she’s so curious and interested about her own work, she really brings that to her work with young people.”

Addlespurger says Pearl respects young people and pushes them to be focused on artistry more than entertainment.

“Sometimes, they’re a little surprised,” Addlespurger says. “I think they really grow to respect her once they see the work performed. One of the children said to me that she really choreographs for each individual. When I see her work with adult dancers, I see that same kind of caring. It’s not everyone doing the same step. You can really see the individuals.”

Pearl founded her current company in 2010 to concentrate on her own creations.

“The joy of making work led to me making more work and having more to say. I like expressing what is affecting me at the moment,” she says. “I’m very moved by poli-social issues, our world today on a macro and micro level. I’m interested in our everyday world, the wars we’re fighting and how that affects the economy, and the effect on our race relations.”

Jessica Marino has danced with Pearl’s ensemble since 2011. A Point Park University graduate, Marino also performs with Shana Simmons Dance and freelances. In addition, she is director of an artists-management agency representing 14 dance companies around the country.

“Staycee allowed me to discover my own artistic voice with prompts to pull things out about the piece we’re doing,” Marino says. “It felt great. It’s proven to be really good for me, and her, too.”

Pearl’s husband is her creative partner, too. A native Pittsburgher, Herman Pearl studied guitar and drums with a sideline in electronic music at Pittsburgh Creative and Performing Arts school, Downtown.

“I started out as a musician, but what I am more now is an audio engineer and sound designer,” he says. “I feel I can more fully present a finished idea in my sound design and engineering work than I was able to do on an instrument in real time. The world is full of good guitar players.”

He provides the music for his wife’s dance pieces. At first, he just did audio editing, but soon he was writing original music adjusted to the needs of the choreography.

“As our work became more complicated, the collaboration became more adept,” he says. ”It was challenging, but it was fun, never insurmountable. A full dance production is a very complex organism and takes a lot of work to get it to your satisfaction. When you have dance, sound, costumes, lighting, set design, video and sometimes other technologies all working together, it’s pretty amazing. And so it’s pretty thrilling to see all that happening live.”

Mark Kanny is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or mkanny@tribweb.com.

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