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Baker & Tarpaga examine issues of race and privilege in ‘Beautiful Struggle'

Performers in 'Beautiful Struggle'
Nick Fancher

Almost three years have passed since the Baker and Tarpaga Dance Project premiered “Beautiful Struggle” at the Kelly Strayhorn Theater. The choreographic duo (and married couple) have now added to the cast, and expanded the show.

Both Esther Baker and her husband, Olivier Tarpaga, have contemporary and west African dance roots, which naturally influences their movement style. Baker studied French in Senegal and was attracted to the integration of African dance into the social scene. Tarpaga was born in Burkina, and joined a prestigious dance company there at age fourteen.

The cast this time includes the two of them, as well as three other performers of varying backgrounds. Abigail Zbikowski, a house dancer and breaker, runs her own company, New Utility. Sabela Grimes creates dance theater that brings in elements of hip-hop culture. Danté Brown performed with many prestigious contemporary companies before founding his own, Brown/Warehouse Dance.

On how the piece has changed since we last saw it, Baker says, “It’s become more honed, and more radical in some ways.”

The evening-length dance largely touches on issues of white privilege. Having an interracial marriage and a daughter of mixed race has certainly influenced Baker's thinking. Articulating her experience through movement has allowed her to make dance as a performance artist and activist, not just a choreographer. She says, “Dismantling white supremacy is something that is my life’s work.”

Through many discussions with the cast, themes of invisibility vs. visibility, and discomfort vs. comfort emerged. In addition, issues of gender, class, and sexuality were explored.

The piece will make its comeback to the KST this Friday and Saturday evening, and will begin in the lobby, with Baker on top of a 4 x 4 table. Audience members will be prompted to write words on Baker’s body, making “visible” the issues with which we all struggle. The table will also be used on the stage, representing many ideas. For example, the group imagines the underside of the table as the bottom of a ship in the transatlantic slave trade.

From the lobby, the audience will progress into the theater. Zbikowski will be sitting on the edge of the stage, while Tarpaga begins live music on the calabash, a gourd-like instrument played with a stick. Additionally, there will be bass guitar and an arc bouche, an African instrument played by mouth. On top of that will be layers of pre-recorded and pre-arranged text. We will hear the voice of Baker and Tarpaga’s five-year-old daughter, and text by white anti-racism activist, Tim Wise.

Baker and Tarpaga are excited to be back to Pittsburgh and the Kelly Strayhorn Theater. Baker says the space has always been “artist-friendly and socially relevant,” and that she appreciates the presentation of multi-identity work.

Indeed, Executive Director, Janera Solomon, and her staff have continued to support artists of many life experiences. Baker says, “They’re basically walking the walk, not just talking the talk.”

In addition to the two shows, Baker and Tarpaga will host a movement workshop for professional and pre-professional dancers. Also, in collaboration with WWHAT’s up Pittsburgh and the Pittsburgh Coalition for Racial Equality in the Arts, Baker will host a workshop of movement, writing and small group discussion that examines race and privilege in the arts. Details of the shows and workshops below.

Show Details:

Baker & Tarpaga Dance Project present “Beautiful Struggle”

Friday and Saturday, February 21st and 22nd at 8:00 p.m.

Kelly Strayhorn Theater, Penn Avenue in East Liberty

$25 General Admission, $20 Residents of 15206, $15 Students & Artists

Professional and Pre-professional Movement Workshop:

Wednesday, February 19th, 10:00-11:30 a.m.

The Alloy Studios, 5530 Penn Avenue in Friendship

$5 at the door

Moving Against Racism in the Arts: An Interactive Workshop:

Thursday, February 20th, Noon–2:00 p.m.

The Alloy Studios, 5530 Penn Avenue in Friendship

Free of charge, lunch is provided