University of Pittsburgh

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ART AMONG US

Attack Theatre takes performance art—and education—to the people.

Written by Joshua Schriftman

The dark-eyed dancer stands expressionless, with arms crossed, peering through the buzz of the arts festival in downtown Pittsburgh. Art sellers and buyers mill around while someone hands out flyers. A man in a suit and sporting a Mohawk moves gracefully past the corner doughnut shop, swinging his suitcase as he goes. No one notices him, but then another smartly dressed man with a similar suitcase walks by, and then two more suitcase-holders saunter past to haunt the same corner. Before long there are six suitcase swingers in the crowd, and people start to notice. When the six begin moving as one, people know something is up. The dancer, Attack Theatre Managing Artistic Director Michele de la Reza, uncrosses her arms and smiles as the crowd leans in and perks up.

As the music kicks in, the dancers move with athleticism and grace. They gather around one suitcase. When the lid to the case is slowly lifted, a sign inside offers an explanation: “Attack Theatre.” Applause competes with the increasingly urgent tempo of the music as the performers dive into “The Heist,” choreographed for the festival.

It is just one of the performance pieces that de la Reza (EDUC ’94G) and her husband, Peter Kope, have created since founding Attack Theatre in 1994. They’re the artistic directors of the company, which performs works that blend modern dance, theater, multimedia work, and other art forms. Cellist and composer Dave Eggar, a Grammy-nominated artist, is the company’s music director. The group takes its art to the audience, performing on street corners, on bridges, behind storefront windows, and even in backyards. Since its founding, Attack Theatre has staged more than 100 original works and offered extensive arts education programs locally and abroad.

A Juilliard graduate, de la Reza relocated to Pittsburgh in 1991 to work with the Dance Alloy Theater and its then-director, New York City-based choreographer Mark Taylor. She also entered Pitt’s School of Education to pursue a master’s degree in developmental movement/motor learning. While earning the degree, she received funding by teaching as many as six dance classes per semester. It was through this arrangement that she discovered the joys of mingling education and dance.

In the years since, the reputation and reach of Attack Theatre have grown. The company collaborates with many others, including museums, theater groups, opera companies, and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. It conducts community outreach programs in universities, primary and secondary schools, and neighborhood centers. At the same time, it’s gaining an international appeal as de la Reza leads residencies and workshops while touring locations as diverse as France, Japan, Turkey, and most recently, Indonesia.

Back at the street festival with the suitcase-carrying performers, Attack Theatre is doing what it does best, integrating dance, theater, and storytelling. The company does not, de la Reza explains, create art in a vacuum. Far from it.

In the last moments of “The Heist,” the performers and de la Reza—who is openly smiling and laughing by now—recruit children and adventurous adults to join the action, creatively blurring the lines between life and art.

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