Dance work summons the memory of the passenger pigeon

Jessica Marino of Shana Simmons Dance. Photo by Shana Simmons.
Jessica Marino of Shana Simmons Dance. Photo by Shana Simmons.

By Steve Sucato

Once they were the most populous bird in North America, accounting for a quarter of all birds. But in less than half a century, starting in the late 1800s, unabated commercial and sport hunting and habitat destruction reduced the passenger pigeon’s numbers from billions to none. Their extinction inspires Passenger, a new program by fledgling company Shana Simmons Dance, staged Nov. 14 and 15 at the National Aviary.

The 40-minute modern-dance work, choreographed by Shana Simmons with original music by Ian Green, is part of Project Passenger Pigeon, a nationwide initiative founded by Chicago native Joel Greenberg. Passenger is part of the Pittsburgh chapter of the organization’s local programming (lecture, movie, art exhibit) surrounding the centennial of the death of Martha, the last known passenger pigeon. Martha died in 1914, at the Cincinnati Zoological Gardens.

“It is about extinction,” says Simmons. “The piece takes you on a journey of this morphing between bird and human.”

Jessica Marino of Shana Simmons Dance. Photo by Shana Simmons.
Jessica Marino of Shana Simmons Dance. Photo by Shana Simmons.

Simmons, a 2003 Point Park graduate, has a master’s degree in choreography from London’s Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance. She has performed with dance companies in New York, London and Pittsburgh.

Passenger will take place in the atrium of the Aviary. (Seating is limited.) Its three sections begin with its five dancers displaying birdlike behavior. As the work progresses, comparisons between avian and human behavior will illustrate our natural link to other species. Simmons hopes to have audience members contemplating how humans have affected the environment, and thus the survival of birds and other species. The production also features a live performance by opera singer Anna Singer, who will perform Rachmaninoff’s “Vocalize.”

Following the main performance, the “free-fly zone” areas of the Aviary will be opened for another 30 minutes for audience members to tour the facility and observe its birds. There will also be impromptu mini-performances by the dancers, who will move about those spaces.

“The underlying goal is to promote awareness in one area,” says Simmons. “That will hopefully lead to a discussion about extinction in a broader sense.”

Shana Simmons Dance performs Passenger; 8 p.m., Fri., Nov. 14, and 8 p.m. Sat., Nov. 15; National Aviary, 700 Arch St., North Side; $15-35.

This article originally appeared in Pittsburgh City Paper  on November 12, 2014. Copyright Steve Sucato.

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