by David Bernabo
Recital continues our partnership with the New Hazlett Theater by publishing a preview and an editorially-independent review for the five performances in the 2021 CSA Performance Series season.
Throughout the season, Recital is meeting with each of the artists to bring you a brief profile of them and their work in the days before their opening performance. We will publish a considered review for each performance, developed from post-show discussions with a consistent panel of local experts in related disciplines.
In 2011, Pittsburgh attorney Milton Raiford took to the stage to venture into the world of improvised dance. The event was the August Wilson Center Dance Ensemble’s annual fundraiser So You Think They Can’t Dance — a play on the popular TV show Dancing With The Stars — where Pittsburgh celebrities were paired with company dancers. Raiford was paired with Kaylin Horgan, then a company member who previously honed her improv chops while dancing in Pearlann Porter’s Pillow Project. The story of the lead-up to that performance along with vignettes from Raiford’s life inform Horgan’s new dance piece Milton.
Milton is the second performance in the eighth season of the New Hazlett Theater’s CSA performance series. Three showings of the piece will occur on April 8 and 9, 2021. Find ticket info here.
Describing that first rehearsal nearly a decade ago, Horgan explains, “I’m standing there, holes-in-the-socks, hair thrown up. Milton and his wife walk in, and he’s in this all-white velour outfit. I always say his presence is like a lion.”
Raiford’s schedule precluded time for practicing at home, so they agreed to approach the task through improvisation. They attempted a pass-along exercise where Horgan danced a solo, they danced together, and then Raiford did a solo. During that solo Horgan recalls, “He just opens up and is really dancing. Then, he turns around and is sobbing. I look over and his wife is sobbing. I’m like, what the hell is going on?”
A week later at the next rehearsal, Horgan relays that Milton said, You need to know what happened to me. I was able to speak to a daughter of mine that passed away. I’m having these conversations with God through dance. I’ve never been able to do that before. I feel like my purpose in life is to connect people with higher power, but you have the ability to do through dance it in a way that I don’t.
Over the next ten years, Horgan and Raiford got to know each other more. “He’s told me these stories about things that have been influential to him,” says Horgan, “from integrating a school in upstate New York to losing his mother and brother in a house fire. He was disbarred at one point. I don’t want to give away too much of the story, but I knew that his stories needed to be preserved.”
In Milton, the audience sees Raiford at different points in his life — a fifth-grade Raiford (played by Daijaun Marshman) wins the spelling bee; a teenage Raiford (played by LaTrea Derome) enters into an interracial relationship. Speaking of the relationship, Horgan says, “For her, protest is being with this guy and standing up for this love. For him, he realizes that his protest is his success.” The audience also sees fictionalized examples of court cases.
Another layer in Milton includes music by Pittsburgh-based musicians Brittney Chantele and Treble NLS. “Brittney and Treble’s music and voices will be internal conversations that are happening throughout the show.” Horgan recently collaborated with Chantele and Treble NLS in 2019 at Chantele’s CSA performance — read our review of that show here.
While Milton depicts Raiford’s story, Horgan has also had quite a path to get to this point.
“After August Wilson Center Dance Company folded, I took a year to re-establish Reed Dance, then moved to Chicago.” In Chicago, Horgan choreographed a piece for an Emerging Choreographer Showcase with Deeply Rooted Dance Theater, and took a job with BRAVO, the performing arts program at Gwendolyn Brooks Middle School. There she worked with musical theater youth.
“It was a fierce learning curve,” says Horgan of jumping into the world of youth musical theater. “Going from a contemporary dance artist — using a lot of metaphors and imagery — what a hard turn to musical theater where everything has to mean something and has to push the story forward. It was another level of how literal I have to be with my storytelling.”
She took on management duties at Deeply Rooted — “I knew what it felt like to artistically lead, but on the administrative side . . .I didn’t know how to open an Excel spreadsheet.” She traveled, managing tours, and joined up with Antonio Brown Dance in New York City and Wylliams Henry Contemporary Dance in Kansas City. [Sidenote: Antonio Brown dances with the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company, and if you are up for a choreographer autobiography, Bill T. Jones’s Last Night On Earth is wonderful. It’s tied for first in my heart with Carolyn Brown’s excellent autobiography Chance and Circumstance: Twenty Years with Cage and Cunningham.]
“I realized that the administrative side of dance wasn’t for me, but I learned from amazing leaders how to be a leader and the importance of having the artist in the room,” says Horgan. “A lot of administrators that have never been artists become administrators for art organizations, and nine times out of ten, the dancers are the last to be paid. I mean, absolutely not! It’s something that I’m really passionate about from the jump — putting the artist first, because if the artist isn’t there, the administrative side won’t work.”
With the forced downtime of the COVID-19 pandemic, Horgan had time to approach Milton with a different process.
“This is something that I always wanted to try. I wrote a script. I wrote it as if it were a play being spoken. Then, I translated each word to movement. I don’t think I would have approached it this way if I was still dancing. It took a world pandemic and my dance career to take a big pause for this to happen.”
Along with her contemporary dance experience, these more recent interjections of musical theater have gained a new prominence in her personal work.
“I did the [New Hazlett] CSA last year with Brittney and was intrigued by the process and what was being offered to artists. There’s so much that I knew that I didn’t know, but I have really large visions. One of those visions is taking the athleticism and full-body capacity of contemporary dance and fusing it with the narrative of musical theater. One thing I realized while working with musical theater artists is that I know what it feels like to be a dancer, but to sing and act on top of that blows my mind. But the body is the body, so it’s finding that full capacity.”
Horgan feels that Raiford has given her the responsibility as a dancer to have these conversations. “One of the biggest conversations is forgiveness. He is a criminal defense attorney for people that other attorneys will not defend. He has a way of getting them off by the law, but also by the spirit. Like, you are a person first. What you did is secondary. You are not what you did. In the story, not only is he doing that for other people, but he has to learn how to do that for himself.”