The arts scene in Pittsburgh is lush with dancers, painters, dramatists, musicians, spoken-word artists and more.
"It is such a ripe and rich place for its size," says composer Blake Ragghianti.
But what's largely untapped, he feels, is an attempt to elevate these art forms -- or create new works -- by mixing genres.
"What I didn't see, there were no genuine efforts to cross boundaries and to really collaborate, not just artistically, but to share information and resources," he says.
'The Alkonost' and 'Infinity'
The observation prompted him and fellow musician and friend Luke Mayernik to be catalysts for collaboration and to found in spring 2011 OvreArts, a nonprofit sinfonia and chamber singer group and the resident ensemble of Heinz Memorial Chapel. It is supported in part by the Small Arts Initiative from the Heinz Endowments.
This weekend, OvreArts, along with guest musicians and dancers and choreographers from Texture Contemporary Ballet and The Pillow Project, will premiere original ballets "The Alkonost" and "Infinity" at Pittsburgh CAPA, Downtown.
Creating a ballet appealed to Mr. Ragghianti and Mr. Mayernik even before there was an OvreArts to perform it.
"We never really had an opportunity to get a larger percentage of our music out there" and felt composing a score for a new ballet would be a way to accomplish that, Mr. Ragghianti says.
He had been making a living in music by stringing together gigs at clubs and events and teaching around town, eventually taking a hiatus from the lifestyle to move to Florida, where he earned his captain's license. But his craving for composing was rekindled when he met conservative media personality Glenn Beck while working on a private yacht in Connecticut. When Mr. Beck learned about his music background, he asked him to compose the theme music for his touring stage show "The Christmas Sweater," and later his 2010 Christmas musical.
Once back in Pittsburgh and back to music, the ballets started to take shape.
"We began to gather this little circle of support," he says, by sharing their ideas with other local artists. The city's close-knit creative community helped put him in touch with potential collaborators, such as former Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre dancer and Texture Contemporary Ballet founder Alan Obuzor. He discovered pieces by Pillow Project artistic director Pearlann Porter online.
Traditionally, scores are entirely or close to complete before they're passed along to choreographers to work with, Mr. Ragghianti says. "We decided that wasn't really collaboration. It was interpretation."
To avoid this pattern, composers and choreographers met about every week for a year to exchange scores and steps.
At the performance, Texture dancers, many who also dance professionally with other ballet companies across the country, along with Mr. Obuzor and the troupe's associate artistic director Kelsey Bartman, will debut the ballets that examine the theme of mortality versus eternity.
It is an "exploration of the human experience of finite time in an infinite universe," Mr. Ragghianti says.
To develop these themes, as well as further promote the spirit of collaboration, OvreArts tapped local artists to create backdrops for the works. Some of the artwork also will be on display in the lobby.
OvreArts recruited musicians from surrounding communities and states to make up the approximately 50-member orchestra.
The classical arts have a reputation of sometimes seeming out of reach and unrelatable, particularly for younger crowds unfamiliar with them, Mr. Ragghianti says.
"Our idea is to totally destroy that bridge," he says. "When they arrive, the whole thing is an experience," from the busker outside the theater to the meet-and-greet with artists at Tambellini Ristorante on Seventh Street that will follow the second performance.
Fun and accessibility are what Mr. Ragghianti hopes will come to mind after people see the show. "I don't want anyone to go say, 'That was a lot of stuff. I don't really get it.' " Instead, it should be a "thoroughly enjoyable" experience.