Photo by Aaron Dobler

Artist Alexis Gideon holds up a still frame from his upcoming video opera “The Crumbling,” which will premiere this weekend at the New Hazlett Theater in Allegheny Center. 

By Aaron Dobler

Alexis Gideon will debut his latest video opera, “The Crumbling,” at the New Hazlett Theater Feb. 20-21 at 8 p.m. The performance is made possible by collaboration among The Pittsburgh Foundation, The Heinz Endowments and the New Hazlett Theater in Allegheny Center.

Gideon is a visual artist, a composer and a performer who is no stranger to taking on ambitious projects. Prior to “The Crumbling,” Gideon created a series of video operas titled “Video Musics I, II and III,” which were based on existing mystical stories and folk tales. These works have been performed in theaters and galleries across Europe and the United States.

“The Crumbling” is an original story about a librarian’s journey through a crumbling world. As the buildings and people around her begin to dissolve, she finds a portal to another dimension wherein she meets a series of mystical figures who give her conflicting pieces of knowledge. She then tries to use this information to perform a ritual that might save the town.

Gideon’s decision to tell the story using stop-motion animation allows him to tell a simpler, yet broader, story that maintains a mythic quality throughout.

The animation is projected onto a large screen while he performs the score live using drum machines, samplers and an electric guitar. He also performs the dialogue for all of the characters in a rapid hip-hop-influenced vocal style, which was ingrained in him during his New York City childhood and developed into an effective storytelling tool.

Performing the lyrics live allows Gideon to create a stronger connection with the audience as a storyteller, and it allows him to make small changes that only become possible through multiple live performances. Even after working on the project for more than a year, he is able to discover something new about a character during the performance.

“A moment that I might not have initially realized was funny is funny so I’ll change the delivery of that line and play up the humor,” he said. “The drama of it gets heightened through multiple performances and the relationship the audience has on the work. It also creates another level and dimension to have me there in person telling the story.”

Gideon was awarded an artist-in-residence grant from the Investing in Professional Artists Program, a partnership between The Pittsburgh Foundation and The Heinz Endowments, and he was provided with a space to work inside the New Hazlett Theater.

“We have a lot of artists who make new work here,” Rene Conrad, executive director of the New Hazlett Theater, said. “But not for the length of time that Alexis was here. He came to work every day just like everyone else. We’re pretty small and everyone here is like family, and Alexis is in our family. He’s one of us. He’s a pleasure to work with. He’s a super-talented guy.”

Conrad added: “We don’t often work with filmmakers, so the filmmaking part is a little out of the ordinary for us, but the music part fits into our sweet spot.”

The Investing in Professional Artists grant supports individual artists and strengthens relationships between artists and institutions throughout the city.

“Our hope is that Alexis’s and the New Hazlett’s project together will further the artistic ambitions of both the theater and Alexis Gideon as an individual artist,” Janet Sarbaugh, director of arts and culture programs at The Heinz Endowments, said. “Our hope is that this project becomes a real career builder for Alexis and a real feather in the cap of the artistic ambitions of the theater.”

The goal is to foster a relationship between artists and the community where the theater benefits by nurturing artists and the artists benefit from having a home base to work in.

Sarbaugh added: “When we support artists, we’re supporting the critiquers, interpreters and observers of our world. They play such an important role in making Pittsburgh a better place to live. They make us alive to the world around them, and they challenge us and delight us at the same time. There’s challenge and delight in what Alexis is doing.”

The Investing in Professional Artists Program is fulfilling its promise so far.

“We built all of the characters and all of the sets here,” Gideon said, referring to his basement studio in the New Hazlett Theater. “All of the filming of the actual characters happened in the basement. It’s a beautiful space, and I’ve never been able to perform a piece where I shot and built it. Getting the residency here and working here was really a great experience.”

He added: “They really care and will put the time and effort in, not just running lights and sound, of course they do that, but even more so to introduce you to the people in the community that you might not know already and help connect the dots between people who might be interested in your work and you might be interested in their work. It’s been a great experience.”

While the performance itself is a blend of modern visuals and composition, “The Crumbling’s” themes and images are drawn from traditions that are much older, including Kabbalah, alchemy and Hermetic philosophy. Gideon started the project by surveying centuries of esoteric knowledge and symbolism, and it is on this foundation that he builds the dream-like world of “The Crumbling.”

“I’ll start researching, and one thing will lead to another, and it snowballs,” Gideon said. “You can feel the difference when something has been thoroughly researched and when something is haphazardly put together.”

“The Crumbling” is filled with mystical symbols and allusions, but the impact is intended to be emotional rather than intellectual. No previous knowledge of the subject is expected of the audience. Gideon stresses that it is a work of artistic expression, not a lecture.

“It’s not very important to me that they understand any of those references. If you want to go into it and do the research, you can decode it, but you can also just have the feeling that you have when you wake up from a dream that stays with you all day,” he explained.

Additional performances of “The Crumbling” are scheduled in Cleveland, Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Tucson and Chicago. More shows are expected to be added.

Following the performance at the New Hazlett Theater, there will be a question and answer session with Gideon, and the images and props from the video portion of the show will be on display in the theater’s lobby.

For fans of independent film, live music or gallery openings, Alexis Gideon has a very full evening planned.

Tickets are $15 at the door or $12 in advance. The New Hazlett Theater is also offering a limited number of free tickets for each performance to Northsiders. More information can be found at these sites.

IMG_0525Photo by Aaron Dobler

Artist Alexis Gideon used stop motion to create his latest project, “The Crumbling.” The whole process was done in a workroom inside the New Hazlett Theater.