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Dancer assembles impressive 'Body of Work'

| Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2002

For a lone dancer, Jennifer Keller sure has managed to leave a lot of footprints.

Earlier this month, Pittsburgh magazine honored her with a Harry Schwalb Award for Excellence in the Arts. At Slippery Rock University, where she works as assistant professor of dance, she received the first Charles Zuxak award as the top arts professor on campus.

She recently hit the Pennsylvania Turnpike to perform at the 2002 Philadelphia Fringe Festival, a two-week celebration of avant garde dance, music and theater. She was one of nearly 240 acts who garrison the city of brotherly love every year in late August and early September. Festival crowds were treated to "Palm," a solo dance piece that Keller commissioned from New York techno-commandos Troika Ranch Dance Theater. It featured Keller videotaping herself as she danced, courtesy of a miniature dance-cam that she wore strapped to herself.

Wednesday, "Palm" in hand, Keller will head to the Kelly-Strayhorn Community Performing Arts Center in East Liberty for a self-produced dance concert titled "Body of Work."

She assembled a team that includes the Dance Alloy's Gwen Hunter Ritchie and Michele de la Reza of Attack Theatre. Keller's husband Dennis Birkes will join her for a duet titled "On Common Ground." In Nina Martin's "My Hands Are Dirty," Keller plays a compulsive shopper, freighted with material goods who vents to the audience about her environmentally correct husband.

Other choreographers whose work will be performed include Keller and Birkes, David Grenke and Zvi Gotheiner.

"It's a first step for me," Keller says of her role as producer. "I've performed many times in the context of a company and performed on many shared venues, but this is the first time for me."

Originally from Ohio, Keller danced with choreographer Mark Taylor in New York. When Taylor came to Pittsburgh to become artistic director of the Dance Alloy, Keller relocated to Pittsburgh and signed on as an Alloy dancer.

"I'd say that Jen's work really comes out of a wide-ranging curiosity," Taylor says. "She's never retreading something she's done before. I think that's one of the qualities that makes her work very interesting and exciting. She's taken the kind of stylistic choices that I make and incorporates the technology in a very interesting way in her work. I feel in a way that there's a kinship with the work we do here at the Alloy, but she's also gone beyond it."

Keller's goals are "to just keep developing myself and my repertory." She also would like to take some of her work back to New York City.

In the meantime, she's trying to juggle a schedule that includes teaching classes at Slippery Rock, caring for her 2-year-old daughter and making last-minute preparations for "Body of Work."

It's a lot of work for just one night, she says.

"I think this has just been a tremendous challenge. You can't start too early to prepare for this. I'm very excited about this. I'm glad I'm doing it, but I don't want to talk about it too much or else I'll get a nervous stomach."

"Body of Work" will be performed at 8 p.m. Wednesday at the Kelly Strayhorn Community Performing Arts Center, 5941 Penn Ave. Tickets are $10; $8 for students.

Details: (724) 738-2773.

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