Off Stage: Exploring Ballet In a New Way

January 15, 2015

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The Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre has created a much-loved holiday tradition with its multi-million dollar production of The Nutcracker. But sometimes there can be just as much satisfaction to be found in the studio., not necessarily with the professionals, but students.


I was invited to watch such a class with seven very special beginners. There were no overhead lights, just the natural kind, giving the studio a warm, comforting feeling.

The students were reviewing the five ballet positions from their instructors, Kaila Lewis and Jamie Murphy. Also on hand for support was Alyssa Herzog Melby, education and community engagement director at PBT, who was integral in opening up the normally aristocratic world of ballet to those with autism.

It all started with special performances at the Benedum Center using low light and subdued special effects.

Now, with the assistance from the ABOARD’s Autism Connection of PA, PBT has initiated a series of four classes for high school students.

“We push for inclusion at the elementary level,” says outreach and eduction director Lu Randall. “But high school can be more difficult — it’s more competitive.”

There was autism training for the entire ballet school staff and the Nutcracker cast, enhanced by a high interest among PBT board members.

But the class concept may be a whole new thing in the ballet world. Ms. Fulton doesn’t know of a similar program anywhere else.

With this class in place, ballet could eventually become a lifelong movement activity for these students — a real plus.

The students learned warm-up exercises, along with relaxation techniques to help with stress management. There was a brief barre, beginning with plies, tendus and “the hard one,” piques. They jumped. They began to move across the floor.

Then came the fun stuff. The students actually learned slightly simplified, but real dances from the Nutcracker. First, the mice from the Transformation Scene, where they got to sneak around. Then everyone’s favorite, where they became the Pirate, swashbuckles and all.

It was obvious that everyone is enjoying themselves, from the family members sitting along the back wall and applauding enthusiastically to the dancers, whose smiles seem to grow during the class.

One young man even made his parents buy him a pair of ballet slippers. And they were all talking about what they would wear for their informal performance at the end of the sessions.

Cue the lights.


On Stage: DWTS Partners Up

January 15, 2015


Dancing With the Stars swirled its way into Pittsburgh, much to the delight of its many fans. There was only one from the “Star” side, winner Alfonso Ribiero. But the pros themselves took up the slack, creating a casual atmosphere that was almost intimate, despite the Benedum Center’s audience of thousands. Read about it in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.


On Stage: A Holiday Finish

January 1, 2015
Hannah Carter as Marie. Photos: Rich Sofranko.

Hannah Carter as Marie. Photos: Rich Sofranko.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre brought its annual “Nutcracker” run to a close. Click on Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. I was also able to see Hannah Carter as Marie, a dancer lovely of lines, along with her significant other in real life, William Moore, ready, willing and able as her Nephew/Nutcracker partner.But Julia Erickson established herself as the star attraction of The Nutcracker, this time as the Sugar Plum Fairy. with Alexander Silva deservedly garnering considerable backstage applause from the company for his Cavalier solo. On to 2015…

Gabrielle Thurlow and Luca Sbrizzi.

Gabrielle Thurlow and Luca Sbrizzi.

Julia Erickson and Alejandro Diaz in the Snow Scene.

Julia Erickson and Alejandro Diaz in the Snow Scene.

On Stage: Real Royalty

December 2, 2014


The Royal Ballet of Cambodia has a remarkable story behind it.

But seeing it unfold on the stage of the Byham Theater was a manifestation of its purpose in its country.

Lavishly beautiful and serene, even when the all-female cast of dancers were performing as men, we caught a glimpse into the national character of Cambodia.

Certainly the Cambodians’ style bore a common resemblance to other Asian countries, particularly India and Thailand, with a certain weightiness to the legs and ornate arms weaving a series of pictures above.

This company was suitably titled ballet because there was an organic effortlessness about it, an aristocratic style born of its courtly days. These were spiritual peacemakers on stage, best exemplified by the angels at the end.

Underneath that effortlessness, though, was an impeccable control, with balletic attitudes, but with the knee pointed to the floor and the back foot almost touching the body. They held these poses in slow, breathtaking promenades.

Most notable were the hands, though it is said that they practice stretching them until the back of their hands can touch the wrists.

With that kind of flexibility available, they can hold their hands along a backward curve, not pushing, but in a celestial arch.




On Stage: Pearlann Part III

November 18, 2014


Brent Lubbert and Bre Short Photo: Cassie K. Rusnak

Brent Lubbert and Bre Short Photo: Cassie K. Rusnak

How can you look back when you’re always looking forward? Maybe by linking the two in a fresh new way, which is exactly what Pearlann Porter did to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the The Pillow Project.

She led off the evening with improvisational performances, her current mode of dance transportation. Taylor Knight was in a zone of his own as resident DJ.

There was a detailed time line along the big wall, ladled with the presentational flair that Pearlann exudes, from her first review of Z-zzz to, well, The Tenth.

An overflow crowd turned out to see the impact of Pearlann’s decision to remain in Pittsburgh. It was readily apparent.

Anna Thompson Photo: Sam Sanlon

Anna Thompson Photo: Sam Sanlon

She chose five fragments to give us a hint of the past. There was a tasty trio to start.  Anna Thompson so fierce in 2084. Breanna Albright hugging the shadows in a solo from Til the Bitter Fucking End and that memorable table sequence from Striped, so sweaty raw with Alex Bright and Weylin Gomez.

We saw from just that trio how her dancers have evolved their bodies to flow like lava with veins of hyper-heated intensity.

Later came a duet from Concept Album, with Kaylin Horgan digging so deep, with Rebekah Kuczma hovering over her. (Has it been ten years since we first saw her in The Pillow Project…and she’s only 24?)

The fifth piece was a part of Paper Memories with Taylor recreating the role of the writer, something that came to define him, and Anna as his inspiration.

Taylor Knight. Photo: Cassie K. Rusnak

Taylor Knight. Photo: Cassie K. Rusnak

We saw these pieces in a new way, though. The dancers had taken Pearlann’s current jazz style and layered it over the fixed choreography, providing a connecting link between Year One and The Tenth Year…and The Future.

Thank you, Pearlann.

On Stage: Pearlann Part II

November 16, 2014

The Pillow project @ CP Paris 02/16/2013WHY PITTSBURGH? After the Attack Theatre show, Pearlann was talking with Evelyn Palleja-Vissicchio (of the gone, but much-lamented LABCO Dance) who said to her, “What is it you’re doing? What do you want to do?” No one had ever asked Pearlann that question before. She answered, “I think my goal is [that] I want to get in on a city where there isn’t a lot happening. I want to be, like, the first one in there. Somewhere that doesn’t have a scene, so that I can make my own scene. Where I can do something that is specific to the kind of work that I want. I don’t want to fit into something that’s already going on — I want to start something. Evelyn looked at her and remarked, “Hon, it’s here.” Pearlann had been feeling a little unsatisfied with Pittsburgh because “it wasn’t enough.” The connection was immediate. “I’ll just stay here.” Down the pike years later, she had the opportunity to move to Paris and work there. She felt like a couple of people would have followed her. The reasoning? “Why not?” She knew that she could have gained the same momentum there as she had in Pittsburgh because “the enthusiasm is pretty contagious.” But when faced with the decision, Pearlann concluded that “I loved Pittsburgh too much. Paris never felt as good as Pittsburgh did. It’s prettier, but Pittsburgh is where I made my home and Pittsburgh is where the jazz lived. Home is not something you find; it’s something you make. And…it’s here.”

THE BIRTH OF JAZZ (PORTER-STYLE). She doesn’t go to memory lane very often, but as Pearlann looked back at her work in preparation for the 10th anniversary event, she realized what she was trying to do the entire time. “I was trying to choreograph how I naturally moved without thinking about it, like how I just listen to the music. So I saw all these failed attempts at trying to capture that instinctual live musicality — the choreography — which was not working. I was not satisfied with how I was able to get that out and I never knew why. One moment in 2010, she found herself with a new group of dancers exuding “fresh, young, raw energy. They were excited about what I was doing — it was like a renewal. It was like a New Age. I felt it. And I had to try something different.” So they all went to her house where she taught them how to listen to music, hoping that would help. They began to move, all the while listening differently to the music. “It just clicked. Immediately, suddenly, it just happened. It was a different way of thinking about the dance.” Pearlann had improvised her whole life, but this was how she improvised. “It wasn’t that I was going to invent movement. It wasn’t that I was going to find things in my body. It wasn’t this exploration thing, this investigation thing that a lot of improvisation is. It wasn’t storytelling necessarily. It was thinking of yourself as a musician. Specifically, like, if you were in the band and if you were making music and you were changing the way I listened to the music depending on what you were doing. It just, all of a sudden, felt so right because it wasn’t body-based. It was ear-based — everyone was able to do it. Like anyone.” The ones who connected to it the most were “the ones who felt outcast and ostracized about the idea of dance, whether it was the girl in the back of the class that never was loved back by dance itself or never felt connected to the dance. Or that person in the audience who always wanted to dance, but ‘oh, no no no, I don’t dance. I can’t dance.’ Everyone was able to connect to it because everyone knows how to listen to music. If you take the emphasis off the body and you put it in your ear, then you don’t have to worry about what your body is doing. You just have to listen. Your body will just move as it does if you are given some ideas about motion. I feel that, by doing this, it builds off the idea that improvisation can be a tool, it can be free, but it’s not just putting dancers out there and saying ‘make up something’ or ‘just move as you move.’ It has unified us with this way of working together. We all have this common shared language which is a philosophy we’ve adapted to our lives as well as dance. It has this whole understanding and dictionary and lexicon that’s been associated with it now over the years. It keeps us connected — we can talk in this language. In the moment we’re totally free, but it’s directed. To a lot of people in Pittsburgh, improv can be a dirty word. Choreography has always been seen as more work, edited and whittled down to this fine sculpture. It seems that dancers put more effort into it, while improvisation has often been regarded as effort-less. You don’t have to think about it and plan it. You just make it up. That is not at all what we do. We take improvisation so seriously. We can talk for ages about how we did something, but we won’t be able to tell you what we did. But we’ll talk to you how we did it and we can tell you why we did it, but the what? We just turned it around — the what is just not as important. The movement that comes out is not as important as the intention and how we’re dividing it and how we’re coming about it and where our minds are and where our hearts are. People can take it seriously if you take it seriously. You can’t just make this up. You have to put just as much effort and time, not into the choreography of the steps, but into the philosophy of the work. (I hate to call it work, because it doesn’t feel like work.) You put a lot of time into it, even though, in the moment it feels like it’s happening for the first time.” Pearlann admitted that if the performers aren’t careful to adhere to that philosophy, the dance can lose its cohesiveness. And some people hear that she puts a show together in a week or a few days. “Yes, but we’ve been together every single night for a year understanding our movement. So when the time comes, we can talk about the idea and ‘poof!’ there we go. It’s just that there’s a lot behind that.”

WHAT’S NEXT? There will be more according to Pearlann. More of The Pillow Project, which is good news. But so much more, due to a plethora of ideas that she will change the name. But not that much. So to encompass all that she and her very important collaborators have to offer, it will heretofore be titled The Pillow Projects.



On Stage: Pearlann Part I

November 9, 2014


Yes, it’s been 10 years since Pearlann Porter and The Pillow Project invaded the Pittsburgh dance scene. We’ve run the gamut of “P’s” — prolific, Pittsburgh, progressive, Point Park and more — since then in describing the journey that has been well-documented on CrossCurrents (just click on her “lustrous” name or Pillow Project) since 2008 and, prior to that, in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

It all began at Attack Theatre’s studios in Garfield. Originally scheduled for two performances, an overflow crowd of 75 people patiently waited for a third to be added for them.

POINT PARK BEGINNING. As a New Jersey-ite who found her way to Point Park, the tiny fireplug of a dancer found that she wasn’t very “usable” for the choreographers. “I was in the lowest level classes. I never got cast in anything. I was sort of the bottom dregs of the dance department.” So she and her roommate would entertain themselves and break into the studios at night (which you can’t do anymore) and just dance and play around. One night Pearlann took her pillow (people told her she danced in her sleep) to the studio at around 2 a.m. and created “Zzzz.”” When everyone saw my piece, they rethought me. I was hooked.”

After that, “I just felt so alive choreographing. I got to do all the pieces I wanted to be in. My voice wasn’t muted anymore.” She  would dance with her cast up until a performance, when she would be in the audience watching it.

Pearlann choreographed like “a mad person for every little function, every little talent show, everything in the cafeteria, every studio performance.” For her finals, she took them “super-seriously” with props, lighting design. She had  costume changes for mid-terms. She went over-the-top all the time. It was all about being clever and funny and doing things that were novel.

Pearlann became a part-time faculty member. She would get together those students who weren’t being cast in anything and do impromptu performances in the studios. Pearlann had never done anything outside Point Park’s performing facility, The Pittsburgh Playhouse, but when the dance department decided to eliminate that opportunity for part-time faculty…

THE FIRST PERFORMANCE. Pearlann got an opportunity to do a night at Attack Theatre’s home in Garfield.  “I loved the look of my work being done in a crazy-ass space. It made me realize why can’t I just do this? Why can’t I just take my lights, find a location and just do this? I didn’t need a stage and a proscenium and wings and a lighting designer, a Marley floor and rehearsals in mirrored rooms. I could do something totally different and not be restricted by it.”

“I thought of all these ideas and made a little mixed variety show. At the time I used the students who had gone to my class and really liked what I was doing.” Pearlann had been told by students for years, “If you ever start a company, I’m in.” So she made some phone calls. A bunch of them came out for it, stayed in Pittsburgh for it, looked at Pittsburgh differently and wound up sticking around.

It changed the trajectory of local dance.

It was a whirlwind. “I never did seven pieces at one time. I really relied and trusted that the people working with me were in it. It was this conglomeration of people who would go to the ends of the earth to see something happen.” It wasn’t so much about the performance, but the process.

Hence The Pillow Project and not The Pearl Ann Porter Dance Company. “That’s what made it so fun — we didn’t know what we were doing.”


So she was clothes-pinning gels to the lights from Home Depot and used a ton of extension cords. Attack Theatre’s Peter Kope came up to her and said, “Uh — what are you doing?” He and Michele de la Reza had given her a lot of leeway, but he noted that “you’ve got an extension cord situation.”

She had about 20 industrial-strength extension cords like spaghetti in the corner, running up the stairs, onto a ladder and into an electrical box. “It looked like madness.”

“I remember that we had one shot at getting it right.” She flipped the switch and “nothing turned on. And the things that were turning on were the things that weren’t supposed to be turning on.” She had a moment of “I don’t know what we’re going to do — the pieces are all going to be in the dark!”

Exhausted, she stepped outside. “What are you going to do? None of this works. The audience is coming in an hour and none of this works.”

Ten minutes later, one of the dancers ran out onto Penn Avenue and said, “We figured it all out. It’s going to be fine everything’s great!”

“To this day, I don’t know what they did, but they all made it happen. Once that happened, I thought, Well, then anything is possible. This is part of it — just improvising and learning and figuring it out as you go and having no blueprint and just trusting that everyone will make it all happen somehow.”

THE VISION. Pearlann and some friends, including Ryan Hose and DJ Sorta set up shop in her living room with a bunch of mismatched furniture (which served as the prototype for her current performing place, The Space Upstairs). DJ set up his table and Pearlann would dance and Ryan would be sketching. “That’s what we lived in without thinking about it.”

They walked the walk — they simply lived artistically. “When you have the backing of people that you love and they love you back…and you all believe in the vision, you can go as big as you want. Size becomes irrelevant.” So, armed with a collective passion the size of Mt. Washington, she hit the ground running at the ginormous Hunt Armory and most recently took over the Carrie Furnace.

“I call it artistic Tourettes. It wasn’t that we were a bunch of people making big shows. We felt big and our hearts were big and our enthusiasm was big. So the show had to contain that.”


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