On the Road: Royal Ballet Reigns

June 29, 2009

After presenting the Bolsoi Ballet, Kennedy Center played host to England’s Royal Ballet. Read about it in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

On the Road: At the Pillow

June 29, 2009

After taking a few days to visit with friends in Connecticut, I’ll turn to Jacob’s Pillow, one of America’s most venerable dance festivals, which is located  in western Massachusetts. There I’ll be able to catch an encore performance Ballet Maribor’s production of “Radio & Juliet,” presented last October by the Pittsburgh Dance Council and set to music by Radiohead (revisit the review as well at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette).

Also appearing will be LAFA & Artists, founded in 2007 by Martha Graham Company and Cloud Gate Dance Theatre luminary Fang-Yi Sheu. Based in Taiwan, the company will perform the American premiere of “37 Arts,” choreographed by co-founder Bulareyaung Pagarlava (also formerly of Cloud Gate), “Single Room” and the world premiere of a work based on the couple’s experience at the Pillow last year.

It’s easy to get drenched in dance at the Pillow, where there will also be photo exhibits on Alvin Ailey, Merce Cunningham and cartoonist Jules Feiffer. On Wednesday and Thursday there will also be informal performances by local artists and a talk by Ann Hutchinson Guest.

Off Stage: On “Manon”

June 27, 2009

I just saw The Royal Ballet’s “Manon” at Kennedy Center last night and came upon this rehearsal footage with the opening night cast. Enjoy!

On the Road: Summer in the City

June 24, 2009

Yes, I’ll be spending one hot summer day in one of my favorite cities — New York. If Washington D.C. had an intriguing Ballet Smackdown going between the Bolshoi and Royal Ballets, American Ballet Theatre has a Ballerina Smackdown to offer in a pair of performances Saturday in “Swan Lake” on Saturday. You might ask, “Who needs that?” But this has a glorious twist.

Michele Wiles, a young ballerina with a contemporary flair, gets the Saturday afternoon matinee along with one this past Wednesday. She’s the only  female with two performances on a roster that includes a flock of Swan Queens, including Irina Dvorovenko, Gillian Murphy, Diana Vishneva, Paloma Herrara and Veronika Part.

But that’s not all. On Saturday evening, international star Nina Ananiashvili will give her final performance at American Ballet Theatre, something that promises to have a gala atmosphere about it. Angel Corella will be her Siegfried.

On Stage: Big at the Bolshoi

June 24, 2009

Check my review of “Le Corsaire” online at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Off Stage: Mia Michaels Unplugged

June 20, 2009

Mia MichaelsOn television’s So You Think You Can Dance, Emmy award-winning choreographer and judge Mia Michaels seems undeterred by Nigel Lythgoe, unfazed by the screaming from Mary Murphy and nonplussed by the whole audience scene. Recently the Emmy-winning choreographer took time to break out of the television box and showed up for a workshop that was sponsored by a persistent staff from the Elite Dance By Damion studio at The Chadwick banquet and meeting facility in Wexford.

The executives at Capezio would have been gnashing their teeth. There were over a hundred young dancers, most clothed in tee shirts (some of the “Flashdance” variety), knit tops and sports bras, often paired with boy shorts. Bare feet, tube socks and footies were de rigueur, with not a dance shoe in sight. It was much like a mini-audition for SYTYCD.

They came and they stretched and stretched some more under the warm-up guidance of Damian Kush himself before Michaels came in (a little late), accompanied by her assistant, Teddy. (Everyone’s on a first name basis on SYTYCD, but with a little probing, I find that his last name is Forance.) She calls him, “one of the finest dancers in contemporary dance today.”

Michaels looks comfortable in maroon sweatpants and a black tee shirt emblazoned with her own dance workshop venture, “Pulse.” Her platinum blonde pixie is held firmly in place by a wide black scarf, where gold hoop earrings dangle tantalizingly.

Without much ado, she proclaims that she will teach the students the combination from the SYTYCD segment in Las Vegas (where the judges whittle down the finalists) during the first hour session. Gavin DeGraw’s lyrics slowly start to permeate the room.

Belief makes things re-e-eal…

The dancers begin to get caught up in her organically- derived dance vocabulary, accented by  “whoosh, ba, ba, ga-a-a” and a drum roll of the tongue. “Don’t get caught up in structures of counts — that’s limiting,” Michaels says. “Everything should look disconnected but connected.”

Makes things fe-e-el, feel alright…

Michaels is full of helpful hints. “Try to dig into the internal — it feels like my organs are moving.” She offers her own perspectives on dance and life. “It’s not about you looking good — it’s about you exploring the unknown. Until you learn to embrace the unknown, you’re never going to embrace that grand step in life.

Belief makes things true, things like you, you and I…

She repeatedly urges them to “seize the moment,” “be aggressive, take yourself to the next level,” “go for it.”

Belief...” and they have it. Says 17-year old Alissa Kasunich, “It’s amazing the way she moves. Her entire life is about dance and making others feel the same.” Her sister Ashley, 20, a dance student at Point Park University, calls it “a once in a lifetime experience.” Fifteen-year old Nicole Berezo adds, “There’s so much detail in all the movements she gave. Then you just do your own thing and hope it works!”

After a lunch break, Michaels teaches another hour-long session with an unnamed combination where the choreography again seems to emanate from an emotional center. Some begin to tire, but she admonishes them to disperse with the “toilet face” and “be present. Your spirit dances first and your body will follow.”

Afterward Michaels sits down for another hour-long question-and-answer session. But first she begins with her own story — how her dad had a dance studio in Florida, where she started at age two, “in diapers, swinging a bottle.”

As a result, Michaels came to like all forms of dance — “anything that’s honest and effective.” She did her first choreography at age eight, when, every Friday night, she created a show. By 18, she had her own company in Miami. “I was always the ‘big girl,” she explains. “I used all that passion that I had and put it into the choreography.”

She moved to New York. Then came what she calls her “big break” — to be a choreographer for “Celine Dion’s A New Day” in Las Vegas. Michaels quickly packed two bags and her dog and moved to Belgium, then Vegas.

“My whole life changed,” she says. Lythgoe subsequently called her after he saw the Dion show and invited Michaels to be the contemporary judge on SYTYCD. She has also worked with Madonna, Ricky Martin, Gloria Estefan and others. Upcoming projects include Cirque du Soleil’s newest show.

But first she is forthcoming with answers to the students’ questions:

  • On Nigel: “He’s cool to work for — he gives a lot of freedom to the choreographers.”
  • On Judging: “We go off and fight–they edit us a lot.”
  • Favorite Season: Season Three with Danny, Jaimie and Sabra.
  • On Katee: Michaels called Season Four’s top woman “a faker — she can’t straighten her legs. But, no matter what, she delivered.”
  • On Competition: Michaels admitted that she hates competitions because dancers can lose their artistry. It was a gutsy statement, given that many students in attendance performed competitively.
  • Favorite Choreographer: American William Forsythe of Ballett Frankfurt (1984-2004) and The Forsythe Company (2005-present).
  • On Joshua: Michaels didn’t want last season’s winner to take the prize and walked out on a rehearsal because of his laziness. “He’s a flirt — I love him and hate him at the same time.” Recently she refused to give him a job.
  • SYTYCD: “It’s about personality, not about dance. It’s a television show.”

As I left, Michaels and Forance were still signing autographs and generously posing for pictures with the dancers. Next stop? SYTYCD Canada.

On the Road: Kennedy Center

June 16, 2009

Dance is virtually on hiatus in Pittsburgh, except for a few studio star turns to be visited shortly. So it’s time to hit the road and find some. If the mountain won’t come to Mohammed…you get the picture. This Friday I’m heading to Washington, D.C. and what might be called, in sports-minded sense, the Bolshoi/Royal Ballet Smackdown. (More to follow on the next segments of the trip.)

Yes, two of the world’s premiere dance ensembles will appear back-to-back weeks at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, only four (or so) short hours’ drive from Pittsburgh.  The last time I visited a similar pairing at the Center was in 2006, when the Maryinsky/Kirov Ballet presented “Giselle” and the Royal countered with Frederick Ashton’s “La Valse” and “Enigma Variations” and Kenneth MacMillan’s “Gloria.”

"Le Corsaire"

"Le Corsaire"

With a little planning, I can catch an even better pairing (potentially), beginning with Russia’s Bolshoi Ballet in one of those signature works that have enhanced its repertoire and its reputation, “Le Corsaire,” on Saturday. It’s a somewhat new production, first performed in 2007 and called “magnificent” by the New York Times. “Le Corsaire” tells the tale of a Greek girl, Medora, and the swashbuckling Pirate,Conrad , in a love affair that sets that stage for captive maidens, rich sultans and the pre-requisite abductions and rescues, “all culminating in a shipwreck that’s one of the most breathtaking specatacles in all of ballet.”

I’ll be seeing prominent Bolshoi soloists Ekaterina Shipulina as Medora and Ruslan Skvortsov as Conrad (both are on youtube.com), but it seems that the Bolshoi has pulled some of its most exciting young stars for this engagement.

American Ballet Theatre performed “Le Corsaire” on WQED’s Great Performances a while back with Julie Kent and Ethan Stiefel and it will be interesting to measure the two. But then, the Bolshoi has more history going for it and additional choreography by Alexei Ratmansky, who was just appointed as resident choreographer at ABT.

Small world.

"Month in the Country"

"Month in the Country"

Comparing the Bolshoi to the Royal is like comparing,once again, the proverbial apples and oranges. The Royal arrives in its corner  next week with a fabulous line-up of ballets, including two signature works, Frederick Ashton’s deliriously beautiful “A Month in the Country,” book-ended by two masterful contemporary works, Christopher Wheeldon’s “DGV” and Wayne McGregor’s “Chroma.” McGregor was working on the ballet when his company, Random Dances, appeared at the Pittsburgh Dance Council in 2006 and it subsequently garnered the Laurence Olivier award in 2007 for Best New Dance Production. Wheeldon has become ballet’s Favorite Son. And the other signature, the glorious “Manon” by Kenneth MacMillan, will feature principals Zenaida Yanowsky and Rupert Pennefather.

The companies have pulled out their big guns, or so it seems. Let the games begin.

The Bolshoi Ballet will appear at the Kennedy Center Tues. through Sun. The Royal Ballet will begin June 23 through June 28. For more information, visit the Kennedy Center website, http://www.kennedy-center.org.

On Stage: Dueling “Serenades” and more…

June 14, 2009

PBTS Spring Perf. 2009It wasn’t a coordinated effort, but instead a bit of serendipitous scheduling from Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School and Pittsburgh Youth Ballet Company that local dance fans wound up with dueling “Serenades” at the end of the school year. It was bound to happen — this ballet is the 1934 George Balanchine ballet that remains a hallmark of the New York City Ballet repertoire

So “Serenade” wasn’t performed by a “professional” company. But then, its first performance was danced by students of the School of American Ballet at the estate of Felix M. Warburg in White Plains, New York. Both Pittsburgh schools have high quality programs that emulate that auspicious beginning and they received permission to stage the work, one of romantic sweep set to Tchaikovsky’s surging string score.

A masterpiece should stand the test of time, interpretation and age, whether it be Bach, Beethoven or Balanchine. With young casts taking on these roles and multiple performances within a short period of time, the viewer could still focus on the genius to found in the choreography.

After more than 35 years of writing, “Serenade” remains one of my favorites. I saw the school productions three times. Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre also drew upon the ballet on several occasions over the years, but my all-time highlight came in 1983 at the New York City Ballet. It was the final work on the final concert of the season following Balanchine’s death. The NYCB cast gave this “Serenade” an emotion that Balanchine himself always eschewed, particularly in the bounding jumps of the third movement where they seemed to be trying to escape the earth to be with him, and the lingering ending of the “Elegy,” which, given the circumstances, brought tears to many eyes in the audience.

The Pittsburgh students gave “Serenade” their all, full of the promise of things to come. How lucky we are to have Pittsburgh Ballet’s school, where co-directors Dennis Marshall and Marjorie Grundvig and staff have propelled it to a high level in four short years, and Pittsburgh Youth Ballet, where Jean Gedeon was celebrating 25 years of excellence.

PBT’s “Serenade” was staged by former NYCB member Jerri Kumery and had a strength of purpose that was apparent in performances bolstered by the graduate students.

But Balanchine’s moonlit dance only led off five programs at Point Park University’s George Roland White Performance Studio and the Byham Theater. Choreography can make or break a dancer and PBT has wisely elected to strengthen that aspect of the school. It now commissions a work by an outside artist, in this year’s case Luis Fuente’s “A Contratempo.” The former Joffrey principal dancer gave the grad students a fun Latin flair and percussionist Andrew Kirk improvised a driving score to match the movements.

PBT teacher and former dancer Alan Obuzor seemed to be fulfilling his own choreographic promise with a pair of pieces, “Monair” and “Hornpipe Reel,” both of which placed demands on the students without detracting from their free-wheeling performance — no easy feat. Russian ballet expert Anna-Maria Holmes came in to stage “La Vivandiere,” a buoyant set of dances that emphasized an elegance of line and crisp footwork. Anwen David, 15, and Ted Henderson, 18,  performed a surprisingly mature “Bluebird Pas de Deux” — I caught them at a PBT luncheon and they’re definitely dancers to watch!

PBT staff member Anastasia Wovchko contributed “Fanfare,” set to Benjamin Britten’s “The Young Person’s Guide to Orchestra” and a great outlet for the student level dancers, plus a plush finale that involved the entire cast.

PYBC "Serenade"

PYBC "Serenade"

The Youth Ballet performers in “Serenade” were younger than usual and probably averaged around 15, but had a confidence beyond their years. With staging by Jessica Gattinella Kohls, PYB’s New York City Ballet style was apparent in the airy phrasing of Balanchine’s choreography.

Gedeon made sure that her anniversary program, coming in at three hours, was full of surprises. Obuzor crossed over from PBT (there are many fortuitous connections to be made between the schools) and made a welcome appearance in “Serenade.”

But Gedeon wasn’t satisfied with just that piece, as most schools would have done. She reprised Jerome Robbins’ “Circus Polka,” originally created for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus elephants by Balanchine and composer Igor Stravinsky, for the littlest of the dancers. Those who were youngest were sprinkled throughout the performance, most notably in an ambitious version, albeit shortened, of “Coppelia,” and a lovely “Etudes”-like finale, flawlessly staged by Ruth Leney-Midkiff and backed by a slide show of PYB photos, among some of the best to be found in the area.

Gedeon also squeezed in a partial “Paquita” and two original works, “Noodles and Bosh” by PYB staff member Andrew Blight, and “Songs,” by former PYB dancer Taryn Frey Misner.

But there was yet to be icing for this multi-tiered cake. Gedeon persuaded Daniel Ulbricht, a principal

Daniel Ulbricht

Daniel Ulbricht

dancer with the New York City Ballet, to make an appearance at the Sunday matinee. Ulbricht performed with PYB from 1996-1999 and occasionally still comes in for workshops. He brought “The Tango Solo” by Servy Gallardo for this occasion. Set to music by Astor Piazzolla, this work elicited audible collective gasps from the audience for its sharply-edged rhythms and powerful jumps. Ulbricht is the closest thing to Mikhail Baryshnikov these days and a certifiable star on stage, the perfect exclamation point for these talented dance hopefuls.

All in all, these performances have become annual events worth attending. For more information, see http://www.pbt.org and http://www.pybco.com.


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