On Stage: A Philadanco Explosion

September 29, 2009

Philadelphia Dance Company provided a real test for the August Wilson Center this last weekend. See what it’s like at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.


Dance Notes: Richard and a Chinese Connection

September 28, 2009

IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE. That’s the name of an event at the Andy Warhol Museum honoring Richard Parsakian, who could be considered Pittsburgh dance’s best friend, although many other arts organizations might contest that. Richard has his fingers in so many pies — donating, attending virtually every dance performance, donating, assisting with costumes through his fabulous vintage shop in Shadyside, donating, organizing and decorating terrific parties and donating. The event will benefit Richard. Don’t ask, just go. Andy Warhol Museum, Monday from 6-8 p.m. Tickets: $100; go to Pittsburgh Filmmakers website.

TO CHINA, WITH LOVE. Chinese folk dancer and local teacher Yanlai Wu recently spent a couple of months in her hometown of Shanghai with son Haoyuan, 12. Yanlai admits that she didn’t do much because the city has massive construction projects in preparation to host the World Expo next year and that Haoyuan was particularly glad to get back. Yanlai is making preparations to relocate Oriental Star Dance School, where she offers both ballet and various forms of Chinese dance, to the North Hills under a new name. By the way, Kristin Bair O’Keefe, former Pittsburgh Post-Gazette writer now living in Shanghai, is currently visiting with family and friends in Bethel Park. She’s also promoting her new book, “Thirsty,” which has a Pittsburgh aura and has received excellent preliminary notices.


On Stage: Forever Joan

September 25, 2009

Joan Myers Brown“They’re saying, ‘J.B. is going to kill us!'” That’s what the Philadanco dancers are chortling about artistic director Joan Myers Brown — or so she good-naturedly claims. “Aunt Joan,” as she has also been called, has been pushing and prodding and loving her young charges for 40 years.

Today she’s not in her office when I call because she ran to the grocery story to buy some bread for a special early morning breakfast. “This is the place to work!” comments her assistant, Ingrid, with an enthusiasm regarded as the trademark of this Philadelphia company.

The latest seriously cheerful affront from her dancers arose over the program for the August Wilson Center this weekend. Officially it begins with “Ritornello” by Gene Hill Sagan, followed by “Philadelphia Experiment” from  hip hop artist and fellow Philadelphian Rennie Harris and Christopher Huggins’ “Enemy Behind the Gates.”

But first we tackle the world premiere that the company is offering Pittsburgh’s newest arts venue. The piece turns out to be a triple threat in that it’s also a commission to celebrate not only the company’s 40th anniversary, but Myers Brown’s leadership. “And fifty years for the school — pretty good for a 39-year old,” she quips.

“Jawole’s work is not what it started out to be,” states the glamorous 77-year old with a penchant forPhiladancogold earrings and straight talk. (Her bio reads “she speaks out, talks back and shows up.”) Choreographer Jawole Willa Jo Zollar originally intended to create a work about celebrated American contralto and civil rights advocate Marian Anderson. But on the train to Philadelphia, she decided to do something “more exciting” for the 40th.

Zollar, artistic director of “Urban Bush Women,” was evidently in a retro state of mind. So she dipped into the ’70’s and came up with “By Way of the Funk,” intended as a celebration “to honor the legacy of achievement of Joan Myers Brown & Philadanco.”

Myers Brown goes on to explain that Sagan’s “Ritornello” is “a nice, light opening. We don’t want to hit the audience over the head in the beginning, but, from there on in, it’s Philadanco style.” Harris’ work, which so successfully brings street dance to the concert stage, always hits home with audiences. This piece was inspired by a series of  MOVE confrontations with police in Philadelphia, where ultimately six adults and five children were killed when police bombed their home.

Christopher Huggins' "Enemy Behind the Gate"And she says of Huggins, “He has become, more or less, furniture — he comes with the place now. “Enemy” at the time became a hit . Now I say it’s my ‘Revelations.” Myers Brown refers to Alvin Ailey’s iconic gospel ballet that still ends virtually every performance for the Ailey company. “People always want ["Enemy"] and ask for it to be on the program.”

It may be hard evening for the dancers, but Philadanco is noted for its work ethic. Myers Brown has developed a top-notch professional reputation for her company. Up until now she always complained about losing her dancers — recently two women went to Broadway’s “The Color Purple” and “Wicked” and another man to Cirque du Soleil in Las Vegas.

But no more.

“They’re chasing the dollars — the kids are trying to pay off their college debts,” she begins. “You know,  if I was 22 and had the opportunity, I would do the same thing. So I say, ‘Come back in two years when your debt is paid.”

By the nature of the artistically-satisfying, but monetarily-challenged Philadanco beast, some dancers think they can join the company for a short time and use it as a quick stepping stone.

Myers Brown will have none of that, firmly saying that “some dancers are so busy being technicians that they lose the passion for dance.” So she asks them, “What else are you going to give me? Everyone can get their leg up over their heads. Everyone can do a triple pirouette and stop on a dime.” With a practiced eye, she looks at a roomful of hopefuls and selects the ones that regard dance as “life’s work, not just a job.” Now she has a second company, Danco2, and a student group, Danco3, armed with “dancers moving up the ladder and being prepared to move in.”

So the process goes on. Myers Brown talks about spending more time with her six grandchildren (one is already cooing over the phone in her office) and doing some traveling “without 20 kids with me.”

But then, there’s always breakfast to plan…

For more information on the Philadanco performances Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m., go to the August Wilson Center website.


On Stage: Flash! Dance

September 22, 2009

No one joined Gene Kelly as he danced down his movie set of a street in “Singin’ in the Rain.” Now the streets all over the world seem to be awash with seemingly impromptu dance happenings. It’s called flash mob (or flashmob) dancing and it’s finally arrived in Pittsburgh.

Inspired by the G-20 (as most things in the city are these days), Keisha Lalama-White and 300 Point Park University staff members and students joined together for a kick-off (pun intended) to the upcoming array of protests, pundits and politicians.

The flash mob was originated in New York City in 2003 by Billy Wasik, senior editor at Harper’s Magazine. But his targeted store was tipped off. He regrouped to produce a flash mob at Macy’s, where 100 people gathered around an expensive rug to make a “group” purchase.

Now flash mobs, whether they be pillow fights, silent discos or world naked bike rides,  have an organic connection to protests, which, of course, bear considerable relevance to the inherent nature of the G-20.

Point Park chose the upper hand. Three separate groups of approximately 100 dancers each converged on One Oxford Center, PPG Place and U.S. Steel Tower/UPMC Building at 1:15 p.m. At 1:10 p.m., as if on cue, raindrops started to fall. But the weather would not deter these young performers from the swift completion of their dance.

I happened to choose the U.S. Steel/UPMC option. To the strains of Neil Diamond’s “Coming to America,” a voice intoned references to President Obama and the G-20. In true flash mob fashion, one student began gesturing to the sky (miraculously, the rain stopped) and then inviting others to join him.

Like the Internet, the dance became viral. More and more students swiftly latched on to “Celebration.” (After all, flash mob music has to target familiar territory.) They quickly became “We Are Family,” with a little improvisation added to the recipe.

The hoodies, sweatshirts and sweaters came off to reveal orange t-shirts printed with a peace sign and PPU. The Beatles sang, “All You Need Is Love” as they joined hands and formed a human peace sign.

Maybe more people should listen to their message.

See the results:


Off Stage: An Andy Dance

September 20, 2009

Things have been so busy this summer that I only recently visited The Andy Warhol Museum to visit “Warhol Live: Music and Dance in Andy Warhol’s Work,” on view through September 27 (save September 24, when the museum will be closed to host an event for the G-20 Summit).

I must admit that I thought everything would fit on one level. But I was surprised to find a major exhibit, occupying four floors. Another surprise: the elevators were out of commission. So friend Ann Corrado Sahaida and I dutifully climbed up to the seventh floor to begin a dandy Andy adventure.

The museum didn’t waste any time plunging the viewer into Andy’s world. The top floor was built around a multi-media installation that immediately put the viewer on sensory overload — mirror ball, piped music and John Chamberlain’s cushy white “Couch” (1971), a place to rest after the climb and relaxing enough to savor an era. That would be a theme throughout — Warhol’s Charles Ives-ian approach to life.

Ives, an American composer, relished the juxtaposition of two bands in a parade, with overlapping rhythms, melodies and ambiance. Warhol himself played the drum set of life, with his artistic hands moving in a blur from one project to another, from one celebrity to another, from one silk-screen to another, all with an ease and grace.

We moved from no less than ten portraits of Mick Jagger down to another “MJ,” Michael Jackson, Prince and Studio 54, with competing musical selections. There were more friends’ portraits — Liza Minnelli, Debbie Harry, David Bowie and a very young Madonna (circa “Desperately Seeking Susan” 1985) with artist Keith Haring.

I seemed to detect movement in the shadows of Warhol’s diamond dust series, more so than the boldly defined lines of his more famous celebrity prints. I thought I was stretching things. But wait — thereMartha Graham Portraitwas a picture of Minnelli, Rudolf Nureyev and Martha Graham! And nearby one of Warhol and Graham and a birthday cake. Whose birthday? She was born May 11, he on August 6. But they both seemed to enjoy blowing out the candles.

As we descended deeper into the collection, the exhibit peeled away the layers of Warhol’s more-than-fifteen minutes of fame. The fifth floor featured some earlier works, like a self-portrait wallpaper lining the hallway and “Guitar Players” (1947), which was gouache on board.

His art extended an extensive record collection — yes, he worked for many major studios, adding his signature to artiMartha Graham Satyric Festival Songsts from Toscanini’s “William Tell Overture” to the famous “Sticky Fingers” cover for the Rolling Stones, complete with zipper, and The Velvet Underground and Nico banana with the delicious phrase, “Peel Slowly and See.”

There was plenty of Hollywood, including Judy Garland and multiple  repetitions of a gun-totin’ Elvis Presley. But the exhibition saved the best for last.

Any movement lover could appreciate the invitation to dance the various foot patterns in Warhol’s diagram series.  (It would be an expensive lesson — his diagrams have brought over $2 million at auction.)

Then we came upon it, “I Like Dance” from 1948, a dancing Christmas card and a cover on Dance Magazine — it seemed that Warhol was no casual dance lover. And of course, it was easy to linger over three classic poses of Martha Graham, including “Letter to the World” and a double-fisted “Satyric Festival Song” and, of course, her portrait.

Silver CloudsBut for the tried-and-true enthusiast, leave some time for Merce Cunningham’s “RainForest” (1968) at the end. A video plays footage of the original cast, including legendary contemporary artists Carolyn Brown and Gus Solomons, Jr. Running about 30 minutes in length, it’s worth your time. In fact, time has given the viewer the luxury of perspective. It unfolds like an abstraction of the era — the burgeoning environmental movement juxtaposed with the space race of the ’60’s.

The best angle? Sit on the floor while Warhol’s silver pillow clouds float overhead and enjoy.

For more information, visit The Andy Warhol Museum website.


On Stage: Dancing Classrooms — The First Step

September 19, 2009

I see America dancing.

Not because of “Dancing With the Stars” or “So You Think You Can Dance” or any number of the dance shows that pepper the tube…although they have all contributed to the wave of dance that has swept this country onto its feet.

© Martha Rial

© Martha Rial

It’s because Pierre Dulaine came to town. Many might ask,”Who?” For the uninititated, he was Antonio Banderas (or rather, Antonio played him) in the 2006 movie, “Take the Lead.” It’s the story of a handsome ballroom teacher who feels that dancing could address any number of issues, and dives in (feet first, of course) to give his reluctant students a lesson in life.

But better yet, there was also a documentary, “Mad Hot Ballroom,” that came out around the same time. It traced real New York City students through several months of lessons and a culminating competition called “Colors of the Rainbow,” where more there were more hues than the gold, silver and bronze medals that were awarded the participants.

If you knew, you would have recognized Pierre toward the end. He is an elegant man, winner of many international titles himself and star on Broadway in “Grand Hotel” with partner Yvonne Marceau. Pierre also happens to be a gifted teacher. Along the way he opened his own school and taught at School of American Ballet, Juilliard and Alvin Ailey.

He didn’t have to take on a gaggle of fifth graders, more than a few of whom turned up their noses at the thought (and look) of a dance style that Arthur Murray eschewed on television with his wife, Kathryn, back in the ’50’s. But his ultimate success led to Dancing Classrooms, which just last year reached over 40,000 students in 400 schools in 13 cities.

Honors, awards and fame aside, Pierre could get down with them because he spreads joy through discipline and besides, it’s just great fun to move. We could see it in the glowingly expressive faces of the “Mad Hot” dancers.

Look out, Pittsburgh. Pierre swept into the city with picture-perfect poise, missing not a step as he said, with a droll roll of the tongue, “My name is Pierr-r-r-re.”

The adults got to meet him first last Wednesday night at LaFond Galleries on the South Side. With six young ballroom dancers setting the tone out on the sidewalk, the members of the Pittsburgh Public

Photo by © Martha Rial

© Martha Rial

Schools gathered with coordinators from Mercy Behavioral Health and Dancing Classrooms teachers Terry and Rozana Sweeney, international champions themselves.

Then Pierre gave them a taste of things to come. Soon the formality of a cocktail party became something entirely different as the adults were circling the gallery with their ballroom partners.

The excitement really escalated the next morning, when all of the fifth graders from five Pittsburgh elementary schools  — Arlington Academy, Martin Luther King Elementary, Phillips Elementary, Spring Hill Elementary and West Liberty Elementary — traveled to host school Allegheny Elementary on the North Shore to meet with Pierre.

After introductions and remarks from deputy superintendent Dr. Linda Lane and Mercy Behavioral Health prevention supervisor Mark Rogalsky and clips from “Mad Hot Ballroom,”  it was Pierre’s turn to charm the audience and bring up pre-selected students to give ballroom a try.

Martin Luther King’s Edna Poland was not sure she liked ballroom at that point. She watched as the students skillfully followed instructions like “red light” and “green light” and “shake what your mama gave you.” By then there was a big smile on her face.

© Martha Rial

© Martha Rial

Arlington’s J’von Brown and Asa Jones-Martin were excited after they descended from the stage, along with West Liberty’s Michael Lacek, Victoria McCrea, Alana Morrison and Logan O’Hara. For a finale, everyone got to do the Macarena…in their seats.

It seemed like this Rainbow of dancers was eagerly awaiting the next step. But it will have to wait a bit, like everything else, until the G-20 is over.


On Stage: STOMP!

September 17, 2009

STOMPWe can now see that STOMP, which originated in London in 1991, has developed sturdy legs (along with drums, bags and Zippos)  to carry it well into the 21st century.  Carolelinda Dickey first pounced on the production and brought it to town under the aegis of the Pittsburgh Dance Council during the 1994-95 season and STOMP has returned for a fistful of visits since then, always to enthusiastic audiences, with its latest run ending this Sunday.

So what is it — dance, musical or rhythmic entertainment? A quick glance at the cast list showed a blend of drummers who move well and dancers with a strong beat sensibility, because it’s a seamless give-and-take throughout the evening.

So I suppose, now that it’s back in Pittsburgh, albeit in the Benedum Center, rather than the smaller, better-suited Byham, it’s fun to think about the impact (couldn’t resist!) that this feisty show has had on its entertainment surroundings.

For one thing, STOMP was probably the first environmental show. Think about it — virtually everything there appears to be recyclable, from sweeping things to banging things to crushables. Maybe that’s why STOMP is still current in the minds of its viewers.

The opening night audience seemed to possess a strong core of repeat customers who treated it like a rock concert and also provided a savvy knowledge of those nifty interactive segments. As a wizened old veteran myself, I looked forward to some of my favorite parts — the newspapers, the lighters, the big oil drums, the garbage can lids and, of course, those swinging harnesses.

I wasn’t disappointed. STOMP had been  promising to come back with a few surprises…and it did. The production just shortened some routines to make room for more. I don’t know if the preponderance of rubber slinkies or the cacophony of rubber containers or the extra harness performers really added a punch or picked up the pace any more.

After all, the original concept of STOMP needed no recycling. It still sells the same message: All you need is a little imagination and a sympathetic ear to capture the rhythms of life.

For ticket information, go to the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust website.

Point Park alumnus Justin Myles, along with some of his cast-mates, is giving a STOMP-style master class to Conservatory students at Point Park University on Friday at the George Rowland White Performance Studio.


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