Dance Notes: First Night, Kennedy Center, Tome

December 28, 2009

DANCE OUT THE OLD. Pittsburgh Cultural Trust’s First Night festivities will include diverse interests in dance like Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, featuring Christine Schwaner and Alexandre Silve with PBT grad students (Byham Theater, 7 p.m.), Attack Theatre’s Bag Attack Boogaloo, an interactive event for all (Fifth Avenue Place, ongoing), The Pillow Project and improvisation (905 Penn Avenue windows, ongoing),Ballroom Dance into the New Year (Arthur Murray Dance Studio - 136 Sixth Street, ongoing), Swing Lessons with Bobby D (Trust Education Center – 805/807 Liberty Avenue, 6:30 p.m., 9 p.m.),  Dance Cafe Salsa Lessons (Trust Education Center, 7 p.m., 8:30 p.m., 9:30 p.m.), Moquette Volante Bellydance Workshop (929 Liberty Avenue, 6:30 p.m., 10 p.m.) and Performance (7:30 p.m., 8:45 p.m.), Japanese Sword Dance: Momentum (Catholic Charities Building – 821 Liberty Avenue, 7:15 p.m.),  Steel Town Fire (9th and Penn Parking Lot, 6:45 p.m., 9:30 p.m.), Pittsburgh’s Largest Soul Line Dance Party (9th and Penn Parking Lot, 7:30 p.m. 8:45 p.m.) and  Oriental Star Dancers (August Wilson Center, 6 p.m.). For more information check the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust website.

CENTER ON DANCE. John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts has a number of attractive offerings on its roster this year, along with some notable performers. Since it’s only four hours away, it’s a doable day trip for the avid dance fan, some of whom might have a friend or relative in the area. So I’ve decided to include some of the events on CrossCurrents’ Listings page. First up is American Ballet Theatre (Jan. 26 -31) with a nifty triple bill (Sir Frederic Ashton’s “Birthday Offering” with a galaxy of ABT stars, “Seven Sonatas” by the choreographer of the moment, Alexei Ratmansky and “The Brahms-Haydn Variations,” a Twyla Tharp classic) and Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s epic “Romeo and Juliet.” You could do a two-for-one, because Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan will have its first appearance at the Kennedy Center in 15 years (Jan. 29-30). The program, “Moon Water,” sounds mesmerizing.  Also keep your heads up for February and the Bolshoi Ballet‘s “Spartacus,” featuring a Baryshnikov-in-the-making (although with the panache of Rudolph Nureyev), Ivan Vasiliev. No he is not related to ’60’s superstar Vladimir Vasiliev, but seems on his way to making a global name for himself. Apparently only 20, he will perform opening night (Feb. 16) plus Feb. 19 and 21. Check out a performance on

CONTACT IN KOREA. Former Pittsburgher Tome Cousin is making quite a career out of staging Susan Stroman’s award-winning Broadway dancical “Contact” around the world (he also did a great job with a Point Park University cast). But South Korea with a home-grown cast? Apparently he’s enjoying it.

Dance Notes: Corning, Dey, School Updates

December 26, 2009

THE GLUE FACTORY. Former Dance Alloy Theater artistic director Beth Corning is up and moving again. She has resurrected THE GLUE FACTORY, a project that she initiated in Minnesota and is now resurrected here in Pittsburgh under the aegis of her new company, CORNING WORKS. The line-up of dancers, all over 40, is impressive: Peter Sparling (former principal dancer with the Martha Graham Company), Janet Lilly (former principal dancer with Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company), Cathy Young (former principal dancer with Danny Buraczeski’s JAZZDANCE), Michael Blake (former dancer with Jose Limon and Donald Byrd companies) and David Covey (“better known for his award-winning lighting designs for dance, less known for his past dancing career). They will interpret Corning’s own brand of dance theater in “A Seat at the Table” at the New Hazlett Theatre Mar. 25-28.

MICHIGAN CONNECTION. Although former Pittsburgher Sreyashi Dey has moved to Michigan, she sends greetings and evidence of her still-busy schedule with guru Manoranjan Prandhan, talented twin daughters and a student. You can find a slideshow at her gallery.

HOLIDAY SPIRIT. Congratulations to Wexford Dance Academy for “The Kringle Jingle,” a potpourri of  holiday-tinged productions from ballet to rock and roll with a smart, professional look and featuring “So You Think You Can Dance” 2009 runner-up Brandon Bryant in a popular solo, and Broadway Dance Studio’s “Christmas Spectacular” for its energetic musical theater approach that brought its own sparkle to the season. And, while the main company took to the Benedum Center stage for  the annual production of the “Nutcracker,” members of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School took time to visit Children’s Hospital with some excerpts from the production, including the Sugar Plum Fairy’s Grand Pas de Deux with her cavalier and the Chinese, Russian and Spanish variations and then visited with patients.

NEW YEAR. The January dance Listings are up and running now. Several Kennedy Center performances are included because the distance is only four hours and there are companies of note coming our way. More on this later.

On Stage: Five Go-o-olden Years

December 16, 2009

They were selling Christmas trees outside Construction Junction, but The Pillow Project already had its own, a remnant from its “Sophisticated Junk” concert in October. It was a Charlie Brown tree, decorated with electrical cords and computer odds and ends. The real thing, with a twist.

That statement could easily be applied to The Pillow Project, which came up with “Sorta Saturday” last weekend.

When it comes to the holidays, there are parties galore. But Pearlann Porter and her Pillow Project contingent staged an urban-style soiree, with homemade hors d’ouerves, for the group’s  fifth anniversary celebration.

As usual, a Pillow Project production comes wrapped in a multitude of ways. This one had an open-floor plan, focused, more or less, around DJ Sorta (a.k.a. Anthony Sorvala). He led a contingent ofKaylin Horganalumnae who made major contributions to the gritty look of the Pillow — the indestructible Beth Ratas, lean and lanky Ben Wegman (now of Liz Lerman Dance Exchange), hip hop artists Dionna PridGeon (now operating out of Chicago) and  Angela Essler (still hanging around Pittsburgh– a bonus) and the baby of the bunch, Kayla Horgan (Point Park University).

I think it may have been my favorite arrangement thus far — furniture groupings scattered around with performance areas in their midst. It allowed a lot of play for Porter’s current interest — improvisation. This time things were structured quite nicely, all of it emanating from Sorta’s dynamic assemblage of tunes that allowed for various textures and tempi to inspire the movement.

And inspire it did.

DJ Sorta with Dionna PridGeon on the "Pillow"Like PridGeon’s solo where the other dancers periodically helped her get “unstuck,” and a peekaboo table dance with Horgan, PridGeon and Wegman. I loved the way the petite Horgan fearlessly went toe-to-toe with Wegman and PridGeon and how Ratas moved gracefully out of her comfort zone. At the end, Essler poured some water on the floor and they all began imitating Sorta’s considerable scratch technique with their sneakers.

Even tiny Chris Valle joined a growing list of audience members who were lured into the dance action. And PJ Roduta showed up with a scientific duet on rhythmic equations (PJ, DJ — get it?).  It all ended with art, seen through the dark lenses of Kevin Wenner. Part Jackson Pollak, part Sigmund Freud and sporting a variation on a gas mask, Wenner proceeded to cover one large face with another and then strip it away. Extreme art/compelling drama.

All photos by Derek Stoltz.Scratching with Chris

On Stage: “Bench” Marks the Holidays

December 16, 2009

Ahmad Simmons and Angela Dice“The Bench” isn’t your normal holiday treat full of tinsel, glad tidings and mistletoe. But it does provide a sense of family, which is what the holidays are all about, from Thanksgiving to New Year’s and everything in between.

Kiesha Lalama-White’s production for Conservatory Dance Company sticks to tradition, probably the second-most important thing about the holidays. Lalama-White’s  traditional jazz vocabulary and warm-hearted story line, along with cousin David Lalama’s traditional jazz score provide the glue that holds “The Bench” together.

It follows a single family through an album of memories, the kind with which we can all identify. Love. Marriage. Parenthood. Sibling Rivalry. Family Dinners. Lalama-White pushes all the right buttons and while we may realize it, in the end, it’s almost impossible not to be touched.

Everything is clearly etched for the audience. Lalama-White’s style is filled with sharp accents andAngela Dice with Annalee Traylor and Naila Ansari standout scenes include the initial love duet and a conversational dinner with the family. Lalama’s score lays out a rich landscape of sound for the dance, with a live quartet where he plays keyboards and brother Ralph, a wonderful saxophonist in his own right, in tow.

Lewis Folden’s angular screens provides a versatile backdrop with subtly projected abstract patterns and Aimee Greer’s vintage/contemporary costume design adapts to all the situations, particularly with a voluminous skirt that acts as an umbilical cord between mother and daughters. Only visual artist Michael Dickins’ family snapshots are not totally defined.

Angela DiceBut it’s the young cast that brings the story to life. They have to run the gamut, from child-like fights to the ancient aunt who commands everyone’s attention. Ahmad Simmons (Man/Father) and Angela Dice (Woman/Mother) have the maturity to carry roles far beyond their current means. James Washington (Son) has a robust technique and beautiful control of the movements — a fight between him and his father is a highlight — and  Annalee Traylor and Naila Ansari provide wonderful support as the daughters.

All told, “The Bench” is a taut portrayal of family that is one of CDC’s finest productions over the years and a model for the future.

“The Bench” continues through Dec. 20. Check Listings for more information.

Dance Notes: Point Park, Trust Ballroom, W.Va. Ballet

December 15, 2009

GOING GREEN. Point Park University has received the Trane Energy Efficiency Leader in Education Award for its new dance complex, which opened in 2007. If you haven’t seen it, plan a visit. Your best bet might be a performance at the George Roland White Performance Studio, a marvel of a black box theater that really enhances dancers. Some of the benefits to the dance students at Point Park include air quality, lighting, light and temperature, all to keep them healthy and performing at their best.

PITTSBURGH CONNECTIONS. I caught the final performance of Conservatory Dance Company’s Pittsburgh Connections, although I missed former PBT soloist Jeffrey Bullock’s ballet, which was first on the program. But Point Park alum Marissa Balzer produced a little jewel of a work, “Things Behind the Sun.” The piece, inspired by Balzer’s own newlywed status, focused on romance, sexuality and relationships in three couples.  It was intellectually astute and emotionally attractive all at once, with movements that melted into unexpected directions. I hope that Balzer, who is also a busy teacher in the area, can find time for more choreography. Patrick Franz, former Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre artistic director, produced “Cote Jardin,” conceptually interesting for its inspiration, rooted in the French designs of the Versailles gardens of King Louis XIV, it didn’t echo those designs among the 26-member cast. Krisofer Weinstein-Storey, on the other hand, delivered in “Stimela (what is African debt?). Political in nature, it’s primary emphasis was on low-slung movements that produced rhythmic interactions on an African theme.

“TRUST” BALLROOM. “So You Wanta Dance? asks the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust. But the power there must think people do, because they’ve opened The Dance Cafe at the organization’s new Trust Educational Center at 805/807 Liberty Avenue. There are lessons Tues. through Thurs. For more information, go to the website at The Dance Cafe.

A SOUTHERN NUT. Dance Alloy’s Christopher Bandy is scheduled to choreograph excerpts from the “Nutcracker” for the Wheeling Symphony in West Virginia Dec. 18-19. Good news — he’ll be bringing former Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre members with him in Aaron Ingley and Alan Obuzor. See the Wheeling Symphony for more information.

On Stage: The Pillow at Five

December 11, 2009

By Derek StoltzPearlann Porter is, without a doubt, the busiest choreographer on the holiday scene. (If you missed it, she was part of Dance Alloy’s concert at the New Hazlett Theatre, which appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.)After four months of the outdoors Urban Experiment and a series of five Second Saturdays pushing the dance envelope at The Space Upstairs, she is concluding her 2009 season by looking back at the first five years of her own company, The Pillow Project.

Catching Porter on the fly, as usual, I asked her what was in store for this weekend’s audience. She took a few minutes to explain that this will not be a literal retrospective, in other words, a concert of reconstructed dances. Instead Porter will be drawing upon a “feeling,” using some of the people who “had a heavy influence on the Pillow Project’s style.”

Even the title indicates that — “Sorta Saturday.” DJ Sorta was one of the originals and will instigate an all-vinyl program. Others will include Dionna PridGeon, coming in from Chicago, and Ben Wegman, who currently performs with Liz Lerman Dance Exchange in Washington D.C. Of course, long-time staple Beth Ratas will be on board.

Porter says she is coming “full circle. It’s jazz, but not Fosse,” she explains. “It’s more in the vein of [jazz musicians] Miles Davis and Charlie Parker, who had a live and spontaneous acknowledgement of the present. Besides, it’ll be a smart alternative to a heavy-duty holiday season.

Check Listings for more information.

Dance Notes: To Nut or Not

December 5, 2009

I was mildly amused at the extreme opinions expressed in articles by Sarah Kaufmann, who expressed dismay over the Nutcracker in The Washington Post, and Daniel J. Wakin, who reported that there will be a “Nutcracker” smackdown in New York City beginning next year with the addition of American Ballet Theatre’s new rival production in The New York Times. Judge for yourself.

On Stage: A New Alloy with Gwen and Pearlann

December 4, 2009

Photo by Renee RosensteelIt was only appropriate that I caught up with Dance Alloy’s two newest choreographers on the move during a rainy afternoon. Gwen Hunter Ritchie was driving to rehearsal with the company at the New Hazlett Theatre and Pearlann Porter was waiting for a bus after her class at Point Park University (no driver’s license and it’s a lifestyle choice).

They are the Alloy’s first local artists to choreograph on the city’s oldest modern dance company and may share a multi-media approach in their premieres, but the women are anything but two peas in a Pittsburgh pod.

Gwen. Hunter Ritchie has been a staple of the modern dance scene for a number of years as a veteran of the Alloy itself, the artistic director of an Alloy offshoot, LABCO, and a respected independent artist. She is also the mother of two.

Her piece, “Look Me in the Eyes,” will feature video by Stacy Pearl that will add to the sensory experience of the dance. Artists often convert their lives into abstraction. Hunter Ritchie has been immersing herself in Asperger syndrome or autism that was discovered in her son.

“In society we generally expect someone to look you in the eyes when you’re talking with them,” she explains with the sound of windshield wipers in the background. “For people who have sensory issues, it is hard for those individuals to look and hear at the same time.”

Often it hinders any kind of communication. Those who are affected are thought of as ignorant or rude. That idea served as a springboard for the piece.

The movement “came out very easily” for Hunter Ritchie. “The things we do are really the body telling us what it needs, like tapping the foot or twirling the hair. We worked to find those movements and where they came from and what they do for us. It was a natural path for me.”

Pearlann. Porter might considered the outsider who established an experimental enclave at Construction Junction in a rather remote neighborhood (at least from Downtown), Point Breeze. There she began staging art “happenings,” with a multi-media community of young artists.

Much of Porter’s choreography is based on an improvisatory process that marinates over a long period of time. But the Alloy dancers wanted more specific instructions from her given a few time constraints.

What emerged was “The Itch of the Key,” a “neoclassic thriller” that tells “an epic story of love or terror depending upon the audience perception.” Using musical elements of Phillip Glass’ “Dracula” film score and the Kronos Quartet, she wanted to tap into the “lost romance of voyeurism” through the use of projections, where the movement is enhanced, defined or inspired by them.

But Porter and the more classically trained Alloy dancers were testing the choreographic waters. Porter usually works through a jazz-oriented philosophy at her company, The Pillow Project. During that process she’s usually “exploring the daylights” out of the movement and building a solid, yet flexible relationship with the music.

The Alloy dancers wanted more specifics, more crafting from the diminutive choreographer. What emerged was a “very interesting journey, very rewarding in a different way,” according to Porter.

See the results this weekend at the Alloy’s “Unlocked.” Check the Listings for more information.

On Stage: Rockettes on the Retreat?

December 1, 2009

Shoes can make the woman — like Prada or Jimmy Choo. But tap shoes? Once a limited territory (strapped heels or, for the young, flat patent leather bow ties), the subject is now open for discussion with a new contender.

Prior to their Pittsburgh run, the Rockettes staged a workshop for a group of young dancers at the Benedum Center’s posh rehearsal studio. One of the instructors, Katie Russell, was dressed in full Rockette regalia for the “Radio City Music Hall Christmas Spectacular.”

She was looking glamorous, covered in rhinestones, white fur and red velvet.

Russell also had the classic, beige high-heeled tap shoes. But most of the young hopefuls were in their bare feet or socks.  And therein lies the rub. Back in the day, young tap students in studios all over the country could hardly wait to jump from those patent leather Mary Janes into their high heels. Then along came Savion Glover. Rhythm tap. Black-tie oxfords. Suddenly dance recitals, once the hallmark of heels, began to transition into urban chic.

Looking back, it’s a case of history repeating itself. Melding forerunners like Irish step dance, English clogging and African movements, the American slaves first theatricalized tap in minstrel shows. Soft shoe and buck-and-wing were two early favorites. Then the dancers added metal plates to the shoes to hear the rhythms more clearly. Artists like John Bubbles and Stump and Stumpy tapped to the fore and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson became a household word.

But he danced in the movies with a tiny blonde girl named Shirley Temple.

Although women had already started to venture into tap territory, the movies took it to another level,with stars, besides Temple,  like Ruby Keeler, Ann Miller, Eleanor Powell and Ginger Rogers. And legions of young girls began to hear the beat of dancin’ feet in their local studios.

Now black tappers have set the bar once again and young American women are taking up the beat. Tap has turned to the street. Recitals feature pants and “the shoes,” with funky accompaniment. The glitter, the kickline dances and  “the heels” no longer have the stronghold they once possessed.

Another issue: the Rockettes opened Radio City Music Hall in 1932. The group’s style of movement is based on military precision. Height is restricted, as is weight, and kicks are aimed no higher than eye level. At auditions, they call for double pirouettes and double triple time steps. Today young women are encouraged to express their individuality and rhythm tap allows for solos or call and response.

That doesn’t mean that the Rockettes are destined to fade into the sunset. Russell thinks that both styles will continue to share the stage. And Kristin Altfather, who taught the Benedum kick class, says that “every style is an asset to your dance career.” Her training at Point Park University, with its demanding classes, helped to prepare her for “the Rockette rehearsal process and a tough schedule,” she diplomatically counters, dressed all in black with a little of her own bling, a tee shirt emblazoned with rhinestone “Radio City Rockettes” and earrings to match Russell’s.”We do a little bit of everything — ballet, singing, contemporary and classic numbers like the ‘Wooden Soldiers.'”

Ah yes, the routine where the soldiers/Rockettes slo-o-owly collapse in a line onto the floor of the stage. But I’m thinking the Rockette organization will not, not any time soon. With many Rockettes employed only during the holiday touring season, they still have time to stretch their own wings. Russell teaches dance, judges dance competitions and is auditioning for commercial and theater work. Altfather is moving up the Rockettes’ corporate ladder, teaching workshops and as assistant choreographer.

Kick on…

For more information on the “Radio City Christmas Spectacular,” see Listings.


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