On Stage: Attack-ing Andy

February 27, 2010

A sizeable crowd convened for the final performance of Attack Theatre’s “Assemble This” at the Andy Warhol Museum Thursday night. They were no doubt ready to grab 15 seconds of fame (as opposed to Andy’s 15 minutes) by engaging in the collective repartee that comes with this format.

There were more than 70 (it’s hard to count given the unorthodox mobility of the audience) in the Warhol lobby when emcee Gary Pletsch called their attention to Attack’s Blank Canvas, performed below some of Andy’s shoes and with an extra “Pop” of energy.

But then he asked them to do a quarter turn and face Andy’s iconic yellow self portrait (1986 ) that greets visitors when they enter his house. Hm-m-m. This posed a new problem because Warhol’s art is so direct and familiar. The audience would have to go behind the usual to the unusual, which seemed a harder task than with some of the abstract renderings that they found in some of the previous galleries.

Well “Andy” generated responses like “narcissism” and yes, “Steeler colors,” “intense, gaunt stare,” “jowly” and “volcanic” (referring to his plumed hairdo). Dane Toney became a “bewildered lost soul in this world” to cellist Dave Eggar’s enticing pizzicato. One particularly successful improv resulted from “artificial top and solid base,” involving Michele de la Reza and Peter Kope in sexually inviting interplay.

Did I hear a repeat of “Swan Lake” from the usually ever-imaginative Eggar? I thought that was against the rules to duplicate previous tunes. No matter. I don’t know how these performers kept everything straight.

The ensemble also made the most of “dark mouth,” as you can imagine. That encompassed biting ass and ear and sundry other parts of the anatomy. Then onward to the fourth floor, where the resourceful Eggar played a terrific brand of elevator music for the lucky passengers.

There the audience was confronted with four of Andy’s Campbell’s soup cans — just for the record, Beef with Vegetable and Barley, Onion made with Beef Stock, Green Pea and Pepper Pot. The audience found them “redundant” and “repetitive” and “hard outside and soft inside.” One viewer called it “personal.” His name was Michael Campbell — honest.

As usual, Eggar and percussionist Charlie Palmer had control over this section. It produced “repetitive childhood memories with an Americana twist” for Ashley Williams and Kope, who had an instant hair fetish. We also got “competitive and nurturing inside a hard container,” difficult to pull off, and an overlay of “sloshy.” Did I catch a “Nut”-ty “Waltz of the Flowers” from Eggar?

Descending to the second floor, Attack trumpeted Keith Haring’s “Untitled Element,” a large white elephant covered with the black outlines of Haring’s symbolic Radiant Babies. There were red accents in the tusks and platform. Okay, forgive me. Being a newsperson, I immediately thought, “What’s black and white and read all over?”

The elephant produced “sunburned, ” both a “starving” and “pregnant” elephant” and “people sucking life out of the elephant.” Attack chose a “puzzle” motif, which was self-explanatory and enterprising with interlocking dancers. Then there was “a surprising, emerging point.” That became a scenario with Kope playing with Eggar on cello. I had heard of four-handed piano playing, but never four-handed cello! Palmer was encouraged to play “inside” his drum box, while the others supported and followed him around the gallery.

Back down on the main floor, but in the theater, Attack’s final premiere unfolded, particularly thoughtful and intimate, as if it was about the process. I’ll still have more to say on Attack-ing next week.


On Stage: A New Dance Model

February 25, 2010

Photo by Chris CorrieWe’ve heard of Aspen, home of the rich and famous, in Colorado. We’re also well aware of Sante Fe, New Mexico, home of the artistically rich, playground of George O’Keefe and the third largest art market in the United States.

The two cities share a high altitude (Aspen at 8,200 feet and Santa Fe surprisingly at 7,000 feet in the foothills of the Rockies) and a strong interest in the cultural arts. They also share a ballet company, appropriately dubbed Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, that is making dance waves in more ways than one.

I touched base with Paul Organisak, vice president of programming for the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust and executive director of the Pittsburgh Dance Council, about second part of the Dance Council’s split season. It marks the first time in memory that PDC began with two companies, then took a nearly four-month hiatus before resuming.

“The companies drove the schedule,” Organisak reassures me. “It depended on their routing and availability.” It also depended on their location, because international touring, with visa issues, has become extremely difficult. For that reason, Great Britain’s Vincent Dance Theater, where Charlotte Vincent is “one of the most powerful dance voices I’ve seen,” will be the only “foreign” troupe on the roster (May 1).

Complexions (Apr. 3) is red hot this year, given the multiple appearances of cofounders Dwight Rhoden and Desmond Richardson on “So You Think You Can Dance.” Besides it’s Richardson’s farewell tour, noteworthy because he has been one of America’s most remarkable male dancers. Organisak also wanted Pittsburgh dance fans to see the work of Aszure Barton in “Jack in the Box”  and Annabelle Lopez Ochoa in “Zip Zap Zoom” on the BJM program (Apr. 17).

That brings us to the “extremely appealing” Aspen Santa Fe, which will lead off this mini-flurry of dance Feb. 26. Executive director Jean-Phillipe Malaty spoke on the phone from Aspen, where, surprisingly, he says there is no snow, particularly the champagne powder for which the mountain community is noted. Global warming? El Nino?

But Aspen has more than snow, including an art museum, theater, a “beautiful Victorian jewel of an opera house” and a “world class music and jazz festival.” For all the square footage and the number of residents (only 6,000), Aspen has become a mecca. “People come here to have the combination of natural beauty and access to world-class art offerings,” Malaty explains.

Photo by Rosalie O'ConnorThey also come from New York, Chicago and other major metropolitan centers. “We have a very educated and sophisticated audience, where they have seen the best dance,” he says. “When they come on vacation they expect the same.”

The ASFB story is all the more remarkable in that it is a relatively young company, founded in 1990 by longtime Aspenite, Bebe Schweppe. In 1996 she convinced Tom Mossbrucker and Malaty, also partners in life, to leave New York and take over her fledgling group. Mossbrucker brought with him a decidedly American approach (School of American Ballet and The Joffrey) and Malaty a European background (Mudra in Belgium, the John Cranko school in Stuttgart) with an American overlay (Ballet Hispanico of New York, Joffrey II, Lyric Opera of Chicago).

They shared a vision however, mostly in line with the Joffrey’s always-contagious freedom of spirit. Mossbrucker, perhaps the quieter of the two, became artistic director. Malaty, with a talent for organization, business and fund-raising, became executive director. He also admits “we couldn’t afford anyone else.”

Beginning in Aspen, performing opportunities quickly arose in Santa Fe. They also found that they had to diversify “out of necessity. We wanted to create a new business model for American dance companies” because many were failing.

They now have two schools, two presenting series (one of the largest in America) and the award-winning Aspen Santa Fe Ballet Folklorico, a free after school dance program where students learn about the Mexican heritage and culture and engage in performances. As Malaty aptly puts it, “We didn’t put all our eggs in one basket.”

Still, it was a lot to swallow — there is a saying that it takes 25 years to build a ballet company. But Malaty and Mossbrucker have achieved national recognition in only 14 years. How did they do it?

There is a long pause followed by one word.  “Serendipity?” Then a soft chuckle. “We don’t do ‘Swan Lake’ and we don’t do ‘Coppelia,” Malaty finally continues. “We don’t have a resident choreographer and the artistic director doesn’t choreograph. We are a true repertory dance company, so we invite top-notch choreographers. Our repertory, from the beginning, was one of the highest level, what we could afford at the time.”

The Pittsburgh Dance Council program at the Byham Theater reflects that — and maybe more connections to the Joffrey ideals. Robert Joffrey launched Twyla Tharp’s career with “Deuce Coupe.” The ASFB program will feature Tharp’s “Sue’s Leg.” Joffrey engaged William Forsythe early on and his “Slingerland” will also appear in Pittsburgh.

But both choreographers are now well established on the international dance scene. Malaty and Mossbrucker hope to carry on the Joffrey tradition further and have caught American choreographer Nicolo Fonte, formerly of Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montreal and Nacho Duato’s Compania Nacional de Danza in Madrid, and Finnish and Boston Ballet resident choreographer Jorma Elo on the proverbial way up.

ASFB will present Fonte’s “In Hidden Seconds.” Malaty says he is of the “biggest American success stories right now.” Elo, who Malaty calls both “the closest to a new voice” in ballet and “the hottest choreographer right now” will close the program with “Red Sweet.”

So the program reflects ASFB’s heady success. Malaty explains that “there has never been any time wasted between management and the artistic directorship. That is really the evil of many dance companies. We also never, never had any conflict between the administration and the board of directors or the artistic director and the dancers. We’ve been really able to focus on what matters, on real challenges and real problems.”

See Listings for more information.


On Stage: Through Martha’s Eyes – Part 2

February 24, 2010

More of photographer Martha Rial in a selection of photos from Twyla Tharp’s “In the Upper Room” at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre.

Photo by ©Martha Rial

Photo by ©Martha Rial

Photo by ©Martha Rial

Photo by ©Martha Rial

Photo by ©Martha Rial


On Stage: Attack-ing Contemporary Craft

February 24, 2010

Attack Theatre headed back to its home turf in the Strip District — well, almost. But the the Society for Contemporary Craft is well within walking distance of the company’s studios at the Pittsburgh Opera facility.

The Society offered its neighbors a wide open bright space with a permanent performing area near the entrance. The main inspiration came from an exhibit called “Eden Revisited — The Ceramics Work of Kurt Weiser.” As the website says, “His subject matter illustrates lush, mysterious landscapes and distorted narratives set amidst color-saturated flora and fauna that read as voyeuristic snapshots of the human condition.” Hm-m-m, it sounded as though this could be a good match for “Assemble This.”

With the audience gathered comfortably around them, the Attackers put forth the thematic skeleton, labeled as “skin and bones…no heart or lungs.” I don’t know — Michele de la Reza always gives out eminently breathable dance.

Soon we shifted over to the first inspiration piece, Weiser’s plainly-named  “Raku Stirrup Jar 1981.” But the onlookers found “a secret space inside, “an eggshell” at the bottom, a “one-eyed sad cookie” and “a timelessness.”

First Dane Toney was the mark, “completely enclosed” by the other three dancers and looking like a floating hieroglyphic at times. Then he worked inside his “secret space,” tracing semicircles with his foot to cellist Dave Eggar’s leaping trills, soft and cushy, but with a Haydn-esque surprise chord.

Liz Chang and percussionist Charlie Palmer took over the “fragile eggshell” portion — she tiptoeingand he doing likewise, with a smashbox at the end. De la Reza took on the “handle” from the stirrup jar with Peter Kope — in a wonderful concoction of shapes. Kope found delectable handles, not always the ones de la Reza was offering him. And they certainly had an unalterable trust — he dropped her nearly to the floor from shoulder height.

Everyone filed down to the lower level for part two, an always succulent musical pleasure directed by Eggar, who likes to occasionally have  his way with the order of the dance. The second bit of inspiration wasn’t really a piece of art. Or was it? I never found out. The participants called it “a drill,” “a top-heavy pasta maker,” “my grandmother’s washing machine” with a “bus driver’s wheel” on top.

That produced “Italian memories” with Kope and Toney who approached each other sensuously and puckered without a kiss, then offered tongue but no action. “Waiting for the bus” contained some operatic selections, perhaps inspired by the presence of Pittsburgh Opera general director, Christopher Hahn. With Eggar in a musical groove, more additions included “something of a mysterious purpose” (Toney again) and “grinding metal music with viscous surface movement.”

With our musical plates nearly filled, we headed back upstairs to a beautiful double-sided teapot by Weiser. It had  no spout but did have its own aromatic artwork and was titled “Small Fruit 2000.” The audience, in a groove of its own, offered “Alice in Wonderland,” “curves,” “doppelgangers” and “a new retelling of an old story.”

Already the Attackers were willing to cut a part of the skeleton, given the plethora of ideas. The sandwich board was awash with words. But they began the premiere/finale presentation with confidence. The acoustics had been great, the dance and music gracefully intertwined. Emcee Ricardo Robinson was moved to add some soft “wailing” through cupped hands over his mouth.

And even though one young woman nearly fainted and the performance took a pause while people attended to her, it finished, remarkably seamlessly, with Adam and Eve’s fall from grace and the idea of a whisper.

Tonight is the real finale at the Andy Warhol Museum, although it appears to be sold out. See you at the dance!


On Stage: Heart to Art

February 23, 2010

Photo by Eric RoseThere is a whole world of inspiration for dance and periodically it centers around issues that are close to the heart. A while back there was Bill T. Jones’ “Still Here” (cancer) and, more recently, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s “Light/Holocaust & Humanity Project.”

Last weekend Maria Caruso took things a step further in “Heart (function vs. emotion)” at the Byham Theater, where the art was not only close to the heart, but all about it. This full-length ballet was reality-based, with a doctor and patients from UPMC, unlike Jones, who integrated his patients with a slide show on multiple screens.

Such productions amount to a balancing act in more ways than one. They strive to do justice to the subject matter, but also have to attend to the choreography itself, in this case through both dancers and non-dancers.

“Heart” began promisingly, with a repeated heartbeat replicated by each of the three members of Cello Fury, made up of Simon Cummings, Ben Munoz and Nicole Myers, along with drummer Dave Throckmorton. The lighting, designed by Steve O’Brien Agnew, came up on the six patients, Pasquale Ceblasio, Patricia Dippold, Julie Drain, Merle Reeseman, Philip Rostek and Holly Tissue-Thompson, then passed on to dancer Colleen Landwerlen. With the protagonists simply and clearly presented, it was on Caruso’s shoulders to convey her own new-found connection to the heart.

The first section revolved around function, demonstrating “the color, texture, movement, flow and macrobiotic behavior of the organ itself” that Caruso saw in observing two actual heart transplants. Following the introduction, each of the patients was paired with one to three dancers, dressed in red and symbolizing the patients’ hearts in phrases that traveled across the stage.

The cast then gathered to present heart motifs, gleaned from the patients themselves, including a slicing action, a slump of the shoulders and fingers crawling up a wall. After an “Interlude” by Bodiography apprentices and trainees, the company members, still young but decidedly committed, took over the “Function” with abstract movement, capped by a solo from Caruso. Clad in a voluminous, gathered skirt and connected to the wings by long “veins,” Caruso translated her medical experience into movement. Seemingly constricted by the skirt, she still took full advantage of her wonderfully fluid and weighted style, slowly working her way around the stage. At the end, she released the skirt and lifted it into a cape,  liberated and joyous as she exited.

The second half introduced actual surgical movements from Dr. Robert Kormos, as Meghan Dann andPhoto by Eric Rose Kelly Basil portrayed the “old” and “new” heart. Then each patient took to the stage as their individual stories were portrayed through dance, leading to the finale.

There was no doubt that Caruso’s choreography was taking on a larger vision. “Heart” contained intriguing links, due to a more sculptural approach. She expanded her landscape, using complex patterns and taking advantage of the inherent sweep of dance.

While it was easy to see that emotions were running high on the stage, I would still have liked to see that translate into more intimate connections between the patients and dancers, particularly in the second act. But that shouldn’t mean that the choreography is too careful about the subject, which it sometimes was.

Providing music for a full-length ballet, which ran over two hours, was no easy task. But Cello Fury was in good form, robust and rhythmic in its winning musical formula. Still, it was good to see them break up the rock and roll surge with the use of harmonics and pizzicato and a particularly lovely accompaniment to Caruso’s solo.

While the balance between heart and art occasionally went askew, it was a laudable effort on the part of all involved.


On Stage: Attack-ing the Children’s Museum

February 22, 2010

Well, folks, I heartily channeled my inner munchkin (a feat in itself because I’m nearly 5’11”) and headed to the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh on the North Side/Shore near the Hazlett Theater. Attack Theatre was there for a special, family-friendly edition of “Assemble This.”

While the program was geared toward the kids, probably age 3 to 8 or so, I saw that Sara Radelet, executive director of the adjacent New Hazlett Theater, had snuck in for her Attack fix. The other adults were occasionally encouraged to participate — and they did.

Cookies, coffee and Kool-Aid were available for the taking as everyone “assembled” in the lower level theater. Although I have never been to the Children’s Museum, I had been to Buhl Planetarium as a child — many times. So it was a fresh experience mixed with a few memories, including the Science Fair and that electrical field contraption that, when touched, made your hair stand on end.

The approach for this program was a little different, with Michele de la Reza putting on her best friendly teaching face as she coordinated the program. But it was none the less artful, challenging the kids with big words sprinkled among the small ones. Never talking down and always upbeat. The group, nearly 40 strong and attentive, saw the Blank Canvas in that lower level. She said that we were going on “a scavenger hunt.”

We went to the Garage Workshop where the benches were “nice and weight-bearing” for the adults to stand on or sit upon. There we analyzed some sort of electrical box with wires and tiny lights. Peter Kope chose a few of the suggestions for further dance exploration, like the spinning fan, dots (which translated to pointing and pecking from de la Reza and Dane Toney, who also weren’t allowed to move their feet) and musical switches from cellist Dave Eggar and percussionist Charlie Palmer. Those produced a hoe down and a bit of “Swan Lake.”

I particularly liked “messy and wild” for an exuberant de la Reza and Palmer, who combed his hair with a rattle versus “quite organized” from the angular Kope and Eggar, who responded with musical scales.

Although I wasn’t ready to leave, we moved on to “The Spinning Thing” which was actually titled “Avalanche” with its cascading garnet sand and glass beads. Without knowing the name, the audience saw “the tide coming in” and “spilled chocolate milk” and “a meteorite” and “soft rain.”Eggar and Liz Chang picked up on the last one with a quiet interlude. Then Toney and Palmer expounded on the meteorite, as Toney jumped and spun through the audience, much to their delight.

The last place for inspiration featured three large shadow boxes, with a raccoon singing, a mummy, an “angry” vampire and a skull among the objects. Kope trapped the mummy, played by Toney, while Eggar went Middle Eastern modal. Then they used the four objects to create a slow motion, end-of-the-world movie flick.

The Wild Card, one of Attack’s favorite devices, produced a Hidden Monster, which could erupt at any moment and did…just in time for a scarey fun ending in the final run-through in the theater.

I wish I could have been a kid again at this Attack Theater performance. Instead I felt like one — Attack Theatre can have that kind of effect on you.

On to the Society for Contemporary Craft. See you at the dance!


On Stage: Through Martha’s Eyes – Part 1

February 22, 2010

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre offered a contemporary (of the ’90’s ilk) view of dance with two iconic dance figures, Paul Taylor and Twyla Tharp. Click on Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for the review.  But here’s a bonus: Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Martha Rial was on hand for the dress rehearsal, resulting in her always-winning view of dance. More tomorrow in Part 2.

Photo by ©Martha Rial

Photo by ©Martha Rial

Photo by ©Martha Rial

Photo by ©Martha Rial

Photo by ©Martha Rial

Photo by ©Martha Rial


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