On Stage: Right on Rennie

May 28, 2010

The explosive raw power of hip-hop remains its main draw, but artists like Philadelphia’s Rennie Harris are taking great measures to rectify that, to give this essentially urban art for substance and layers and, well, respect.

Rennie’s company, Puremovement, had already achieved that with a 2000 performance for the Pittsburgh Dance Council, “Rome and Jewels,” based on Shakespeare’s timeless love story. In the years since, Rennie has gone on to travel the world and become a global spokesperson for American hip-hop and has taken it hard to the university level, where he leads the way at no less than three institutions in codifying the latest form of dance.

The program that the company brought to the August Wilson Center was lighter than “Rome and Jewels.” It was instead filled with plenty of its trademark athletic movement geared to entertain the audience.

The style is easy-going and almost deceptive about its difficulty. Even the company’s women operated largely in their comfort zones in “Something To Do With Love, Volume 1.”  It was teasing and flirty as the womanly trio interacted with a complimentary trio of men. Maybe George Balanchine said “ballet is woman,” but hip-hop is mostly about the b-boys. It was good to see the women given the spotlight.

I loved the hip action and the changing landscape of patterns as the dancers seemed to squiggle into different formations. And that sound of squeaking sneakers — will that overcome the more familiar sounds of taps and hard toe shoes?

The women disappeared after intermission as the men took charge, first in “P-Funk,” a variation on a hip-hop round with the men circling each other and taking turns in the middle, then “March of the Antmen,” a piece with overtones of guns and violence, but not overly dangerous. The finale, “Students of the Asphalt Jungle,” was a display piece, where the men saved their best moves for last.

I have to admit that although hip-hop seems to be based on the fountain of youth and ever-ready freshness, it was pretty grand to see the muscular control and unwavering professionalism of Puremovement. And although I’m not prone to slang, you could say it was purely, totally rad.

If you missed the performance, click on Rennie Harris Puremovement for a video sample.


Dance Beat: PBT, Point Park, Hip-Hop

May 21, 2010

It’s time to play catch-up on a very busy spring season (April/May), which brought buckets of dance.

PITTSBURGH BALLET CELEBRATES — TWICE. PBT officially closed out its 40th anniversary season with a reception after the Sunday matinee of “Swan Lake” at the penthouse suite in Piatt Place. Costumier Janet Groom provided an elegant display of costumes, which provided counterpoint for a collection of pointe shoes designed by local artists (bids were welcome).

MORE PBT. Then the PBT dancers took matters into their own hands at the Dancers’ Trust performance at Point Park’s George Rowland White Performance Studio, to benefit the inevitable transition into other careers. This was the best of the series so far. The classics included an assured “Diana & Acteon” by Christine Schwaner and Alexandre Silva, a beautifully-detailed “White Swan” encore from Erin Halloran and Nurlan Abougaliev and a lovely pas de deux from “Coppelia” with newbie corps member Amanda Cochrane and the stylish Luca Sbrizzi. Julia Erickson was picture-perfect in George Balanchine’s “The Man I Love” with Nurlan, while Hiroyuki Nagasawa acquitted himself well in a solo from “Flames of Paris.” Likewise with Robert Moore in his first effort, “Ondes do Mar,” for Ashley Wegman and Alejandro Diaz. But the sentimental favorite was anything associated with former PBT member and now PBT staff teacher/choreographer, Alan Obuzor. A performer of undeniable charisma (I’d pay to watch him pedal a bike across the stage), he offered a solo (“Permanent”), a nifty duet with Erin (“I Know” by Fiona Apple) and a finale to the Dave Matthews Band, “Trouble.” You wouldn’t know that he has knee issues from his  plush dancing. I could see him with any contemporary company, perhaps with his own using homecooked choreography — he has a talent for it. At any rate, we should have more of Alan. This event could be a hot ticket, if things continue this way in the future.

HIP-HOP UPDATE. Jame Samuels had a healthy group at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts to work with Sean Bankhead, hip-hop choreographer to stars such as Beyonce and Brittany Spears. The group was attentive and disciplined for his rhythmically quirky and difficult routine. It demonstrated the interest that lies waiting in Pittsburgh. Also, as a result of my article on Pittsburgh’s hip-hop history in the Post-Gazette, Barry Rabkin contacted me. He’s the proprietor of the “largest street dance store in the world,” CypherStyles.com, with over 1,000 videos available. A native Pittsburgh, he has worked with mr. wiggles, Ken Swift and Mr. Freeze, already famous for their contributions, and rising stars such as machine and roxrite. Check out his web address at CypherStyles.

SENIORITIS AT POINT PARK. Speaking of transitions, it’s hard enough to make the move to the university dance level. But the conversion into a professional career is almost impossible. PPU put together its inaugural Senior Showcase, two-day event where 14 graduates performed for and took class with seven U.S. company representatives, including Giordano Dance Company, Missouri Contemporary Ballet, Danceworks Chicago and Ballet Arkansas. A great way to provide a springboard into the future!


On Stage: B-boying in Pittsburgh

May 20, 2010

In the short time it’s been around, hip-hop has established a powerful presence around the world. But I didn’t realize how far hip-hop had come until I visited the hallowed ground at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival last summer and encountered Rennie Harris during a two-week workshop. The powers-that-be at Jacob’s  Pillow created a buzz of excitement over the project. I haven’t seen much of hip-hop around Pittsburgh. So when the August Wilson Center brought in Rennie Harris Puremovement, I decided to nose around and see just where it is flourishing here. What emerged was a colorful group of passionate artists, a couple of whom were around at the beginning and several of whom will have an impact in the future. Click on Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.


On Stage: A Curtain Call for Nacho Duato

May 20, 2010

Photo by Jong DukInternationally-renowned choreographer Nacho Duato brought his Madrid-based company, Compania Nacional de Danza, to Kennedy Center in what turned out to be one of his last performances with the group. Read more about it in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.


On Stage: A New Alloy

May 13, 2010

Dance Alloy Theatre gave Pittsburgh a new twist with a premiere by Robert Battle, artistic director designate for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and a real coup for the Alloy’s Greer Reed-Jones. Read about it in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.


On Stage: Trust-ing in Themselves

May 7, 2010

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre principal dancer Erin Halloran has had a dream season. The classically-oriented ballerina, known for her immaculate technique, took on “Sleeping Beauty” and “Swan Lake,” two of the most rigorously delineated roles in the repertoire. Yet she chose to be more daring than ever in her lengthy career with the company. Sporting confident multiple fouettes and pinpoint balances that seemed to last forever, she played to those strengths while adding a newfound star quality.

It seems that Erin is not one to rest on her laurels.

Why not add a few extras to her resume this season? The opportunity presents itself this weekend at the Dancers’ Trust Benefit at Point Park University’s George Rowland White Performance Studio. This is the showcase that primarily benefits dancers in transition, most often in the form of scholarships for their education as they prepare for a new career. But it also benefits current dancers, because they organize the program themselves, from the performance selections to backstage details.

So this wife of PBT ballet master Steven Annegarn and mother of sons Aiden and Leo chose to reprise the “White Swan Pas de Deux” with newly appointed principal Nurlan Abougaliev. Fair enough. But she will also choreograph her fourth work.

She has dabbled with original pieces for PBT and Point Park University and last year she co-choreographed a work for the Trust with former PBT member Alan Obuzor to Cold Play’s “Fix You.” “We have a really good working/dancing relationship,” Erin says. “We’re very respectful of each other’s ideas and he’s so incredibly talented.”

So they decided on an encore pas de deux for this year’s program. Set to Fiona Apple’s “I Know,” she mysteriously hints that it tells a story. Filled with “images that we glue together,” the couple worked with video to develop the piece. Then towards the end, Erin’s husband came in with his “credible eye” to offer some feedback.

Corps members Amanda Cochrane and Luca Sbrizzi will tackle the entire “Coppelia Pas de Deux,” with careful coaching from departed PBT members Kumiko Tsuji and Daisuke Takeuchi. Christine Schwaner and Alexandre Silva will do the juicy ballet warhorse “Diana and Acteon” and Julia Erickson will take on the breezy pathways of “Who Cares?” with Nurlan. Soloist Robert Moore will try his hand at a duet for corps members Ashley Wegmann and Alejandro Diaz. And Alan, feeling prolific, will do a solo and provide a fun-filled finale to a “good and challenging season for everyone.”

For more information, see Listings.


On Stage: On Moving a Monster

May 6, 2010

The more dire our economy gets, the more audiences seem to crave comfort food. And that is exactly what you get with “Young Frankenstein,” currently on view at the PNC’s Broadway Across America series at the Benedum Center. Only I would say that the Mel Brooks musical is continuous dessert, much like one giant layer cake. In fact, that was probably the only thing missing on stage — having one of the characters get it right in the kisser.

“Young Frankenstein” had everything else. Mel liked to  keep the jokes coming, knowing that one of them would eventually hit the target. Okay, so it was overkill. But then Mel has always packed a big vaudevillian punch — a straight man, second and third bananas, one-liners out the wazoo and plenty of leggy babes to “fill” things out.

After all, making a film/musical/musical film out of the “The Producers” worked, so why not another of the comedian’s success stories, “Young Frankenstein?” It boasted a, pardon the expression, “killer” cast (Gene Wilder, Teri Garr, Cloris Leachman, Marty Feldman and more) and still has a strong cult following, like “Spamalot,” after  more than 30 years.

Okay, so I’ve made a lot of comparisons. But yes, there is plenty about “Young Frankenstein” that just reminds you of something else, including the dancing.

With a new score of rollicking songs, Broadway superdirector/choreographer Susan Stroman was chosen to bring Mel’s rock ‘em, sock ‘em style of humor to life. (Can’t you just hear the “ba-doom-boom” from the drummer?)

After all, she is prolific, creative and prop-sensitive (pick axes, ropes and gold miners’ pans in “Crazy for You” and that big keyboard in “Big”). Although her forays into abstract dance with the Martha Graham company and for New York City Ballet had mixed results, it only proved that she is more successful with theatrical thread, as when she stretched the boundaries of the Broadway musical into the dancical, “Contact.”

Well what does she have to work with here in “Young Frankenstein?” A score of nearly 20 tunes, all of them upbeat, but not especially memorable. But, as she proved in “The Producers,” Susan Stroman had the comedic chops to go toe-to-toe with Mel.

Her voyagers materialized on stage like the Transylvanian mist before boarding a ship and broke into a terpsichorean accompaniment like a ’30’s Ziegfeld musical in “Please Don’t Touch Me.”  Frau Blucher manipulated a chair like the women in Ron Field’s “Cabaret” during “He Vas My Boyfriend.”

Actually the highlight was a take-off on the iconic Fred Astaire routine, “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” where the master tapper burst through mirrored doors to encounter a whole line of men dressed in top hat and tails. This choreographer imitated that feeling by expertly multiplying her monsters, all of whom were actually quite nimble in stubby platform tap shoes.

Only  “A Roll in the Hay” felt original, though, when a couple of horses had human reactions to Inga’s romp in the hay wagon behind them. Madcap and mad funny.

So this trip down memory lane had a roller coaster feel about it.  It was big and blowsy and, what was that other ” b?” Oh yes, burlesque, another distinctly American show biz form. Maybe this hybrid music and dance show was patched together like the immensely adorable Monster. But in the end, if “Young Frankenstein” was your just dessert, that meant it left that much more room for the belly laughs.


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