Off Stage: After the Fire, Help is Needed

March 30, 2011

There is virtually nothing that can stop a dancer from dancing apart from an injury. But a Pittsburgh trio have been momentarily tripped up by a fire in the South Side building where they lived, as reported by KDKA. Response has been immediate for Point Park University alumnae and August Wilson Center Dance Ensemble members Annalee Traylor and James Washington and senior dance major Caitlin Cucciara, who were three of the six people living above the iconic Pickle Barrel restaurant. Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre costumier Janet Groom Campbell is helping to replace their dance wear from her store, The Dancer’s Pointe, and students from PPU will hold an Improv Jam Benefit in 708 Lawrence Hall at 9:30 p.m. Thursday, Mar. 31. If anyone would like to donate and cannot attend, please contact dance department administrative assistant Barbara Houston at 412-392-6131 or Or they can mail a contribution in care of Barbara at Point Park University, Conservatory of the Performing Arts, 607 Lawrence Hall, 201 Wood Street, Pittsburgh, PA, 15222.

Dance Beat: PBT, Hines, Pillow, PP, Bandy

March 29, 2011

IT’S BA-A-ACK. Cheers to Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s “unnamed benefactor” for his or her generous contribution that will restore the orchestra to the opening season performance of “Peter Pan” in October at the Benedum Center. The score will include music by Sir Edward Elgar, Sir Benjamin Britten, Eric Coates, Ron Goodwin and Montague Phillips, which Royal Winnipeg Ballet choreographer Jorden Morris feels will convey the period of the classic J.M. Barrie story.

HINES UPDATE. It’s week two on “Dancing With the Stars” and Hines Ward continued to impress, this time with a fox trot. So he can not only move and groove, but has the goods to tackle the intricate, more elegant dances.

SUMMERDANCE. Speaking of seasons, Jacob’s Pillow has announced its 2011 series in the wooded glens of the Berkshires in Massachusetts. Many are familiar to Pittsburgh through the Dance Council, including Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, David Dorfman Dance, Kidd Pivot Frankfurt RM and our own Kyle Abraham. Check it out at But there is even better news because the Pillow has launched a new Dance Interactive Project, which is a performance video collection from 1937 through today. See dance evolve before your very eyes at

SHOWING OFF. What a great opportunity for seniors at Point Park University to take class and perform for artistic directors around the country in the annual school showcase. This year’s guest list included Desmond Richardson (Complexions), Julie Nakagawa (Dance Works Chicago), Arlene Sugano (Ballet Arkansas), Malana Walsh-Doyle (Houston Metropolitan), Melissa Young (Dallas Black Dance), Nan Giordano (Giordano Jazz Dance Chicago), Stephanie Pizzo (Eisenhower Dance Ensemble) and our own Greer Reed Jones (Dance Alloy Theater/August Wilson Dance Ensemble). What a stepping stone!

BANDY-ING ABOUT. Former PBT dancer Christopher Bandy is up to a new toymaking adventure. Check it out at his website:

RAUH ON GERSHWIN. PBT paid tribute to long-time supporter Richard Rauh at its Friday performance of “Shall We Dance.” It turned out that he is a dedicated fan of George Gershwin and shared some personal stories with the audience just before a compilation of Gershwin movies. He then joined the audience in the Byham lobby for a toast afterwards and moved on to party with the company at the Renaissance Hotel.



On Stage: Attack-ing the Tango

March 29, 2011

Catch a promising new view of the tango from East Liberty. Attack Theatre’s Michele de la Reza and Dane Toney will play a prominent part in Quantum Theatre’s “Maria de Buenos Aires,” set to begin its run on Friday at the YMCA. Music, video, the dance — read how it all will come together in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Off Stage: Catching Up with Mary

March 25, 2011

Photo by Dale Dong

In 1994 Post-Gazette editor Brian Hyslop sent me to Cleveland to do an article on Dancing Wheels, a physically integrated dance ensemble run by Mary Verdi-Fletcher. It was the first and only time that I sampled a wheelchair and it was an eye-opener.

So was Mary.

As I wrote in the 1994 article, “‘From the time I was 3 years old, I wanted to be a dancer,’ she says. ‘My mother was a professional, so I grew up listening to stories of vaudeville days. I remember watching Fred Astaire movies until my whole spirit was dancing in bed.’”

“And that was where she spent a good part of her childhood in Cleveland.”

“Mary Verdi-Fletcher has spina bifida. But she is a dancer. In her wheelchair, she can jump and spin, make little curlicues and soar across a room. Verdi-Fletcher is not confined by her wheelchair. She is set free.”

We reconnected recently because Mary was bringing part of Dancing Wheels to Western Pennsylvania School for Blind Children in Oakland, actually the first time Mary can recall visiting Pittsburgh. When I heard the news, I wondered how the company was doing.

She had plenty to report — first that the company had expanded to its current format of 13 “sit-down” and “stand-up” dancers. Although it’s “quite the young group,” Mary still dances with them.

“I’m made of steel,” she jokes, then goes on to explain what really keeps her going. “I always thought of dance as my first love. It’s in my DNA.” Now over 50, retirement isn’t an option, although her board members have taken the responsible path by adopting a succession plan, much like the Merce Cunningham Company did. “I’ve always been a driven person,” she continues. “I mean, there are days when I’m tired and exhausted. But then I ask myself, ‘Why is it you do what you do?’”

And once again her passion surfaces.

Why not? Like any other professional dance company, she has goals in mind and still wants Dancing Wheels to meet them. The group regularly commissions new work, including David Rousseve, Dianne McIntyre and most recently with the iconic Donald McKayle, now 80, who gave them “Far East of the Blues” with the Cleveland Jazz Orchestra. Next year Heidi Latsky, formerly with Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company, will set a premiere on the company.

Mary is finding that choreographers often want to come back. “It’s an educational exchange,” she notes. “Very often the choreographers learn just as much as we do. Some have such an affinity that it comes naturally to them, while others may work closely with us to do what is called translating — to take movement structure and make sure it’s adaptable for everyone.”

She also develops educational projects for Dancing Wheels, including one that conveys the story of Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan and another all-female program called “Sweet Radio Radicals,” which highlights women singers and song writers like Janis Joplin, Dolly Parton and Mahalia Jackson. And Mary just got back from the University of California at Irvine where she is participating in a project that will create a manual on physically integrated dance and the physiological effects related to wheelchair participants.

That kind of artistic and educational success have led to some significant events. Meeting Christopher Reeve and performing on a national television show as a result. Getting a standing ovation at a gala honoring the actors from “Glee,” where upon wheelchair actor Kevin McHale (Arnie) remarked, “Now that’s dancing!”

Photo by Dale Dong

But right now she’s concentrating on WPSBC and the challenges she will face there and an audience “I’m thinking we would use the techniques of audio description,” she begins, meaning that she, Sara Lawrence-Sucato and Daniel ‘Isaiah’ Henderson will describe the intention of the dance and whether, for example, it’s happy, with smiling, jumping and quick movements. Depending on the students’ facility, they may try a little dance or partnering at the end.

She always wants them to look into the “vision of possibilities — people tend to limit themselves.” That attitude has produced a professional dance company that will celebrate its 30th anniversary on June 4 this year.

It also happens to be Mary’s birthday.

She’s planning a retrospective, with a premiere for good measure. “I’m a good party girl,” she comments. “If I wasn’t a dancer I’d be a party planner, I think.”

On TV: Blocking the Light Fantastic

March 22, 2011

Okay, the over-the-top Vegas extravaganza (was that redundant?) called “Dancing With the Stars” is up and running again on ABC. This year we have a strong Pittsburgh connection as Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward makes the transformation from helmet and pads to sequins and ballroom shoes. “I am a dancer. I am a dancer. I am a dancer.” That is apparently his mantra, delivered with the ease of a champion. But, hey folks, Hines apparently has a lot more going for him than his trademark smile. From these veteran dance-watching eyes, he could take the top prize.

Of course, anything can happen on this show. But as I see it, there are only four real possibilities. Former “Karate Kid” Ralph Macchio scored 24 and took the judges’ honors for his foxtrot, while Kirstie Alley, only one point behind, was the surprise of the night with a smooth, undulating cha cha. Disney star Chelsea Kane (who?) showed plenty of personality (think Kate Hudson) in her fox trot and landed in a tie with Hines at 21 points.

Well, hello! Hines has the swivel hips of a Latin lover, is light on his feet and, once he lets loose from his washboard abs and stands up taller, will score in style points as well. For my money, it’s between him and Kirstie, although she could easily self-destruct. Ralph is a dark horse. Obviously he has had some dance training, but is not a natural and even looks a little awkward with his tall, lean frame. Chelsea is talented and perky and could go down the same road as that other talented and perky Disney star, Kyle, who place third last year. I guess we’ll have to see…



On Stage: Penguins and Poodles

March 19, 2011

Yes, they were part of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s latest premiere, Viktor Plotnikov’s “Shall We Dance,” where the dancers leaped out of their customary ballet box to take on a sprawling assortment of images. Read about it in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

On Stage: Brown on Black

March 17, 2011

I used to think that the old Route 22, which connected Pittsburgh with parts of Pennsylvania mostly occupied by farms and Penn State, was interminably clogged. Then the powers-that-be multiplied the lanes and repaved it. New strip malls and businesses grew up around it…a good thing, as Martha says. But alas, once again it’s clogged and slow as the snow melt this past winter. But I was on my way, set to see Ronald K. Brown/Evidence at Indiana University of Pennsylvania for its appearance on the Lively Arts series.

The program included “One Shot,” a piece inspired by legendary Pittsburgh photographer Teeny Harris that had its premiere at the Byham Theater in 2009.  I wanted to see how the work had changed, if any. And it was accompanied on the program by a more recent work,  “Two-Year Old Gentleman,”  inspired by Brown’s nephew.

I thought that it was not only a great Black History Month program, but would stand on its own any time of the year. Besides it would be my first trip to Indiana in a very long time.

Well,  there were more changes than I bargained for as I neared Indiana. It turned out that Chestnut Ridge Golf Resort and Conference Center, where I planned to have dinner, was hidden a giant Wal-Mart in Blairsville and I missed it. All of a sudden there was the Homer City power plant, a behemoth dominating the landscape — so much so that for a second you think you’re at Three Mile Island. Except there were additional slim stacks spewing smoke into the evening air like giant cigarettes.

I wondered about that as I sipped my water at the combination KFC/Pizza Hut, after which I drove onto the campus, mostly new construction (or as I could see in the waning light), and found the parking garage for Fisher Auditorium. But which building? It took five students to get me to the right one. Once there I zigzagged from a contemporary lobby into the handsome Fisher, which had a quasi-Art Deco combined with wood paneling.

I was not the only one with a note pad — there were obviously academic assignments at work here and Ronald K. Brown/Evidence provided a good lesson.

Ronald appeared to be on a personal path with these two works, seemingly to define his own black history. “Two-Year Old Gentleman” had Jamie Latson in the title role, a natural and enjoyable performer who appeared close to that age. He was surrounded by five men, perhaps symbolizing relatives, mentors and ancestors in his life. The piece focused mainly on solo work for these men who seemed so comfortable in their own skin and brought out a sense of humanity and responsibility. But there was also an undeniable sense of community as they prayed, talked all at once, formed a circle. And when they left the stage, it was with a sense of purpose.

“One Shot” was a quietly undulating segment of the full-length work that premiered in Pittsburgh. Many of Teenie’s photos remained and were a compelling reminder of the rich and vibrant life in the Hill District of days gone by. Gone were the dance segments dedicated to the African diaspora and Lena Horne. What remained was the purity of the dance, so meditative and almost improvisatory.

It was also heartfelt, something that was underscored when the dancers periodically touched their chests. They also would occasionally stand still, reflecting as the screen showed a funeral with three tiny white caskets.

Most of all, “One Shot” recalled a past so brilliantly documented by Teenie and gave it a breath of life. It was worth the trip.

On Film: Delving into Madness

March 16, 2011

The Roman emperor Caligula had a beastly reputation, with incest, murder and madness dotting his history. So it was surprising to see that the Paris Opera Ballet was producing a filmed full-length production on the topic. More surprising was the fact that it was created by star dancer Nicolas Le Riche in only his second choreographic attempt.

The whole idea was too juicy to pass up. So I headed to the Carmike 10 at South Hills Village on Fort Couch Road, where I was regrettably one of a handful of people in attendance.

Caligula began his reign in 37 and was at first was popular with his subjects. But during the next year, he fell ill and the reversal of his mental fortunes quickly became apparent. During the rest of his four-year reign, he committed incest with his three sisters, exhibited rampant sadism, made his horse, Incitatus, his own personal consul and terrorized his subjects.

Mr. Le Riche, however, didn’t capitalize on the sensationalism. He instead formed his own vision from an assemblage of resources. The most prominent choice was the selection of Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons,” a jarringly glistening score for a horrific subject.

He apparently selected the collection to symbolize Caligula’s four years as emperor. At first it didn’t appear that Vivaldi’s music had either the weight or the drama to support the subject matter. But then, as the ballet settled in, it served as a place of serenity and structure amid what might have been total mental chaos.

With the Vivaldi score in hand, the choreographer chose a non-narrative approach, electing instead to feature defining aspects of Caligula’s (Stephane Bullion) life, such as his fascination with the Moon, played by Clairemarie Osta en pointe, and an oddly lovely pas de deux with his horse, danced with a prancing esteem by Mathias Heymann. Famed actor and mime of the time, Mnester (Nicolas Paul), was primarily relegated to minimalist intervals, composed by Louis Dandrel, between the Vivaldi sections.

There was a bare primitive set to house primal emotions, with pillars along the sides and a set of stairs at the back often covered a movable screen. But the choreography seemed restrained, although Mr. Le Riche showed a talent for combining classical ballet vocabulary with a contemporary accent.

Still, with the magnificent Paris Opera Ballet dancers, there was an overriding beauty in this strangely delicate ballet about an indelicate subject.

You can catch them next in “Coppelia” Mar. 28 at 1:30 p.m. and Apr. 6 at 7:30 p.m.

Off Stage: Revisiting Chinese Ballet

March 9, 2011

After writing yesterday about Ying Li and Jiabin Pan, who left their mark on Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre during a ten-year career, I thought I would email Jiabin, just to check in on the couple’s ballet adventure. While on a trip with the Pittsburgh Youth Symphony Orchestra several years ago, I was able to squeeze in a visit with the pair in Suzhou, where they helped found the Suzhou Ballet Theatre, and reported on that experience in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

The ballet company, only the sixth then in China, was composed of young dancers. (There are now eight, including Hong Kong Ballet, which was incorporated into China along with the city itself, and Beijing Contemporary Dance Theater, which began in 2008). In creating both a company and an audience, Ying and Jiabin presented educational performances, where they explained the inner workings of ballet to local audiences, similar to the clip below.

Jiabin wrote further that the Stuttgart Ballet performed at Suzhou Science and Cultural Arts Center and Suzhou Ballet Theatre was able to perform the company’s “Double Happiness” at a gala that included the Stuttgart. Although he didn’t say, I’m assuming that Jiabin was the choreographer, although he and Ying work together closely.

He seems to be heading in a decidedly contemporary direction and confessed to being influenced by Dwight Rhoden when I visited in China. It seems to be paying off. After only three years, SBT had a successful tour of Taiwan with the company’s “Romeo and Juliet.” Click on Taiwan News for Jiabin’s interview on the production.

Jiabin’s vision has the white evocative background of the Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo production with a Chinese vision of the ill-fated romance, but what is most convincing is the beauty and freedom of the young dancers, apparently all in their early twenties. He sent a video link with brief moments from the production for us to enjoy. Bravo!

(Warning: the web stream occasionally goes into stops and starts. Try later if this happens.)






Off Stage: PBT and AWC = A New Pas de Deux

March 8, 2011

You might call it a step forward. or more balletically, a grand jete.  The multi-year partnership between Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre and August Wilson Center, announced yesterday at the August Wilson Center, belatedly completes PBT’s 2010-2011 season.

At first glance the two organizations seem like strange bedfellows. After all, ballet is that most Euro-centric of dance styles, flourishing in the courts of France during its early days and it still maintains full length-ballets in that vein.

Dance Theatre of Harlem broke the mold when it emerged in 1969, founded by visionary Arthur Mitchell, who coincidentally broke his own mold at New York City Ballet, and Karel Shook. It presented ballet with an African American twist — a tropical “Firebird” and the “Creole Giselle” most memorable among them.

As a result, companies like PBT have not been color-blind. A number of Asian dancers have performed with the company, most notably principal dancers Ying Li and Jiabin Pan, who returned to China to help found Suzhou Ballet Theatre. And several African American men joined PBT, most recently Gerard Holt, who taught at La Roche College and has founded Mid-Atlantic Contemporary Ballet here, and Alan Obuzor, who still teaches at the company school and choreographs.

The two organizations will develop several educational opportunities for students, pairing Greer Reed-Jones, who heads the newly-founded August Wilson Center Dance Academy, with Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School, although details have yet to be confirmed.

That brings us to the program itself, set for Black History Month at AWC  in 2012. Called, “Bach, Beethoven and Brahms,” a mixture of classical, contemporary and ethnic. Certainly the “3 B’s” are the standard of classical music. All of the chamber music scores will be played by musicians from the Pittsburgh Ballet Orchestra.

PBT finally has its first Mark Morris ballet, “Maelstrom,” also the first that he created for San Francisco Ballet in 1994. While not one of the modern master’s best-known works, it does take advantage of his musicality. There will also be another “first” in Dennis Nahat’s “Brahms Quintet,” his initial choreography for American Ballet Theatre in 1969. It is his second work for PBT and enhances his long-time ABT connection with PBT’s artistic director.

But the ballet creating the most buzz will surround Dwight Rhoden’s new Bach ballet. Knowing the Complexions choreographer well (he has created seven ballets for PBT), that might not be the only music. After all, he interspersed some Bach with Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony in “7th Heaven.” On an intriguing note, he will use the August Wilson Center Dance Ensemble with PBT in his new piece.

What are the benefits to be had? AWC can learn from this association with a veteran arts organization. But PBT can sometimes be an insular group and this will allow the company to stretch its artistic wings. Hopefully it will be a win-win situation.




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