On Stage: A Return to 2084

October 31, 2012

Photo: Derek Stoltz

Pearlann Porter was four years older and presumably four years wiser when she decided to “re-imagine” her 2008 breakthrough piece, the George Orwellian Twenty Eight-Four, in 2012. I guess we can muse on the massive differences that developed during that seemingly short period of time (technological advances, Arab Spring, etc.). But more than that, we can all draw on certain similarities, such as an  inference to the parallel presidential elections.

At first the audience huddled in the downstairs “lobby.” The walls were lined with doors, presumably from the adjacent Construction Junction and reminiscent of Alexander Bell’s  quote, “when one door closes, another opens…” On a grand piano sat the inspirations for the performance — Cosmos by Carl Sagan, Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury and, of course, Mr. Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. There were other little details in the room, enough to create a feeling of warmth and intimacy and perhaps spark a conversation or two.

When the audience finally ascended the steps to The Space Upstairs, we found an atmosphere similar to a dark urban jungle, created by partitions and covered with bleak “doublespeak” word phrases. Shadowy figures meandered about.

Yes, re-imagined and perhaps a little deflating in that nothing had really changed.

As far as I can recall, the audience seating was more formal than the helter-skelter furniture groupings that are a hallmark of Pillow Project performances. We sat on three tiers of folding chairs arranged at either side of command central, or where Pearlann and Mike Cooper, the brains behind the scenic design, manipulated their own brand of soft tech special effects (although Jordan bush was listed for “Design and Propaganda”).

The most wondrous of them remained, particularly the white dots of light (perhaps nearly a thousand?) that transferred anywhere from a star-lit sky to the palms of the dancers and straight to their hearts. The dancers also seemingly manipulated blocks of light, pushing their way out of a physical or emotional prison.

Photo: Cassie Kay Rusnak

In between there were extended solos, mostly to Radiohead, with additional sound designs by PJ Roduta. Pretty seamless, which is an achievement. Anna Thompson, with a shock of white blonde hair and a confident sensuality, mesmerized at the start as The Paranoid Firebird. Riva Strauss’ Static, with a corporate sensibility, pushed on for too long. Zëk Stewart (Red Light), brought things to a close with a soft-sense and quite original brand of hip hop, filled with movement textures and our first real look at a terrific addition to the company.

Perhaps the scariest things was the bank of television sets that were projected over the expanse of a large wall, inflating the original concept, although it essentially remained the same, a montage of that historic election in 2008.

Four years later, we found that the right wing (Sarah Palin, The Tea Party) has exerted considerable influence on America’s path, where political figures are trying to control immigration and womens’ rights. Google is now a version of Big Brother, where our tastes and preferences are monitored and a personal iPhone can track our every move. And we’re having heated conversations about the value of education.

This Twenty Eighty-Four was a bit more structured, a bit more controlled. But it still made its point…and more.








On Stage: A Real Success From PBT’s Spiritual “Giselle”

October 31, 2012

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Performing any one of the handful of classic full-length ballets is like playing a Mozart violin concerto or a Beethoven piano concerto — everyone knows what’s coming next and/or they have heard it before and are able to strike a comparison. So it’s really difficult to stake out your own territory with ghostly reminders of what has come before. But sometimes things just jell, as PBT did this past weekend in “Giselle,” where virtually everything was just about “perfect” (or about as close as you can come in the ballet world. Read about it in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Myrtha: Elysa Hotchkiss; Berthe: Janet Popaleski; Wilfred: Joseph Parr; Photos: Rich Sofranko

Off Stage: Ballet Moves East, Then Back to the West

October 29, 2012

Japan may have embraced Western art forms — symphonic classical music, opera and ballet — at a relatively late date, but it now has mastered  them. What we think of as ballet, though, has some different twists in Japan. See what drives students to excel and to leave Japan for their careers. All in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Photos: Amy Waeltz.

On Stage: Patricia on Gene Kelly

October 27, 2012

Patricia Ward Kelly has proven that she is determined to keep the Gene Kelly name alive. Not only does she attend the Gene Kelly Awards, but she visits different school while she’s in town and has become something of a name herself here in Pittsburgh. A book on her husband is nearing completion and her recent talk at the University of Pittsburgh was part literary preview and a colorful splash of his films. You had to come away with a renewed respect for the man — a perfectionist who pushed the boundaries of the film industry itself and who cast dance in a new light. Read about the event in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and revel in some film samples from Patricia’s talk:

They said it couldn’t be done, but Gene did this number. He filmed the two men separately, using musical cues and black curtains to achieve a precise mirror image. Gene told Patricia it was the hardest thing he ever did.

This clip from “It’s Always Fair Weather” didn’t have any special effects, just pure Gene. It’s admittedly Patricia’s favorite.

Patricia noted that this portion of “An American in Paris” had to be cut in several countries because it was too sensual.

Most of us have seen the Gene and Jerry the Mouse number, but there’s a popular contemporary version out and about now. Enjoy!

On Stage: Lorca and Flamenco

October 26, 2012

“Spain is a bull burning alive.” (David Henry Hwang libretto.)

There are few artists who inspire a passion like Federico Garcia Lorca, whose writings reflect so much of the Spanish duende or soul. Those veins run deep through both pain and promise, something that is eloquently displayed in Quantum Theatre’s latest production, composer Olvaldo Golijov’s Ainadamar.

Duende is most familiar in the song and dance of flamenco, which director Karla Boos smartly tapped as the wellspring of this Grammy Award-winning chamber opera. It is a vital part of Mr. Golijov’s deliriously intricate score, which also includes musical elements from gypsy, Jewish and operatic idioms, then periodically processes them electronically, along with the sounds of galloping horses and water.

However production instigator and conductor Andres Cladera wore the score like a second skin, skillfully molding the orchestra and its adjacent sounds around the story.

The events were not told by Lorca, but instead by his friend and long-time supporter, the great Catalan actress Margarita Xirgu. The audience sees her as she is dying, gathering her strength for one last performance of Lorca’s Maria Pineda in Uruguay in 1969. Lined up against the walls of the Spanish-style social hall at East Liberty Presbyterian Church, they watch as she reconstructs their time together before his death at the hands of the military.

Lorca, played by Racquel Winnica Young in an all-female cast, had a deep confidence and authority. But it was Katy Williams’ Margarita who had to shoulder the responsibility for the opera, railing at the chaos and vagaries of war as she came to grips with Lorca’s talent and the revolution that cut short his life. It was something she accepted with a complete emotional commitment and vocal skill.

She was aided by a quartet of young women who had to keep the surging drama afloat, led by Leah Edmondson Dyer, who had a clarity and sweep in her role as Nuria, Xirgu’s favorite student. Daphne Alderson, Lara Lynn Cottrill and Erica Olden took on various roles, where they each had a solo section, all handled adroitly, then almost magnetically returned to a creamy blend of their voices.


In a brilliant stroke, Ms. Boos expanded the flamenco accent by using longtime collaborator Carolina Loyola-Garcia. She choreographed her own flamenco phrases to suit Ms. Boos’ direction, whether with an all-out fervor or the sinuous poetry of the words. But it was her transformation into a Fascist military leader that truly surprised and where she channeled the throaty pangs of authentic flamenco song.

It was also a tribute to Ms. Boos’ direction that she was able to sustain the heat and fervor inherent in the production, right from the opening cacophony that assaulted the senses. She asked a lot from her audience in absorbing both an unfamiliar subject and its rich, but challenging score, all the while scanning the projected translations and character action.

And she didn’t back away from one of the evening’s most compelling scenes, where slides depicted the horrors of war — bodies lining the ground in historical photos that seem oddly familiar even today.

No doubt it would take another viewing (or more) to pierce the fabric of this important work. But still, in the end, Ainadamar was undeniably one of Quantum’s most memorable achievements.

Through Nov. 3 — check Listings.






On Stage: Bringing the Spirit of “Giselle” Alive

October 25, 2012

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre ballet master Marianna Tcherkassky, considered one of the great Giselles of her time. Read a previous Post-Gazette article on her (2001) at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. But behind every great ballerina is a great baton, wielded by the orchestra conductor. PBT has someone who fits the bill.


Conductor Charles Barker was faced with a decision — head to Barcelona, Spain with the American Ballet Theatre or come to Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s production of “Giselle.”

Before you get too excited, there were a few other factors, mainly that Charles is a currently a devoted family man. His sons are age 7 and 10 and he knows that it is “critical to spend time” with them” as they grow. In fact, he and his wife spent all of August at the beach, riding bikes and hiking — one day physical and one day “off.”

But it also helped that he had such a great relationship with the local company and its orchestra, perhaps a key reason that PBT extended his contract another three years. He takes great pleasure that the orchestra is always “itching to do it,” calling the local musicians both “impressive” and “talented.”

“There’s a mutual respect there,” he says. “And a willingness to try.”

Along the way over the past years, the repertoire has been deliciously challenging for the maestro “Romeo et Juliette,” “Cinderella,” “The Three Musketeers.” And he hasn’t done this particular production of “Giselle.” Not that this is a Creole Giselle, such as that found in Dance Theater of Harlem or the contemporary version by ballet superstar Sylvie Guillem or any one of approximately 15 other versions he performed(American Ballet Theatre, San Francisco Ballet, Houston Ballet, The Royal Ballet).

Musically this “Giselle” might be pretty similar to the more traditional interpretations. At PBT Mr. Barker will still keep an eye on “entrances and how long to hold a phrase” so that the dancers can perform at an optimum level.

But he won’t allow himself to go “on autopilot. We have to create interest and life and pizzazz.” For that he trusts his Pittsburgh musicians. “Even though they know it well, there will still be a magic and mystery.”

Maybe that’s because he was once an orchestra concertmaster himself. While leading a chamber orchestra, Mr. Barker got the opportunity to lead the group. At first he stood with his violin. The feeling was great, so he “took some lessons, had some great luck” and was soon on his way to The Carnegie and The Metropolitan Opera, even John Curry’s ice skating company.

It was a “trial by fire,” but it was also a “cool job,” as Mr. Barker concluded. “The level of accuracy or perfection is insignificant.” The challenge to conduct 1-2-3-4 “ain’t that hard.”.

The hard part is actually the “conceptual part,” the way to prepare the orchestra, with limited rehearsals, to be ready at the dress rehearsal. “I have to know what the composer wants and verbally translate it to the orchestra — it carries the heavy weight of responsibility.”

So Mr. Barker always brings his “A” game, nothing that “if I’m making things clear and they’re watching what I’m doing, then everything goes smoothly.

It certainly has to be better that one of his early “Giselles,” performed while he was conducting an Australian Ballet tour to China in the ’90’s. Mr. Barker was conducting the Nanjing Song and Dance Orchestra at a facility about three hours west of Shanghai. Not only was this orchestra not on its game, but the audience brought food and talked loudly to their friends. To bridge the language gap, he would sing the first two bars so that the orchestra would zero in on the tempo.

Mentally “swearing a blue streak” and aware of people passing food behind him in the front row, the usually amiable conductor recalls this as the worst “Giselle” he ever led.

But the ballerina playing the title role recalled it differently, as one of her best performances ever.

She was Miranda Coney, who became his wife.

Through Oct. 28 — see Listings.

On Stage: Flamenco Spirit Resurrected at Quantum

October 24, 2012

It’s a long and winding road to the latest Quantum Theater production of Osvaldo Golijov’s Grammy Award-winning chamber opera, Ainadamar. Audience members will enter East Liberty Presbyterian Church’s Highland Avenue entrance and follow the signs along the main floor hallway, then down a circuitous series of staircases into the social hall.

The atmosphere is rather dark and intense, with audience seats in multiple tiers along sides, much like the nave in a cathedral. Will we be judge and jury? A few more platforms in the middle serve as theatrical stage devices.

The company is rehearsing some problem spots in the opera, which means “fountain of tears” in Arabic, the presumed site of premier writer Federico Garcia Lorca’s death. As they begin, there is an equally intense atmosphere generated by the overlapping trio of women’s voices, so rich and immediately compelling.

The expressive words of librettist David Henry Hwang play over three screens scattered around the hall and a full orchestra delves into the Golijov’s layered score, conducted by Andres Cladera. The story, so impressionistic, reveals the relationship between Lorca and his muse, great Catalan tragedian Margarita Xirgu.

The audience will see it all from her perspective, her memories and an all-female cast will cover the roles.

When Cladera heard it about two years ago, the music director “loved it from the get go.” Of course, it is “a very powerful story” to him because Xirgu is a Uruguayan heroine, having established the national theater in his home country. And, as it turns out, the libretto begins in Montevideo, Uruguay.

When he took the CD to director Karla Boos, she had the same reaction. “I put it on, listened to it in the dark and, without understanding one word, I decided to do it. I just adored the music — I just conjured up all these images.”

She calls music in general “an emotional language,” and, when a part of an opera, “ultimate theater.”

Certainly the score itself, which emanates from the flamenco, is highly complex, at times wafting around the hall, then having a rhythmic element, then haunting with the soulful textures of the all-female cast. Woven into all of that are echoes of trumpets, the processing of strings through a midi-keyboard and pre-recorded sounds such as water and the galloping of horses.

Cast member Carolina Loyola-Garcia admits that she is a full-time filmmaker, but her longtime involvement with flamenco and with Quantum Theatre (The Red Shoes, Maria de Buenos Aires, Yerma, 36 Views) is sending her down new paths, where she will both sing and act as the statue of Maria Xirgu, the symbol of flamenco and a representation of Lorca’s poetry, plus transform into Fascist military figure Luis Alonso.

She just received a new pair of flamenco shoes from Spain and is nursing her feet with ice packs.

“It’s very challenging,” she modestly says, adding that the complexities in Ainamadar are “like peeling an onion,” but implying that the result will be well worth the effort.

Through Oct. 28. See Listings.

On Stage: A First Look at Akram Khan

October 23, 2012

Pittsburgh Dance Council brought Akram Khan’s Vertical Road to the Byham Theater last weekend. Already a big name in Europe, his work was commissioned for the opening of London’s Summer Olympics and he achieved some fame because NBC cut away to air an interview with swimmer Michael Phelps. His topic for the Olympics was loss, perhaps a tribute to the 52 victims of bombings in 2005. Here in Pittsburgh, Vertical Road dealt with death and spirituality. It was certainly one of the most memorable performances in more than 40 years at PDC. Read the review in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

On Stage: Saying Good-Bye to Saltimbanco.

October 19, 2012

What is left once you’ve seen over ten productions from the entertainment phenomenon Cirque du Soleil — productions filled with beauty, humanity and thrills galore? What is left to surprise, to enthrall, particularly from Cirque’s longest running show, Saltimbanco?

A first time viewer at the Petersen Events Center would still get a colorful night at the Petersen Events, with the nifty transitions for which Cirque is famous. For the experienced audience member, Saltimbanco symbolized just what started it all, what so many people grew to love about the Montreal-based company.

Director Franco Dragone pushed the then-fledgling group on a new path by constructing an engaging plot line, maybe more of a journey, where the audience cheerily tags along with the performers.

Saltimbanco literally comes from the Italian phrase “to jump on a bench.” It conveys an urban world, suggestive of a city and the melting pot of people it attracts (it is a show celebrating diversity and was ahead of its time in 1992). But rather than a gray city skyline, there is a floor covered in bright pastel flowers, populated by colorful clown-like figures, each delightfully individual — you could spend the entire night studying the facial make-up if you’re lucky enough to sit close enough.

Which brings up one of Cirque’s most popular features — the audience interaction. No matter what show you see, one or more clowns, all expert at picking a willing partner in comic crime.

This show featured “Eddie,” strangely reminiscent of PeeWee Herman and delectably played by Martin Pons. There is no official language at these shows, aside from a French introduction with English translations, the better to travel internationally and list the sponsors. But Pons had a considerable vocabulary his own — you might call it expanded and amplified baby sounds — that needed no translation.

Certainly his second act setting with his male audience partner was a highlight. The Western motif had a swagger and some gun play, with that nameless partner occasionally adding to the action.

There were family values in the opening Adagio, with a mother and father (Pittsburgh native Corey Hartung and Dmitri Shvidki) and a child (Valeriia Chyzhevska) ,who began the night’s journey.

Actually she became a man and switched characters, then switched back (you had to follow the red baseball cap). But then, there were many delicious connections to find throughout, such as a tuneful musical score that was lyrically lovely or filled with hot jazz or alluded to Gloria Estefan’s “Conga.” Or the subtext of relationships among the various characters.

Of course the circus acts were all highly skilled and disciplined and had plenty of variety, from the Chinese Poles to juggling, hand-to-hand balancing and Spanish-inspired Boleadoras with its flamenco rhythms.

But among my favorites were Sarah <<  Haven >> Heffner, who risked it all as she nonchalantly flipped upside down in her trapeze routine.The Russian Swing appears in other shows, but this time it aimed its high-flying artists out to the front, emphasizing the altitude. The bungee act, though, was probably the best choreographed of the night. Dressed in white, a quartet of performers timed their high bounding maneuvers just perfectly.

Call Saltimbanco a delicious sherbet among the Cirque shows — cool, colorful and yummy. And when it ends in Montreal this December, I guess we’ll be looking out for the latest production, Amaluna.

Through Sun. Oct. 21 — see Listings.

On Stage: Reaching For the Big Top

October 14, 2012


We think of Cirque du Soleil as life under the Big Top with a decidedly European flair and a repository for artists and acts with an exotic accent. But Cirque also has room for an all-American girl in its ranks, someone who has grown up shooting for the top.

Residents of Irwin, a suburb east of Pittsburgh, where she and her sister were always running and flipping around the back yard, Corey Hartung’s parents took note and sent them to Jutec Kasamon’s gym to play around there. She easily became the top gymnast there, but Corey had bigger goals. She set her sights on Kelli Hill’s facility in Maryland, the former home to Olympians Dominique Dawes, Courtney Kupets and Elyse Ray.

“It was intense,” Corey admitted on a recent trip to Pittsburgh to promote her Cirque show, Saltimbanco. “But I don’t regret a second of it. Kelli was demanding, yet outside the gym she was a great woman, a great mother, a great friend. She really cared about her gymnasts, too…encouraged us to go to high school dances and the prom.”

It worked — Corey became an elite gymnast on the U.S. National Team as a high school senior.

When it came time to choose a collegiate team, Corey was recruited by Rhonda Faehn at the University of Florida, one of the top-ranked in the U.S., where she racked up more honors, among them ten all-American titles.

Corey graduated in 2009 with a degree in sports management and a minor in business. But she wasn’t ready to give up the business of gymnastics. Her coach had connections with Cirque and suggested that the Montreal-based organization might be a good fit.

Blessed with a flexibility and line that had set her apart on beam and floor, Corey moved from athlete to artist after a six-month training period to perform in the touring production of Saltimbanco. No more competition — instead she relied more on acting, dance and drawing the audience into the show.

The story line of Saltimbanco is simple. The title plays upon the Italian phrase, “saltare in banco,” which means “to jump on a bench.” But the “bench” is located in the hustle and bustle of a fantastical city (perhaps Italian as well), punctuated with skyscrapers and loaded with “an abundance of joyful and colorful acrobatics.”

Corey began with the Bungees, becoming a bird with the aid of bungee cords and trapezes. (She never tried bungee-jumping in real life, but had done sky-diving.) But Pittsburghers will see her in the opening Adagio, a hand-balancing act that resembles acro-sport and where she plays the Mama in an ever-changing familial unit with Papa and Child. She also appears in the spectacular Russian Swing, an audience favorite where the performers are shot up to 30 feet in the air.

Corey has literally flown around the world, though, in her two years with Saltimbanco, just coming in from Taiwan and hitting “cool places” like Australia and South Africa along the way. Between shows she traveled, visiting cities like Barcelona and Florence.

“It’s an amazing opportunity,” the modest young blonde says. Indeed, she has been surrounded by all things “bright and happy and fun and cheerful” in Saltimbanco, one of Cirque’s favorite shows and a production that has toured nearly 50 countries over the course of 20 years. But it’s all coming to an end with the last few performances before the grand finale in Montreal this December.

Corey might be keeping her options open, however. She’s seen three of Cirque’s traveling shows, plus three in Las Vegas, where “O” is her favorite — could she be dusting off her swimsuit?

Nonetheless, for someone who has been shooting for the top, it’s obvious that she has learned to soar through life.

See Listings for more Saltimbanco information.


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