On Stage: Getting In Touch With the Movement

December 31, 2012

It’s been fun to watch the evolution of improvisation and where it is trending, most recently at PearlArts Studios where dancers collected to move and groove to the touch of the body under Jasmine Hearn’s umbrella title, The Citrus Series. Read about improv in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and enjoy a sampling of what went on.


On Stage: Top Ten in Dance 2012

December 24, 2012

When will it end? Dance continues to expand and uplift. We don’t have another George Balanchine or Merce Cunningham or Martha Graham. Dance is coming from new sources and it is more exciting and popular than ever. Read the results on my latest list in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.


On Stage: Dance on Air

December 19, 2012

artside_50It is rare that we feel confined by the performing arts, but idiosyncrasy Productions pulled that off with Private Place, presented by the Kelly Strayhorn Theater. Primarily based on the airline industry, it became all about control by the finish. Read about it in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.


Dance Beat: Jacob’s Pillow, PBT, PearlArts, Ballet in Cinema

December 15, 2012

Wendy Whelan

PITTSBURGH AT THE PILLOW. Mariclare Hulbert is such a tease. It appears that she’ll be giving us the Jacob’s Pillow 2013 season in bits and pieces. A rejuvenated Dance Theatre of Harlem will make its appearance there in Becket, MA June 19-23 with a program that will include George Balanchine’s Agon, Alvin Ailey’s The Lark Ascending and John Alleyne’s Far But Close By. But my thinking is that folks around here will be more interested in New York City Ballet’s iconic veteran ballerina Wendy Whelan and her Restless Creature program August 14-18. The program will commission young choreographers Joshua Beamish, Brian Brooks, Alejandro Cerrudo and — surprise! — Pittsburgh native Kyle Abraham, each of whom will perform a duet with her. It will be an intoxicating pairing as the ballerina takes on Kyle’s deeply-entrenched hip hop lyricism.

A high-flying Luca Sbrizzi

JUMPING FOR JOY. Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre is reaching out to embrace diversity in its audiences. Not only did the company introduce braille and large-print programs this year, but it piloted a new Audio Description Program at the Dec. 14 performance. Not only did patrons listen to live verbal descriptions during the presentation, but they attended a pre=performance “Touch Tour” in the Benedum Center South Lounge. There attendees could touch costume samples like the Sugarplum Fairy tutu’s stiff netting and intricate embellishment, a textured tactile map of the the stage set layout and signature poses from the choreography, such as the carriage of the hands in the Snow Scene. Volunteers attended a training workshop at the PBT Studios, led by expert dance describer Ermyn King of the Washington, D.C. area. and covering best practice and dance description fundamentals, including Laban Movement Analysis. PBT Education Director Alyssa Herzog Melby, who audio described the production, said that PBT joins “well-established audio description programs for opera and theater,” but is the first to do so for dance.

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PEARLARTS2. Staycee and Herman Pearl offered the second installation of their Salon  Series 101 in preparation for a world premiere in February. Called Phrase for Phrase, it attracted an imaginative and smart group of arts aficionados who opened some new doors for dance discussion. Definitely a contemporary take on the word “salon.” Love it.

MORE LIVE BALLET ON FILM. That’s not an oxymoron. Kudos for The Oaks Theater, which posted the next series of Emerging Pictures’ Ballet in Cinema for 2013, where there are several interesting developments to be seen, including a couple of forays into contemporary ballet. Sergei Polunin, an immensely talented Russian and currently the Bad Boy of Ballet, left The Royal Ballet, but curious fans can see him in an encore presentation of “Sleeping Beauty” in January. They can also see a new production with international superstar Natalia Osipova in La Scala’s “Notre Dame De Paris,” the first contemporary ballet, this one by Roland Petit (1965). Also of note are “La Bayadere,” always worthy when the Russians perform it, and The Royal Ballet’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” a big 2011 hit choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon and the second fresh contemporary production, albeit in a classical mode. Complete schedule: The Royal Ballet’s “Sleeping Beauty” Jan. 13 and 15; Bolshoi Ballet’s “La Bayadere” Feb. 17 and 19; La Scala’s “Notre Dame De Paris” Mar. 10 and 12; The Royal Ballet’s “La Fille Mal Gardee” Apr. 7 and 9; The Royal Ballet’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” May 5 and 7; The Royal Ballet’s “Giselle” May 19 and 21. Mark your calendars!


On Stage: PBT Begins a New “Nut”- ty Decade

December 11, 2012
Photos: Rich Sofranko

Photos: Rich Sofranko

Christine Schwaner as Marie

It’s the eleventh year for Terrence Orr’s Pittsburgh-laden production of “The Nutcracker.” Some are still familiar icons — the Heinz truck, the amusement park that we all know is really Kennywood. Some are lesser know — the Stahlbaum house that really existed in Shadyside, known as the McKee Mansion and the much-lamented demise of Kaufmann’s (now Macy’s), represented by the overhead clock and a book that blows up during the Transformation. After all these years, my favorite is still the view of the city from Mt. Washington in the Snow Scene. But if you’re a first-timer, as many families are, it’s obvious (particularly at matinees) that everyone has their own opinion. Of course, you can read my opinion in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

The Russians are coming to the Land of Enchantment

Nurlan Abougaliev's Drosselmeyer entertains at the Stahlbaum party.


On Stage: Jazzing Up the Nut

December 10, 2012
Photos: Drew Yenchak

Photos: Drew Yenchak

It’s probably the only “Nut”-case where Drosselmeyer and the Sugar Plum Fairy, excuse me, Sugar Rum Cherry, wound up together.

I’m writing of “The Jazz Nutcracker,” which had its premiere here in Pittsburgh in 1983. Up-and-coming choreographer Doug Bentz stumbled on the idea when he came across Duke Ellington’s version in a New York record shop. With a lot of chutzpah and a few musical enhancements, he forged a full-fledged alternative to the ballet version that was ruling the Yuletide roost.

It had an American twist, where Clara was the daughter of vaudeville performers. Like the original, it was a coming-of-age story, but this Nutcracker soldier was not only an awkward teenager, he was stiff as a board…until Clara helped him evolve. Together they went through a snowy, two-dimensional shopping scene to arrive at Act II Cabaret, where the parents performed their Ma and Pa Act, along with their first-act friends like Hong Kong Charlie, Arabesque Cookies (a.k.a. the Murphy sisters) and the afore-mentioned Sugar Rum Cherry.

She was played by a sinuous Judith Leifer, who could do more with her pinkie finger than a half-bare Brittany Spears did years later with a boa constrictor. And yes, she went on to marry Doug.

Clara and her Nutcracker on a first date.

But he didn’t stop there. Doug kept plummeting into his mystical story, bringing it back again and again. Right now it’s in its fifth or sixth incarnation at the Pittsburgh Playhouse — neither of us could quite decide.

There’s a brand new student cast, although the veteran Benny Benack Band, a late addition along the way, is still there schmoozing with the very smart Ellington score. And even though it still focuses on vaudeville, with a historical jazz setting, some technology has crept in.

Doug is pretty thrilled with that aspect. “I had always imagined it to be cinematic,” he enthuses over the phone. “But we didn’t have anything like digital projection then. ” With the technical expertise of Michael Essad and Jessie Sedon Essad, he is now able to take the mesh wallpaper of the living room and morph into snowflakes, then visa versa in returning from the Act II Cabaret, where they achieved an Art Deco look.

This time around, Doug took the cast to The Warhol, where they could see the hats, gloves and jewelry that adorned full-fledged dresses back in the fifties. After all, they each had to design a character and keep it for 90 minutes, with the help of costume designer Amy Coleman.

The Arabesque Cookies

With today’s contemporary choreography, mostly ensemble numbers with fleeting solos, it feels retro to students. They have to be individuals from the vaudeville circuit, performers who  know how to hold the stage for a complete solo or duo.

They also learn how to become very specific about the details, like holding a reaction for two or three beats and waiting for it to register with the audience.

So just as Drosselmeyer gives Clara an evening of imagination, the dancers can extend that to the audience.


On Stage: Wearing the Pants

December 7, 2012

A good wife always knows her place. — “How to be a Good Wife,” from either Housekeeping Monthly or a 1950’s textbook.

I’ve lived through a great many changes  by this point in my life. I thought things had settled down, more or less, when the 2012 Presidential election happened and, all of a sudden, womanly subjects jumped into prominence.

That might have been a surprise to the younger generation. So I was, you might say, a bit flabbergasted that Jamie Erin Murphy and Renee Danielle Smith surfaced with a historical piece that covered various eras over 50-plus years.

But the project didn’t start with the current uproar – it started with a simple request. The Ellis School was presenting the Diversity League’s Culture Jam and asked Laura Warnock, who had a dance connection there and was a member of the Murphy/Smith Dance Collective, if the company would participate.

They  wondered, nonetheless,  how three white women could contribute to the effort.

They decided on a historical, rather than political angle. “It would be a celebration of how far women have come since the fifties era,” Jaime explains.

Don’t complain if he’s late for dinner or if he stays out all night. Count this as minor compared to what he might have gone through at work.

The women came up with a wealth of information, from family and friends, supplemented by the Internet and Youtube. One of the biggest shocks centered around how some felt that women should not wear pants. They documented it from the 1940’s until even today. Yes, “women should be women and men should be men,” some still say. If they don’t use dresses and pants, “there would not be enough differences between the genders.”

And while it started with a quartet of women, the project has expanded to eight performers for the upcoming performance on Friday at Pittsburgh Dance Center — certainly the biggest undertaking yet for the young group.

With that they were able to encompass various areas and the female stereotypes that have evolved (they will rely mostly on costume changes). Music helped to define the various eras. Doris Day’s  “Dream a Little Dream.” Lesley Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me.” Loretta Lynn’s “The Pill.” And of course, the iconic “I Am Woman” by Helen Reddy.

Let him talk first — remember, his topics of conversation are more important than yours.

After observing material from the different eras,  Jaime felt that she could attach herself to the ‘60‘s, where the female was “coming into her own self, not having to be this prim and proper fifties housewife and keeping every together. She could just let her body go and find the freedom of being a woman.”

And as a women in today’s society, Jaime is generally happy with “how far women have come. But everyone would like to see women evolve more…at least women would.” She laughs. “I guess as much as we would like to say things are equal between men and women, there is still a struggle there.”

This will be the first installment of the Independent Artists Series, originated by Jaime and Renee. Also on the program will be work by Taylor Knight, Beth Ratas and Laura Warnock. Pittsburgh Dance Center, 8 p.m.


On Stage: Point Park Goes Contemporary

December 4, 2012
Photos: Drew Yenchak

Photos: Drew Yenchak

Since its inception, Point Park University’s Conservatory Dance Company and its Contemporary Choreographers program has served as a showcase for rising young talents. Apparently this year the dance department ran into a pickle, though, when several of the scheduled artists had a sudden change in plans.

However, sometimes Plan “B” can be a resounding success, though, and such was the case here at the George Rowland White Performance Studio (a wonderful facility where dancers magically appear so much larger than life).

Of course, the switches (whatever they were) markedly changed the tenor of the program itself. Perhaps the staff was so enthusiastic, I am assuming, that they assembled a number of veterans, so the end product took on the powerhouse quality of the annual Byham Theater presentations.

Christopher Huggins' "Enemy Behind the Gates"

There was Robert Battle, so generous with Pittsburgh organizations even though he is leading the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater these days, and his Rush Hour, inspired by his student days at The Juilliard School and a piece that was first presented in Pittsburgh by Xpressions in 2003. It was full of his trademark energy, so glued to the idea of life in the fast lane, although the cast could have given the flurry of movement more definition.

And then there was Christopher Huggins, who provided Enemy Behind the Gates, a recent favorite at Philadanco, and very similar in tone to Rush Hour. This is a piece that is on constant alert, with the dancers attacking the stage full throttle in military garb, doing the difficult choreography justice. And the ending had a startling conclusion, where no less than 24 dancers occupied the stage, certainly different from the Philadanco version and, in some ways, doubly satisfying.

Former Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre artistic director Patrick Frantz contributed Celsius, a pas de deux that was performed at PBT in 1988. One of the dancers, Ernest Tolentino, a PPU staff member, set the duet on two of the department’s best talents, Amanda Summers and Zack Kapeluck. The most arresting part of the Celsius was not the transfer of emotion between two lovers, but instead Mr. Frantz knowledgable and difficult partnering choices, and the dancers’ silky negotiation of this geometric distillation of dance.

Patrick Frantz' "Celsius"

That left two newbies. Cooper Verona, only a second year corps member at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, was the main surprise with Very Instinctual, the only premiere on the program. Who knew? Like any young choreographer, he had an abundance of ideas to display. But he wisely chose to play with textures that alternated between angular and curvilinear. Contemporary and traditional ballet? Earthy and airy? At any rate, it was a solid first effort from an artist who has yet to determined his choreographic path.

And there was the debut of Jessica Lange, who has designed for The Joffrey Ballet, Richmond Ballet and New York City Ballet’s Choreographic Institute, among others. Although her background seems to focus on the balletic, except for a Twyla Tharp diversion, I found La Belle Danse to be inspired by Paul Taylor, particularly his Esplanade.

It had a similar communal, playful quality, where there was a soft casualness within Ms. Lange’s holistic structure. There was sometimes a sense of formality, particularly in the music — Corelli, Handel and Mozart.  But then the women ran full tilt to the men, flinging themselves into their arms. They held hands and walked and ran.

Once the dancers parted to reveal a soloist, her leg extended. So we were occasionally caught blissfully unawares as to where the choreography was going, giving Ms. Lange’s lovely choreographic voice her own breath of fresh air.


Dance Beat: Pittsburgh, Paris and Pittsburgh

December 2, 2012

PARISIAN FLAIR. It was a lot cheaper than a full-fledged flight to Paris as Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre paid tribute to its upcoming production of Moulin Rouge at the Westin Convention Center. This time the company’s annual ball, A Pointe in Time, was subtitled “A Parisian Cabaret,” with plenty of thematic elements. The cornish hen was stuffed with mushroom duxelle and was accompanied by potato dauphinoise, brie and French pastries. An ultra-chic crowd bid on, among others, a trip to Paris and 70 bottles of French wine. Everyone danced to the decidedly American (and very popular) Gary Racan and the studio-e Band. But the PBT dancers put on a show, too. There wasn’t much to be had from Moulin Rouge itself (just some mood movement — no original choreography yet — from Caitlin Peabody and Makoto Ono). But attendees got an aromatic snippet from Antony Tudor’s impressionistic Jardin Aux Lilas (Lilac Garden) and a terrific sneak peak of Mark Morris’ beautifully structured Drink To Me Only With Thine Eyes (Yoshiaki Nakano looked particularly lean and controlled among a fine contingent of men — can’t wait to see the Morris’ extended take on balletic phrasing). In a more classical vein, Eva Trapp was a waiflike Cinderella and Alexandra Kochis and Christopher Budzynski repeated their lovely pas de deux from Giselle. The audience, however, went absolutely wild for Christine Schwaner and Alexandre Silva in the grand pas de deux from The Nutcracker, with a bravura performance that was like the proverbial icing on the cake.

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NOT A FLASH IN THE PAN. What a feeling! That’s what we tapped with the debut of the film Flashdance in 1983, when we gobbled up the big hair, leg warmers, off-the-shoulder sweatshirts and bar dancing. Well, it’s on the way back. Flashdance — the Musical opens with a world premiere of the national tour here in Pittsburgh, where it was original set. And it stars a couple of Pittsburghers. Everything was  unveiled at Heinz Hall, where a charismatic Rachelle Rak (Tess) wowed the crowd with her opening song, I Love Rock and Roll, performed in four-inch heels. Another Pittsburgher, Matthew Hydzik will play Nick, with Emily Padgett as Alex Owens, the steelworker with aspirations of becoming a professional dancer. All in all they sang four songs from a score that will include original tunes along with hits like What a Feeling, Maniac and Manhunt. Also on hand was Sergio Trujillo, award-winning choreographer of Jersey Boys and Memphis, in his directorial debut and Mayor Luke Ravenstahl. It opens New Year’s Day…more later.


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