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.


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