It’s almost ten years since Pearlann Porter launched her dream-y Pillow Project. Since then I’ve enjoyed an overrun of P’s, along with the environmental direction that Pearlann has taken. She has also defined jazz in a number of ways. Currently she is immersed in total improvisation, although the movement itself is much more varied, as if Pearlann is moving back to the middle ground a bit. And you have to notice that the dancers are maturing and starting to add their dreams to Pearlann’s mix. What a fun ride it has been! Read about it in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. And enjoy the slide show (click on a photo to start) — just imagine the projections MANY times larger.
Dollar Bank Three Rivers Arts Festival has issued a call for new artist opportunities. Supposedly this is very popular, so the deadline is Feb. 15, 2013. In addition to a proposals for “Riverlights” (see website) and “Musicians,” there will be a “Performing Arts Series,” which will include dancers, actors, musicians, literary and performance artists. Artists are “encouraged to collaborate across disciplines for performances and to present original work as well as audience engagement and participatory activities in the Creativity Zone, Artist Market and Katz Plaza.” Visit 3RiversArtsFest.org to apply. Good luck!
EAST/WEST. Former Pittsburger Vijay Paliparty continues to maintain his connections with the Steel City. But first, his company, The Spilling Ink Project, will present a new connection with Kirov Academy of Ballet in the Washington D.C. area. The two groups, in conjunction with the Embassy of India, will collaborate on “Deflect Our Light: Articulate A Dance,” with Russian ballet and Indian Bharatanatyam classical dance forms on Feb. 23 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center’s Paul Sprenger Theatre. Chief guest will be Her Excellency Nirupama Rao, Ambassador of India. Following that, The Spilling Ink Project will tour to the Pittsburgh area for workshops and performances at the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg (Mar. 1) and Seton Hill University (Mar. 2), with other events a possibility.
ON TO THE PRIX. News from Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre: seventeen year-old Ellie Morris will be competing in the Prix de Lausanne Jan. 27 to Feb. 2, 2013. Click on Prix for more info.
There’s a changing of the guard afoot at The Pillow Project. Dance guru Pearlann Porter will be heading to Paris for a couple of months and won’t be back in Pittsburgh until late April. (Don’t worry, she already has projects in place.) During her stay in the City of Light, she’ll be reconnecting with poet and East Liberty native Moe Seager and other artists that she met on her last several trips, as well as delving more deeply into la langue française.
So there was a transition at the latest edition of Second Saturdays. Pearlann could be seen skirting the shadows, but she handed over the brief emcee duties to Zëk Stewart. Caitlyn Cahill was managing the house, something she will continue, and Taylor Knight will be teaching at The Space Upstairs.
All were on hand for this industrial-strength evening of improvisation. Blue Redshift, a tight-as-a-drum funk band with a cool vibe and liberal doses of improv, was oh-so-perfect for the dancers on hand. And when they weren’t dancing, the ensemble members could be seen operating Mike Cooper’s in-the-moment setup. Like Big Brother, they played over the action and manipulated the images so that they were sometimes a smear or a funhouse mirror, often askew, like turning life on its head.
Over on the black wall, chalk artist Jordan Bush was morphing a tiger into…who knows what? As I left, they were just starting to hit an even deeper groove. Time has no meaning here — it’s only about the moment at hand.
WASHINGTON D.C. — “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” is a quintessentially British tale, whimsically based on the Victorian world around author Lewis Carroll. But mostly American audiences at Kennedy Center found a marvelously updated, but still quintessentially British ballet, by choreographer Christopher Wheeldon unfold at a breakneck pace this past weekend.
It was a rarity — an enthralling new full-length ballet — and perhaps the first true action/adventure ballet to hit the stage. There was a lot to swallow, particularly for American audiences not quite as familiar with the story, despite the familiar title.
Mr. Wheeldon has admittedly been enamored with the story since childhood, so he was well aware of the whimsical wordplay and oddball mystery. So he was the perfect choice to take on the challenges of an evening-length production about “Alice,” a co-production of The Royal Ballet and the company that performed it at Kennedy Center, The National Ballet of Canada.
Along with the help of author Nicholas Wright on a wickedly strong scenario, Mr. Wheeldon opted to include the most recognizable elements of the story — The Queen of Hearts, The Mad Hatter, The Caterpillar and The Duchess among a virtually flawless Canadian cast — filtered, not through the expected idea of drug hallucinogens, but an equally fantastical dream-like state. (There is another twist, but you’ll have to see for yourself.)
So this production was extremely family-friendly. Novice ballet goers, both young and old, will be particularly captivated by Bob Crowley’s designs, including a Lewis Carroll photographer who, all of a sudden, sprouted a tail and gradually transformed into the White Rabbit, Alice’s plummet down a giant jelly mold (instead of the rabbit hole), real and animated integration in The Pool of Tears sequence, the puppetry that allowed the Cheshire Cat to appear and disappear…and so much more.
It was a jaw-dropping journey for all.
Veteran ballet goers will enjoy The Queen of Hearts (Greta Hodgkinson) sneering take on the Rose Adagio (of course) from “Sleeping Beauty,” here with four very reluctant attendants instead of ardent suitors. Perhaps inspired by British musical hall traditions (with a dash of Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo), it went one step further, becoming a woman imitating a man who is imitating a woman…hilarious.
As for the choreography, it lay mostly in the classical vein. But with Mr. Wheeldon’s superb musical sensibility, the flower garden waltz, so voluptuous, spilled over into the audience as women danced down the aisles and petals floated from the ceiling. And Alice (a lovely Jillian Vanstone) and Jack/The Knave of Hearts (an underused Naoya Ebe) had an appealing duet. Speaking of the music, Joby Talbot had the compositional skills to provide an atmospheric, snarky, but mostly magical score that suited every delectable twist and turn.
It all came to a head in a huge finale, with plenty of action that escalated as the house-of-cards courtroom came tumbling down.
Yes, this “Alice” had a bit of everything, my dears. There were snippets of Victoriana — with some original John Tenniel drawings and a floral design with cherubs during the waltz. But then there was a contemporary overlay — a Downton Abbey-setting setting at the onset, a bit of Sweeney Todd in The Duchess’ sausage scene and a little Sgt. Pepper via the psychedelia and the White Rabbit, who wore a pair of colored John Lennon glasses.
And there was tap dancing to boot. Robert Stephen (The Mad Hatter) got the biggest ovation of the evening for his snazzy rhythms.
Occasionally this “Alice” went daringly over the top, becoming a mixmaster of images. But then, what dream isn’t? With so much going on, it only made me curiouser and curiouser to see it again.
And we thought that the movie Black Swan was over the top. Apparently real life trumps art in this New York Times story about an acid attack on the artistic director of the Bolshoi Ballet.
WOMAN OF STEEL. You know that Michele de la Reza has always been a superwoman, lurking high on the CC list. She’s an intelligent dancer who always seems to make things happen, with moves that are always bright with promise, something so hard to pull off over the years with such consummate ease! Beginning this summer, Michele’s reputation extended well beyond the dance floor, invited, as she was, to participate on international dance festival panels in China and Germany and to be part of the Fullbright Program selection committee. Yes, the world was her oyster this year.
MAN OF STEEL. It’s easy to adore Jason McDole, even if you’re meeting him for the very first time — he’s got that X factor. An Aliquippa native and largely dance-trained in Pittsburgh, he headed for New York and performed with Twyla Tharp, Robert Battle, David Parsons and Lar Lubovitch. A couple of years ago he accepted a teaching position at Point Park University, but the dance wasn’t over and drew him back to Lar’s company. How lucky we were to see one of his last performances in a Pittsburgh Dance Council with the Lubovitch company last April. I still remember the unbridled passion he showed that night, bordering, as I wrote, on “ecstatic,” and how he, at one point, “threw himself splayed into the air several feet above the ground and landed like a pillow flat on the floor.” And now the Point Park students who cheered him on that night have him back, along with the August Wilson Center Dance Ensemble, where he is on the artistic staff.
BREAKOUT DUO. Christine Schwaner and Alexandre Silva might be married, but they truly connected in another way on stage during Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s Giselle this fall at the Benedum Center. I’ve seen a lot of Giselle/Albrecht combinations, but never did they have such an immediacy, making this classic love affair and its tragic conclusion seem very, very current.
WHO KNEW? He’s like a stealth bomber here in Pittsburgh, that master dancer and skateboarder we know as Bill Shannon. A world traveler (most recently in Australia), he can usually be found whizzing along Pittsburgh streets in a freewheeling ode to the urban environment. But Vie Boheme coaxed him into one of her performance stews thissummer. With gleaming white suit, fedora and crutches, he was nothing less than a star presence.
VIE BOHEME. Yes, the same person as mentioned above. She’s the alter ego of August Wilson Center Dance Ensemble member Kendra Dennard. The long-legged lovely also happens to have a terrific singing voice and a charismatic personality, bringing all sorts of Pittsburgh artists into the fray for her multidisciplinary events (that can also include food trucks). They’re all different, all scintillating, all encompassing. And they show that the arts are indeed alive in Pittsburgh.
PANEL DISCUSSION. I love it when arts organizations go above and beyond. The Kelly Strayhorn Theater’s newMoves Contemporary Dance Festival has become a much-anticipated event. This year’s May event included a series of panel discussions on residencies, community and touring with an A-list of speakers that included Kyle Abraham, Sidra Bell, Reggie Wilson and representatives of New England Foundation for the Arts, New York Live Arts and Philly Fringe Festival, among others. It was a great way to infuse the community, with KST staffers heading the list.
THE NTH DEGREE. Dancers go through a number of obstacle course to create art. But no one anticipated that July weekend when Shana Simmons’ Relative Positions at the Union Project went off successfully despite temperatures that flirted around 100 degrees. And the next night Texture Contemporary Ballet held a fundraiser at The Space Upstairs that was hot enough to melt the icing on the cake. Anything for dance…
BEST ENSEMBLE. Yes, it’s Attack Theater again. This tightknit group spent two weeks this fall improvising and interacting with some of Pittsburgh’s outdoor art during Some Assembly Required: Public. You know, the imposing murals and sculpture that have been there forever, but you probably never noticed. (I do now.) Braving some threatening weather and rain, the Attackers (including live musicians) never wavered, turning in immensely varied, good-natured (sometimes sly) and always entertaining performances. But the main thing was, there was always a finely-tuned artistic foundation to it all. If we could all only make it look that simple.
CO-OP. The Pittsburgh dance community has always extended its borders, but this year the combos were unusually satisfactory. In addition to Relative Positions, Shana joined Eclectic Laboratory Chamber Orchestra in a multidisciplinary performance at Future Tenant and Texture joined OvreArts (composers Blake Raggianti and Luke Mayernik, plus full orchestra!) for an evening of two original ballets at CAPA. Those were great examples of a vibrant new energy in the Pittsburgh arts scene. But the veteran Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre also joined the Westmoreland Symphony in Greensburg for a great arts community workout in George Balanchine’s Serenade.
A WELCOME DOSE OF JGJ. A sentimental favorite here. As young as she is, Jasmine Hearn has a probing intellect far beyond her years. And that led her to invite Pittsburgh dance icons Jennifer Keller and Gwen Hunter Ritchie to PearlArts Studio to lead an evening of very cool improvisation as part of The Citrus Series.
MISSING YOU. A posthumous nod to Mansur Kamaletdinov, who died this past spring. Formerly of the Bolshoi Ballet, he settled in Pittsburgh and could easily be called a Godfather of Ballet here. So many terrific teachers are carrying on the traditions of Russian ballet that they found in his classes, including Pittsburgh Youth Ballet’s Jean Gedeon, who first remarked about his skills so long ago; Wexford Dance Academy’s Liz Mackin, who noted his knowledge of the classical variations, a direct link to Petipa through the Bolshoi Ballet; and Ballet Academy of Pittsburgh’s Stephen Piper, who considered him a great influence, uses the techniques that he learned even now. So in a way, Mansur will still be here…
THANK YOU! CrossCurrents runs on WordPress, which just released an annual report to its bloggers. CrossCurrents logged 100,000 visits this past year and has passed the quarter of a million mark since it first began mid-2010. Again, thanks for your support!
FOUR OF 25. I have often said that Pittsburgh is a treasure trove of dance talent, but was still surprised that Dance Magazine had not less than four Pittsburgh area talents, both born and current, on its 2013 list of 25 to Watch. McKeesport native Frances Chiaverini has been scoring some good press at her latest gig with Benjamin Millipied’s L.A. Dance Project, which led to her selection as cover girl on this edition (along with successful turns at Morphoses and Karol Armitage). But inside you will find Emily Kikta, alumnus of Thomas Studio for the Performing Arts in Bridgeville and now at New York City Ballet. And if you don’t want to travel, it will be easy to see Texture Contemporary Ballet’s Alan Obuzor and recently-appointed Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre soloist Amanda Cochrane. Congratulations!
HIGH ON PILS. kNOTDance’s Maddy Landi bid auf wiedersehen to Pittsburgh when he joined Pilobolus. Now he is in the midst of a German tour performing in the group’s Shadowland for the next few months.
JINGLES. Wexford Dance Academy’s Elizabeth Mackin Karas once again unfolded her annual holiday treat at Shady Side Academy in December. It included a tap variation on the Rockettes’ soldier dance, Liz’ own brand of Nutcracker divertissements and the loveliest of finales, where the complete cast, all dressed in the purest white and carrying candles, lifted the spirits.
INDIAN JOURNEY. Guiding Star Dance Foundation’s Varun Mahajan is looking for male and female dancers to perform in an all-English production of Arranged Marriage at the Charity Randall Theater in Oakland in April. Practices will be held at the Guiding Star facility in Carnegie every Thursday, beginning this month where selected dancers will be trained in semi-classical, Bollywood and folk. Final rehearsals and performances will run from Apr. 22-28, 2013. For more information, go to www.gsdfonline.org, call 412-877-7502 or emiail email@example.com.
ON THE ROAD. Attack Theatre’s Michele de la Reza has expanded her horizons. Last summer she attended Carolelinda Dickey’s bi-annual dance festival in Tanzmesse, Germany. There she met the Karen Cheung, artistic director of the Guangdong Modern Dance Festival, who invited her to China for a panel and where she was the only American artistic director. It was quite an adventure, walking though tiny streets to the three huge contemporary theaters in the city, finding cough drops in a country where no one speaks English, meeting Willi Tsao (the father of Chinese modern dance) and touching base with a range of Chinese contemporary dance, still in its infancy, but quickly playing catch-up. In between she served on the Fullbright Review Panel, perusing through 40 applications in dance, artistic research and performance at the United Nations in New York.
SUMMER DANCE. Okay, Jacob’s Pillow has released an almost complete (!) 2013 season and Pittsburgh will be represented not once but twice. In addition to his commission for New York City Ballet principal Wendy Whelan, Kyle Abraham’s company, Abraham.In.Motion, will conclude the season with his latest work, Pavement. (After it hits Pittsburgh, of course.) The season also includes O Vertigo and Martha Graham Company, among others. Click on Jacob’s Pillow for the full dance buffet.
AND MORE KYLE. When will it stop? Hopefully never. Kyle Abraham received one of 50 fellowships from United States Artists, a national grant-making and advocacy organization, which bestowed an unrestricted grant of $50,000 on each grantee. That is on top of another: as the 2012-2014 New York Live Arts Resident Commissioned Artist, Kyle will receive nearly $280,000 for the two-year residency and the commission of a new work or works for New York Live Arts. Then bring it on home, Kyle.
MAD DANCE. Rub elbows with the choreographic firebrand of Pittsburgh dance, Beth Corning at MAD MEX Shadyside Tues. Jan. 22, where you can build your own fajita, partake of the dessert table and have a 16 oz. margarita (or soft drink). The $40 donation goes to Beth’s latest project, a one-woman show called WHAT REMAINS, directed by Tony Award-winning director Dominique Serrand June 5-9. Click on Beth for more info.
It’s hard to hold onto feelings, especially the kind that are 30 years old or more — time has a way of changing them or simply sweeping them away. But it was obvious from the sell-out crowd at Heinz Hall Thursday night that there were plenty of Pittsburghers ready and willing to revisit the ’80’s style — leg warmers, ripped sweatshirts and all — that “Flashdance” symbolized for a whole generation.
First was “The Movie.” Now it’s “The Musical.”
Actually the film was based upon an original musical by Tom Hedley, written in 1982, but skipping the Great White Way to head for the silver screen. So the new stage production, also by Mr. Hedley, actually had its world premiere in the Steel City only last week.
Why bring back a film that critics largely panned? Maybe because the public embraced it wholeheartedly, making Flashdance the third largest grossing film of 1983.
Would the public remember it? Apparently, yes. The entire five-day run sold out and Thursday night’s crowd shared its own feelings about Flashdance with a standing ovation.
So far the producers are taking advantage of the name recognition to do a six-month national tour before hitting Broadway, an unusual move.
How seriously are they taking this effort? We’ll have to see, although the creative team, including director and choreographer Sergio Trujillo, has a pedigree that includes award-winning musicals like The Jersey Boys and Memphis.
It looks like Flashdance could be headed in the same direction, to ultimately become a sleek, sharp production with a popular and connection for audiences. What they have on their hands is a production that pushes many of the right buttons already.
Although many of us probably know that dancers usually wait on tables when they aren’t teaching dance classes, this production again gives us the story of Alex, a welder who performs as an exotic dancer at Mawby’s, a local bar and grill. More than that, it’s a tale that speaks to us all, about overcoming the fear of failure in order to pursue our dreams.
Part of the fun was picking out various parts of the film. Some, like the pulse of the running steps, the street dancing, the striking (yet still implausible) steel mill episode and the reality-based Pittsburghers resonated.
However the iconic “splash” dance was watered down with spurting fountains that took away the impact. And the audition didn’t provide the needed climax. Yes, this tomboyish Alex, played by a real triple threat, Emily Padgett, didn’t have the benefit of body doubles and camera angles. Perhaps coordinated video or large photographic close-ups could enhance the first section and provide a transition for the street and ballet dancers who appear, like so many people who gave her support during her journey.
There was some real talent in the rest of the cast. Her love interest, Nick, was portrayed as the scion of a wealthy steel mill family and, like Alex, trying to find his own way. Matthew Hydzik looked younger than Michael Nouri in the film, something that benefitted the musical, and his terrific tenor voice fueled his duets with Ms. Padgett.
Her fellow flashdancers underwent some changes. Best friend Jeannie became Gloria (a pert Kelly Felthous), not an aspiring ice skater, but another dancer. That tied into the Laura Brannigan song, “Gloria” portrayed her descent into drugs. But it transitioned into a Vegas act, full of lifts and trying too hard.
The other two friends could be defined better (right now they’re a combination of singers, dancers and comedy relief). However Rachelle Rak’s (Tess) “I Love Rock and Roll” was a powerhouse number despite an awkward moving ladder.
Hannah, Alex’s mentor, was described as a former dancer, something that might have worked if Alex was shown learning a little ballet vocabulary. Then her dream to become a ballerina might have seemed more plausible.
The ensemble numbers were great, though. The hip hop looked surprisingly fresh and brief flurries of movement, showing the struggle between aristocratic ballet and streetwise breakdancing, were used to good effect.
At this point, though, Flashdance was still trying to find its rhythm. The movie reflected the onslaught of MTV and that could have been better shown in the opening video montage, which had few recognizable pop stars.
This Flashdance still needs a cinematic quality filtered through a hard-nosed MTV lens, with an industrial overlay (perhaps framing photos and videos like the windows in a warehouse). The moveable towers and panels had that atmosphere, although the floor-to-ceiling beige curtain could have been eliminated. Alex’s apartment needed a more Bohemian design and fewer Vogue magazines.
Still, the musical had the singular appeal that made the movie so popular. It was its own triple threat, with throbbing dance, a winning cast of characters and an era that carried its own distinctive personality. And after the creative team is done tinkering, maybe they’ll bring it back to Pittsburgh.
As Rachelle Rak prepares to take the stage once again, this time with Flashdance, she says, “I feel exactly the same as I did when I began. You have to love it.”
That drives her, even in rehearsal, where, according to mom Rosalene Kenneth, she is “full of energy. She never marks a step, never walks through anything. Ms. Rak admittedly can be tired in the wings, though. But when she steps on the stage for a crazy-licious number like “Maniac,” she still feels electrified by the music.
Ever since the lithe, leggy performer went on her first national tour in Cats at age 17, she has been employed virtually non-stop. The list is long and familiar — Chicago, Catch Me If You Can, Starlight Express, West Side Story, Smoky Joe’s Cafe, Fosse, Thou Shalt Not, Oklahoma!, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Sweet Smell of Success (where composer Marvin Hamlisch fondly croaked “Rak”), Sessions and more.
Ms. Rak just missed out on the 2006 revival of A Chorus Line, noted in the documentary Every Little Step, something that threw her for a loop. So many people had told her that she was perfect for the role of Sheila, so she took a “big hit” not getting the part and returned to Pittsburgh for a time. With so many great choreographers under her belt (Jack O’Brian, Jerry Mitchell, Susan Strohman), she tried her hand with choreography in a revue at the Improv.
“There is no silver,” she explains. “Everyone is going for the gold.” Even after a string of hits (at one time she was on the poster of Sweet Smell, but performing in Thou Shalt Not), the usual questions began to nag at her.
“Am I thin enough? Am I good enough? Am I pretty enough? It can be a very vulnerable life.”
Although it took five years to get back to Broadway, that turned out to just a large bump in the road, because fear of failure had not been a part of her life. Perhaps it was because of her mother, who once said ever so evenly, “You didn’t win. Let’s go eat.”
Ms. Rak is still grateful for that and passes similar motherly tips onto young Broadway-bound teens in a monthly “Sas Class” in New York. There she tells them about work ethic and auditioning, not just for leads, but for the ensemble, a place where you can still make your mark. The native Pittsburgh became a “yes man.” In other words, she said “yes” to every benefit, every workshop, wrote songs…you get the idea.
It changed her attitude and brought life full circle when she finally got to play Sheila at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, New Jersey last year. It also led to a feature story in the New York Times.
Life does come full circle.
She’s bringing all of those experiences to Flashdance, where she plays Tess, a veteran performer who mentors Alex. Ms. Rak fashioned a tough Pittsburgh girl, whose dad came from McKees Rocks and attended Langley High School. It carries her through 10 and 12 hour rehearsals, and even while she has to descend a ladder.
“I couldn’t have asked for more,” she exclaims. “It’s my life. It’s my youth. It’s everything I remember — it’s Pittsburgh.”