On Stage: American Dance Festival!

July 6, 2010

Photo by Michael Slobodian

I braved the 100 degree heat of the Deep South to visit Durham, North Carolina and the American Dance Festival, where dance passions ran just as hot. Although I saw RUBBERBANDance (above) and Dendy Dancetheater (below), there is still more to be seen through July 24. Read about it in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Photo by Sara D. Davis


On Stage: The Irrepressible Idina

June 30, 2010

There aren’t many bona fide Broadway divas who would “move” me to attend a solo concert — Patti LuPone, Bernadette Peters and Kristen Chenoweth immediately come to mind. Well, add Idina Menzel to the list.

The Broadway star said she was “loopy” because her 10-month old son Walker kept her up the night before her appearance with the Pittsburgh Symphony. Well, I don’t know if you could call her performance loopy in my mind, for she was truly sumpin’ sumpin’ at her PSO debut.

She emerged from the wings almost shyly, as if she hadn’t yet reconciled herself with the overwhelming response of audiences since her appearances as the rival director of Vocal Adrenaline on “Glee.” Up until now, she has had a cult following by those who saw her performances in “Rent” (Maureen) and “Wicked” (a Tony Award as Elphaba) on Broadway. But “Glee” has increased that following exponentially, as evidenced by the sold-out, Broadway-savvy, Idina-loving crowd at Heinz Hall.

She always had the power, the vocal muscle to belt out a tune and grab audiences by the heart. Now, at 39, she has the benefit of perspective and a life well-lived, a larger-than-life personality to match that larger-than-life voice.

The evening was structured much like an extended cabaret, with familiar and not-so-familiar songs broken up by extended patter with the audience. And I have to say, Idina may be the most interesting artist to hit the stage in my memory. There was never a down moment as she moved from observations about high school and performing for her idols, Barbra Stresand and Aretha Franklin. There were plenty of memories, some dark, some filled with self-deprecating humor, told with a Bohemian charm and real connective tissue.

It made for an intimate evening with full orchestra in a hall that seats 2661, although I have to say that, despite her charming monologues, she has to remember that there were a large number of talented musicians behind her, waiting for the next number. The PSO , still in terrific form following its European tour, and here with equally terrific conductor Lawrence Loh, provided sensitive support and actually devised one heckuva warm-up with selections from “Candide,” “Les Miserables” and, of course, “Wicked.”

With all of this power at her fingertips, maybe one more song from Idina and one less story would have been the ticket.

But ah, the songs– let’s get to them. Yes, she did several numbers from “Wicked,” spreading them out to hold interest. “I’m Not That Girl” was front-loaded to whet the interest. “Because I Knew You” came near the end, delivered without amplification and accompaniment, like a love letter to the audience, followed in the best one-two punch tradition by her soaring signature song, “Defying Gravity.”

In the best diva tradition, she gave the audience some intricate twists. It turned out that Idina is a skilled songwriter, offering her own aptly-titled “Gorgeous” back-to-back with Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face,” where she took time to “poke” fun at the lyrics. She didn’t sing “Over the Moon” from “Rent,” despite a beckoning “Mo-o-on” from an audience member, but instead rendered her “favorite song from the show,” the lovely “No Day But Today.”

Walker got his own jazz-inflected lullaby…lucky boy. And there were some standards, like “Look to the Rainbow” and a nifty melding of Cole Porter’s “Love for Sale” with Sting’s “Roxanne.” Everything sounded fresh as a daisy in Idina’s hands, especially “Tomorrow,” that anthem that is known to 11-year old Annies everywhere. She allowed for a brief bit of comedy at  the beginning of the song, before turning it into her own, at once winsome and strong, lilting and achingly lovely. How can one singer weave in so many emotions and textures without losing the thread? Definitely this was a New Age Barbra, a respect-full Aretha with her own brand of soul.

And we left hoping that on some tomorrow in the near future we could meet again.


On Stage: Ballet Across America

June 24, 2010

While visiting Kennedy Center to view Ballet Across America on Saturday (click on Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for the full three-performance review), I literally ran into no less than a quartet of former Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre principals — Willy Shives, now a ballet master with Joffrey Ballet, Nanci Crowley, head of the school at Arizona Ballet, and husband-and-wife Laura Desiree and Brian Bloomquist, who live in the area. To add icing to the cake, so to speak, former corps members Rachel Foster and James Moore performed beautifully with the Pacific Northwest Ballet. Quite a representation!


On Stage: Mini Pillow

June 12, 2010

It was a quote that I never thought I would hear as a dance writer.

“I wanted to create a piece that would behave like quantum physics,” said Pearlann Porter of her latest Pillow Project event, titled “Micrography,” and set to unfold in bite-sized pieces at The Space Upstairs.

That means that she will be addressing some new dance properties, like existing in two places at once. Or chaos. Randomness. “There’s no order; there’s no predictability,” she mused. “How can you make a piece that can’t be determined or predicted? It’s very difficult.”

The process began with a crash course in quantum physics, the study of the fundamental properties of matter-like substances, at Carnegie Mellon University. There three dancers sat across the table from scientists like Dr. George Klein and tried to find a middle ground.

Once they got past daunting topics concerning forces and fields, the scientists writing furiously on chalkboards and the dancers responding with their notebooks, Pearlann found a commonality. “Dance is abstract movement — it’s all we do,” she said. “And it’s actually quite easy to do movement on a small scale.”

Maybe for Pearlann, who could be considered quite diminutive herself, despite a larger-than-life personality. But she’s thinking of vibrations that cannot easily be seen or determined. Or a flail. Or a muscle twitch that’s more random and spastic. “It’s actually a place to go — it makes sense for us.”

But will the audience get it?

“If you wanted to view it from that scientific place, then you could see what we’re trying to go for,” Pearlann explained. “But if you were not a fan of science, you could still view it as this very interesting, unexpected movement.”

Her reasoning is “since we view it from a scientific place, it’s automatically going to create original movement. While it definitely has this science spin to it, it will test your idea of how small you can get in scope. Sound-wise. Movement-wise.”

“We try to play around with the idea of small and not just be small.”


On Stage: More Dance

June 9, 2010

Former Dance Alloy director Beth Corning, now of The Glue Factory Project and more, once commented that Pittsburgh needed two more companies and 15 more dancers to have a viable dance community. Be careful what you wish for, Beth, because the competition is ramping up.

The economy may be struggling, but the artistic spirit is still there as some new groups pop up on the horizon. Besides The Glue Factory, 310 Moment made its debut this year and more is coming.

But this is about newly-appointed August Wilson Dance Ensemble, run by August Wilson Fellow and Dance Alloy artistic director Greer Reed-Jones. I have to say that I had a sense of deja vu as I attended the official inaugural performance at the slave ship-inspired building that is such a terrific addition to Pittsburgh’s performing arts scene. (Note that there is a strong dance component at the Center — a studio with a really grand revolving door and an auditorium with sight lines best served at the back of the orchestra and front of the balcony).

But back to deja vu. That was mostly a result of the programming. The performance opened with Terence Greene’s “Faith,” a piece that has been featured twice, first at the Pittsburgh Black Theatre Dance Ensemble in 2003 and then in the offshoot Pittsburgh Dance Ensemble in 2005. Greer had a hand in both, although they were essentially the same group with different titles. At the end of that first review, I wondered if Pittsburgh would take the company, essentially guest artists and students, to the next level. That didn’t happen and it faded after several years.

Now the August Wilson Center has thrown its considerable weight behind its new ensemble. Once again, Reed-Jones has shown her own talent in stirring the passions and dedication in these young dancers. Once again, she has kept her “Faith,” where a radiant Jasmine Hearn led the way, although she still needs to control her excitement for better impact.

Only this time, the group included a number of Point Park University dancers, including Hearn, instead of adult guest artists, giving the ensemble a grounded maturity that it lacked before, a sense of cohesion. Reed-Jones showed her discerning eye, picking off three of Point Park’s most prominent graduates — Naila Ansari, Angela Dice and James Washington.

Dice was under-utilized, but she showed that Point Park hasn’t graduated a  better young artist with a such a chameleon-like knack for diverse styles. She literally immersed herself in each of the works, from Christopher Huggins’ Ailey-esque “Mothers of War” to the hip-hop inspired “Legacy” by Crystal Frazier. Likewise with Ansari, who projected an intensity that was so grounded, so real.Washington got a “Solo” by Antonio Brown. It showed that he’s a young dancer of uncommon control, with legs like pillars, but still with a sensitivity to the arc of the movement. Then there was tiny Kaylin Horgan, buzzing around the stage like a bee and a much-improved Raymond Ejiofor from Carnegie Mellon. But kudos to all of the dancers. And Gretchen Moore will be moving over to Dance Alloy.

All in all, it was a great outlet for Pittsburgh’s young talent and the audience responded enthusiastically. But then, I’ve seen it before and asked, “Will this community’s immense financial and administrative resources step forward, join hands and take [substitute the August Wilson Dance Ensemble] to the next level?”

Hopefully this was only the beginning.


On Stage: Dance Deserves Equal Rights

June 3, 2010

I recently visited a high school dance program at Chartiers Valley High School and wrote about it in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Cathy Jenkins has built a dedicated and enthusiastic following at CV, but it set me to thinking. When will dance be put on equal, well, footing with the other arts at other public schools? Students can usually take advantage of assorted art, music and theater classes. But dance is generally left out of the loop. Only pioneer CeCe Kapron’s long-running program at Mt. Lebanon High School also offers dance as part of the curriculum in this area of Pennsylvania.

Part of the problem is physical education. Most teachers in that category have little or no training in dance. If a “dance” teacher is brought in, it puts their position in jeopardy. Virtually the only way a school can currently add dance is to have it be a part of the physical education program.

Of course, Pittsburgh’s creative arts schools, CAPA High School and Rogers’ Middle School occasionally have to defend their decision to hire working professionals. They are hired part-time, in order to continue their artistic development. Professional artists, be they dancers, singers, saxophonists or whatever, contribute mightily to students’ artistic development. In public schools, they conduct mostly workshops and residencies to broaden the students’ artistic experience.

So a Slippery Rock University or University of Pittsburgh grad can teach, but not someone from Point Park University. Yet all have different qualities and can contribute to the overall spirit of a school district. Hopefully local schools will realize that a well-rounded education means providing a holistic education — body, mind and soul. That could mean athletics, academics and arts. But if you stop to think about it, dance is the only art form that encompasses all three — a real shortcut. Of course it develops a fit body. The creative expression feeds the soul. And the memorization involved, often knowing many different and highly complex versions of a dance from a choreographer, enhances the mind. As for discipline, that goes without saying; dancers understand a strong work ethic, so important in life.

I think that I have the best arts beat in the city, because the dance performers are, yes, extraordinarily balanced. I would like to see more students experience that feeling.


On Stage: Right on Rennie

May 28, 2010

The explosive raw power of hip-hop remains its main draw, but artists like Philadelphia’s Rennie Harris are taking great measures to rectify that, to give this essentially urban art for substance and layers and, well, respect.

Rennie’s company, Puremovement, had already achieved that with a 2000 performance for the Pittsburgh Dance Council, “Rome and Jewels,” based on Shakespeare’s timeless love story. In the years since, Rennie has gone on to travel the world and become a global spokesperson for American hip-hop and has taken it hard to the university level, where he leads the way at no less than three institutions in codifying the latest form of dance.

The program that the company brought to the August Wilson Center was lighter than “Rome and Jewels.” It was instead filled with plenty of its trademark athletic movement geared to entertain the audience.

The style is easy-going and almost deceptive about its difficulty. Even the company’s women operated largely in their comfort zones in “Something To Do With Love, Volume 1.”  It was teasing and flirty as the womanly trio interacted with a complimentary trio of men. Maybe George Balanchine said “ballet is woman,” but hip-hop is mostly about the b-boys. It was good to see the women given the spotlight.

I loved the hip action and the changing landscape of patterns as the dancers seemed to squiggle into different formations. And that sound of squeaking sneakers — will that overcome the more familiar sounds of taps and hard toe shoes?

The women disappeared after intermission as the men took charge, first in “P-Funk,” a variation on a hip-hop round with the men circling each other and taking turns in the middle, then “March of the Antmen,” a piece with overtones of guns and violence, but not overly dangerous. The finale, “Students of the Asphalt Jungle,” was a display piece, where the men saved their best moves for last.

I have to admit that although hip-hop seems to be based on the fountain of youth and ever-ready freshness, it was pretty grand to see the muscular control and unwavering professionalism of Puremovement. And although I’m not prone to slang, you could say it was purely, totally rad.

If you missed the performance, click on Rennie Harris Puremovement for a video sample.


On Stage: B-boying in Pittsburgh

May 20, 2010

In the short time it’s been around, hip-hop has established a powerful presence around the world. But I didn’t realize how far hip-hop had come until I visited the hallowed ground at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival last summer and encountered Rennie Harris during a two-week workshop. The powers-that-be at Jacob’s  Pillow created a buzz of excitement over the project. I haven’t seen much of hip-hop around Pittsburgh. So when the August Wilson Center brought in Rennie Harris Puremovement, I decided to nose around and see just where it is flourishing here. What emerged was a colorful group of passionate artists, a couple of whom were around at the beginning and several of whom will have an impact in the future. Click on Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.


On Stage: A Curtain Call for Nacho Duato

May 20, 2010

Photo by Jong DukInternationally-renowned choreographer Nacho Duato brought his Madrid-based company, Compania Nacional de Danza, to Kennedy Center in what turned out to be one of his last performances with the group. Read more about it in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.


On Stage: A New Alloy

May 13, 2010

Dance Alloy Theatre gave Pittsburgh a new twist with a premiere by Robert Battle, artistic director designate for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and a real coup for the Alloy’s Greer Reed-Jones. Read about it in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.


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