On Stage: Jil and Ben and Friends

March 3, 2015

JIL STIFEL WAYWARDLAND

You have to love the principle behind New Hazlett Theater’s Community Supported Art (CSA) series: to provide financial and artistic support to Pittsburgh’s emerging artists. That gives them time to more fully develop their ideas and move on to the next level.

However, it didn’t seem like Jil Stifel, an independent dancer and choreographer, and Benjamin Sota, founding director of Zany Umbrella Circus, would fall into that category.

But Jil does mostly solo work and it’s been a long time since Benjamin has inserted his toe (and circus apparatus) into the whirlpool of Pittsburgh dance. This was an opportunity to expand their artistic vision — for Jil, eight artists to coordinate and for Ben, sharing in that and folding his unique talents into a choreographed endeavor.

The result was WaywardLand, a fresh performance piece with four dancers (Jil, Ben, the shimmering Anna Thompson and masterful Taylor Knight, sets and masks by Blaine Siegel, lighting design by Scott Nelson, costume design by Casey Droege and composition and sound design by David Bernabo.

I still remember Jil’s early work (a bathtub piece) and was always impressed with her startling imagination, so different, yet so much her own. And you can’t get much different than the Zany Umbrella Circus, which always brings its own pizazz with it.

The two have known each other since high school and maybe that made it easy to be themselves, yet integrate modern dance and circus arts. That they did surprisingly well.

There were assorted offbeat choreographic vignettes, like a playfulness with “wayward,” pointing quizzically in various directions. There was a jiggly jog, hands atop the head, slipping into flipper hands, as if “What’s up?”

But most movement and timing was determined by the props. That could make things purposeful, as when manipulating a long, twisted fabric rope, or meandering about with large papier mâché minotaur heads or peering from behind notched geometric forms.

The duo created triangles in the movement, perhaps inspired by a large hanger where Ben was slowly lifted in the sky. Maybe a little too slowly, stopping the action. My favorite was the German wheel, actually a double wheel, that became a corral and a circular balancing act for Jil and Ben.

But undoubtedly WaywardLand was a Seussian meeting of some of Pittsburgh’s most inventive, but decidedly adult artists, pointing, just like this piece, in all directions and wondrous for their unconventionality.


On Stage: Attack-ing 20

March 2, 2015
Peter Kope and Michele de la Reza.

Peter Kope and Michele de la Reza.

Attack Theatre has been known for balancing a palpable congeniality with a devil-may-care generosity of movement lo these last 20 years. For the most part, the company’s brand of dance has been, as its name implies, on the “attack,” and we revealed in its vivid physicality.

But for its 20th anniversary celebration, the company surprisingly turned inward for Between, diving into the softer side of their dance, those private moments that they, again, generously shared.

That doesn’t mean that Between didn’t carry a certain amount of risk — any new work is the equivalent of another leap off a tall building. Founders Michele de la Reza and Peter Kope said it centered around a duality, pictured in the duets that formed and unformed, and the creative process, so important in an ensemble that strives for artistic equality among its collaborators. (See Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.)

It all took place in Pittsburgh Opera’s George R. White Studio, running concurrently with its own production of Sumeida’s Song. The Attack production also shared Julia Noulin-Mérat’s dominating scenic design, a raw, towering crosshatch of wooden pallets. Set in one corner of the box theater, it was surrounded by stadium seating on two sides.

Along with Tom Nunn’s exotic lighting, it was remarkable that this intimate design for an Egyptian opera, replete with sand, would transfer so well to an abstract dance work.

Attack’s major addition was a pint-sized antechamber with tables and seating around a sandbox, their way of thinking outside the box and creating yet another dual layer. The audience was split — half started in the antechamber. They then switched at intermission and joined together for an “epilogue.”

ATTACK DAVEIn a very welcome return, musical director Dave Eggar took center stage, playing his cello on an oriental rug. He served as the focal point, a man in search of a song, which led him over to a grand piano. But then, everyone was searching — for an artistic or personal relationship or that creative nugget. Intensely. Passionately.

The connections were there to be made — sand dribbled and drifted between the performing spaces. There also was a blue ball, perhaps the creative impulse that never really leaves? Wads of paper — false starts — developed into a snowball fight (the fun side of this company). And key movements — some spooning, floor work, and hands to lips —  made the transition to both areas as well.

Of course, the music, an original score with a Chopin foundation, swirled between the spaces. Despite the fact that Eggar and percussionist Chuck Palmer (so versatile!) essentially played the same score twice, each side had its own alluring tonal (and sometimes atonal) power. The pair seemed like a handful of musicians with the use of looping effects — one where the music continued in the antechamber while Palmer left and Eggar’s use of ostinato and repetition to construct his own duets. Brilliant.

Best of all, this new work was bound together by uncharacteristic Attack elements. De la Reza and Kope have never looked better and he, in particular, revealed a vulnerability that we have not seen. Along with Dane Toney and Kaitlinn Dann, the four came and went between the two spaces with the precision of a Swiss watch. Of course, dance duets filled in Between. You had to love, especially, the male duet with Attack’s trademark leveraging — so effortless —  and The Embrace, one of Kope and de la Reza’s early works. Performed on a turntable, mesmerizing as it spun like a live Rodin sculpture, the duet had a lightness, a tenderness that had taken on its own patina through the years.

 Between was all so complex and compelling that some people, including me, went back, for there was yet another element, a physical and aural balance that was, simply put, breathtaking.

 


On Stage: Ron and Stevie and Pittsburgh

February 16, 2015

pdc ronald k. brown

Ronald K. Brown returned to Pittsburgh for what was his most cohesive performance yet, one that gave African traditions a contemporary accent. He also gave his program a Pittsburgh accent, inviting a group of local dancers to rehearse and participate, much to their and the audience’s delight. Read about it in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.


On Stage: Wrapping Up the Dance

February 5, 2015

A NEW LABEL. It’s no longer Pennsylvania Dance Theatre, operating out of State College. Former Dance Alloy member became its artistic director in 2003 and the company gradually graduated to a home for his brand of dance theater. Just last year the name came to reflect that. Now called TanzTheater André Koslowski, he brought back A Cantankarous Wiegenlied (love the title!), which I’ve seen several times (minus the adjective) in different variations. Yes, André pumped up the volume on his surreal dreamscape of the past few years, so nocturnal, so fascinating with its collection of trees, garbage and, in particular, almost over-the-top, puzzling humans. In an odd way, it was easier to enjoy.

Liz Chang

Liz Chang

SPEAKING OF WRAP. Attack Theatre literally wrapped things up in their popular series, Holiday Unwrapped. They added a variation, though, called Holiday Hijinx and Revue, geared more for the adults, still chock full of dance, games and activities, plus a beer tasting and wine. And wrapping paper. It was good to see Liz Chang again, skating in for the weekend performances, between nursing studies. Also on hand was Matt Pardo, who is performing with Attack on its current projects. (He most recently toured with Lucinda Childs and the revival of DANCE and the world tour of the iconic Einstein on the Beach by Philip Glass, Robert Wilson and Childs and is in Pittsburgh via partner and head of the dance department at Point Park University Ruben Graciani.) Noting Liz and Matt, who replaced Brittanie Brown and James Johnson after Are You Still There?, Attack Theatre is in a new, more flexible mode.

IN A SPIN. The Whirling Dervishes created their own aura at Carnegie Hall in Oakland, deliciously coming in on the heels of the Royal Ballet of Cambodia — so good to observe dance companies that symbolize their countries in such singular and important fashion. The Dervish program featured ethnic music before a quartet of dancers began their famously mesmerizing hypnotic turns. They continued the next night at The Westin Convention Center with an appearance during the 14th annual Friendship Dinner and Award Ceremony, co-sponsored by the Turkish Cultural Center Pennsylvania Pittsburgh (a gem of a local organization as it turned out — we’re lucky to have them) and Peace Islands Institute.

Jessica Marino

Jessica Marino

IN FLIGHT. Dancers are always seeking to escape the earth, but Shana Simmons Dance simply, well, soared with the company’s movement investigation of Passenger at Pittsburgh’s National Aviary. It was my first visit since the new entrance construction and well worth the trip on several levels, including the birds, of course, human connections and environmental extinction. The title referred to the passenger pigeon and, for those unfamiliar with the story of this avian’s plight, it was inspired by the demise of the iconic bird. Once numbering in the billions during the 1800’s, it became extinct by 1914, when Martha, the last survivor, died in captivity. Divided into four sections, the five dancers pecked and preened and fluttered at the start, but without being too literal. Behavior and relationships came next — a whimsical section on nesting (playfully punctuated by “eggs” that rolled out onto the floor) and a mating ritual, never one-dimensional. We knew how it would end and Shana delicately handled it with a “Martha” solo for Jamie Erin Murphy, a little long, but poignantly accompanied by Anna Singer performing Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise. Art then met nature on a more casual note as audience members circulated through the Aviary and interacted with Shana, her “flock” and some new-found feathered friends.

PEARL-ESSENCE. It’s a cozy arts space that is so welcoming that audiences, particularly intellectuals and a surprisingly young crowd who bypass other presenting organizations to support Staycee and Herman Pearl and PearlArts. The latest event, a Salon & Potluck, had a three-hour line-up of poets, singers and dancers (Jamie Erin Murphy/Renee Smith and Alexandra Bodnarchuk testing the waters). After 40 years in Spain, Gail Langstroth moved to Pittsburgh. At PearlArts she initiated me into eurythmy (not the same as eurhythmics), where gesture and movement are related to accompanying text or music. And “Crutchmaster” Bill Shannon made rare and very welcome appearance. He tuned into the effortless elegance of Fred Astaire, but with a political edge. Hope we see more of him…and soon.


On Stage: The History of “Beauty”

February 3, 2015
Jocelyn Vollmar and Richard Carter in the original production of "Beauty and the Beast."

Jocelyn Vollmar and Richard Carter in the original production of “Beauty and the Beast.”

It was fun to delve into the history of American ballet while researching Lew Christensen’s Beauty and the Beast, set to have its local premiere at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre. (Click on Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.) After all he was considered the first American premiere danseur, was George Balanchine’s first Apollo and choreographed a memorable piece, Filling Station, based on a durable American theme. And he was an important building block in developing San Francisco Ballet, now the third largest company in the United States.

While nosing around the internet, I came upon another little piece of history. There are a number of PBT connections to San Francisco, including this little photographic nugget of Robert Vickrey with one of America’s greatest ballerinas, Cynthia Gregory, who went on to star at American Ballet Theatre. Yes, they are atop the Golden Gate Bridge! Bob said they took an elevator most of the way but had to climb a ladder to reach the top. Obviously the daring duo wasn’t afraid of heights (nor the photographer). Cynthia’s mother, however, was most angry that her daughter skipped school…

PBT BOB VICKREY CYNTHIA GREGORY


On Stage: DWTS Partners Up

January 15, 2015

ALFONSO RIBEIRO, WITNEY CARSON

Dancing With the Stars swirled its way into Pittsburgh, much to the delight of its many fans. There was only one from the “Star” side, winner Alfonso Ribiero. But the pros themselves took up the slack, creating a casual atmosphere that was almost intimate, despite the Benedum Center’s audience of thousands. Read about it in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

KEO MOTSEPE, WITNEY CARSON, SASHA FARBER, EMMA SLATER, VAL CHMERKOVSKIY


On Stage: Pearlann Part III

November 18, 2014

 

Brent Lubbert and Bre Short Photo: Cassie K. Rusnak

Brent Lubbert and Bre Short Photo: Cassie K. Rusnak

How can you look back when you’re always looking forward? Maybe by linking the two in a fresh new way, which is exactly what Pearlann Porter did to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the The Pillow Project.

She led off the evening with improvisational performances, her current mode of dance transportation. Taylor Knight was in a zone of his own as resident DJ.

There was a detailed time line along the big wall, ladled with the presentational flair that Pearlann exudes, from her first review of Z-zzz to, well, The Tenth.

An overflow crowd turned out to see the impact of Pearlann’s decision to remain in Pittsburgh. It was readily apparent.

Anna Thompson Photo: Sam Sanlon

Anna Thompson Photo: Sam Sanlon

She chose five fragments to give us a hint of the past. There was a tasty trio to start.  Anna Thompson so fierce in 2084. Breanna Albright hugging the shadows in a solo from Til the Bitter Fucking End and that memorable table sequence from Striped, so sweaty raw with Alex Bright and Weylin Gomez.

We saw from just that trio how her dancers have evolved their bodies to flow like lava with veins of hyper-heated intensity.

Later came a duet from Concept Album, with Kaylin Horgan digging so deep, with Rebekah Kuczma hovering over her. (Has it been ten years since we first saw her in The Pillow Project…and she’s only 24?)

The fifth piece was a part of Paper Memories with Taylor recreating the role of the writer, something that came to define him, and Anna as his inspiration.

Taylor Knight. Photo: Cassie K. Rusnak

Taylor Knight. Photo: Cassie K. Rusnak

We saw these pieces in a new way, though. The dancers had taken Pearlann’s current jazz style and layered it over the fixed choreography, providing a connecting link between Year One and The Tenth Year…and The Future.

Thank you, Pearlann.


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