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: 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.


On Stage: The Dirty Ball

April 28, 2010

I’ve been labeled a lot of things over the years. But there I was, “The ballsiest,” according to my pin I was given at Attack Theatre’s Dirty Ball, held last weekend in the combined space of the Sports Rock Cafe, Vegas on the Strip and Pharoah’s nightclubs in the Strip District (real bathrooms this year!). That meant that I had attended all five Dirty Balls “and counting”…

They were, from the start, a hit, from the first at an empty city apartment space, where the last-minute crowd overwhelmed the small food pickings. What made it such a success? Well, Attack managed to push all the right buttons. Just the very thought, a Dirty Ball, brings out the marginal badness that the usually conservative Pittsburghers harbor. It was seductive, from the dirty martinis to the dirty secrets, with a high fun factor.

Gradually the audiences have grown from the original 300 or so to more than 1000 this year. The audience is half the show, from teasing bustiers to full-fledged drag. But the Attackers themselves go all out to give attendees their money’s worth, so that it’s not only than a ball, but more like a site-specific performance. The deejays are always terrific and the drinks are included in the price of admission. Although the food always played second fiddle, although there were some downright tasty options this year.

For the VIPs, Richard Parsakian decorated a room with plush red and zebra-striped fabrics, along with deliciously naughty accoutrements. Dancers undulated in nooks and crannies there and in the other spaces, where I loved a display of stacked chairs.

Then there are the rolling showcases, 15 in all in honor of Attack’s birthday. Because the venue was separated into three rooms, the sometimes overlapping schedule kept the pace moving. So Michele de la Reza and company had to move easily from meet-and-greet to move-and-groove.

The company is flirting with nudity this season, partly because of its new home at Pittsburgh Opera in the Strip District and, of course, the idea of a birthday suit. Liz Chang came closest with a softly-lit solo. There were sexy duos, too, most notably between Peter Kope and Dane Toney , with some lotion andand a stripper pole and a menage a trois, deftly handled. Although hampered by some acoustical problems that muffled his transcendent talents, cellist Dave Eggar poured his talents into a rocking set, ably accompanied by percussionist Charlie Palmer.

The finale was spot on — “Dirty Dancing,” of course, with the women channeling their inner Baby and most of the women in the audience singing right along. Dirty never goes out of style.


On Stage: Science Begets Art

April 23, 2010

Pearlann Porter was in a scientific mood for the opening of her Second Saturday series, “Jazz on the Pale Blue Dot,” but she was oddly low-tech in her presentation. There were her wall-length blackboard, covered with complex equations (Maxwell’s, Lorentz, Drake) and a couple of overhead projectors, sometimes used to create slowly-morphing galaxies. The dancers even passed notes on movable wires strung overhead.

You might say school was in.

The real fascination is always about what is inside Pearlann’s mind anyhow — just read her discourse of jazz in a corner of the Space Upstairs the next time you attend an event there above Construction Junction. For this one, she also apparently tapped some academics to conceptualize this chapter of her always-thoughtful artistic journey.

I didn’t want to say dance journey, although Pearlann is first and foremost a choreographer, because her motion is part of a larger picture in an extremely fertile mind. At times though, the subject matter seemed distant, the connections almost forced.

The jazz, more abstract, lay like a nebula in the room. Peter Ahn, trumpet, Jason Rafalak, bass and guitar and Gordon Nunn, percussionist, were widely separated in different areas of the room. They deliberately entered and exited each piece with little fanfare, as if they were trying to blend into the background as a subliminal force. Often they made those entrances and exits individually. That also meant the pieces were largely devoid of rhythmic energy. Cool bordering on cold.

Much of Pearlann’s energy, and deservedly so, went into a group piece that conveyed an otherworldliness. Filled with angular squats and tangled groups, it conveyed our need for communication in an increasingly isolated society that relies on Twitter and Facebook, even email for a misrepresented idea of bonding.

Maybe Pearlann is on to something, and if you’ve talked with her, you’ll know why. Maybe we need to talk face-to-face, not Facebook. Where a couple sitting in a restaurant is Twittering instead of conversing. Where acquaintances meet on a street and one suddenly whips out an iPhone to text and ignores the other.

Science and the technology born of the scientific mind are certainly the wave of the future. But Pearlann may be on to something — we simply can’t lose sight of  humanity.


On Stage: A Swan Lake Weekend

April 20, 2010

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre flew with four lead casts in “Swan Lake.” Although word of mouth was good for Julia Erickson and Alexandre Silva, I saw the other three casts. Read about it in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.


On Stage: Dancing into the Future

April 8, 2010

As Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s final production, “Swan Lake,” approaches, members of the company are approaching the performances from differing perspectives. Some will take a final bow and others have already received promotions. They share their thoughts with me in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.


On Stage: Attack-ing Andy

February 27, 2010

A sizeable crowd convened for the final performance of Attack Theatre’s “Assemble This” at the Andy Warhol Museum Thursday night. They were no doubt ready to grab 15 seconds of fame (as opposed to Andy’s 15 minutes) by engaging in the collective repartee that comes with this format.

There were more than 70 (it’s hard to count given the unorthodox mobility of the audience) in the Warhol lobby when emcee Gary Pletsch called their attention to Attack’s Blank Canvas, performed below some of Andy’s shoes and with an extra “Pop” of energy.

But then he asked them to do a quarter turn and face Andy’s iconic yellow self portrait (1986 ) that greets visitors when they enter his house. Hm-m-m. This posed a new problem because Warhol’s art is so direct and familiar. The audience would have to go behind the usual to the unusual, which seemed a harder task than with some of the abstract renderings that they found in some of the previous galleries.

Well “Andy” generated responses like “narcissism” and yes, “Steeler colors,” “intense, gaunt stare,” “jowly” and “volcanic” (referring to his plumed hairdo). Dane Toney became a “bewildered lost soul in this world” to cellist Dave Eggar’s enticing pizzicato. One particularly successful improv resulted from “artificial top and solid base,” involving Michele de la Reza and Peter Kope in sexually inviting interplay.

Did I hear a repeat of “Swan Lake” from the usually ever-imaginative Eggar? I thought that was against the rules to duplicate previous tunes. No matter. I don’t know how these performers kept everything straight.

The ensemble also made the most of “dark mouth,” as you can imagine. That encompassed biting ass and ear and sundry other parts of the anatomy. Then onward to the fourth floor, where the resourceful Eggar played a terrific brand of elevator music for the lucky passengers.

There the audience was confronted with four of Andy’s Campbell’s soup cans — just for the record, Beef with Vegetable and Barley, Onion made with Beef Stock, Green Pea and Pepper Pot. The audience found them “redundant” and “repetitive” and “hard outside and soft inside.” One viewer called it “personal.” His name was Michael Campbell — honest.

As usual, Eggar and percussionist Charlie Palmer had control over this section. It produced “repetitive childhood memories with an Americana twist” for Ashley Williams and Kope, who had an instant hair fetish. We also got “competitive and nurturing inside a hard container,” difficult to pull off, and an overlay of “sloshy.” Did I catch a “Nut”-ty “Waltz of the Flowers” from Eggar?

Descending to the second floor, Attack trumpeted Keith Haring’s “Untitled Element,” a large white elephant covered with the black outlines of Haring’s symbolic Radiant Babies. There were red accents in the tusks and platform. Okay, forgive me. Being a newsperson, I immediately thought, “What’s black and white and read all over?”

The elephant produced “sunburned, ” both a “starving” and “pregnant” elephant” and “people sucking life out of the elephant.” Attack chose a “puzzle” motif, which was self-explanatory and enterprising with interlocking dancers. Then there was “a surprising, emerging point.” That became a scenario with Kope playing with Eggar on cello. I had heard of four-handed piano playing, but never four-handed cello! Palmer was encouraged to play “inside” his drum box, while the others supported and followed him around the gallery.

Back down on the main floor, but in the theater, Attack’s final premiere unfolded, particularly thoughtful and intimate, as if it was about the process. I’ll still have more to say on Attack-ing next week.


On Stage: Through Martha’s Eyes – Part 2

February 24, 2010

More of photographer Martha Rial in a selection of photos from Twyla Tharp’s “In the Upper Room” at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre.

Photo by ©Martha Rial

Photo by ©Martha Rial

Photo by ©Martha Rial

Photo by ©Martha Rial

Photo by ©Martha Rial


On Stage: Attack-ing Contemporary Craft

February 24, 2010

Attack Theatre headed back to its home turf in the Strip District — well, almost. But the the Society for Contemporary Craft is well within walking distance of the company’s studios at the Pittsburgh Opera facility.

The Society offered its neighbors a wide open bright space with a permanent performing area near the entrance. The main inspiration came from an exhibit called “Eden Revisited — The Ceramics Work of Kurt Weiser.” As the website says, “His subject matter illustrates lush, mysterious landscapes and distorted narratives set amidst color-saturated flora and fauna that read as voyeuristic snapshots of the human condition.” Hm-m-m, it sounded as though this could be a good match for “Assemble This.”

With the audience gathered comfortably around them, the Attackers put forth the thematic skeleton, labeled as “skin and bones…no heart or lungs.” I don’t know — Michele de la Reza always gives out eminently breathable dance.

Soon we shifted over to the first inspiration piece, Weiser’s plainly-named  “Raku Stirrup Jar 1981.” But the onlookers found “a secret space inside, “an eggshell” at the bottom, a “one-eyed sad cookie” and “a timelessness.”

First Dane Toney was the mark, “completely enclosed” by the other three dancers and looking like a floating hieroglyphic at times. Then he worked inside his “secret space,” tracing semicircles with his foot to cellist Dave Eggar’s leaping trills, soft and cushy, but with a Haydn-esque surprise chord.

Liz Chang and percussionist Charlie Palmer took over the “fragile eggshell” portion — she tiptoeingand he doing likewise, with a smashbox at the end. De la Reza took on the “handle” from the stirrup jar with Peter Kope — in a wonderful concoction of shapes. Kope found delectable handles, not always the ones de la Reza was offering him. And they certainly had an unalterable trust — he dropped her nearly to the floor from shoulder height.

Everyone filed down to the lower level for part two, an always succulent musical pleasure directed by Eggar, who likes to occasionally have  his way with the order of the dance. The second bit of inspiration wasn’t really a piece of art. Or was it? I never found out. The participants called it “a drill,” “a top-heavy pasta maker,” “my grandmother’s washing machine” with a “bus driver’s wheel” on top.

That produced “Italian memories” with Kope and Toney who approached each other sensuously and puckered without a kiss, then offered tongue but no action. “Waiting for the bus” contained some operatic selections, perhaps inspired by the presence of Pittsburgh Opera general director, Christopher Hahn. With Eggar in a musical groove, more additions included “something of a mysterious purpose” (Toney again) and “grinding metal music with viscous surface movement.”

With our musical plates nearly filled, we headed back upstairs to a beautiful double-sided teapot by Weiser. It had  no spout but did have its own aromatic artwork and was titled “Small Fruit 2000.” The audience, in a groove of its own, offered “Alice in Wonderland,” “curves,” “doppelgangers” and “a new retelling of an old story.”

Already the Attackers were willing to cut a part of the skeleton, given the plethora of ideas. The sandwich board was awash with words. But they began the premiere/finale presentation with confidence. The acoustics had been great, the dance and music gracefully intertwined. Emcee Ricardo Robinson was moved to add some soft “wailing” through cupped hands over his mouth.

And even though one young woman nearly fainted and the performance took a pause while people attended to her, it finished, remarkably seamlessly, with Adam and Eve’s fall from grace and the idea of a whisper.

Tonight is the real finale at the Andy Warhol Museum, although it appears to be sold out. See you at the dance!


On Stage: Heart to Art

February 23, 2010

Photo by Eric RoseThere is a whole world of inspiration for dance and periodically it centers around issues that are close to the heart. A while back there was Bill T. Jones’ “Still Here” (cancer) and, more recently, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s “Light/Holocaust & Humanity Project.”

Last weekend Maria Caruso took things a step further in “Heart (function vs. emotion)” at the Byham Theater, where the art was not only close to the heart, but all about it. This full-length ballet was reality-based, with a doctor and patients from UPMC, unlike Jones, who integrated his patients with a slide show on multiple screens.

Such productions amount to a balancing act in more ways than one. They strive to do justice to the subject matter, but also have to attend to the choreography itself, in this case through both dancers and non-dancers.

“Heart” began promisingly, with a repeated heartbeat replicated by each of the three members of Cello Fury, made up of Simon Cummings, Ben Munoz and Nicole Myers, along with drummer Dave Throckmorton. The lighting, designed by Steve O’Brien Agnew, came up on the six patients, Pasquale Ceblasio, Patricia Dippold, Julie Drain, Merle Reeseman, Philip Rostek and Holly Tissue-Thompson, then passed on to dancer Colleen Landwerlen. With the protagonists simply and clearly presented, it was on Caruso’s shoulders to convey her own new-found connection to the heart.

The first section revolved around function, demonstrating “the color, texture, movement, flow and macrobiotic behavior of the organ itself” that Caruso saw in observing two actual heart transplants. Following the introduction, each of the patients was paired with one to three dancers, dressed in red and symbolizing the patients’ hearts in phrases that traveled across the stage.

The cast then gathered to present heart motifs, gleaned from the patients themselves, including a slicing action, a slump of the shoulders and fingers crawling up a wall. After an “Interlude” by Bodiography apprentices and trainees, the company members, still young but decidedly committed, took over the “Function” with abstract movement, capped by a solo from Caruso. Clad in a voluminous, gathered skirt and connected to the wings by long “veins,” Caruso translated her medical experience into movement. Seemingly constricted by the skirt, she still took full advantage of her wonderfully fluid and weighted style, slowly working her way around the stage. At the end, she released the skirt and lifted it into a cape,  liberated and joyous as she exited.

The second half introduced actual surgical movements from Dr. Robert Kormos, as Meghan Dann andPhoto by Eric Rose Kelly Basil portrayed the “old” and “new” heart. Then each patient took to the stage as their individual stories were portrayed through dance, leading to the finale.

There was no doubt that Caruso’s choreography was taking on a larger vision. “Heart” contained intriguing links, due to a more sculptural approach. She expanded her landscape, using complex patterns and taking advantage of the inherent sweep of dance.

While it was easy to see that emotions were running high on the stage, I would still have liked to see that translate into more intimate connections between the patients and dancers, particularly in the second act. But that shouldn’t mean that the choreography is too careful about the subject, which it sometimes was.

Providing music for a full-length ballet, which ran over two hours, was no easy task. But Cello Fury was in good form, robust and rhythmic in its winning musical formula. Still, it was good to see them break up the rock and roll surge with the use of harmonics and pizzicato and a particularly lovely accompaniment to Caruso’s solo.

While the balance between heart and art occasionally went askew, it was a laudable effort on the part of all involved.


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