Off Stage: Exploring Ballet In a New Way

January 15, 2015

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The Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre has created a much-loved holiday tradition with its multi-million dollar production of The Nutcracker. But sometimes there can be just as much satisfaction to be found in the studio., not necessarily with the professionals, but students.

Beginners.

I was invited to watch such a class with seven very special beginners. There were no overhead lights, just the natural kind, giving the studio a warm, comforting feeling.

The students were reviewing the five ballet positions from their instructors, Kaila Lewis and Jamie Murphy. Also on hand for support was Alyssa Herzog Melby, education and community engagement director at PBT, who was integral in opening up the normally aristocratic world of ballet to those with autism.

It all started with special performances at the Benedum Center using low light and subdued special effects.

Now, with the assistance from the ABOARD’s Autism Connection of PA, PBT has initiated a series of four classes for high school students.

“We push for inclusion at the elementary level,” says outreach and eduction director Lu Randall. “But high school can be more difficult — it’s more competitive.”

There was autism training for the entire ballet school staff and the Nutcracker cast, enhanced by a high interest among PBT board members.

But the class concept may be a whole new thing in the ballet world. Ms. Fulton doesn’t know of a similar program anywhere else.

With this class in place, ballet could eventually become a lifelong movement activity for these students — a real plus.

The students learned warm-up exercises, along with relaxation techniques to help with stress management. There was a brief barre, beginning with plies, tendus and “the hard one,” piques. They jumped. They began to move across the floor.

Then came the fun stuff. The students actually learned slightly simplified, but real dances from the Nutcracker. First, the mice from the Transformation Scene, where they got to sneak around. Then everyone’s favorite, where they became the Pirate, swashbuckles and all.

It was obvious that everyone is enjoying themselves, from the family members sitting along the back wall and applauding enthusiastically to the dancers, whose smiles seem to grow during the class.

One young man even made his parents buy him a pair of ballet slippers. And they were all talking about what they would wear for their informal performance at the end of the sessions.

Cue the lights.

 


On Stage: A Holiday Finish

January 1, 2015
Hannah Carter as Marie. Photos: Rich Sofranko.

Hannah Carter as Marie. Photos: Rich Sofranko.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre brought its annual “Nutcracker” run to a close. Click on Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. I was also able to see Hannah Carter as Marie, a dancer lovely of lines, along with her significant other in real life, William Moore, ready, willing and able as her Nephew/Nutcracker partner.But Julia Erickson established herself as the star attraction of The Nutcracker, this time as the Sugar Plum Fairy. with Alexander Silva deservedly garnering considerable backstage applause from the company for his Cavalier solo. On to 2015…

Gabrielle Thurlow and Luca Sbrizzi.

Gabrielle Thurlow and Luca Sbrizzi.

Julia Erickson and Alejandro Diaz in the Snow Scene.

Julia Erickson and Alejandro Diaz in the Snow Scene.


On Stage: Attack-ing 20

October 7, 2014

Attack There tarp

Attack Theatre has reached yet another milestone in dance annals — the 20th anniversary — an accomplishment for any company. They had a tongue-in-cheek approach and called it Are You Still There? Well, yes they are — at the Pittsburgh Coliseum. Check it out in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Attack There ShadowsAttack There Brittanie


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 ┬áhumanity.


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