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.


Off Stage: Ten Best from the 2K Decade

January 6, 2010

As 2000 approached we dreaded the Y2K millenium bug, supposedly residing in all of our computers. But we “Ought” not have dreaded the first decade of a new century — at least dance-wise. Dance was beginning to explode in many ways, and while we didn’t have a Martha Graham or a George Balanchine  and lost the eternally wise Merce Cunningham, the general level of dance continued to rise. (More on that in the next blog installment.) These are the Top of the Top Ten over the past decade of writing for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Click on each date and you’ll get the complete list, except for 2003, which has inexplicably disappeared, perhaps eaten by a surviving millenium bug?

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre “Indigo in Motion.” A first-rate Pittsburgh production where artistic director Terrence Orr signaled a new direction for the local ballet company. Ballet and jazz? “Indigo” brought in choreographers like Kevin O’Day, Lynne Taylor-Corbett and Dwight Rhoden and successfully paired them with the music of Pittsburgh artists Stanley Turrentine, Lena Horne and Billy Strayhorn. Pittsburgh musicians from the Manchester Craftsmans Guild held court in the Benedum Center pit.  May 4, 2000.

Min Tanaka - This highly respected artist mesmerized in his solo performance at the Warhol Museum, reminding us of Pittsburgh’s fascination with a seemingly incongruous style of dance — Japanese butoh (remember Sankai Juku?). Strangely enough, no one from the usual dance audiences was in attendance because he slipped in during the “Nutcracker” season. Dec. 15, 2001.

Dance Alloy “Hello, Goodbye, I’m Dead!.” This performance about the short-lived mayfly took place back in the day when the Alloy didn’t have “theater” attached to it. Things were a little more free form, but engaging nonetheless. We have come to realize that it’s good to take advantage of home-grown — not only vegetables, but art. And we’re glad that the Alloy is still around to help sustain the local dance scene. May 1, 2002.

George Piper Dances present The Ballet Boyz. The irreverent tone was tempered by the fact that we saw works by William Forsythe, Christopher Wheeldon (now one of the world’s top two ballet choreographers, along with Alexei Ratmansky) and Russell Maliphant. Serious ballet for the masses. Byham Theater, Nov. 1, 2003.

Nederlans Dans Theater. This was probably the only time we will ever get to see NDT, considered one of the world’s foremost companies. We also saw a Pittsburgh Dance Council program at the Benedum Center still heavily influenced by choreographer Jiri Kylian, who just last October had an official farewell concert with the company. In case you missed it, here is a segment of  a Kylian classic, “Symphony of Psalms,” that I discovered on the company website. Mar. 19 2004.

Ralph Lemon “Come Home Charley Patton.” No one tugs at the heart strings like Lemon. He represents honesty in movement and this was one of the most compelling pieces of the decade, putting racism and a lynching at the forefront. Presented by the brand new African American Cultural Center, now known as the August Wilson Center, it also signaled the arrival of an important new presenting organization despite the fact that it wouldn’t get its own building until 2009. Mar. 19, 2005.

Attack Theatre “The Kitchen Sink .” This company sinks its cool tentacles into virtually every corner of the Pittsburgh arts scene (Pittsburgh Opera, Pittsburgh Symphony, Carnegie Mellon University, elementary schools, senior citizens programs). The program marked the 10th anniversary and the arrival of founders Michelle de la Reza and Peter Kope as Pittsburgh’s foremost power couple in the creative arts. Nov. 10, 2006.

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago. HSDC took advantage of its powerful physicality to nab the number one spot for the Pittsburgh Dance Council. This was a Byham Theater show that showed how dance could soar. Feb. 10, 2007.

Ultima Vez “Spiegel” (“Mirror”). Belgian choreographer Wim Vandekeybus deftly illustrated how dance could be frighteningly simple and real. It all came down to timing, even when throwing a brick. Presented by the Pittsburgh Dance Council at the Byham Theater. April 19, 2008.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre “Romeo et Juliette.”  PBT went out on a limb with this ballet when it brought in Jean-Christophe Maillot’s contemporary interpretation. It’s my favorite of all the terpsichorean versions out there (certainly the most heart-wrenching) and the PBT dancers rose to the challenge. It was also good to have seen Maillot’s “Cinderella” with his company, Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo just the year before on the Pittsburgh Dance Council season. Feb. 14, 2009.

P.S. Looking back we had the benefit of several important festivals conceived by the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, including the International Festival of Firsts Part One (2004) and Part Two (2008), which proved that the trend in art is to blend. Movement was a strong part of many performances. Thanks to Paul Organisak for going above and beyond in the 2004 Quebec Festival and especially the  Australian Festival (loved the humor and the truly unique approach to dance).


Off Stage: Dance MVPs 2009

January 4, 2010

In you case you missed it, my Top Ten in dance appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in December. Now we can discuss the performers who infused that choreography and their considerable contributions to a vibrant local dance scene. Kudos to the women, who were extraordinarily strong during 2009.

Woman of Steel. Pearlann Porter is proud of her P’s — prolific, petite, paraphrastic (she can talk about her art at the drop of a hat), perceptive, party hearty, polychromatic and, of course, The Pillow Project. She also moved at a prestissimo pace in 2009, directing, performing and/or choreographing half a dozen full-length extravaganzas at the Space Upstairs, initiating a four-month Urban Experiment (improv dancing in the streets), teaching at Point Park University and then venturing out to choreograph for the Dance Alloy.

Man of Steel. Attack Theatre’s Peter Kope chooses his dance moments carefully these days. But he is now emerging as a talented director with a creative impulse as sharp as they come. Although the Attackers are a wonderfully collaborative group of performers, it is Kope who whittles the productions down to display colorful theatrical threads. He also spearheaded the move to Pittsburgh Opera, which included a second rehearsal studio, outfitted by this master carpenter, just down the alley. And he is, first and foremost, a great dad to Xander.

Dancing Classrooms. With numerous titles to their credit, international ballroom dancers and owners of Art & Style Rozana and Terry Sweeney  showed championship form while teaching fifth grade students in six Pittsburgh Public elementary schools this fall. For 10 weeks and 20 lessons they brought elegance, responsibility and respect into the lives of more than 300 students. This was the inaugural year (hope you saw the documentary “Mad Hot Ballroom” on which the lessons were based) and it set a high standard.

Mata Hari. PBT’s Alexandra Kochis had more disguises than this celebrated spy. I still recall her fresh-faced, independently-minded Juliette and the silent scream at the end of “Romeo et Juliette,” one that carried to the back of the orchestra section at the Benedum Center. She was also a winsome Aurora in “Sleeping Beauty,”  layering her interpretation with great delicacy and detail. But the most surprising was her ensemble work in “Light/The Holocaust & Humanity Project,” where she tossed aside the clarity of her technique for the emotional angles and grotesqueries needed for choreographer Stephen Mills’ contemporary style. She may be the most versatile dancer in Pittsburgh.

The Stanislavski Dancer? Stephanie Dumaine has become a dancer who internalizes the “theater” in Dance Alloy Theater with great finesse. She has created extraordinarily luminous moments in her solo work during the past year, like Stanislavski, building from the “inside out” and the “outside in.”

Best Move. Attack Theatre transported its energetic and effervescent style to a new home at Pittsburgh Opera. The company’s inaugural program, “Incident[s] in the Strip” displayed the space, a blend of historic exposed brick with contemporary and theatrical touches, at its very best. If you haven’t done so, check it out Jan 29 (see Listings) when the company puts on “Game Night and the Seven Minute Dance Series” at its new home in the Strip District.

The Big Switch. It was the big news of the year as the Dance Alloy Theater board summarily dismissed artistic director Beth Corning and instated education director Greer Reed-Jones in her place, the first time the company had not staged a national search for a replacement. But Reed-Jones came with her own resume (Dayton Contemporary Dance principal dancer, CAPA, Pittsburgh Dance Ensemble, independent choreographer) and Corning has re-emerged with her own vision, The Glue Factory, which will assemble internationally-known dancers over 40 in March. We’ll watch for the results during 2010.

Pointe in Time. Always one of the highlights of the Pittsburgh party circuit, there were some reservations when PBT’s fall event was transferred from the elegant black and white ballrooms at the William Penn Hotel to the  more traditional Hilton, where the ballroom there was draped in tons of chiffon. Nevertheless some of the formality disappeared as the guests definitely “got down” to the sounds of Gary Racan and the studio-e Band.

Reaching for the Sky. The energy was literally bouncing off the Dance Alloy walls at the Jones Intensive this past July. Sixty students, all on scholarship, spent two weeks honing their dance skills, capped by a performance at the Kelly-Strayhorn. Wish we could bottle it.

Gone But Not Forgotten. Dancers come and go, but I still find myself luxuriating in the memory of the quartet of PBT dancers who moved on this past May. Maribel Modrono, Christopher Rendall-Jackson, Daisuke Takeuchi and Kaori Ogasawara each left an indelible footprint, both in their artistry and off-stage demeanor, that has formed a chain link of memorable moments.


On Stage: A New Alloy with Gwen and Pearlann

December 4, 2009

Photo by Renee RosensteelIt was only appropriate that I caught up with Dance Alloy’s two newest choreographers on the move during a rainy afternoon. Gwen Hunter Ritchie was driving to rehearsal with the company at the New Hazlett Theatre and Pearlann Porter was waiting for a bus after her class at Point Park University (no driver’s license and it’s a lifestyle choice).

They are the Alloy’s first local artists to choreograph on the city’s oldest modern dance company and may share a multi-media approach in their premieres, but the women are anything but two peas in a Pittsburgh pod.

Gwen. Hunter Ritchie has been a staple of the modern dance scene for a number of years as a veteran of the Alloy itself, the artistic director of an Alloy offshoot, LABCO, and a respected independent artist. She is also the mother of two.

Her piece, “Look Me in the Eyes,” will feature video by Stacy Pearl that will add to the sensory experience of the dance. Artists often convert their lives into abstraction. Hunter Ritchie has been immersing herself in Asperger syndrome or autism that was discovered in her son.

“In society we generally expect someone to look you in the eyes when you’re talking with them,” she explains with the sound of windshield wipers in the background. “For people who have sensory issues, it is hard for those individuals to look and hear at the same time.”

Often it hinders any kind of communication. Those who are affected are thought of as ignorant or rude. That idea served as a springboard for the piece.

The movement “came out very easily” for Hunter Ritchie. “The things we do are really the body telling us what it needs, like tapping the foot or twirling the hair. We worked to find those movements and where they came from and what they do for us. It was a natural path for me.”

Pearlann. Porter might considered the outsider who established an experimental enclave at Construction Junction in a rather remote neighborhood (at least from Downtown), Point Breeze. There she began staging art “happenings,” with a multi-media community of young artists.

Much of Porter’s choreography is based on an improvisatory process that marinates over a long period of time. But the Alloy dancers wanted more specific instructions from her given a few time constraints.

What emerged was “The Itch of the Key,” a “neoclassic thriller” that tells “an epic story of love or terror depending upon the audience perception.” Using musical elements of Phillip Glass’ “Dracula” film score and the Kronos Quartet, she wanted to tap into the “lost romance of voyeurism” through the use of projections, where the movement is enhanced, defined or inspired by them.

But Porter and the more classically trained Alloy dancers were testing the choreographic waters. Porter usually works through a jazz-oriented philosophy at her company, The Pillow Project. During that process she’s usually “exploring the daylights” out of the movement and building a solid, yet flexible relationship with the music.

The Alloy dancers wanted more specifics, more crafting from the diminutive choreographer. What emerged was a “very interesting journey, very rewarding in a different way,” according to Porter.

See the results this weekend at the Alloy’s “Unlocked.” Check the Listings for more information.


On Stage: Made for Each Other

November 27, 2009

During the fall dance season, there were three groups that offered dances that were designed by company members. They were, in chronological order, Point Park University’s Conservatory Dance Company (Student Choreography Project), Bodiography Contemporary Ballet (Multiplicity) and Dance Alloy Theatre (Side By Side). Different labels, same philosophy.

This approach has been part and parcel of the local dance scene for a number of years. One good reason might be finances. But, at a deeper level, some company members might show a gift for creating dance and this is a wonderful way to develop those talents.

Opportunities such as these benefit all of these budding choreographers, talented or not, because they come to know the inner workings of movement. By participating in this process, they also develop a finer appreciation of it and an ability to explain it to others.

And perhaps when they work with another choreographer in the future, they will be able to respond more fully. After all, choreography is often a partnership.

Student Choreography Project

Conservatory Dance Company. This was a real surprise as I watched the student choreographers and realized how far dance has come in the 40 years or so that I’ve been watching Pittsburgh move. In the early days, a dance would often start with a concept and then meander through a series of new ideas without providing connective tissue or structure. The CDC choreographers, 12 in all, not only had some intriguing ideas, but the ability to develop them in a structured way, most likely under the guidance of Point Park staff members.

There was a prize to be had. Two of the choreographers would  go on to the American College Dance Festival Association regional conference at Mercyhurst College in Erie and the possibility of participating in the national festival at John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington D.C. next May.

It would have to be said that all of the works on the 2009 program had a certain polish, although the

Student Choreography Project

selective process was responsible for that improvement. The faculty took great care in paring down the applications from 24 to a dozen and the program reflected their input.

Who won, you ask? This had to have been the closest decision yet, but the faculty members chose senior dance majors Ahmad Simmons’ “Unconscious Entrapment” and Michael Bagne’s “De Facto.”

Bodiography Contemporary Ballet. Bodiography took the stage at the Kelly Strayhorn Theater last weekend with a new outlook, not only in choreography, which is what its “Multiplicity” program is all about, but with a bundle of new dancers. As a small contemporary ballet company, artistic director Maria Caruso has dealt well with the rather frequent performer transitions that come with the territory.

Kelly BasilShe faced this first program of the season without experienced dancer Lauren Suflita, the rehearsal director and longtime friend who has been with her from the start. Thus the company skews young at this point, but with graduates from substantial programs at Mercyhurst College, North Carolina School of the Arts and Point Park University.

But this may be the Bodiography group that has the greatest potential. Every dancer had technical expertise as a foundation with which to build a company. As for “Multiplicity,” Caruso interspersed newly ordained choreographers with more experienced fare, amounting to a stronger program.

Caruso is building a partnership with Cello Fury (formerly Cellofourte), a good move when it comes to live music. I’d never heard the previous configuration, but Cello Fury has a parallel energy to Bodiography that should work well. However this particular concert had some intonation problems in the higher registers and the players’ aggressive playing style sometimes seemed overly raw.

Caruso provided two pieces, one a reworking of “Intimate Liasons.” It focused on loss and featured some of Kelly Basil’s best work with Colleen Landwerlen in the emotional landscape of the piece. “No Bad Hair Days” included three breast cancer survivors who related their stories during a solo by Meghan Dann. It signaled a significant change from Caruso, who showed a sculptural sense that was ultimately satisfying. That carried over into her solo, “The Red Dress,” by Ilana Suprun Clyde. Except for an unexpected series of pique turns that seemed out of context, Caruso made it into a powerful showcase.

Although Landwerlen’s “Swing Into the Night” was a lively opening selection, it relied too much on geometric patterns and chorus line elements, and Kaitlin Dann’s “No Character for Every Actor” lacked dimension.

However, Nicole Cerilli’s “Alone in Kyoto” had the linear aesthetic of the Far East and Alex Salerno, company apprentice and student at Point Park, provided a silky little solo in “Child.” Claudie Morris Lawrey contributed an entertaining finale, “Nuances de Chocolat.”

Dance Alloy Theatre.

Pittsburgh’s oldest modern dance troupe is once again changing its configuration (or “alloy”) under the leadership of Greer Reed-Jones and there were signs of change flitting through the FriendshipChristopher Bandy and Michael Walsh studio in “Alloy on Alloy.”

One would expect a certain depth of perspective, given that this company has a seasoned roster of veterans and the dancers’ choreographic selections bore that out. Maribeth Maxa led the evening with “302,” the code number for an involuntary admission to a hospital. It was a turnaround for Maxa, who always exudes a dewy disposition, but set the stage for quirky dance behaviors and straitjackets. I particularly liked Maxa’s astute character observations, although “302″ could have been trimmed a bit.

It’s been particularly satisfying to watch Christopher Bandy open himself up to new possibilities at the Alloy. Just last spring, he was still in a balletic mood. But this time he presented a whimsical duet, “Maestro,” where Adrienne Misko seemed to lead Bandy’s a capella vocal accompaniment. Bandy also gave Michael WaStephanie Dumaine and Christopher Bandylsh and Maxa an interactive duet, “Where You’re Not Strong,” based on their longtime friendship. They were playful, supportive and occasionally twisted into a headlock, cementing both their partnership and Bandy’s modern dance transformation.

There was plenty of connective tissue in Walsh’s “Dance By Post-It,” with the premise that anyone could make a dance. Beginning with the words on scraps of paper and a scattershot style, the piece gradually gained a formal structure and a strength that showed Walsh’s increasing sophistication.

Reed-Jones made her choreographic appearance with “Remembrance,” a solo for Caitlin Cahill that drew from recent deaths in Reed-Jones family. It came from a deep emotional core, but marked a change of direction from Reed-Jones in a choreographic break from her own Ailey tradition and the willing establishment of  a new Alloy tradition.


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