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: OR, and Uproar

February 27, 2015
Elisa-Marie Alaio and Darren Michael MacArthur in "Uproar."

Elisa-Marie Alaio and Darren Michael MacArthur in “Uproar.”

It was a concept I haven’t come across before, to present an original play alternating with a dance program, both differing visions of the same subject matter. But off the Wall productions, a postage stamp of a company in Carnegie with big visions, did just that.

Intrigued as I was, I was only able to make my way, finally, at the end of run. And why shouldn’t I be interested? Both centered around a strong-willed female writer and the creative process. Needless to say, I was taken in by it all.

OR,  came first. Written by Liz Duffy Adams, it was a play built on contrasts, whirling around the life and thoughts of English writer and playwright Aphra Behn, played by Erika Cuenca. She was backed by a wall of doors, which allowed for a fast-paced and quick-witted exchanges. There were just three actors, but Robin Abramson playing famed actress Nell Gwynne and others and Ethan Hova switching between King Charles II and William Scott, it seemed like more. Kudos to director John Shepard, who kept things moving seamlessly and to a talented veteran cast.

Off the Wall’s dance wing, fireWALL dance theater, alternated performances with the theater work, but with a different angle on that theme. Elisa-Marie Alaio and Cuenca (also assistant artistic director of off the WALL) joined together to construct a plot that concentrated more on the creative process of the writer. Called Uproar, the trappings bore a more than a passing resemblance (and rhyming rhythm) to OR, but the characters, danced by four dancers in multiple roles as well, were figments of Alaio’s imagination.

There was a significant improvement over fireWALL’s first performance, On the Rox, last spring. Uproar had more depth to the choreography, which was still athletic, but with more sophisticated phrasing. All in all, that growth whets the appetite for what’s ahead as the company matures.


On Stage: The Attack Theatre Reunion

February 26, 2015
Attack founders Michele de la Reza and Peter Kope.

Attack founders Michele de la Reza and Peter Kope.

Attack Theater is in the midst of a 20th anniversary season and it’s time for a reunion. Read about it in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

But also read what their dancers have to say, always a mark of a top-notch company —

Dane Toney: This is my 7th season with Attack Theatre and it has been extremely rewarding and fulfilling. Attack Theatre is about collaboration and there is a tremendous amount of respect that flows between artist, performer, administration, audience and community. Each day is different and continues to present new challenges. Those challenges range from transforming an abandoned building into a performance space full of life and energy to creating and then implementing a lesson plan centered on movement about the solar system for a 3rd grade class. There is always something new to learn or discover and explore.

Ashley Williams:

1. Working with Attack Theatre is like drinking from a fire hydrant: the constant creative, physical and emotional challenges involved in keeping up with the rehearsing/performing/teaching/inventing is drenching, mostly in a very good way.

2. Everyday we come to work, the job is different.

3. As a dancer, I’d expect my body to matter to my job. As an Attack Theatre dancer, my mind also really, really matters to my job. That’s cool.

4. I like being asked (by children after an in-school performance): ‘How do you do all them tricks?’

5. I love performing to live music.

Kaitlin Dann: The  reason why I keep coming back to Attack Theatre is because the company truly is anything but stationary. Over the past few years, I have had the privilege to continue evolving as a teaching artist, performer, and collaborator. We build our shows from the ground up giving us accountability in all aspects, from the construction of a stage to the final bow. The cherry on top is simply the astounding way Attack Theatre makes sure to take care of its dancers and administrative staff with salaried contracts and health benefits. I’d be hard pressed for find a more fulfilling company to work for.

Peter and Michele at their signature table.

Peter and Michele at their signature table.

 


Dance Beat: Remembering Mary and Ron

February 25, 2015

Point Park University’s dance department was dealt a double blow with the recent deaths of Marion Petrov and Ron Tassone.

Marion PetrovMary, the wife of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre founder Nicolas Petrov, was remembered by Mackenzie Carpenter in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. I remember Mary performing as a soloist in the early days of PBT, particularly her Russian dance in Swan Lake, so full of a heartfelt nuance. I also took classes with her at Point Park after her retirement. They were challenging, built on a Russian technique, but so musical that 90 minutes seem to fly by. Most of all, though, I remembered her flashing dark eyes and quick wit. To be missed…

Jazz teacher Ron Tassone began the dance program at Point Park following a rich performing career that included seven Broadway shows, plus films and television. After he joined the staff at Point Park in 1974, he choreographed for the Civic Light Opera and numerous regional groups. Read about it in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Prolific and with a purported photographic memory, he seemed to be everywhere. On stage his students and performers captured his signature Broadway brio that fostered many professional dancers.

Always kind and generous, Ron most recently became a father figure to students and colleagues, a jazz treasure to everyone around him. To be missed…


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


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