On Stage: An Operatic Love Affair

February 28, 2014

Porgy Hats

The title Porgy and Bess has always had a ring of familiarity for me, mostly due to several breakout songs that became standards in the American songbook, like It Ain’t Necessarily So and, in particular, the soaring Summertime.

But I had never really acquainted myself with the citizens of Catfish Row. Although there have been several different productions, the 2011 revival, which Broadway star Audra MacDonald made into a personal journey, piqued my interest. And when the national tour opened in Pittsburgh this week, with choreography by Ronald K. Brown, who taps the history of African movement like no one else, I was on my way to the Benedum Center.

Folks, this is a universal love story well worth seeing and, given the magnificent George Gershwin score, it is a production that should’t be missed, both for its historical value and just as a fine evening in the theater.

porgy and bess

The Benedum orchestra served notice, right from the opening chords, of the vibrant life that the composer gave it and how daring it must have sounded, with jazz rhythms amid contemporary harmonies, when it was first presented in 1936.

Much has been written about how the current production team trimmed the original four hour opera to make it more accessible through a Broadway musical format. The first act was leisurely as it established the characters along the fictional “Row” in Charleston, South Carolina– you could almost feel the sweltering heat of this “summer time.” Riccardo Hernandez’ spare, effective set hinted at the impoverished lifestyle, while the raised and ragged floorboards allowed for some slithering entrances and exits.

But it was the second act that had the power, the sweep, the drama that “Porgy and Bess” really deserved, beginning with so innocently with the picnic on Kittawah Island and building a stirring climb from that point. Mr. Brown’s choreography served a number of purposes, particularly seen during It Ain’t Necessarily So (led by a sassy Kingsley Leggs as Sporting Life).

It treaded a fine line between weighted African movements and a certain Broadway flair. He also had to accommodate a cast that was chosen mostly for their singing abilities and, to that extent, he succeeded in conveying a casual celebratory feel without being overly structured.Porgy Sporting

This Porgy and Bess was chock-full of actors who gave their characters full measure, including the nurturing Clara (Sumayya Ali), who established it all with Summertime, the matriarch Mariah (Danielle Lee Greaves) and the looming villain Crown (Alvin Crawford).

The supporting cast gave the pair in the title roles, Nathaniel Stampley and Alicia Hall Moran, a rich emotional support that lifted their portrayal of an ill-fated love affair to wonderful heights in duets like I Loves You Porgy.

By the end, the audience was totally invested in the story, audibly reacting to the plot’s twists and turns, but barely clapping so as not to interrupt the flow of storytelling. They saved it for the end, rising en masse for a standing ovation that was undeniably well deserved.

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On Stage: A Tale of a Soldier, Attack and Dave

February 27, 2014

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Dave Eggar is the modern-day equivalent of a medieval musician, who moved from court to court. But now he has a jet set mentality, trilling in China for an Adidas commercial, or Alaska for a video of American Idol winner Philip Phillips’ latest hit single, or, our favorite, returning to Pittsburgh and Attack Theatre.

He is a superhero kind of cellist, at ease as much with local transport as he is with airports. We’re glad when he touches down in our fair city to play, perform and, in this instance, to compose.

Dave was on hand for Attack’s encore production of Stravinsky’s monumental chamber work, Histoire du Soldat (The History of a Soldier). It was a big hit its first time out two years ago (relish Jonathan Eaton’s updates like “subprime mortgages” and “FDIC-insured”) and is even better now. Opening night was as tight as it could be, with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra musicians merrily chewing on the impossibly tricky score. With a few new tweaks to be had, the Attack dancers transformed this parable into a devilishly smart, entertaining and absolutely delightful performance.

Dave came in, though, to compose the music for the world premiere of  A Tiny Droplet of a Portrait in collaboration with Chatham Baroque. Featuring the blossoming duo of Kaitlin Dann and Brent Luebbert, the piece, conceived and choreographed by Peter Kope and Michele de la Reza, was a Baroque relationship study in, according to Dave, 5 1/2 movements, using structured musical elements like the gavotte and sarabande and injecting African rhythms and electronica.

The latter innovations signaled the underlying emotions of the relationship, imbuing it with a contemporary patina. Along that end, both wore plush Baroque pants costumes, giving the piece the illusion of time travel. Kudos to Chatham Baroque, who plunged into the Eggar mix with verve and a sense of adventure.

dave eggers-smallWhenever Dave comes to town, it’s always fun to catch up on his own latest adventures. So read on to capture his own version of time travel.

Q: It’s been almost a year since you’ve been in Pittsburgh. Bring us up to date.

A: This year has been insanely exciting. After I did Attack’s public art project, I toured with Phillip Phillips, winner of American Idol two years ago. Gary Wattenberg pulled me into the studio to listen to his mega hit, Home. Within 5 minutes I was completely mesmerized. I wound up on the tour and played the Super Bowl right before the game at a tailgate party. I also wrote the score for the Mark Jackson film, War Story, and Difret, which won the audience award for best dramatic foreign film at Sundance. And I’m doing a new ballet doing created by Bylle Redford, performance artist and wife of Robert Redford who will star. Based on the four elements, it’s choreographed by Desmond Richardson and premiere in Miami in March.

Q: So you’re finally back in Pittsburgh. Tell us about your latest project.

A: When the idea first came to the table, it was kind of challenging for me. I thought, well, how do I write for Baroque instruments in a way that flatters the incredible virtuosity of these players on their instruments in that style, while making it something contemporary? I just didn’t want to write classical contemporary music on Baroque instruments. So what we ended up doing was something really interesting, a mixture of them playing a modern look at Baroque dance suite movements fused with various African rhythms and electronica.

Part of what I was thinking a lot about was the relationship between France and Africa in the Baroque period. Obviously France colonized Mali. So when you listen to the music of Senegal and Mali, a lot of the music seems related to the French Baroque because the musicians had to play that music for the French royalty when they were there. So I thought it would be fun to cross-pollinate those worlds and bring some of that rhythmic energy.

The choreography looks at a relationship between two dancers. At the beginning and the end, the dancers have a certain decorum, as if everything is okay in the relationship.  As these primal rhythms take over you start to see the ogres and the shadows and the darkness come through the relationship.

Q: What was the process like?

A: At Attack we’ve always had a process where the music and dance talk to each other.  I’ll inch a few steps forward and they’ll inch a few steps forward.

It’s an introverted piece and it’s nice that it’s on the program with L’Histoire, this incredible masterpiece that’s so theatrical and extroverted. When I was writing it, it was sort of intimidating. Who wants to be on the same program where the other composer is Stravinsky? I mean, like no one.

So I decided to go the opposite direction, try to do something that was more vulnerable and fragile. You could almost wonder if the Chatham Baroque players are accompanying the dance or if they might be the players in the bedroom where this is going on in Louis XIV’s court, the way that my predecessors might have played for royalty in that day.

And in another through-the-looking-glass kind of thing, it starts with Baroque, then everything starts to go awry. The electronica shows the passion and the energy that connects these two dancers. When they go back to putting their masks on, it’s probably with a little bit more intelligence and knowledge.

I wanted it to feel like a Baroque dance suite, but the electronic and tribal components started interfering with them playing these very specific movements. It let me explore things like the Courante and Sarabande and the tarantella and kind of like a Gigue — to explore these rhythms and explore them in a more rhythmical sense. That was exciting to me.

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Q: How did Chatham Baroque respond to the score?

A. They were very good about trying things. With the first draft I told them not to freak out, because it might be completely non-thematic. They were been great at learning it, and adapting it when it needed it. Now my goal for the piece in a lot of ways is the two dancers and three musicians as one band, really as a unified little world where the electronic is an exterior and the two dancers and three musicians are an interior. I love to juxtapose contexts and make people think. I love artists who think outside the box.

Q: How do you shift musical gears so effortlessly?

A: I’m very organized in my head, which is very good. I have a lot of pragmatic Swiss genes from my Swiss ancestors.

I used to wrestle with multiple hats a lot, but then I started to embrace it. Am I a producer? Am I a cellist? I say I’m going to do chamber music again. Then I’m asked to compose this amazing action film score. Eventually all of these different worlds started to connect in really fun interesting ways. It’s quite magical. I feel very blessed and very lucky.

It’s made me very empathic, because I have to understand people from all sorts of traditions — written music people, pop stars, Middle Eastern musicians, Chinese musicians. Every style I’m playing with, I’m dealing with a different kind of personality, a different kind of approach to music. It’s made me away better musician just to have that breadth.

One day I’m working on how to have a hit song for an artist, another refining chamber music. I wish more musicians would have more diversity.

I went from playing the Super Bowl to teaching 3000 kids in Chicago the next day. I went from playing before 89 million at the Super Bowl and in the next day was able to touch a bunch of school kids with music. It’s a beautiful thing. None are better than others – they’re just all different.

Yes, it’s been a really interesting time. I’m also exhausted.

Q: Do you ever take a vacation?

A: I had this vacation time planned, saying there’s nothing that’s going to get in the way of this. Then Phillip Phillips called, asking if I want to be in this video in Alaska around his next big single. Then I got a call to play for a commercial for Adidas sneakers in China. Two massively paid gigs. Two incredible experiences.

Life throws you a lot of curve balls and a lot of unexpected stuff. You have to look at it and sort of move and bend and turn.

Q: So it keeps you flexible.You say that the first week of March changed four times in three days. What keeps you coming back to work with the Attack Theatre?

A: There’s a lot that I love about Attack, but what I really feel is it that they’re not afraid in the creative space of the performance, that they’re not afraid to go through a period of the unknown to redefine the performance space. And for me as a versatile musician, that is very exciting. So when you look at the final project, it’s nothing like what you imagined when you first started. You end up finding out more about yourself through the collaborative process.

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That philosophic outlook continues to pay off. In the weeks ahead, in addition to the Redford ballet, Dave will appear on PBS’ Emmy Award-winning Bluegrass Underground and will be finishing up the new Phillip Phillips record. He also plays on an average of seven or eight records a week, some of which he records on tracks from the road, including Grammy-nominated jazz saxophonist Chris Potter.

Dave is also addicted to his mobile devices. Another message come through and I reluctantly bring the interview to an end. He admits that living on a tour bus for six months will do that to you.

Catch it through Sunday. Click on Attack.

Dave-Eggar


On Stage: Compagnie Käfig

February 6, 2014
Photo: Michel Cavalca

Photo: Michel Cavalca

It was almost like a breath of fresh air when France’s Compagnie Käfig breezed into town with its own brand of hip-hop. See what all the excitement was about in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.


Dance Beat: More KST

February 6, 2014

struggle_slide

A Second Season. Aren’t we lucky to have the Kelly Strayhorn Theater, so full of dance adventure? It’s almost like a bonus right now – KST is producing a terrific second season that will add a lot of punch to the Pittsburgh dance community.

Baker & Tarpaga Dance Project returns with the local premiere of Beautiful Struggle Feb 21–22 and we will welcome back Sidra Bell Dance New York March 7–8 with the world premiere of garment. Also on tap is Sean Dorsey Dance in the Secret History of Love April 4–5.

KST’s Next Stage Dance Residency has produced some exceptionally fine productions. This year’s resident artists will be Mana Kawamura, who made a strong impression at the last newMoves Festival, and local improv queen, Gia T. Cacalano. See them Feb.1.

KST is also providing a springboard for Pittsburgh-based artists in Fresh Works, where they are given 80 rehearsal hours at The Alloy Studios to explore cross-genre collaborations. The program culminates with a performance during Unblurred: First Fridays on Penn. First up is Alan Obuzor on February 7. Click on KST for more info.

Love to see Pittsburgh dance living on the edge.


On Stage: Cooking Up Some Delicious Dance

January 27, 2014

Beth Corning

That was a great pleasure that we were able to plum the emotional and intellectual depths of three veteran dancer/artists — Francoise Fournier, Maria Cheng and, of course, our own Beth Corning in “Recipes Our Mothers Gave Us.” Read about it in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. (And don’t you love her photos?)

Beth Corning


Dance Beat: PBT Honors

January 23, 2014
Janet Groom, Terrence Orr, Nicholas Petrov and Patricia Wilde.

Janet Groom, Terrence Orr, Nicholas Petrov and Patricia Wilde.

DRESSING UP FOR JANET. She’s been one of the pillars of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre over the past 40 years. And most certainly, costumier Janet Groom has been one of the reasons behind PBT’s success. Having seen other regional companies and some of the costumes that have been imported for various productions, I can easily say that Janet has been a hidden treasure. Mostly, that is. She often views performances, sometimes in a handmade Groom original that picks up on the theme of the evening’s ballet. PBT honored her at Perlè, one of Pittsburgh’s newest and coolest venues, a versatile contemporary space in Market Square. There Janet was in the spotlight, honored by board member Carolyn Byham and current artistic director Terrence Orr. Also in attendance were founding and first artistic director Nicolas Petrov and the always elegant artistic director Patricia Wilde, amid a fine “turn out” by board and company members. As a bonus, several of Janet’s exquisite costumes adorned the walls, so that we could get an up close and personal look at her remarkable attention for detail.

KUDOS TO PATRICIA. Speaking of Patricia Wilde, she was recently honored by Dance Magazine, putting her in some stratospheric company, including the likes of Mikhail Baryshnikov, Merce Cunningham and Pina Bausch.(Click on  DM for a complete list.) “Oh, I thought was long forgotten,” she said when we talked at the PBT company studios. But when she was contacted for a Dance Magazine article on batterie — she was known for her sparkling footwork — her name resurfaced for editor Wendy Perron. When all was said and done, Patricia was noted as a real triple-threat. She moved from a hard-working principal at New York City Ballet (she once attended a rehearsal on the day of her wedding) to a ballet mistress and globe-trotting teacher to a 15-year stint as PBT artistic director. These days she still can be seen at rehearsals and performances and is still in demand as a teacher. Pittsburgh is truly lucky.

YOSHIAKI NAKANOMORE FOR YOSHIAKI. Newly-appointed PBT soloist Yoshiaki Nakano broke through as a winner of the Beijing International Ballet Competition this past summer. Now he has capped that by being named to Dance Magazine’s 25 to Watch for 2014. Congrats!

SOPHIE. And last but not least, PBT student Sophie Sea Silnicki,16, will be participating in Switzerland’s Prix de Lausanne, one of the major ballet competitions in the world. Follow her journey beginning January 27 by clicking on Sophie.


January 20, 2014
Alison Luff as Elphaba Photos: Joan Marcus

Alison Luff as Elphaba Photos: Joan Marcus

Revisionist fairytales are all the rage. No longer are they Disney-esque — sweet and so, so pretty, sometimes packed with tuneful melodies. Instead they are more Burton-esque (as in Tim), and a little more “Wicked,”

“Wicked” has only been around for about 10 years, yet it appears to have spawned a whole raft of offshoots, including television’s “Once Upon a Time,” which is sporting its own Elphaba.

 

Alison Luff (Elphaba) and Jenn Gambatese (Glinda)

Alison Luff (Elphaba) and Jenn Gambatese (Glinda)

She rightfully belongs to “Wicked,” though. Her story in the Land of Oz, where it isn’t easy being green and where appearances of good and evil aren’t always what they seem, has gone through several of its own revisions. It began with Gregory Maguire’s book in 1995, the inspiration for the hit musical, which shaved off a few warts and all in order to appeal to family-friendly audiences.

And now “Wicked” has come back to Pittsburgh. It’s almost as if there has been another revision. This was the sleekest and, yes, loveliest of several versions I have seen. Even the Broadway production maintained an edgier look at the Emerald City.

 

The Wizard

The Wizard

Like many tours these days, “Wicked” returned with much of the award-winning scenery and sumptuous costumes intact, a visually glorious feast packed with the internal workings of a giant timepiece, a Time Dragon suspended above the Benedum Center proscenium and plenty of fog, sometimes too much, for the appropriate magical atmosphere.

Alison Luff’s Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West, was more attractive than usual, without the unique beauty of, say, and Idina Menzel, who originated the role. But she took the audience on a journey, saving her best acting and singing for the second act. But her soaring performance of the show’s anthem, “Defying Gravity” still produced goosebumps.

 

The Emerald City

The Emerald City

That carried over into the rest of the cast. While Gina Beck’s Glinda was virtually note perfect, her transition into a leader and ultimately a steadfast good friend gave this Good Witch a worthy dimension.

Among the supporting cast, a petite Alison Fraser was more cute than, as her name suggests, Madame Morrible and John Davidson tapped echoes of Al Jolson in his traveling vaudevillian version of The Wizard. But Nick Adams was suitably handsome and engaging as Fiyero, while Tom Flynn was appropriately, yet humanely uppercrust as Dr. Dillamond.

The ensemble provided great vocal support in Stephen Schwartz’s by-now-familiar score, with dancers forgoing diversity, one of the overriding “Wicked” themes, in favor of an elegant technique (except for those fabulous winged monkeys).

This production gained power as it delved into a magical brew of good and evil, sprinkled with witty references to the 1939 movie, often at the oddest of moments. This “Wicked” is, in the end, worth your while, just to be transported to a world of magic and trickery, love and friendship, plus a clever twist on one of the world’s favorite fairytales.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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