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…


On Stage: Pippin

February 2, 2015

There was a scatterbrained tune-up before the orchestra began the familiar ’70’s pop stye introduction for “Magic To Do.”

Some in the audience immediately applauded, but then Pippin has that kind of effect on Broadway enthusiasts.

Most of it has to do with Stephen Schwarz’ smartly tuneful score, loaded with memorable songs like Corner of the Sky and Morning Glow, the kind of music that makes your heart sing.

Another large chunk of affection could be attributed to director/choreographer Bob Fosse  who once rescued an unwieldy story of King Charlemagne’s son and his coming of age and put it “on the right track” with a cast featuring an unforgettable Ben Vereen (Leading Player) and John Rubinstein (Pippin).

As it turned out in one of life’s little quirks (and a bonus for Pittsburgh), Rubinstein was part of the touring company at the Benedum Center, older and presumably wiser and robustly playing the part of Pippin’s father, Charles.

On the whole, this Pippin was one of the more experienced and interesting casts to pass through the Broadway series.

The “new” Pippin was Sam Lips, who understudied the title role on Broadway and made us distinctly aware of the boy king’s often awkward journey to manhood. Berthe was Priscilla Lopez, a Tony Award winner for A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine, part of original cast in A Chorus Line, Nine, Company and much, much more. This grandmother was sexy as well as mesmerizing in her singalong tune, No Time at All, even twirling above the state in a suspended ring.

The whole cast was game in the adventuresome, derring-do staging that took place in a circus tent. I had some reservations, being brought up on Fosse’s unique body-popping style (almost to be considered a historical antecedent to hip hop) that graced movies and Broadway for so many years.

No kidding — he was The Man.

So I had to be convinced that circus tricks were in the best interests of Pippin. While there might be a few things to quibble with, undoubtedly director Diane Paulus came up with a spectacular vision.

It was a the right way to deal with the epic stories we all encounter — war, peace, lust and the like. These things form that meaty balancing act of life (symbolized by acrobats) and deserve a huge arena (peppered with mind-boggling circus acts that actually gave a suitably daring perspective to war). I mean, all I could say was “wow!”

Not that everyone had a handle on the Fosse style —  except for Molly Tynes, a long-legged Fastrada in the classic Fosse mold. As for a powerful Sasha Allen (Leading Player), an egocentric Callan Bergmann (Lewis) and those unheralded Players, that only heightened the impact.

But it didn’t matter in the end. Paulus was able to put her own satisfying stamp on this Pippin, adapting things to today’s whirlwind world without losing a sense of style and relevance — just like her predecessor did — and no easy feat.



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.


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: DWTS Partners Up

January 15, 2015


Dancing With the Stars swirled its way into Pittsburgh, much to the delight of its many fans. There was only one from the “Star” side, winner Alfonso Ribiero. But the pros themselves took up the slack, creating a casual atmosphere that was almost intimate, despite the Benedum Center’s audience of thousands. Read about it in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.


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: Real Royalty

December 2, 2014


The Royal Ballet of Cambodia has a remarkable story behind it.

But seeing it unfold on the stage of the Byham Theater was a manifestation of its purpose in its country.

Lavishly beautiful and serene, even when the all-female cast of dancers were performing as men, we caught a glimpse into the national character of Cambodia.

Certainly the Cambodians’ style bore a common resemblance to other Asian countries, particularly India and Thailand, with a certain weightiness to the legs and ornate arms weaving a series of pictures above.

This company was suitably titled ballet because there was an organic effortlessness about it, an aristocratic style born of its courtly days. These were spiritual peacemakers on stage, best exemplified by the angels at the end.

Underneath that effortlessness, though, was an impeccable control, with balletic attitudes, but with the knee pointed to the floor and the back foot almost touching the body. They held these poses in slow, breathtaking promenades.

Most notable were the hands, though it is said that they practice stretching them until the back of their hands can touch the wrists.

With that kind of flexibility available, they can hold their hands along a backward curve, not pushing, but in a celestial arch.




On Stage: Pearlann Part III

November 18, 2014


Brent Lubbert and Bre Short Photo: Cassie K. Rusnak

Brent Lubbert and Bre Short Photo: Cassie K. Rusnak

How can you look back when you’re always looking forward? Maybe by linking the two in a fresh new way, which is exactly what Pearlann Porter did to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the The Pillow Project.

She led off the evening with improvisational performances, her current mode of dance transportation. Taylor Knight was in a zone of his own as resident DJ.

There was a detailed time line along the big wall, ladled with the presentational flair that Pearlann exudes, from her first review of Z-zzz to, well, The Tenth.

An overflow crowd turned out to see the impact of Pearlann’s decision to remain in Pittsburgh. It was readily apparent.

Anna Thompson Photo: Sam Sanlon

Anna Thompson Photo: Sam Sanlon

She chose five fragments to give us a hint of the past. There was a tasty trio to start.  Anna Thompson so fierce in 2084. Breanna Albright hugging the shadows in a solo from Til the Bitter Fucking End and that memorable table sequence from Striped, so sweaty raw with Alex Bright and Weylin Gomez.

We saw from just that trio how her dancers have evolved their bodies to flow like lava with veins of hyper-heated intensity.

Later came a duet from Concept Album, with Kaylin Horgan digging so deep, with Rebekah Kuczma hovering over her. (Has it been ten years since we first saw her in The Pillow Project…and she’s only 24?)

The fifth piece was a part of Paper Memories with Taylor recreating the role of the writer, something that came to define him, and Anna as his inspiration.

Taylor Knight. Photo: Cassie K. Rusnak

Taylor Knight. Photo: Cassie K. Rusnak

We saw these pieces in a new way, though. The dancers had taken Pearlann’s current jazz style and layered it over the fixed choreography, providing a connecting link between Year One and The Tenth Year…and The Future.

Thank you, Pearlann.


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