Just when we think it’s the end of a dance career, it can trend to yet another beginning. Beth Corning believes that older dancers don’t fade away; they just access a more minimalist, inner dramatic thread that has been there all along. So she gave Pittsburgh dance fans another shot at seeing the charismatic Arthur Avila, who we lo-o-oved in his performances here with Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company, in her latest production, Parallel Lives. Check it out at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Another Kyle Success. It’s becoming more and more apparent that Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre is passing up on a golden opportunity to hire Pittsburgh native Kyle Abraham for a commissioned work. The MacArthur “Genius” Award-winner has turned many knowledgable heads with work on his company, Abraham.In.Motion. and recently produced a duet for New York City Ballet principal and international star Wendy Whelan, which is still touring. Now he garnered a rave review in the Chicago Tribune for a premiere he created for Hubbard Street Dance Chicago. Hopefully it isn’t too late for PBT artistic director Terrence Orr to jump on the Kyle bandwagon…
New Attack. Attack Theatre founders Michele de la Reza and Peter Kope did an entertaining tag team announcement of AT’s upcoming season in their home studio at the Pittsburgh Opera recently. Click on AT for more info. Also on tap — there will be two new dancers for the opening series, Are You Still There? (opening Oct. 3). Both are Juilliard School alumnae (as is de la Reza) — James Jude Johnson, who gave us a sample of his fluid movement at the announcement even, and Brittanie Brown, who hadn’t arrived yet, but has also danced with Kyle Abraham.
Tammies Go Solo. The Duquesne University Tamburitzans, long a staple under the wing of Duquesne University will become an independent, nonprofit organization over the next two to three years. That will enable them to audition students from other universities, as well as Duquesne, which will make up for the 40 percent drop in applicants over the years. DU will still provide scholarships for the Duquesne students and will donate $2 million in buildings, land, costumes, instruments, vehicles and equipment. The school will also provide transitional support while the group establishes itself and hires an executive director with a volunteer board. In the meantime, the Tamburitzans Executive Council will provide additional support.
A Day to Celebrate. The Pittsburgh City Council is declaring September 23 Mary Miller Dance Company Day for 30 years of excellence in dance performance and education. Congratulations!
Nurturing at PearlArts. With their welcoming studio on North Braddock, Staycee and Herman Pearl have become an indelible part of the community. Recently they sponsored a night for young urban artists, many from the Alumni Theater Company. Led by Len Starr and Cherish Morgan, this was a night of dance, song and just hangin’ out.
When Kelly Strayhorn Theater executive director janera solomon stepped out onto the stage, she mentioned that the Pittsburgh landmark was celebrating its 100th anniversary. As a result of that, she talked about the process of finding the perfect opening for such a historic season.
The theater had seen so many changes go on around it in East Liberty. Who could embody the ups and downs of those experiences? The answer, and a perfect one at that, was Carmen de Lavallade, 83 years young, and a legendary dancer, along with respected actor and choreographer.
She actually had performed on that same stage 10 years ago in a duet with Gus Solomons, Jr. at the first National Performing Arts Convention here. The pair electrified a knowledgable audience back then and Ms. de Lavallade enthralled new fans in a master class Wednesday morning, a showing of a documentary with her husband Geoffrey Holder Wednesday night and most telling in a solo performance on Friday. (Bravo to KST!)
Called “As I Remember It,” this was a story that needed to be told. With dance spinning in so many new and exciting directions, it is imperative that today’s performers use the past as a springboard into the future.
But as important as Ms. de Lavallade was to dance history, her inspirational story was one that should be heard by non-dance audience members as well. Peppered with names of which they may have no knowledge, it was apparent that her charismatic presence, not only elegant, but filled with determination, hadn’t diminished.
A young girl who “grew up with earthquakes” in Los Angeles, she talked about the “Balinese top” and “African bottom” that served her so well, even as she was often the only “colored girl” in ballet class — not that many studios would allow her admittance at that time.
But she was able to study with another legend, Lester Horton, who gave rise to Los Angeles choreographer Bella Lewitsky, fashion designer Rudy Gernreich, teacher James Truitte and most famously, Alvin Ailey, and where she swept floors, built costumes and cleaned bathrooms.
It was all told in a beautiful production that literally moved with her. Mimi Lien’s set flared like a trumpet and, at the same time, curved like a new Samsung television. It was draped with fringe-like threads that captured a panorama of archival footage in Maya Ciarrocchi’s video design.
Directed by Joe Grifasi, Ms. de Lavallade told her story with the aid of documenter Talvin Wilkes, both of whom were present for the event. She was able to move fluidly back and forth through the set piece, sometimes seated on a bench or chair, sometimes seen in shadow behind it, sometimes gloriously bursting through the fringe.
All the while she was telling her compelling story.
The audience saw various movie clips — “The Golden Hawk,” “The Egyptian,” “Demetrius and the Gladiators” and “Lydia Bailey,” where she danced with Jack Cole (a taskmaster known as “The Terror”), who had to wear “Negro Number 2” make-up. On television’s Ed Sullivan Show, she was scheduled to perform “Willow Weep For Me” with Glen Tetley, who was white. African-American dancer Claude Thompson had to replace him. They heard how Duke Ellington kissed her after a performance of “Portrait of Billie” at the Newport Jazz Festival.
They heard how, after many performances with Alvin Ailey and as a principal dancer at the Metropolitan Opera, she joined the Yale Repertory Theater and performed in 19 productions while teaching movement to young actors like Meryl Streep. They heard how she pushed through the vagaries of age over six decades.
But she moved — and oh, how she moved. Still in her prime in many ways, Ms. de Lavallade didn’t just convey the art of dance, she got to the heart of dance…and life.
Sometimes interviews are just that — questions and answers. But in this instance, it was a conversation between friends and I was mostly a fly on the wall, watching, listening…and learning.
Beth Corning is nearing the end of her latest project for Corningworks’ The Glue Factory, where she designs choreography for dancers over 50. This one is called PARALLEL LIVES, a production highlighting the technology that works to keep us in touch with the world around us, but with a price — the divisive effect on interpersonal communication.
There are five players involved, including lighting designer Iain Court and projection designer Hsuan-Kuang Hsieh. The remaining three happened to be rehearsing in the upstairs studio at the New Hazlett Theater last week when I popped in. Rather, Corning was seated at a table with scenic designer Akiko Kotani (2013 Pittsburgh Center for the Arts Visual Artist of the Year). Behind them, occupying his own private space in a completely personal way (and sometimes throwing paper airplanes) Arthur Aviles was rehearsing — really. (Dance fans might remember the Bessie Award-winning artist from his memorable performances at the Pittsburgh Dance Council with Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company. But he also co-founded the “funky and welcoming performance space” BAAD! — The Bronx Academy of Arts and Dance, for which he received a New York City Mayor’s Arts Award.)
We didn’t spend a lot of time talking about the production itself. So what follows is a compilation of conversational observations about art, the rehearsal process and each other.
We carry the world in our pockets.
We overlook those across the table
while simultaneously texting others across the globe
—- “reaching out” endlessly —- hoping for more.
Birth of an Idea. It all began when Corning and Kotani met at a Heinz Endowment event. As a result, Corning went to see Kotani’s Artist of the Year exhibition (2013) at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts. “I got it!” she enthuses. “I got her!” She promptly (as always) sent an email. It turned out that Kotani, known worldwide as a fabric artist, was fascinated by the thought of participating in a theater production. “I always wanted to work with scrims,” she explains. That being said, Kotani even volunteered to find grant money for the project, much to Corning’s delight. Corning subsequently talked to Aviles, whom she has known “forever.” He was ready to retire at 50 (now 51), but Corning firmly (as always) suggested that he “retire next year.” Now Aviles is calling “PARALLEL LIVES” one of his final projects. “I’m like Cher, the Cher of modern dance,” he says with a captivating grin. “I’m coming back more fabulous than the last time.”
A Perfect Blend. They found themselves all on the same page, the same road, the same journey. Corning gives a hint of their perspective: “How simple can you get? How direct can you be?” They wanted the audience to “get a sense of real and not real, linear and not linear, fantasy and not fantasy.” Kotani observes, “We wanted to to go places we feel are important. We wanted to experiment. And Corning adds, like a cherry on top, “with quality.” That goes without saying, though, with these artists.
Age-ism. What about that “experienced” artist? “The physical limitations demand that I explore something else,” the 60-year old Corning asserts. “I can be freer. I can do the absurd.” This time the 70-year old Kotani adds the cherry on top, noting that “you start to give yourself permission.”
Details. Details. Details. When Corning worked with Tony Award-winning director Dominique Serrand in the time leading up to 2013‘s Remains, she learned that “everything is important.” And that just doesn’t mean props or encapsulating a dance phrase. For instance, the lighting designer doesn’t control projections — that job belongs to another person as Corning came to learn. So there came to be five performers and they all had to intersect. Kotani was in awe of Corning and Aviles, noting that “every single second was choreographed.”
All In. Kotani and Court have been uncommonly involved, often sitting for six hours at a time during rehearsals and taking copious notes. But when Corning and Aviles asked for her opinion, it still caught her by surprise. Aviles recalls that she responded, “Beth does it as a full person, where as I look like a dancer.” She was spot on, he says, because he was still assimilating the choreographic fabric. “I want to put it on like a coat and eat it, then put it inside me. Then it will come out if I give to the work what it needs.”
All For One. The mutual respect is evident. Kotani calls Aviles “a gentle man — funny, bright, kind, articulate.” Corning says Kotani is “sharp, precise” and, again, verbally articulate.” I see where we are going and it has been obvious from the start, even according to Aviles. “Corning is a spitfire,” he says. “She knows what she wants. From day one, she has still been consistent with the concept. ” Corning is right when she calls them a team. “We’re all working at the same speed.”
The Finish Line. There is a built in trust, an integrity,” says Corning. “I know what the end result will be.” And Aviles is willing to go along. “She taps right into me,” he acknowledges. Between the three of them, Kotani notes that there is a shared aesthetic, one that will develop shared shapes and shared space between.” Why not? It’s in their collective aesthetic DNA.
JULIA AND ALAN. Greer Reed of REED DANCE awarded the second annual BRAZZY Awards to Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre principal Julia Erickson and Texture Contemporary Ballet founder Alan Obuzor during her REED DANCE summer intensive this past weekend at the Kelly Strayhorn Theater. It turned out that there was a strong PBT connection here. The award is named for Leslie Anderson-Braswell, who began at PBT, trained at Stuttgart Ballet and performed with Geneva Ballet and Dance Theater of Harlem before returning to Pittsburgh following a career-ending injury. Here she taught and was recognized by President Ronald Reagan with an Outstanding Teacher Award at the White House among other awards. As for the recipients, Julia had a stellar performing year, showing great range, not only in Swan Lake, but in the Twyla Tharp program, where she glamorized Sinatra Songs (in a designer dress and heels) and then turned around and became a Stomper (in tennis shoes) for In the Upper Room. Alan already occupies a singular place in Pittsburgh dance, having started at PBT and, after an injury, founding Texture. There he wears many hats, operating as artistic director, choreographer and dancer. This season the Dance Magazine award winner (25 To Watch) is now branching out, as was seen in the softly sculpted jazz inflections of Looking Back and Moving Forward, a terrific collaboration at the Dance Alloy with songstress Angwenique Wingfield.
CARMEN. Most people don’t yet know that the Kelly Strayhorn Theater is bringing a piece of living dance history — Carmen de Lavallade — for three evenings! See a documentary film, Carmen and Geoffrey (Holder, her husband) and talk with Carmen Sept. 10 at Dance Alloy, then take in her solo evening Sept. 12 and 13 at the Kelly Strayhorn. An uncommonly rich woman who was one of the first African American ballerinas, encouraged Alvin Ailey to dance, artist in so many facets of life and former professor at Yale University. A once in a lifetime experience!
BIG. Abby Lee Miller is gradually assembling a juggernaut business as an offshoot of Dance Moms. She sent a photo of a class in Australia — 900 students!
SYTYCD NEWS. I was waiting to see how far So You Think You Can Dance would go in translating two to three minute routines into something longer and more developed choreographically. It has already had an impact on concert dance, both amateur and professional. But I think jaws dropped over the announcement a couple of weeks ago that choreographer Sonya Tayeh would be working with the Martha Graham Company. A late starter to dance, Sonya doesn’t have an extensive Graham history, but has been assembling a resume including Dance Magazine’s 25 to Watch (2009), an Emmy nomination (2013) and choreography for Madonna, Florence and the Machine, Kyle Minogue and Miley Cyrus. Judge Nigel Lithgow also revealed that Emmy-nominated Travis Wall wants to choreograph for the New York City Ballet. We shall see…
Corps member Steven Hadala wasn’t the only one to move on at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre. Actually PBT lost principal dancer Christine Schwaner, soloists Robert Moore and Eva Trapp and veteran corps member Nichols Coppula. Read about their plans in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
It was a classy finish to Steven Hadala’s career as a corps de ballet member of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, where the whole company gathered around him after his final performance. Read about it in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. But former PBT corps dancer Desiree Mastriano Arredondo, who knew Hadala briefly during her career with PBT, wrote to me following the article. “I just wanted to point out that PBT honors all of its members, in my opinion,” she said in her email. “When I retired four months pregnant in 1998 to move to Houston with my husband and soon-to-be child, [artistic director Patricia] Wilde gave me a performance of the Scotch Lass in [George Balanchine's] “Scotch Symphony” and presented me with flowers after my performance. It was a beautiful send off, and one I will never forget!”