On Stage: Premieres!

March 18, 2015
Jerome Robbins' "The Concert." Photos by Rich Sofranko.

Jerome Robbins’ “The Concert.” Photos by Rich Sofranko.

Jiri Kylian's "Petite Mort." Olivia Kelly and Ruslan Mukhambetkaliyev.

Jiri Kylian’s “Petite Mort.” Olivia Kelly and Ruslan Mukhambetkaliyev.

They weren’t world premieres, but this trio of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s local premieres gave the company’s repertory a new heft in this unprecedented program. Kylian. Morris. Robbins. A true ensemble experience for the dancers. Read about it in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mark Morris' "Sandpaper Ballet."

Mark Morris’ “Sandpaper Ballet.”


On Stage: Unveiling Ballet’s “Beast”

March 7, 2015

 

Nurlan Abougaliev and Amanda Cochrane. Photos: Rich Sofranko.

Nurlan Abougaliev and Amanda Cochrane. Photos: Rich Sofranko.

It’s a never-ending search to satisfy America’s thirst for full-length story ballets. With only a handful of classically-styled productions from which to choose, directors are pressed to satisfy that thirst, despite the fact that these kinds of ballets are almost certain to break the budget.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s Terrence Orr recently reached into his own past to resurrect Lew Christensen’s Beauty and the Beast, which Christensen created for the San Francisco Ballet in 1958 and restaged in 1982. It most likely was the first full-length contemporary ballet to be presented in America and, as such, deserves an acknowledgment.

This is a ballet that has certain positive attributes — it’s a family-oriented production that, given its series of scenic  drops, will most certainly tour well (perhaps without the stairs in front of the castle). As such, it can be a good entry-level ballet to attract new audiences. Its strongest assets, however, are the costumes, which were lovingly refurbished by costumier Janet Groom and her staff. And certainly the rebuilt masks, and especially the new Beast, all by Svi Roussanoff, were a standout.

The score, channeled from lesser-known Tchaikovsky music, worked fit beautifully for the most part, although it would have been enhanced by a live orchestra. The core of the score came from the final movement of Tchaikovsky’s third suite, which George Balanchine put to much better use in his Theme and Variations. (On an odd note, Balanchine’s work premiered in 1947, when Christensen was still associated with the New York City Ballet.)

PBT Beauty Amanda and Nurlan

Christensen chose to adapt Madame LePrince de Beaumont’s original 18th century tale of a young girl who, along with her father, gets lost in the woods, teeming with leaping nymphs and stags, and arrives at the Beast’s castle. When Beauty asks her father to pick a rose, the Beast catches them and dismisses the father, but keeps his Beauty.

The ballet turned out to be composed of the usual storybook bits and pieces, like the character-driven second scene with Beauty’s family, including a pair of wicked stepsisters ala Cinderella. There were five Bluebirds (vivaciously led by Amanda Cochrane), the fluttering arms and beats obviously inspired by the Bluebird pas de deux in The Sleeping Beauty.

Like The Nutcracker, there were flowers, Magic Flowers here. But the choreography lacked flow, coming to a halt to form stiff, angular poses. And when the Courtiers and Roses assembled for the celebratory finale in the transformed prince’s palace, a repetitive series of promenades and runs in linear patterns did not achieve the splendid effect found in Balanchine’s version.

The PBT dancers, however, were confident in their roles, surprisingly spread over five casts. While there was a rather nice duet in the first act where the Beast tries to confess his love for Beauty, the true test for the leading roles came with a more traditional pas de deux at the end.

PBT Beauty finale

So here’s the list: Alexandra Kochis and Alejandro Diaz made a handsome opening night couple, while Julia Erickson and Alexandre Silva used their charismatic authority to great effect. It was good to see Amanda Cochrane paired with the elegant veteran Nurlan Abougaliev. With an attentive and knowledgable partner like that, Cochrane enjoyed a new softness and freedom in her dance. Gabrielle Thurlow brought her innate naturalness to Beauty, while Luca Sbrizzi, always so princely, was technically commanding in the pas de deux. Although I only saw the first act with Hannah Carter and William Moore, there is an aristocratic ease to their balletic style, honed at Britain’s Royal Ballet, that will set them apart in the future.

No doubt Beauty and the Beast, with its inspirational message that true beauty lies within, has struck a chord with audiences over the years. It remains to be seen if this balletic version will find its own admirers.

 

 

 


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: 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


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.

Beginners.

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: A Robust Fall Opening for Texture

October 6, 2014

 

Texture Studio Session-155-Edit

Texture Contemporary Ballet usually downsizes for the fall/winter season. But it looks like more talented dancers are sticking around. Maybe that inspired the choreographers in this convincing program, especially Alan Obuzor and Kelsey Bartman, who took us in some intriguing new directions. Read about it in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.


Dance Beat: Kyle, Attack, Tammies, PearlArts

September 16, 2014

KYLE SMILE

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.

Tamburitzans_B

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.


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