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.


On Stage: Pearlann Part II

November 16, 2014

The Pillow project @ CP Paris 02/16/2013WHY PITTSBURGH? After the Attack Theatre show, Pearlann was talking with Evelyn Palleja-Vissicchio (of the gone, but much-lamented LABCO Dance) who said to her, “What is it you’re doing? What do you want to do?” No one had ever asked Pearlann that question before. She answered, “I think my goal is [that] I want to get in on a city where there isn’t a lot happening. I want to be, like, the first one in there. Somewhere that doesn’t have a scene, so that I can make my own scene. Where I can do something that is specific to the kind of work that I want. I don’t want to fit into something that’s already going on — I want to start something. Evelyn looked at her and remarked, “Hon, it’s here.” Pearlann had been feeling a little unsatisfied with Pittsburgh because “it wasn’t enough.” The connection was immediate. “I’ll just stay here.” Down the pike years later, she had the opportunity to move to Paris and work there. She felt like a couple of people would have followed her. The reasoning? “Why not?” She knew that she could have gained the same momentum there as she had in Pittsburgh because “the enthusiasm is pretty contagious.” But when faced with the decision, Pearlann concluded that “I loved Pittsburgh too much. Paris never felt as good as Pittsburgh did. It’s prettier, but Pittsburgh is where I made my home and Pittsburgh is where the jazz lived. Home is not something you find; it’s something you make. And…it’s here.”

THE BIRTH OF JAZZ (PORTER-STYLE). She doesn’t go to memory lane very often, but as Pearlann looked back at her work in preparation for the 10th anniversary event, she realized what she was trying to do the entire time. “I was trying to choreograph how I naturally moved without thinking about it, like how I just listen to the music. So I saw all these failed attempts at trying to capture that instinctual live musicality — the choreography — which was not working. I was not satisfied with how I was able to get that out and I never knew why. One moment in 2010, she found herself with a new group of dancers exuding “fresh, young, raw energy. They were excited about what I was doing — it was like a renewal. It was like a New Age. I felt it. And I had to try something different.” So they all went to her house where she taught them how to listen to music, hoping that would help. They began to move, all the while listening differently to the music. “It just clicked. Immediately, suddenly, it just happened. It was a different way of thinking about the dance.” Pearlann had improvised her whole life, but this was how she improvised. “It wasn’t that I was going to invent movement. It wasn’t that I was going to find things in my body. It wasn’t this exploration thing, this investigation thing that a lot of improvisation is. It wasn’t storytelling necessarily. It was thinking of yourself as a musician. Specifically, like, if you were in the band and if you were making music and you were changing the way I listened to the music depending on what you were doing. It just, all of a sudden, felt so right because it wasn’t body-based. It was ear-based — everyone was able to do it. Like anyone.” The ones who connected to it the most were “the ones who felt outcast and ostracized about the idea of dance, whether it was the girl in the back of the class that never was loved back by dance itself or never felt connected to the dance. Or that person in the audience who always wanted to dance, but ‘oh, no no no, I don’t dance. I can’t dance.’ Everyone was able to connect to it because everyone knows how to listen to music. If you take the emphasis off the body and you put it in your ear, then you don’t have to worry about what your body is doing. You just have to listen. Your body will just move as it does if you are given some ideas about motion. I feel that, by doing this, it builds off the idea that improvisation can be a tool, it can be free, but it’s not just putting dancers out there and saying ‘make up something’ or ‘just move as you move.’ It has unified us with this way of working together. We all have this common shared language which is a philosophy we’ve adapted to our lives as well as dance. It has this whole understanding and dictionary and lexicon that’s been associated with it now over the years. It keeps us connected — we can talk in this language. In the moment we’re totally free, but it’s directed. To a lot of people in Pittsburgh, improv can be a dirty word. Choreography has always been seen as more work, edited and whittled down to this fine sculpture. It seems that dancers put more effort into it, while improvisation has often been regarded as effort-less. You don’t have to think about it and plan it. You just make it up. That is not at all what we do. We take improvisation so seriously. We can talk for ages about how we did something, but we won’t be able to tell you what we did. But we’ll talk to you how we did it and we can tell you why we did it, but the what? We just turned it around — the what is just not as important. The movement that comes out is not as important as the intention and how we’re dividing it and how we’re coming about it and where our minds are and where our hearts are. People can take it seriously if you take it seriously. You can’t just make this up. You have to put just as much effort and time, not into the choreography of the steps, but into the philosophy of the work. (I hate to call it work, because it doesn’t feel like work.) You put a lot of time into it, even though, in the moment it feels like it’s happening for the first time.” Pearlann admitted that if the performers aren’t careful to adhere to that philosophy, the dance can lose its cohesiveness. And some people hear that she puts a show together in a week or a few days. “Yes, but we’ve been together every single night for a year understanding our movement. So when the time comes, we can talk about the idea and ‘poof!’ there we go. It’s just that there’s a lot behind that.”

WHAT’S NEXT? There will be more according to Pearlann. More of The Pillow Project, which is good news. But so much more, due to a plethora of ideas that she will change the name. But not that much. So to encompass all that she and her very important collaborators have to offer, it will heretofore be titled The Pillow Projects.

 

 


On Stage: Breaking Free

November 4, 2014

BrandedHeader-HindBenali-2014-AliceDufourFlorence-650x250-1405704687

 

I never forgot the image of Moroccan runner Nawal El Moutawakel, who won a gold medal in the 400 meter hurdles during the1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. I remember my admiration as she ran in a traditional track uniform — tank top and shorts — and knowing that she was breaking multiple barriers for Muslim women with her performance.

By the 2012 Olympics in London, every Muslim country was represented by at least one woman athlete, although Afghanistan sprinter Tahmina Kohstani elected to run in a hijab and long clothing.

There is still a long way to go on the international stage.

We got a fierce morsel of their struggle as Moroccan choreographer Hind Benali danced in the intimate confines of The Alloy space courtesy of the Kelly Strayhorn Theater,

The result was a fully-formed and informed woman, representing the best that her country and, moreover, what she, had to offer.

Her group was officially named Hind Benali/Fleur D’Orange; the piece, created especially for her American tour, titled Identity, would combine traditional and contemporary dance.

It’s not often that we see crossover companies like this. Most memorable, via the Pittsburgh Dance Council, was India’s Nrityagram in 2002, which was primarily rooted in Odissi dance, but bravely ventured into the modern idiom and, in 2013, New Zealand’s Black Grace with its seamless blending of old and new.

In a way, this was more dangerous.

Hind brought composer Mochine Imrharn and hip hop dancer/flutist Soufiane Karim with her. Together they had a soulful opening, immediately reminding one of a deep history and windswept sands. Mochine‘s score was particularly evocative, giving Hind a supple platform for her dance, filled, as it was, with so much, including melismatic singing and cave-like drips.

The petite dancer was crouched to begin her journey, She stood up, almost encased in a lavish traditional costume,her hands scooping up and thudding against her chest. She tucked the skirt into her waistband and began quivering.

It was locked into  her tradition. But her distress became more apparent as she took off the skirt and embraced it. Soufiane provided an interlude with some hip hop, a contrast to be sure and a trend, but not particularly connected. Later though, she would use him as a foil for her emotion.

When Hind emerged again, she was crawling, like an animal wild and free. Yet she never lost sight of ritualistic elements and eventually revealed a black leotard, allowing us to see a rather lovely modern technique. At times she seemed to be shedding layers of tradition. Other times she tried to embrace her conflicting role in life and her feelings often burst through with uncommon force.

Occasionally that made Identity seem conflicted. Yet, at its heart it was truly symbolic of women in the Muslim world, who are gradually and collectively building toward their own brand of freedom. I also applaud the men in Identity, so versatile that the production seemed larger than three artists, and so important for their support and interaction.

So it was personal. It was political. Best of all, it was art.


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: BRAZZIES, Carmen, Abby Lee, SYTYCD

August 19, 2014
Leslie Anderson-Braswell, Alan Obuzor and Julia Erickson (L to R).

Leslie Anderson-Braswell, Alan Obuzor and Julia Erickson (L to R).

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 DE LAVALLADE IN SWOOP

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!

ABBY AUSTRALIA

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…

 


On Stage: Opera Theater and Attack Theatre

July 14, 2014
Breaking down the Wall. Photos: Patti Brahim.

Breaking down the Wall. Photos: Patti Brahim.

It seems like The Fantasticks has been around forever. And it has. Really, it is the longest-running musical in the world, having been off-Broadway for 42 years and 17,162 performances.

But I can’t say that I have seen it.

Of course, I have been deeply aware of the musical itself, historically speaking, but mainly through its score. Everyone worth their musical salt seems to have sung Try To Remember and/or Soon It’s Gonna Rain at some point in their careers.

Dads!

Dads!

 

Now I can take my place among the thousands who have enjoyed the interactions of El Gallo (Sean Cooper), Matt (Adam Hill), Luisa (Rachel Eve Holmes), Hucklebee (Brian Hupp), Bellomy (James Critchfield), Henry (Martin Giles), Mortimer (Daniel Arnaldos) and The Mute (or The Wall, if you may, Dane Toney).

It was, in a word, terrific — hence the listing of all the players (more to follow).

Yes, it was fun to engage with the Opera Theater of Pittsburgh, in partnership with Attack Theatre at that wedding cake of a building, The Twentieth Century Club, in Oakland. And engaging it was, with the cast parading, dancing and singing amidst the audience at times.

A double flourish.

A double flourish.

The story line is simple. Boy meets Girl (despite the objections of their fathers, who built The Wall, ostensibly to keep them apart). Boy and Girl fall in love. Boy loses Girl when the truth comes out (that the fathers did staged it all so that their children would fall in love). Boy and Girl rediscover their love for each other.

The scenery (Marie Yokoyama) fell along those lines — a collection of scenery pieces perhaps gleaned from the backstage of a theater and affording the characters many levels on which to clamber around. Costumes (Julianne D’Errico) were mostly uncomplicated, as they should have been (watch for the vest switcheroo). And the music was appropriately intimate, with a quartet made up of piano (Walter Morales, also the musical conductor), percussion (Kevin Danchik), bass (Cory Palmer) and harp — loved the sparkling touch! (Marissa Knaub).

This musical is over 50 years old. Yet it seemed timeless (apparently with a few tweaks to the script) under Attack founder Peter Kope’s direction.

This is an young opera program on the rise, bolstered by veteran actors and singers that give it some heft. You might say it takes a village to raise an opera, with over 40 artists populating nearly 30 performances, workshops, recitals and the like.

Lovers and umbrellas.

Lovers and umbrellas.

With its off-Broadway history, The Fantasticks might seem to be a lightweight choice. But it translated to an operatic approach, with epic overtones, quite nicely.

Kope kept the cast on a taut physical rope to maximum effect, so the songs were staged so effectively and with great detail. The cast, not all of them dancers, took to it all with gusto.

Over-the-top, you might think. But this Fantasticks gathered steam as it rolled along, producing many moments to relish. Holmes’ skill at the devilish operatic leaps. Her obvious connection with Hill. Cooper’s robust presence as Narrator/El Gallo. The similarly obvious connection between the dads, Hupp and Critchfield. And who could play a Wall (et. al.) better than Toney?

This Fantasticks provides a great escape, along with some food for thought. But if you’ll otherwise preoccupied for Fantasticks, make it a point to check out the musical breezes wafting through Summerfest up to and including July 27.

Will she or won't she?

Will she or won’t she?


On Stage: Ubiquitous!

June 17, 2014

maree ubiquitous photo

Maree ReMalia and friends put together an invigorating work, The Ubiquitous Mass of Us, at the New Hazlett Theater. It concluded the Community Supported Art series in a big way. (Click on Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for the article.) There’s more really good news, though. Next year dance will play a dominant role as well, with Moriah Ella Mason’s Untamed Myth (Oct. 11), performance artist Jennifer Myers’ Spatial Investigations (Dec. 12), Jil Stifel and Ben Sota in Contemporary Circus/Dance (Feb. 12) and Teena Marie Custer and Roberta Guido in a Double Feature (June 11). Also on the series will be composer Federico Garci-de Castro with Innovative Piano Music (Aug. 14) and Anya Martin’s Folkloric Performance (Apr. 2).


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