On Stage: The Incomparable Carmen de Lavallade

September 15, 2014


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.

On Stage: A Summery Encounter

July 31, 2013


It was a perfect summer evening as I made my way to Enright Park. I had googled the location, but arrived to find it surrounded by a maze of chain link fences. No matter, it was a nice walk along the borders of East Liberty and Friendship, the end result yet another gem of a Pittsburgh green space.

And yet another gem of a young local choreographic talent in Jasmine Hearn.

This was the second installment in her site specific work called that’s what she said. I had missed the first in a Lawrenceville garden. This one was subtitled First Dance, in other words, all the emotions, thoughts and situations surrounding that essential part of growing up.

Jasmine and collaborator Beth Ratas had decorated the outdoor basketball court with blue and white and yellow streamers. Oh, the school dance memories, the kind that can span generations!

They approached from a distance, shy and clingy with anticipation, dressed in short party dresses…and athletic shoes.

But this was not to be a sugary summer lemonade of a dance. Beth began with, “I told him no…” as she started to climb the fence, her face unreadable.

The duo finally entered and traced the lines around the basketball hoops. There was some walking and, of course, some hoop shots to be taken. Oh, and a variation on one of those line dances that we all did.

The piece unfolded in movement as natural as a second skin — skips, turns, hugs. There was a play of sunshine, as expected, across their faces. But it was broken by awkward shadows of confusion and frustration and teenage angst, much like the delicate facial techniques of an updated Indian dance.

The series will continue monthly through October at different locations. Tune in via Facebook, but CrossCurrents will also post upcoming segments.


On Stage: The Delectable Mark Morris

May 12, 2013
The Muir

The Muir

If you ever wondered why Mark Morris’ choreography had such breadth and wit and intelligence, you only have to talk with him. I found that over the course of several interviews over the years and the Pittsburgh Dance Council audience saw it for themselves after Mark Morris Dance Group’s performance at the Byham Theater (click on Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for the review).

Dressed super-casually in shorts and shirt, with a graying beard, he attracted quite a crowd and didn’t disappoint, jumping on questions he deemed short on critical thinking, but calling one “the best question ever!!”

He’s so-o-o immediate.



Some Q&A tidbits:

Most of it focused on the music, “not live music, just music.” Mark said there was a huge difference between dancing to taped music and making subtle alterations during a music performance. He then asserted that if more choreographers demanded it, like Paul Taylor and Twyla Tharp (yes, he named names!), audiences would get it.

Mark fully admitted that he was as highly knowledgeable about music as choreography  — “I have the most exquisite taste in music of anyone I know.” His favorite musical centuries are the 18th and 20th. He doesn’t like “heldenleben” (the 19th), probably referring to Richard Strauss, which doesn’t have a discernible, danceable beat. It is music that bleeds and bursts.

For those who think his style of dance looks too easy, he revealed that “you’d be surprised how many people can’t do my work” at auditions were 500 people show up and he only needs “1.5 women.”

Mark doesn’t want to do “suppositories of entertainment.” He creates a show for “adults, not thinking babies.”

Afterwards he went out with Carolyn and William Byham, longtime supporters of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, which also happened to present the outspoken choreographer’s “Drink To Me Only With Thine Eyes” this season.

More Morris, please.

On Stage: Point Park

March 19, 2013


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FACULTY STREAM. While university faculty most often publish written work, dance staff members have a much more attractive option with choreography (although it can be a bit testy to switch from well-structured, but educational movement phrases designed to improve students’ technique, to the true emotional power of extending that to performance choreography.

They called this program Conservatory Dance Company at Point Park University and it featured a list of veteran instructors. Sometimes the quality has varied — after all, these artist/teachers spend a lot of time in the studio. But this was different, one of the best in years.

That was mainly due to senior staffers Nicolas Petrov, former artistic director of the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, and Ron Tassone, noted jazz instructor with a photographic memory.

They both contributed their best efforts in years, Mr. Petrov with selections from his heavily Bolshoi-inspired Prince of the Pagodas, and Mr. Tassone’s Swing It, a primer of Broadway jazz, laden with tricks and treats, all the while letting the students show off their best angles with a generous dose of light-hearted spirit.

Kiesha Lalama and Garfield Lemonius elicited a real commitment from their young artists. Ms. Lalama brought Sneak Peek, a clean cut piece of jazz choreography in the traditional style, while Garfield Lemonius had a real unisex solidarity in the contemporary energy of Memoirs. Peter Merz pulled The Togethercoloured Instant, inspired by poet e.e. cummings. While the choreography was interesting in its own way, Mr. cummings’ words, projected on screens, detracted from the movement.

On Stage: Ailey On Tour in Naples

March 19, 2013


Probably the most popular company in the world, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater has periodically visited Pittsburgh since 1969, always to great audience and critical acclaim. So I guess I can claim to be an Ailey-an.

Recently I was down in Naples, Florida for an all-too-brief winter respite. The Ailey company was appearing at the Philharmonic Center for the Arts and I decided to pay a visit. It had been all too long since I had last seen Revelations.


I was most interested in the changeover from artistic director Judith Jamison, a direct link to Ailey, to Robert Battle, who was brought on for his choreographic verve and strong work ethic, two assets of which I am well aware, but only the start, I’m sure, to what got him this job.

There had been another changeover since we last met. Renee Robinson, the last dancer to have worked with Ailey, retired last November and names like Dudley Williams (yes, it’s been that long!) and Clifton Brown were gone from the company list. And a trio of stars — Alicia Graf Mack, Glen Allen Sims and Linda Celeste Sims — did not make the trip.

Mr. Battle took the helm about a year and a half ago with an interesting agenda, designed to bring in master choreographers to stretch the artistic capabilities of the vaunted Ailey dancers.

The first piece was a case in point — Paul Taylor’s Arden Court, a pastoral-flavored work for six men and three women and one of his best.  It was easy to see why Mr. Battle chose it — Mr. Taylor is known as well for his strong, muscular men.

Arden Court showed the six males off to great advantage in several sections. Although the Ailey company is known for its audience communication skills, its bold physicality was showcased in a casual sense (swinging runs) and a sense of whimsy (a line of men with one upside down).

Was it a good fit? Not yet. The men seemed unstable, with a rare control problems — some wobbles here and there — and a lack of flow. But the airy and ultimately delightful choreographic sense still engaged the audience.

Battles’ own solo, Takademe, followed. Based on the rhythmic maze found in Indian music, the solo was almost always a literal translation of the oral rhythms, which, in some ways resembled a frenetic type of rap. It appeared that Takademe would always be a great showcase for the performer, and Michael Francis McBride suitably hit all of his marks.

The Ailey company next embraced Rennie Harris’ Home, a loose-knit, gaggle of a number where dancers came and went, yes, just like family and friends. It was obvious that Harris has evolved as a choreographer.

While he used, as usual, thick slabs of unison movement, there was more complexity to this crowd of participants. Eventually though, it didn’t develop the mesmerizing quality that it needed.

Which brings us to Revelations. Having seen some of the early performers (the first Pittsburgh performance had the audience dancing in the aisles), there is a certain standard of spirit that they set that remains ingrained in the memory.


Let’s just say that the extra effort, so much a part and parcel of the Ailey company, wasn’t there, although the discipline remained. So it was up to the choreography to hold firm. The opening segments from Pilgrim of Sorrow, beginning with that iconic wedge in I Been ‘Buked, did that with a simplicity of form, execution and innate spirit.

On Stage: Inspirations For Black Grace

March 7, 2013
The Arrival of the Maoris in New Zealand

The Arrival of the Maoris in New Zealand



When New Zealand’s Black Grace came to Pittsburgh, the group brought its history with it, but in a contemporary context that gave the program a true originality, which you can read in my review from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.  But take a few minutes to see two of the inspirations, The Arrival of the Maoris in New Zealand by Louis J. Steele and Charles F. Goldie and The Raft by Bill Viola, for the hour-long Vaka (above) how they translated to the stage on a German tour (below and incorrectly spelled Waka).


On Stage: More Pearls of Dance

March 1, 2013

Staycee Pearl jump

Staycee Pearl dance project can be jumping for joy. Symbolic of Pittsburgh’s current dance boom, where choreographers are collectively reaching a new level of thought and maturity, Staycee and husband Herman delved into the topic of post-blackness during a trio of intriguing salons and a final performance. Read about it in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.


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