On Stage: Pittsburgh Ballet — Holding on to Tradition

March 6, 2014

Julia Erickson Photos: Rich Sofranko

Julia Erickson Photos: Rich Sofranko

Under artistic director Terrence Orr, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre has developed a theatrical path reminiscent of his alma mater, American Ballet Theatre, one of a few American companies to do so. Most others have built some variation on the speed and contemporary flair of George Balanchine’s New York City Ballet.

Alexandra Kochis

Alexandra Kochis

Mr. Orr mounted four separate casts for the company’s latest encore of Swan Lake, which produced backstage drama all its own when it was reduced to three. Read about it in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Gabrielle Thurlow and Nurlan Abougaliev in The Sleeping Beauty Photos: Duane Rieder

Gabrielle Thurlow and Nurlan Abougaliev in The Sleeping Beauty Photos: Duane Rieder

His balletic philosophy will apparently continue as PBT celebrates its 45th anniversary season next year, where four of the productions will be large and classically oriented. Given classical ballet’s limited full-length repertoire, we will again see The Sleeping Beauty, always a challenge for the company due to its pristine technique, and the annual Nutcracker.

Alexandra Kochis in La Bayadere

Alexandra Kochis in La Bayadere

Amanda Cochrane and Robert Moore in Beauty and the Beast

Amanda Cochrane and Robert Moore in Beauty and the Beast

Mr. Orr has also chosen La Bayadere, another Russian masterpiece, full of exotic aromas. He has subsequently reached into his own past for Lew Christensen’s Beauty and the Beast, a marketable title and apparently garnering good reviews, but choreographed in 1958.

That leaves the singular repertory night, next year moving from the August Wilson Center, currently an arts question mark due to financial difficulties, back to the Byham Theater.

PBT only announced Dwight Rhoden’s 7th Heaven, created for the larger Benedum Center stage and panned when it was condensed for the smaller Joyce Theater in New York. It will need trimmed for the Byham.

The other two ballets on the program were not announced. They will celebrate “innovations from its 45-year collection.” I would like to suggest Ohad Naharin’s Tabula Rasa (1986), by far the best commission that PBT has produced (I can still see it), a ballet that has been performed all over the world with PBT’s name attached.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mJY6IatydKc

And then there is the obvious — a brand new commission for Pittsburgh native Kyle Abraham and a harbinger for a bright future as PBT nears its 50th. He recently received the MacArthur “Genius” Award and was tapped by Wendy Whelan, principal with New York City Ballet and one of the premier ballerinas dancing today, for a duet commission in Restless Creature. Why not give him a chance?

But then, you might have some other suggestions. Email me at jvranish1@comcast.net.


Dance Beat: PBT Honors

January 23, 2014
Janet Groom, Terrence Orr, Nicholas Petrov and Patricia Wilde.

Janet Groom, Terrence Orr, Nicholas Petrov and Patricia Wilde.

DRESSING UP FOR JANET. She’s been one of the pillars of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre over the past 40 years. And most certainly, costumier Janet Groom has been one of the reasons behind PBT’s success. Having seen other regional companies and some of the costumes that have been imported for various productions, I can easily say that Janet has been a hidden treasure. Mostly, that is. She often views performances, sometimes in a handmade Groom original that picks up on the theme of the evening’s ballet. PBT honored her at Perlè, one of Pittsburgh’s newest and coolest venues, a versatile contemporary space in Market Square. There Janet was in the spotlight, honored by board member Carolyn Byham and current artistic director Terrence Orr. Also in attendance were founding and first artistic director Nicolas Petrov and the always elegant artistic director Patricia Wilde, amid a fine “turn out” by board and company members. As a bonus, several of Janet’s exquisite costumes adorned the walls, so that we could get an up close and personal look at her remarkable attention for detail.

KUDOS TO PATRICIA. Speaking of Patricia Wilde, she was recently honored by Dance Magazine, putting her in some stratospheric company, including the likes of Mikhail Baryshnikov, Merce Cunningham and Pina Bausch.(Click on  DM for a complete list.) “Oh, I thought was long forgotten,” she said when we talked at the PBT company studios. But when she was contacted for a Dance Magazine article on batterie — she was known for her sparkling footwork — her name resurfaced for editor Wendy Perron. When all was said and done, Patricia was noted as a real triple-threat. She moved from a hard-working principal at New York City Ballet (she once attended a rehearsal on the day of her wedding) to a ballet mistress and globe-trotting teacher to a 15-year stint as PBT artistic director. These days she still can be seen at rehearsals and performances and is still in demand as a teacher. Pittsburgh is truly lucky.

YOSHIAKI NAKANOMORE FOR YOSHIAKI. Newly-appointed PBT soloist Yoshiaki Nakano broke through as a winner of the Beijing International Ballet Competition this past summer. Now he has capped that by being named to Dance Magazine’s 25 to Watch for 2014. Congrats!

SOPHIE. And last but not least, PBT student Sophie Sea Silnicki,16, will be participating in Switzerland’s Prix de Lausanne, one of the major ballet competitions in the world. Follow her journey beginning January 27 by clicking on Sophie.


Dance Beat: Brazzies, Wendy/Kyle, Julia, Alyssa

September 11, 2013
Gia Cacalano and James Washington with Leslie Anderson Braswell (seated)

Gia Cacalano and James Washington with Leslie Anderson Braswell (seated)

THE BRAZZIES. Greer Reed concluded her Reed Intensive performance this summer at the Father Ryan Center in McKees Rocks with a special award called the Brazzies. Named for Leslie Anderson Braswell, who performed with Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, Stuttgart Ballet and Dance Theatre of Harlem before coming home to mentor so many young dance hopefuls, the first winners are Gia Cacalano, improv queen and founder of Gia T. Presents, and James Washington, former member of August Wilson Center Dance Ensemble and budding choreographer. Congrats!

WENDY AND KYLE. The dance world has been abuzz with Wendy Whelan’s project, Restless Creature, and Pittsburgh native Kyle Abraham’s participation. (Catch it in March at the Byham via Pittsburgh Dance Council.) Click on the New York Times feature and review.

Sonja, left, and Julia, center and right

Sonja, left, and Julia, center and right

ANOTHER SIDE OF JULIA. We’ve seen Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre principal Julia Erickson in luminous performances on stage. We’ve see her entrepreneurial spirit via her own health food bar, Barre, available at Whole Foods. Now, through the magic of Sonja Sweterlitsch’s portraiture, on view at Box Heart Gallery in Bloomfield through Sept. 17, we can seen Julia from yet another angle (or angles). Small and life-sized. The Swan Queen and the woman. All a softer interpretation without losing Julia’s always-glittering essence.

A STAR IS BORN. Yes, she’s at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, but this star is not a dancer. Alyssa Herzog Melby is a member of PBT’s talented young administrative staff. As PBT Director of Education and Community Engagement, she has not only been articulate about the ballets, but has promoted accessibility in a variety of new ways, including programs for the visually impaired, autism and, most recently, Parkinson’s disease. For her efforts, the Kennedy Center LEAD Awards for Excellence in Accessibility Leadership recognized her at the 2013 LEAD conference in Washington, D.C. Way to go, Alyssa!


On Stage: Pittsburgh Dance Council 2013-14 Season

May 5, 2013

They say you can’t go back, but the Pittsburgh Dance Council is ignoring that with its upcoming 2013-14 season. Executive director Paul Organisak, perhaps inspired by the Pittsburgh Festival of Firsts (exciting news in itself!) this fall and which he curated as well, has gone back to the adventuresome, experimental, what-the-hell-was-that programming that many of us knew and loved.

It appears that the PDC companies will include their own list of firsts: two North American premieres in partnership with the Festival, four new companies/projects out of six and seven new choreographers armed with local premieres.

Montreal’s Marie Chouinard will open both the Dance Council season and the Festival of Firsts. Gymnopedies, set to Eric Satie’s minimalist piano pieces, is the North American premiere, and will be paired with Michaux Mouvements, based on the poetry and drawings of Belgian Henri Michaux, which served as the literal jumping off point for the choreography. This will be the Quebec choreographer’s fourth visit to Pittsburgh, which has in the past produced The Rite of Spring and 24 Preludes by Chopin (a personal favorite of Organisak’s), among others (Sept. 28, Byham Theater).

Another sneak peak at the Festival line-up comes with Swiss artists Zimmermann & de Perrot, a physical theater duo, who will be literally thinking out of the box and inside it during Hans was Heiri. According to Organisak, Pittsburghers will see this event before it gets to New York’s Brooklyn Academy of Music (Oct. 18, Byham).

On to the debut of the Brazilian group Compagnie Käfig, an international sensation that takes hip hop and puts it to samba and bossa bova. A company guaranteed to raise the spirits, it has appeared at Jacob’s Pillow and the Spoleto Festival, among others. What more can you do with plastic cups? (Feb. 1, Byham).

One of the highlights of the season is sure to be Ballet du Grand Thèâtre de Genéve and the start of a balletic finish to the season, but showing us where ballet is headed. Yes, this is the only company where George Balanchine served as artistic advisor (1970-78), but it has worked with numerous artists, including Baryshnikov, Kylian and Forsythe. Founded in 1962, the 22-member company brings two emerging artists on the international scene — Andonis Foniadakis’s Gloria, which will create a stylish new symbiosis with music by Baroque composer George Frideric Handel, and Ken Ossola’s Sed Lux Permanet, with sculpted shadow play to Fauré’s Requiem. (Mar. 8, Byham)

Wendy-Whelan-Nisian-Hughes-Photographer-2aAcclaimed New York City Ballet principal dancer Wendy Whelan will be bringing her Restless Creature project, set to debut at Jacob’s Pillow this summer. She will dance four duets with four emerging choreographers — Pittsburgh’s Kyle Abraham, Joshua Beamish, Brian Brooks and Alejandro Cerrudo, whose Lickety Split was a sensation recently at Point Park University’s annual Byham concert. This one is creating a lot of buzz in the dance community. (Mar. 22, Byham)

The final contemporary ballet event will mark the return of Wayne McGregor l Random Dance, (Apr. 26, Byham). He is the resident choreographer at The Royal Ballet in London and it is his company. He has a scientific bent on ballet — using film, music, visual art and technology —  that is truly unique (Apr. 26, Byham).

For ticket information click on Pittsburgh Dance Council.


On Screen: Balanchine in America Part 1

March 4, 2013

They are hidden in what looks like Russian, but this is the Dance in America series with choreography by Balanchine. This segment has Tzigane, Divertimento No. 15 and The Four Temperaments with stellar casts.


Dance Beat: PBT News and Round-up

February 26, 2013
A student performance at the Amphitheater

A student performance at the Amphitheater

TO THE LAKEPittsburgh Ballet Theatre will make its debut at Chautauqua Institution this summer (Wed., Aug. 21 at 8:15 p.m.), a bit of a surprise since the historic Amphitheater, outdoor performing space, has been the turf of Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux, Patricia McBride and North Carolina Dance Theatre for over 25 years. It’s a company with a decided Balanchine look, a given since the two artistic directors once starred with George Balanchine’s officially “starless” New York City Ballet. So it should provide a tangible style comparison for residents there. If you’re interested in making the drive (a little over two hours from Pittsburgh) up to the picturesque Victorian community and surrounding attractions, check the website for more information.

 

Olivia Kelly, JoAnna Schmidt and Casey Taylor kick up their heels in the Can-can. Photos: Rich Sofranko

Olivia Kelly, JoAnna Schmidt and Casey Taylor kick up their heels in the Can-can. Photos: Rich Sofranko

BACK TO THE MOULIN ROUGE. Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s production of Moulin Rouge translated well for all three casts over a weekend of performances (click on Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for an article on opening night). Because the movement phrases often were plucked from familiar classroom exercises, tombe pas de bouree glissade (and substitute your favorite jump) —  the dancers could relax and exchange choreographic pleasantries all night long.

That also meant that each audience could peruse different (although never bawdy) takes on the world’s most famous (and infamous) cabaret. Let’s take the Nathalie/Matthew combination first, where there were varying flavors, enough to keep things interesting.

Opening night cast Christine Schwaner and Luca Sbrizzi had an independent clarity and freshness, more in a classical vein, while Friday night’s Alexandra Kochis and Christopher Budzynski, always on top of the technical elements, also connected on an intimate level that helped to sustain the dramatic line.

The Saturday matinee featured a pair of corps members who jumped at the opportunity and did surprisingly well. Caitlin Peabody had plenty of spunk and determination in her first starring role. While hers was a cozy technique, it had a thoughtful, yet piquant quality that suited this role. Her partner, Nicholas Coppula, was detailed in drawing his character as both an art student and a fine romantic lead.

Christine Schwaner as Nathalie

Christine Schwaner as Nathalie

It was hard to pick a favorite between the two Zidlers, Robert Moore’s brooding owner  or Nurlan Abougaliev’s more flamboyant villain. Joseph Parr posed no such problem , however — he was cast as Toulouse-Lautrec for all five performances. In fact, choreographer Jorden Morris singled him out at a post-performance soiree downstairs at the Benedum Center, calling him one of the best among 14 casts that he has worked with on the ballet.

Among the women, La Goulue, the iconic redhead from the famed Toulouse-Lautrec poster, was a juicy role. Elysa Hotchkiss had the snap of a whiplash in her deep backbends, while Julia Erickson brought the requisite star quality to dominate the Can-can. Eva Trapp could use her sensuality at full force, something that also played exceptionally well as the tango lead dancer with Alexandre Silva. Elysa showed off her flickering footwork with partner Alejandro Diaz.

Historically speaking, Moulin Rouge was marvelously detailed, including the Top Hats, perhaps a reference to Valentin the Boneless (also partner of La Goulue), but here a chance to give the men a chance to show off their ballet technique.

I am still puzzled, though, by the woman in green, not to be confused with the Green Fairies, although they appeared all together in Matthew’s absinthe-driven hallucination scene. There was a woman who appeared in Toulouse-Lautrec’s art work, but she had only a green cast, most likely from the eerie lighting inside the club. In this production, she seemed to serve as some sort of muse, but the color coordination with Green Fairies, might have indicated something else. To confuse things more, she was played by the dancers (Amanda Cochrane and Garielle Thurlow) who also appeared as Mome Fromage, without any distinction in the program.

By the way, kudos to this increasingly versatile company, who sometimes played three roles or more.

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Dance Beat: CC, 25, Maddy, Wexford, Guiding Star

January 12, 2013

THANK YOU! CrossCurrents runs on WordPress, which just released an annual report to its bloggers. CrossCurrents logged 100,000 visits this past year and has passed the quarter of a million mark since it first began mid-2010. Again, thanks for your support!

2013_01_0FOUR OF 25. I have often said that Pittsburgh is a treasure trove of dance talent, but was still surprised that Dance Magazine had not less than four Pittsburgh area talents, both born and current, on its 2013 list of 25 to Watch. McKeesport native Frances Chiaverini has been scoring some good press at her latest gig with Benjamin Millipied’s L.A. Dance Project, which led to her selection as cover girl on this edition (along with successful turns at Morphoses and Karol Armitage). But inside you will find Emily Kikta, alumnus of Thomas Studio for the Performing Arts in Bridgeville and now at New York City Ballet.  And if you don’t want to travel, it will be easy to see Texture Contemporary Ballet’s Alan Obuzor and recently-appointed Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre soloist Amanda Cochrane. Congratulations!

HIGH ON PILS. kNOTDance’s Maddy Landi bid auf wiedersehen to Pittsburgh when he joined Pilobolus. Now he is in the midst of a German tour performing in the group’s Shadowland for the next few months.

Wexford Dance Academy

Wexford Dance Academy

JINGLES. Wexford Dance Academy’s Elizabeth Mackin Karas once again unfolded her annual holiday treat at Shady Side Academy in December. It included a tap variation on the Rockettes’ soldier dance, Liz’ own brand of Nutcracker divertissements and the loveliest of finales, where the complete cast, all dressed in the purest white and carrying candles, lifted the spirits.

INDIAN JOURNEY. Guiding Star Dance Foundation’s Varun Mahajan is looking for male and female dancers to perform in an all-English production of Arranged Marriage at the Charity Randall Theater in Oakland in April. Practices will be held at the Guiding Star facility in Carnegie every Thursday, beginning this month where selected dancers will be trained in semi-classical, Bollywood and folk. Final rehearsals and performances will run from Apr. 22-28, 2013. For more information, go to www.gsdfonline.org, call 412-877-7502 or emiail info@gsdfonline.org.


Dance Beat: Michele, Jacob’s Pillow, Kyle, Beth

January 12, 2013

ON THE ROAD. Attack Theatre’s Michele de la Reza has expanded her horizons. Last summer she attended Carolelinda Dickey’s bi-annual dance festival in Tanzmesse, Germany. There she met the Karen Cheung, artistic director of the Guangdong Modern Dance Festival, who invited her to China for a panel and where she was the only American artistic director. It was quite an adventure, walking though tiny streets to the three huge contemporary theaters in the city, finding cough drops in a country where no one speaks English, meeting Willi Tsao (the father of Chinese modern dance) and touching base with a range of Chinese contemporary dance, still in its infancy, but quickly playing catch-up. In between she served on the Fullbright Review Panel, perusing through 40 applications in dance, artistic research and performance at the United Nations in New York.

SUMMER DANCE. Okay, Jacob’s Pillow has released an almost complete (!) 2013 season and Pittsburgh will be represented not once but twice. In addition to his commission for New York City Ballet principal Wendy Whelan, Kyle Abraham’s company, Abraham.In.Motion, will conclude the season with his latest work, Pavement. (After it hits Pittsburgh, of course.) The season also includes O Vertigo and Martha Graham Company, among others. Click on Jacob’s Pillow for the full dance buffet.

kyle-abrahamAND MORE KYLE. When will it stop? Hopefully never. Kyle Abraham received one of 50 fellowships from United States Artists, a national grant-making and advocacy organization, which bestowed an unrestricted grant of $50,000 on each grantee. That is on top of another: as the 2012-2014 New York Live Arts Resident Commissioned Artist, Kyle will receive nearly $280,000 for the two-year residency and the commission of a new work or works for New York Live Arts. Then bring it on home, Kyle.

 

MAD DANCE. Rub elbows with the choreographic firebrand of Pittsburgh Beth Corningdance, Beth Corning at MAD MEX Shadyside Tues. Jan. 22, where you can build your own fajita, partake of the dessert table and have a 16 oz. margarita (or soft drink). The $40 donation goes to Beth’s latest project, a one-woman show called WHAT REMAINS, directed by Tony Award-winning director Dominique Serrand June 5-9. Click on Beth for more info.


Dance Beat: Jacob’s Pillow, PBT, PearlArts, Ballet in Cinema

December 15, 2012

Wendy Whelan

PITTSBURGH AT THE PILLOW. Mariclare Hulbert is such a tease. It appears that she’ll be giving us the Jacob’s Pillow 2013 season in bits and pieces. A rejuvenated Dance Theatre of Harlem will make its appearance there in Becket, MA June 19-23 with a program that will include George Balanchine’s Agon, Alvin Ailey’s The Lark Ascending and John Alleyne’s Far But Close By. But my thinking is that folks around here will be more interested in New York City Ballet’s iconic veteran ballerina Wendy Whelan and her Restless Creature program August 14-18. The program will commission young choreographers Joshua Beamish, Brian Brooks, Alejandro Cerrudo and — surprise! — Pittsburgh native Kyle Abraham, each of whom will perform a duet with her. It will be an intoxicating pairing as the ballerina takes on Kyle’s deeply-entrenched hip hop lyricism.

A high-flying Luca Sbrizzi

JUMPING FOR JOY. Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre is reaching out to embrace diversity in its audiences. Not only did the company introduce braille and large-print programs this year, but it piloted a new Audio Description Program at the Dec. 14 performance. Not only did patrons listen to live verbal descriptions during the presentation, but they attended a pre=performance “Touch Tour” in the Benedum Center South Lounge. There attendees could touch costume samples like the Sugarplum Fairy tutu’s stiff netting and intricate embellishment, a textured tactile map of the the stage set layout and signature poses from the choreography, such as the carriage of the hands in the Snow Scene. Volunteers attended a training workshop at the PBT Studios, led by expert dance describer Ermyn King of the Washington, D.C. area. and covering best practice and dance description fundamentals, including Laban Movement Analysis. PBT Education Director Alyssa Herzog Melby, who audio described the production, said that PBT joins “well-established audio description programs for opera and theater,” but is the first to do so for dance.

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PEARLARTS2. Staycee and Herman Pearl offered the second installation of their Salon  Series 101 in preparation for a world premiere in February. Called Phrase for Phrase, it attracted an imaginative and smart group of arts aficionados who opened some new doors for dance discussion. Definitely a contemporary take on the word “salon.” Love it.

MORE LIVE BALLET ON FILM. That’s not an oxymoron. Kudos for The Oaks Theater, which posted the next series of Emerging Pictures’ Ballet in Cinema for 2013, where there are several interesting developments to be seen, including a couple of forays into contemporary ballet. Sergei Polunin, an immensely talented Russian and currently the Bad Boy of Ballet, left The Royal Ballet, but curious fans can see him in an encore presentation of “Sleeping Beauty” in January. They can also see a new production with international superstar Natalia Osipova in La Scala’s “Notre Dame De Paris,” the first contemporary ballet, this one by Roland Petit (1965). Also of note are “La Bayadere,” always worthy when the Russians perform it, and The Royal Ballet’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” a big 2011 hit choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon and the second fresh contemporary production, albeit in a classical mode. Complete schedule: The Royal Ballet’s “Sleeping Beauty” Jan. 13 and 15; Bolshoi Ballet’s “La Bayadere” Feb. 17 and 19; La Scala’s “Notre Dame De Paris” Mar. 10 and 12; The Royal Ballet’s “La Fille Mal Gardee” Apr. 7 and 9; The Royal Ballet’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” May 5 and 7; The Royal Ballet’s “Giselle” May 19 and 21. Mark your calendars!


On Stage: An “Intensive” Summer

August 13, 2012

At the Point. Point Park University’s International Summerdance was rolling merrily along according to its final performance series, which had as strong a dance contingent as I’ve seen over the years. The choreographers provided a whole rainbow of dances, from Scott Romani’s Steal Your Rock ‘n roll to Kathleen Reilly-Reau’s Les Fleurs, where some of the “flowers” were sporting braces. Kiesha Lalama provided an African-layered number that unfolded like a Rubix cube — she’s so mathematical. And nothing was what it seemed in David Storey’s BUT Seriously, Though, where sounds of screams mutated into clown noses — really! At the end, Kiki Lucas transcended the decades, starting with the forties, in the powerfully effective Zap. Photographer Drew Yenchak provides some insight in this slideshow:

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PBTs Diplomatic Relations. I paid a visit to Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School’s Summer Intensive a short time ago and had a chance to talk with a delightful contingent of students from Japan who know a heckuva lot more English than I do Japanese. But more on that later as I work on a story about Japan’s passion for ballet.

 

Following in Some Big Footsteps. It looks like Ryan Lenkey had a great time making his debut with the New York City Ballet at Saratoga Springs, New York, in the mandolin dance from Peter Martins’ Romeo and Juliet. Since he studies at Pittsburgh Youth Ballet, he was thrilled to work with former PYB member and former NYCB principal dancer Stephen Hanna, who donated his time to work on the mandolin dance with Ryan, and NYCB principal and young guest artist with PYB Daniel Ulbricht, who played Mercutio in the production.


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