On the Road: Royal Ballet Reigns

June 29, 2009

After presenting the Bolsoi Ballet, Kennedy Center played host to England’s Royal Ballet. Read about it in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

On the Road: At the Pillow

June 29, 2009

After taking a few days to visit with friends in Connecticut, I’ll turn to Jacob’s Pillow, one of America’s most venerable dance festivals, which is located  in western Massachusetts. There I’ll be able to catch an encore performance Ballet Maribor’s production of “Radio & Juliet,” presented last October by the Pittsburgh Dance Council and set to music by Radiohead (revisit the review as well at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette).

Also appearing will be LAFA & Artists, founded in 2007 by Martha Graham Company and Cloud Gate Dance Theatre luminary Fang-Yi Sheu. Based in Taiwan, the company will perform the American premiere of “37 Arts,” choreographed by co-founder Bulareyaung Pagarlava (also formerly of Cloud Gate), “Single Room” and the world premiere of a work based on the couple’s experience at the Pillow last year.

It’s easy to get drenched in dance at the Pillow, where there will also be photo exhibits on Alvin Ailey, Merce Cunningham and cartoonist Jules Feiffer. On Wednesday and Thursday there will also be informal performances by local artists and a talk by Ann Hutchinson Guest.

Off Stage: On “Manon”

June 27, 2009

I just saw The Royal Ballet’s “Manon” at Kennedy Center last night and came upon this rehearsal footage with the opening night cast. Enjoy!

On the Road: Summer in the City

June 24, 2009

Yes, I’ll be spending one hot summer day in one of my favorite cities — New York. If Washington D.C. had an intriguing Ballet Smackdown going between the Bolshoi and Royal Ballets, American Ballet Theatre has a Ballerina Smackdown to offer in a pair of performances Saturday in “Swan Lake” on Saturday. You might ask, “Who needs that?” But this has a glorious twist.

Michele Wiles, a young ballerina with a contemporary flair, gets the Saturday afternoon matinee along with one this past Wednesday. She’s the only  female with two performances on a roster that includes a flock of Swan Queens, including Irina Dvorovenko, Gillian Murphy, Diana Vishneva, Paloma Herrara and Veronika Part.

But that’s not all. On Saturday evening, international star Nina Ananiashvili will give her final performance at American Ballet Theatre, something that promises to have a gala atmosphere about it. Angel Corella will be her Siegfried.

On Stage: Big at the Bolshoi

June 24, 2009

Check my review of “Le Corsaire” online at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Off Stage: Mia Michaels Unplugged

June 20, 2009

Mia MichaelsOn television’s So You Think You Can Dance, Emmy award-winning choreographer and judge Mia Michaels seems undeterred by Nigel Lythgoe, unfazed by the screaming from Mary Murphy and nonplussed by the whole audience scene. Recently the Emmy-winning choreographer took time to break out of the television box and showed up for a workshop that was sponsored by a persistent staff from the Elite Dance By Damion studio at The Chadwick banquet and meeting facility in Wexford.

The executives at Capezio would have been gnashing their teeth. There were over a hundred young dancers, most clothed in tee shirts (some of the “Flashdance” variety), knit tops and sports bras, often paired with boy shorts. Bare feet, tube socks and footies were de rigueur, with not a dance shoe in sight. It was much like a mini-audition for SYTYCD.

They came and they stretched and stretched some more under the warm-up guidance of Damian Kush himself before Michaels came in (a little late), accompanied by her assistant, Teddy. (Everyone’s on a first name basis on SYTYCD, but with a little probing, I find that his last name is Forance.) She calls him, “one of the finest dancers in contemporary dance today.”

Michaels looks comfortable in maroon sweatpants and a black tee shirt emblazoned with her own dance workshop venture, “Pulse.” Her platinum blonde pixie is held firmly in place by a wide black scarf, where gold hoop earrings dangle tantalizingly.

Without much ado, she proclaims that she will teach the students the combination from the SYTYCD segment in Las Vegas (where the judges whittle down the finalists) during the first hour session. Gavin DeGraw’s lyrics slowly start to permeate the room.

Belief makes things re-e-eal…

The dancers begin to get caught up in her organically- derived dance vocabulary, accented by  “whoosh, ba, ba, ga-a-a” and a drum roll of the tongue. “Don’t get caught up in structures of counts — that’s limiting,” Michaels says. “Everything should look disconnected but connected.”

Makes things fe-e-el, feel alright…

Michaels is full of helpful hints. “Try to dig into the internal — it feels like my organs are moving.” She offers her own perspectives on dance and life. “It’s not about you looking good — it’s about you exploring the unknown. Until you learn to embrace the unknown, you’re never going to embrace that grand step in life.

Belief makes things true, things like you, you and I…

She repeatedly urges them to “seize the moment,” “be aggressive, take yourself to the next level,” “go for it.”

Belief...” and they have it. Says 17-year old Alissa Kasunich, “It’s amazing the way she moves. Her entire life is about dance and making others feel the same.” Her sister Ashley, 20, a dance student at Point Park University, calls it “a once in a lifetime experience.” Fifteen-year old Nicole Berezo adds, “There’s so much detail in all the movements she gave. Then you just do your own thing and hope it works!”

After a lunch break, Michaels teaches another hour-long session with an unnamed combination where the choreography again seems to emanate from an emotional center. Some begin to tire, but she admonishes them to disperse with the “toilet face” and “be present. Your spirit dances first and your body will follow.”

Afterward Michaels sits down for another hour-long question-and-answer session. But first she begins with her own story — how her dad had a dance studio in Florida, where she started at age two, “in diapers, swinging a bottle.”

As a result, Michaels came to like all forms of dance — “anything that’s honest and effective.” She did her first choreography at age eight, when, every Friday night, she created a show. By 18, she had her own company in Miami. “I was always the ‘big girl,” she explains. “I used all that passion that I had and put it into the choreography.”

She moved to New York. Then came what she calls her “big break” — to be a choreographer for “Celine Dion’s A New Day” in Las Vegas. Michaels quickly packed two bags and her dog and moved to Belgium, then Vegas.

“My whole life changed,” she says. Lythgoe subsequently called her after he saw the Dion show and invited Michaels to be the contemporary judge on SYTYCD. She has also worked with Madonna, Ricky Martin, Gloria Estefan and others. Upcoming projects include Cirque du Soleil’s newest show.

But first she is forthcoming with answers to the students’ questions:

  • On Nigel: “He’s cool to work for — he gives a lot of freedom to the choreographers.”
  • On Judging: “We go off and fight–they edit us a lot.”
  • Favorite Season: Season Three with Danny, Jaimie and Sabra.
  • On Katee: Michaels called Season Four’s top woman “a faker — she can’t straighten her legs. But, no matter what, she delivered.”
  • On Competition: Michaels admitted that she hates competitions because dancers can lose their artistry. It was a gutsy statement, given that many students in attendance performed competitively.
  • Favorite Choreographer: American William Forsythe of Ballett Frankfurt (1984-2004) and The Forsythe Company (2005-present).
  • On Joshua: Michaels didn’t want last season’s winner to take the prize and walked out on a rehearsal because of his laziness. “He’s a flirt — I love him and hate him at the same time.” Recently she refused to give him a job.
  • SYTYCD: “It’s about personality, not about dance. It’s a television show.”

As I left, Michaels and Forance were still signing autographs and generously posing for pictures with the dancers. Next stop? SYTYCD Canada.

On the Road: Kennedy Center

June 16, 2009

Dance is virtually on hiatus in Pittsburgh, except for a few studio star turns to be visited shortly. So it’s time to hit the road and find some. If the mountain won’t come to Mohammed…you get the picture. This Friday I’m heading to Washington, D.C. and what might be called, in sports-minded sense, the Bolshoi/Royal Ballet Smackdown. (More to follow on the next segments of the trip.)

Yes, two of the world’s premiere dance ensembles will appear back-to-back weeks at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, only four (or so) short hours’ drive from Pittsburgh.  The last time I visited a similar pairing at the Center was in 2006, when the Maryinsky/Kirov Ballet presented “Giselle” and the Royal countered with Frederick Ashton’s “La Valse” and “Enigma Variations” and Kenneth MacMillan’s “Gloria.”

"Le Corsaire"

"Le Corsaire"

With a little planning, I can catch an even better pairing (potentially), beginning with Russia’s Bolshoi Ballet in one of those signature works that have enhanced its repertoire and its reputation, “Le Corsaire,” on Saturday. It’s a somewhat new production, first performed in 2007 and called “magnificent” by the New York Times. “Le Corsaire” tells the tale of a Greek girl, Medora, and the swashbuckling Pirate,Conrad , in a love affair that sets that stage for captive maidens, rich sultans and the pre-requisite abductions and rescues, “all culminating in a shipwreck that’s one of the most breathtaking specatacles in all of ballet.”

I’ll be seeing prominent Bolshoi soloists Ekaterina Shipulina as Medora and Ruslan Skvortsov as Conrad (both are on youtube.com), but it seems that the Bolshoi has pulled some of its most exciting young stars for this engagement.

American Ballet Theatre performed “Le Corsaire” on WQED’s Great Performances a while back with Julie Kent and Ethan Stiefel and it will be interesting to measure the two. But then, the Bolshoi has more history going for it and additional choreography by Alexei Ratmansky, who was just appointed as resident choreographer at ABT.

Small world.

"Month in the Country"

"Month in the Country"

Comparing the Bolshoi to the Royal is like comparing,once again, the proverbial apples and oranges. The Royal arrives in its corner  next week with a fabulous line-up of ballets, including two signature works, Frederick Ashton’s deliriously beautiful “A Month in the Country,” book-ended by two masterful contemporary works, Christopher Wheeldon’s “DGV” and Wayne McGregor’s “Chroma.” McGregor was working on the ballet when his company, Random Dances, appeared at the Pittsburgh Dance Council in 2006 and it subsequently garnered the Laurence Olivier award in 2007 for Best New Dance Production. Wheeldon has become ballet’s Favorite Son. And the other signature, the glorious “Manon” by Kenneth MacMillan, will feature principals Zenaida Yanowsky and Rupert Pennefather.

The companies have pulled out their big guns, or so it seems. Let the games begin.

The Bolshoi Ballet will appear at the Kennedy Center Tues. through Sun. The Royal Ballet will begin June 23 through June 28. For more information, visit the Kennedy Center website, http://www.kennedy-center.org.