Dance Notes: New Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre and Alloy

July 29, 2009

THE NEW PBT: As was previously announced, Julia Erickson and Alexandra Kochis are moving up the roster to become principal dancers and Eva Trapp has been promoted to soloist. But there are five new corps members to replace principal dancers Maribel Modrono, Christopher Rendall-Jackson and Daisuke Takeuchi and soloist Kaori Ogasawara who left at the end of last season. A Cuban couple, Cynthia Castillo and Damien Martinez, will join PBT from Columbia Classical Ballet in South Carolina. Both trained at the prestigious National Ballet School in Cuba. Japanese dancer Hiroyuki Nagasawa comes to Pittsburgh via The Australian Ballet School where he graduated last December with an Advanced Diploma of Dance with Distinction. Boston Ballet II member Caitlyn Peabody was a little closer and joins a growing number of ex-Bostonites at PBT. And Amanda Cochrane is literally home-grown — she will jump from PBT’s own school.

THE NEW ALLOY: Dance Alloy has undergone many blends of dance in its 30-plus years of existence. It has gone from collaborative, with the likes of Elsa Limbach (who later led the Alloy alone) and Susan Gillis-Kruman, who still lend their support, to Jerry Pearson, Mark Taylor and, in its most recent incarnation with “Theater” added to the title and plenty of dance drama to underscore that, Beth Corning. Now Penn Hills native, former Dayton Contemporary Dance Company principal and DAT education director Greer Reed-Jones is taking the reins. Reed-Jones will have quite a balancing act as artistic, education and outreach director. She also has a new “baby,” the August Wilson Dance Company and the full support of leading jazz trumpet player and husband, Sean Jones, who also plays in Wynton Marsalis’ Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. I think the pair will be a true power couple for the arts.

Guest Blog: Dance Fireworks at the Beach

July 27, 2009

Keigwin + Company in Water (Excerpt)Born and bred in McKeesport where her family ran a long-time community landmark, Feig’s Bakery, Rebecca Taksel left to study French literature at the University of Pittsburgh with a detour to Sarah Lawrence College, where she majored in dance. She has maintained her passion for both art forms throughout an extensive teaching career. Rebecca is currently at Point Park University, where she teaches English and French courses, with an occasional sojourn into dance criticism. An animal rights advocate, Rebecca regularly contributes creative nonfiction and cultural criticism to the Redwood Coast Review.

This year, for the second time, I was fortunate enough to attend a performance of the Fire Island Dance Festival, a weekend of benefit dance concerts by Dancers Responding to AIDS. At this celebration of dance held every July in the beautiful garden of a private home in the Pines, I was the guest of  dear friend Fred Hecker, whom I met in first grade at White Oak school in the McKeesport school district; Fred has a lovely house steps from the beach.

This year’s four performances, held on Saturday and Sunday, July 18 and 19, raised over $260,000 for AIDS service organizations, bringing the 15-year total to 1.9 million dollars.

Saturday afternoon’s performance was, above all, fun, in keeping with the party-like setting.  More than 150 of us were treated to twelve pieces by ten companies, most of them contemporary.  The Keigwin+Company opened with the first of three light-hearted dances they had prepared on the singularly appropriate theme of water. In these charming pieces, water was poured, drunk, splashed, and once, with hilarious effect, spat, by the teasingly towel-clad dancers.  In comedy, timing is all, and this ensemble never missed.

Jody Melnick, Business of the Bloom (excerpt)Just as appropriate, in an entirely different way, was a solo by Jodi Melnick, a former Twyla Tharp dancer, performed to cello music of Bach. In a flowing white dress, silhouetted against the blue water and sky, Melnick was in constant fluid motion, never posing, her slight form moving through the shapes with the casual, occasionally pedestrian movements associated with Tharp. In the watery setting, she was a very contemporary, unsentimental sprite.

A duet by Jon Bond and Matthew Rich from the Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet  was at the other endCedar Lake Contemporary Ballet: Jon Bond & Matthew Rich in Show of the movement spectrum:  unabashedly powerful, openly sensual, very dramatic.  These two were well-served by the wide-open-spaces feeling of the stage. It was pure pleasure to watch two perfectly-matched male dancers give as good as they got in a dance called “Show Me” that was clearly about the challenges of initial attraction and connection.  This dance used the entire stage with choreography that created beautiful lines of tension between the dancers.

A duet of a very different kind was the Black Swan Pas De Deux. I was a little taken aback by the choice:  the black swan in this blue-and-white afternoon?  I needn’t have worried. From a front-row seat I watched Mary Carmen Catoya and Rolando Sarabia, principals of the Miami City Ballet,  give a performance that was a miracle of balance and precision.  Ms. Catoya, supported so beautifully by Mr. Sarabia that her feet and hands never gave even the slightest tremor through all the lifts, turns, and balances, was piquant and proud in her characterization, as she should be as the evil swan.  This wasn’t just pretty ballet for an uncritical afternoon crowd. The ovation they received was terrific, and deserved.

Another crowd pleaser was “Workin’ for Peanuts” by the Feliciano Dance Company, to music by the company’s director, Angel Feliciano.  A group of seven male dancers created with gestures and an empty box an initial scene of a subway car, with six dancers strap-hanging while the last shyly and furtively spoke to them, peddling his peanut candy.  Suddenly, all seven were facing us in a phalanx of pure menace.  The music was hip-hop, as was the inspiration for the dance style.  But this was grown-up dancing, not cute acrobatics for kids, full of power and energy, gorgeous ever-changing configurations and perfection in the unison work.

Equally beautiful virtuoso ensemble work was offered by the Christopher Huggins company, in which a sextet of dancers managed to dance in wonderful unison while remaining entirely individual.  This is one of the great ongoing challenges for modern and contemporary dance companies that want to avoid the cookie-cutter look of a corps. This company did it beautifully, to a beautiful Steve Reich piece called “Music for 18 Musicians.”

The other companies represented were Armitage Gone! Dance, Zvi Dance, and ComplexionsDanny Tidwell - "The Eternal Vow"Contemporary Ballet.  All of them danced at the high, high level you would expect on a program that drew from the talent pool of New York.  And Danny Tidwell, who was first runner-up in the third season of “So You Think You Can Dance,” performed a solo choreographed for him by Lauren Adams, who is currently a choreographer on the show.

Finally, mention must be made of the host, Bruce Villanch, the remarkable comic writer who is nominated for an Emmy for this year’s Oscar show.  Villanch, known for his lightning fast ad-libbing ability, was very, very funny indeed, delighting the sophisticated New York audience with plenty of spicy jokes and show-biz “dish.”

Christopher Huggins - "PiŽce d'Occasion: Boys will be Boys"

Thanks to Fred Hecker for this wonderful array of photos. For more go to: Fire Island Dance Festival.

Off Stage: Trusting Pittsburgh Arts for 25 Years

July 22, 2009

So the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust is celebrating 25 years of performances, workshops and real estate deals that transformed the Liberty/Penn Avenue corridor from seedy to spectacular. With Carol Brown and now Kevin McMahon at the helm, this organization may be the biggest stimulus package (yes, at least equal to the Steelers) that Pittsburgh has received.

Despite uncooperative weather, Friday night revelers celebrated at numerous locations during the latest installment of the Cultural Crawl, taking in Wood Street Galleries, ballroom lessons at Arthur Murray Studios and an assortment of other activities.

Having been around for those 25 years, I began thinking about the debut of the Benedum Center, which was  the first major project of the Trust. I had seen a touring production of “Evita” at its predecessor, the Stanley Theater, where I thought the cast was singing in Spanish until the second scene (sound systems have come a long way).

The opening program at the Benedum on Sept. 27, 1987 was something called “Purely Pittsburgh,” a variety show with the likes of Chuck Aber (from Mr. Rogers), Don Brockett, John Costa, Karen Prunczik and Margaret Whiting. They sang songs by Pittsburgh-connected composers including Stephen Foster (of course), Victor Herbert, Billy Strayhorn, Errol Garner and Fred Rogers (of course).

The next day the Benedum present its first professional presentation, the modern dance troupe, Pilobolus, in signature works like “Ocellus” and “Walklyndon.” Yes, Pittsburgh supported the dance, even then. I still recall that first performance and remember comparing the hall’s somber bronzes and browns to the vibrant red, white and gold colors of Heinz Hall, somewhat unfavorably at first.

But when the lights went down, the Benedum almost magically disappeared and the audience was drawn to the stage. Despite its large size, the hall took on a special intimacy that benefitted the viewer. I still feel the same way about this Pittsburgh landmark after 25 years of watching, mostly on the aisle, and have grown to love its tasteful decor.

When the Benedum opened in 1987, many people wondered if Pittsburgh could sustain two large performance halls. Heinz Hall had the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra as its anchor, but the Benedum…could the Civic Light Opera, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre and Pittsburgh Opera have the same staying power?

Well, we have the answer now. Despite the recent economic downturn, the arts are flourishing in Pittsburgh and have become one of this city’s main drawing cards. The Trust, which was initially very secretive, preferring to remain behind the scenes, has increased its visibility a hundredfold and has become a huge success story. It has added more theaters, parking garages and galleries to its cityscape. But its influence reaches far beyond its Downtown borders to East Liberty, Oakland, the North Shore and the suburbs, where arts groups and their supporters look for guidance, inspiration and motivation.

Long live the Trust!

On the Road: At the Pillow

July 20, 2009

My final road trip installment focused on Jacob’s Pillow, Massachusetts mecca for dance. Here it is as it appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

On Stage: “Dirty, Hot and Blue”

July 14, 2009

With The Pillow Project’s expansive multi-paned windows, patrons had always been able to watch the deepening shades of blue as the night sky settled over the city. But this time it all seeped into the music and dance at “Dirty, Hot and Blue,” Pearlann Porter’s latest project at The Space Upstairs on Saturday night.

After ascending the tunnel-like staircase, it ‘s always a surprise to emerge into the Pillow’s always-changing performing environment. This time the comfy clusters of furniture were pushed to the far end of The Space. In the corner, visitors could get chair massages alongside the fancy new bar. There Violet Affinity, Whiskey Daisy, Ruby Manhattan and Woo Woo, part of Ladies United for the Preservaton of Endangered Cocktails (a real website) concocted a drink they called The Godmother, inspired by Ma Rainey, know as the “Godmother of the Blues.” The vodka/amaretto blend came with an explanatory card and a little verbal history about Ma. Over at the side wall, four year-old Isabella Cacalano-Jordan pointed to one of the paintings lining the walls and proudly proclaimed, “That’s me!.” (The Pillow always gets a great mix of young and old, singles and families.)

Wil E. Tri and his blues-based combo were already in knee-deep in grit by the time I arrived, setting the stage for dance vignettes by Porter and Michael Walsh. Walsh took a more formal choreographic approach in constructing his meandering patterns, easily oozing into the theme of the evening.

Porter is moving into more improvisation and generating material through her dancers, a bit like acting’s The Method. With the women in light cotton dresses, there was a definite splash of  Southern comfort to the movement. But the warm weather also played a part in making an easy-going transition into Tennessee Williams’ country.

It’s a little tricky to construct a program all around the blues — its mostly  languid, heavy-duty emotions tend to lull the audience. But Porter and company provided some inspired moments, particularly Beth Ratas, who sensually ascended to a her own hot tin roof in a duet with Anne Pavlick. Tiny Kaylin Horgan enjoyed slithering around a chair to a whimsical dental song, “Pepsodent,”

Porter also provided a table duet, where Pavlick tried everything to get the attention of her self-absorbed, newspaper-bound partner, Joshua Reese. Like the others, the pieces were performed, at least in part, several times over the course of the evening to differing musical styles. When the dancers made the transition from the blues to the silent segment at the end, where audience members could listen to their own accompaniment selections on an iPod or similar device, it gave the movement a whole new dimension.

Porter worked hard to keep up the pace, but this program was all about, well, just hangin’.

Guest Blog: Summer Dance on the Lake

July 11, 2009

Steve SucatoErie-based writer Steve Sucato covers a wide swath of dance in Ohio (Cleveland’s The Plain Dealer), scoots over to upstate New York (The Buffalo News), frequently writes for Erie Times-News and covers dance here in Pittsburgh’s City Paper. That means that he puts a lot of miles on his 1999 Toyota Corolla, which currently clocks in at 210,000 miles. Steve has served as president of the Dance Critics Association and his articles have appeared in a number of dance-related magazines, including Dance Magazine, Pointe and Dance Teacher. Since he lives minutes away from Chautauqua Institution, he offers this preview of upcoming dance performances. I’ll be there as well, definitely on July 14 and August 15 (and maybe more), where I’ll join you on the road.

Photo by Jeff Cravotta

Photo by Jeff Cravotta

In the 25 years Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux has headed The Chautauqua Institution’s summer dance series at the famed Chautauqua, New York resort, he has steadily built the summer performance series into one of the finest in the country — bringing in dancers from all over the country to dance under the moniker of The Chautauqua Ballet Company. In the past several seasons, the series has become more of a Southern affair with The Chautauqua Ballet Company giving way to Bonnefoux’ Charlotte-based North Carolina Dance Theatre, which has become the Institution’s resident dance company. This season NCDT will be the featured company in all but the first of the 8-week summer series’ 6 programs.

The season kicked off July 2 with the 6-member Chautauqua Dance Salon’s “Green Pieces,’ a program of new dance works choreographed by Chautauqua regular Mark Diamond and North Carolina Dance Theatre principal dancer Sasha Janes — all with environmental themes.

On July 14, North Carolina Dance Theatre begins its 6-week residency at the Institution joining the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra under the baton of guest conductor Grant Cooper for an eclectic program of dance works that will include a reprise of Alonzo King’s striking contemporary ballet, “Map,” set to music by Arvo Part, that the company performed at Chautauqua in 2004. Also on the program will be excerpts from a new work by Diamond set to Gustav Holst’s “The Planets,” a work by NCDT resident choreographer Dwight Rhoden, and a bit of Christmas in July in the form of excerpts from the second act of Bonnefoux’ “The Nutcracker Ballet.”

On July 29, the company will present “An Evening of Pas de Deux.” Slated are a mix of contemporary and classical works including Victor Gsovsky’s “Grand Pas Classique” (1972); the balcony scene pas de deux from Bonnefoux’ “Romeo and Juliet,” works by Diamond and Janes and George Balanchine’s famous “Tchaikovsky Pas De Deux” (1960), a ballet originated by the evening’s honoree, longtime Chautauqua dance teacher and dance icon Violette Verdy.

The program will also include the premiere showing of a new video about Verdy produced at the Institution.

August 5 the company returns in “Dance Innovations,” featuring excerpts from Rhoden’s steamy

Photo by Jeff Cravotta

Photo by Jeff Cravotta

“Dirty Truth and Pretty Lies,” inspired by Tennessee Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Tin roof” and set to torch songs by Nina Simone. Joining Rhoden’s work on the program will be Balanchine’s Ballet Ruses masterwork, “Apollon Musagete” (1928), choreographer Mark Godden’s “Romeo and Juliet”-inspired “Constructing Juliet” (2002) and Diamond’s “There Again, Not Slowly,” set to music by British duo Chemical Brothers.

The 2009 dance season wraps up August 15 with NCDT once again being joined by the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra in a program celebrating Chautauqua School of Dance teacher and former New York City Ballet star Patricia McBride’s 20th anniversary at the Institution. The program will feature a new ballet from husband Bonnefoux set to Rossini’s Overtures, Diamond’s “Immortal Design,” inspired by the film classic “Death Takes a Holday” and its remake “Meet Joe Black,” and Balanchine’s “Western Symphony,” staged by McBride.

On the Road: Nina!

July 11, 2009

International superstar Nina Ananiashvili took her final bows with American Ballet Theatre recently where the audience screamed “Nina!” and “Ana!” repeatedly over the course of the evening. Read about it in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.