On Stage: The Chicago Connection

Point Park University has had a longtime association with Chicago, mostly with Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, a company that took several PPU graduates into the fold over the years (Joe Mooradian, Shan Bai and Cheryl Mann come immediately to mind). And the university’s various dance groups have, over the years, imported choreographers from that city’s deep dish (like its pizza) of dance.

So it was with a sense of nostalgia that PPU welcomed back Mann, considered one of its most distinguished alumna, to set Daniel Ezralow’s highly intense “SUPER STRAIGHT is coming down” for the Byham Theater program this weekend. It’s the year’s most ambitious program, one that will also include Daniel Parson’s “Nascimento,” Doug Varone’s “The Constant Shift of Pulse” and a ballet by Gerald Arpino (see below). But since Mann is a terrific multi-tasker, she was also set to photograph the graduating seniors for their resumes.

The Chicago dancer retired from Hubbard Street in 2007, but she had been establishing a solid parallel career in photography since 1999.  Actually it all started when she was a child — her mother was a photographer who won a contest with a “high contrast, beautifully shot” photograph of her daughter’s  feet (in tights and ballet slippers, of course). Mann took a darkroom class of her own in ninth grade, but really turned to photography in a Hubbard Street workshop, where the dancers would take on other roles in the production.

Mann had at first done humorous dance pieces “because I couldn’t take my choreography seriously.” But at a subsequent workshop, she decided to have an installation in the lobby with a black-and-white portrait of each company member, a “really assertive conceptual shot of the dancer doing something other than dancing.”

She ended up selling two of the prints to longtime Chicago dance critic Hedy Weiss of the Chicago Sun-Times, who forced Mann to charge her. She recalls that “it gave me my first lesson in putting value to my work” and can be seen on her imaginative website, Cheryl Mann Photography.

“It was sort of like choreographing on the dancers – I really like being able to capture a moment on the stage that you’ll never be able to create again,” Mann says. “That’s what I love about shooting dance.”

She is “really happy” to have found this new career, claiming that it has “helped with my transition. It doesn’t fill the void of dance — it never will — but, at least, I feel very close to the stage and connect with it in a different way.” And for now she can “live vicariously” through her younger sister, Selena Moshell, who is touring nationally in “The Lion King.” Could Pittsburgh be on the list?

But the Chicago/Pittsburgh connection goes further than Hubbard Street on the Byham program. Former Joffrey Ballet principal dancer Maia Wilkins also came to Pittsburgh to set Arpino’s East-West fusion of a ballet, “Light Rain.”

The winsome slip of a ballerina spent 18 years at the Joffrey, the last five or so as a favorite partner of former Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre principal Willy Shives. Small world indeed.

After her retirement from the Joffrey along with husband and fellow Joffrey dancer Michael Levine, the couple moved back home to northern California to be near their families and to have their first child, Martin.

But Wilkins had been hired to be a repetiteur with the Arpino Foundation. It was a natural choice for her to continue to set his ballets because Wilkins was Arpino’s pick from the beginning and his muse at the end. When she first came to the Joffrey in New York, Wilkins notes that “it was clear I was there because Mr. Arpino had an interest in me. He took me under his wing.”

But the Joffrey shut down in New York. While the company was on hiatus, in search of a new permanent home, Wilkins headed for Europe with a friend. For three weeks they took classes at various companies to see if there was a good fit.

But her friend would say, “Oh, Maia, you are such an Arpino dancer — it’s stamped on you.” She had the trademark classical strength, with an individualism a freedom of movement that he so admired.

When Arpino headed for Chicago, Wilkins followed and became the face of the Joffrey. With her appointment to the Arpino Foundation, she began thinking. “Mr. Arpino would enter the studio and I’d see the response from the dancers.” She thought, “This needs to be captured somehow, but how do you notate the essence of feeling that he inspired?”

Wilkins wanted to get that across and started doing taped lunches with her ebullient mentor until his death in October, 2008. In the Point Park studio where she coached her cast in”Light Rain,” it was clear that she had passed on the Arpino spirit as the students surged through energetic patterns with, yes, that  signature freedom of movement.

For more information on Conservatory at the Byham, see Listings.

Point Park University also has initiated a series of videos in conjunction with its dance and theater performances. For more on the works at the Byham, click on Cheryl Mann, Maia Wilkins and Jason McDole.

One Response to On Stage: The Chicago Connection

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