On Stage: Everything Old Is New Again

March 26, 2010

Do yourself a favor and head over to the New Hazlett Theatre and The Glue Factory Project, which is the love child of former Dance Alloy Theater artistic director Beth Corning. Made up of dancers over 40 (although apparently everyone was between 50 and 60), “A Seat at the Table” offered slices of life –some delightful, others poignant or thoughtful, and sometimes all at once.

At first you thought that they looked terribly fit for their age. Janet Lilly, former principal dancer with Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company and professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, started things off by elegantly balancing on her hip at the corner of a long table covered with a black cloth. She became tentative, fearful and expansive by turn and inserted an impressive yoga headstand into her long, drawn-out phrase.

Then she slowly slid along the back of the table only to disappear before she  popped her head back up. All of a sudden she was joined by Corning and then Cathy Young, former principal dancer with Danny Buraczeski’s JAZZDANCE in Minneapolis and currently associate professor, chair and co-founder of the department of Theater and Dance at Ursinus College near Philadelphia.

That was a Corning trademark: follow a complex, perhaps troubled moment with a turn of events or a surprise. Keep the audience off balance.

There was more as the women began to emerge from the back of the table sitting on red leather stools with wheels. Were these the seats at the table? Of course not, for Corning had much more up her sleeve.

The moments of uncertainty were well worth the wait, although nothing that followed would be easily understood. For the mature audience members, it was full of layers born out of the perspective a a life well-lived. For the young (and I can only guess), there was not a recital of limitations, but a banquet of possibilities.

Each of these artists had a solo, created from their own words and personalities. There was a delectable game of musical chairs, certainly another  metaphor for life. The images, the kind that last well after a performance, were plentiful.

Corning offered a few other threads, the most prominent of which was the use of red in the lacquered tables and  chairs of varying Alice-in-Wonderland variety. Even the most mundane gestures took on real meaning from the magnificent cast. For the record, “Seat” included a to-die-for trio of men, including the whimsical Peter Sparling (former principal dancer, Martha Graham Dance Company and Thurnau professor of dance at the University of Michigan), the energetic Michael Blake (Jose Limon Dance Company, Donald Byrd/The Group, now with PARADIGM Dance in New York City) and the lanky David Covey (award-winning lighting designer for Merce Cunningham, performer and professor of dance at Ohio State University).

If this was vintage dance, it was a very good year.

On Stage: A Moving “Carmen”

March 25, 2010

Although it isn’t my usual performance milieu, I ventured to Pittsburgh Opera’s production of “Carmen” with the prospect of seeing some tidbits from Attack Theatre dancers Ashley Williams and Dane Toney. It turned out that they added an air of destiny in their trio of duets rather than performing in dance showcases that pepper most operas. But there was a bonus. Attack directors Michele de la Reza and Peter Kope also had a hand in working on movement with the “Carmen” leads, so I was interested in the results in this production.

As I understand it, Pittsburgh Opera general director Christopher Hahn has a philosophy that blends the various elements for which opera is known — singing, music, acting and dance. The first two are the artistic staples for this art form’s epic-urean delights. Acting often takes a back seat to volume-inous singers who stand there and literally give a shout out. Knowledgeable audiences wax poetic on high notes, phrasing, tone, register et. al. — and that will never change. There can be nothing more thrilling than the unadorned outpouring of the human voice.

The music, at its best, supports that notion. Puccini, Rossini, Bellini, Verdi and Wagner all produced work that stand the test of time. They are judged for the overall content of each opera, but it is the arias, with melodies often sweeping and/or uplifting, that are often remembered with a special adoration. And so it is with Bizet’s “Carmen,” filled with soaring melodies that, a handful of which, at the very least, rank near the top of opera’s greatest hits.

But too often the singing and music are not in sync with the other operatic elements, allowing for a fractured theatrical experience for audience members. Perhaps that’s because my first look at operatic gusto came at the long-gone, but not forgotten Syria Mosque in the Pittsburgh Opera’s “Samson and Delilah,” where Samson stalked the stage in elevator sandals and Delilah took to her chaise like a beached whale. A very young Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre ensemble swept onto the stage for the “Bacchanale” in bikini outfits. I also noticed that most of the orchestra members (Pittsburgh Symphony in those days) in the open orchestra pit had memorized the music and faced the stage, rather than the venerable conductor Richard Karp, to watch.

Since then I have had a “show me” relationship with the opera. I most appreciate it when there is a sense of reality to the movement, because the movement does not lie. It doesn’t have to be an “official” dance, but a staging that takes advantage of an authenticity in the movements of the singers. For that reason, I was moved to tears by Pittsburgh Opera’s production of “Grapes of Wrath” last season.

The music in “Carmen” is a special case because it is eminently danceable. (And it’s worthwhile to note that the Pittsburgh Opera’s eminently watchable Antony Walker, too, veritably dances while conducting.) Perhaps for that reason, Hahn chose a relatively young cast, all physically attractive, and possessed with clearly-drawn, if not huge voices.

Their playground was a balcony set that made for some tricky entrances and exits because the chorus had to funnel onto a narrow and very steep staircase that was awkwardly located off to one side. However, it was versatile for the various set changes and made wonderful sense for the fourth act, where the bullfighting was located behind the back wall.

“Carmen” lends itself to various historical interpretations and it appeared that director Eric Einhorn chose to render 1830 Seville with sepia sensibility a la “Les Miserables” (particularly in the mountain pass of the third act), which served to soften the story of Spanish gypsies singing and speaking in French.

To Einhorn’s credit, he lightened the opera’s tone in the first act as the cigarette girls came out from their break, a number of them puffing cigarettes. (It was strange how socially-incorrect behavior could be turned into a  plus.) Carmen (or Carmencita) was sultry but not slutty, strong-willed but not the usual over-the-top force of nature. You might say that the sense of swirling cigarette smoke, and not stereotypical Spanish bravado, defined the production from then onward. These were real people, heightened by their dramatic situation.

While the movement for the ensemble was not as strong as it might have been, the stage direction for the leads created a wonderfully intimate setting on the Benedum Center stage, enabling the audience to identify with these Carmen, Don Jose, Escamillo and more. The movement was a marvel, blending seamlessly with the stage direction and particularly effective as Kate Aldrich’s Carmen enticed and embroiled her men.

And when the final act came around with its most emotional musical passages, Einhorn willingly returned to more usual operatic conventions, letting the soloists remain stationary and the music to the talking. By then the characters were so well-drawn that the audience cared about their emotions. And that made Carmen’s murder, so well-staged, that much more effective and a surprise (to say the least), even if you knew it was coming.

While there are certain operas that will probably best be produced in traditional fashion (“Aida” comes to mind), I prefer a more conceptual approach, even if this “Carmen” was occasionally imperfect. If given my druthers, I would rather have “well-focused” singers who move and act well than the powerhouses who stand there and fill the house, albeit with artifice. And I think I represent the untapped masses of potential opera-goers out there.

On Stage: Corning is Back

March 24, 2010

Former Dance Alloy artistic director Beth Corning makes her return to the Pittsburgh dance scene. If you missed the article, click on Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Dance Beat: Spoleto and American dance festivals

March 20, 2010

SPOLETO DANCE FESTIVAL. Want to get a summer dance fix? Spoleto Festival USA runs from May 28-June 13 in the charming confines of Charleston, South Carolina. While its appeal is its range, from theater to jazz, with a special emphasis on classical music, there is a strong dance component. This year’s schedule includes Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo (May 28-30), Gallim Dance in “I Can See Myself in Your Pupil” (May 28, 29, 31), Lucinda Child’s Dance (June 4-5), Inbal Pinto, which appeared with Pittsburgh Dance Council in 2008 and was one of my ten best performances, and Avshalom Pollak Dance Company in “Oyster” (June 10-13) and prima ballerina assoluta Nina Ananiashvili and The National Ballet of Georgia in “Giselle” (June 11-13). Ms. Ananiashvili retired from American Ballet Theatre last summer, where I saw her magnificent finale in “Swan Lake.” She moved back to her native Georgia to direct the company there. Click on Spoleto Festival USA for more details.

AMERICAN DANCE FESTIVAL. These two southern festivals overlap a bit and “Oyster” appears on both of them, a rarity. The  June 10 – July 24 schedule on the campus of Duke University in Durham, North Carolina: African American Dance Ensemble (June 10-12), Monica Bill Barnes & Company and Kate Weare Company (June 15-16 ), Inbal Pinto and Avshalom Pollak Dance Company (June 17-19), Dendy Dancetheater (June 21-23),  RUBBERBANDance Group (June 24-26), Eiko & Koma (June 28-30), Pilobolus (July 1-3), Martha Clarke (July 5-7), Brenda Angiel Aerial Dance Company (July 8-10), Rosie Herrera (July 12-14),  Paul Taylor Company (Program A, July 15-16, Program B, July 17), Past/Forward, works by Jerome Robbins, Merce Cunningham and Tatiana Baganova and performed by ADE students (July 19-21), Shen Wei Dance Arts (Program A, July 22-23, Program B, July 24). Click on American Dance Festival for more details. Although it’s impossible to predict what will be a smash among so many strong companies, I’m particularly attracted to the debuts of Montreal’s RUBBERBANDance Group (check out the website, a combination of hip hop, postmodern, ballet and more) and Barnes and Weare and Martha Clarke’s premiere based on the Shakers. But then, it would be great to reconnect with Eiko & Koma, Inbal Pinto and Paul Taylor. Another thing — you also have to notice the heavy percentage of companies from North America — international touring is at a virtual standstill.

AFTERTHOUGHT: I thought I would go to YouTube. Here’s a promo for RUBBERBANDance Group.

And for fun, here’s a variation, rubberband — dance.

Off Stage: McDreamy McGill

March 16, 2010

Photo by Vince TrupsinPaul McGill is only 22 and already has a resume that would send most Broadway hopefuls reeling. It’s also a study in making the most of your opportunities.

There he was — a junior at Northgate High School, with a fistful of dreams and a camera-ready face. Six days later Paul was in New York City as a part of the original cast revival of “La Cage aux Folles,” covering 15 parts and going to the Professional Performing Arts School.

That whirlwind of a change was orchestrated by Rachelle Rak, daughter of studio owner Rosalene Kenneth and where Paul happened to be studying dance. A Broadway veteran herself (“Cats,” “Fosse,” “Oklahoma!” revival, “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels”), Rachelle happened to mention his name in a telephone conversation with director Jerry Mitchell.

That started a veritable avalanche of activity.

Paul got the news that he was selected on Monday and by Saturday was in New York City rehearsing. In addition to covering those 15 parts, he was attending the Professional Performing Arts School. When “La Cage” closed, Paul moved back to Pittsburgh, set on living a “normal life again”…but not for long.

He found time to appear in a brief role in the Oscar-winning “Man on Wire” (Best Documentary Feature) about high-wire specialist Philippe Petit and his daring walk between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in 1974. (Paul played Philippe as a young man.) Then someone suggested him to the powers-that-be at the Broadway revival of “A Chorus Line.”  Two days after his graduation from Northgate, Paul headed back to New York where he played the role of Mark.

“I did that for two and a half years,” Paul recalls just prior to teaching a master class at Karen Prunzik’s Broadway Dance Studio.  “It was great — I could see how the cast changed.” The original cast members were “realistic about Broadway and life. Some got married, others had babies and three got engaged.”

So what was a newly-minted high school grad to do among these veterans? “I worked on myself — my body, my mind.” That also meant bending the ear of the company’s physical therapist about anatomy, something that went on for the duration of the run. But all good things, as they say….

Paul admits that he became frantic when the show’s closing notice was posted. However, within a week he had booked “West Side Story” and a leading role in the movie remake of “Fame.” What to do?

“It was easy,” he admits. “Snowboy, one of the Jets, or an original role in a feature film.” Without blinking, Paul picked up and moved to Los Angeles and filmed for what turned out to be a grueling three months. “We didn’t get time to warm up — it’s all up to the lighting and camera angles. But when they called ‘Action,’ you had to be ready.”

The worst came when the director filmed the graduation scene — 15 hours straight with just a lunch break. At the end of that action-packed day, the dancers had to do improvisational dances for the closing film credits.

Some of the “teenagers” in the cast brought friends to the set and drank in their trailers between scenes. But Paul was one of a quartet of New Yorkers in “Fame,” professionals who had a strong work ethic and lifestyle in comparison. “There’s a respect and discipline in the theater,” he says.

He also had inspiration from some “true professionals” on the set. Bebe Neuwirth played Sheila in “A Chorus Line” on Broadway in 1980 and took time to swap stories with the young dancer. MeganMullally, who “was funnier when the cameras were off,” also had some advice — “to not even look at the stuff that’s going on around you and keep being yourself, living your life.”

He followed “Fame” with six months of interviews and photo shoots. It also gave him time to think, whereupon Paul decided to come back to his dance roots. “I learned what it’s like to be employed and sit around waiting for things to happen,” he says. So he came back to Pittsburgh, beefing up on dance classes, voice lessons, acting classes and choreography. “I’m making an investment in the future — I have so many ideas and so many plans.” Although stage is his first love, Paul wants to do it all, like Rob Marshall and Gene Kelly, both of whom he labels as “Pittsburgh greats.”

But he barely had time to take a breath. Paul took a sidestep to appear on Nickleodeon’s series, “Victorious.” Then “Fame” came out on DVD in January. And right now he’s filming “House Hunting,” a horror flick, in Charlottesville, Virginia. I guess Paul will keep moving…in what direction is anybody’s guess.

Dance Beat: Dance Recitals, Jerry, Dirty Ball, Pillow

March 16, 2010

SPRING INTO SPRING. After wrestling with technical difficulties, it’s time to get back into action. I’m assembling the annual list of Dance Recitals, to be found on the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette website and on CrossCurrents. Send your studio name, date, location and contact information to jvranish1@comcast.net.

JERRY’S BACK. PBS is developing a bona fide Jerry Crush on American dance master Jerome Robbins. A couple of years ago we saw “Something to Dance About,” which was something akin to a biography told through archival photos and footage. Now New York City Ballet soloists Ellen Bar and Sean Suozzi have resurrected one of Robbins’ cult favorites, ‘Opus Jazz.” Conceived in sneakers, it was filmed on location in New York with 18 members of NYCB. Although it will receive its national broadcast premiere Mar. 24, WQED will be airing it April 4 (yes, Easter). More info later.

MARK YOUR CALENDARS. The fifth Dirty Ball erupts on Saturday, April 24. The “red-hottest, way-coolest, sold-outest” event of the year, Attack Theatre is playing it close to the vest, as usual, about the location, calling it their own “dirty little secret.” Performances, libations, DJs, plenty of dancing and art installations by CMU’s Entertainment Technology Center. Just be prepared.

MORE MARK YOUR CALENDARS. Pearlann Porter has solidified her latest series of Second Saturdays, running April through August. Catch “Jazz on the Pale Blue Dot” (Apr. 10), “Uncharted Syncopations” (May 8), “Micrography” (June 10), “Hot Box”  (July 12) and “another night at The SwankEasy” (Aug. 14), all at The Space above Construction Junction in Pittsburgh’s Point Breeze.

Dance Beat: PBT, Kennedy Center, La Roche

March 5, 2010

Tim on the Move. Longtime Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre supporter Timothy Evans follows his passion just about everywhere. His trip to San Francisco Ballet’s “Swan Lake” was a perfect example. Robert Vickrey, assistant to Terrance Orr, arranged for Tim to get tickets through PBT photographer Rich Sofranko, whose son performs with the company. There he saw Sarah Van Patten as the Swan Queen. (“Excellent!”) Former PBT principal Christopher Rendall-Jackson’s mother also took Tim to brunch and the Cartier Exhibition. Tim learned from her that Chris is doing well in Harvard Law School and that his wife, former PBT soloist Kaori Ogasawara, is expecting their second child.

Kennedy Center Announcement. John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts announced its dual upcoming seasons. The ballet portion includes the Big Three — New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre and Joffrey Ballet, plus the Mariinsky. The season will conclude with back-to-back runs of the Ballet Nacional de Cuba and the Royal Danish Ballet. Of special note is ABT’s local premiere of Alexei Ratmansky’s “The Bright Stream,” a full-length ballet that propelled him onto the international stage while he was still at the Bolshoi. And audiences can see the future of ballet in Proteges III, with students from Bolshoi Ballet Academy, Julio Bocca Foundation Ballet Argentino School of the Arts, The Royal Danish Ballet School and Tokyo’s New National Theater Ballet School. The contemporary dance season has a strong American accent with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, Paul Taylor Company and a special presentation of Five First Ladies of Dance (Germaine Acogny, Carmen de Lavallade, Diane McIntyre, Bebe Miller and Jawole Willa Jo Zollar). Latino choreographers Tania Perez-Salas Compania de Danza (Mexico) and Companhia de danca Deborah Colker (Brazil) complete the season. For more information, click on Kennedy Ballet and Kennedy Contemporary Dance.

Building from the Ground Up. George Balanchine famously said, “But first a school.” And PBT is concentrating some energy on its school program. Housing is always an issue and PBT saw a need in order to keep up with top notch schools across the country. The site is the former rectory of St. John the Baptist Catholic Church which is now the Church Brew Works in Lawrenceville, only a short distance up Liberty Avenue from the company’s headquarters in the Strip District. Called the Byham House, it will provide housing for 16 students.

La Roche on the Move Two. La Roche College Dance Theatre heads back to New York City Mar. 13 for a performance of “Celebrate the Spirit” at the Ailey Citigroup Theater in The Joan Weill Center of Dance. The program will feature the music of Mahalia Jackson and Diana Ross and will include a guest performance by GESTURES. For more information, email nicole.kubit@laroche.edu.