Dance Beat: Alloy has a Battle (Robert, that is)

April 30, 2010

The news just broke that choreographer Robert Battle was appointed to replace Judith Jamison at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, certainly one of the most prestigious ensembles in the world. But this prolific choreographer has been a familiar face around Pittsburgh, dashing off a couple of pieces for Point Park University and several other local groups. The Pittsburgh connection doesn’t end there because Dance Alloy Theater will premiere a new Battle work for its spring concert at the New Hazlett Theater May 7-10, with an original score by Pittsburgh jazz composer and trumpet player Sean Jones. See what the New York Times and its chief critic, Alastair Macaulay, have to say about the subject and for more information, visit Dance Alloy.

Dance Beat: New Beginnings

April 30, 2010

CLOSING THE BORDERS. All eyes are on Arizona and the Mexican border, but arts organizations across the country have been struggling with international touring. Pittsburgh Dance Council’s Paul Organisak has complained about this for the past several years and is currently restricting most of his season to North American groups. But Guitar Society for Fine Art is the latest to experience visa problems, forcing it to postpone its season finale flamenco show, all Spanish artists,  from May 8 until Oct. 8 and 10 at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts. If you’ve already purchased a ticket and have further questions, contact Michael Chapman at 412-612-0499 or

MOVING ON. It will be a great day for dance at Point Park University’s graduation on Saturday. Tony Award-winning choreographer Rob Ashford, a 1983 graduate, will give the 50th undergraduate commencement address on Saturday at Mellon Arena. He also directed and choreographed  “Promises, Promises,” which just opened on Broadway. Other credits include “Thoroughly Modern Millie” (Tony Award), “The Wedding Singer” (Tony nomination) and “Curtains” (Tony nomination). The internationally-known artist will receive and honorary doctor of humane letters degree. Shea Mihm Gopaul, a 1976 graduate and director of administration for the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), will receive also receive an honorary doctor of humane letters degree as part of PPU’s master’s degree Hooding and Commencement Ceremony. A Pittsburgh native, she was a member of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre and performed with Civic Light Opera. In other PPU news, those in the know might have recognized PPU grad Rob Knowles in a prominent dance position at Pittsburgh Dance Council’s presentation of BJM Danse.

ON THE HORIZON. Another organization is joining an increasing number of blips on the Pittsburgh dance screen. Oddly enough, it’s a presenting organization. And more oddly, it is an outgrowth of young talents associated with Point Park University. Called Three10 Moment (the name comes from the Oct. 3 date when the idea came about), it will form a bridge for young choreographic talents to showcase their work. I’ve been waiting for a more comprehensive and local development of the powerhouse dance program at PPU. Three10Moment now joins singular names like Jeff Davis and Pearlann Porter, who both formed wonderful careers here in Pittsburgh. It put on a program recently — its second — at the impressive Father Ryan Arts Center in McKees Rocks, one that smacked of good organization and a discerning arts eye. This was seriously fine work by young choreographic talents. Kudos to the co-founders at Three10 are Jami Shapiro and Erin Kouwe, plus staff members Nicole Townsend and Mary Muncil. Remember their names. For more information, contact 516-286-0188 or

NEW YORK, NEW YORK. Pittsburgh dance icon Jean Gedeon was once again invited to the Big Apple by the New York City Ballet last February. She joined a select group from across the United States for a National Teachers Weekend, which included a cocktail reception, a class taught by artistic director Peter Martins and NYCB performance. Jean also has news of Pittsburgh Youth Ballet alum Amy Barker, who was hired by Los Angeles Ballet.

On Stage: The Dirty Ball

April 28, 2010

I’ve been labeled a lot of things over the years. But there I was, “The ballsiest,” according to my pin I was given at Attack Theatre’s Dirty Ball, held last weekend in the combined space of the Sports Rock Cafe, Vegas on the Strip and Pharoah’s nightclubs in the Strip District (real bathrooms this year!). That meant that I had attended all five Dirty Balls “and counting”…

They were, from the start, a hit, from the first at an empty city apartment space, where the last-minute crowd overwhelmed the small food pickings. What made it such a success? Well, Attack managed to push all the right buttons. Just the very thought, a Dirty Ball, brings out the marginal badness that the usually conservative Pittsburghers harbor. It was seductive, from the dirty martinis to the dirty secrets, with a high fun factor.

Gradually the audiences have grown from the original 300 or so to more than 1000 this year. The audience is half the show, from teasing bustiers to full-fledged drag. But the Attackers themselves go all out to give attendees their money’s worth, so that it’s not only than a ball, but more like a site-specific performance. The deejays are always terrific and the drinks are included in the price of admission. Although the food always played second fiddle, although there were some downright tasty options this year.

For the VIPs, Richard Parsakian decorated a room with plush red and zebra-striped fabrics, along with deliciously naughty accoutrements. Dancers undulated in nooks and crannies there and in the other spaces, where I loved a display of stacked chairs.

Then there are the rolling showcases, 15 in all in honor of Attack’s birthday. Because the venue was separated into three rooms, the sometimes overlapping schedule kept the pace moving. So Michele de la Reza and company had to move easily from meet-and-greet to move-and-groove.

The company is flirting with nudity this season, partly because of its new home at Pittsburgh Opera in the Strip District and, of course, the idea of a birthday suit. Liz Chang came closest with a softly-lit solo. There were sexy duos, too, most notably between Peter Kope and Dane Toney , with some lotion andand a stripper pole and a menage a trois, deftly handled. Although hampered by some acoustical problems that muffled his transcendent talents, cellist Dave Eggar poured his talents into a rocking set, ably accompanied by percussionist Charlie Palmer.

The finale was spot on — “Dirty Dancing,” of course, with the women channeling their inner Baby and most of the women in the audience singing right along. Dirty never goes out of style.

On Stage: Science Begets Art

April 23, 2010

Pearlann Porter was in a scientific mood for the opening of her Second Saturday series, “Jazz on the Pale Blue Dot,” but she was oddly low-tech in her presentation. There were her wall-length blackboard, covered with complex equations (Maxwell’s, Lorentz, Drake) and a couple of overhead projectors, sometimes used to create slowly-morphing galaxies. The dancers even passed notes on movable wires strung overhead.

You might say school was in.

The real fascination is always about what is inside Pearlann’s mind anyhow — just read her discourse of jazz in a corner of the Space Upstairs the next time you attend an event there above Construction Junction. For this one, she also apparently tapped some academics to conceptualize this chapter of her always-thoughtful artistic journey.

I didn’t want to say dance journey, although Pearlann is first and foremost a choreographer, because her motion is part of a larger picture in an extremely fertile mind. At times though, the subject matter seemed distant, the connections almost forced.

The jazz, more abstract, lay like a nebula in the room. Peter Ahn, trumpet, Jason Rafalak, bass and guitar and Gordon Nunn, percussionist, were widely separated in different areas of the room. They deliberately entered and exited each piece with little fanfare, as if they were trying to blend into the background as a subliminal force. Often they made those entrances and exits individually. That also meant the pieces were largely devoid of rhythmic energy. Cool bordering on cold.

Much of Pearlann’s energy, and deservedly so, went into a group piece that conveyed an otherworldliness. Filled with angular squats and tangled groups, it conveyed our need for communication in an increasingly isolated society that relies on Twitter and Facebook, even email for a misrepresented idea of bonding.

Maybe Pearlann is on to something, and if you’ve talked with her, you’ll know why. Maybe we need to talk face-to-face, not Facebook. Where a couple sitting in a restaurant is Twittering instead of conversing. Where acquaintances meet on a street and one suddenly whips out an iPhone to text and ignores the other.

Science and the technology born of the scientific mind are certainly the wave of the future. But Pearlann may be on to something — we simply can’t lose sight of  humanity.

On Stage: A Swan Lake Weekend

April 20, 2010

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre flew with four lead casts in “Swan Lake.” Although word of mouth was good for Julia Erickson and Alexandre Silva, I saw the other three casts. Read about it in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

On Stage: BJM Danse

April 20, 2010

Pittsburgh Dance Council brought Montreal’s BJM Danse to town with an all-female cast of choreographers. Read more at Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

On Stage: Vivid Complexions

April 16, 2010

The Pittsburgh Dance Council recently presented Complexions at the Byham Theater and the powerhouse images generated by the company still resonate. I think no one can dispute the terpsichorean brilliance of this company, simply because the dancers are all nurtured in the mold of superartist Desmond Richardson.

At over 40, Desmond performs less nowadays, but is still in phenomenal shape. There was no denying his star power in an all-too-brief solo, “Solo,” created for him by the group’s main artistic voice, choreographer Dwight Rhoden. Despite the short time on the stage, “Fall” still gave him so many artistic choices, all delivered with the utmost clarity. He is one of a few artists who can hold the stage in complete silence, almost teasing the audience. But then his subsequent movements take on an explosive quality, where he manipulates the choreography to develop the sort of impact that energizes the viewer.

When the dancers took on that power in a collective way, the performance erupted like a tsunami, even in “Mercy,” one of Rhoden’s latest and most organized works. He has created six pieces for Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, as close to a resident choreographer since Bruce Wells in the early ’90’s, so we havebeen able to follow his development. It was apparent from the start in 2000 that he had a vision, a destination for the dance. The PBT dancers were asked to move beyond their expectations, and the company benefitted from that philosophy, achieving a largesse of movement that consumed the large Benedum Center stage. The PBT dancers were also asked to perform three or four movements per beat, to move beyond their usual neat and clean lines and go off center and beyond. As a result of those demands, they became, on the whole, better dancers. They carried that sense of dance adventure over into other works, even the classical genre.

Rhoden’s choreography has a boldness, an immediacy that captures the imagination. Born in the streets, nurtured by balletic control and unleashed by a free-form approach to contemporary dance, it can sometimes become busy, even overwhelming.

But Rhoden is just reaching his choreographic prime and there was a slight shift visible on the Byham stage. “Mercy” was a powerful rendering of “grace and permanence in the sacred and spiritual deliverance of mankind.” It capitalized on Rhoden’s enormous heart and passion for the art form. But it also showed that he is reigning in his enormous landscape of emotion. As dramatic as it was, he allowed the structured elements to exert more control, and this resulted in a more satisfying visual experience.

Rhoden then provided a brief respite with chamber-sized works, from the male trio in “Gone,” to the William Forsythe-inspired duet, “Momentary Forevers” and a playful quintet, “Moody Booty Blues.” Richardson added a trio for the women, “Fall.” They served as a sorbet before the juicy machinations of “Rise,” set to music by U2.

Rhoden uses his imagination with the broad brushstrokes of film master Federico Fellini. It’s movement that you can taste and feel, but difficult to sustain over the course of an evening. Nonetheless, it is movement that clings to the dancers like a second and skin and the enjoyment is obvious.