On Stage: The Irrepressible Idina

June 30, 2010

There aren’t many bona fide Broadway divas who would “move” me to attend a solo concert — Patti LuPone, Bernadette Peters and Kristen Chenoweth immediately come to mind. Well, add Idina Menzel to the list.

The Broadway star said she was “loopy” because her 10-month old son Walker kept her up the night before her appearance with the Pittsburgh Symphony. Well, I don’t know if you could call her performance loopy in my mind, for she was truly sumpin’ sumpin’ at her PSO debut.

She emerged from the wings almost shyly, as if she hadn’t yet reconciled herself with the overwhelming response of audiences since her appearances as the rival director of Vocal Adrenaline on “Glee.” Up until now, she has had a cult following by those who saw her performances in “Rent” (Maureen) and “Wicked” (a Tony Award as Elphaba) on Broadway. But “Glee” has increased that following exponentially, as evidenced by the sold-out, Broadway-savvy, Idina-loving crowd at Heinz Hall.

She always had the power, the vocal muscle to belt out a tune and grab audiences by the heart. Now, at 39, she has the benefit of perspective and a life well-lived, a larger-than-life personality to match that larger-than-life voice.

The evening was structured much like an extended cabaret, with familiar and not-so-familiar songs broken up by extended patter with the audience. And I have to say, Idina may be the most interesting artist to hit the stage in my memory. There was never a down moment as she moved from observations about high school and performing for her idols, Barbra Stresand and Aretha Franklin. There were plenty of memories, some dark, some filled with self-deprecating humor, told with a Bohemian charm and real connective tissue.

It made for an intimate evening with full orchestra in a hall that seats 2661, although I have to say that, despite her charming monologues, she has to remember that there were a large number of talented musicians behind her, waiting for the next number. The PSO , still in terrific form following its European tour, and here with equally terrific conductor Lawrence Loh, provided sensitive support and actually devised one heckuva warm-up with selections from “Candide,” “Les Miserables” and, of course, “Wicked.”

With all of this power at her fingertips, maybe one more song from Idina and one less story would have been the ticket.

But ah, the songs– let’s get to them. Yes, she did several numbers from “Wicked,” spreading them out to hold interest. “I’m Not That Girl” was front-loaded to whet the interest. “Because I Knew You” came near the end, delivered without amplification and accompaniment, like a love letter to the audience, followed in the best one-two punch tradition by her soaring signature song, “Defying Gravity.”

In the best diva tradition, she gave the audience some intricate twists. It turned out that Idina is a skilled songwriter, offering her own aptly-titled “Gorgeous” back-to-back with Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face,” where she took time to “poke” fun at the lyrics. She didn’t sing “Over the Moon” from “Rent,” despite a beckoning “Mo-o-on” from an audience member, but instead rendered her “favorite song from the show,” the lovely “No Day But Today.”

Walker got his own jazz-inflected lullaby…lucky boy. And there were some standards, like “Look to the Rainbow” and a nifty melding of Cole Porter’s “Love for Sale” with Sting’s “Roxanne.” Everything sounded fresh as a daisy in Idina’s hands, especially “Tomorrow,” that anthem that is known to 11-year old Annies everywhere. She allowed for a brief bit of comedy at  the beginning of the song, before turning it into her own, at once winsome and strong, lilting and achingly lovely. How can one singer weave in so many emotions and textures without losing the thread? Definitely this was a New Age Barbra, a respect-full Aretha with her own brand of soul.

And we left hoping that on some tomorrow in the near future we could meet again.

On Stage: Ballet Across America

June 24, 2010

While visiting Kennedy Center to view Ballet Across America on Saturday (click on Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for the full three-performance review), I literally ran into no less than a quartet of former Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre principals — Willy Shives, now a ballet master with Joffrey Ballet, Nanci Crowley, head of the school at Arizona Ballet, and husband-and-wife Laura Desiree and Brian Bloomquist, who live in the area. To add icing to the cake, so to speak, former corps members Rachel Foster and James Moore performed beautifully with the Pacific Northwest Ballet. Quite a representation!

Off Stage: La Danse, La Belle

June 23, 2010

Master documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman’s reputation precedes him in “La Danse — Le Ballet de l’Opera de Paris.” It is his 38th film in a series that aired over PBS, including “The High School,” “The Store” and “State Legislature,” all varied topics about different facets of life itself.

Occasionally the award-winning director repeats himself if the subject warrants it, as in “High School II.” He is also intrigued by the dance, since he made “Ballet,” a film about the American Ballet Theater, in 1995. But a few years ago, he decided to try something a little more exotic and turned his eye to the Paris Opera Ballet, which offered a great deal more history and splendor at the Palais Garnier opera house. The results were shown in limited release (it was in Pittsburgh during the big snow storm) and will be shown on WQED on Saturday at 10 p.m. (Warning: it runs three hours, so you may want to set your TiVo or other such device.)

Don’t expect a lot of help, like the names of the dancers or choreographers and the ballets they create — wait until you view it again to try and figure those things out. “La Danse” unfolds like the dance itself, with rhythm and grace and, as in the very best art, a sense of mystery as to where this is all going.

Wiseman also instinctively understands that the dance is not only about the stage performance. So there are democratic close-ups of costume makers, cafeteria workers and a bee keeper intermingled with rehearsals, performances and still shots of hallways and tunnels. The lighting designers talk in a seemingly eternal list of numbers. The administrators discuss promotions and reform with the dancers. Gradually it all begins to make sense, jigsaw puzzle pieces that form one grand picture.

One image I loved were buckets of security cameras at a fund-raising dinner and the mood lighting that played over them. Other images used the mirrors to break up a dancer’s body like a Cubist painting. The contrasts between the images were plentiful, like shots of a meticulous cleaning staff alternating with the moods of Paris itself. One such dance contrast went from a performance of “Medea” to “The Nutcracker,” a scintillating move, much like cleansing the palette.

There are many films about the dance, but I can recall no other that takes on movement qualities the way “La Danse” does. Don’t miss it.

Dance Beat: Road Trip, Richard, PBTDE

June 16, 2010

Nao Kuszaki and Christopher CoomerON THE ROAD. I started my second Dance Adventure last night with the opening of Ballet Across America at Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. Three performances this week with nine companies, including Houston Ballet, Suzanne Farrell Ballet, North Carolina Dance Theatre (Tues.), Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, Tulsa Ballet and The Joffrey Ballet (Fri.) and Ballet Memphis, Ballet Arizona, Pacific Northwest Ballet (Sat.). That translates to 9 states — Texas, North Carolina, New Mexico/Colorado (Aspen Santa Fe), Oklahoma, Illinois, Tennessee, Arizona, Washington, plus the District of Columbia (Farrell Ballet). It’s almost a road tour in itself, without adding to the current gas/oil problems. Last night’s program already set things off on the right foot, so to speak, demonstrating the diversity of the art form in the United States. I’ll be doing an overview of the series for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette next week. But, in the meantime, I’ll have a few updates. Afterwards, the artistic directors gathered on stage for a Q&A session. It was particularly pleasurable to see Suzanne Farrell and Patricia McBride together once again after their stellar careers with New York City Ballet. Patricia is married to the charismatic Frenchman, Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux (former principal with both Paris Opera Ballet and NYCB!), where they run NCDT. Aussie Stanton Welch, the baby of the bunch, was also on hand to talk about Houston and the panel was moderated by NCR’s Kim Kokich.

Melody Herrera and Ian Casady

THANKS, RICHARD. For giving dance such a prominent arena at the Pittsburgh Pride Festival last weekend. Although I missed Michael Walsh, I caught the ultra-hot Zafira Dance Company, the ultra-cool Kyle Abraham, the beyond colorful Knot Dance Company and its paintball battle and Jones Summer Intensive alumnae in an impressive re-dance of its Michael Jackson tribute. Mr. Parsakian, a treasure in the dance community, did it all, from arranging things to sweeping the stage between acts. And he picked up a great tan in the process.

A FRESH START. Pittsburgh Black Theatre Dance Ensemble gave off a joyous aura with a pair of dances based on Katherine Dunham’s choreographic style at Dance Alloy Theater’s Unblurred series. It was called “African Legacy: American Fruit from African Roots” and is now in the passionate arms of PBTDE artistic director Chrisala Brown and The Legacy Arts Project artistic director Imani Barrett. For the record, the performers included, besides Ms. Brown, Celeste Houston, Dijon Kirkland, Erin Perry and Lakeisha Wolf. Adding to the rite of dance were percussionists Anthony Mitchell, Ben Fullard and Shabaka Perkins and poet Oba Wells.

On Stage: Mini Pillow

June 12, 2010

It was a quote that I never thought I would hear as a dance writer.

“I wanted to create a piece that would behave like quantum physics,” said Pearlann Porter of her latest Pillow Project event, titled “Micrography,” and set to unfold in bite-sized pieces at The Space Upstairs.

That means that she will be addressing some new dance properties, like existing in two places at once. Or chaos. Randomness. “There’s no order; there’s no predictability,” she mused. “How can you make a piece that can’t be determined or predicted? It’s very difficult.”

The process began with a crash course in quantum physics, the study of the fundamental properties of matter-like substances, at Carnegie Mellon University. There three dancers sat across the table from scientists like Dr. George Klein and tried to find a middle ground.

Once they got past daunting topics concerning forces and fields, the scientists writing furiously on chalkboards and the dancers responding with their notebooks, Pearlann found a commonality. “Dance is abstract movement — it’s all we do,” she said. “And it’s actually quite easy to do movement on a small scale.”

Maybe for Pearlann, who could be considered quite diminutive herself, despite a larger-than-life personality. But she’s thinking of vibrations that cannot easily be seen or determined. Or a flail. Or a muscle twitch that’s more random and spastic. “It’s actually a place to go — it makes sense for us.”

But will the audience get it?

“If you wanted to view it from that scientific place, then you could see what we’re trying to go for,” Pearlann explained. “But if you were not a fan of science, you could still view it as this very interesting, unexpected movement.”

Her reasoning is “since we view it from a scientific place, it’s automatically going to create original movement. While it definitely has this science spin to it, it will test your idea of how small you can get in scope. Sound-wise. Movement-wise.”

“We try to play around with the idea of small and not just be small.”

On Stage: More Dance

June 9, 2010

Former Dance Alloy director Beth Corning, now of The Glue Factory Project and more, once commented that Pittsburgh needed two more companies and 15 more dancers to have a viable dance community. Be careful what you wish for, Beth, because the competition is ramping up.

The economy may be struggling, but the artistic spirit is still there as some new groups pop up on the horizon. Besides The Glue Factory, 310 Moment made its debut this year and more is coming.

But this is about newly-appointed August Wilson Dance Ensemble, run by August Wilson Fellow and Dance Alloy artistic director Greer Reed-Jones. I have to say that I had a sense of deja vu as I attended the official inaugural performance at the slave ship-inspired building that is such a terrific addition to Pittsburgh’s performing arts scene. (Note that there is a strong dance component at the Center — a studio with a really grand revolving door and an auditorium with sight lines best served at the back of the orchestra and front of the balcony).

But back to deja vu. That was mostly a result of the programming. The performance opened with Terence Greene’s “Faith,” a piece that has been featured twice, first at the Pittsburgh Black Theatre Dance Ensemble in 2003 and then in the offshoot Pittsburgh Dance Ensemble in 2005. Greer had a hand in both, although they were essentially the same group with different titles. At the end of that first review, I wondered if Pittsburgh would take the company, essentially guest artists and students, to the next level. That didn’t happen and it faded after several years.

Now the August Wilson Center has thrown its considerable weight behind its new ensemble. Once again, Reed-Jones has shown her own talent in stirring the passions and dedication in these young dancers. Once again, she has kept her “Faith,” where a radiant Jasmine Hearn led the way, although she still needs to control her excitement for better impact.

Only this time, the group included a number of Point Park University dancers, including Hearn, instead of adult guest artists, giving the ensemble a grounded maturity that it lacked before, a sense of cohesion. Reed-Jones showed her discerning eye, picking off three of Point Park’s most prominent graduates — Naila Ansari, Angela Dice and James Washington.

Dice was under-utilized, but she showed that Point Park hasn’t graduated a  better young artist with a such a chameleon-like knack for diverse styles. She literally immersed herself in each of the works, from Christopher Huggins’ Ailey-esque “Mothers of War” to the hip-hop inspired “Legacy” by Crystal Frazier. Likewise with Ansari, who projected an intensity that was so grounded, so real.Washington got a “Solo” by Antonio Brown. It showed that he’s a young dancer of uncommon control, with legs like pillars, but still with a sensitivity to the arc of the movement. Then there was tiny Kaylin Horgan, buzzing around the stage like a bee and a much-improved Raymond Ejiofor from Carnegie Mellon. But kudos to all of the dancers. And Gretchen Moore will be moving over to Dance Alloy.

All in all, it was a great outlet for Pittsburgh’s young talent and the audience responded enthusiastically. But then, I’ve seen it before and asked, “Will this community’s immense financial and administrative resources step forward, join hands and take [substitute the August Wilson Dance Ensemble] to the next level?”

Hopefully this was only the beginning.

On Stage: Dance Deserves Equal Rights

June 3, 2010

I recently visited a high school dance program at Chartiers Valley High School and wrote about it in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Cathy Jenkins has built a dedicated and enthusiastic following at CV, but it set me to thinking. When will dance be put on equal, well, footing with the other arts at other public schools? Students can usually take advantage of assorted art, music and theater classes. But dance is generally left out of the loop. Only pioneer CeCe Kapron’s long-running program at Mt. Lebanon High School also offers dance as part of the curriculum in this area of Pennsylvania.

Part of the problem is physical education. Most teachers in that category have little or no training in dance. If a “dance” teacher is brought in, it puts their position in jeopardy. Virtually the only way a school can currently add dance is to have it be a part of the physical education program.

Of course, Pittsburgh’s creative arts schools, CAPA High School and Rogers’ Middle School occasionally have to defend their decision to hire working professionals. They are hired part-time, in order to continue their artistic development. Professional artists, be they dancers, singers, saxophonists or whatever, contribute mightily to students’ artistic development. In public schools, they conduct mostly workshops and residencies to broaden the students’ artistic experience.

So a Slippery Rock University or University of Pittsburgh grad can teach, but not someone from Point Park University. Yet all have different qualities and can contribute to the overall spirit of a school district. Hopefully local schools will realize that a well-rounded education means providing a holistic education — body, mind and soul. That could mean athletics, academics and arts. But if you stop to think about it, dance is the only art form that encompasses all three — a real shortcut. Of course it develops a fit body. The creative expression feeds the soul. And the memorization involved, often knowing many different and highly complex versions of a dance from a choreographer, enhances the mind. As for discipline, that goes without saying; dancers understand a strong work ethic, so important in life.

I think that I have the best arts beat in the city, because the dance performers are, yes, extraordinarily balanced. I would like to see more students experience that feeling.