STATE COLLEGE, PA. — Pennsylvania Dance Theatre made some inroads into Pittsburgh in the early ’90’s at Chatham College’s Eddy Theater, bringing with it a repertoire that included works by Dan Wagoner, Shapiro and Smith, Doug Varone and, surprisingly, former Dance Alloy Theater artistic director Beth Corning.
The company had been founded in 1987 and appeared to struggle in the ensuing years. But it apparently nurtured more Pittsburgh and Dance Alloy connections (former artistic director Mark Taylor and company members), enough to develop its own brand of dance in the Penn State area also known as Happy Valley.
I arrived in State College in the midst of the robust Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts, which draws upwards of 125,000 people annually. There is also a local jewel, the Palmer Museum of Art, which had an intriguing touring exhibition about England’s Bloomsbury artists, a somewhat scandalous, avant-garde group of intellectuals who abandoned the Victorian Era and included artists like Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant and writers such as Virginia Woolf and Lytton Strachey.
Touring may be the operative word here, for Penn State apparently takes care to bring in wide variety of attractions to its Center for Performing Arts. They should keep the students and residents of Happy Valley, well, happy for the upcoming season, heartily ambitious, which will range from violin superstar Joshua Bell to Cleveland’s Baroque orchestra, Apollo’s Fire, and Broadway attractions like “Spamalot” and “Spring Awakening.”
Dance apparently has an audience here, too, because the Center will showcase Rioult (which will also appear on the Pittsburgh Dance Council series), Tango Buenos Aires and Ballet Grand Prix, an alumni group of leading dancers from the Youth America Grand Prix that will include New York City Ballet’s and Altoona native Jared Angle and American Ballet Theatre Stars Irina Dvorovenko and Maxim Belotserkovsky. Another surprise: Merce Cunningham Dance Company will appear there on its farewell circuit, a noteworthy event that will not pass through Pittsburgh.
Still, I was in for yet another suprise to find that Pennsylvania Dance Theatre, now headed by former Alloy company member Andre Koslowski, put forth a program that looked more like something you would find in Downtown New York amid experimental spaces like Dance Theater Workshop and The Kitchen.
The final shocker: He was joined by former Alloy dancer and Slippery Rock University staff member Jennifer Keller and a familiar award-winning Pittsburgh theatrical figure Sheila McKenna, who performed with longtime PDT member, Tina Konrath. Other members of the PDT production team who have worked in the Pittsburgh area include music director Efrain Amaya, scenic designer Susanna Amundarain, costume designer Myra Bullington and lighting designer/stage manager Scott Nelson.
The 90-minute program featured two works that generated a series of memorable images, part of an undeniably challenging program, especially in a festival setting. But then, Koslowsky was never one to lower his standards.
The first was a duet for Koslowski and New York choreographer Jill Sigman, “Fowl Play.” Yes, it appeared to be about play itself. Bones lined the front of the stage at the intimate State Theater. Vertebrae. Fingers. Maybe an ulna. Human? Not so human? They stacked them like Lincoln Logs and “play”-fully sold them to the audience from a basket.
Like CSI investigators, the pair proceeded to investigate this mysterious world, with the audience left to pick the clues apart. Questions swirled around the title. The “play” on words — fowl instead of the usual foul. Was it a childlike world, where they used blocks as platform shoes and backpacks and trembled with fear at an unseen terror? Memories from Sydney and Santiago — the reason for the text was uncertain — later permeated the skin of the production.
But mostly it was about imagination, not necessarily practical or coherent as in child’s play, but compelling in its own way.
Koslowski followed with “For Those From Before,” inspired by his parents’ memories of early childhood in their native Germany. He was noted for the clarity of his images and the pathways they took during his time in Pittsburgh (and he will return to choreograph for DAT next season).
In “For Those” he added a personal story that delved into a deep emotional territory that he has not explored in the past. The beginning was atmospheric, but tentative. Koslowsky was seated, spilling a series of Germanic words and phrases. Like ghosts, a family materialized in the middle of a lake scene on the screen at the back.
Like shards of memories, the subsequent scenes gradually began to unfold . But it wasn’t until the performers constructed a mountain of suitcases that “For Those” truly began to touch its emotional core, including touching solos for Keller and Konrath and a monologue for McKenna that amounted to a string of words delivered with virtuosic aplomb.
There was no certainty as to whom the dancers played and perhaps they were composite characters. What mattered most was the interactive depth they achieved in this performance.
It was apparent that Happy Valley has itself a singular company that walks on the edge of modern dance. It is supported by a technology company, Minitab, Inc., where Koslowski is on staff as a wellness instructor, an enviable artistic and business position that should be emulated in other towns and cities.
Settled into a wonderful wooden house that operates on many levels just like his choreography, Koslowski wants “to do work I’m intersted in.” And despite the challenge of his choreography, “the audience has slowly been growing.”
Cheers for Happy Valley.