Dance Review: PBT Under the Stars

August 30, 2010

They say, “If at first you don’t succeed”… well, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre tried again during its opening Hartwood Acres concert on Thursday night. Last year, the company had a rare stop/start rain situation that created problems for the dancers. After an abbreviated “Theme and Variations” due to a brief shower, the company attempted to perform Dwight Rhoden’s “Step Touch,” a fun dance playground set to doo-wop music. But the rain moved in on the dancers’ movements once more, leaving the audience with only a brief glimpse.

Artistic director Terrence Orr apparently felt that it was a worthwhile effort to pick up where he left off with Rhoden’s piece this year, along with Paul Taylor’s “Company B” and the Act III pas de deux from “Coppelia.” It was a perfect night for dance under the stars, and PBT pulled out all the stops, with a grand buffet under the yellow-and-white striped tent, although the staff was kept busy with plenty of family-friendly activities like pre-ballet lessons for the little ones (“Pli-e!”), a swordplay preview from “The Three Musketeers” (obviously some of the men were getting into the spirit of the upcoming production by growing their hair longer) and craft activities where both the young and young-at-heart could make “Princess” tiaras.

The evening began with Taylor’s World War II memento, set to music by the Andrews Sisters. A balancing act between the all-American can-do attitude and the serious side of war, “Company B”Photo by ©Martha Rialneeds boundless athleticism that looks effortless.

While I thought Julie Erickson looked absolutely, well, dreamy in “I Can Dream, Can’t I?” and a geeky Stephen Hadala was flirtier than ever in “Oh, Johnny, Oh Johnny, Oh!,” the evening’s main interest came from new dancers in new roles.

Gabrielle Thurlow was quite charming in a fresh ingenue way with Luca Sbrizzi in that rousing homestate tune, “The Pennsylvania Polka.” And it was surprising to see tall, dark and handsome Robert Moore expertly tickling “Tico Tico” with a new-found comedic flair. However, Makoto Ono got the plum role of “Company B,” “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” previously danced by the likes of Kwang-Suk Choi and Christopher Budzynski. While Ono had a pleasant demeanor and a towering vertical jump, which hasn’t been on display since his days in the PBT School, the rest of his dancing just didn’t have enough carrying power from the stage.

But there was plenty of carrying power to be had from principal dancers Erin Halloran and Christopher Budzynski. The kids knew it as soon as the music started. Dozens of baby ballerinas, some in full-blown tutus (usually pink), took to the open area in front of the stage, whirling and leaping along with Swanhilda, although Halloran was in a long white tutu of a wedding dress. This time there was a twist. For the first time in my memory, a couple of young boys joined this bubble gum ballet, inspired by Budzynski’s slicing cabrioles.

But the couple rose above the occasion with a sophisticated duet. Halloran has discovered her face, so expressive for the stage, and a sense of relaxed confidence that translated well into her signature movements — those breathtaking balances and dazzling turns. Budzynski was the attentive partner, plus being able to offer some dazzle of his own in a diverse menage of leaps.

Photo by Rich SofrankoThe program ended with “Step Touch,” so appropriate for a summer dance evening in that it ends in stylized bathing suits. (Why not — with a song like “Under the Boardwalk?”)  Rhoden’s choreography requires a bit of derring-do and  the dancers seemed a little too low voltage for this high wattage specimen of pop culture ( perhaps due to moisture collecting on the stage?).

On the other hand, Christine Schwaner stepped into Halloran’s role with a sense of adventure and Ashley Wegman had a “Gee Whiz” of a time in the spotlight with Sbrizzi, who joined with Hadala and Alejandro Diaz for a nifty male trio.

But then, with a program packed with such a panorama of terrific dance moves, it provided an effective spin into the new season — en garde!

On Stage: Dancing Until Sunrise

August 13, 2010

“It started after the last Second Saturday — we never went home,” says Pearlann Porter. “We stayed until eight o’clock in the morning — just dancing. We never stopped. The audience left, everyone packed up, but the dancers didn’t.”

“We just stayed there and something clicked. I don’t know if we realized we were on the same page or we all turned the page at the same time, there was this sense of something else in our dance, beyond the technique and all the learned stuff that we had. I think we found it. It opened up a door that I didn’t even know was there.”

Recycling was on Pearlann’s mind, though, from the “Hot Box” in July. She had been toying with an encore performance of  “The SwankEasy,” symbolized by neon sign that hangs above the bar. When a fan wanted a piece of the Pillow Project, it all fell into place for her August installment of Second Saturdays at the Space Upstairs above Construction Junction.

But it’s not recycling, she contends. “We’re opening and closing in the same night — it’ll be the last time we turn it on in the Space.”  Pearlann did “The SwankEasy” four years ago, although she still feels like “it’s so far in our past that it was very interesting to go back to do all the work — it shows how far we’ve come.”

Along with some new dance wrinkles, she’ll bring back parts of two original “Swank” pieces, onebased on a Charlie Parker remix, called “The Charlie Parker Recontextualization Experimentation,” and the other on Dave Brubeck’s classic, “Take Five.”

Back then “Take Five” was “straight choreography, with every movement was deliberate.” Now Pearlann is getting her dancers to understand the philosophy behind why she does jazz. “It’s not Bob Fosse jazz. It’s not Broadway jazz. If Miles Davis danced, what would he do if he wasn’t playing? What does Dave Brubeck move like?”

Now the dancers are moving through Pearlann’s idea, not her choreography. “It’s been intensely cool to help them discover their own handwriting,” she says in her best jazz intonation.

That means taking advantage of imperfect moments where she feels the dancers reveal themselves.”We’re letting that individuality and self-consciousness and apprehension come forth — this show exposes the guts of jazz.”

Photos by Aaron Jackendoff.