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”needs 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.
The 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!