On Stage: Hearing the Dance

September 30, 2010

I have often said that I am happiest watching great dance along with great music (although not necessarily joined at the hip). Whatever your preference, it seems that Pittsburgh dance companies have taken music to heart, including Attack Theatre’s brilliant partnering with four different bands in “Site/Re-site”, Pillow Project’s upcoming month-long multi-media dance installation with original P.J. Roduta score, and, within a few hours’ driving distance, the Joffrey Ballet/Cleveland Orchestra collaboration at the Blossom Music Festival and North Carolina Dance Theatre/Chautauqua Orchestra at Chautauqua.

Yes, I am happy.

I recently had the chance to talk with Pascal Rioult, whose company will open the Dance Council’s 2010-11 season on Friday, as well as anchor the Performing Arts Exchange, a regional touring conference.

Pascal’s musical tastes lean toward the symphonic. Hence  live music really isn’t an option, although recorded music is still acceptable for touring modern dance companies. But for music lovers (and that includes a lot of dance devotees), there’s nothing wrong with a program that has a triple-threat combination the likes of Bach, Ravel and Stravinsky.

It appears that the former Martha Graham dancer regularly goes on a musical tangent, something that has lasted 12 years. It’s a play on the whole chicken and egg thing. What comes first — the inspiration for choreography or the music itself? According to Pascal, it can swing both ways. ” I have to feel something in the music,” the Frenchman explains in his soothing accent. “It has to take me somewhere besides my everyday life.”

In the beginning, he felt that he had something to say by revisiting familiar classical themes. But that takes a lot of chutzpah — after all, there have been over 150 dance productions of Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring.” But that’s getting ahead of things because it all began with Ravel, known for his compositional techniques. “You hear about the great master painters,” Pascal continues. “At first they study and repaint the masters. You learn about the craft and you learn about yourself.”

As an established dance artist, he had an understanding of what he was, but didn’t know why. Ravel began to show him the way, whereupon he built an entire evening program of his works. It started a way of working. Stravinsky was a step further in the the same direction. “Stravinsky can get really wild,” Pascal says of “Les Noces.” But he equated it to a life experience that doesn’t make sense until the end.

Then there is his newest project to Bach, who he chose “because he was the source” for both Ravel and Stravinsky. “Both composers said they had Bach music on their shelf — pretty much that’s all they had. I felt the same way; now I understand his complexity. It’s kind of going back, but it’s going back to go forward.”

This season he will finish with his Bach episode. What next? He has decided to turn to contemporary American composers. “I will pick them because they work in the same kind of vein I do — the classical structure with emotion.”

Pittsburgh’s program will contain a look at each of the musical  giants. As Pascal puts it, “three very different ways to look at music, three very different ways of interpreting the score.” After concerts, some people tell him, “I didn’t know that the piece was like that” or “I never heard it this way.”

“To me, that is a kind of a victory.”

Dance Beat: Performing Arts Exchange, Day One

September 30, 2010

Jeff Gordon checks out arriving members of the Performing Arts Exchange at PNC Park.

Things were percolating yesterday at the Performing Arts Exchange, the touring and presenting organization that covers the Eastern and Southern United States. For more, see Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Members registered and began to set up the Market Place at David L. Lawrence Center. But the main action came last night, as attendees went to an opening reception at PNC Park.

They were greeted by members of the Zany Umbrella Circus. Jeff Gordon (Clown Gordoon), sporting four striped legs, was among the whimsical artists. Some may recall that he once worked with Beth Corning at Dance Alloy.

It seems that he was just in Abu Dhabi with the Big Apple Circus, one of his many former lives. The Big Apple got a call to put on a show there, but the company was touring the United States. So the creative heads put together an alumni show and sent them off to the Middle East.

“We killed,” said Jeff. According to him, the previous entertainment was an ice skating show that drew only 300 a night. The Big Apple drew between 2200 and 2500 and turned people away. So what if the run was in July and August when you could “only stay outside for 20 minutes max.” Jeff was put up in a five-star hotel…

Upstairs the PAE members munched on a Pittsburgh-style buffet that included pierogies. Tapes of PAE artists played on all the televisions and, yes, on the giant scoreboard(!). On the balcony, Mary Matthews and Gregg Little of New Frontier Touring in Nashville, Tennessee were suitably impressed as they watched the sunset reflected in the city across the river.

I met with Hank Knerr, director of public events at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, where they will present Ron Brown’s Evidence Feb. 23 and New York choreographer Ben Munisteri Apr. 7. Faculty pianist Dr. Henry Wong Doe will be soloist when the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra visits there Mar. 29. And it’s been too long since I had seen former Pittsburgh Dance Council director Carolelinda Dickey (now a dance strategist), who was chatting the iconic dance manager Ivan Sygoda of Pentacle.

Linda Reznik of River City Artists Management was busy networking with Carolyn Tuminella, associate director of River City Brass, and Ken Metzner, executive director of Kun-Yang Lin/Dancers, representing Philadelphia’s exploding dance community. See them tonight along with Dance Alloy and Mary Miller at Linda’s showcase in the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust’s Peirce Studio, 805/807 Liberty Avenue (6 p.m. and 10:30 p.m.). Then visit the juried showcases at the August Wilson Center at 7:30, including River City Brass and Chicago’s River North Dance Company and Dance Chicago. All showcases are free for the first time.

Off Stage: Byham House is Now a Home

September 29, 2010

Carolyn Byham prepares to cut the ribbon surrounded by State Senator Jay Costa, Pittsburgh council member Doug Shields, husband William Byham and the Three Musketeers

The anticipation is over. Fifteen young ballet dancers (they are still waiting for one more aspiring ballerina from Japan) have moved into Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s latest acquisition, Byham House, which will provide a safe environment for its young dancers. For years the company had a program that matched the dancers with local families. Sometimes that didn’t work, given cultural differences, time schedules and, well, personalities.

These young dancers, some of whom leave their families at the age of sixteen, began resorting to apartments, spotlighting the need for a facility such as this. William and Carolyn Byham came to the rescue, as they have so often for Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre in the past (and the Byham Theater Downtown and other non-profit organizations as well).

The couple, who are PBT charter subscribers, presided over the ribbon-cutting last week, with such public figures as State Senator Jay Costa, Pittsburgh council member Doug Shields, PBT board chair Shelley Taylor, longtime PBT supporter Bette Evans and National Society of Arts and Letters president Norman Brown.

I had a sneak peak over the summer at the facility that is just a mile from the PBT studios on Liberty Avenue. But now the colorful IKEA furniture , coordinated by Larry Scott, was in place in the common room. (The large flat-screen television came with rules attached and a schedule to sign.)

A brief tour found mostly double and triple rooms, all efficiently designed, and already neatly showing signs of artistic individuality. Personalized white marker boards decorated each door. There was a “Dirty Dancing” poster in one room with pink tights drying on a mesh clothes hamper. Another had large pictures of ballerinas Paloma Herrera from American Ballet Theatre and Alina Cojocaru of the Royal Ballet. PBT photos and artwork decorated the halls.

The designers allowed space for a computer room, a space for studying and dining and kitchen facilities, complete with a house chef. There is even shelf space to store personal foods and snacks. Graduate resident director Marchae Peters has her own small apartment on site and already lined up activities to fill the down time (from the Carnegie Science Center to Sandcastle and Monroeville Mall to movie night) to help these out-of-town dancers bond with Pittsburgh.

I ran into Marchae with three of the students on the second floor, already creating new memories by

From left: Ethan Lee, Leslie Green, Aidan Schubert and Marchae Peters

taking photographs. Petite Leslie Green, who will “be 16,” came from Kalispell, Montana and bourreed into Pittsburgh for PBT’s summer session. Impressed by the quality of teaching and the increased number of training hours, she returned full-time at the invitation of the PBT staff.

Lithe, long-limbed Aidan Schubert, already 16, came from Fredonia, Arizona, home of the Arizona Ballet and its Pittsburgh connections. Of course artistic director Ib Anderson was a former ballet master here, but it is Aidan’s striking resemblance to former PBT principal Nanci Crowley, now AB school director, that caught the eye.

Budding cavalier Ethan Lee, who will “be 18,” is a native by comparison. He came from North Canton, Ohio, for a summer session several years ago. Now a few inches taller, he returned for the summer and, invitation in hand, persuaded his parents to let him stay.

So while the dignitaries talked about the importance of the arts and ballet in general, this trio was tangible evidence that this House will become the home that is needed to attract top talent to the burgeoning PBT school program.

On Stage: A Menu Tasting of Dance

September 28, 2010

In the middle of writing an article for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on the Performing Arts Exchange, a touring conference running Wednesday through Saturday here in Pittsburgh, it occurred to me that this Friday, with various PAE and independent showcases, was a bonanza for dance and other arts lovers…and mostly FREE. The PAE website is a little tricky to navigate, so I’ll save you the trouble and list the dance related offerings. Everything is short – 15 or 20 minutes – much like the above-mentioned menu tasting and all within a few blocks of each other. Some feature complimentary light hors d’oeuvres, beer and wine. Also on tap — the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust’s Gallery Crawl, opening of the Pittsburgh Dance Council season and Pittsburgh Festival of Lights. Enjoy!

5:30-9 p.m. – THE PILLOW PROJECT – Cultural Trust Educational Center, 805/807 Liberty Avenue, Lower Level – “Quantum Crumple Amnesia,” an ongoing multi-media dance installation every half hour re-exploring the same idea we don’t ever remember ever having.

5:45-7:45 – MOQUETTE VOLANTE – Katz Plaza – Middle Eastern dance company, featuring performance (5:45 p.m.), bellydance lesson/jam (6:45 p.m.), performance (7:15 p.m.).

6-7:30 p.m. – PENNPAT DANCES! – Bricolage, 937 Liberty Avenue – Attack Theatre, Kulu Mele African American Dance Ensemble, Pasion y Arte.

6-7:30 p.m. – SQUONK OPERA, CAPA – Three 20 minute multi-media showcases of “Mayhem and Majesty” at 6, 6:30 and 7 p.m.

6:30-8 p.m. – DANCE ALLOY – 805/807 Liberty Avenue, second floor – Creative Movement for Beginners (6:30 p.m.), Modern Movement for Adults (7 p.m.), Hip Hop for Everyone (7:30 p.m.).

7:15-9:15 p.m. – KNOT DANCE – The Verve 360 Wellness Studio, 142 Sixth Street, Third Floor – Debut of Maddy Landi’s BareBones Series. Called “Fall in Love,” it’s a “whimsical fairy tale filled with Food Fights, Fun and French Chanson.” Shows at 7:15, 8 and 8:45 p.m.

7:30- 9 p.m. – ARTHUR MURRAY DANCE STUDIO – Cha-Cha (7:30 p.m.), Tango (8 p.m.), Swing (8:30 p.m.).

7:30-11 p.m. – PAE JURIED SHOWCASES – August Wilson Center – White Ghost Shivers, VIVER BRAZIL (Dance, 7:50 p.m.), POST Comedy Theatre, Inner City All-Stars, Cimarron, ArchDream for HUMANKIND, Raul Midon, The Water Coolers, Scott Ainslie.

8-10 p.m. – RIOULT- Byham Theater – Opening the Pittsburgh Dance Council season, this New York modern dance company has a program that features works by Bach, Ravel and Stravinsky. More to follow on CrossCurrents. For ticket info, click on Rioult.

SUNDOWN – PITTSBURGH FESTIVAL OF LIGHTS – Various themes projected onto the sides of four Pittsburgh buildings all, along Penn Avenue. Look for “Splendors” (David L. Lawrence Convention Center, 10th St.), “Hope,” (Catholic Charities Building, 9th St.), “Old Bones” (Mahla Office Furniture, 8th St.) and “Cascade” (Heinz Hall, 7th St.).

7:30 p.m. – ? p.m. – ATTACK THEATRE – Bricolage, 937 Liberty Avenue – Game Night & The Seven-Minute Dance Series, a combination of movement and libations.

Video: Black Swan

September 25, 2010

Haven’t had enough of “Swan Lake?” Check out a sneak peek of Natalie Portman’s “Black Swan,” a thriller due for release Dec. 1. It’s directed by Darren Aronofsky, director of “The Wrestler” with Mickey Rourke. Hm-m-m. If you have the time or the inclination…

On Stage: Attack-ing Chatham Baroque

September 23, 2010

Well, Attack Theater, a true Pittsburgh dance treasure, is well into the third quarter of its fascinating Grand Experiment — not pairing, but quadrupling the music benefits in its latest project, “Site/Re-site.” Yes, four bands nudging the movement in different directions on different nights. The first two were covered in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Last night Attack took a 180 degree turn from Deoro’s wild-eyed musical adventure when it took on Chatham Baroque. Of course the opening scene in Becca’s Bar and Grill didn’t change… as much. But still, I loved the moment when all six of the Attackers danced on the bar to “Voulez-vous Coucher Avec Moi?”– as dextrous and daring as mountain goats.

And the bands seem to respond to that attitude, venturing above and beyond their comfort zones. For the second and third segments, Chatham Baroque, in turn a true classical music treasure in Pittsburgh, was the band of the night. Perhaps it was most apparent with this particular combination how the various groups met on common ground.

CB offered a widespread selection, including a tango-ripe piece for Dane Toney and Ashley Williams, who was so generous in her subsequent solo, and a pastoral frolic for Michele de la Reza and Jeff Davis, both of whom share a musical intuition that seems to defy description. It was nifty to see how the dancers adapted to Chatham Baroque’s meticulous rhythms, adding crisp finishes to the phrasing. Then Liz Chang’s solo took on a surprising contemporary flavor, with percussionist Danny Mallon delving into throat-singing with the use of mysterious vocal harmonics. The last, a set of variations that sounded like “La Folia,” was one crescendo of increasing sophistication that was reflected in the dance.

How about the musicians not going for Baroque, but for pop? And that they did in the finale, where CB brought a fresh voice to selections by the other bands. Take the way the rusty steel door, where Peter and Michele exchanged glances, contrasted with violinist Andrew Fouts’ use of harmonics. And he took a turn, his first public vocal ever, at Dave Eggar’s “Birdcage.”

By its very nature, dance exists in moment and then it’s gone forever. With this project, the moments are almost palpable. Chatham Baroque still plays tonight, while Ben Hardt and the Symphony (four rockers plus string quartet) take over Friday and Saturday. An evening not to be missed…

For more information, see Listings.

Photo by Jonathan Greene

Photo by Jonathan Greene

Photo by Jonathan Greene

Dance Beat: Daniel, NSAL, Yanlai

September 22, 2010

NYCB FRIENDS. When Daniel Ulbricht heads into town at the Byham Oct. 15, he’ll be bringing some “friends” with him. There isn’t much out there, but a few things popped up on YouTube. Sterling Hyltin (click on Sterling) is the Juliet that Peter Martins plucked from the soloist ranks for his new production of Romeo and Juliet as a 21-year old  in 2008 and is now NYCB’s youngest principal dancer. Principal Jonathan Stafford has some close ties to the area — he was born in Carlisle and trained at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet. The third principal is Teresa Reichlen, known for her beautiful long lines (she is 5’9″), which can briefly be seen in a magazine shoot (click on Teresa). Pittsburgher Stephen Hanna is a former NYCB principal who now is the older Billy in “Billy Elliot” on Broadway. And two other former Pittsburghers will be in the cast. Corps member Faye Arthurs made a name for herself at Pittsburgh Youth Ballet with her impossibly high extensions and has performed a number of featured roles, including Maria in Jerome Robbins’ “West Side Story Suite.” And corps member Stephanie Zungre, also an alum with Pittsburgh Youth Ballet and a winner of a local National Society of Arts and Letters competition, has performed featured roles in ballets such as George Balanchine’s “Chaconne.”

ARTS, LETTERS AND LIBATIONS. The Pittsburgh chapter of the National Society of Arts and Letters held a fundraiser at the spacious home of Dr. Karl Williams and Mrs. Peggy Smyrnes-Williams ESQ. in Squirrel Hill to benefit the upcoming solo choreography competition in March (date TBA). The theme was South American, with tango and tapas, salsa and sangria. Chairperson Carole Kamin and president Norman Brown led the festivities, which included an auction. For more information on the competition, titled “Choreography: The Art of the Solo,” click on NSAL. Alert: this is for artists from 18 to 33, which opens things up considerably.

SOME EAST IN THE NORTH. Chinese traditional dance artist Yanlai Wu has made the move from Downtown to the North Hills, where she changed the name of her school, formerly Oriental Star Dance School, to Yanlai Dance Academy. Located on Babcock Blvd., the studio, with two classrooms, welcomed students, parents and friends to the grand opening earlier this month. For more information, click on Yanlai.