Dance Beat: PBT Ball, Bill T., Laurel Ballet

November 29, 2010

RHAPSODY IN BLUE. Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre moved over to the Westin Convention Center for its latest ball, Pointe in Time. Richard Parsakian spun his magic in the entrance with a great display of Gershwin Era memorabilia and clothing. As usual the performances separated this from the usual benefit fare, with snippets from the upcoming season, including George Balanchine’s “Valse Fantaisie,” Ben Stevenson’s “Dracula,” Viktor Plotnikov’s new Gershwin ballet and the grand pas de deux from “The Nutcracker.” Attendees enthusiastically got into the act with their own dancing to Gary Racan and the studio e band.

A THING GOING ON. Bard College scored big in a package deal with Bill T. Jones, part of an ongoing partnership. On Dec. 1, only days before the two-time Tony Award winner and MacArthur “Genius” is scheduled to be a recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors, the choreographer will visit the college campus for a pair of attractions. The first, “Making and Doing” invites the audience to “view, critique and discuss” three student compositional projects with both the students and Mr. Jones. It will be followed by “Thought and Action,” including a solo improvisation called “Floating the Tongue.” For more information, go to

GIVING BACK. Laurel Ballet is participating in Westmoreland Gives Day of Giving on Dec. 1. From 6 a.m. to 9 p.m., the company will receive all donations plus a portion of the $100,000 pool. For more info, click on Westmoreland Gives.

On Stage: Finding a Voice

November 29, 2010

Photo by Eric Rose

Too often dancers spend  time waiting and listening before they can speak, and then most often with only their bodies. But that elusive partnership between choreographer and dancer, where the dancer can be asked to improvise movement or create his own steps on the diagonal, can benefit if the dancer had some idea of the process involved.

These days many companies are encouraging their dancers to choreograph in order to bridge the gap between the creator and the finished product and therefore move the dancer into a more active role. Recently Dance Alloy Theater and Bodiography presented dancer-driven programs over the same weekend, but in very different ways.

On the surface, Alloy on Alloy was the more casual. It took place at the company’s studios, an intimate environment, and given that four of the five members choreographed, was definitely shorter. Bodiography’s Multiplicity involved eight of its nine dancers at the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater in a more formal performance setting, with artistic director Maria Caruso providing a premiere along with two repertory works.

Of the two groups, Dance Alloy had a more diverse outlook, with each work so different, that you immediately knew this group was composed of individuals with distinct personalities. It was intriguing to watch the thoughtfulness of Maribeth Maxa in “Untitled,” for Jasmine Hearn and Gretchen Moore in heels, a brush with hoarding in Michael Walsh “Wilma,”  the delicious height contrast between Gretchen and Maribeth in Jasmine Hearn’s “In the Jar” and the structured elements of Gretchen Moore’s “Realization.”

Bodiography has definitely grown over the nine years that it has produced Multiplicity. On the whole, this was the strongest group of works, with new member Joshua Sweeney, who should add dimension to the group, contributing his own duet, “Rewind” with Kaitlin Dann. Her sister, Meghan, ended things with an ambitious group number, “On a Sunny Day.”

At two hours without intermission, the program felt long, despite the general improvement in the choreographic levels. Although there were a few numbers that could easily have been trimmed, the main reason was because most of the musical accompaniments had the same swooning texture and tempo about them.

It was satisfying to see, however, the precision and style in an excerpt from Maria’s “Reflections,” where the four dancers had to mirror each other in changing patterns. This piece was beautifully rehearsed, almost to the point of achieving that perfect reflection. It played with the audience’s perception because they were so perfectly attuned to each other — a great example of what Bodiography can achieve.

Actually these two groups can meet somewhere in the middle for subsequent programs, perhaps a little less time-wise from Bodiography and a little more from the Alloy.

On Stage: Hearing the Dance

November 28, 2010

Photo by Paul Kolnik

Normally I don’t like to hear signature ballet music (“The Nutcracker” immediately comes to mind) without seeing the choreography. But a while back I was attending a Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra concert where selections from “Swan Lake” were part of the program. Surprisingly the music stood on its own and displayed colors and textures that I never heard before.

As a result of that experience, I thought I would try it again sometime. So when I saw that Manfred Honeck was conducting the PSO in “A Waltz Tradition” and given that he, as an Austrian, would be expert at conveying iconic Viennese music, I thought this might be another sort of dance adventure, even within a historic musical setting.

But the whole idea first brought to my mind George Balanchine’s “Vienna Waltzes,” created for the New York City Ballet. Set in three sections, it beautifully captures the spirit and fine energy of this highly-cultured European city, beginning with a sylvan setting by The Waltz King himself, Johann Strauss, Jr., then moving on to a high society salon for Franz Lehar’s “The Merry Widow” and ending with the sumptuous sweep of Richard Strauss’ “Der Rosenkavalier,” the mirrored stage awash in swirling white silk gowns and black tails.

Photo by Paul Kolnik

Could a symphony orchestra match those ravishing images? As it turned out, the concert put forth its own blend of elegance and sophisticated wit that rarely surfaces at the PSO. The program also included Johannes Moser’s Olympian interpretation in the  Dvorak Cello Concerto, which Maestro Honeck called “the entree.” It was followed by “a lot of desserts,” each more delicious than the last.

Some might have called it a meringue, given the light classical nature of the music, but there was such style and effervescence that the second part of the program was simply infectious. Not all were waltzes, of course, for Maestro Honeck was a master planner.

If anyone was keeping count, there were only two waltz selections. Polkas abounded, including “Tic-Tac” and “Little Chatterbox,” which happened to have PSO children twirling ratchets. And a confident soprano Rebecca Nielsen provided visual interest and musical surprises in the “Laughing Song” and “Audition Song.”

Photo by Jason Cohn

But I didn’t feel cheated because the waltzes were simply luxurious, given the hiccup of rhythm so expertly inserted in Johann Strauss, Jr.’s overture from “Die Fledermaus” and the celestial nature brother Josef’s lovely “Music of the Spheres.”

Even without the dance, there was plenty of movement to be perceived, with a wonderful contrast to the tempi, how Maestro Honeck could tease the audience as he slowed down to almost nothing and, soon afterwards, carry the waltz to dizzying new heights. Certainly Maestro Honeck fulfilled this dance viewer’s expectations. And, although the patter between songs was still a little stiff, he had a charming presence and an unforced sense of authority.

There are certain things that knowledgeable Pittsburgh visitors should see when they come to town. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater may top the list for its long-time historic value. Coming in a close second and leading Pittsburgh’s performing arts scene, a Honeck concert is a must-see.

I have observed the orchestra under six music directors and the musicians have never been so responsive as under this great talent, who is still considered young for a major conductor. This was a waltz tradition that has been around for hundreds of years, but it was alive and robustly well at Heinz Hall. If next year is anything like this, it should be a hot ticket. The Vienna Philharmonic should know — the group has already tapped him for a similar format in its annual New Year’s Eve concert.

In the meantime, check out the Pittsburgh Symphony website for more immediate opportunities to see the master Maestro.

On Stage: Bellydance Superstars

November 24, 2010

Upon walking into the Byham Theater, it was easy to immerse yourself in the whole of the bellydancing culture with a mini-bazaar to attract even the most casual of observers. Tables were filled with coin belts (all the better to accent those hip thrusts, my dear), videos (never too late to learn) and active wear (of course!).

On stage were palm trees and some urn-like tchotchkes decorating the stage, looking like a large entrance to an ethnic restaurant. Then the Bellydance Superstars entered from the sides stomping their feet in bharatanatyam fashion, arms floating like tendrils in the air. A heavy-duty psychedelic video (very effective throughout the show as it turned out) was playing across the full-stage screen at the back and the music was blaring its sinuous message.

Welcome to Bombay Bellywood.

The title, course, is a play on India’s Bollywood, a nickname created for the country’s film industry, which is the world’s largest. This production was obviously created to ride the colorful hip scarves of India’s current popularity, given the success of “Slumdog Millionaire” and the increasing play of Indian actors on American television and in the movies.

But, like Bollywood, you couldn’t underestimate these ladies, where “sumptuous” was worn proudly in the body art, multiple bespangled costume changes and undulating torsos. It wasn’t your mother’s bellydancing — all of it was pumped up to engorge the senses. It wasn’t really Indian — several of the dancers seemed more expert than the others.

But it was easy to marvel how the dancers could toss their hair in unison. Some looked like cornfed all-American beauties — one dancer, obviously trained in ballet, even whipped through fouettes as part of her solo. I loved the dark-hued tribal quartet — their internalized style looked like they were sharing a secret, but it packed a dramatic punch.

The male solo dancer and contortion artist, Samir, could dislocate his shoulders and performed an exciting solo, ripe with the kind of muscular accents that only a man can do. Clad in a black jumpsuit with flared legs and working his arms like wings, he had the imperiousness of  Odile, the Swan Queen and was always a standout in the performance, except when he tried to blend with the female ensemble in one number dressed in skirt and veils. Petit Jemila (the only other name I caught) looked like a goddess in three-inch heels as she engaged in rhythmic exchanges with masterful percussionist Issam Houshan.

As the program progressed it was apparent that these performers were at the top of their game, but I wish that there was a more detailed program to give them full credit. I don’t know how classically-trained Indian dancers would feel about the performance — there were a number of styles, even contemporary urban in this blended dance family.

Everything seemed larger-than-life (perhaps geared towards bigger arenas) and the enthusiastic audience seemed to overdose on it by intermission. No doubt, however, that this was a fun-tastic evening, backed by trained artists who knew how to put on a heckuva show.

On Stage: River of Dance

November 20, 2010

You might say that any new piece of choreography represents a dance journey, but for Nalini Prakash, her newest work virtually recreates her life story.

In India, the dancer often helped children with physical and mental disabilities, like many of the women in her town. “I would work one on one with a child that was given to me,” Nalini explains. “But I would work on instinct — I was not trained in special education.”

The others asked Nalini to do some dance with the children. So she would have them sit on their mothers’ laps and have the mothers move their arm and feet so they would feel the movement in their bodies.

However Nalini still felt inadequate. She  “was kind of floundering” when she came upon an Indian dancer who had studied therapy and was giving a workshop. Afterwards she thought, “this is exactly what I would like to learn.” She had often traveled to America and decided to study there.

It was the beginning of a personal journey. “I was looking to find myself,” she says. Her mother was German, her father Indian. Although her mother didn’t give up her German heritage, she encouraged Nalini to “grow up Indian.”

Yet that was not as simple as it seemed, because Nalini was influenced by her guru, who encouraged her to take on the south Indian culture, even though her father was north Indian. “I learned the language, at the food and dressed as a south Indian,” she recalls. Because Nalini was so young, it “became my own. But over the years, I felt like I had adopted that and I wanted to know who I really was.”

That journey began in India when she was asked to participate in a festival of the rivers. Each of seven dancers was given a river and was asked to research, get music, lighting and costumes and choreograph a solo performance.

Nalini’s assignment was the Godavari river, which begins in Nasik and flows to the Bay of Bengal. She looked at the river “as a quest of Godavari, personnified as a woman,” and decided to trace her backwards from the ocean to her source.

The performance went well. But shortly thereafter, Nalini left to study dance/movement therapy at Drexel University in Philadelphia. For her audition, she was asked to move. “I only knew how in that very structured bharatanatyam style.” She recalls that she asked the panel to explain how. One replied, “Move the way you want to move — by instinct,” and put on some rhythmic instrumental music.

Luckily Nalini had an audition partner who helped her to “move freely around the space.” She was able to connect and mirror the partner’s movements and was accepted into the program. During the next two years she slowly found fresh ways to move and, by the end, Nalini was able to compartmentalize the precise lines of bharatanatyam and a new-found, sustained freestyle.

Yet she found that it helped her with her own dance and choreography. “It’s not that I’ve moved away from tradition, but I’ve given myself a little more freedom and stretched my limits.”

Nalini had worked with fellow Indian dancer Vijay Palaparty periodically over the years. After he viewed her “Godavari” solo on DVD, he suggested that it be expanded to an ensemble work. Now Nalini feels that she is able to work with him in a different way and change the dynamic with ease, noting that “now I surprise myself.”

For more information on Nalina’s journey in “Godavari” at Carnegie Mellon University, see Listings.

On Stage: Alvin, Kyle and Sidra at the Rock

November 16, 2010

Photos by Eduardo Patino

There is no doubt that the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is one of the most popular dance groups on the planet and, even more than 20 years after its founder’s death, is still in great demand. Based on that, the company also commands a high performance fee to draw in those high audience numbers. But then, Ailey audiences always leave the concert hall well satisfied.

It has also spawned a second company, known as Ailey II, which could ultimately be the way smaller communities see the Ailey legacy, most importantly through Mr. Ailey’s timeless masterpiece, “Reflections.” Such was the case when the audience recently filled Slippery Rock University’s Miller Auditorium.

Even in the hands of these young dancers, “Revelations” was an unparalleled piece of living, breathing black American history. But it didn’t touch on specific issues like slavery. Instead it showed vestiges of black America through its gospel music — the spirituality (“I Been ‘Buked,” “Fix Me Jesus”), the baptismal traditions shown during “Wade in the Water” and those southern Baptist churches a-fluttering with women’s fans.

You might call it the gospel according to Alvin because this work delivers its motivating message not only to Daniel but to the audiences who never seem to tire of “Revelations.” The main company performs it virtually every performance and it appears that Ailey II often does the same.

After having seen this piece on and off since the ’70’s (plus the DVD), it is ingrained in my memory. Of course, these young dancers didn’t have the weighty cohesiveness of the main company (albeit most of them were hired only in May), but they always did sustain the original intent and certain sections, like the urgency of “Sinner Man” for a trio of men and the energy of “Rocka My Soul,” soared on their own.

That wasn’t the only thing that lured me to the Rock, though. Ailey II also is a laboratory for emerging choreographers and the program included works by Pittsburgh native Kyle Abraham and New Yorker Sidra Bell, both of whom were tapped for the Kelly-Strayhorn’s Next Stage Artist Residency Program and presented new pieces at the theater in East Liberty this year.

Sidra created “Valse” for Ailey II. Given the fact that the dancers were dressed in black fantastical costumes, it appeared that she took her inspiration from Maurice Ravel’s dark-edged  “La Valse,” which was originally inspired by World War II.

Dennis Bell’s (no relation, I presume) original score couldn’t be considered a traditional waltz, so the idea had to come from the dance itself, where the dancers wove in and out in angular movments. Although Sidra no doubt has a skillful touch, this piece was designed for the Ailey style, more to please the audience and/or company. And while the movement was intriguing,  i don’t think that Sidra kept true to herself.

Kyle produced “The Corner,” completed just this year and conceived in the streetwise mold that he has established. Unlike the other works he has composed, “The Corner” literally takes place on the street, full of slouchy, hyper-cool, everyday movements.

Dance once explored that in a revolutionary way in the Judson Dance Theater in the ’60’s, where walking, running and other everyday movements became an official part of the dance vocabulary. Now Kyle is transposing that postmodern attitude to a black attitude.

Casual, yet intriguingly structured, the highlight of “The Corner” was a duet for two men — playful and tender, sometimes exceedingly so, a dance that capitalized on an uncomfortable beauty. It proved that choreographers can give Ailey dancers original work that not only energizes but artistically sustains their audiences.


On Stage: Pittsburgh Connections

November 15, 2010

Photos by Drew Yenchak

The importance of a choreographer can never be underestimated, not only for the steps that she provides, but for the insight and imagery that infuse those steps. Nowhere is there a more appropriate place to see that principle in action than Point Park University’s Conservatory Dance Company.

These students bring a hunger for movement, a desire to launch into action, a need to please. So the choreographer shares an extra responsibility in setting them on the right artistic path. If that doesn’t happen, the dance can come across as a two-dimensional performance in a three-dimensional art form.

The group’s latest Pittsburgh Connections program, which opened Friday at the George Rowland White Performance Studio and continues through this weekend, was filled with physically dense and memorable movement, brilliantly illuminated by lighting designer Bob Steineck.

One of the pieces stood apart for its maturity because it was that rarest of animals at Point Park — a successful ballet. Ballet is the problem child among its artistic siblings, jazz, modern and tap, at the local university. That may well be because ballet can so easily expose technical weaknesses, as if under a high-powered microscope.

But never has Point Park’s ballet department been so beautifully showcased as it was in Gina Patterson’s “Found Songs,” where the students were gently encouraged to produce a surprisingly professional performance. Deceptively soft, an intelligent blend of ballet and contemporary, “Found Songs” toyed with the emotions of memory, family and simply finding oneself.

Using a movable door frame, the ballet allowed the dancers to look back, peer forward and move through it into the sepia tones of its liquid phrases. Part of its success came from what appears to be a new breed among Point Park dance students, where their natural gifts are bolstered by a more complete technical foundation, as well as the intelligence to adapt to a wide range of choreography.

But the real credit had to go to Ms. Patterson, who set a new standard for the ballet department, using educational expertise along with professional expectations in this simply stunning achievement.

At the other end of the spectrum (and the other end of the program), was Justin Myles’ “Stack ‘Em,” a rock ‘em, sock em’ New Age tap number. It was, as all tap is these days, an urban offshoot of Savion Glover’s rhythm tap style.

But there were several impressive things that elevated this work — first, Mr. Myles’ original score that enhanced the tap without overpowering, second, the close partnership with Mr. Steineck in escalating the piece as it progressed and last, a snazzy cast of female performers who didn’t let that get in the way.

Craig Kaufman (“A Path Home”) and Dionna PridGeon (“Outlined”) brought with them the heavyweight approach of jazz. While Mr. Kaufman had a skillful feel for Gus Giordano’s sculptural style and I like the asymmetry to be found in Ms. PridGeon’s work, they were both eclipsed by Kassandra Taylor’s “Conversion.”

This piece had the relentlessness of a runaway train. It was filled with that sense of excitement from the start as two dancers, with eyes blackened, bolted as if they were shot from a cannon. They were eventually joined by the others — 22 in all (Ms. Taylor has always had a big, bold vision) — like creatures engaging in an exotic tribal rite.

You might call it Paul Taylor (no relation) on steroids. The great American choreographer has occasionally transformed his dancers (think the aboriginal “3 Epitaphs”) and sent his dancers speeding across the stage (“Mercuric Tidings” and “Esplanade”). But even he could not imagine this work, definitely not for the faint-of-heart. It was, to top it, performed in knee socks, which at one point involved the dancers running full tilt across a center swatch of light.

Yes, the choreographer can make or break the performance, and in this case definitely made it. But these students carried away a new sense of artistic development and Pittsburgh once again saw that dance is one of the city’s hidden treasures, with an ever-growing network of choreographic connections.

(Reprinted from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.)