On Stage: Pittsburgh Connections

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.)

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