On Stage: Dancing Classrooms — One More Time

December 31, 2010

There are so many facets and faces to the Colors of the Rainbow and they all can bring their own ray of sunshine to your day. Here are the last few and, if you still crave more, a link to the Youtube photo gallery (with musical accompaniment). FYI: Allegheny, Phillips, Sunnyside and West Liberty are moving on to the finals in May, but thanks to all for another heartwarming experience. Photos by Archie Carpenter.

Have three minutes? Take a look…

On Stage: Dancing Classrooms Part 2

December 30, 2010

With fresh faces like this, continue the glow of the holiday season. Photos by Archie Carpenter.

On Stage: Dancing Classrooms X 2

December 28, 2010

The best thing about dance is to be immersed in it. Last year I did a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article on “Dancing Classrooms,” originated by international ballroom dancer Pierre Dulaine, who inspired the documentary “Mad Hot Ballroom” and Antonio Banderas’ “Take the Lead.” (And I loved every minute of it!)

I attended classes and the finale, “Colors of the Rainbow,” where the best of six Pittsburgh Public Schools competed for gold, silver and bronze. There were tears of happiness and sadness at the end and I shed a few of my own.

This year I went to the second year’s competition at Pittsburgh Allderdice High School. The original six elementary schools were back — Allegheny, Arlington, Martin Luther King, Phillips, Spring Hill and West Liberty — plus Sunnyside, St. Agnes and St. Benedict the Moor.

Yes folks, “Dancing Classrooms” is expanding. That was only the semi-finals at Allerdice on Dec. 11.  There will be a whole new group of school this spring, with the finals some time in May.  (By the way, Mr. Dulaine will be returning for a benefit.) Credit Mark Rogalsky, who is transferring the passion he saw in “Mad Hot Ballroom” to Pittsburgh, and his staff at Mercy Behavioral Health.

Whatever the reason, it’s a real plus for Pittsburgh schools’ image. I arrived at Allderdice with the competition in full swing. What follows is a series of photographs by Archie Carpenter (to be released over the next few postings). Of course, it’s hard to take a bad picture of children dancing. Enjoy!

More to follow…

On Stage: The Holidays in a “Holidaze”

December 23, 2010

Just like the latest trends, it takes a little while for things to come to Pittsburgh. In that vein, the Steel City didn’t latch onto the Cirque craze until 2002, when that Montreal juggernaut, Cirque du Soleil, finally broke the ice. Now we can’t seem to get enough.

With the onset of Cirque du Soleil, the nature of the circus was forever changed, so much so that these days almost everything is Cirque-ular. Gone are the animals, replaced by exotic themes, singers, original scores, real choreography and fantastical set designs.

The original experience was created in the early ’80’s, cast in the form of a Salvador Dali production, surreal and mysterious, a decidedly European concoction brewed in that most French of all North American cities, Montreal. It evolved from a custom-designed tent, called a Grand Chapiteau, to star in Vegas and cirque-ulate in arenas.

Cirque Dreams tossed its hat into the ring in the early ’90’s and claimed Broadway, symphonic halls, corporate events and Atlantic City. We have seen its production of Illuminations, a classical Cirque de la Symphonie (at the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra) and a several Cirque du Soleil shows since 2002 . They have all proven to be popular with Pittsburghers, whetting the appetite for more.

On Tuesday night, Cirque Dreams brought the Broadway-style “Holidaze” to bedazzle the Heinz Hall audiences, inviting comparisons between the Montreal parent and this American offshoot. As it turned out, Cirque Dreams: Holidaze was the family-friendly version, full of bright colors and glitter. It had a tour-friendly set, with collapsible Christmas trees and inflatable giant candy canes crowding the stage.

Maybe “Holidaze” didn’t quite have the budget of Cirque du Soleil. Nor did it have the same disciplined direction. It’s like the “Holidaze” producers didn’t trust its talent to hold center stage. So snowmen or cyclists or bouncing trees often traveled around the stage, diverting the audience’s attention. It was like a three-ring circus condensed into one.

Still the strength of this production came from the performers. They didn’t have the benefit of smooth, taut choreography, except for Dmytro Deneko (“Scrooge” and “Angel”), as elegant a circus artist as there is with his beautiful lines as he swirled through straps or large swaths of fabric. He was like the present that keeps on giving, wrapping and unwrapping himself with a breathtaking ease.

The other acts had a more traditional display of tricks, although they had plenty of skill and more than a few surprises in store for the eager Heinz Hall audience. The Dream Engineer slid up and down from a split on the floor. Gingerbread cookies, one adult male and one child, totally flipped out. They were from Ethiopa, a relatively new player on the cirque circuit. As it turned out, the African country also produced the Lumberjack, a juggler and one of the few around who can juggle nine small snowballs in a blizzard of activity.

The performance unfolded from a tree laden with ornaments. Likewise the acts unfolded in all shapes and sizes — a toy soldier who juggled on a slack wire, a nifty jumping rope routine (Skipping Elves), a tiny, pretty-in-pink Santa’s Helper who could be lifted horizontally from the floor by one hand, a clown who rang our bells with his interactive audience routine, a group of Chinese women who seemed to do it all — twirl Baubles, ride bicycles and fill in the ensemble routines.

There was also a local accent amid all the Christmas finery. Point Park University’s Ellen Henry spun her way through the characters like a sprightly music box dancer, spending her holidays in a real “Holidaze.”

“Holidaze” runs through Dec. 26 — see Listings for more information.

Off Stage: Drowning in the Lake

December 21, 2010

If you are reading this blog, you are most likely a dance lover. But that doesn’t mean that you are going to like “Black Swan,” Darren Aronofsky’s film, because it’s not a sensitive film about the most popular classical ballet of all time, filled with juicy dance sequences.

Instead it’s a psycho-horror (yes, psycho, not psychological) film that uses ballet as the framework for the story. I mean, we all know that ballet is the most difficult of art forms, that it takes its toll on the both the body and the mind, while transporting us into a fantasy.

But Mr. Aronofsky strips away any sense of fantasy, along with the skin on Natalie Portman’s fingers, in constructing an over-the-top burlesque (that’s not redundant here) of ballet. From my point of view, be prepared for ballet on steroids.

Ms. Portman begins the movie as a young ballerina in a constant state of stress, eyebrows askew, mouth open. It feels artificial. But once you get past that, you realize that she does a great job of preparing to act her way through the role, and dance fluidly, certainly worthy of numerous nominations and a few awards. And the climax, where she transforms into Odile, the Black Swan, literally jumps off the screen, despite the fact that it is unclear as to what is real and what is not.

The other significant part of the “Black Swan” is the cinematography, which has already reaped one award, and where the viewer is placed in the middle of the dance itself. Occasionally it becomes too complex, shaking as it follows the emotional dancer, swirling about in dizzying patterns. But it contributes mightily to sustaining interest through to the end.

Should you see “Black Swan?” Not if you’re squeamish. Only if you’re still curious.

Opinion: Oh, Alastair…

December 18, 2010

Most of you have read about New York Times dance critic Alastair MacAulay’s inappropriate comments concerning New York City Ballet principal Jenifer Ringer in the annual “Nutcracker,” where he said Jenifer “looked as if she’d eaten one sugarplum too many.” And maybe you’ve heard about Jennifer’s delayed response on the Today Show where she said that she didn’t want an apology.

Having written about dance for over 40 years, I have learned to judge a dancer by the quality of his or her dancing and not by the body type, overweight or underweight. Bill T. Jones taught me that a long time ago when he hired Larry Goldhuber at 200 pounds plus.

So you say that is modern dance — ballet is a whole other animal. Alastair’s commentary, however, was nothing less than smarmy. Yet it wasn’t a question of Jenifer’s open admission of weight problems in the past.

I believe that  it isn’t a critic’s place to write about the limitations of a dancer’s body. Egad — no dancer is perfect and most principals have a physical fault, from stubby feet (Dame Margot Fonteyn) to broad shoulders (Darcy Kistler) that they can still turn into pure gold. If the performance is indeed affected by a perceived weight gain, it is much better for the writer to talk about the quality of the dance. The point will still be well taken.

Once you get into the topic of physical proportions, you open up a whole can of worms. I’ve even reviewed dancers, both modern and ballet, who were pregnant and sometimes I knew before they told me. I still stuck to the quality of the dance and whether they could execute the choreography. It invariably turned out that they actually had a definable glow (and sometimes even their partners — I’m thinking of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre principal Ying Li, who performed through her fifth month with husband Jiabin Pan a few years back).

The decision of timing — when to take a leave — at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre came from the ballerina and her doctor (and I give artistic director Terrence Orr a gold star for that).

Similarly, a ballet dancer knows when she (or he — I also disagree with the comment about Jared Angle) is at optimum dancing weight. I, for one, will still occasionally note the beauty of a dancer’s feet or a lovely arch of the back. But, on the whole, I will keep my eyes on the real prize — the ultimate impact of a performance.


On Stage: A New Bench

December 17, 2010

Photos by Drew Yenchak

Yes, Kiesha Lalama-White’s “The Bench” is back this weekend with a virtually all-new cast and a few new wrinkles without losing its connection to family traditions. Check it out in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.