On Stage: Learning From the Masters

February 28, 2011

With a blended program that gave Point Park University dance students a history lesson and then moved them on forward, the Conservatory Dance Company showed that they were eager to learn. Read about it in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Dance Beat: Calendar, Recitals, Movies

February 27, 2011

RECITAL TIME. It’s about that time of year again when dance recitals start to bloom. I’ll be assembling a list for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, which stays on the website virtually all year — a little advertising never hurts. Include date, name of school, location of recital and contact info (person or persons, telephone number(s) and website information). If you have any special news — a choreographer, a theme, student awards, an anniversary, etc. — include that for the introduction. Email: jvranish1@comcast.net.  Deadline: April 5.

RAINING BALLET. It’s an embarrassment of riches for ballet fans. We know about the Oaks Theater and its Emerging Pictures offerings of the best in international ballet companies, but the Carmike10 in South Hills Village has its own ballet and opera series. So if you can’t travel to France and Russia to see these companies live, enjoy them on digital screen. The remaining performances: Bolshoi Ballet’s “Don Quixote” Sun. Mar. 6 at 11 a.m. and Wed. Mar. 16 at 7:30 p.m.; Paris Opera Ballet’s “Coppelia” Mon. Mar. 28 at 1:30 p.m. and Wed. Apr. 6 at 7:30 p.m.; Bolshoi Ballet’s “Coppelia” Sun. May 29 at 11 a.m. and Wed. June 8 at 7:30 p.m. and Paris Opera Ballet’s “Children of Paradise” Sat. July 9 at 1:30 p.m. and Wed. July 20 at 7:30 p.m.

MARCH MADNESS. Well, the March dance calendar is up on Listings. Enjoy!

On Screen: Revisiting “Fela!”

February 24, 2011

When I saw Bill T. Jones’ heart-stopping “Fela!” last summer on Broadway, I felt as if I were encased in a womb of sound and movement. It was unlike anything I had ever encountered in a lifetime of Broadway performances, even though I really had no clue as to who Fela Anikulapo-Kuti was until then.

But Bill T. Jones was a concert artist who didn’t lower his standards to appeal to a wide range of people. Instead he raised the bar as to what we should get from a show — artistry, imagination, pushing the envelope and taking us with it.

So I was enthusiastic about heading to the Oaks Theater in Oakmont to catch “Fela!” again, this time presented by Great Britain’s National Theater and filmed for its “National Theater Live” series. The film was full of extra goodies, including an interview with Bill and his impromptu bow at the end. And while it couldn’t compete with the bracing experience of this sensurround musical, it provided extra camera angles from the back of the stage, allowing the viewer to see Fela interact with his band, and close-ups of the performance that heightened Bill’s vision.

Bill wisely kept Tony-nominated Sahr Ngaujah in the title role — I had not seen him in the Broadway version — and he had the cool ease and stage command that compelled you to watch. Within the microcosm of the performance, he out-dramatized the original Fela (which you can compare in the first and third Youtube clips here.) The other roles seemed to be filled with Brits — Melanie Marshall as the omnipresent mother, Funmilayo and Paulette Ivory as love interest Sandra, even the dancers and musicians.

Interestingly it gave “Fela!,” shall we say, a polite overlay. On Broadway the dancers had more physical variety (actually in keeping with Bill’s own tastes) and the musicians came from a Brooklyn Afrobeat band, Antibalas. The raw ethnicity of their performances added a real bite to the production. In the British production, the dancers had the clean lines of extensive ballet and modern training, even a similar physicality, and the musicians seemed tamer.

Perhaps the most marked difference was visible in the role of Funmilayo. Broadway’s Lillias White won Tony, Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle awards for her gut-wrenching performance of Funmilayo, which reached its zenith as she powered through “Rain.” Melanie Marshall rendered the song with consummate control more in an operatic vein.

But then, the British always had manners. To its credit, the London “Fela!” might have lacked grit, but it still had spirit.

Off Stage: Post-Prix

February 22, 2011

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School students Aviana Adams and Anwen David no doubt have learned scads about grace on the stage. But they had a terrific lesson about grace under pressure when they headed for the Prix de Lausanne in Switzerland a few weeks ago to compete among the best students in the world and having had time to reflect and rest, shared their experience.

Avi and Anwen set out for Europe with different perspectives. Anwen, who has family near London, had crossed the Atlantic before. It was Avi’s first trip out of the United States and she barely slept, opting instead to watch the sun rise from the plane and Tweeting about it to friends.

With a bit of time to kill, Avi (with mom Janet Popeleski) and Anwen (with mom Caroline) hooked up to walk around and get to know their surroundings, full of picturesque houses and, of course, the majestic Alps. Then they went to register (where Avi pulled out some “rusty” French) and warm-up.

Surprise! The studio floor was raked, just the same as the performance stage. As it so happens, the Byham Theater has a raked stage, but the ones at Lausanne were three times the angle, making it decidedly more precipitous to execute pirouettes and, in particular, a menage or series of turns in a circle where pique turns could push upwards then swoop downwards. (FYI: Raked stages, found primarily in Europe, were set at an angle or “rake” so that the audience could see better. In other words, upstage definitely meant that the performer went upwards. And downstage? Obviously a ballet could take on some aspects of a roller coaster.)

Everyone reacted differently. Anwen confessed that, at first, she felt like she was going to fall off the front section, “but that got better as the week went on.” Avi called it “surprisingly lovely” and better than the Byham, which can be tricky because the dancer could forget the slight rake. She noted, “I think I liked it because it was drastically different. With the Lausanne studio you didn’t overthrow your balance. It was a lot easier to turn in my opinion.”

The pair immediately began to make friends, particularly those girls in the 15-16 age group who shared their dressing room. They came from Norway, Sweden, New Zealand, Australia and, yes, America. “Everyone was so friendly,” said Anwen. “I was worried that they might be competitive and pushy, but they were all really nice and happy to meet people.” Avi agreed. She became “fast friends” with New Zealander Alex Cambie. It’s a world where Facebook rules.

The girls had both classical and contemporary classes before they hit the stage, time enough to get used to the spotlight, according to Anwen, with “nine judges and directors from all around the world, cameras and video cameras, all these people watching every little thing you do.” Avi noted that “we were like deer caught in the headlights.”

Things started to settle down, although Avi got tangled with another dancer while feeding into a combination during a contemporary class. She went down and hurt her wrist, forcing her to withdraw from the competition. (A fast healer, she was hoping to have the cast removed today.)

So Avi turned her considerable energy to observing all the girls’ individual coaching sessions with mom. She saw  much attention paid to the pirouettes, where the coach was looking for the dancers to “pull up more right before you land.” She also found some “trigger words” that helped her understand corrections. One was “to take the light with your chest” when the dancer finishes a step or uses a porte bras.

Anwen, in the meantime, got six minutes to take in those corrections, twice with former Paris Opera Ballet principal dancer Monique Lourdieres and once with contemporary choreographer Cathy Marston. She didn’t get through the whole piece with Cathy, although that was true of most of the contestants. Monique helped her with her Italian fouettes and menage, which were difficult on the raked stage, and encouraged her to use “more personality.”

But evidently the judges and dance notables were impressed by her, because even though she didn’t make the finals, Anwen came home with four scholarship offers from Hamburg Ballet School (Hamburg Ballet, whose artistic director, John Neumeier will be presented at PBT in his production of “Streetcar Named Desire” next year), Mannheim Academy of Ballet (Mannheim Ballet, whose artistic director, Kevin O’Day, choreographed several ballets for PBT), Basel Dance Academy and the National Academy of Dance, which is affiliated with the Dutch National Ballet (and whose artistic director, Christopher Powney, sat on the judges’ panel).

Avi came back strengthened by the whole experience, but recalled “how everyone takes the bus and there’s very little pollution. You can fill your water bottle from any tap and it’s okay to drink it — I definitely miss that!” She’s already planning for next year.

As far as advice for those who might consider the competition option?

Anwen said “not to worry about the competition part of it. Try to really enjoy it and learn as much as you can and just have a good time.” Avi added that future competitors should be present about “every single detail and every single correction. But more importantly, dance. Don’t think about what you’re doing, just dance and relax. RELAX.”

It sounds like they both listened to their own advice. But they apparently learned one more thing — how to show grace in an interview as well.

On Stage: “108 Minutes”

February 21, 2011

Bodiography artistic director Maria Caruso deliberately calculated her latest premiere at “108 Minutes” to parallel the length of a surgery for this full-length work created in conjunction with The McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine. Read about it in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

On Stage: Regenerative Dance

February 18, 2011

It was time for our second car talk.

Maria Caruso seems to be continually on the move, not something uncommon when you are associated with dance. A few years ago I interviewed her over the phone as she was driving on a New Jersey Interstate between Princeton and Philadelphia. This year we conversed a little closer to home as she was making her way through Pittsburgh’s congested streets.

Yes, Maria is trying to be everywhere at once nowadays, with a life that spans her own company and school, collectively titled Bodiography, plus a Pilates and dance program partnered with Club One and her newest venture, heading the dance department at LaRoche College, where she teaches 26 credits.

Her schedule varies during the week, with Maria headquartered mostly at Bodiography at the beginning of the week and where LaRoche students commute to the company’s Squirrel Hill home) moving to LaRoche on Thursday with her Bodiography dancers.

A typical Thursday begins with a 6:15 a.m. Pilates class, then moves to LaRoche for several classes from 8 a.m. until noon, then a rehearsal from noon until 3 p.m. and more classes through until 9 p.m.

But late afternoon one Friday I’m able to catch her on a commute from the North Hills to her Squirrel Hill studio.

“Oddly enough I thrive in chaos,” Maria says with a hearty laugh. “My brain doesn’t process the idea of someone helping me or getting something typed.” So she’s also working hard at moving from being “so hands on” to accepting help from two assistants, two interns and “my mother.”

Yes, it’s been a big transition this year with adding LaRoche. So when does she find time to choreograph? After all, Maria will premiere her second full-length ballet, “108 Minutes,” based on medical themes at the Byham Theater this weekend.

It’s called time management, I guess.

Her creative process began last summer at Bodiography’s summer intensive, where she  took in 14 students, the better to provide individual attention and to “see how the dancers handle my material.” During this workshop she tried to get some of the color palette and movement motifs together, aiming to develop about 20 minutes of solid work to provide a foundation for “108 Minutes.” It not only served as a choreographic workshop, but as an audition to select performers for her group.

In early September, Maria attended a stem cell “information” conference with Dr. Alan Russell, founding director of the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh and also number 32 on Rolling Stone Magazine’s “Top 100 Change Makers in America” in 2009. Subsequently she contacted other doctors at the Institute in September and viewed footage of U.S. soldiers who benefited from their methods.

“I really believe there are no words to describe their passion,” she says. “I heard stories of our military and felt the inspiration of the scientists. Coupled with a new and effective way to regenerate the body, it’s going to drastically impact our health care system.”

“It gave me a lot of fuel. ”

Maria is not looking to create choreography that is just beautiful on the surface. “I want to reach deeper into someone’s soul and create extensive works that are meaningful. I want to tell a story that makes people feel complete, feel comfortable, feel moved.”

Update on Cello Fury. The classically-trained string group that downsized from Cellofourte and paired up with Bodiography will accompany “108 Minutes” with a completely original score. Comprised of Nicole Myers, Simon Cummings and Ben Munoz, they strive to bridge various styles with an athletic style of play. Ben took a moment to address the group’s latest project written by both Simon and Ben. Both primarily contributed their own pieces, something that works because “fortunately our compositional styles seem to work together.” But the ballet’s 15-minute finale was written together. “It was interesting to see what we could come up with, working as one person,” Ben explains. “It was almost like a rock band — the guitarist can come in with a chord progression and the drummer will play something on top of it. The whole band as a group kind of writes the piece.” The duo came in with melodic or rhythmic ideas and they took it from there, molding them into the final product. We’ll see if their fans can tell them apart.







Dance Beat: Tome, Roberto, Alloy, Attack

February 17, 2011

STRO! An update on Pittsburgher Tome Cousin, who often sets Susan Strohman’s “Contact” around the world. On Feb. 28, he will be participating in a star-studded salute to the award-winning choreographer, working with Boyd Gaines and the cast of “Contact.” Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane host with an array of Broadway stars, including Karen Ziemba, Veanne Cox, Craig Bierko and others. Set for the Millenium Broadway Hotel, it’s surprising to see tickets coming in at $75, $125 and a “limited number” at $300. Below you’ll find Tome in a green shirt and brown pants with Boyd and Deborah Yates on the “Tonight!” show.



CHECKING IN. Former Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre ballet master Roberto Munoz was in town recently holding auditions for the Saratoga Springs Dance Intensive that he runs with wife Melinda Roy, former principal dancer with New York City Ballet. He was thrilled that he and Melinda were in demand at several local schools to teach during their stay. Teachers at SSDI will include Sean Lavery, assistant to the Ballet Master in Chief, NYCB; Jock Soto, faculty, School of American Ballet;  and NYCB principals Yvonne Bouree, Ashley Bouder, Maria Kowrowski and Daniel Ulbricht. A strong Pittsburgh connection, besides Roberto, will feature Dana Arey (Pennsylvania Ballet principal, PBT ballet master), Stephen Hanna (NYCB principal, Billy Elliot), Simon Ball (Pittsburgh native, Boston Ballet, Houston Ballet) and PBT artistic director emeritus Patricia Wilde. The program runs June 20-July17. For more information, click on www.ssdiballet.com.

SUMMER FUN. Speaking of summer programs, the Jones Summer Dance Intensive has announced auditions at Dance Alloy Theater studios in Friendship on Mar. 20 from noon-2 p.m. and 3-5 p.m. Sixty students will be selected for the two week, pre-professional all-scholarship program, which will run Aug. 8-21. Students 15-25 may participate and must have a $20 audition fee. For more information and to register, call 412-363-4321.

ON THE MOVE. Attack Theatre may have finished up “Show #58,” but the workaholic  dance group subsequently took part of its “Show” on the road. They showed up at Dave Eggar’s Music on the Edge concert in “Trapped,” with music by Japanese composer Somei Satoh and subsequently traveled to New York for an encore over St. Valentine’s Day weekend at St. Mark’s Chamber Music Series. When did Dave and Chuck Palmer have time for the Grammies?