Off Stage: Dressing Up Cirque

May 25, 2011

My mother, Lil, was an expert seamstress. Maybe that’s why I mentally take note of dance costumes, which take so much time and effort. Meet Amanda, who is in charge of Cirque du Soleil’s “TOTEM,” with seemingly countless crystals, beads, headresses and yards of very stretchy material.

On Stage: Hines’ Last Dance

May 25, 2011

It was like that final push at the goal line, fourth and long, do or die. But the field of play was “Dancing With the Stars,” down to the final three dances with the final three competitors.

The dances were spread over two nights. Monday’s performances featured the judges’ selection and the much-vaunted freestyle, which usually determines the winner. Yes, this is when DWTS voters get serious and, it seems, vote for the most deserving celebrity.

Only this year it seemed different.

Chelsea Kane and Mark Ballas led off the Judges’ Choice with the samba, hard-hitting with lots of fringe (29). Kirstie Alley and Maksim Chmerkovskiiy followed with another samba, dripping with sensuality (27). That set it up for Hines Ward and Kym Johnson and the quickstep. Kym did her research, streamlining Fred Astaire’s iconic tap solo with cane and a flurry of Fred clones into a smart duet (29).

But let’s get down to the nitty gritty — the freestyle. This dance has determined, more than any other, the winner of the Mirror Ball Trophy.

Chelsea and Mark came up with another “fresh,” as they like to put it, routine. Full of street smart moves and light-up hands and feet (although Chelsea’s battery pack failed midway through). Score: 30.

Kirstie and Maks. Well, when she ripped off her brown dress it made me realize the her circle skits made her bigger than she was. Kirstie looked great in the sequin unitard, showing off her new body. Score: 27.

Hines sported a big “S” on his black and gold drum major uniform. Steeler? Super Bowl? Sassy? Anyhow, they overcame the injury with daring and spectacular lifts in this “halftime” show. Score: 30.

So the judges left it up to the voters by giving Chelsea and Hines the same score. You can say that Mark Ballas gave Chelsea the edge in choreographic complexity, although they could look like they were pushing. Hines and Kym had an indefinable connection on the dance floor, with both rehearsal and dance footage reflecting a sunny ease about them.

Now for Tuesday.

The celebrities chose their favorite dance: Chelsea  and Mark the “Wizard” (as in Harry Potter) waltz (30) and Kirstie and Maks, a parallel of her journey, showing an exuberance at age 60 (30). Wait — could it be possible that this was the strongest finale yet?  I couldn’t recall a year where all the competitors got perfect scores. Yes, Hines and Kym got another 30 for their samba. And the judges definitely left it up to the viewers.

Was the scoring planned? It almost seemed so in this fairytale ending to the series.

The results? Viewers went with the story rather than the technique. Chelsea and Mark surprisingly took third, much like fellow Disney dancer Kyle Massey last year. Kirstie and Maks took second. And Hines and Kim, as I felt from Week One, took first.

Was it destiny? The Mirror Ball Trophy is silver, of course, but with gold accents and a black base.

Probably it was because he had plenty of support, including the Pittsburgh fifth graders, who had their own Dancing Classrooms ballroom competition last Saturday.

Dance Beat: Kelly-Strayhorn and Dance Alloy Talk Merger

May 24, 2011

The Kelly-Strayhorn Theater and Dance Alloy Theater have announced that talks are underway to explore a merger of the two groups. Noting an emphasis on commonality, with a commitment to the Penn Avenue Arts Corridor and a commitment to dance, a negotiation committee has been formed. In addition to that, both also share a heavy commitment to emerging artists and education.

At this point, many questions remain. First, who began the negotiations? DAT has had a history of financial problems, something that appeared to crop up lately as the staff was trimmed and a scheduled 35th anniversary concert at the August Wilson Center was moved to the DAT studio in Friendship. KST, on the other hand, seems to humming along with a variety of professional and community presentations, including its newMoves Festival, in which coincidentally, DAT was the only major company not to participate.

They are only blocks apart, making the merger logistically sound. KST has some space problems for its administration, so DAT’s large, airy studios and office space could be a natural extension.

But will DAT lose its integrity?  As Pittsburgh’s oldest modern dance company, it deserves plenty of respect. Recent events show that it has lost that internal drive, however. Two years ago, the board that Beth Corning put together suddenly fired her. That board elected not to conduct a national search for an artistic director, as had been the policy over the past several decades, but to select Grier Reed-Jones, then DAT’s education director, as the replacement.

However, Ms. Reed-Jones also heads the August Wilson Center Dance Ensemble. Despite her undeniable qualifications (Dayton Contemporary Dance Company, CAPA, independent choreographer), many in the dance community consider this a conflict of interest. But the DAT board, mostly corporate figures except for former artistic director Mark Taylor, seems to hold the reins.

In a best case scenario, KLT will emerge as a mini-Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, which has embraced a number of smaller Pittsburgh organizations under its umbrella (Pittsburgh International Children’s Theater, Wood Street Galleries, Jazz Live! and even, well, the Pittsburgh Dance Council, which has been able to maintain its identity through the uncommon efforts of Paul Organisak).

The above and other questions remain to be answered. Hopefully the dance community will respond, either on Facebook or CrossCurrents. Stay tuned…

On Stage: PDC – A New Physicality

May 23, 2011

The past couple of years have been rough for everyone and, for the Pittsburgh Dance Council, it showed in the bottom line. As the Pittsburgh series with a real international flavor, PDC had always surprised and educated us with its global approach.But the economy hit everyone hard.

In the 2008-09 season, which had seven companies, over half of them came from outside the U.S., including Ballet Maribor, Inbal Pinto, Batsheva and Ballet Boyz. The following year, there was only one (Britain’s Vincent Dance Theatre) and Margaret Jenkins’ collaboration with Guandong Modern Dance Company. Last season there were only six groups and Israel’s Barak Marshall pulled out, to be replaced by David Dorfman’s Sly Stone project and giving the series an all-American flavor.

Not that all-American is a bad thing. But there is something more engaging about international diversity. We can say the economy was partly to blame, but so were visas for international artists, which became increasingly difficult. Still it looks like all is on the mend for next year, with a great balance of old favorites and new experiments.

Heidi Latsky’s “Gimp” gives the PDC a seventh concert, although it is a collaboration with the FISA Foundation, which helps girls, women and people with disabilities in southwestern Pennsylvania. The piece, which will combine dancers with and without disabilities, will provide workshops to involve the local community and will PDC’s first foray to the August Wilson Center. PDC patrons might recognize Heidi as a former principal dancer with Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company, where the tiny dancer paired with 200-pound plus Lawrence Goldhuber. In the years since she left the company, she has been forging her own choreographic reputation, as well as forming an interest in the healing art of dance.

The international accent is back, mainly due to the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust’s “Distinctively Dutch Festival,” still to be fully revealed. Hopefully it will follow in the singular footsteps of the Australian and Quebec festivals.

Photo by Robert Benschop

The Dance Council will contribute a pair of programs, both United States premieres (always exciting news!), to the event.  Former Nederlans Dans Theater artistic director and master choreographer Jiri Kylian has joined forces with Michael Schumacher, a leading figure in dance improvisation in Europe, for “Last Touch First.” Dance Works Rotterdam/ Andre Gingras features a revival from the Canadian choreographer, “Anatomica,” first presented by Rambert Dance Company in England and featuring “danger, beauty and consequences of the body on display.”

The rest of the season will comprise a group of American masters. MOMIX has blossomed under Moses Pendleton, also a co-founder of Pilobolus, and Cynthia Quinn since 1980. The company delves into the inventive garden of  “Botanica” with video, projections and some very large props.

Photo by Todd Rosenberg

There will be some downsizing as Paul Taylor, the most revered choreographer of his generation, and Lar Lubovitch, that most symphonic of choreographers, return for the first time to the Byham Theater. Both had previously appeared at the Benedum Center. But they will be highly anticipated, nonetheless.

Joining them will be Karole Armitage, finally making her debut here in Pittsburgh. Known as the “punk ballerina,” she will extend the footprint laid down by George Balanchine in “Three Theories,” based on physicist Brian Greene’s best-selling book, “The Elegant Universe.”

Overall the PDC 2011-12 season exudes a strong potential  in presenting both the force and the artistry of the body in exciting ways. Love the arc of the 2011-12 season, ending with Lar. Welcome back!

The full listing: MOMIX, Byham, Sept. 16-17; Paul Taylor Dance Company, Byham, Oct. 22; Dance Works Rotterdam/ Andre Gingras, Byham, Feb. 18; Armitage Gone! Dance, Byham, Mar. 3; Jiri Kylian and Michael Schumacher, August Wilson Center, Apr. 6-7; Lar Lubovitch, Byham, Apr. 28. Subscription packages run from $109-217. Call 412-456-1390. Heidi Latsky Dance is  a Dance Council Special and will be performed as a separate event at the August Wilson Center – tickets only $17.

On Stage: A New “West Side Story”

May 20, 2011

It began with just a brief outburst, almost like a musical exclamation point, from the Benedum Center orchestra to immediately jump start “West Side Story” and its ’50’s interpretation of “Romeo and Juliet.”

But just like Jerome Robbins and company updated the Shakespearean tragedy from battling families in Verona to warring street gangs in New York City in 1957, director Arthur Laurents saw fit to tinker with Robbins’ masterpiece once more.

It is considered by some to be the best musical ever written, a taut and suspenseful blend of drama, music and dance, unlike anything that had come before and since. But times, they are a-changin’ and Mr. Laurents, the playwright who wrote the original Broadway script, thought that he could bring a few new twists to the production.

The major innovation was the inclusion of the Spanish language for the Sharks, so important in the face of today’s Latino diaspora, which has grown enough to make the United States virtually a dual language country.

It was a good concept — even in the New York revival, the production was bringing in Latino audiences, a new niche with great potential. However in this touring production, set to run through Sunday, the Spanish sections were actually trimmed. Even so, they still left a few holes in the story fabric for those who didn’t understand the language and even for those who knew the gist and even quotable lines of the story.

Yet this was a production that nonetheless crackled with defiant energy, in some ways even more than that Broadway version I saw last summer. And it did justice to the iconic movie, mostly directed by Mr. Robbins himself, which set an unparalleled standard in 1961 and remains one of the top film classics ever.

The Benedum Center orchestra perfectly captured the intoxicating rhythmic underpinnings of Leonard Bernstein’s score and contributed mightily to the mounting tensions on stage. Support vocals were strong in general, particularly in the interchanging perspectives of the “Tonight Quintet.” But the romantic leads occasionally faded in and out in the pivotal duets between Maria and Tony, drawing attention to the inherent difficulties in the music.

This “West Side Story” was, however, visually arresting, primarily due to the choreography, which Joey McKneeley infused with Robbins’ spirit. That gave it an immediacy, even though it harnessed a style that has changed considerably in the ensuing years. Highlights included the opening sequence, which seemed to cover so much territory, as well as the dances at the gym, smoothly transitioning from a competitive mambo to a simple love duet (remember those soft snaps?) and back again. And the much-touted restoration of the Dream Ballet gave a balance to the second act, a brief moment of respite before launching into the final dramatic moments.

It appeared that Mr. McKneeley did not change much. Only the staging of “Officer Krupke” looked out of place, more like an over-the-top “Ace Ventura” than “West Side Story.”

But the rest looked like it belonged, a terrific effort by a young cast who never had the opportunity to observe the ’50’s — before computer and cell phone, when alienation had a whole other meaning.

On Stage: DWTS – Trimming it to Three

May 19, 2011

There was more drama than dance on “Dancing With the Stars” this week. The lead story was Kym Johnson’s injury during rehearsal, resulting in a strained vertebrae in her neck. It was the most serious problem yet in a program that pushes celebrities in ways to which they’re not accustomed.

But that wasn’t the only bit of theater. As it turned out, the footage of the celebrities’ biography proved more compelling than the dances. I mean it, really — Kansas-born Kirstie’s cocaine addiction and Hines growing up biracial (plus the whole Steeler organization was available for commentary, from Art Rooney, Jr. to Mike Tomlin, Jerome Bettis, Troy Polamalu and Hines’ mom, of course). Even Ralph, who grew up in a more American Pie lifestyle, and Chelsea, who pushed a shyster agent aside and went after her dream, had some nifty footage.

But this season has been more about personalities than paso dobles. Even throwing technique to the wind — no one here is as dominant or as technically formidable as Olympic figure skating gold medalist  Kristi Yamaguchi or “ Dirty Dancing’s”Jennifer Grey — audiences have responded mightily and ABC’s ratings have been dominating the other network competition.

So who gave the go-ahead for more Instant Dances? Okay, maybe Brandy was eliminated way too early and this would be a way to keep stronger dancers around for the finale — and make it a little more competitive.

The couples had to learn a third dance, then the two winners of that head-to-head competition (Chelsea and Hines) had a commercial break to put together the final cha-cha. The result? I think the prepared routines were watered down to accommodate the extra dances. And as soon as we heard the rules, I knew that Chelsea and Mark would be the couple to capture the 15-point bonus bump. Leading up to that, here is the way I called the action:

Ralph Macchio and Karina Smirnoff. Ralph drew the tango and the salsa. I thought the tango had a lazy start and after that he pretty much stood by while Karina slashed and sliced and twirled around him (25). As for the salsa, why did Karina suggest that he wear bootie pants to enhance his hip action? And why did Ralph agree? And why did they film that exchange? It didn’t help (23). Total: 48.

Kirstie Alley and Maks Chmerkovskiiy. Their waltz was quite lovely, but not memorable (27) and the paso doble meandered, a repetitious dance that included a lot of straightforward walking (27). Total: 54.

Chelsea Kane and Mark Ballas. The tango was oddly innocent, with softly flickering feet, but the judges awarded them 28. And Chelsea acted her way through the rumba in place of a sensual body action, but her execution gave her that perfect 30.

Hines Ward and Kym Johnson. With the injury still looming over them, Hines was extraordinarily protective of his partner, which elevated their impact in the tango and produced tears all around, netting them a 30. Their salsa was both hot and cool at the same time, and again, no one has his hip action in the Latin dances. They rode an emotional wave for another 30. Total: 60!

As it turned out, Kirstie and Ralph were on the chopping block and the Karate Kid threw his last dance punch.

Dance Beat: Yolanda, DC, Luke, Salsita!

May 18, 2011

martha profileA PIONEER. Yolanda Marino recently passed away. A longtime supporter of the arts, most of the information in her obituary dealt with her work at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre. But I knew Yolanda as the first executive director of the Pittsburgh Dance Council. I can still recall her worrying about attracting Pittsburgh audiences to the fledgling organization. At one point early on, the Martha Graham company was appearing at Heinz Hall for the second time. One performance was sold out, the other half full. Yolanda fretted over that, but no less than Martha reassured her. The company only sold half a house the first time, Martha pointed out, so this time the audiences had tripled in size. Thanks for your efforts, Yolanda, in jump starting dance in Pittsburgh!

DANCING CLASSROOMS. The big moment has arrived, when Pittsburgh Public Schools will compete in their first ever finale at Soldiers and Sailors Auditorium this Saturday (10 a.m. – noon, free admission). And I just got news that the National Endowment for the Arts has awarded sponsor Mercy Behavioral Health a grant of $24,000 to expand the program even more next year. Enjoy some photos by Archie Carpenter from the most recent semifinals at Allerdice High School.

LUKE MURPHY. Luke, a graduate of Point Park University, has participated in all three editions of newMoves Contemporary Dance Festival. This year he flew in from New York, where he has been working with Martha Clarke, Punchdrunk Theatre on its critically-acclaimed “Sleep No More” some projects in his homeland of Ireland. But in talking with Luke at the Grey Box Theatre prior to his performance, he had some extra news, that he will presenting work at the cutting edge Lamama Moves Festival this spring in New York.

SALSITA! Attack Theatre’s Michele de la Reza gives us the skinny on “Salsita!,” a benefit for the La Escuelita Arcoiris school in Squirrel Hill. They’re bringing in Noel Quinatana’s acclaimed salsa band from Cleveland. Add to that handmade tapas, artisan drinks, a salsa cook-off, the Loco Photo Booth, a silent auction and, of course, salsa lessons for all of you Hines Ward fans! Sounds like fun — with an Attack Theatre touch at Pittsburgh Opera, 2425 Liberty Ave. in the Strip District, 7 p.m. to 1 a.m. Tickets: $35 (online), $45 at the door, $75 VIP. or 412-421-4787.