On Stage: A Brave New Interactive World

June 22, 2011

It might be the beginning of a wonderful friendship. Wood Street Galleries, so perfectly situated on a triangle of its own bordered by Liberty Avenue, Seventh Street and, of course, Wood Street is always looking to expand in other ways, mostly artistic.

The building, located above the T station, houses two floors of non-profit offices at the top and two floors art galleries below it. It beautifully acknowledges that art comes in many forms and WSG has produced some of the city’s edgiest installations.

Enter Gia Cacalano.

Curator Murray Horne had been a supporter of Gia’s improvisational work for “seven or eight years” and had presented her at the space before. But when Bill Vorn’s “Hysterical Machines” exhibit came to town, he saw a real opportunity for these “machines” to interact with Gia and friends.

Because that’s what they do.

According to Murray, these robots “respond to our interactivity as ‘state of mind.’ In questioning our relations, connections or fantasies concerning robots, we may end up imagining what the robot is feeling about us.”

There were two separate installations, “Red Light” and “Hysterical Machines,” but Gia chose the latter, located on the third floor, for Gia T. presents, because the sound score and longer, thinner robots were “more subtle.”

Oddly enough, Gia just got her first computer. So the whole process, performed last Friday just before the installations closed, became “surreal. There’s a primitive aspect as well as advanced technology — that was very attractive to me,” she explained.

She loved the electronika and bright white lights, three grids that seemed to randomly blink at the audience in different formations. There were a collection of “arms” hanging from the center of the room, almost like those of a stark metallic octopus. They coiled about, sometimes in strict formation, other times acting individually with a gun-powered jerk.

Gia says she was, given her simultaneous introduction to her computer and the robots, “thrust into this world. It raises a lot of questions about how we function daily.” On the other hand, she is generally attracted to opposites that have “a thin line dividing them.”

So it all had a surreal quality for her, balancing between the technology and the primitive DNA that she contends still lies within us.

The performance was composed of four performers, David Bernabo, computer, Jordan Hill, brass, Beth Ratas, dancer, and Gia. There was a pre-performance by the grids, almost blindingly white. Then Gia entered to a periodic musical thump, sort of checking out the space at all levels.

She and Beth, dressed in hoodies, tutus and urban shoes, would creep low to the ground, almost amphibian-like, and jab their legs into the sky in arabesque. Particularly enjoyable was their use of vaguely robotic, angular movements, reminiscent of “Coppelia” dolls. But mostly there was a sense of wonderment at their surroundings.

Midway through the improvisation, the robots suddenly came on in unison. The interaction was on full force, mostly conducted by the dancers, who peered underneath and circled around the robotic tentacles. They looked, but didn’t touch. However the dancers who had several compelling interactions and a couple of urgent solos. And although the signature moves became repetitive near the end, the whole interaction had a mystical quality.

You could tell this was the start of something bigger. Evidently Wood Street and Gia T. presents have entered into a casual partnership where she will continue to interact with exhibits on a biannual (or possibly more) basis. (September is next.)

As Gia puts it, “I’m open to the openness, I guess you can say.”





Dance Beat: KST, Pillow Project, Pride, Dancing Classrooms

June 16, 2011

The freedom of movement was everywhere you looked last weekend — it was hard to believe we were in the throes of summer, when dance usually starts to come to a halt. But then, that’s been the way with this past season, packed with performances, many overlapping. I don’t believe we’ve ever had a busier schedule here in Pittsburgh. Here’s hoping it continues next season…

FULL BLOOM. The Kelly-Strayhorn Theater set its summer season off on the right foot, so to speak, with a spirited dance party. I caught part of the VIP party on stage, with Janera Solomon leading things and dance community members like Attack Theater’s Michele de la Reza, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s Harris Ferris and Dance Alloy Theater board member Mark Taylor. Although I missed Staycee Pearl’s dance project, the company will have a full-fledged performance in August, along with  Bodiography’s Maria Caruso, plus Columbus, Ohio’s Baker & Tarpaga Project and in July. Dance on!

THE PILLOW PROJECT. Next was a sort-of encore of Pearlann Porter’s “A Pale Blue Jazz,” which had its premiere at the Dance Alloy Theater in April. However, I caught the Sunday afternoon performance there, where the piece, all about star-gazing and pondering the universe via people like Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking, had to be altered with music improvisations where performers were planted among the audience members. Last Saturday Pearlann’s own improv dancers put another accent on the piece. Because it was evening, I saw Mike Cooper’s starry-eyed projections (a multitude of pale blue dots) that gave this dance meditation a wondrous feel. Unfortunately the afternoon temperatures marinated in the Space Upstairs, putting an air blanket over the nighttime activities, giving the slow, probing music and dance a sense of lethargy. PJ Roduta and Charles Hall had an energizing jam session beforehand, culminating in a finale where Charles passed out a passel of rhythm instruments and had everyone join in (shades of DAT). It was still good to note that, while numerous small dance organizations have different ways of engaging their audiences, the Pillow has built its own ardent and seemingly solid following.

PITTSBURGH PRIDE. The next afternoon I paid a quick visit to the street celebration that is Pittsburgh Pride and saw Jasmine Hearn and Beth Ratas in a casual, intertwining duet that tickled the crowd. Then the signature rolling chords of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 rang out and I knew more dance was at hand, this time Michael Walsh, topless in a long blue tutu, and a female partner, not topless, who I couldn’t make out. The dance was apparently about self-centered satisfaction, although it oddly ignored the excesses in the music. But then, there was plenty of that to go around in the Pride’s signature atmosphere.

DANCING CLASSROOMS. Following the Pride,  it was over to the Westin Convention Center for Mad Hot Ballroom Pittsburgh, a benefit for the local Dancing Classrooms program in the Pittsburgh public schools that included a buffet dinner, a silent auction, a performance by the year’s winners, Pittsburgh Linden elementary school, and a contest between adult amateur dancers. Emcee extraordinaire Pierre Dulaine had energy to spare, impressing all, and took time to visit runners-up, Pittsburgh Carmalt. He also left a message for everyone at Dancing Classrooms Pittsburgh.

On Stage: In the Spirit of Orpheus

June 10, 2011

I ascended into the underworld, transfixed by a petrified forest of marble obelisks stabbing the sky. Strangely enough, there were boy scouts guiding the way.

Actually this underworld was located in Allegheny Cemetery in Lawrenceville. I was there to see Orpheus guide his love, Euridice, out of a poetic hell in Opera Theater of Pittsburgh’s masterful collaboration with Attack Theatre, Ricky Ian Gordon’s “Euridice & Orpheus.”

So yes, I left the continuous bustle of Butler street and, after receiving my ticket, was immersed in the historic grandeur of this Pittsburgh landmark, full of mausoleums, grave markers, those sky-scraping obelisks and a canopy of ancient trees.

You do have to drive up a hill and find a parking place beside a tranquil lake, director Jonathan Eaton’s exquisite setting for his interpretation of Mr. Gordon’s song cycle.

A fairly large crowd had gathered round, despite dire storm warnings, and the performance turned into a perfect way to experience the close of day.

But first there was a prelude, Franz Schubert’s “Shepherd on a Rock,” where the clarinetist, John Culver, actually stood on a rock outcropping, giving the piece a whole new perspective. Across the water stood soprano Leah Dyer, and on the far shore was keyboardist Robert Frankenberry.

That made for a musical situation that was both intimate but aurally challenging, given the performers distance apart from each other. Yet they had a wonderful sense freedom  in this jewel of a chamber music work, steeped in the pastoral nature that made it a wonderful fit for this occasion.

Schubert’s “Shepherd” was organically connected to “Euridice & Orpheus” by the sense of longing and a wonderful sense of melodic line. Of course, Mr. Gordon’s work is better known as “Orpheus & Euridice,” but the title was altered, with permission of the composer, because OTP had presented the Gluck original earlier in the season.

This production was an intensely personal interpretation inspired by Mr. Gordon’s life experience with a partner who was dying of AIDS. He had been commissioned by clarinetist Todd Palmer and altered, not so much the story of Orpheus’ love for Euridice, but the emphasis. There was more of a life together before the heroine died of a virus. Still Orpheus followed her to the underworld to rescue her, but was bound by rules that he was not to gaze upon her face. He was unable to comply and lost her forever. The production won New York’s OBIE award in 2006.

Actually there was only one voice, that of Laura Knoop Very, who emoted the story virtually in its entirety. The role of Orpheus’ music was shared by clarinetists Ricky Williams and Mr. Culver, although I didn’t quite get the gist of that decision. They were joined by a string quartet and Mr. Frankenberry, who also conducted.

Attack Theatre dancers Dane Toney (Orpheus), Liz Chang (Euridice) and Ashley Williams (Spirit) fleshed out the story.

This particular piece has been staged in recital and in a swimming pool. I can’t imagine that there would be a better spot than this for the classic Greek myth. The characters magically appeared from behind tombstones or bushes and disappeared behind a natural dip in the landscape (Euridices’ death was particularly compelling).

It was all about staging — not necessarily dance or music as individual components — and in this respect, it was complete. Attack Theatre’s Peter Kope and Michele de la Reza were unusually restrained with the movement, keeping it attuned to the composer’s intent, but incorporating Grecian sculpture and yes the “spirit” of the Allegheny.

There were a few niggling details — much of the story took place on the far side of the lake and there were a few acoustic problems and one fire misfire on opening night. But there were so many more of the mystical variety.

How Ms. Williams flitted around the lake and casually leaned against a tombstone for a time. How the clarinetists physically engaged in the story. The attentiveness of the musicians at large. And how the surroundings became a part of the artistic fabric — ducks who, well, ducked into an adjacent pond during Mr. Williams’ entrance, another pair of feathered friends who seemed to provide a counterpoint to the story in the main lake, singing cemetery birds, a distant train.

This was an evening to reflect, enjoy and embrace art in an uncommonly artistic setting.   Take the time to visit.

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On Stage: The Cuban Way

June 10, 2011

Photo by Nancy Reyes

Pittsburgh has had a strong link with the Cuban style of ballet. I first encountered it when visiting Point Park University in the ’90’s, where Roberto Munoz had established International Summer Dance. There he assembled a faculty led by Laura Alonso, daughter of Alicia Alonso, founder of the Ballet Nacional de Cuba. Roberto’s respect for her was apparent and she undoubtedly affected his teaching, helping to produce students like April Ball (principal, Boston Ballet and Les Ballets de Monte Carlo), Simon Ball (principal, Boston Ballet and Houston Ballet), Stephen Hanna (principal, New York City Ballet) and Lauri Stallings (Cleveland San Jose Ballet, Ballet British Columbia, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago and renowned contemporary dancemaker). The effects of the Cuban methods have filtered down to many dancers in the Pittsburgh area over the years. So it was with great anticipation that I saw the original company at Kennedy Center. Read about it in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Also some clips of Alicia Alonso in the famous entrechat quatre section of “Giselle” progressing from 1963 to 1993, when she was 73 years old.






On Stage: PBTS Blooms in May

June 2, 2011

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School has been in full bloom during the month of May, first with a series of four performances at Point Park University’s George Roland White Performance Studio (May 13-15), featuring the graduate and advanced students. Then some of those numbers were repeated at the Byham Theater May 27, leaving rample room, though, for all the dancers down to the too-cute-for-words Level I.

PBTS is making a serious bid to be, well, taken seriously. With the opening of the Byham House this year, which houses advanced high school students, the school will be able to attract a higher level of talent. But the students’ goals overall, visibly raising the bar from year to year, will be the determining factor down the road.

With a caring, yet demanding faculty, the school performances gave the students the opportunity to take their classroom studies to the next level. Not only were the students once again much improved, but the performances had a wonderful balance.

The major production for the grads was “Paquita,” a pseudo-Spanish, highly classical ballet that offered plenty of opportunities with 6 solo variations and a grand pas de deux, plus romping choreography for the womens’ ensemble. (PBT even loaned them three chandeliers for added sparkle.) This group of dancers offered an ease of movement, born of a confidence from a solid technical foundation.

In addition, there was a sense of style and even a history to be found in the selections, staged by Marjorie Grundvig and Dennis Marshall after Petipa. The delicate “Giselle” (Anna Marie Holmes)and the exotic “Pas d’esclave” Pas de Deux, (Anna Marie Holmes/Pollyana Ribbeiro) had much detail to offer in the ethereal lightness and mysterious beauty of both casts that I saw. And Janet Popeleski concocted an exuberant collection of peasant dances from “Giselle,” with movements suggestive of the ballet, but tailored beautifully for her young charges.

Yet ballet dancers have to have a freedom of movement these days that will translate well to other styles. In that respect, Alan Obuzor is a real choreographic find. He designs organic moves where several phrases can airily intertwine and still keep the dancers interested and interesting. Not many young choreographers have the vision for a large (up to 21 here) group dance and still maintain a viable structure and connection to the music. Although the dancers were challenged by it all, they  looked beautiful in his two numbers, one a tango and the other a sweeping tribute to “The Color of Sound.”

Anastasia Wovchko swept through “The Four Seasons” for the childrens’ classes, filling the dances with evolving patterns. How did they even know where to go? Even the budding “Spring” dancers, so tiny, offered a bit of drama as the audience watched the May pole nearly tip over on several occasions.

But no worry — everyone got through in fine fashion, just in time to take the stage for her finale. Yes all of the participating students squeezed onto the Byham stage, bit by bit. But they didn’t look squeezed; they just looked happy…and deservedly so.