On Stage: A New Dance Community Evolve-ing

August 31, 2011

Photos by Bill Shirley

Sarah Parker likes to pack her dance into bundles. This summer she not only engineered a weeklong summer intensive at the New Hazlett Theater, but also tacked on something called “THE BOOM,” event that brought together area companies.

The bubbly choreographer is into community, gathering emerging dance talent in Pittsburgh together. As for the intensive, the performance showcase was called “4-3-2-1 — From BROADWAY to the STREETS,” with an army of choreographers including Renee Danielle Smith, Shana Simmons, Maddy Landi, “Nine” (2003 revival) associate choreographer Gustavo Zajac, who happened to be in town at Point Park University, and, of course, Sarah, who turns out big production numbers at the snap of a finger.These students had no less than 15 numbers to remember, including Pearlann Porter’s nifty improv and Gabriel Ash’s popular hip-hop creations.

The next night at “THE BOOM” featured a number of young dance professionals, coming together to show the intensive students how it’s done. Among those companies represented, the oldest was Bodiography, with Chelsea Shott holding the fort .

Pearlann’s Pillow Project was next, having been founded in 2004. It was represented by Taylor Knight, who gave the event an intriguing start in “Luminography,” a sort of duet with “luminographer” Mike Cooper. So Taylor initiated the movement, with images resembling a discus thrower or a stylized hip hop artist. Then Mike took over so taht the screen behind Taylor became one of those flip books, where a figure seems animated. Crucial to the success of the process was Taylor’s choice of movement, interesting enough to be repeated, sculptural enough so as not to blur the screen.

On the whole it was a strong program, composed mostly of a new tier of companies that have cropped up recently and demonstrating that they are worthy of attention. August Wilson Center’s James Washington was a lyrical miracle in Antonio Brown’s “Solo” and Staycee Pearl showed that she was onto something new and different and exciting, coming deep from her African American heritage, in an untitled duet for Renee and Seth Grier.

Renee cropped up along with partner Jamie Erin Murphy in several pieces — the two have recently started the newest kid on the dance block, Much More Than Bones. And it was good to see something by Maddi, in collaboration with performer Katarina Danks in “Life Cycle,” an insectile solo somewhat inspired by Cirque du Soleil.

I also had my first acquaintance with Poof!, another new company and one that promotes social change through art, in a quirky little number, “Lucille and Eddie,” choreographed by Annalee Traylor and performed with Raymond Ejiofor.

Filling out the bill were Gabriel’s K.G Dynasty, Sarah’s Continuum Dance Theater and Fluidity Dance Company, an ambitious group out of Altoona that is benefitting from its Pittsburgh connections.

All in all, it seems that a whole new tier of Pittsburgh dance, one where the companies interact frequently through workshops and performances, is taking shape. Under the leadership of Pearlann, Sarah and Bodiography’s Maria Caruso, these groups seem to forging their own community identity, something that can only expand an increasingly vibrant dance scene here in Pittsburgh.



On Stage: A Finale Weekend at Chautauqua

August 29, 2011

The Chautauqua dance season came to a close recently and was packed with activities. Of course, there was the final concert by North Carolina Dance Theatre with the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra, which you can find by clicking on The Chautauquan Daily.

That was a Saturday night event, but Friday afternoon found the Chautauqua School of Dance Choreographic Workshop in the rustic Carnahan-Jackson Dance Studios. Any dance program worth its salt these days incorporates some sort of foray into the process of making dances.

But this one was different, for the student choreographers were able to take advantage of Chautauqua’s fine summer music program and the talent that it yields. According to NCDT artistic director Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux, the choreographers handle it all — searching out their musicians, deciding on the accompaniment, scheduling rehearsals and directing them.

The staff hands out various awards during the in-house performance (best technique, most improved dancer, etc.), but Jacob Casey took home the top choreographic honor for “Into Your Mind,” full of quirky images and with a classically-inspired score by Kellen Degnan, the cellist in his own String Quartet in E Major. Diana Peters captured second prize with the energetic and ambitious “Threaded.”

On Sunday there was the Chautauqua Dance Student Gala, a matinee that showcased teenaged ballet talents and was held in the Amphitheater. The main focus was George Balanchine’s “Donizetti Variations,” beautifully staged, as always, by master teacher Patricia McBride.

Originally called “Variations from ‘Don Sebastian,’” this is a piece that I don’t think I’ve seen before. It is not one of Mr. B’s masterworks, but it still shows the hand of a master.

Light hearted and chock full of technical hurdles, the young cast went for it all with an elegant gusto, led by a confident Laine Habony, only 14, and 17 year-old Philip Martin-Nielson, expertly etching minute details in his variation, both from School of American Ballet.

All student levels had a chance. For the younger dancers, there was the venerable Maris Battaglia, who gave them a whole range of works. A pink-and-white confection of a “Cinderella.” A Bach number (shades of “Concerto Barocco”) where even the tiny ones showed the spark that Chautauqua seems to bring. “Shostakovich by Rostrapovich” which was inspired mostly by “Rubies” with a little “Prodigal Son” thrown in for good measure. And “Dance for Seven,” a little Strauss piece where the dancers could display new partnering moves. All in all, Maris is a real asset to the program.

But she wasn’t the whole story. Guest teacher Michael Vernon created “Place Montmartre.” Can you say Gene Kelly’s “American in Paris?” This had all the bustle and charm of that film ballet (although the music came from the delightful Shostakovich ballet suites), from schoolgirls skittering about in plaid skirts to a Kelly-esque policeman. Aside from an abrupt ending, this was a real winner.

Modern dance choreographer Jon Lehrer, so imaginative, didn’t move the ballet students too far out of their comfort zone  and Rachael Humphrey gave them exposure to hip hop, the first time it has been included on the Gala program.

Of course there were a few solos, including the elegant Isabella LaFreniere in “Black Swan” and Austin Carter in a specially-designed piece by Jean-Pierre called — what else — “For Austin.”

That’s something to cherish, a piece named for you. Yes, they care that much about their students here…




On Stage: The Chicago (Joffrey) Cleveland (Orchestra) Connection

August 27, 2011

The Blossom Music Center is a great venue and within easy striking distance of Pittsburgh. Most of the time it is just that, a showplace for all kinds of music and primarily the Cleveland Orchcstra. But once a year the CO joins forces with Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet, which was a match made in heaven this year. Read about it in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.







On Stage: “THE PHOENIX” Rises.

August 25, 2011

Women are rewriting the book when it comes to dance. Just a couple of decades ago they devoted themselves to the art form early on and quit when they became pregnant. Now we know, with the likes of independent artists like Gwen Hunter Ritchie, who has three children and Jennifer Keller, with two, plus Pittsburgh Ballet Erin Halloran and her two boys — oh, the list can go on — that you can have your children mid-career and virtually dance right through.

But you still might say that H2O Contemporary Dance Company did it backwards, electing to concentrate on their families while modifying their dance careers. When they collect this weekend at Point Park University’s George Rowland White Performance Studio in a program so suitably called “THE PHOENIX,” there will be nine dancers, with five of the core members having given birth, some on their second or third, since January.

For over 10 years they have been quietly building not only their families, but their reputations in the South Hills. The three founders met as freshmen in the dance department at Point Park University. Danielle Pavlik was, by her own account, “rough around the edges” when she came.

“I was a major black sheep,” the Long Island native admits. “And Leslie [Davenport] and Mariah [McLeod] wanted to do their own thing. But by watching them in class, hearing their questions, I knew I wanted to know them.” So one day she showed up on Mariah’s doorstep in Shadyside with a pizza.

The door never shut.

By the time they were seniors, they were fast friends (and Danielle ended up a savvy president of the Dance Club).

At first they wanted a company and began H2O. But during the outreach programs, they noticed that dance students weren’t getting the right kind of education, the kind that would get them into college, the kind that would get them a job.

They wanted to fill the gap. So Danielle and Mariah started Dance Conservatory of Pittsburgh to develop young artists, while Leslie began pursuing a Pilates certificate and later formed the Pilates Center of Pittsburgh.

The duo formed an apprenticeship program for about 70 students from area schools, who would leave early to not only study dance, but learn about media solutions such as press releases and computer design and look behind the scenes with professionals such as lighting expert Bob Steineck. Danielle asserts that “our goal is to make dancers, whether they go on to dance or become arts patrons.”

DCP became a place for people to learn and grow and create. “It was the smartest thing for us to do to establish who we were,” Danielle continues. The school eventually was able to function for periods long enough without them that they could expand their teaching back to Point Park, thus coming full circle in their relationship. Both Danielle (contemporary dance) and Mariah (tap and jazz) became adjunct faculty. Leslie now runs the Pilates program at PPU.

There’s a welcome tolerance and acceptance of family back at DCP, which has become both a hub and a home. “If you were born a dancer, you’re not your best person unless you are dancing,” says Danielle. Mariah adds, “You have to take care of the soul.”

So they did it their way and now they’re ready to give back. H2O never went away (the women regularly met for class and prepared for those periodic performances).

Danielle and Mariah had formed a long-term artistic partnership based on their strengths and balances. Danielle would throw down choreographic phrases so naturally, but might have trouble remembering what she had just created. Mariah, on the other hand, had immediate and total recall. “I can remember what I did when I was ten,” exclaims Mariah. “I know Danielle’s style — I can almost anticipate what she’s going to do next.”

They can also burst out laughing simultaneously over nothing. People say they “share one brain,”  a choreographic version of yin and yang.

And now is the time for them to emerge in “THE PHOENIX,” which will depict women in various stages of life. PJ Roduta will provide an original score.

Perhaps it will lead to a new phase. “You have to lead by example, especially when you’re a parent,” says Danielle. If you want to show your children that anything is possible, then you have to show them that anything IS possible.”

For more information on ‘THE PHOENIX,” click on Listings.






Off Stage: No Alloy for Now

August 23, 2011

It’s a shame that Dance Alloy Theater member Gretchen Moore had to be the one to post a DAT update on her Facebook page. As she wrote, “The merger with Kelly-Strayhorn Theater is complete & DAT is turning into a pick-up company. No money due to our managing director not applying for any grants. Without the K-S we would no longer exist. Basically I lost my income, but I will be performing with & serving as a rehearsal director for AWCDE (August Wilson Center Dance Ensemble) & doing side work for DAT/K-S. K-S is excited about the merger & is looking forward to utilizing DAT’s studios.”

I don’t think anyone denies that this merger has wonderful possibilities for both groups, but it has been handled badly from a community standpoint. To allow Pittsburgh’s oldest modern dance company essentially to vaporize without any explanation is a disservice to its audiences, supporters and, in particular, the dancers: Jasmine Hearn, Raymond Interior, Maribeth Maxa, Michael Walsh and Gretchen.

So folks, apparently there will be no fall season (and possibly more) for the venerable DAT. In the meantime, the Kelly-Strayhorn is managing the Alloy school and has issued the following statement: “The Kelly-Strayhorn Theater and Dance Alloy have formed a partnership. Both boards have approved a merger resolution that they’re in final discussions.”

This seems to be a step further than I noted on my May 24 post on CrossCurrents where they had formed a “negotiation committee.” But in light of the oncoming season, the committee could have provided some indication as to whether the company could possibly continue. And if it does come back, will “pick-up” mean no salary or medical care?

There is one thing for sure. We will be deprived of five dancers who had formed a tight artistic connection in a very short time.

Definitely this Off Stage article means “off stage.”



On Stage: New soloists and dancers prepare for PBT’s Hartwood

August 17, 2011

Photos by Rich Sofranko

I can’t remember a year when Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre kept virtually all of its dancers as it will going into the 2011-12 season. Turnover is to be expected in any company and PBT has had times when it replaced up to 13 dancers, almost half the ensemble.

Not this year — only corps member Alison Kappes was forced to retire with a knee problem. Although artistic director Terrence Orr will not replace her, he will promote two dancers, the long, lithe Elysa Hotchkiss and the long overdue Luca Sbrizzi, to soloist positions.

For those who feed on all the new faces at PBT, there will be three apprentices, Olivia Kelly from PBT’s grad school, Cooper Verona from Houston Ballet School and Raffaele Zarrella from Princess Grace Academy in Monte Carlo.

Although Raffaele hasn’t arrived yet — he is experiencing problems with his visa — the other four sat down to talk about their new paths with the company.

It’s been a great couple of years for Elysa, who felt that her burgeoning confidence  played a part in her promotion, although her artistic director once remarked that she “feels things more than most dancers.”

Maybe her personal life played a part, too — she married Rob Walls last summer. (He surprised her with a ring after a “Nutcracker” performance, complete with company members and choreography.)

Noted for her airy jump as well, the Erie native hopes “to continue to grow, both emotionally and physically.” And instead of trying to fit in with the other members of the corps, she can display more of her own individuality.

To her that means “freedom,” a word that punctuates the conversation more than once.

In her first season as a soloist, she’s looking forward to “Coppelia” rehearsals. But Elysa also can’t wait for more of Dwight Rhoden, who will be staging another PBT premiere this year, noting that, yes, “I love his freedom.”

Luca, on the other hand, vows that “nothing will change — neither my work ethic nor my passion for dance!” The word “passion” peppers his answers.

But, after all, he is Italian and it frequently shows. Born in Udine, a small town outside Venice, he started ballet with his sister at age 8. He admits that he almost quit at age 15, but was talked out of it by a favorite teacher, who brought back the passion.

As it so happened Mikko Nissinen, artistic director of the Boston Ballet, was a friend of the teacher. He saw Luca at 17 and offered him a scholarship. So young ballet dancer hopped an airplane for America, although he didn’t speak English.

Luca spent two years in the school and another two in Boston Ballet’s second company, but ultimately decided that “the atmosphere there wasn’t for me.” He auditioned at several other companies before deciding on PBT. “I felt at home here,” he explains (passionately). “I just love Pittsburgh!”

So does apprentice Cooper Verona, although he hasn’t developed the total connection with the Steel City yet. It’s a lot like home, though. A native of Rockville, Connecticut, he headed south to North Carolina School of the Arts for his junior and senior year of high school, then to the Houston Ballet Academy last year.

However he called Houston “foreign,” ultimately deciding that he liked the four seasons. Besides, his bike got stolen there. Cooper actually applied for PBT’s grad school, but with his height and great proportions, was accepted as an apprentice. A Pittsburgh friend of his parents replaced the stolen bike with a “new used” one upon his arrival here. Now Cooper looks forward to tackling Pittsburgh’s hills.

It took him a while to accept ballet though. Cooper started out in tap, attracted by a Sesame Street episode in first grade that featured superstar Savion Glover (“about alphabets or something”). But the ballet teacher at the studio “kind of stole” him. Also a sports enthusiast (soccer, baseball, basketball, golfing, Frisbee), he “kind of did everything” through the eighth grade.

Ballet won out, because it “seemed like it was a pure thing to do.”  (And also at the urging of his teacher.)

Olivia enjoys purity as well. Some may remember her lovely, nuanced “Giselle” at the PBT School performances this past spring.

Born in St. Louis, she grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio and studied at Ballet Tech. But by age 13, she was comfortably ensconced in the Kirov Academy in Washington, D.C. “I had a blast,” she said. “You get to live in a dorm with all your friends — what could go wrong?”

Upon graduation after five years of training, she was accepted into the grad school here and was asked to stay an extra year. It paid off.

But Olivia might have to put her many interests on hold. Like travel — she’s been to Vienna, Budapest, the Caribbean and China, where her family lived in Shanghai. And scrapbooking. And designing mini-cupcakes.

Maybe that will pay off as well. After all, ballet mistress Marianna Tcherkassky was noted for her “Giselle” at American Ballet Theatre.

On Stage: Remix 2 – A Cultured Pearlann

August 13, 2011

In nearly 40 years of dance writing, I’ve done interviews with artists in varied, but expected locales — at home, in the office or hotel, in an airport. But never waiting for a bus, which Pearlann Porter, a life-long bus rider, does all the time.

This time the environmentally-minded Pearlann Porter was on her way to the Father Ryan Center in McKees Rocks where she was teaching a collection of  students.

The interview would be a good way to pass the time on the bus while in transit.

And for this concert, Pearlann was passing the artistic reins over to her dancers. So everyone in the Pillow Project is directing their own work and Pearlann is “directing them to direct. They all have these ideas on the back burners,” she explains. (All but Kaylin Horgan, who has been choreographing all along.) “We all come from the same feeling, same method and same philosophy about jazz. The ideas are fresh though, because they have a different perspective than I do.”

It turns out that everyone in the company is doing multiple things. PJ Roduta, mostly known for his percussion treatments, also embraces dance. And improv prince Taylor Knight is quite the digital musician. Pearlann notes, “Now we’re able to do totally original work inhouse.”

She continues, “It’s so cohesive because  it makes us have more consideration. We’re always so excited about what we’re doing; we’re always so impassioned about what we’re doing. When you work with all these other mediums, it makes everyone pause, be more patient and wait for for them to grow. It’s stretching us in a very profound way.”

Pearlann always thought that she would have a “regular” company, one that would dance for her, be “her” dancers. “It doesn’t feel like that at all,” she remarks. “It feels like I’m dancing with them, even when I’m creating work. It’s with them, not for me.”

It comes down to trust. “There are these little worries in the back of your head if you’re a choreographer,” she says. “Is it good enough?”  “Do I really want to do this?”  But suddenly she doesn’t  have any of that because she has learned to trust herself and, by extension, her dancers.

So she doesn’t have to know everything about their work, which will include Taylor’s piece about “nothingness,” Kaylin’s initial thoughts on a full-length installation and Brent Luebber’s take on a photo of himself.  “I know where it’s coming from,” Pearlann begins. “I know the idea. I know it’s directed. But ultimately what they’re doing is as spontaneous for them as it is for me.”

It comes down to a sense of freedom — of assembly, choice and, most of all, expression. That goes for Pearlann as well. She will present “(   ),” which represents being in contact with a person physically, but not emotionally. Then she’ll produce an encore of “In Transit,” done with Dance Alloy’s Michael Walsh, where two people are in transit, with no idea where. It’s unlike her bus ride, which has arrived at her destination.

End interview.