Dance Beat: Andrew, Daniel, Pearlann, Zafira and More…

September 22, 2011

ANDREW. Former Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre member Andrew Blight gave us the move and now he is starting the ballet. For those who don’t like lower case titles, that would be The Move and The Ballet. the move (you see my problem) brought us a premiere by Alonzo King and a North American premiere by Jean-Christophe Maillot. It seems that Andrew has similar ideas with his new company, harboring plans to bring a Ulysses Dove ballet for the inaugural production of the ballet. Despite the small lettering, Andrew likes to think big. To help get it all up and running, Andrew is sponsoring a screening of New Export: Opus Jazz, a famed 1958 ballet in sneakers by Jerome Robbins, lovingly recreated for film by members of the New York City Ballet. “the event” will take place Oct. 22 at the Melwood Screening Room. Tickets: $25, which includes popcorn and a drink and admission to an informal after-party with free wine and beer. Stay tuned for more information.

DANIEL. Our friend Daniel Ulbricht, New York City Ballet principal dancer who brought his “friends” here last year to an enthusiastic Pittsburghresponse, alerted me that he and his buddies are headed to Santa Fe, New Mexico this year. The program has that Pittsburgh flavor with Tarantella, Apollo (excerpt), Who Cares?, Diamonds Pas de Deux, Bournonville’s Flower Festival Pas de Deux and the iconic Ulbricht solo by Serve Gallardo. Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux and Christopher Wheeldon’s After the Rain add a new twist. Once again he has some of NYCB’s brightest dancing stars in Teresa Reichlen, Craig Hall, Sterling Hyltin and Jonathan Stafford, with new additions in Robert Fairchild, Rebecca Krohn, Ana Sofia Scheller and Lauren Lovette. Daniel will also conduct a free master class and two lecture demonstrations there. Lensic Theater, Oct. 27-28. Click on SantaFe Concerts for more information or Santa Fe Poster.

PEARLANN. Pearlann Porter always thinks ahead. Already she’s announcing a Postmodern-Jazz 5-Day Winter Intensive at the Space Upstairs, Wednesday Jan. 4 at 3 p.m. to Sunday, Jan. 8 at 11:30 p.m. As they say in the traditional jazz vernacular, dig those times! It’s for both the serious and casual performing artist, “focusing on The Pillow Project’s ‘non-fiction’ approach to dance bending towards an imperfect, recognizable physicality rather than a technical virtuosity or athleticism while meaningfully contributing to the music first and foremost.” Check it out on Facebook.

ZAFIRA. So we have some things beginning, but Zafira is bringing things to a close as we know it. Packed with guests (see Listings), the local belly dance company will wind things up at the Kelly Strayhorn Theater on Tuesday at 7:30. But don’t despair, Maria, Christine and Olivia will continue their sinuous ways in a solo format and will be around at Zafira Dance Studios.

MORE… Well, I guess that congrats are in order. CrossCurrents has registered over 100,000 hits in a little over two years and still climbing. Thank you!

On Stage: Mo’ Than Four Seasons

September 20, 2011

If you didn’t get to see Momix, the Pittsburgh Dance Council’s season opener, take a glance at the Youtube video, although the lunar delicacy of the production doesn’t quite come through. And then there’s always the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

On Stage: Sleep Dancing

September 19, 2011

There was a telling prelude to Pennsylvania Dance Theatre’s “por la blanda arena.” Choreographer Andre Koslowski walked out into the lobby of the Kelly Strayhorn Theater and laid down inside a human-sized crystal enclosure and went to “sleep” on a bed of rose petals.

It set the tone for the full production (we had seen a preview during KST’s newMoves Festival last spring) inside the theater, instigating a few questions. Would this performance have a dream-like state? Would it have a surreal flavor?

To me the answer was a resounding “yes” on both counts, for Andre likes to take disparate stories (all provided by his terrific collaborators) and use them to create a work. Usually it’s attached to the dark themes and dry humor found in the stylized images of German Expressionism.

Thus we had more of the afore-mentioned rose petals, a suspended paper sculpture that, with Scott Nelson’s proper lighting was transformed into a large sculptural rose at one point, a number of folding chairs and three movable screens, which also served as a palette for Vanessa Bricerio-Scherzer’s landscape video designs.

Oh, and dozens of white styrofoam mannequin heads.

Photos by John Altdorfer

Dressed in Naoko Nagata’s sadly sophisticated black dresses, Jennifer Keller, Tina Konrath, Sheila McKenna and Jil Stifel rounded out the cast. Each had a signature solo that embedded itself at the back of our brains.

The usually soft-spoken Jennifer scurried onto the stage with one of those heads nestled in a scarf wrapped around her neck, looked at the audience and snarled, “Wha-a-at?”  “She didn’t seem surprised at all,” intoned Sheila as she notably added increasingly apparent alcoholic slurs to her repetitive speech. Tina claimed a jiggly walk and Jil (so good to see her back on the stage) captured a soft sense of Spanish duende in a lyrical, deeply emotional solo.

As for Andre, he yelled, “This is my house.”

There was more to this The group morosely listed unwanted body parts — short, fine hair, long nose, fat. Wet Kleenex played a part near the end.

Yet the primary choreographic blocks, all seemingly jagged little pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, became utterly seamless for most of this oddly whimsical dream, although it meandered a bit near the end.

But during sleep, uncommonly heightened images also meander through the brain, yet reflect life in vivid colors and improbable images. After the KST newMoves preview, “por la blanda arena” (which, by the way, translates as “by the soft sand”) emerged us a memorable piece of dance theater and perhaps Andre’s finest. With all the dire social, political and economic environment currently surrounding us, this piece had some great moments, mainly teaching us to laugh at life’s absurdities.

I think I’ll find a beach.


On Stage: Moses Supposes

September 16, 2011

Photo by Don Perdue

Pilobolus literally turned dance on its ear when four Dartmouth grads put their own spin on what they saw as movement. You understand why when you talk with Moses Pendleton, one of the original Fab Four who went on to found his own company, Momix. His imaginative nature study, “Botanica,” bounds and creeps and crawls its blooming way into town this weekend via the Pittsburgh Dance Council at the Byham Theater. (See Listings.)

I talked with him on the phone from his shabby chic (peeling paint and all) 1890’s Victorian retreat in northwestern Connecticut, where he rehearses in the barn and runs his $2 to 3 million company out of the basement. There he generously shed the light on all things Moses. But first, just for starters, he was born and raised on a dairy farm in northern Vermont and got a B.A. in English literature from Dartmouth, where he took his first dance class with three other guys. That turned into Pilobolus in 1971 and he transferred his unbounded talents to Momix in 1980, accompanied by his life partner Cynthia Quinn. Since then he has choreographed for the Paris Opera and the closing ceremonies of the Winter Olympics in Lake Placid. Also included in his wide circle are Arizona Ballet, the Romanian gymnastics team, Prince, the Montreal symphony, Julian Lennon and ballet superstar Diana Vishneva. He is also an avid photographer…particularly of sunflowers.

A simple question sends him off like a pinball machine, except he has the timing of a stand-up comedian. Part philosopher, part environmentalist, part run-on sentence. Follow along…if you can.

Photo by Moses Pendleton

THE NAME. Where did Momix come from? Well, like everything he invents, it could have been derived from multiple sources. It was originally a milk supplement from the Holstein-Friesian calves that he raised as a farm boy in Vermont, “so you’ve taken me off the farm, but you really haven’t taken the farm out of Momix,” he quips. Actually the supplement used to have two o’s, like Moomix. “It’s also kind of an alchemical idea about mixing and Moses Mix and whatever disparate objects we can find that we can drop into that retort and spin them. And maybe it’s a good mix and comes out a golden idea, but [that’s] not always the case. What it comes down to is the idea of mixing not just dance, but visual, physical theater, various kinds of principles that might be from athletics, fine art or sculpture, whatever it is. We try to put it in the mix, so that’s what it kind of means currently, I guess.” Some people have jokingly said that the name is really “Mom 9.”

THE CREATIVE PROCESS. “I just came from an icy lake in the remnants of Hurricane Lee. I’m the only human out there which is pleasant for me — I go out there to do my thinking. People say, ‘Where’s Moses?’ Well he’s gone to work in the lake. That’s why I have my own company. I’m the boss — I can go to the lake and work. It’s very good in terms of being able to move and breathe and have another gravity. I don’t get too many ideas sitting still — I have to keep moving, whether I’m walking in the woods — I rarely go without being wired, wired in the wilderness, an avant gardner.

CAREER. Moses says that his life was bounded by having to capitalize on accidents. For example, his father died when he was twelve and “all of a sudden the farming didn’t seem to work out.” A downhill skiing accident got him to take that fateful dance class at Dartmouth. “It’s a matter of going with the flow or going with the flower and taking advantage of those surprises that inevitably will happen to you.”

FLOWER POWER. With a mind as fleet as a shooting star, Moses stays grounded by “organizing tens of thousands of sunflowers in some very obvious symmetrical patterns. That kind of symmetry allows the chaotic mind to be massaged with enough to stay grounded. Otherwise I would be frolicking around in Alpha Centauri [the brightest star in the southern constellation of Centaurus] with no umbilical [cord] to get back, the difference I suppose between the artist and the mad man. There is a very slight difference, except the artist has that little cord that he feels he can come back. Otherwise he keeps going and part of what I need to do and am encouraged to do and am expected to do is to keep going out there — out, out, out.”

JOHN LENNON. “What keeps me grounded is coming back and seeing that very far out is in your own back yard. It’s all, as John Lennon said, just underneath your nose. When you think you’re doing some great kind of great art and other things are happening that are more profound if you could realize it (that’s a bad paraphrase).”

ODORIFIC. “It’s not just smelling the roses but letting the marigolds and sunflowers begin to talk to you and they will only begin to talk to you if you first introduce yourself and begin to talk to them. Then you begin to understand the language of flowers.” (Actually Moses is considered an expert on sunflowers.)

Photo by Max Pucciariello

GROUNDING. “The natural world grounds me. That’s sunlight and water and air — very simple, but profound elemental essential things for humans and me in particular. I will follow the sunrise and, like a sunflower, face the source throughout the day. On a cloudy day I will build a fire, light a candle or stare at a sunflower, which I’m doing right now — they’re the closest thing to the source that I know of. I worship them because they ground me and they allow me in my grounded state to take off. I give myself that discipline and restriction — just here in the back yard and the garden. That’s all you need to know. Just pay close attention to it with audio, with video, with pen in hand, that kind of thing. Some of this good enthusiasm, this energy, this kind of process of living will find itself reflected in the work that I’m associated with.”

THE SECRET. “The secret to everything is not to lose touch with whatever it is that excites you — whether it’s dreams and fantasy and foolishness and all this kind of thing.”

COMPANY REHEARSAL. “I’m like a catalyst, close to an Energizer Bunny when I go in there. My enthusiasm sometimes terrorizes them.”

“BOTANICA.” “It’s the Momix version of the four seasons. It starts with icy cold, dead winter, moves through the melting snows and the first buds of spring and midsummer nights’dreams and frenzies and a wild dance of the centaurs that leads to August storms and falling leaves and snow falling again to repeat the cycle.”

MORE FLOWER POWER. Yes, there’s a sunflower and marigold section — “you can’t miss them. You take a simple prop like a tutu and multiply by four on one girl — tutu times four. As the dance progresses, it starts on the top and they slowly move the petticoats or the marigolds down and it actually creates a different dance style as they are metamorphosing. And suddenly they are doing samba and then they go off on their marigold carpets.”

DANCE BALANCE. Given the large number of props, puppets by Michael Curry (“The Lion King”) and multiple costume changes, there is a danger that the dance can be suffocated. But Moses says, “There is quite a bit of dance in the show, so the dancers are happy. Their ballet barre is not in vain.”

CREATURE DANCE. “Certain pieces initially constrict or hold back. but if they’re smart and they figure out a way to survive, they can begin to take something that was restrictive and constrictive and dance your way out of it, you know, make a dance. Put on these corrugated sewer pipes and your arms look like you’re handcuffed and see if you can make a night crawler seem like it is as free as a bird. You may not be too free as a human. But as a worm, you’re covering space pretty nicely. Okay worms, let’s try that again [in rehearsal].”

TARGET AND HANES. “There’s a lot of nuts and bolts reality to bring dreams to the general public,” Moses says of his decision to be a profit-making dance theater company. That means commercials like the above-mentioned. “The corporate world can help. Fantasy is an integral part of reality,” he explains of his artistic approach. “The world is in trouble enough — I don’t like to add to that.”

CONNECTIONS. When asked to work with the Paris Opera Ballet, Moses accepted. “I worked with Holsteins, so I figured I could work with ballet dancers. You have to understand what you can do to bring them out. They’re a strange breed, a strange animal, but capable, definitely capable. And surprising, so I was fascinated by it. Full of fancy.”

AT THE START. Moses brought “a bunch of renegades” to his father’s farm to form the Vermont Natural Theater. He knew the Holsteins would follow him if he donned a white sheet, which he did. So the audience had the effect of a stampede of black-and-white Holsteins coming directly at them, led by a “little Casper figure running ahead of them.” Then he dove into a ditch right in front of the audience. The cows “lost the object of their pursuit and started grazing. Then someone would ring a little bell and the audience would be encouraged to go to a spruce grove and see a dance on a stump with one leg or a bird imitation and it went on like that. That was the origin of Vermont Natural Theater and I was a cowographer rather than a choreographer — those were the formative years.”

Off Stage: Meeting Sidra’s Dance Thru Martha’s Lens

September 15, 2011

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I watched Sidra Bell rehearse the August Wilson Center Dance Ensemble on its home turf. But then again, maybe I didn’t, because photographer ©Martha Rial always shows me something that I missed. Enjoy…

Off Stage: Getting to Know Sidra

September 14, 2011

Photos by © Martha Rial

Welcome back, Sidra Bell.

The New York choreographer has been in and out of Pittsburgh over the past several years, mostly at the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater where she participated in the newMoves Festival, then was tapped for a residency and performance. That resulted in “Revue,” which drew from the filled-with-contrasts vibe of East Liberty, a place where characters still wander amid a neighborhood that is literally rising from its ruins.

I caught up with her during a rehearsal at the spacious August Wilson Center studio, lined with floor-to-ceiling windows that are reflected in the mirrors and anchored by a huge carved wooden door that rotates on a central hinge.

But evidently she’s not into her surroundings as she unexpectedly says, “I feel like I don’t know anything.”
“This happens to me each year,” Sidra goes on to admit.  She usually takes off the summer to teach, just so she can find the “time to research and reinvent and rediscover and get re-inspired.”

So the attractive surroundings may very well have only a small influence on her current premiere for the August Wilson Center Dance Ensemble. She was relying instead on the company dancers and building a bond with them and among them. “I guess I’m dealing with memory, my dream world — I dream really heavily,” Sidra begins. As it was so early in the process, the work was fragmented and disjointed, but with “a lot of humanity in it.” That will translate, Sidra thinks, into love, intimacy and community, but in a new way.

It must be working because, by her own admission, Sidra’s career is moving “a step forward every year.” That despite the fact that she has always considered herself very shy.

Luckily she had parents who were born “self-starters.” Dad is a composer/musician and mom a musican/graphic artist. With such a strong arts heritage, it was no surprise that their daughter was drawn to yet another art form — dance. She had the best of training at Dance Theater of Harlem and as a scholarship student at Alvin Ailey.

“I was always a good dancer, but there was something holding me back,” Sidra explains. Maybe that was why she decided to major in history at Yale. It was also where she  found her dance voice. Yale didn’t have a dance minor, but it had a community. Sidra was able to take more of a leadership position in organizing the Alliance for Dance and found that, even though she was shy, she could still organize people and bring them together.

After getting a masters degree in dance at SUNY Purchase, Sidra translated her newfound skills into the studio, where she could work with her company and break new choreographic ground. It’s the primary goal in her life, to make connections with dancers and pull something fresh and exciting from them.

As her career takes another step forward, she will begin exploring Europe and South America. But Sidra is not done yet with the Steel City.  She will be back working with Point Park University students next month on a premiere there. And that means performances in the spring for both groups.

Welcome home, Sidra Bell.

On Stage: Dancing for Joy

September 11, 2011

Of all the arts, dance requires the most commitment because the window of opportunity is so small. That gives it a heightened intensity, often a sense of urgency. H2O Contemporary Dance, a company of mostly mothers, recently showed how to balance of family, job and and the passion of dance in “THE PHOENIX” at Point Park University’s George Rowland White Performance Studio.

You might call them a triple threat of another kind.

It was to see the passion in the title, just the whole idea of rising from the ashes, of being reborn. But you could see it on the stage, where these women took choreographer Danielle Pavlik’s familiar stories and through them conveyed the joy of dance.

I t was among the purest I’ve seen, an emotion usually more commonplace in young students. These adult women displaying their joy by choice and it was very satisfying to watch.

The performance began as the women gathered like flames, then gradually incorporated a position of flight. There was a heartbeat that initiated clusters of support. Was it the heartbeat that of the dancers or the gathering of life inside them? Maybe it was both, for what followed was a cradling section as if to underscore the point. Other portions dealt with appearance, spirituality and relationships.

They were all valid and honest, although it would be even more fulfilling if the performers had delved into the emotional issues at an even deeper level because there was a continued softness to the movement and dance can be so much more. Yet even within that Danielle alwaysvhad a sense of perspective. She was skilled in arranging her dance phrases so that they were reflected as if in a hall of mirrors, viewed simultaneously in differing angles.

Still one could sense a real community here and certainly something to build upon.