On Stage: Flying With PBT

October 31, 2011

From Daedalus and Icarus to the Wright Brothers and the moon landings, humans just want to fly. Maybe that’s why “Peter Pan” remains so popular. Audiences oohed and ahed over the Flying by Foy aerial stunts at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s second (and more successful) version over the weekend. Read about it in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and enjoy some production photos by Rich Sofranko.

On Screen: Miami City Ballet Does Mr. B and Ms. T

October 28, 2011

Maybe you could say THIRTEEN’s Great Performances traded apples (New York City Ballet) for oranges as the Miami City Ballet showed its Balanchine wares on the latest installment of public media’s award-winning series. The Florida company has long based its repertoire on a long list of the ballet master’s works, usually supplemented by contemporary choreography with a Latin flair, a good match given its location.

Of course Edward Villella’s group was called to perform a pair of historic Balanchine pieces, “Square Dance” and “Western Symphony.” But they served as bookends for Twyla Tharp’s “The Golden Section.”

Villella was always noted for his athletic approach to prowling the stage, a dancer with real American star power, and his dancers reflected that kind of confidence. The company has had its financial ups and downs, but never lost sight of its style (or its touring). Recently it has had considerable success in dance capitals like New York and Paris.

So the invitation to dance was perfectly timed to show how Balanchine’s urban artistry translates to Florida.

“Square Dance” was presented in front of a sweeping cloud-filled sky similar to a Texas plain, but without the original trademark calls (“Two little ladies, up the track, sashay over, sashay back…”).

This was the 1976 revival that added more Corelli to the mainly Vivaldi score and tipped the scales in favor of the classical steps that permeated the choreography. It also included a poetic Corelli Sarabanda for the lead male, tall and pole-thin (there was no listing of the individual dancers, an unfortunate oversight). He adopted a soft, almost princely air to the phrasing, full of curly cues that rippled through his torso.

Then there were beats and more beats — and the Miami City dancers peeled them off, their feet like the wings of hummingbirds. Some of the patterns may have come from dance folklore, but it was elevated to a sophisticated court dance with an American twist.

The inimitable Mr. B. had a real penchant for the American West and famously wore, as Villella reiterated here, string ties. “Western Symphony,” with its rollicking Hershey Kay score, nabbed a whole passel of familiar tunes that would leave any audience shuffling its way out the door.

But this was meant to be viewed at home, which could inspire a rabble-rousing sing-along. It was a veritable stampede of fun-filled steps, the women like dance hall girls and the men like cowboys, that is, unless the women were imitating a team of horses.

“Western Symphony” has one of the most exhilarating finales in the ballet repertoire, an escalating series of pirouettes where the curtain falls on a whirly gig of a cast, then rises, the stage still full of pirouettes, and falls again. How would they do it? Well, by collapsing in a heap — perfect.

Tharp’s “The Golden Section” was just that — a cast of beautiful dancers in burnished gold swimsuits, regaling against a starry sky. It was a terrific vehicle to show the dancers’ versatility and their ability to move from the upright balletic style to a slouchy abandon.

It was also another way to show off the MCB dancers’ great footwork in another style and to underscore their Balanchine confidence in Tharpian fashion. You could call it a new way to view ballet’s six degrees of separation.

(And by the way, since there was time left over, stay tuned for an extended commercial about NYCB’s School of American Ballet.)

Viewings: Fri. at 9 p.m. and Mon. at 4 a.m., but check your local listings.

On Stage: Taylor-ing the Dance

October 25, 2011

Recently the Paul Taylor Dance Company was in town, as I reported in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. I also got to talk with veteran dancer Robert Kleinendorst, who offered some insight in working with the choreographic giant.

As they are about to set foot on the professional dance landscape, young dancers are not always aware of the choices available to them. Paul Taylor Dance Company, one of America’s finest, turned out to be an option for Robert Kleinendorst.

As a vocal major at Luther College in Minnesota, he was set to cast his lot with musicals and started dabbling in dance. By the time he was a junior, though, the pendulum had swung in favor of a double major and upon graduation, his parents wanted to send him to a summer dance intensive in New York City.

There were several to choose from — Jose Limon, David Parsons and, of course, Paul Taylor. Luckily his dance professor suggested that Kleinendorst was built more like a Taylor dancer.

The Luther student had seen a film of the choreographer’s classic, “Esplanade,”  in his dance history class and loved it. But he wasn’t really a Taylor devotee…yet.

It didn’t take long, though. “I really think that, after the first day, I was hooked,”  Kleinendorst recalls. “It just settled right into the way I liked to move.” After the month-long intensive, he was convinced that he would move to New York and set his sights on PTDC.

Easier said than done. There are only auditions when company members leave and they don’t readily do so because “it’s such a good job. The average life span is about ten years.”

Kleinendorst was in the Big Apple for two years before there was an opening. “I was so far behind because I had started so late and I was determined to know the style well,” he says. “Hopefully that would make up for my other inadequacies.” In the meantime, he had a job, danced with smaller companies and did a work/study at the Taylor studio to pay for classes.

He also got “pretty burned out.”

But the persistence paid off because Kleinendorst was accepted into Taylor 2. When he was hired, his new boss said, “You’ve gotten so much better. I remember when you got here you could barely walk.”

Now Kleinendorst has spent over ten years with the main company, which means that he has been right inside the modern master’s creative process. He calls Taylor “great to work with,” although he admits that it’s “nerve-wracking” at the start of a new work.

Taylor will sometimes come in with an idea, not knowing exactly where he wants to go and feel his way around. Other times he will tell his dancers, “You’re going to be this person and you’re going to be this person and this is how the events are going to take place.

Along the way, he gives them “clues as to what he wants, maybe emotionally and the overall theme,” Kleinendorst explains. “But you don’t really know right off the bat what he’s going to be looking for.”

As the rehearsals progress further, Kleinendorst says Taylor keys in on the themes, “so it’s easier to find things for him.”  Now 81, the choreographer uses gestures or dances “a little,” so the dancers have to extrapolate from that.

But in “Changes,” Taylor decided to do four male solos and Kleinendorst was the last. Taylor said, “Just dance around for me — show me something.” He did as he was told and finally stopped when he saw Taylor just looking at him. So Kleinendorst said, “You didn’t like any of it, did you?” And Taylor responded, “No.”

“So you try something else.”

Yes, Taylor can be an “enigma” to his dancers. On the other hand, he doesn’t hesitate to compliment them in that soft-spoken Southern kind of drawl that he uses. Kleinendorst admits, “It’s nice to have him flat out say that he likes what you’re doing.”

And that can make it all worth while.

Dance Beat: Alloy Remix 1

October 21, 2011

First in an occasional series on Pittsburgh’s oldest modern dance company and its latest transformation.

The Kelly-Strayhorn Theater and Dance Alloy Theater formally announced their partnership yesterday in KST’s lobby. But more questions than answers remained at this point in the process as three of the primary figures in the merger spoke to a large crowd of supporters.

KST board president Francisco Escalante called it a “win-win situation for both organizations.” Cabot Earle, Alloy board chair, then admitted that the company had had some difficult financial times and the two organizations were now intent on building a sustainable business model. He revealed that both boards approved the merger and had submitted an application to the Attorney General’s office.

KST executive director Janera Solomon reinforced her mantra that KST is “committed to create the opportunity for people to get together in a meaningful way and experience incredible arts.” In 2008 KST challenged itself to be than a rental venue according to Ms. Solomon, who said, “We challenged ourselves to be meaningful to the local community, the people who live and work right where we are. But we also wanted to have relevance and interest to people nationally and internationally. We decided to focus on that by having artists of the day, the best and brightest, with a commitment to innovation and to risk-taking.”

It was a tall order that KST has already begun to address under her leadership and one that she wants to continue. Ms. Solomon said that the Alloy fits right into that brand and   explained that the Alloy school, a non-competitive program that KST has already begun to administer, has nine classes with 70 students registered. The Alloy also teaches 100 students in Pittsburgh schools every day.

There was no doubt that the Alloy, Pittsburgh’s oldest modern dance company, has had an immeasurable impact in the growth of today’s dance scene, something easily seen in the alumnae who attended the announcement. Included in the group were founder and artistic director Elsa Limbach; former executive director Stephanie Flom, who also was instrumental in the early days of KST and now is associated with Cooper Siegel Comunity Library and Boyce Community Center; Michele de la Reza, co-founder of Attack Theatre; Susan Gillis, director of the dance program at the University of Pittsburgh; Andre Koslowski, now artistic director of Pennsylvania Dance Theatre; and recent Alloy members Jasmine Hearn and Michael Walsh.

But the announcement was only the first step in the Rebuilding Alloy process. Here are some points to keep in mind:

What is known:

School:  KST is already administering the school, although it is not clear who is in charge.

Company: DAT is officially on “hiatus.” The dancers’ and administration’s contracts were not renewed for the upcoming year. According to Ms. Solomon, the negotiation committee was formed at the end of the contracts so it did not “have to wrestle with thinking about how the staff was engaged in the process.” But the dancers were asked to aid in the transition. Several of them, including Michael Walsh, Jasmine Hearn and Maribeth Maxa have agreed to participate and are already on board in teaching positions, although Ms. Maxa will become more fully engaged after her wedding this weekend. Raymond Interior has gone back to his native Canada and Gretchen Moore is teaching in Morgantown.

Board: The full Alloy board will be joining the KST board. That would mean around two dozen on the combined board.

What is planned:

KST will immediately be able to offer rehearsal space for local artists at subsidized rates.”We have lots of new ideas,” Ms. Solomon continued. Those included a series of residencies for local artists and national and international figures. With the added space at the Alloy, out-of-town artists will be able to spend more time in Pittsburgh.

What to watch:

KST: Will KST, which has been a major contributor to East Liberty’s rebirth be able to command its expansion? Mr. Escalante called the merger another “tool to economic revitalization,” citing how a “high quality arts product has a place in the community” and underlining how non-profits have played a crucial part in East Liberty’s development. Perhaps the burgeoning business community (Google, Bakery Square, planned boutique hotels) will provide an expanding financial base for the KST/Alloy merger.

DAT: When will the company return? Not any time soon and not in its past form. Ms. Solomon underlined that, for the time being, the Alloy will operate on a project-by-project basis. The dancers will be able to show their work at the Alloy studios. And presumably some of them will participate in the newMoves Festival in the spring, although probably not under the Dance Alloy name. This part of the merger obviously upset some of the long-time Alloy supporters that were present.

The Bottom Line: Given the prominence of dance at KST and Ms. Solomon’s personal interest in promoting it, this merger does show promise. But she also posed the question, “How much is this community willing to give to sustained dance activity?” Chances are that the Alloy would have gone bankrupt without this reconfiguration (although the reasons are still murky.) Of course, this is a company and a school worth salvaging. But it will be baby steps, baby. Stay tuned…

On Stage: Ballroom Goes Pops

October 16, 2011

It was a “Ballroom With a Twist” at the Pittsburgh Symphony Pops program, continuing through this afternoon and featuring Dancing with the Stars’ Edyta Sliwinska, who was even more fit at Heinz Hall than in this early clip from the program with her real-life husband, Alec Maso. Read more on the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

On Stage: GIMP — Part Two (Heidi Latsky)

October 15, 2011

These days dancer/choreographer/teacher Heidi Latsky is considered an expert on disabilities, although she would be considered an able-bodied dancer. Starting the journey nearly 20 years ago, she found the answers deep within herself.

“I have been terribly injured all of my career,” the former Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company principal begins. She started dance late, at age 20, and “didn’t quite understand what it took to be a dancer.”

The petite dancer, such a powerhouse on the stage, also had ligamentous laxity, a condition where every joint is loose and unstable, including the spine and especially the pelvis. At that time doctors didn’t understand.

“If you could touch your toes you were fine,” Heidi continues. “But I couldn’t walk.” They told her she needed therapy. They told her she should see a psychiatrist. Then she talked with Irene Dowd, a noted specialist in the anatomy of movement. Irene “had the patience” to listen to every injury that Heidi had incurred.

Then she diagnosed it.

Heidi admits that she was “type A to the max,” pushing herself really hard in order to catch up, which took its toll. The young dancer was in rehabilitation all the time. Now, after 30-odd years, she knows how to take care of herself better.

She calls it The Latsky Method, something that “came out of my necessity to survive.” While working with actors in the ’90’s, she decided that they didn’t need a specific modern dance technique. So she started to design alignment-based, breathing-based and exercises to get actors to be in their bodies.

Then Heidi used it on dancers, helping them to let go and find a way to move with feeling. That meant listening — to the music, the audience, fellow dancers — and staying open, letting the dance “happen” to the individual instead of forcing it. “I’m a big believer in being true to who you are and it’s very hard to get there as a person, as an artist,” she explains.

Then Heidi met Lisa Bufano, a disabled dancer, in 2006. “She was my catalyst — I never would have done this on my own,” she notes. “Working with her, I could see how different body types are beautiful. It just opened up a whole new world for me.”

That new world was codified in “GIMP,” a dance work that incorporates both able-bodied and disabled dancers.

As it turned out, the disabled performers chose Heidi, not the other way around. And they taught her an “immense amount” about her own method. In some ways, they brought a more interesting approach than the trained able-bodied dancers.

So “GIMP” evolved to become a blend of virtuosity and stillness — and not necessarily in  ways that we ordinarily think. “The trick is — you don’t want to set up a comparison thing,” offers Heidi. “I feel you want to honor what they can do and not what they can’t do. Every dancer has limitations.”

So she has worked with a woman on crutches and a woman who has a more extreme form of connective tissue syndrome. Recently she began working with a former dancer with Parkinson’s Disease. She had him just open and close his eyes, then touch different parts of his body. “That’s been done before,” she acknowledges. “But the way his hand would go through the sequence was this beautiful dance in and of itself.”

“”GIMP’ totally changed the way I choreograph,” Heidi says. “I think I’m better now that I ever have been because I trust my performers so much.” And she is still interested in the different rhythms created by an “unusual” body. “There’s a depth there that I’m still curious about…”







On Stage: Dreaming of Quidam

October 13, 2011

I ♥ Quidam

It was the first Cirque du Soleil show to come to town, resplendent under its blue-and-yellow Grand Chapiteau. I had previously only caught Cirque in the middle of a performance on HBO while channel-surfing on my television in the early ’90’s. Its contemporary take on the circus arts, immediately fluid and so memorable, caught my eye. I watched the rest, not knowing what I was watching, whereupon I found out that it was something called Cirque du Soleil.

I never forgot it and voraciously read any information that surfaced on the burgeoning Montreal troupe.

Well, it took a decade for Cirque to arrive in Pittsburgh, up close and personal. A couple of Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Cirque-lovers, including my friend uber-photographer Martha, drove to Charlotte, North Carolina, to capture the essence of what we were to see in a preview. I later got to talk to veteran Cirque fans, some of whom flew into town just for the event, for a mid-run article.

Quidam was all that and more. And since then I have seen more than ten productions and remain thirsty for all things Cirque.

Now Quidam is back in town, newly re-set in an arena format, primarily so the production can travel to smaller cities that can’t support a long run. Alegria was the first to play the Petersen Events Center a couple of years ago and, while it didn’t disappoint, the show felt distant.

Not so with Quidam. Its ♥ was big enough to embrace us all in the voluminous space of the Petersen. Martha was with me and we both enthusiastically agreed that the production still looked fresh after nearly a decade of separation.

The story of a young girl who is summarily ignored by her parents and subsequently retreats into a world of her own imagination, is tailor-made for the now-familiar brand of fantasy and physicality.

This production truly bears the singular Surrealist stamp developed by the Cirque creators, maybe more so than any of the others, and boasts an inspired staging by Franco Dragone. Numerous characters float in and out of the performance, much like the disembodied elements of a dream and enhanced by a turntable effect.

It’s easy to spot painter Renee Magritte’s iconic headless man, sporting an umbrella (and love the periodic references to rain and thunder). Paul Delvaux, known for his paintings of nude women (evocatively addressed in the sensual aerial contortion act that seamlessly blended with long red silk drapes), who stared blankly while wandering buildings or lounging in a train station. Indeed the set resembles such a station, with five  arching steel-girder fingers reaching to the Petersen’s rafters. They contain trolleys that magically transport the performers in and out of the action.

There’s a dash of Fellini (after all Dragone is Italian) that gives it that magical touch in the characters. They provide a suitable environment for sweet Zoe, who gives it all an aura of innocence. And after all, Fellini was a dreamer himself. There are added touches — some winsome Italian music in the delicious score and white lights that might have been strung in a village square.

The opening, in particular, was powerful and playful at the same time. The audience took in a large double-sided German wheel, where Cory Sylvester nimbly flipped around the bars that held the two silver circles together. The Chinese yo-yo act, so joyful and child-like and precise at the same time, was literally hopping with excitement. Skipping Ropes, the perfect childhood activity, was escalated to a terrifically choreographed group number. Even the Cirque costumes, which these days are crusted with crystal and glitter, fit right into this guileless world, which all seemed to emanate from Zoe’s mind.

The second act was more about, well, acts. A hand (and foot) balancing contortionist. The superior Statue duet — where a couple barely moved but used cantilevered power  for mesmerizing feats of strength. A whimsical juggling solo by former Pittsburgher Patrick McGuire (also Papa), who made disparate objects like an umbrella, a suitcase and some distinctive red balls (much like Zoe’s signature red balloon) bend to his talents.

The Cloud Swing filled the Peterson with lightning fury and the Banquine capped it all with a finale that sent human beings flying through the air.

Human. Humanity. Humaniity plus. Quidam never loses sight of its ♥, making this most poetic of the Cirque productions.

But there was a most suitable postscript. We exited into the wet night and watched everyone walking down the hill, umbrellas in hand.

Rain will never quite look the same…

For more info, click on Quidam.