Dance Beat: Martha, PBT, H2O

November 24, 2011

DIAL UP RIAL. Pultizer Prize-winning photographer Martha Rial has put together a series of uncommonly beautiful images of GIMP, the production by Heidi Latsky that was recently presented by the FISA Foundation, along with the Pittsburgh Dance Council and August Wilson Center. For her Vimeo slideshow, click on GIMP. For more of her work, which has its own incandescent take on humanity, click on Martha.

NOTHING LIKE HOME. Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre returned “home” for its annual ball, which means the Omni William Penn Hotel and its 17th floor ballroom, which has to be the best space in the city for an event like this. The theme this year was perfect, a variation of the recent production of “Peter Pan.” That meant exotic table decorations  and starry projections on an already beautiful ceiling (kudos to chairs Trace and Dr. Kenneth Melani). Of course the PBT performances, a compendium of the current season, are always a highlight. That meant a couple of “Peter Pan” tidbits with an exuberant Amanda Cochrane as Tinker Bell (plus Christine Schwaner, Luca Sbrizzi and Makoto Ono), a sensual “Nutcracker” Arabian dance from Eva Trapp and Alexandre Silva and a gracious “Coppelia” pas de deux from Alexandra Kochis and Chrisopher Budzynski. But more tantalizing were sneak peeks of a full-fledged ensemble number from Dwight Rhoden’s new Bach ballet, set to debut in February, and Dennis Nahat’s “Brahms Quintet” duet with the luminous pairing of Julia Erickson and Robert Moore. Of course everyone got to dance with the ever-terrific Gary Racan and The Studio-E Band.

FOR A GOOD CAUSE. H2O Contemporary Dance recently performed at The Chadwick for Crisis Center North’s annual meeting. As CCN’s executive director, Grace Coleman, put it, “we feel fortunate to welcome H2O to our event for a private viewing of The Phoenix. Based on the company’s excellent reputation, we feel confident that they will inspire the community members to join us in advancing our mission to end domestic violence for all women in this community.”

On Stage: A.I.M.-ing to Dance

November 23, 2011

Favorite Pittsburgh son Kyle Abraham came back to the city with his company, (A.I.M.) and premiere his latest work, “LIVE! The Realest MC” to a savvy and highly supportive crowd at the Kelly Strayhorn Theater. Read about it in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

On Stage: A New Look at China

November 23, 2011

It’s a vast, mysterious land filled with terra cotta soldiers, bamboo trees and pentatonic music. And while Pittsburgh has seen its share of dazzling acrobatic troupes, the Beijing Dance Company, presented by the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, was the first to connect both the sweeping historic landscape, thousands of years old, and the artistic future that China has to offer.

Beijing Dance Company was somewhat a mystery in itself. It appears to be an official company of the Beijing Dance Academy, which is China’s national (and only) school for producing professional dancers.

Maybe it was the name. Often an internet search confuses Beijing Dance Company with, yes, Beijing Modern Dance Company and BeijingDance / LDTX, the first company to be independently founded outside the federal government.

BDC’s repertoire proved to be rooted in what is called the Chinese traditional classical dance tradition. But it turned out to be much more than that.

What we saw was an enormously disciplined 33-member troupe in a pivotal state of transition, perhaps in a similar category as India’s Nritiyagram Dance Ensemble, with one foot in the past, the other in the future.

China had a strong influx of Russian teachers as early as the 1920’s and it was the Russian ballet technique that was installed at the academy when it was founded in 1954. Perhaps BDC comes closest to the famed Moiseyev Dance Company that set the standard for folk dance by presenting a large contingent of dancers trained in ballet.

But in its last performance in Pittsburgh, the Moiseyev devoted the last part of its program to what might be termed a contemporary ballet based on Moussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain.” The Beijing company presented a similar finale, “The Yellow River,” inspired by China’s second longest river, often called “the cradle of civilization.”

This epic piece, so “Bolshoi” in its impact, used a large cast to create a moving panorama of movement, literally full of the rolling hills and valleys, where the dancers collected in a group, and the surging currents that rippled through the choreography.

They were matched by a musical score that had the groundswell of a Rachmaninoff piano concerto. But with movement and music that was thick with such images, this “River” didn’t really need the panoramic pictures projected behind it.

Most of the program drew heavily on China’s history and traditions, including “The Thousand Hands of Boddhisattva,” where the women were bedecked in golden costumes and manipulated the long fingers of their gloves with such precision, and “Flying Fairy,” a solo featuring Zhao Qiao, who artfully created colorful brushstrokes with her long ribbon-like sleeves.  “The Lone Crane,” a remarkably performed solo by Ma Jiaolong, contained rippling, wing-like arms one minute and leaps that had their own flight pattern.

Other selections indicated that the Beijing Dance Company is redefining traditional dance from new inspirations. Chen Weiya, one of two resident choreographers (he also created “Flying Fairy”) drew from Xian’s recently-discovered terra cotta warriors and translated it into a bold, percussive showpiece for the men, “Emperor Qin’s Soldiers.”

Zhang Jianmin, well-known as the choreographer of the film, “House of the Flying Daggers,” created a new production of China’s version of “Romeo and Juliet,” called “The Butterfly Lovers,” and kept to a free-flowing translation of ballet. But he also produced “The Spirit of Bamboo,” almost New Age by Western standards, where the men softly waved and dipped in an intriguing meditation.

These were dancers who had to be able to define everything, beginning with the delicacy of the fingers and the supple maneuvering of a fan. On top of the minute details, they had a rigorous technical clarity with assertive finishes and powerful leaps that echoed the Russian teaching. But their sky-high extensions and fluid phrasing that were distinctly Chinese.

As the company grows (and Chinese contemporary dance is still in its infancy), it would be shrewd if BDC staff or even guest choreographers were encouraged to experiment with the movement. while remaining true to the boundless inspirations of the Chinese culture.

FYI: China might be termed a sleeping giant when it comes to contemporary dance and little about it is known here in America. So a brief, although admittedly incomplete, timeline might help. After being banned from 1960 to 1980, Chinese modern dance began to absorb various styles from the West. Shen Wei, a founding member (1992) of Guangdong Modern Dance Company, the first of its kind in China, elected to come to America in 1995 to choreograph and is now based in New York City. For the past decade or so, groups like Paul Taylor Dance Company and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater have been invited to perform to great acclaim. 

Then San Francisco-based Margaret Jenkins brought her collaboration with Guangdong Modern Dance Company to tour America in 2009 and appeared at the Pittsburgh Dance Council. And BeijingDance / LTDX, the first contemporary group to be founded independently of the government, has come to the United States on a number of occasions since its founding in 2005.

Beijing Dance Company headed for the West Coast last year, but was sent on a tour of Boston, New York, Washington D.C. and Pittsburgh this fall, which is a major step for the group and Chinese dance at large. Locally we have seen alumni such as Ying Li and Jiabin Pan, former principal dancers with Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre who returned to their homeland to run the Suzhou Science and Cultural Arts Centre (SSCAC) Ballet and Yanlai Wu, Chinese traditional classical dancer who runs Yanlai Dance Academy in the North Hills. The three knew each other during their student days in Beijing.

On Stage: Catching Kyle

November 16, 2011

Exciting. Scary. Satisfying. Frightening. Those are the kinds of emotions that have running through Kyle Abraham’s mind since June.

The Penn Hills native has been on a steep artistic curve lately with the success of “The Radio Show,” largely inspired by the silencing of WAMO, a pivotal part of Pittsburgh’s black community and his father, a pivotal part of Kyle’s life, who also stopped speaking when he contracted aphasia.

Certain subsequent events have been sad because some of his original company dancers have opted to have children and can no longer tour. At the same time, he’s getting plenty of opportunities to tour with the support of the prestigious National Dance Project.

It’s been a big slice of life for the still 30-something choreographer.

From the Joyce Theater’s Gotham Dance Festival performance in June, he’s been on the go. Some of the highlights: a return to Jacob’s Pillow for the second year in a row, the Fire Island Dance Festival, a number of residencies and adding fellow Pittsburgher Patrick Ferreri as company manager.

Kyle also found out that he is “the big poster boy person” for the dance season at his alma mater, SUNY Purchase, where his company will be appearing. He jokes that he “has such an inner giggle because I was probably the only guy in the dance program who did not enter with a scholarship” (although the school rectified that after the first semester and has offered continued support).

On his way to Ecuador in July, Kyle heard that his father was in hospice care. He made a quick stop, a good thing because he learned that his father had passed the day after he got back. “I’m glad I got to see him,” Kyle says, although his dancers had to work on a residency without him while he dealt with funeral arrangements. People responded with “a lot of letters and donations” and the International Aphasia Movement has since expressed an interest in “The Radio Show.”

These days, though, the grieving comes in waves. But Kyle doesn’t allow it to engulf him. He will be heading back to the Joyce in January on a program with fellow NDP recipient Kate Weare and, in the meantime, premiere his latest project, “Live: The Realest MC,” at the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater.

“Live” will be a re-imagining of Pinocchio and his quest to be a real boy, “putting that into a gay urban context.” Kyle says that the piece took a darker turn when the Tyler Clementi story, about the gifted 18-year old Rutgers student who was outed on the Internet and committed suicide, broke in the middle of the creative process.

Tyler’s tragedy influenced the work, giving it a more aggressive outlook with much more movement. But there is still “a bit of humor” to be had in “Live.

As there is in Kyle’s return to Pittsburgh to visit some of his favorite haunts. Record Exchange, “one of my favorite stores.” Michael Varone at Shadyside’s Moda, where Kyle used to work and where his dad shopped. Gullifty’s for the apple pie.

And pizza in general, because Pittsburgh’s “doesn’t taste like any other.” Therein lies the quandary, because Kyle can’t choose between Aiello’s and Mineo’s. So he just gets both because “one tastes better warm than the other and one tastes better cold than the other.”

Which is which? You’ll have to ask Kyle.

Check Listings for the Abraham.In.Motion performance of “Live: The Realest MC” this weekend.

On Stage: A New Vision at Point Park

November 15, 2011

Photo by Drew Yenchak

Point Park University’s Conservatory Dance Company is casting its choreographic net wider this year without losing a nifty Pittsburgh connection. The quartet of choreographers each brought s distinctively different perspective to their contemporary works on the succinctly titled fall program, Contemporary Choreographers. Read about it in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

On Stage: From Pittsburgh to Paris and Back

November 12, 2011

From Paris to Pittsburgh with Pearlann and the Pillow

The letter “P” plays an important part in Pearlann Porter’s life. Pillow Project. Pittsburgh. Point Park University. So the recent inclusion of a trip to Paris should come as no surprise.

Well, maybe that’s stretching the alliteration just a bit.

Actually Pearlann is bringing a bit of Paris back to Pittsburgh at The Space Upstairs for her current Second Saturdays production, which appears to be packed with plenty of  juicy tidbits.

But then, we get ahead of ourselves.

The French connection began when Pearlann met Moe Seager, East Liberty native and Paris legend. A writer and musician, Moe has published three books of poetry, several short stories and 20 or so plays in the U.S. and abroad. He decided to try Paris after the French Ministry of Culture published his epic-length poem, “Rio Escondido.” Moe stayed and is now known for his provocative poetry and crowd-pleasing jazz performances, along with being a commentator for RT TV, Paris.

It all led to a four-day stay in the City of Lights, where the differences were, as you might say, illuminating. “It was really surprising and exciting and it changed the way we feel about what we want to do with our dance in Pittsburgh, what we want to create with it,” exults Pearlann within minutes after her return here from New York (more on that later).

The connection led to communication. “The work was perceived so warmly, so differently,” she explains about the Pillow Projects series of performances in France. “Everyone wanted to talk about it. They wanted to ask us about jazz and American dance.” (Although the Pittsburgh dancers explained that they were trying to do something different.)

They seemed to go everywhere — dancing in the streets, in Metro stations, on Metros, at small poetry slams and a “crazy, free jazz concert in the back of a seedy warehouse which made The Space Upstairs look like the Taj Mahal.”

While Pittsburghers generally thought they “were up to something” when the Pillow dancers performed in the streets, French observers immediately approached them. “I’ve never seen dance here before — this is so wonderful!” “What do you call it?” When the dancers responded, “post modern,” it led to a discussion of post modern art.

Even if there were language barriers, people were almost desperate to talk, leading to mime, almost charades, to get a point across.

Pearlann and the Pillow defined themselves as “free musicians, free jazz dancers because our work plays on not being the beat literally, not being the music literally. We’re finding our own way in it and playing on something you may not even hear, but it contributes to the sound.”

One of the musicians said, “I’ve never seen dance to free jazz that looked like it was free jazz. I’ve seen dance to free jazz, but I’ve never seen anyone dance free jazz.” As Pearlann tells it, the dancers were on stage with a dozen or so musicians where they could have physically touched the bass or the drum. “They were right in the thick of it. They looked so completely at home.”

Through Moe, they met Sabir Mateen, renowned free jazz stylist, along the way. He exclaimed, “I have to come to Pittsburgh! When is the next performance — I’m there!” His name sounded familiar to Pearlann and, as it turned out, she had “half of his stuff” in her iTunes. So they can recreate some of the things they did in Paris (with Moe, no less) and “tap into the crazy, visceral energy” they found there. Also on the program is a preview of Pearlann’s next project, “The Fifth in Jazz,” which plays with time, and “The Memory of Paper,” a dance recollection by Brent Luebbert of last year’s “Paper Memory.”

Speaking of memory, Pearlann’s favorite involved little Parisian preschoolers who happened to be in an adjacent schoolyard during a performance. One little girl became transfixed, then, one by one, brought her school mates over to the gate. When they couldn’t reach out and touch, the tiny tots capitalized on a French tradition of tossing money into a hat to show appreciation and support for the artists, in this case the Pillow Project. But they didn’t have any money. So they threw pebbles and stones, which the dancers appreciated just as much.

If things work out, the Pillow Project will head back to Europe for a month next year. Pearlann says they’ll do a “trifecta,” head to Paris, then Brighton, England, where “dance is hungry to be something different,” and then swing over to a jazz festival in Cork, Ireland.

But one thing’s for certain, the Pillow will ramp up its face in its home city as well.




On Film: Bill and Abe

November 11, 2011

Usually audiences are introduced to a new work in its relatively finished form on the stage. Nowadays performing arts groups offer studio performances and rehearsals in what might be termed a less-than-finished format.

But THIRTEEN’s American Masters series on PBS has elevated that concept with a behind-the-scenes look during its latest installment, Bill T. Jones: A Good Man. The viewer gets a robust idea of Jones’ newest dance theater piece, Fondly Do We Hope…Fervently Do We Pray, inspired by Abraham Lincoln and commissioned by the Ravinia Festival in honor of the 16th President’s bicentennial.

It is a 90-minute documentary that toggles back and forth from stage to rehearsal studio.  There are many questions to be asked along the way, but Jones says of Lincoln, “Is he a good man? Or, is he a good man!”

During the course of the documentary, the choreographer reveals that he was an admirer of the President from early childhood. But during his research, Jones begins to doubt that viewpoint, citing some passages that he finds, important enough to indicate that Lincoln might have been a white supremacist.

In the end, the “good man” phrase serves as a pivotal point to “locate Lincoln in the present.” And Jones ultimately settles on what it means to not only be a good man, but to be a free man and to be a citizen.

It gives food for thought for us all.

The creative process involved so many people and this documentary covers a lot of them. Granted, all processes are different, but this provides an up-close portrait of the difficulties that lay in assembling a work of art.

So we get personal biographies of some of the dancers who were involved, a look at difficulties that the composer/band leader  (cellist Christopher Antonio William Lancaster) encountered, production problems (the huge white curtain, designed by Bjorn Amelan, had a mind of its own in the Ravinia breeze) and a studio performance for presenters. The cuts from rehearsal to stage, particularly near the end, are so precise and illuminating that they are nothing short of brilliant.

But at the heart of this “Good Man” is a portrait of Jones — his thoughts on his childhood, his emotional visit to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and numerous film clips. My favorites involved early footage with former partner Arnie Zane, but there are also brief glimpses of Still/Here, Last Supper at Uncle Tom’s Cabin/The Promised Land and D-Man in the Waters.

Choreographic genius that he is, Jones isn’t given a glossy portrayal. At one point near the end, he loses his temper and storms out of the studio. The next day he apologizes and attributes it to putting that “last ten percent” into place.

It appears that one powerful image, when he recalls the Lincoln  “ghost train,” only comes to him shortly before the debut when he actually sees a train on the Ravinia grounds.

Yet everyone wonders whether they have done enough. Although “A Good Man” provides us with tantalizing glimpses and is a deliciously finished product in itself, that decision will have to wait until the production comes to a stage near you.

In the meantime, visit Bill on WQED tonight at 9 p.m.