On Stage: 2011 Top Ten in Dance

December 24, 2011

Photo by Antoine Tempe

Dance is really taking shape in Pittsburgh. The growth that we’ve seen nationally and locally shows that the youngest of the art forms should be taken more seriously. I mean, I still think that dance is generally placed at the bottom of the totem pole because it appeals to a younger generation, which frankly does not generate as much financial support. Hopefully this will begin to change as its audience base grows. In the meantime, if you haven’t read it — the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Top Ten List. Coming soon — 2011 MVP’s in Dance.

On Stage: Luke Murphy – Bringing a Bit of the Irish Brogue to the Scottish Highlands

December 23, 2011

Photo by John Altdorfer

Luke Murphy was a fearless dancer when he was at Point Park University’s dance department. Now he finds that attitude has served him well in New York City. By keeping several plates spinning in the air at once, Luke is carving out his own niche there and in Ireland, while keeping the lines still open to Pittsburgh. Read about it in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

On Stage: Awake for ‘Sleep No More’

December 22, 2011

Photo by Thom Kaine

Well the “stage” was constructed from a warehouse in lower Manhattan to resemble the five-floor, 100-room McKittrick Hotel. It was obviously a massive undertaking, no less so than to reinvent Shakespeare’s “Macbeth.” Read about my immersive physical theater experience in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Off Stage: Erin Halloran – An Elegant Swan Dive Into the Future

December 19, 2011


Hope always springs eternal, a dancerly philosophy, but the body doesn’t always concur. Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre principal dancer suddenly announced that she was retiring just prior to the opening of the company’s “Nutcracker” season.

But it really wasn’t so sudden.

For those of us who watched Erin rebound from two pregnancies better than ever each time, it might come as a shock that she has also long been coping with hip issues, which, given ballet’s emphasis on turnout, might come as no surprise.

“My hips have always been a weak spot,” the modest ballerina admitted over the phone. But following an MRI in 2006, she found that she had torn cartilage in both and set on a diagnostic regimen of cortisone, therapy, Pilates and Gyrotonic to keep up her strength.

Erin also changed the way she worked, but continued to lose mobility. After last year’s “Nut” run, she found herself in a lot of pain and elected to have another MRI because “things were getting a lot worse.” Cortisone was the only option and it had lasted well the first few times. But that one didn’t work as long because the damage had intensified.

“It was a case of being aware of being more careful,” she says. “There was no abandon at that point. I was just being precise.” She also wanted to be able to run and play with her sons Aidan and Leo.

Unable to perform the Sugar Plum Fairy role one final time, even with choreographic adjustments, Erin officially announced her retirement in early December. But just as she had always been prepared for her roles, Erin was again prepared, better than most, for life after ballet.

She had started doing Pilates to build strength and get placement and definition. “I loved it,” she says. So during her second pregnancy, she would sit for “hours and hours and hours,” watching people teach at a local studio.

Erin got her certification and was able to teach. Now she occasionally takes a little bit of a barre (mainly because she misses seeing her PBT family on a daily basis), although she doesn’t lift her legs that high anymore. But she does Pilates every day for 45 minutes or so “to stay equally strong.”

The new excitement in her life is coming from a burgeoning teaching career. During that especially difficult period in November, PBT artistic director Terrence Orr suggested that she teach some classes at the company school. “It was very tiring focusing on the injury,” she recalls. “So it was refreshing to go into the studio. The students were eager to listen, learn and improve. They’re like sponges.”

She moved around to the various levels — adult open class, the grad students (pointe, variations, technique) and full-time and part-time high school classes. From all accounts, the students themselves are thrilled.

So what can Erin bring to them? “I’m trying to figure that out,” she says. “It’s always a process and probably every day there’s something different. But one of the things I pay attention to is the alignment because I’m fixated on it.”

That means standing on the feet properly, using the whole foot. Then the porte bras and epaulement are important,too, to bring the technique to life. She concludes, “Everything, pretty much everything.”

Those of us who witnessed her Aurora in “Sleeping Beauty” can still recall how she drove the Benedum Center audience wild with her pristine technique, capped by mind-boggling balances and blinding turns. A stunning achievement among her many other roles over the years.

She says that former PBT ballet master Roberto Munoz gave her the key to those turns, telling her that her “spot has to be faster. Make sure you are on the music and divide it equally. Push your head faster if you want to do more turns.”

Accommodating as always, she says that the PBT teachers all bring something different into the classroom. And she will not only draw on people like ballet master Marianna Tcherkassky and PBT school staff like Marjorie Grundvig and Pollyanna Ribeiro, but others who have contributed to her career in the past.

Like Patricia Wilde. Erin gives a perfect vocal imitation of her former artistic director as she jokingly instructs, “Cross your tendu. Shape the foot. Shall

Photos by Rich Sofranko

we work on our entrechat six?”

And of course, husband and ballet master Stephen Annegarn. She might say, “This could be in your audition class,” because she knows what he looks for — a beautifully positioned and weighted dancer.

In Erin’s eyes, there’s a lot of dance still to be made with her new audience of students. “You just hope you can pass on something,” she says. “And, if nothing else, give them a love of moving.”

I also did an article on Erin’s achievements over the course of two decades for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Was it only last year? Click on Erin.


On Stage: Yet Another “Nut”-ty Season

December 7, 2011

Photos by Rich Sofranko

Local ballet fans know its the holiday season when the “Nutcracker” rolls around. And the folks at PBT started their run this past weekend. Full of color and a lot of spirited dancing, enjoy some of the “Nut-ty”  sights and click on Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for the article.

On Film: Is Everyone Sleeping for this “Beauty?”

December 5, 2011

I’m surprised that the Ballet in Cinema series, now at the start of its second season, hasn’t caught on with Pittsburghers, given the current wave of dance popularity. Even in my college days, there was Royal Ballet’s production of “Romeo and Juliet” starring Margot Fonteyn and Rudolph Nureyev, which played to bigger audiences at movie houses way back when.

But now we can regularly partake of various dance programs on television and see some of the world’s greatest companies — that same Royal Ballet, plus the Bolshoi and Paris Opera — without leaving the Pittsburgh area.

Maybe we’re on overload.

The audience in the theaters — The Oaks in Oakmont or the Carmike 10 near South Hills Village — seemed composed of senior citizens at various screenings, although it seemed to be the perfect opportunity for students or teachers to drink in all that the international ballet arena has to offer.

Okay, so this time there was an adorable little bunhead, Sophia, in attendance with her mother at the Bolshoi’s “Sleeping Beauty,” recently on view at the Carmike 10. She was decked in a pink hoodie and tutu-like skirt and even entertained us (all four of us) when the live feed uncharacteristically stopped.

This was a particularly momentous occasion, though, and there should have been more people at the movies. After all, it was a chance to see the renovated splendor of the historic Bolshoi Theater, to see the cameras slowly pan over the golden gilt covering its sumptuously carved balconies. And the crystal chandeliers and glass sconces gleamed as they must have during its early glory days during the start of the 20th century.

It was also the debut of principal dancer David Hallberg, the first American to be asked to join the Bolshoi, performing Prince Desire to prima ballerina Svetlana Zakharova’s Aurora.

They were a match made in heaven, both long and lean and true of line. However she didn’t have that teenaged innocence that marks a great Aurora. Instead she was glamorous, a queen-in-the-making, with extraordinary extensions that unfolded at every opportunity.  It was easy to see why he was given the invitation, an impeccable artist at the height of his powers, but with a control that set him apart in one of the world’s great companies.

The entire cast in general seemed aware of the importance of the occasion and gave a performance worthy of “Bolshoi” or “big.”  The camera angles took advantage of that, in their own way, pointing out the most delicious classical details, the kind that you can’t see from your seat. And they luxuriated in Ezio Frigerio’s opulent scenery (although minus any wooded growth around the palace) and Franca Squarciapino’s beautifully detailed costumes.

I was just thinking how lucky I was to see Margot and Rudy in that particular production, but I missed much more because there were so few films to be had. There’s still a chance to catch an encore “Sleeping Beauty” presentation on Tuesday, Dec. 6. See the Listings for more information.

On Stage: Meet OCTAVIA

December 2, 2011

The notion of vampires has been around since prehistoric times and is a global phenomenon. But they took on a sophisticated allure and popularity, first in John Polidon ‘s 1819 novella, The Vampyre, and later eclipsed by Bram Stoker’s memorable Dracula in 1897.

Richard Matheson took it into the scientific realm with 1954’s I Am Legend. And now, all the way into the 21st century, vampires show no sign of abating. Think of Anne Rice’s The Vampire Chronicles or Stephanie Meyer’sTwilight series.

But all of that was lumped mostly into the category of horror fiction. Then along came Octavia Butler. Who, you say? Only the MacArthur Foundation winner of what is usually called the “genius” grant in 1995.

Octavia constructed a whole other world where vampires were only a part of a fantastical landscape. Fascinated by the richness of the characters for more than 20 years, choreographer Staycee Pearl decided to bring her own version to the stage.

Called simply OCTAVIA, it pays homage to this African-American woman who imaginatively defined her own path before she died in 2006.

Early on Staycee could identify with some of the characters, such as Anaywu, a shapeshifter who could heal herself. “Octavia is able to connect to the real world, real-life situations,” explains Staycee.

But there was so much to absorb. Vampires and humans. Extra-terrestrials and humans. Parasitic and/or symbiotic relationships. Staycee concluded that “there’s some kind of exchange, there’s always some kind of growth or transaction” that came out of the various connections.

Although Octavia is admittedly “a tough read for some people” and hardly a household name, Staycee felt that she could construct, along with husband Herman Pearl, a compelling piece, even for those not familiar with Octavia’s work.

The husband-and-wife team had a goal in expecting the viewer to get something out if without knowing the story. They have verbal transitions and interludes that “speak to the story, that speak to some of the ideas.”

So expect a journey into what Staycee also terms “magical realism.” Hopefully the results will be genuinely out of this world.

Meet OCTAVIA at the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater Fri. and Sat. at 8 p.m. Tickets available at the door.