On Stage: A Survivor’s Instinct

February 28, 2012

You might say that Tome’ Cousin has been living his own marathon. He’s been running, yes, but not in the traditional 26.2 mile sense of the world. No, he’s been on a speed chase with destiny since 1988, when he first became enamored with dance marathons.

It is a subject that has enticed so many — the Academy Award-winning They Shoot Horses Don’t They? (1969) and the Tony Award-winning Steel Pier (1997) among them. Tome’ himself first did his own marathon piece in 1995 with his Pittsburgh-based company, Physical Theatre Project.

He sought out film actress June Havoc back then. She originally was the Baby June character so memorably found in the iconic musical, Gypsy. But Arthur Laurents’ book never revealed what happened to 14-year old June after she left the vaudeville act that Mama Rose had fashioned.

June, as it turned out, got married and was tricked into competing in dance marathons that sprang up during the Great Depression of the ’30’s. It was a volatile subject that the young performer related in a book, Early Havoc (1960), where she conveyed the manic atmosphere: “The pressure within me was at a dangerous high. My boiler was about to burst. I knew my eyes were pressing hard to get out of their sockets. I had perspired so much that my long hair was as wet as though I had just emerged from the shower. My throat and mouth were so dry that trying to swallow would be folly; I knew I would choke.”

That inspired a musical, Marathon ’33 in 1963, starring Julie Harris and a young Doris Roberts. June would direct, making the cast strap mattresses on their backs to simulate the trying, tiring conditions. It only lasted 48 performances, but she was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Direction. She would write a revised edition in the ’80’s.

It appeared to be in the cards that Tome’ would stumble across June’s story in 1988. But first he would establish his own company here in Pittsburgh, the Physical Theatre Project, in 1991.

He had already contacted June and the producers of They Shoot Horses Don’t They?, asking for permission to use elements of both their stories in a limited run for the non-profit company. Everyone agreed, but Tome’ would have to do original material in any subsequent productions.

The production at City Theater made the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Top Ten in Dance for 1995.

Tome’ eventually headed for New York, then was drawn to iconic German choreographer Pina Bausch at Wuppertal Dance Theatre for two years, where he started to experiment with “what Marathon could possibly be.” He has remained irrevocably intertwined since then.

In the meantime, he appeared in the original cast of Susan Stroman’s Contact on Broadway from 2000 to 2002 and went about establishing a full-fledged career. But Marathon was never far away from his mind.

Production photos by Drew Yenchak.

Then came the perfect storm, so to speak, in 2009. Tome’ met with Peter Gregus, who was starring in Jersey Boys on Broadway and the two men casually decided to write something original. They tossed out a few ideas, but nothing was on paper.

Just days later, Tome’ found out that New York’s Abingdon Theater Company wanted to do a gala fundraiser. As it happened, June was on the board of directors and the performance would take place in the June Havoc Theater.

It was “a no-brainer.” Tome’ submitted pictures and a DVD of his Pittsburgh production. The board said, “Get him.” And when they showed everything to June, she said, “I remember him.”

People like Broadway star Karen Ziemba and Pittsburgh favorite Rachelle Rak volunteered their time. They learned it in three weeks and went on with the show, with Rex Reed as host. Members of the original Pittsburgh cast came in to see it.

Tome’ and Peter decided to go expand it into an original production — Tome’ had some ideas, such as bringing in the ghostly figure of Mama Rose and to use vintage footage in flashbacks. The pair repeatedly visited June at her farm in Stanford, Connecticut.

“It was like old Hollywood glamour,” Tome’ recalls. They had conversations, but he never saw her face-to-face. June remained in her bedroom, calling out to him, while assistants ran in and out with shoeboxes of material, like original photos of the family and costumes belonging to Gypsy Rose Lee.

“Why is this under your bed?” Tome’ asked in amazement. “This is theater gold!”

Things began to come full circle when Carnegie Mellon University invited Tome’ to be a full-time professor of dance in the much-vaunted drama department. He accepted. Point Park University agreed to workshop a Marathon 33 production. Peter took a leave of absence from Jersey Boys for the rehearsal period.

It was full steam ahead — except that June died last March at the age of 97 and her caretaker a few months later. Luckily the June Havoc Trust Fund gave Tome’ exclusive rights to the work and all future works. But there is “a mountain of junk” hiding some of June’s treasures in a storage facility, like fan letters from people who saw her in marathons.

Some of it will still have to wait.

But even after more than 20 years, Tome’’s eyes are filled with passion for marathons. “It was the original reality show!” he exclaims, also noting that it spawned roller derby and mud wrestling during the elimination contests.

Yes folks, it was all planned — the role playing (ingenue, villain, etc.), the fights. “It was the phenomenon of watching something we know is sort of fake, but we’re still watching,” Tome’ says.

A phenomenon that is still relevant, still compelling, even today.

On Stage: Walking the Red Carpet

February 25, 2012

“We’re going all out,” Maria Caruso exclaims over her 10th anniversary production, Red Carpet Rollout. As the name suggests, she will see to it that the Byham Theater will have its own crimson pathway into the hall. And for extra pizzazz, a Caruso trademark, company members will arrive in limos.

Bodiography’s artistic director has five gowns to choose from for the two-performance run and plans to offer a full-service menu, from art installations to a world premiere among the 13 scrapbook selections. KDKA’s Kristine Sorensen (Friday) and Whirl Magazine’s Nicole Barley (Saturday) will handle the emcee duties. And the fun won’t stop with the performance. VIP audience members can continue at the Renaissance Hotel next door with food, drink and a couple of DJs who will spin their favorite hits.

Maria has been admittedly emotional during the heartfelt process. She admits that she loves “choreography and I love the spotlight, love the dresses, love all that,” she also loves “being part of watching somebody grow and thrive.”

So the Red Carpet Rollout is about giving back, “to show gratitude to those who have supported me over the last decade. It’s about applauding the patrons and the audience and just everyone who has been there on the journey.”

Maria is still pretty much a one-woman operation who coordinates not only Bodiography and its school, but La Roche College’s performing arts department and Club 1 Pittsburgh’s group fitness program.

She wouldn’t change anything, however. Even though it has been difficult with long hours, she would never take anything back, even those admittedly “bad ballets” from her early years.

Because of the inherent difficulties in starting a company, she has found the strength — she “comfortably” calls it “emotional constipation” — to put her “heart and soul on the table, to be vulnerable.”

Founding Bodiography had its sweet side as well. “I choreograph because I am so passionate about the subject matter,” Maria says. “I love being able to use the body to translate. I never come into the studio with anything but an idea and a lot of love.”

But right now she’s just thrilled to have survived those first ten, difficult years. “I’m a part of the cultural landscape…and I get to walk down the Red Carpet!” she exclaims.

On Stage: Going Dutch

February 20, 2012

The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust opened its Decidedly Dutch Festival with a Pittsburgh Dance Council presentation of Dance Works Rotterdam, which offered a European take on pop culture. Shades of Andy Warhol!  Read about it in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

On Stage: Adventures in Art

February 17, 2012

What goes up, must come down. Now, what was out, must come in. Parkour and Freerunning, once the territory of Neanderthals, soldiers and Jackie Chan, who all employed similar survival skills, is taking to the concert stage.

Perhaps Dance Works Rotterdam was the first to embrace that concept, mostly due to artistic director Andre Gingras, who has been something of an artistic adventurer for most of his adult life. As a student of theater, English literature and contemporary dance in Toronto, he wanted to expand himself, primarily as a dancer. And that meant New York City, the ultimate mecca for the young Canadian.

Almost immediately he landed a scholarship at the Paul Taylor studio, where principal dancer, Christopher Gillis, became a mentor.  Andre eventually moved on to the Doris Humphrey and Doug Varone companies. But it was on a European vacation five years later that he auditioned for theatrical wizard Robert Wilson, who was creating a major work for the Weimar Festival in Berlin.

It was an immediate click with his work,” Andre recalls. And thus started a four year period where he became a regular contributor to Wilson productions. “Bob is very collaborative. He’s very, very curious about what young artists have to say. He has a huge love and respect for dancers and is really open to your input.”

Andre admits that the experience transformed him as an artist. Since it didn’t matter where Wilson artists lived, Andre slept on the couch in some friends’ apartment in Rotterdam.

Slowly he began dancing with small Rotterdam companies, then making his own work. It started to “take over his life” and Dance Works soon followed.

But he never stopped searching, with forays to India, North Africa and the Middle East. “My goal was to ‘hybridize’ and expand the art form, to really look at what other things could be integrated,” Andre explains.

That included martial arts, especially Brazilian capoeira. Or medical subjects, where he used the “beautiful, interesting vocabulary” of Terret’s Syndrome for his first solo piece, P17.

And the Netherlands sponsors Dancing on the Edge, a special festival in Amsterdam that focuses almost entirely on dance in the Middle East and then sends them through a network of cities.

Through the festival, Andre was connected with a group, El Funoun, in Palistine. He did workshops on contemporary dance technique. But the company was based in folk lore and had young dancers who were trying to look at “what would be the most authentic contemporary manifestation of their indigenous dance.” So they delved into choreography, with great success.

By now it was obvious to Andre that he saw dance everywhere he turned. Freerunning had become a hot commodity in parts of Europe. It’s an offshoot of Parkour, a new movement form that came out of the French army and became an art form of “getting from A to B with the least amount of flourishes, but the most effective way.”

Freerunning “embraced the flourishes and fun things.” It’s almost the same vocabulary, but it’s “a bit more spectacular.” In 2006, Andre was already asking, “Wow — why can’t we put this in a theater? Why does it have to be on the street? It’s such a beautiful language.”

So he hired a guy “to teach these insane things” to his dancers. Although he called the dancers “amazing” in absorbing the information, he realized that he had to put limits on the technique.

“You don’t do it once for a video — you have to do it every night.”

But it worked. Now it’s part of the repertory and his new dancers have to embrace those skills. But he’s careful, noting that “we’re a European dance company and we have workman’s comp people looking over my shoulder. I can’t have them jump four meters down onto concrete. And you can’t do another show like that the next day.”

Pittsburgh audiences can see for themselves this weekend (see CrossCurrents Listings for more information) when Dance Works Rotterdam brings Anatomica to the Byham Theater.

Well, part of it. Andre originally envisioned a three-part series about “the body on display. Why do we display the body? How do we display the body?” He thought it should be three pieces, but only had a good idea for the third one, so he decided to work on that first.

“The body is that magnificent instrument that can do all these extraordinary, remarkable, virtuosic things that fly through the air,” Andre explains of #3. “So it’s very acrobatic.” Next came #1, a beginning segment that shows “why do we show the body. Well, very often that’s tied to sexual drive, the desire to find a mate, to procreate. So we look at courtship rituals, mating dances and online chat room experiences — every that makes us put ourselves out there.”

And what about #2? Andre thinks that he’ll make it in 2014. He quips, “I’m in no rush.”

On Stage: Thanks to Contemporary Dance, the Real Deal

February 15, 2012

If any of you tuned into the 54th Annual Grammy Awards, Chris Brown performed Beautiful People/Turn Up the Music on a skyscraper-like set with parts that moved like building blocks. It was also a solid white, which opened the eyes to colorful block lighting, alternating with projected patterns and and street scenes.

The movement was a take on the French-originated street dance known as Parkour, where daredevils jump from ledge to ledge, wall to ground, well, you get the idea. It tries to convey an ease and sophistication.

Parkour spawned Freerunning, first seen in England, which incorporates more gymnastics in spectacular approaches to the urban environment.

Back to the Grammies — credit Rich + Tone Talauega and Flii, the creative directors/choreographers, and Gui Dasilva, Tre Holloway, Hefa Tuita, Timor Steffens, Paul Kirkland, JD Rainey, Nick Bass and Derrell Bullock, a back-up group clad in capes that were a combination of superhero/ninja chic. They performed nimble and effortless flips and feathery jumps along the moving platforms.

But, gee, that’s already being done in contemporary dance. Dance Works Rotterdam, which is coming here next week, has already transformed Freerunning into a stage presence, although, being an arts organization, it doesn’t have the bucks for a sensational moveable set. No folks, artistic director Andre Gingras has to rely on real choreography.

Which brings up Beyonce, whose choreographer created a flap a while back by literally copying a few chunks of choreography from Anna Maria de Keersmaeker’s Rosas Danse Rosas and Achterland, with a tribute to Audrey Hepburn. (By the way, the Belgian choreographer appeared here with the Pittsburgh Dance Council.)

Some might support Beyonce and fall back on the old adage, “There’s nothing new under the sun.” While concert dance might not have a true original genius right now, like George Balanchine and Martha Graham, it does have street dance and its deep African roots, which have energized everything from commercial to ballet.

So where do you draw the line, even with 30-year old contemporary dance that finally finds its way into the mainstream? Evidently the Beyonce/Anna Maria disagreement is now in litigation.

In the meantime, decide for yourself. The bottom line? While the video itself is a whole new entity in itself, some of the parts are too close for comfort.

On Stage: We love you, Bill.

February 13, 2012

August Wilson Center Dance Ensemble uncorked its dancers in their own brand of choreography for Suite Bill, the latest in a series of such performances by local groups.

I guess you would have to say that advanced training institutions, whether in an academy or university setting, are doing their job in encouraging students to find their particular movement. But companies are also doing their job in presenting company members’ choreography in substantial performance formats — Attack Theatre with University of Pittsburgh graduate composers, Bodiography at the Kelly Strayhorn with guest artists, both musical and professional, the Conservatory Dance Company’s Student Choreography Project, with an application process and mentoring, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre members constructing their annual Dancers Trust, from program and lighting to the choreography itself, and The Pillow Project, where the dancers are intensely involved in the improvisational aspect of the group and beyond.

AWCDE joined the ranks recently. I thought it would be a largely informal gathering — after all, the company is barely two years old and it was being held in the August Wilson Center dance studio, although it is a handsome one, with a floor-to-ceiling carved wooden door that pivots on a central peg and windows that play out onto the delicious urban environment along Liberty Avenue from its second story perspective.

Surprise! Lighting designer and long-time Pittsburgh dance company friend Bob Steineck had rented curtains for the built-in tracks with some basic lighting and about 100 chairs were neatly arranged in four rows. (I’m sure, though, that a set of risers is on AWC’s wish list for the future.)

Yes, it was informal, but a great way to develop a core audience for the fledgling group. But there were perks, including a terrific video of William Harrison “Bill” Withers that was projected larger-than-life on the back wall and looked at the man behind Lean on Me and so many more hits. Artistic director Greer Reed explained that this was a part of AWC’s Affrilachia theme this season, spotlighting black artists who had flourished in the Appalachian Mountain region, as Bill did in West Virginia.

Then Vanessa German entered and proceed to put her own singular poetic spin on both Bill’s history and Suite Bill. This reigning Pittsburgh wordsmith can elevate any program and mesmerized the audience between the numbers.

She talked about grandmothers after Grandma’s Hands, the opening piece by Greer and James Washington, constructed much in the mold of Alvin Ailey’s fan-waving church-goers in Revelations.

After that, she beautifully connected the other works. Kendra Dennard (Use Me) and Annalee Traylor (Who Is He) mostly played on plenty of attitude and Raymond Ejiofor got the finale, Lovely Day. Everyone had a hand in Lean on Me.

Although the stagings were generally good and the spirit palpable, it was Kaylin Horgan, certainly the veteran dance maker among these 20-somethings, who showed both the joy of a relationship, then the dark side in a sensitively detailed fashion (My Imagination, Ain’t No Sunshine).

Then there was a bonus, which I wasn’t expecting, a tidbit from Camille Brown’s A New Second Line, which will have its formal debut in AWCDE’s upcoming Dynamic Women of Dance in March. And the dancers got to answer questions from an eager audience.

Overall very satisfying…and smart. It’s well-known that the choreographic process has a lot of give and take between choreographers and their dancers. Programs like this will enable those dancers to have something more to bring to the table.





Dance Beat: M33, Shana, Martha, Linda, Speaking Of…, MAC

February 11, 2012

M33. Point Park University has recently launched a mini-site in conjunction with the world premiere of Marathon 33 (M33), which will enable the public to peek inside the development of the production with cast video blogs, interviews with the directors (longtime Pittsburgh choreographer, now of New York, Tome’ Cousin and Peter Gregus and the creative team, rehearsal videos and photos, a live Twitter feed, original music samples (by Pittsburgh composer Douglas Levine) and information about the cast and tickets. The site will be updated several times a week. M33 tells the tale of dance marathons that were all the rage during the Great Depression of the 1930’s, where people were pushed to their limits, competing for thousands of hours and sometimes just for food. The story came from June Havoc, sister to Gypsy Rose Lee, who was the subject of the great American musical, Gypsy. To keep up on developments prior to the world premiere Feb. 23, click on Point Park University’s Pittsburgh Playhouse on Facebook or go directly to the production’s wix site.

MARTHA TIDBITS. Richard Parsakian sent me some information about an auction regarded Martha Graham’s estate. It’s interesting to see the things the iconic choreographer surrounded herself with besides dancers. Click on Martha for a sampling.

SHANA. Look for Shana Simmons, a recent participant in the Kelly Strayhorn’s Next Stage Residency Program, will unveil the fruits of those labors in Relative Position, “a multi-disciplinary performance installation set in a large building,” in June. Check out Shana’s website and stay tuned.

PINA 3D. While we anxiously await the arrival of this Oscar-nominated documentary about the legendary Pina Bausch (real dance in artful 3D!), it might be worthy to note that Linda Reznik, founder of River City Artists Management, served as tour manager for the company when it brought Nelken to the U.S. in 1999. Linda saw the film in Los Angeles and gives it her highest recommendation. Of course, she knew everyone who virtually danced before her eyes.

Photo by Elizabeth Stella Hodges

SPEAKING OF…Phinehas Hodges assembled another group of young artists at the New Hazlett Theater. They ranged from spoken word artists Jim Daniels, Tameka Cage Conley and my personal favorite, Nikki Allen, to the rock inclinations of Cello Fury. Dance provided the bookends, with Bodiography’s Maria Caruso starting with Intimate Liaisons, a comforting company repertory piece that will be part of the company’s upcoming 10th anniversary at the Byham Theater Feb. 24 and 25 and featuring Kelly Basil and Chelsea Zimmer. Textures Alan Obuzor and Kelsey Bartman unveiled a lovely sculptural duet called Lacrimosa, Preisner to conclude the evening.

MAC NEWS. Mid-Atlantic Contemporary Ballet’s Gerard Holt has announced that the company has received 501(c)(3) status. Congrats!