On Stage: Improvising Through Dance and Life

March 31, 2012

We often say that the world is connected by six degrees of separation. But the dance world, so familial, has to be half of that.

Over the past few years, we’ve become more acquainted with Gia Cacalano, who has brought her improv skills to the forefront, much to our delight. She has spoken about her brother, Vincent, and will finally bring him here this weekend for BLINK at the Wood Street Galleries for an evening of improvisation with guest artists, musicians and HC Gilje’s light installation, in transit.

But there’s more. As it turns out, Vincent has worked extensively with another improv great, Michael Schumacher, who will be in town next week for the Pittsburgh Dance Council presentation of Last Touch First, a project created by Michael with iconic contemporary choreographer Jiri Kylian.

Small world, indeed. It turns that the pair are good friends and have worked together extensively at Magpie Music Dance Company, based in the Netherlands and a cult favorite in Europe. FYI: The group was founded by Katie Duck and, to put things in perspective, American dancer Steve Paxton, founding father of contact improvisation, often worked with the artists in the collective.

As Vincent puts it, “Improvisation in a Magpie performance is not the antithesis of choreography or composition; it is how the choreography’s and compositions are made, out of practice both in the studio setting and the newness of real time improvised performance. A Magpie performance is about the experience of being there, you are participating in the event and thus, in a sense, the work.”

But how did this Virginia boy, a former gymnast who had some ballet studies but was far more interested in studying theater at the college level, make his way into the farthest reaches  of dance?

It turned out that he was an arts adventurist. The theater program at Virginia Commonwealth was more play-based — it wasn’t about making work. During college breaks, Vincent would join Gia, three years older, in New York where she was studying, and had exposure there to the acclaimed experimental theater company, The Wooster Group, founded by artists like actor Willem DeFoe and monologuist Spalding Gray.

So Vincent began to make his own  work back at VCU, using movement and text. When he showed at a local gallery, the dance people attended, pointing out how it looked like choreography.

He was already taking Laban and had assembled quite a few dance credits, including a ballet class, just for fun. So the young would-be actor “naturally gravitated” into becoming a dance major. During college breaks in NYC, he studied with Alwin Nikolais and Erick Hawkins and performed in a piece by Meg Harper, who was running the Cunningham studio.

Vincent did his first real improvisation, though, with Alwin Nikolais, who designed specific improvisations for performance goals, rather than just an exploration in the studio. “It was the first time I saw it not as a method to make choreography, but as a way within itself,” he recalls. “I remember it very, very distinctly.”

He decided to pursue his masters degree at George Washington University, emphasizing composition and body-movement and alignment theory. While there, Vincent had the occasion to tour with a local company to Germany and the Netherlands.

At a festival in the Netherlands, he met students from the School for New Dance Development. As he recalls, “I liked their work very much and they liked what I was up to.” The enterprising students suggested an exchange program. While in Amsterdam, Vincent met Katie Duck, but returned to finish his degree.

Another colleague informed him that there was a teaching position open at the School, so he headed back to Amsterdam and taught an audition class and got the job. He renewed his friendship with Katy and along with Michael Schumacher and some other artists, founded Magpie.

It grew to a loosely-organized company of 16 improvisers — eight dancers and eight musicians within the space of a decade, from 1995-2000. During that time the group was instrumental in bringing a renewed respect for the art form. But the members then decided to give each other some space to develop personal projects and Magpie became an umbrella organization. Vincent decided that he would accept a position at The Manchester Metropolitan University in England where he could work in an interdisciplinary setting.

But there are signs that Katie is re-organizing Magpie and certainly she and Vincent remain close. In the meantime he is looking forward to bringing his skills to the Pittsburgh dance turf.

He’s “really excited” about BLINK, particularly in coordinating the “movement of light in relationship to our movement. It’s like working with another dancer and it will really play off and with the other dancers and musicians. It kind of reminds me of Nikolais…fascinating.”





On Stage: Peter Kope — Still on the Attack

March 30, 2012

Never one to be a wallflower, Attack Theatre co-founder Peter Kope is considering himself “shameless” and “brazen” — just because he’s celebrating his birthday.

The occasion, his 45th, happens to coincide with the opening of the company’s latest dance bash, Traveling, which will pass through the New Hazlett Theater this weekend. (Friday night includes a post-performance party for the man of the day.)

Birthdays usually aren’t a topic of conversation approached by journalists with dancers. But then, Attack Theatre never focuses on the usual. In fact, Traveling will be the reverse of the group’s customary dance plan.

Pittsburgh has seen Attack productions that have gone on to travel on their own, such as the Japanese collaboration No-to: memory fades, the interactive art experience of Some Assembly Required (which also toured Pittsburgh) and, perhaps most notably, Games of Steel, which garnered National Dance Project touring support.

But Traveling was simply born to roam, concocted for a performance Delaware last summer, as a matter of fact, and complete with live music from Ben Hardt and the New Victorians.

Of course, in true Attack Theatre fashion, they’ve changed “this and that” for its latest incarnation, which began with a tour of five West Virginia towns, including Fairmont State University and Pocohontas Opera House in Marlinton, where the man who ran the sound coincidentally had given Attack dancer and West Virginia native Dane Toney his first professional job.

But then, this company has all the best connections; few of us have established more. Traveling itself was always about a journey, but somewhere along the way it turned into the idea of a traveling salesman.

As it so happens, Peter’s father travelled quite a bit and always came back home with little presents inside his valise (often those little liquor bottles that went on to fill a locker in the cellar). So the first act of Traveling will be about “what you can do with the little things matters most in life.”

That translates to “every prop Attack Theatre has ever used” — a table, ladder, pole rings, the “blue monster,” a red tube and more. The segment was created to be open and accessible, “an introduction to the style of the company, how we introduce ourselves to a new site.”

The second act will have “full-on, hardcore, beautiful dance” and a more abstract feel, all about traveling in time and “missing relationships, connecting relationships, opening doors.”


But Peter and wife and co-founder Michele de la Reza have been opening the doors for Pittsburgh dance fans since 1991, when they met as members of Dance Alloy. It didn’t take long for the energetic duo to make their own connection and start their trademark multi-tasking. They also performed with the New York-based PerksDanceMusicTheatre and by 1995 were formulating Attack Theatre, going on the “attack” in window fronts and living rooms in bringing art to the people.

But then, Peter was the seventh of eight kids in his family, where “the things we would do with a table were outrageous.” Like “monstrously long battles,” which were foot scuffles on the table brace during meals. Attack, indeed.

He also learned to share early on and that would serve him well as the young company, without the resources to buy its own building, moved from studio to studio, like 937 Liberty Avenue Downtown, Penn Avenue Garfield and the current home at Pittsburgh Opera in the Strip District. They “talked with people, trying to make arrangements, borrowing and renovating and repairing and working with community groups and community development organizations. It’s become an extension of the program, what Attack Theatre is.”

“It made us better collaborators because we HAD to collaborate,” Peter emphasizes.

He has had the opportunity to watch the Pittsburgh dance community evolve, how support from both foundations and individuals has stabilized over those years. And he shows awe and admiration for the “plethora of college programs,” where schools like Point Park and Slippery Rock are “churning out amazing movers.”

But Peter is most proud of the fact that he and Michele “worked together to create this dance company, one that is providing honest jobs for people.” And he takes note that they provided health insurance and added vision and dental this year.

“We all work really hard,” Peter says. “But we’re doing what we love.”

But the birthday might help.

While Peter is equally conversant in pie charts and exploring dance on camera, he tends to do less of the “big, bombastic, throwing-Michele-around that we’re used to, although there’s still a fair amount of that.” Still, he feels great. “We’ve always focused on being performers in our lives,” he says. “I think, ‘Forty-five — what the hell?’ Besides, I have a three-year old [Xander] who’s killing me. I sleep more, I eat better vegetables and the number of times I’ve fallen asleep before nine at night is beyond me.”

But there is still that passion for creation and a passion for performance that drives this dancer/father/arts administrator/handyman. What more could he ask for? Well, maybe attend his birthday, the proceeds of which will increase Attack’s creative fund, a solution to support “our crazy silliness and wacky dreams.”

So Peter, too, can dream — and dance — on. And continue sharing.



On Film: India Meets Pina

March 27, 2012

Her name, Shantala Shivalingappa, may be confounding at first glance, but her dance, a SOLO created in conjunction with the legendary Pina Bausch, shows a clarity of intent from the first movement.

On Stage: A New Style of Marathon

March 25, 2012

Photos: Drew YenchakM33 begins with a couple slowly evolving like a virtual mobile. Backbend, embrace, a precipitous arabesque. It codifies the dance marathon — backbreaking, the human connection, the danger.

The screen behind them slowly changes: My name is Baby June. My name is Dainty June. My name is June Havoc. My name is June Havoc and I was a marathon dancer.  

In a nutshell, that’s what M33 is all about. There’s a lot of material to mine here, but many have done so without striking gold. But co-directors and co-choreographers of this production, Tomè Cousin and Peter Gregus, were able to go to the source, June Havoc herself. Yep, she was the Baby June of the mega-musical Gypsy. And her story, particularly her sojourn through the marathon era before she became a film actress, may be even better.

It was a handsome production, beginning with the faded dance hall splendor of Michael Essad’s scenic design, a lattice-trimmed palace that we may have all come across in one form or another. Just as this scenery waltzed between elegant, enhanced by Andrew David Ostrowski’s skilled lighting, and glaringly chintzy, M33 touched a lot of bases in this story.

I went back to see it again during the second week of its run at the Pittsburgh Playhouse, to check if things had settled and they had…measurably. The directors did a remarkable job with the Point Park University student cast, making the adult characters look so mature and the dancers so ’30’s, even down to their posture and walks.

There was a lot of information to absorb — the “horses” or dancers with strong legs, the “clowns” or artistic performers, “squirrely” people (virtually out of their minds from exhaustion) and a whole era of Higbee Beauty Baths and flagpole sitting. It was all there in the script with great detail, but the terms sometimes just flew by at first glance. Even though the pacing had improved in that second week, it might help to put key definitions right in the program, just so the audience can better keep track of the story, or even capsule comments about the major contestants.

M33 was a real hybrid production —  part Broadway, part dance theater, a serious subject with jolts of dark humor — that will take a real balancing act to pull this workshop rendition off in New York. I loved the way that all the facets were woven together — music, choreography, staging.

On the other hand, it couldn’t be regarded as Broadway, per se, because the script was so finely etched and the production numbers less so.  It wasn’t a musical, too, although the songs, some recorded and others familiar, played an interwoven part in Douglas Levine’s evocative score.

So what was M33?

You might call it a dramedy, mostly intense theater offset by vaudeville acts, period commercials and wry lines like “let the arches fall where they may.” But it’s also heavily invested in dance theater, particularly in the use of a “time” curtain, which allowed for jumps in the marathon action or as the surreal place for “squirrely” contestants and finally as a filmy cover for the former contestants to return, dressed all in white like ghosts.

At the time, the first act read as theater, the second act as dance theater and they really needed to mesh more in the production’s next form.

Given all of these elements, who will be the target audience? More importantly, how? M33 should be more contained and thus heightened, either with a thrust stage, but more like a ballroom setting, where the audience would be transported into the ’30’s.

Photos: Drew Yenchak

Perhaps this production should be an immersive experience, much like Sleep No More, currently playing in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood, where the audience wanders through a staged hotel and creates its own personal version of Macbeth.

There is already a cool website, but maybe the cast members and/or cast “audience” could mingle and hand out programs when the audience enters the door.

It would be important that audience quickly identifies with the contestants and latches onto their excitement. So then they will be drawn into this netherworld and care when the dancers’ lives start to fall apart in the final quarter of M33.

After all, there are a great many connections — a period story with timeless human interest, an exposè of the difficulties of dance and yes, an original American reality show.

Addendum. Dance marathons continue even today, mostly on college campuses — not for months, but over a weekend to support various charities. Glad to see some good came out of it.

On Stage: An Invitation to Diespace

March 23, 2012

I’m always glad to see dance play a prominent role in the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust’s festivals and the Dutch Festival is no exception with Dance Works Rotterdam /Andre Gingras starting things off and the Jiri Kylian/Michael Schumacher Last Touch First coming up. (BTW: improv great Michael Schumacher is doing a workshop for professionals in the Benedum studio on Sat. Apr. 7 at 1 p.m., another terrific opportunity.)

But I digress, my point being that I also love to sample the other artistic offerings. Thursday I got a chance to see PIPS:lab in Diespace. We all think it would be great to live forever and this multimedia company offers a 60-minute oddball solution to that. (Think a human version of iCloud.) But these tech wizards go far beyond that by placing every member of the audience up on their computerized screens.

It’s a virtuoso performance (even if I didn’t quite understand how they did it) with a casual flair.

Just be ready to have fun and interact. Yes, there will be a few “volunteers,” but everyone will get to participate. Yes, they talk about the fearsome subject of death. But it doesn’t rear its ugly head. On the contrary — the audience itself creates its own light-inspired cemetery on the screen, which turns into a remarkable revolving matrix. We laugh with them and with ourselves.

Some of us even get gifts, laced with a certain gallows humor.

It all treads a fine line, although I have the sense that this might be where alternative theater (and possibly dance) could be headed, with the impact coming  from several sources. First, those great computer-generated effects. Second, the human element — a cast of five male/females, all who experience some form of a bad hair day, and nimbly guide their subjects through an outrageously original theatrical experience. Third — well it’s all up to you…

For more info, click on Dutch.

On Stage: A Manly Perspective on Women

March 19, 2012

Photo: Paul Kolnik

La Cage aux Folles sashayed its way into town last week at the Benedum Center. In 1983 I had seen it on Broadway from the peanut gallery (at a bargain price, no less, of $10 because the elevator to the top balcony was broken). But the tradition of gender switching goes way back.

I also had experienced Japan’s Grand Kabuki, which began in the 17th century, at Kennedy Center in 1985, where both male and female roles were portrayed by men. In fact, 20-something actors, primarily those who took on female roles, were accorded rock star status among young devotees of the art form. And Nakamura Jakuemon, known for his prowess as a female impersonator or “onnagata,” recently passed away at the age of 91, a designated national living treasure since 1991.

As for Western audiences, Britain’s Globe Theater actually predated the Grand Kabuki, performing Shakespeare with all-male casts during the Elizabethan era. One could point to British music hall traditions, then Harvard’s Hasty Pudding Club and Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo.

So much of this is rooted in history, when women were denied the chance to perform. But there’s no denying that men have continued to admire and emulate women, not mock them. Besides, it’s not as funny when women take on men’s roles — they win dramatic accolades for their efforts, as Julie Andrews in Victor/Victoria and, more recently, Glenn Close as the title character in Albert Nobbs.

You could discuss the variations — the afore-mentioned female impersonator and gender illusionist who use a tilt of the head, beautifully shaped hands, eyes that avert the gaze and a soft spirit to the interpretation. It’s all about artistry, about the skill and talent of capturing the essence of a woman.

But it’s not generally played for laughs. Here in the West, we love to see men dress up, from Milton Berle to Tom Hanks, comedians to the core. But it goes beyond that, including esteemed actor Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie.  More recently, Justin Timberlake went into drag when he was honored at the Hasty Pudding Club. Heck, he baked up Beyonce’s Single Lady on Saturday Night Live in a leotard. And the Trocks’ Paul Ghiselin (a.k.a. Ida Nevasayneva) always brings down the house as the forever molting Dying Swan.

Then there are cross-dressers, who simply enjoy the clothing of the opposite sex, and transvestites, who cross-dress for emotional or sexual gratification.

La Cage presents us with drag performers, men who dress as women (and are boldly proud of it) purely for entertainment reasons. When I saw the original production, it was done, to my best recollection, with more style. Les Cagelles, the chorus line here, that backed up Albin (George Hearn) had 12 members, two of whom were women.

It was hard to discern definitively who was whom.

But the touring production that played at the Benedum Center showed a range of drag activity, easily discernible.

the production promoted George Hamilton (Georges), and he was charming and still tanned, if vocally and physically a little rickety, the real star of the show was Christopher Sieber (Albin/Zaza).

His was a nuanced performance, the kind of glam drag that had a sophistication and wit about it. This was a man comfortable in his own skin, whether wearing pants or a sequined gown. The Cagelles — there were only six, all men — were listed as “notorious and dangerous.” That translated as flamboyant and often high camp, almost Albin’s antithesis.

There was no real illusion to this La Cage. Except for Mr. Sieber, it was almost like a burlesque show, perhaps to make the idea of drag more palatable for small town America.

Photo: Paul Kolnik






On Stage: Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s “Desire”

March 12, 2012

Photos: Rich Sofranko

You could almost feel, in Tennessee Williams’ words, “the warm breath of the brown river beyond the river warehouses with their faint redolences of bananas and coffee.” Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre finally unveiled the American premiere of John Neumeier’s “A Streetcar Named Desire”  and it gave Pittsburgh audiences a lot to think about. But the overall response was enthusiastic, primarily for the fact that the company would think so far out of the box. It’s hard to imagine that the play was written in 1947 and that this ballet was created in 1983. As shockingly contemporary as it was at the Benedum Center over the weekend, it must have registered an even greater impact back then. Read about it in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.