On Stage: Lar — A Dance Classic

April 30, 2012

Photo: Todd Rosenberg

It is hard to believe that Lar Lubovitch is 70 years old and that he’s been making dances for over 40 of those years as I watched his company at the Byham Theater, which you can read in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He joined the company in Pittsburgh and it was great to see him and former Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre artistic director Patricia Wilde in an animated chat during intermission. A number of other local dance luminaries turned out for Lar, including Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre ballet master Steven Annegarn, Dance Alloy founder Elsa Limbach, Dance Alloy icon and University of Pittsburgh’s Susan Gillis and former Alloy member Patty McKeown. But perhaps the most exciting thing, at least for the large contingent of enthusiastic Point Park University dance students, was the ravishing performance of Jason McDole, Aliquippa native and former Point Park University staff member. So engrossed in the music and the choreography that he bordered on ecstatic, Jason, at one point, threw himself splayed into the air several feet above the ground and landed like a pillow flat on the floor. Great stuff!

Photo: Todd Rosenberg


On Stage: Back to Back

April 27, 2012

They say you can’t go back, although dancers easily do that in both class and choreography. But Jason McDole also maintains a number of umbilical cords in his life. He may appear to go back, but actually he is moving forward.

We met a few years ago when the Aliquippa native and Pittsburgh-trained dancer returned to the area to teach at Point Park University. We talked about a lot of things for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette — his early hearing loss, his dance growth here, the matriculation to Juilliard where he met life-long friend Robert Battle, his remarkable career with major companies under choreographers like Twyla Tharp, David Parsons and most recently, Lar Lubovitch.

Dance subsequently called him back to a spot in the seamless symphony of movement as that same group, the Lar Lubovitch Dance Company, is finally getting an encore performance with the Pittsburgh Dance Council at the Byham Theater this weekend.

A couple of years ago, Jason took some time off to nurse his ailing dog, Colby, when Lar called. He said there was a position open in the company, that he wanted “someone who knows my work and I know you would be such a good fit.”

Jason recognized it as “a unique opportunity, very flattering.” With support from family and friends, he left Aliquippa, where he was staying with his uncle, to meet the company in Chicago. (Colby soon passed away.)

It was a good fit. Jason had friends with the company and would be working with Lar, “who I adore. I respect him as a choreographer; I respect him as a person. He’s such a gentleman and very focused and dedicated to his work and his craft and his dancers — just the utmost quality, always time for details. Everything’s pristine and really clean and clear.”

But the best thing about this current dance career extension is that it’s just “more fun. From here on out, everything is cake and ice cream.” Jason also relishes the challenges, both physically and creatively, of tapping some of Lar’s past works and watching Lar create new work on him.

So this time around Jason is taking time, simply to enjoy. He has an apartment in Spanish Harlem, which he shares with Josie, a Hungarian Viszla or pointer dog. (“One day I’ll have many Viszlas around me.”) Before he didn’t have the time to make a home — it was just a place to sleep. Now he puts “Jason” touches on the apartment.

He also keeps in touch with Robert Battle, who went on to take over the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. “I knew him before he was making dances,” says Jason. “Of course, he’s much busier now. He’s doing well. He’s very challenged, right where he should be.”

And Jason seems to swim in Lar’s vision, beginning with the blend of the program itself.

“You feel it as a performer — it’s really nice to dance a program where you can cohesively move from work to work in an evening,” Jason explains. “He also thinks about the audience and musicality and the pacing, but certainly he’s thinking about his dancers. So I appreciate that.”

The Pittsburgh program will begin with North Star, one of Jason’s favorites and an early Lubovitch piece (1978) that separated the choreographer from the rest because he was first to use minimalist music. Jason admits that “I’m driven by it.”

Photo: Todd Rosenberg

But the rest of program will feature three more recent works as Lar continues to maintain his artistic edge, including Little Rhapsodies, a trio set to Schumann, and Crisis Variations, a quintet set to a score inspired by Liszt. Jason remarks that Crisis is a “wonderful departure. He really took a risk…challenged himself to step outside of his own box.”

The evening will conclude with Legend of Ten, a “beautiful, very layered, highly textured” work set to a Brahms quintet. Oddly enough, Lar created it with the idea of a geographical map and its legends. As it turned out, about half of the piece was created on the road, creating its own geographical outline in many cities while the company was on tour.

And as for Lar’s movement itself, it’s “so organic — I know it’s a cliched word — in a sense that the weight shift from one foot to the other is like butter. So you really are in constant balance. But you’re still able to spiral and twist and leap and create multi-dimensional, circle-like motion. That’s what makes his movement so beautiful in terms of movement flow.”

It has been a prolific time for the 70-year old choreographer, who keeps doing it “because he wants to and he chooses to and he needs to.” And Jason? The story is much the same. “I think I’ll always be a dancer, no matter what,” he says. “I’ll always have dance somewhere in my life. While I’m dancing, I’m eating it up.”

Yeah, we all like cake and ice cream.

For the Byham Theater performance details, see Listings.

On Stage: Dance Bundle — PBT, MAC, CMU

April 24, 2012

ON THE SHADY SIDE OF BALLET. I caught Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre in one of its community performances at Shady Side Academy in Fox Chapel. It had been a couple of years and it was good to see that there was a buzz about the company at the pre-performance reception and a much larger audience than the last time I caught the company here. The repertory program, last seen at Hartwood Acres, was what could be termed accessible, with Derek Deane’s Hungry Heart…we all have one!!, sporting a mini-jukebox that played only Bruce Springsteen songs in a ’50’s setting, and Viktor Plotnikov’s Gershwin-inspired Shall We Dance, which had a better focus in the shortened format (gone were the Penguin players/penguin suits bit, barefoot ballerinas doing the worm and the mobile sofa sequence). With Christopher Budzynski still out due to a sore knee, the men’s roles moved around a bit, so Robert Moore successfully connected with his inner mojo to perform the biker dude in Hungry Heart and Joseph Parr tackled Shall We Dance. Upon viewing that ballet once again, it now seems that Mr. Plotnikov is out to poke fun at the arts, to get rid of the stuffiness. The problem still remains with his overly-active proliferation of ideas, which can turn things into a circus — just using a few threads will tie it all together and probably be funnier. Julia Erickson and Alexandre Silva were smoothly in control in George Balanchine’s Sylvia Pas de Deux, though, the gem of the evening. And there was a welcome bonus. When can you talk to someone like Richard Rauh, who commissioned Shall We Dance, while in the Richard Rauh Theater?  It was almost surreal.

NEW PARTNERS.  The always amicable Gerard Holt found some new friends in Anime’ BOP! and it may be a good partnership to pursue. Their program at the Father Ryan Arts Center in McKees Rocks was called Now See Hear: A Collaboration of Sight and Sound and served as a casual introduction to the arts, using often humorous quotes about music and dance that were projected on a screen and a full-fledged Wile E. Coyote/The Road Runner cartoon for a hilarious ending.  But that didn’t mean there wasn’t an air of sophistication. Made up of musicians from Pittsburgh’s fine professional pool (bassoonist Linda Morton Fisher, oboist Robin Driscoll and pianist Robert Frankenberry), Anime’ BOP! accompanied the cartoon characters’ antics with a Jean Francaix trio, but also delved into some fresh pieces by Andre Previn and Francis Poulenc. Usually historically-minded, Gerard provided Last of the Trojan Women, which had a lovely flow, and his co-founder Miriam Scigliano created a skillful premiere, Tryst. While the dancers, all of who studied at La Roche College under the two directors had less stage space with the trio visibly tucked into a corner, the choreographers made good use of what they had. And the dancers themselves showed a burgeoning emotional maturity as they moved.

ULTRA NEW PARTNERS. With my interest fully piqued, I headed to Carnegie Mellon University to view choreography by a science graduate in collaboration with a student composer called Darkness and Light. Physicist Dara Krute unveiled her first choreographic quintet at the Kresge Theater with original music by Adam Field. Adam showed some intriguing concepts (an out-of-tune guitar and a 60-second long duo for piano and live electronics) and a real talent for string quartets. Dara had an array of inspirations — existentialism, the emotions, abstract musicality and a fistful of dance influences — but should trim back a bit to sharpen the focus. She was at her best with a solo for Iona Newell, formerly of Louisville Ballet and Ballet Quad Cities (some might remember her Swan Queen at Pittsburgh Youth Ballet), although the ending faded. Hopefully this will set the stage, though, for more dance at CMU.

Dance Beat: Erin, Attack,

April 22, 2012

The Dinner Dance. Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre gave a farewell dinner at the Fairmont Hotel, one worthy of retiring principal dancer Erin Halloran’s personal and artistic elegance. In response to her popularity, a healthy crowd turned out for one last very graceful bow. Former PBT artistic director Patricia Wilde said that Erin and husband Steven Annegarn would make terrific artistic directors — a hint for the future? And current artistic director Terrence Orr shed a few tears. As for Erin herself, she handled her speech with her usual aplomb, the result of being always so beautifully prepared. Because she was “a little bit overwhelmed and amazed that all of you are here tonight,” Erin began modestly, saying that her initial hiring by Patricia was “a dream come true.” She then “watched and tried to learn” from ballerinas Laura Desiree, Janet Popeleski and Tamar Rachelle.  FYI: Her first production was to dance in the third act of Swan Lake, where, coincidentally, the Prince was her eventual husband, Steven Annegarn, who also would become her “coach, supporter and sometimes toughest critic.” Somehow she “survived” a student matinee of the Nutcracker, where she was the Sugarplum Fairy, further admitting that “I knew I wanted to do more.” It turned into PBT’s longest career move, over 20 years, so Erin had quite a lengthy thank-you list, neatly covering her large family, both personal and professional, who made up a large group who “believed in me when I did not believe in myself.” Her gifts included a PBT scholarship established in her name and a terrific quilt, made of costume scraps from all her major roles and lovingly stitched by PBT costumiere Janet Groom and her staff. In the end, though, they didn’t compare to the riches that Erin bestowed on her audiences over the years, something she will continue in the classroom and with her two sons, Aiden and Leo, and the soon-to-be ???. Yes, Erin is expecting her third.

Photo by Rich Sofranko

Happy Hour. It was a euphoric gathering at Elements for Attack Theatre members and their fans. A good time was had by all at this Happy Hour, the latest in a successful series by the good-time troupe, and featuring scrumptious hors d’oeuvres with drink specials. The bonus was the Big Reveal of the Dirty Ball location — May 19 at 2401 Penn Avenue in the Strip District and virtually next door to Attack’s headquarters. See you there!

Working to Play. The Pittsburgh Dance Council sponsored a workshop by master improviser Michael Schumacher, who was performing in Last Touch First as part of the Dance Council series. Over a dozen local professionals showed up to explore the Benedum Center’s fourth floor studio — the curtains, piano and a number of chairs. Michael called it “playing,” but the atmosphere was nonetheless intense for three hours. He talked about senses — the shifting focus of the eyes (“let the movement come to you”), the ears that “allow us to travel through solid matter,” a sense of smell that “allows us to travel through time,” the skin outside and inside the dancers (touch) and taste, which is the “best, because the mouth involves everything.” It was not dance, not movement, but sensory perception. As the dancers searched the room without music, it took on shades of composer John Cage, the element of chance heightened. It was fascinating to watch as the artists traced the experiential side, the analytical side, repetition, but could not copy. The group included Attack Theatre’s Ashley Williams,The Pillow Project’s Pearlann Porter, Jasmine Hearn, Kaylin Horgan, choreographer and Pittsburgh ex-pat Kris Storey of Germany, Point Park University’s Doug Bentz and Pittsburgh Dance Council’s Randall Miller.

A New Arena. I inadvertently omitted Arena’s Performing Arts Centre from the Post-Gazette’s Dance Recital List for 2012. Join them as they go Around the World June 9-10 at Ambridge Area High School. 412-264-9925 or www.arenaspac.com.

On Stage: Dynamic Women

April 21, 2012

It’s nice when a dance company and an audience are in the honeymoon phase, that time when everything is full of possibilities. August Wilson Center Dance Ensemble is in that position, and rightly so.

It is an engaging group, with an energy that bounces off the back wall. There is a diversity in shape and size and color, which makes it interesting, yet that all blends with a shared sense of purpose and discipline.

A good part of AWCDE’s early success has come through the wise guidance of artistic director Greer Reed. She has demanded plenty from her dancers, but on the other hand, has nurtured them. But she has demanded more from herself as her company just begins its journey. And certainly one of her best achievements has been to assemble an enviable contemporary repertory from the ground up.

Now in its third year — the norm for a dance company’s maturation in the past has been 25 years  — AWCDE is also educating its audience. So much of that repertory has to have a real connection with the audience while also challenging them.

Certainly last year’s Dynamic Men of Dance set the bar high. With Kyle Abraham, Darrell Grand Moultrie and Antonio Brown, it was an exciting program ready to tour from the get-go and produced a couple of heavy hitters in the ensemble numbers from the first two.

This year’s Dynamic Women of Dance was more intriguing because women choreographers are so rare, and to see a quartet of them assembled on this program was an achievement in itself.

The program ranged far and wide, beginning with an improvisatorial love poem for Whitney Houston. I saw the lovely Kendra Dennard in this solo, along with spoken word artist Vanessa German, who is always a welcome addition for her illuminating thoughts.

It set the tone for the first half, which aimed to meet the audience on common ground. Kiesha Lalama created Torque, a piece for the seven-member ensemble. Always a choreographer with a clarity of vision, Kiesha’s latest work had a new openness and flow to it, while keeping to traditional dance values. Kim Bears-Bailey followed with Relations, more in the Alvin Ailey mode and set, like the iconic choreographer did, to music by Donny Hathaway. But it didn’t shed more light on his iconic style.

The second half hearkened the future of the ensemble. New York choreographer Sidra Bell, who is becoming quite familiar on the Pittsburgh dance scene, was, however, rather obscure in When We Get to the Other Side I Will Kiss You, a communal piece where the costumes wore unisex costumes as they explored the bare August Wilson Center stage.

It began with clutching and gasping and jittery shoulders, before setting out to climb the back wall and other nether regions of AWC. Eventually there was some sense of gathering certainly a piqued interest in what would happen. But in the end, there wasn’t enough dramatic effect to really connect with her sense of purpose. Nonetheless, her choreography, which digs deep into the improvisational capabilities of the individual dancers, could be instrumental in the development of the company.

Camille A. Brown capped the evening in high style, with excerpts garnered from a traditional New Orleans brass band parade that signals “weddings, social events, and most notably, funerals.” Inspired by the “second line” people who joyfully follow the band, it was titled New Second Line.

Full of dense rhythmic phrases, this infectious piece duly captured that hallowed spirit in the face of tragedy. Yes life, as well as the dance, must go on.

On Stage: Dance Moms and their Students Aplenty

April 18, 2012

Yes, the annual season is here and nearly 40 local schools sent in their information for the Dance Recital Listings that I assembled for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. While Abby Lee Dance Company may be the most recognizable face on the Pittsburgh scene via Lifetime’s Dance Moms (and, yes, there will be a regular recital), many hard-working Owners and Instructors (and their own Dance Moms) have  contributed to these hidden Pittsburgh dance treasures that produce both quality dance professionals and loyal dance audiences. And for the record, each studio has its own personality. Read how the studios are once again stepping up their game by clicking on Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for more information.

Just a sampling:

Photo: Katie Ging

Photo: Katie Ging

Ballet Academy of Pittsburgh will have two Black Swans when it presents segments from the third act of Swan Lake:

But there’s more — Pittsburgh Youth Ballet will have a White Swan and some fine feathered friends in Peter and the Wolf:

And Wexford Dance Academy will be simply jumping for joy:

On Film: Two Sides of First Position

April 17, 2012

Grace Victoria, the seventh of nine children, who blogs about ballet and other things on Everything With Grace, alerted me to this upcoming documentary, First Position. It’s set for national release in May.

While we’re at it, one of the young dancers in the documentary, Aran (AHR-ahn) Bell, is a full-fledged child prodigy, winner of the Youth American Grand Prix last year and more.

And while we’re at it, let this little girl show you how difficult first position can be.