On Stage: More Texture, Please

July 26, 2012

Photos: Katie Ging

The excitement was almost palpable as Texture Contemporary Ballet Company presented its second annual concert, BLUR. The first time, director Alan Obuzor had plenty of help from his friends at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre. But this time, with PBT headed for Israel, he drew on the company school and area students, many of whom have gone on to careers across the country. Back they came to show their wares and its was great to see how they are developing into artists. Read my review in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and enjoy some photos.

Dance Studio: He Says, She Says at Ballet Academy of Pittsburgh

July 22, 2012

Photos by Katie Ging

It almost seems like a chapter out of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, except that it’s the contemporary version (sorry, West Side Story) where two teenagers fall in love at a ballet school, have a career, open their own school and settle down to raise a family.

And unlike the Verona tale, this one has a happy ending.

The couple in question is Lindsay and Steven Piper, owners of Ballet Academy of Pittsburgh. Steven studied at School of Washington Ballet, Mary Day’s well-respected school that boasts alumnae like American Ballet Theatre’s Kevin McKenzie and Amanda McKerrow, actress Shirley Maclaine and Chelsea Clinton, and Maryland Youth Ballet, Cynthia Fonseca’s well-known school that spawned ABT’s Susan Jaffe, Julie Kent and son Peter Fonseca, among others.

She, then Lindsay LaFrankie, was a homegrown Pittsburgh dancer. Dancing along separate paths, they both decided to try the newly-formed Kirov Academy in Maryland. Steven says it was virtually love at first sight and soon they both found themselves in Pittsburgh. Says Lindsay, “There was something about him…I always knew.”

She wound up at PBT, he at PBT and Nashville Ballet. And when their careers had finished, they both turned to teaching…and school. The couple both completed their degrees in 2002.

Steven satisfied a long-time interest in history with a B.A. in History and Philosophy from the University of Pittsburgh (and is now nearing completion of a masters degree in historical preservation from West Virginia University). Lindsay, as it turned out, had a head for numbers and received a B.A. in Management from Chatham College.

Typical of dancers, they balance each other in life. “It would have been difficult to do this alone,” says Steven. “We have each other to talk about problems.”

And to run the Ballet Academy of Pittsburgh, which they founded in 2006 in Bethel Park. So she teaches ballet and pointe, of course, and he ballet, variations and male technique. Steven particularly cites Mansur Kamaledinov, a fixture on the local ballet scene for years, and a great influence.

Formerly of the Bolshoi Ballet, Mansur settled in Pittsburgh. Steven took many classes, some private with the ballet master. “He was a direct link to Vaganova,” he explains. “We would always do variations after class and the students could all turn like tops.”

It shows in their annual recital, which this year featured selections from “Swan Lake,” which obviously drew from their classical experiences as professionals.

The couple have applied all of their knowledge to teaching the students there and delight in watching their progression. Lindsay handles the bookkeeping and Steven the studio management — scheduling, working with people and the like.

But they sometimes cross reference their roles. They would have to as parents to  Kyra, Ava, Stella and Griffin, ranging from age 10 to several months. Just coordinating the family scheduling — Kyra and Ava do swimming and Girl Scouts, but “just want to do ballet” — involves Lindsay’s parents, who only live a mile away. Somehow the Pipers managed to create a calendar where the couple both teach only one day a week. They’re able to have shifts the rest of the time.

But they’re more than parents. Steven says Lindsay “has a way about her — it just keeps on an even keel. She keeps me going.” His wife adds, “He’s the best dad — loving, caring, patient. And it’s a good thing he has three daughters.” (He knows how to work with a predominantly female clientele at BAP.)

It’s a great story, but it seems to run in the family — Lindsay’s parents were high school sweethearts as well. And together these “best friends” are ready to watch BAP grow, to “keep challenging the kids” and “just be happy.”

Maybe Romeo and Juliet could have benefitted from this approach.



Dance Beat: PearlArts, Attack, Charles

July 21, 2012

A PEARL OF A STUDIO. It’s amazing what the arts can do for a neighborhood. We saw what the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater, Dance Alloy and artist lofts did for the East Liberty/Friendship area. Well another neighborhood is being reborn, bordering on Wilkinsburg and Point Breeze. Recently I went to the Grand Opening of PearlArts Studio, located at 201 North Braddock Avenue, near the intersection with Penn Avenue, although the entrance for the studio is actually around the corner on Thomas Boulevard. Armed with a freight elevator, which was cranky, a group of us decided to walk up to the penthouse level. On the way, we passed a facility (storage?) for Carnegie Mellon University’s drama department and it turned out that the top floor had an intriguing montage of visual artists — a dozen or so, some of which were open for perusal. But the main action was at PearlArts, professional home for Staycee Pearl dance project, with major input from husband Herman. We saw some snippets from Staycee’s company and Jil Stifel’s environmental dance inside a plastic environment sculpted by her husband Blaine Siegel, who happens to have a studio around the corner. Good luck to all!

RIVERBOAT DANCE. We’ve seen Attack Theatre in a variety of locations. But their most recent dance platform was the deck of a boat. The fund-raising event attracted, as always, some interesting ship mates on board, not only for the good company of Attack, but the fact that $30 got you the trip, some snacks and a cash bar. It was a great little cocktail hour cruise on Pittsburgh Cruise Lines’ Fantasy from the Strip District, down the Allegheny to the Point and back. Yeah, I’d do it again.

HE’S BA-ACK. One thing Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre has done consistently right. It has hired experienced and talented conductors over the years, including Akira Endo (who hasn’t been doing well health-wise, I hear) and David Briskin (now music director of the National Ballet of Canada). Well, Pittsburgh Ballet renewed music director and conductor Charles Barker’s contract for another three years. PBT is in good company — he is also the conductor at American Ballet Theatre.

On Stage: At the Lake

July 19, 2012

It’s back to Chautauqua for yet another season. To the lake, of course. And the undeniable architectural character of the Athenaeum Hotel. The fountain in Bestor Plaza. Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux. Patricia McBride. The passion for dance that they demonstrate with their company, North Carolina Dance Theater. Read about it in The Chautauquan Daily.

On Stage: In Unity There Was Diversity

July 10, 2012

It was a confluence of the arts at a place that invites the entire Pittsburgh community to meet and greet. Shana Simmons, a Pittsburgh daughter but essentially a newbie to the choreographic scene, took on a grand vision, to explore the architectural nooks and crannies of the Union Project. Called Relative Positions, the former church teemed with visual and performing artists for three hours on a hot summer’s eve. Read about it in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. 

On Stage: A Union Project of the Arts…Dance Driven

July 6, 2012

Yes, you can go home, especially if you bring a gift. North Hills native Shana Simmons, daughter of noted Pittsburgh choreographer and performer Karen, had avoided dance altogether and headed for North Carolina’s Elon University to study communications.

Near the end of her first semester, Shana happened to step into a jazz class there with Linda Szabo to fulfill an arts requirement. The resulting experience led her to call her mother almost immediately and declare, “I like figuring out how my body moves and I think I want to dance.”

Shana took a number of classes, auditioned for Point Park University and was accepted, graduating with a concentration in modern dance, although she admits that she was such “a blank slate” that she took as many classes as possible.

After a four-year stint in New York, Shana opted to attend Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance to gain a degree in choreography. There she saw a two-day multidisciplinary improvisation where viewers could choose between four two-hour tours. Impacted by the bombardment of the arts on the senses, she enjoyed how it was “served to you.”

However, England’s expensive cost of living proved prohibitive and Shana returned to Pittsburgh. Since then she has choreographed several works as an independent artist and presented at the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater and New Hazlett Theater.

But she never forgot the effect of that intense improvisation and decided to build one here. It will be on display at the Union Project on Negley Avenue, a “fantastic” choice given the group’s community and artistic involvement. 

There will be two outside spaces. Inside the building, artists will set up in five other areas, including the catacombs, a pottery studio, a closet space (for spoken word artists), the balcony and the main hall. Each of the performers will have one hour to present their work in a loop, depending on the length of the piece.

Audience members can devise their own loosely-structured tour of the facility, aided by guides and maps. Cocktails and food will be available during the VIP performance at 6 p.m. with Continuum Dance Theater, speed painter Sasha Mirzoyan and collaborations between David Gerard’s impressive-looking brainchild, The Eclectic Laboratory Chamber Orchestra and what amounts to the house dance group, yes, Shana Simmons Dance. general admission will begin at 7 p.m.

That will just be the start of 13 commissioned works as the general admission audience enters shortly before 7 p.m. Delve into the Murder of Halls and Mills, an interactive murder mystery piece by the Murphy/Smith Dance Collective. Improv will abound with The Pillow Project and the veteran combo of Gia T. Cacalano and Jeff Berman, while AMaisTwoOrMore will perform When the Wind Moves (maybe outside if the wind is indeed moving on a hot and humid night?). Then there will be an independent dance group, For the Girl Who Sleeps in Snow (maybe too cold for outside?).

A moving audience can sample more from the likes of Theatre Sans Serif, Elizabeth Hoover and something called tripWire. And therein lies the problem for Shana, because “I’m not going to be able to watch.”

See Listings.



TV: Dance in the Comfort of Your Home

July 3, 2012

I still remember the days when I would eagerly await the latest movie with all the right moves, since there was so little live dance in Pittsburgh. The best of the best?  That Google-like opening camera sequence that swooped in on the playground in West Side Story. And I went back repeatedly to catch Margot Fonteyn and Rudolph Nureyev in MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet, a ballet that elicited passionate paroxysms, relatively speaking, from the New York Times’ critic Alastair Macaulay in its recent American Ballet Theatre performances.

Well, now the dance is coming to me…in my home…at my leisure, with the help of On Demand, DVR and the Internet.

It’s everywhere, so it seems, virtually every night of the week. Or you can view them on your computer…whenever. But certainly the array of programs should appeal to virtually every taste. Well, almost. There are some who are resistant to the artistic quality, like Bill T. Jones, who has been vocal about the topic. But, let’s face it, they have already had an effect on dance-at-large and are not going away, which is a subject for another blog article. In the meantime, here’s a brief rundown:

America’s Best Dance Crew. (MTV)  ABDC just concluded Season 7, with the Electrolytes capturing the crown this year. But if you haven’t been following (and most of American hip hop groups and studios have), catch up online and look ahead to Randy Jackson’s next competition.

Bunheads. (ABC Family, Mondays at 9 p.m.) Finally! A smart show about dance. If you liked the Gilmore Girls, writer Amy Sherman-Palladin has moved from small town life to small town life dance in this tale of a ballerina turned Las Vegas showgirl who impulsively marries a man, moves to a California coastal town and awkwardly settles into life with his mom, who happens to run the local ballet studio. You have to be adventurous to like the odd little paths that the story line takes. Jaw-dropping, surprising and thrilling, Sutton Foster, to those of us who haven’t seen her star on Broadway, is a revelation. In a world of botox, she has a Gumby-like face that registers real emotions. And her timing, which is everything in dance, is applied generously to the terrific plots. Love it!

Breaking Pointe. (CW, Thursdays at 8 p.m.) Here we move behind the scenes of ballet, which has been a virtual no-no in the past. Ballet West, located in Salt Lake City, Utah, opened its doors to the cameras for this reality show. They tackle some taboo subjects about ballet, to their credit, including the stress during promotion time, when some dancers are cut, and the ignominy of being placed in the second cast. The cast is glamorous — this is a top ten American company — and we also explore a robust heterosexual perspective of an art form usually viewed as fey. I predict that it will create new audiences for ballet.

Dance Moms. (Lifetime, Tuesdays at 9 p.m.) We’re in the midst of season two and the Dance Moms are once again locking horns with Abby Lee Miller — the woman we love to hate. Even though the story lines are faux beyond belief — the pyramid, the changing of the routines during the competition season (both things that don’t usually happen) — it’s the Abby-isms that keep viewers coming back.

Dance Moms Miami. (Lifetime, Tuesdays at 10 p.m.) DMM was created to play off the popularity of Dance Moms. It has a Latino flair, but not as much heart as the original.

So You Think You Can Dance. (Fox, Wednesdays at 8; Results on Thursdays). Nigel and company seem to be Nurturers this season, recognizing the dancers’ talents and not cutting them to shreds, which caused problems in previous years, particularly season three’s brilliant runner-up, Danny Tidwell. They have learned that good technique has to be the foundation, that the emotional content is icing, so to speak. We’ll see if America can finally recognize true dance talent — the best results have come from those who never won.

Speaking of SYTYCD, season two runner-up Travis Wall gets his own show in August on Oxygen. It will trace him and three friends as they form a dance troupe. And the perennial popularity of Dancing With the Stars resumes in the fall.

The only thing is, will American dance studio professionals turn away from live performances and embrace dance in their own homes?