On Stage: For Real at PBT

August 28, 2012

Photo: Aimee Waeltz

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre returned from its Israel tour in good shape at Hartwood Acres. Read the Hartwood article by clicking on Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Also on hand were a trio of apprentices…

One is a Florida blond, another from ballet-scarce Rhode Island and the third pretty much a home-grown talent. These are Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s three new faces who will replace retired principal dancer Erin Halloran and corps members Aygul Abougalieva, Ted Henderson and Ashley Wegmann for the upcoming 2012-13 season.

Casey Taylor could be considered a Pittsburgher. Born in New Jersey, her parents moved here when she was one-year old, so her training has deep roots here. She left to study at Pacific Northwest Ballet for two years and then worked at Dresden’s Semperoper in Germany and at Pennsylvania Ballet’s Nutcracker.

The experience paid off when Erin retired mid-season this past year due to a hip injury. Casey was hired as an apprentice and played the Nurse in PBT’s production of John Neumeier’s A Streetcar Named Desire.

She brought back with her a healthy interest in a lot of things, like traveling (Prague in the Czech Republic, among others), photography (to express herself artistically in a different way) and cooking (like discovering the versatility of eggs).

Artistry does come in many forms…

Her apprenticeship was solidified at the end of the season, perhaps because she considers herself a “quick learner. I like to work together, to learn and figure things out.” And she wouldn’t mind “stepping in on a moment’s notice.”

It turns out that Corey Bourbonniere has already done that. When corps member Makoto Ono was injured at a dress rehearsal of The Three Musketeers, Corey stepped in the day of the performance and learned the role.

He had virtually no previous background to prepare him for that moment. Born in North Providence, Rhode Island, also known as Woonsocket, good ballet was hard to find. But Corey did study at the State Ballet of Rhode Island and Heritage Ballet before he auditioned for PBT’s high school program in 2009. The staff requested that he stay for his senior year, then two years of grad school before he was accepted into the company.

“It was an eye-opening experience,” Corey says. “It changed my technique; I grew stronger. They really bring the best dancer out of you.”

JoAnna Schmidt came from Eustis, Florida, centrally located between Daytona Beach and Tampa. And yes, she studied at the Central Florida Ballet, home of the World Ballet Competition, with which PBT has established a connection.

JoAnna attended a job fair at the competition with the idea of attending a university dance program when PBT ballet mistress Marianna Tcherkassky approached her and offered her a spot in the grad program.

“It seemed like a great and enlightening opportunity,” she recalls. “I think she could tell I just wanted to keep on dancing — I had a love for dance.”

While Corey appreciates Pittsburgh more now that she is back (“I see things much better”), JoAnna, also an accomplished pianist, discovered Pittsburgh to be “very diverse. I like that it rains a lot (I guess I got tired of the sun). It almost feels like a big neighborhood rather than a city.” Corey calls it “a big melting pot of the arts” and enjoys seeing different performances.

But now they will all meet on common ground as apprentices, often observing for much of rehearsal in this first year. Still, they note that it’s “motivating” to watch the company members, how they are focused during rehearsal, but fun-loving outside.

But they will have to continue to grow as they observe. “Some dancers get stuck when they first join the company,” says Corey. “It’s really hard to improve.” Joanna adds, “You have to push yourself, become your own teacher.”

With the staff members no longer looking over their shoulder, they seem ready for the challenge…and the opportunity.


Happy 100th Birthday, Gene!

August 23, 2012

On Stage: A Spirited Conclusion to the Chautauqua Season.

August 22, 2012

Photo by Tom WolfThere’s always a powerhouse end to the Chautauqua dance season as Chautauqua’s School of Dance produces a student-driven Choreographic Workshop, often with live music from Chautauqua program participants, on Friday afternoon. Then North Carolina Dance Theatre joins with the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra on Saturday night and Chautauqua’s School of Dance students strut their stuff on Sunday afternoon. It’s a win-win situation as parents not only get to see their own children, but the quality of the program and, with a weekend stay, the professional resources of NCDT. (You can read the NCDT review and see the accompanying photo slideshow by clicking on The Chautauquan Daily.)

Now for a few words about the students themselves. Five works came from the Choreographic Workshop and were repeated on the Sunday program. Ranging from the Gershwin-like Preludes to Tango Bramare with a live tango quartet, they were all remarkably astute. This appears to be a trend among various student programs in the area, hinting that dance will perhaps be producing a high level choreographer in the near future.

The School of Dance has been expanding its curriculum and the students performed some contemporary works, always clever, by Jon Lehrer, and modified hip hop for ballet students by Rachel Humphrey, a terrific addition, although Mark Diamond’s Foresight had heavy-handed subject matter that was above the teenagers’ life perceptions.

Some of the treasures of this performance always come from Maris Battaglia, who coaches the younger students, beginning at age 11. They promenade onto the stage like mini-Bolshoi Ballet members, so lifted and pleasant and so in sync as if they had trained together for years. There was an exquisite Pas de Trois for the talented Claire Georgiadis, Caitrin Murphy and Scotto Hamed-Ramos and a brilliant take-off on The Red Shoes, where 14 budding ballerinas, all in white leotards and tights with simple red skirts, carried shoe boxes onto the stage. Yes, they all contained red ballet shoes and followed with smart references to the classic movie.

And it all began so charmingly with Mozart and a bevy of little beauties in blue.

It also ended in a gossamer blue, as Patricia McBride staged George Balanchine’s Serenade, which has become a staple for advanced ballet programs in our area (and we are blessed!) and is obviously a transcendent experience for every young dancer who has had the pleasure of floating through this masterful piece of choreography. Maybe it wasn’t as moonlit as usual, being held in the open air during the afternoon, but the young cast made it feel that way, particularly Isabella LaFreniere, who was only 16, but was making artistic choices worthy of a dancer in her mid-20’s.

The following is a Youtube video featuring Isabella last year at age 15.

On Stage: An “Intensive” Summer

August 13, 2012

At the Point. Point Park University’s International Summerdance was rolling merrily along according to its final performance series, which had as strong a dance contingent as I’ve seen over the years. The choreographers provided a whole rainbow of dances, from Scott Romani’s Steal Your Rock ‘n roll to Kathleen Reilly-Reau’s Les Fleurs, where some of the “flowers” were sporting braces. Kiesha Lalama provided an African-layered number that unfolded like a Rubix cube — she’s so mathematical. And nothing was what it seemed in David Storey’s BUT Seriously, Though, where sounds of screams mutated into clown noses — really! At the end, Kiki Lucas transcended the decades, starting with the forties, in the powerfully effective Zap. Photographer Drew Yenchak provides some insight in this slideshow:

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PBTs Diplomatic Relations. I paid a visit to Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School’s Summer Intensive a short time ago and had a chance to talk with a delightful contingent of students from Japan who know a heckuva lot more English than I do Japanese. But more on that later as I work on a story about Japan’s passion for ballet.


Following in Some Big Footsteps. It looks like Ryan Lenkey had a great time making his debut with the New York City Ballet at Saratoga Springs, New York, in the mandolin dance from Peter Martins’ Romeo and Juliet. Since he studies at Pittsburgh Youth Ballet, he was thrilled to work with former PYB member and former NYCB principal dancer Stephen Hanna, who donated his time to work on the mandolin dance with Ryan, and NYCB principal and young guest artist with PYB Daniel Ulbricht, who played Mercutio in the production.

On Stage: Bluegrass and Ballet

August 8, 2012

It’s not too often that you find greasy beans in your ballet. But in North Carolina Dance Theatre’s Dance Innovations, part of Chautauqua’s summer season, the company joined forces with long-time collaborators Greasy Beans in Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux’ Shindig. I saw this ballet a couple of years ago at Kennedy Center’s Ballet Across America II where, among nine companies, NCDT probably would have walked away with the audience popularity award. (The third edition of Ballet Across America returns next summer, where NCDT will be a part of the line-up once again.) There is a reason for the overwhelming audience reaction to Shindig, which you can read about in The Chautauquan Daily.

On Stage: The Exponential Power of Jazz

August 7, 2012

Photo: Gorman Cook

The Jazz World Dance Festival came to town with a hoard of jazz lovers from around the globe. The energy was infectious — how did these students maintain their enthusiasm throughout a day of classes and then at night supporting the dancers and companies in performances? Giordano Dance Chicago and Point Park University put together a balanced act — good educational classes, professional performances, an International Choreography Competition to support new talent and a series of auditions at various national schools. Bravo!

Photo: Gorman Cook

Dance Beat: Dynasty Dance Beat

August 6, 2012

Gabriel “Kg” Ash recently conducted a workshop called The Royal Grind along with guest instructor Sean Bankhead at Pittsburgh Dance Center in Bloomfield. The turnout was good and the participants patient as they waited for Sean, who was a little late due to an airline snafu. Evidently his flight was overbooked — it’s getting harder and harder for the gypsy-like nature of dancers! But all was well that ended well, as you can see in this slideshow by photographer Bob Shirley. You can also click on his website at www.billshirleyphotogaphy.com.

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