On Stage: Well, Sorta

September 27, 2012

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Attack Theatre takes on its most momentous project yet, tackling a giant blue cube, a multi-colored ship, a gargantuan mural that fills the side of a three-story building. Peter Kope and fellow Attack-ers  carefully selected the outdoor sites, nicely done, with locations spread over North Shore, Oakland, Wilkinsburg, North Side and East Liberty. It really is a lot of fun and, as Peter jokingly points out, “if you don’t like it, it’s your fault.” AT goes to great and complex lengths to make sure that everyone is a part of the creative process. There’s still time to catch the last few performances through Sunday. Click on Attack Theatre to get directions.

On Stage: Lady Camille

September 27, 2012

Camille A. Brown stormed into Pittsburgh at the Kelly-Strayhorn with a world premiere nonetheless. It was a harbinger of things to come, where janera brown and staff have lined up a season full of sneak peaks and early bird performances. It may be moving into the realm of Pittsburgh Dance Council in the ’80’s and ’90’s, bringing a first look at companies that we could not imagine, like Sankai Juki and Lyon Opera Ballet. These are companies known as on-the-rise to dance insiders, so KST audiences may even be able to provide feedback on the various productions and affect future performances. Read about it in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

On Stage: Young Guns

September 22, 2012

If you build it they will come. So went the philosophy of Kevin Costner’s classic baseball movie, Field of Dreams. But what does that have to do with the arts?

Building a concert hall would be cost-prohibitive. But why not turn the tables? Take a group of cool, young and, of course, talented musicians to play in a gallery. Or a Pittsburgh landmark. Then tailor it with the addition of dancers and/or visual artists.

As a dance writer, that’s where I come in. This is the next generation — composers and dancers and artists who are still trying to find their brand, who don’t mind meeting on common ground, who do this all out of passion.

Or else why would we have Eclectic Laboratory Chamber Orchestra joining with Shana Simmons Dance Company, first at a robust collection of more than 20 groups on view at the Union Project this summer, then at Future Tenant, where the two ensembles and audience had a 1:1 ratio (about 25 of each) in that intimate art gallery space.

Then there’s OvreArts, spearheaded by composers Blake Ragghianti and Luke Mayernik, who took a more traditional approach at CAPA recently with eight dancers from Texture Contemporary Ballet, a ninth from The Pillow Project and a 50-piece(!) orchestra.

They can’t be getting paid much, but they are making a discernible buzz.

E.L.C.O. lo-o-oves John Cage and they are betting that, given the right format, they can attract audiences who don’t necessarily need to hear tonal harmonies or simple melodies. Or to be educated. They want the artists play with it. In other words, classical contemporary music doesn’t need to be a solemn affair.

The premise at Future Tenant gallery focused on time, space and memory. Futurist John Cage was sandwiched in amidst music by minimalist Steve Reich, E.L.C.O. artistic director  David G. Matthews (not to be confused with rocker Dave Matthews) and Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides, Now, using a pretty straightforward melody surrounded by clouds of ethereal chords.

Shana Simmons brought a couple of dancers who responded to the music while creating a thoughtful and discernible structure. They also involved audience members, drawing them into the overall experience. And VJ/DJ Casey Hallas reflected it all in her video work — A Starry Night reflected on her screen, clocks, real time memories of the audience.

A wide swatch of great communication between the disciplines resulted in a sophisticated concert format that will stretch an open-minded audience, whether beginner or advanced, visually-oriented or aurally-oriented, in highly effective ways.

OvreArts cofounders Blake and Luke obviously have big plans. They built their own orchestra and chorus and each composed a ballet for the occasion, which attracted a good crowd, splashed with new and equally young faces.

Both have substantial credentials and composing skills, which gave the performance a great foundation. Luke chose The Alkonost, which looked like a variation on The Firebird, with a phoenix-like twist.  Based on an actual Russian legend about a mythological bird (Kelsey Bartman), it had a Stravinsky-esque accompaniment.

Blake supplied Infinity, a highly skillful abstract work with changing meters and textures, actually well-suited to the dance and something that pushed Texture out of its comfort zone at the two CAPA performances.

These organizations were symbolic of a cadre of artists armed with an entrepreneurial spirit, something we have not seen to such an extent before here in Pittsburgh. It’s an overwhelming sense of unbridled creativity. And in the process, they are treading uncharted waters, confident that they can attract and sustain adventurous audiences who want to redefine art and entertainment.

Check them out. Electric Laboratory Chamber Orchestra. OvreArts. Texture Contemporary Ballet.

Commentary: Letting Go of the Past and Embracing the Future

September 14, 2012

It’s a little over a year since Dance Alloy Theater stopped moving. But it certainly moved us that the DAT board did not give this 35 year-old company, the oldest modern dance group in Pittsburgh, a fitting finale.

Instead the performing company was quickly and quietly erased as it was folded into the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater. There were some murmurings about resurrecting the company in a different form by spring 2012. But that didn’t happen and I don’t think it will at this point.

So here’s my own salute to DAT, which opened our eyes to home-grown modern dance in a way that we had not seen. And speaking of growth, this company was one of the primary resources in the healthy expansion of Pittsburgh dance.

In other words, we wouldn’t be seeing what we’re seeing now if it wasn’t for the birth of the then-called Dance Alloy.

The company hired artistic directors like Mark Taylor, Beth Corning and Greer Reed, who continue to contribute to dance in their own ways. One of the early members was Susan Gillis Kruman, who installed a dance minor in her department at Pitt. And we could never forget Elsa Limbach, founder, artistic director and dancer, who guided the company through so many ups and downs and still provides support for the arts.

Photo: Laurent Zieglert

The Alloy brought Michele de la Reza and Peter Kope, founders of Attack Theatre, together for the first time. Scott Timm returned to the area to take over as general manager of Opera Theater of Pittsburgh, while Andre Koslowski still maintains choreographic ties here while heading Pennsylvania Dance Theatre. Jennifer Keller is a mainstay at Slippery Rock University’s growing dance department and Gwen Hunter Ritchie is still a welcome presence as an independent choreographer, instructor (ironically at the Dance Alloy studios), dancer, mother and who knows what else. Most in that last incarnation — Jasmine Hearn, Maribeth Maxa, Gretchen Moore and Michael Walsh, are still infusing dance in Pittsburgh.

But now it’s time to let it go and move on to the upcoming 2012-13 Pittsburgh dance season. Read about it in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and think (if you go back aways), how things would have been without the Alloy forging its way in so many wonderful configurations.

If you have memories to contribute or other Alloy people to note that I might have overlooked, please feel free to comment on this article.

On Stage: A Puppy of a Puppet Performance — Perhaps

September 12, 2012

Photo: Frank Walsh

Corning will readily admit that she is a control freak. So what could be more satisfying than manipulating puppets?

But things aren’t always that simple with Beth. In addition to controlling the movements of her own puppets in The Life & Death of Little Finn, she is producing, collaborating with the movement and performing in this production for The Glue Factory. It is still the first time Beth isn’t the central artistic figure in 7 such projects involving artists over 40 or 50. But then, who’s counting?

Actually, this is good friend Marina Harris’ “puppy,” according to Beth. Folks around here might remember Marina’s contributions to Beth’s tenure at Dance Alloy. There was choreography, costume design and, yes, puppets — most memorably the faceless, armless, legless large fabric doll that Michael Walsh brought to life in Once There Was a House.

In fact, this is “Marina on steroids.” Beth swears that the Nova Scotia artist outdoes her in details. “Everything here is made,” Beth says. The handmade prints are scanned onto the fabric. A pad of paper is not what it seems. Even a pencil.

Marina’s husband, Kip Harris, built the theater, the kind that you acclimate with medieval traveling puppet shows or Punch and Judy or maybe Mr. Rogers.

Except that this will be an adults-only show in a children’s-only setting, Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh — after hours, of course.

It took Marina two years, working every day, to stitch together the story of Little Finn who was “born on angel wings (at least that’s what he was told.” His mother abandoned him at an early age because she was seduced by an unscrupulous lover.” So the story follows his life cycle — school, a job as a bean counter, disastrous dates with women, happiness with a Russian mail order bride…and the end to it all.

Marina, Beth and Melinda Harris toy with a cast including Little Finn (soft puppet), Sharky the Dog (hand puppet), two marionettes, three stick puppets and a whole host of disgruntled co-workers and children strung together. “It’s a huge cast and they’re terribly unruly,” Beth wrily notes.

Marina and Beth had met a long time ago at the Sundance Festival, sharing a love of puppetry and a sharp intelligence. The creative process involved exchanging videos for the far-flung human cast (Melinda danced with Utah Repertory Theater), then assembled at Marina and Kip’s home in Nova Scotia. Beth pauses to wax rhapsodic at the thought of “70 of the most gorgeous acres you’ve ever seen in your life.”

Melinda and Beth stayed in an 1840’s farm house with vista views that stretched down the hill and out to the water and islands beyond. They used to think, “Yay — dance camp!”

It resulted in an intimate production (about 30 audience members at each performance here) that is lovingly constructed and designed to tour.

Like most Glue Factory projects, it promises to surprise. Here Beth cautions that there won’t be a lot of structured dance. But it’s still a cohesive cast — the puppets are all glued together.

See Listings for ticket information. Wed. and Thurs. plus Fri. and Sat. at 8 p.m. are sold out for the hour-long show. Still available: Fri. – Sat. at 8 p.m., Sun. at 6 and 8 p.m.. For audiences 18 and older. Tickets: $30; $25 seniors and students, 8 p.m. Sunday is pay-what-you-can. http://www.showclix.com. 


On Stage: More Intensives

September 11, 2012

REED-ing. Greer Reed and I finally got a chance to sit down and talk a bit after her summer intensive. Speaking of which, the two-week program and performance finale was full of the usual explosive energy. Held at the August Wilson Center for the first time, the staff once again produced big-dance goodies. In other words, they and other area choreographers are getting adept at manipulating large numbers of students in a short amount of rehearsal time. I particularly liked Antonio Brown’s Untitled, which was a real piece of choreography about control, well-designed for the students. But the rest had some real meat as well — Jason McDole tapping American modern master David Parsons, Crystal Frazier offering a slice of America’s Best Dance Crew and Terrence Greene channeling his trademark spiritualism. There was some adult spirit as well — Antonio performing a solo for Leslie Anderson-Braswell, who was honored by Greer and friends. They have established an award in her honor, called the “Brazzy,” where a panel of judges will annually select Pittsburgh’s outstanding male and female dancer. It will be presented for the first time next year at the conclusion of the 2013 summer intensive. Greer is also ready for the new August Wilson Center Dance Ensemble season, although Raymond Ejiofar, an academic wonder, will combine more schooling and dance in California, and Michael Bagne has moved away from Pittsburgh. That means two new male dancers, plus company is set to tour and has plenty of new choreography to offer (more on all that later).

EVOLVE-ing. Across the city, Sarah Parker’s EVOLVE Productions was staging its own intensive and performance. But Sarah adds a professional element called Momentum, where the students attend a showcase of local professional companies, a good thing if you think about it. After all, students should get a taste of a real dance reality, not just things that they see on television. The Pillow Project showed excerpts from Jazz on a Pale Blue Dot, galaxy-driven, although there were some technical glitches, and Gabe Ash trusted company member Antwane Younger to perform a representative lyrical hip hop solo. Texture Contemporary Ballet’s Alan Obuzor and Kelsey Bartman unfolded the lovely biological mystery of a Hydroplaning Flower, but at some length. Maria Caruso solved her own mystery during Pieces in My Puzzle, a shifting series of patterns that held quite some interest and took terrific advantage of her dancers’ movement potential. There was yet another mystery as Murphy / Smith Dance Collective ladled some intensity into an encore performance of The Murder of Halls and Mills. Then Continuum Dance Theater closed things out with an excerpt from Sarah’s upcoming premiere, THE MOVEMENT, set for Sept. 28-29 at The Space Upstairs. Looks like CDT is maturing nicely, with overlapping sculptural movements — it was appealing to watch where the dance was going.


On Stage: Groovin’ to the Jersey Beat

September 10, 2012

Long before the recent onslaught of Jersey Shore and the Jersey-licious Real Housewives, Cake Boss and The (real) Boss, there came what will probably from now on be referred to as The Jersey Boys.

Now they’re still alive and literally kicking at the Benedum Center through Sept. 23. But most of us over 50 knew them as Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons, blessed with an iconic repertoire that included hits like Sherry, Big Girls Don’t Cry, Walk Like a Man and Stay.

Certainly this production has given these Jersey Boys a staying power that they never dreamed of. It’s slick, deftly weaving familiar songs in and out of a script as tight as the vocals.

As for the guys, the whole was better than the parts. Not so much the back-up Seasons — a suitably youngish Jason Kappus (Bob Crewe), the complicated jailbird Colby Foytik (Tommie DeVito), foundation bass Brandon Andrus (Nick Massi), who produced a terrific blend. But Brad Weinstock, who beautifully channeled Frankie Valli’s developing maturity with a real theatrical skill, right down to the stance and walk, did not really soar in the vocals, perhaps because the sound system didn’t provide the support for his high-flying vocal parts at the Friday performance.

On the whole, though, you would have to say that this cast physically mirrored the originals. But as everyone settled into this entertaining and sometimes uncompromising look back at the recording industry of the ’60’s, I began to think about the choreography that defined so many groups of the time. It highlighted their songs with simple moves that virtually anyone could do, but polished them to a precision and sheen that often contributed to their success.

Think about Gladys Knight & the Pips or The Temptations. In fact, there’s a brief reference in The Jersey Boys and how they incorporated some moves that were being done by black groups. But examples on YouTube show very little. In fact, Frankie Valli mostly just stood and sang, much like Adele does today.

Same effortless delivery, though. Some things never change.

Sergio Trujillo’s choreography itself was a contemporary extension of the ‘60‘s style that dominated The Jersey Boys. Once these guys inserted some moves into the routines, they were undeniably sharp and precise.

That underscored both the excitement of the burgeoning group as they went about building a recording career and the tensions inherent in the script. Besides, they had to reach to the back of the Benedum’s balcony.

Just like ballet and modern, Trujillo’s take on do wop was amplified, or, as Greased Lightning put it: “automatic, systematic, hydromatic.” But still chaste in comparison to today’s popular dance, because when we see the moves on today’s extreme hip hop and crotch-grabbing rock ‘n roll, we sometimes scratch our heads and wonder just how far it will all go.