On Stage: A Return to 2084

October 31, 2012

Photo: Derek Stoltz

Pearlann Porter was four years older and presumably four years wiser when she decided to “re-imagine” her 2008 breakthrough piece, the George Orwellian Twenty Eight-Four, in 2012. I guess we can muse on the massive differences that developed during that seemingly short period of time (technological advances, Arab Spring, etc.). But more than that, we can all draw on certain similarities, such as an  inference to the parallel presidential elections.

At first the audience huddled in the downstairs “lobby.” The walls were lined with doors, presumably from the adjacent Construction Junction and reminiscent of Alexander Bell’s  quote, “when one door closes, another opens…” On a grand piano sat the inspirations for the performance — Cosmos by Carl Sagan, Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury and, of course, Mr. Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. There were other little details in the room, enough to create a feeling of warmth and intimacy and perhaps spark a conversation or two.

When the audience finally ascended the steps to The Space Upstairs, we found an atmosphere similar to a dark urban jungle, created by partitions and covered with bleak “doublespeak” word phrases. Shadowy figures meandered about.

Yes, re-imagined and perhaps a little deflating in that nothing had really changed.

As far as I can recall, the audience seating was more formal than the helter-skelter furniture groupings that are a hallmark of Pillow Project performances. We sat on three tiers of folding chairs arranged at either side of command central, or where Pearlann and Mike Cooper, the brains behind the scenic design, manipulated their own brand of soft tech special effects (although Jordan bush was listed for “Design and Propaganda”).

The most wondrous of them remained, particularly the white dots of light (perhaps nearly a thousand?) that transferred anywhere from a star-lit sky to the palms of the dancers and straight to their hearts. The dancers also seemingly manipulated blocks of light, pushing their way out of a physical or emotional prison.

Photo: Cassie Kay Rusnak

In between there were extended solos, mostly to Radiohead, with additional sound designs by PJ Roduta. Pretty seamless, which is an achievement. Anna Thompson, with a shock of white blonde hair and a confident sensuality, mesmerized at the start as The Paranoid Firebird. Riva Strauss’ Static, with a corporate sensibility, pushed on for too long. Zëk Stewart (Red Light), brought things to a close with a soft-sense and quite original brand of hip hop, filled with movement textures and our first real look at a terrific addition to the company.

Perhaps the scariest things was the bank of television sets that were projected over the expanse of a large wall, inflating the original concept, although it essentially remained the same, a montage of that historic election in 2008.

Four years later, we found that the right wing (Sarah Palin, The Tea Party) has exerted considerable influence on America’s path, where political figures are trying to control immigration and womens’ rights. Google is now a version of Big Brother, where our tastes and preferences are monitored and a personal iPhone can track our every move. And we’re having heated conversations about the value of education.

This Twenty Eighty-Four was a bit more structured, a bit more controlled. But it still made its point…and more.








On Stage: A Real Success From PBT’s Spiritual “Giselle”

October 31, 2012

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Performing any one of the handful of classic full-length ballets is like playing a Mozart violin concerto or a Beethoven piano concerto — everyone knows what’s coming next and/or they have heard it before and are able to strike a comparison. So it’s really difficult to stake out your own territory with ghostly reminders of what has come before. But sometimes things just jell, as PBT did this past weekend in “Giselle,” where virtually everything was just about “perfect” (or about as close as you can come in the ballet world. Read about it in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Myrtha: Elysa Hotchkiss; Berthe: Janet Popaleski; Wilfred: Joseph Parr; Photos: Rich Sofranko

Off Stage: Ballet Moves East, Then Back to the West

October 29, 2012

Japan may have embraced Western art forms — symphonic classical music, opera and ballet — at a relatively late date, but it now has mastered  them. What we think of as ballet, though, has some different twists in Japan. See what drives students to excel and to leave Japan for their careers. All in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Photos: Amy Waeltz.

On Stage: Patricia on Gene Kelly

October 27, 2012

Patricia Ward Kelly has proven that she is determined to keep the Gene Kelly name alive. Not only does she attend the Gene Kelly Awards, but she visits different school while she’s in town and has become something of a name herself here in Pittsburgh. A book on her husband is nearing completion and her recent talk at the University of Pittsburgh was part literary preview and a colorful splash of his films. You had to come away with a renewed respect for the man — a perfectionist who pushed the boundaries of the film industry itself and who cast dance in a new light. Read about the event in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and revel in some film samples from Patricia’s talk:

They said it couldn’t be done, but Gene did this number. He filmed the two men separately, using musical cues and black curtains to achieve a precise mirror image. Gene told Patricia it was the hardest thing he ever did.

This clip from “It’s Always Fair Weather” didn’t have any special effects, just pure Gene. It’s admittedly Patricia’s favorite.

Patricia noted that this portion of “An American in Paris” had to be cut in several countries because it was too sensual.

Most of us have seen the Gene and Jerry the Mouse number, but there’s a popular contemporary version out and about now. Enjoy!

On Stage: Lorca and Flamenco

October 26, 2012

“Spain is a bull burning alive.” (David Henry Hwang libretto.)

There are few artists who inspire a passion like Federico Garcia Lorca, whose writings reflect so much of the Spanish duende or soul. Those veins run deep through both pain and promise, something that is eloquently displayed in Quantum Theatre’s latest production, composer Olvaldo Golijov’s Ainadamar.

Duende is most familiar in the song and dance of flamenco, which director Karla Boos smartly tapped as the wellspring of this Grammy Award-winning chamber opera. It is a vital part of Mr. Golijov’s deliriously intricate score, which also includes musical elements from gypsy, Jewish and operatic idioms, then periodically processes them electronically, along with the sounds of galloping horses and water.

However production instigator and conductor Andres Cladera wore the score like a second skin, skillfully molding the orchestra and its adjacent sounds around the story.

The events were not told by Lorca, but instead by his friend and long-time supporter, the great Catalan actress Margarita Xirgu. The audience sees her as she is dying, gathering her strength for one last performance of Lorca’s Maria Pineda in Uruguay in 1969. Lined up against the walls of the Spanish-style social hall at East Liberty Presbyterian Church, they watch as she reconstructs their time together before his death at the hands of the military.

Lorca, played by Racquel Winnica Young in an all-female cast, had a deep confidence and authority. But it was Katy Williams’ Margarita who had to shoulder the responsibility for the opera, railing at the chaos and vagaries of war as she came to grips with Lorca’s talent and the revolution that cut short his life. It was something she accepted with a complete emotional commitment and vocal skill.

She was aided by a quartet of young women who had to keep the surging drama afloat, led by Leah Edmondson Dyer, who had a clarity and sweep in her role as Nuria, Xirgu’s favorite student. Daphne Alderson, Lara Lynn Cottrill and Erica Olden took on various roles, where they each had a solo section, all handled adroitly, then almost magnetically returned to a creamy blend of their voices.


In a brilliant stroke, Ms. Boos expanded the flamenco accent by using longtime collaborator Carolina Loyola-Garcia. She choreographed her own flamenco phrases to suit Ms. Boos’ direction, whether with an all-out fervor or the sinuous poetry of the words. But it was her transformation into a Fascist military leader that truly surprised and where she channeled the throaty pangs of authentic flamenco song.

It was also a tribute to Ms. Boos’ direction that she was able to sustain the heat and fervor inherent in the production, right from the opening cacophony that assaulted the senses. She asked a lot from her audience in absorbing both an unfamiliar subject and its rich, but challenging score, all the while scanning the projected translations and character action.

And she didn’t back away from one of the evening’s most compelling scenes, where slides depicted the horrors of war — bodies lining the ground in historical photos that seem oddly familiar even today.

No doubt it would take another viewing (or more) to pierce the fabric of this important work. But still, in the end, Ainadamar was undeniably one of Quantum’s most memorable achievements.

Through Nov. 3 — check Listings.






On Stage: Bringing the Spirit of “Giselle” Alive

October 25, 2012

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre ballet master Marianna Tcherkassky, considered one of the great Giselles of her time. Read a previous Post-Gazette article on her (2001) at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. But behind every great ballerina is a great baton, wielded by the orchestra conductor. PBT has someone who fits the bill.


Conductor Charles Barker was faced with a decision — head to Barcelona, Spain with the American Ballet Theatre or come to Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s production of “Giselle.”

Before you get too excited, there were a few other factors, mainly that Charles is a currently a devoted family man. His sons are age 7 and 10 and he knows that it is “critical to spend time” with them” as they grow. In fact, he and his wife spent all of August at the beach, riding bikes and hiking — one day physical and one day “off.”

But it also helped that he had such a great relationship with the local company and its orchestra, perhaps a key reason that PBT extended his contract another three years. He takes great pleasure that the orchestra is always “itching to do it,” calling the local musicians both “impressive” and “talented.”

“There’s a mutual respect there,” he says. “And a willingness to try.”

Along the way over the past years, the repertoire has been deliciously challenging for the maestro “Romeo et Juliette,” “Cinderella,” “The Three Musketeers.” And he hasn’t done this particular production of “Giselle.” Not that this is a Creole Giselle, such as that found in Dance Theater of Harlem or the contemporary version by ballet superstar Sylvie Guillem or any one of approximately 15 other versions he performed(American Ballet Theatre, San Francisco Ballet, Houston Ballet, The Royal Ballet).

Musically this “Giselle” might be pretty similar to the more traditional interpretations. At PBT Mr. Barker will still keep an eye on “entrances and how long to hold a phrase” so that the dancers can perform at an optimum level.

But he won’t allow himself to go “on autopilot. We have to create interest and life and pizzazz.” For that he trusts his Pittsburgh musicians. “Even though they know it well, there will still be a magic and mystery.”

Maybe that’s because he was once an orchestra concertmaster himself. While leading a chamber orchestra, Mr. Barker got the opportunity to lead the group. At first he stood with his violin. The feeling was great, so he “took some lessons, had some great luck” and was soon on his way to The Carnegie and The Metropolitan Opera, even John Curry’s ice skating company.

It was a “trial by fire,” but it was also a “cool job,” as Mr. Barker concluded. “The level of accuracy or perfection is insignificant.” The challenge to conduct 1-2-3-4 “ain’t that hard.”.

The hard part is actually the “conceptual part,” the way to prepare the orchestra, with limited rehearsals, to be ready at the dress rehearsal. “I have to know what the composer wants and verbally translate it to the orchestra — it carries the heavy weight of responsibility.”

So Mr. Barker always brings his “A” game, nothing that “if I’m making things clear and they’re watching what I’m doing, then everything goes smoothly.

It certainly has to be better that one of his early “Giselles,” performed while he was conducting an Australian Ballet tour to China in the ’90’s. Mr. Barker was conducting the Nanjing Song and Dance Orchestra at a facility about three hours west of Shanghai. Not only was this orchestra not on its game, but the audience brought food and talked loudly to their friends. To bridge the language gap, he would sing the first two bars so that the orchestra would zero in on the tempo.

Mentally “swearing a blue streak” and aware of people passing food behind him in the front row, the usually amiable conductor recalls this as the worst “Giselle” he ever led.

But the ballerina playing the title role recalled it differently, as one of her best performances ever.

She was Miranda Coney, who became his wife.

Through Oct. 28 — see Listings.

On Stage: Flamenco Spirit Resurrected at Quantum

October 24, 2012

It’s a long and winding road to the latest Quantum Theater production of Osvaldo Golijov’s Grammy Award-winning chamber opera, Ainadamar. Audience members will enter East Liberty Presbyterian Church’s Highland Avenue entrance and follow the signs along the main floor hallway, then down a circuitous series of staircases into the social hall.

The atmosphere is rather dark and intense, with audience seats in multiple tiers along sides, much like the nave in a cathedral. Will we be judge and jury? A few more platforms in the middle serve as theatrical stage devices.

The company is rehearsing some problem spots in the opera, which means “fountain of tears” in Arabic, the presumed site of premier writer Federico Garcia Lorca’s death. As they begin, there is an equally intense atmosphere generated by the overlapping trio of women’s voices, so rich and immediately compelling.

The expressive words of librettist David Henry Hwang play over three screens scattered around the hall and a full orchestra delves into the Golijov’s layered score, conducted by Andres Cladera. The story, so impressionistic, reveals the relationship between Lorca and his muse, great Catalan tragedian Margarita Xirgu.

The audience will see it all from her perspective, her memories and an all-female cast will cover the roles.

When Cladera heard it about two years ago, the music director “loved it from the get go.” Of course, it is “a very powerful story” to him because Xirgu is a Uruguayan heroine, having established the national theater in his home country. And, as it turns out, the libretto begins in Montevideo, Uruguay.

When he took the CD to director Karla Boos, she had the same reaction. “I put it on, listened to it in the dark and, without understanding one word, I decided to do it. I just adored the music — I just conjured up all these images.”

She calls music in general “an emotional language,” and, when a part of an opera, “ultimate theater.”

Certainly the score itself, which emanates from the flamenco, is highly complex, at times wafting around the hall, then having a rhythmic element, then haunting with the soulful textures of the all-female cast. Woven into all of that are echoes of trumpets, the processing of strings through a midi-keyboard and pre-recorded sounds such as water and the galloping of horses.

Cast member Carolina Loyola-Garcia admits that she is a full-time filmmaker, but her longtime involvement with flamenco and with Quantum Theatre (The Red Shoes, Maria de Buenos Aires, Yerma, 36 Views) is sending her down new paths, where she will both sing and act as the statue of Maria Xirgu, the symbol of flamenco and a representation of Lorca’s poetry, plus transform into Fascist military figure Luis Alonso.

She just received a new pair of flamenco shoes from Spain and is nursing her feet with ice packs.

“It’s very challenging,” she modestly says, adding that the complexities in Ainamadar are “like peeling an onion,” but implying that the result will be well worth the effort.

Through Oct. 28. See Listings.