Off Stage: Calling All Choreographers

November 21, 2012

We can’t speak highly enough of the Kelly Strayhorn Theater and its support of new choreographers. Apparently there is still room to apply for the Next Stage Residency, but do it quickly. By November 30. If you’re so inclined, read the following:

The Next Stage Residency, created by the Kelly Strayhorn Theater five years ago, is designed to support talented choreographers by giving them the opportunity to explore and develop new material and get feedback during a one-week creative residency that culminates with a showing at the end of that week.

Choreographers are invited to submit an application to participate in the 2013 Next Stage Residency program.

Choreographers are required to participate in all residency activities which will be held between January 21 and 26, 2013 at The Alloy Studios in Pittsburgh, PA. Application Deadline: November 30, 2012 at 5 pm ET. The announcement about the choreographer selected to participate in Next Stage Residency will be made the week of December 17, 2012. For application and more details visit:

CREATIVE RESIDENCY (January 21, 2013 – January 26, 2013)

The Next Stage Residency includes five days of creative rehearsal time, the opportunity to get feedback and a work-in-progress showing on Saturday, January 26, 2013 at The Alloy Studios. The selected choreographer will receive: $1,000 stipend, rehearsal space, housing for visiting artists, and some meals.


Janera Solomon, Executive Director of the Kelly Strayhorn Theater said, “We value innovation and are committed to supporting new ideas and approaches to movement.” Participants will be selected based on a demonstration of the above qualities and must possess a keen desire to develop their ideas through exchange with their peers and audiences.” Choreographer(s) will be selected by a panel of artists and KST Programming Staff.

Through the Next Stage Residency project, six works have been premiered. Participating choreographers have included: Lauri Stallings, Jamie Murphy and Renee Smith; Kyle Abraham, who developed the Bessie Award-winning “The Radio Show” and Sidra Bell who developed “REVUE.” The KST moves series, is curated in a manner that facilitates conversation between the artist and audiences.

As a presenter, the Kelly Strayhorn Theater is committed to supporting the creation of risk- taking new works by producing the cutting edge KSTmoves series that features some of the most innovative choreographers and performers from across the US and around the globe. Choreographers/performers Luke Murphy, who is based between Ireland & New York, and Philadelphia-based and South African native Nora Chipaumire will premiere works at the Kelly Strayhorn during the 2012-13 season.

Dance Beat: Italy, China, Germany

November 20, 2012

THE OTHER MARTHA. Choreographer Martha Clarke has what you might consider a cult following and the awards, including the “Genius Grant,”  to go with it. So it was with great anticipation that the Ballet in Cinema series went contemporary and featured her L’Altra Meta de Cielo (The Other Side of the Sky) for the La Scala Ballet. It was based on the music of aging Italian rock star Vasco Rossi, whose life was filled with drug abuse and whose lyrics are filled with hatred (misogyny, xenophobia and racism). But she transformed all of that into a work about a trio of women and various passages in their lives during adolescence, growth and maturity. It turned out to be quite lovely and telling.


CHINA CONNECTION. It’s always great to hear from former Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre principals Jiabin Pan and Ying Li, who now head Suzhou Science Culture and Arts Centre (SSCAC) in China, home of Suzhou Ballet Theatre. He sent several links, so hard to find because they are all written in Chinese. Jiabin wrote about their production of Romeo and Juliet (above) on a very successful Taiwan tour last year. Apparently the company also performed Double Happiness at the Gala there with companies such as Stuttgart Ballet. The latest full-length ballet is XISI (below), 2,000-year-old legend about a Chinese beauty. He writes that they miss Pittsburgh, but hopes that “one day we’ll find a chance to take the company back [there] to perform.”


THE ORIGINAL PINA. Certainly one of the most memorable films I’ve seen, the Oscar-nominated Pina is coming back, this time to the New Hazlett Theater. If you didn’t catch it the first time out, it would be well worth the effort…or even if you’ve seen it before.  7 p.m., $12.

Dance Beat: PBT, AFA

November 19, 2012

GROWTH SPURT. It’s always easier to get underwriting for the artistic aspect of a ballet company. But Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre has developed a problem with parking. With the growth of its school, parents and students had to cross a dangerous stretch of Liberty Avenue in the Strip District to an overflow parking lot. They are taking steps to correct the problem with Phase III, where the company bought an adjacent 10,800 sq. foot lot, better known as Liberty Mart, to be used for 44 additional parking spaces. Just to refresh your memory, Phase I included the purchase of the Byham House for out-of-town students and new studio flooring for the company dancers and Phase II included a renovated lobby and expanded waiting areas for parents and students. Phase IV will mean the addition of three new studios, enabling PBT to increase its student enrollment from 800 to 1,300.

ON TO THE PRIX. More news from PBT. Seventeen year-old Ellie Morris will be competing in the Prix de Lausanne Jan. 27 to Feb. 2, 2013. Click on Prix.

AFA. We may think that the arts are above the political fray, but arts advocacy will ensure more funding for the arts and education. Check out Americans for the Arts.





On Stage: Life With Dance

November 17, 2012

KDKA anchor Kristene Sorensen has a surprising past, where dance has played an important part in her life. She is taking it to a new level by performing a solo with Bodiography. You might say we need more people like her. Read about it in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

On Stage: Diary of a Young Choreographer

November 16, 2012

I’ve been following Luke Murphy years before he graduated from Point Park University in 2009. He always seemed like One To Watch. (Search his name on CrossCurrents and check out a feature article at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.)

Now that he’s coming back to Pittsburgh to perform at the Kelly-Strayhorn this weekend (see Listings), it’s definitely time to update, which is a rather difficult subject right now.

Certainly it’s tough enough to sustain a dance career in New York City. But when you layer monster Hurricane Sandy on top of things…

So Luke has good and bad news. Yes, he’s alright — “my area wasn’t hit hard.”  But the hurricane “brought the city to its knees. I really see the vulnerability.” Also, Luke is healthy. But so many people that he knows were hurt or killed. He’s glad to have the upcoming Pittsburgh performance, because so many performances and residencies were cancelled. Artists couldn’t work for a week, “which is a big deal financially.”

Photo: John Altdorfer

Up until then, he was working with a number of “name” choreographers. We caught up last December while he was performing with the off-Broadway hit, Sleep No More, a reinvention of Macbeth.

Luke is still there, but has the freedom to do other projects. So he successfully finished dance theater icon Martha Clarke’s Angel Reapers, which the New Yorker called one of the “top ten shows of the year” in 2011. He called her “amazingly talented,” but an artist who allowed her dancers to craft “every individual character, almost like a play. Then we created an arc for that character.”

On the heels of that project came a stint with Kate Weare, whose work has been called a “combination of sophisticated movement invention and high-caliber movement delivery.” Luke calls it “hard-hitting, really physical dancing,” a total difference from Angels.

Add to that The Painted Bird with performance artist Pavel Zušciak, who did a trilogy on Jerzy Kosinski’s novel of the same name and which recently appeared at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Ohio. And he’s concurrently participating in a solo project with choreographer Jonah Bokaer and filmmaker Alan Brown.

Photo: John Altdorfer

Luke is modest. He says he is simply “going, going, going, going, going…” And he considers himself “lucky” to have worked with much more experienced dancers and choreographers who “wanted to work with me.”

But what it’s really done is given him a crash course in what a dance career really means.

So he ruminates on the idea of professionalism, something he has created for himself and a formula that he thinks is pretty simple: Use common sense. Show common courtesy. Show up on time. Don’t be rude. Be kind. Be really present. Be as patient as you can.

“It’s almost as much a craft as an art form,” Luke says, who also works hard to keep himself in good shape. “To be an effective person in the world is what it takes to be an effective professional.”

That attitude seems to be paying off as he brings his latest choreography to the Kelly-Strayhorn, where he will give the U.S. premiere of a duet, Drenched. Luke has created what he terms an installation, working with partner Carlye Eckert and video artist David Fisher.

Photo: John Altdorfer

He will be toying with “the distance between expectation of romance and the reality of it,” something he and Carlye explored for about 18 months by researching pop culture’s iconic songs, movies and poems that form a part of our subconsciousness. David focused on the dramaturgy and a strong editorial sense until they came up with a script and, finally, an overall arc.

It’s been a learning experience for Luke, dealing with the business side of things such as traveling to various venues, renting equipment and creating lighting.

It also meant learning “how I think I would like to work with people and how I actually do. Or where I can make myself comfortable and where I can be less comfortable. What my voice really is and what I want my voice to be.”

It’s been challenging in the finest sense of the word for the young choreographer — constantly challenging and “always for the best.”

I’ll bet it’s just the beginning.

On Stage: A Moving Story of a Horse

November 15, 2012


Photos: Brinkhoff/Mögenburg

It only took five years for this War Horse to gallop into Pittsburgh. But which version? Not Michael Morugo’s award-winning children’s book, which has been around since 1982. And not Stephen Spielberg’s Oscar-nominated film (2011), which actually beat this production to the local finish line.

This was another kind of animal — the stage version that premiered in London in 2007, then captured New York by a storm in 2011. Why did it take so long? Perhaps the producers wondered if the urban chic NYC crowd/ American audiences would fall for the story of a British farm boy and his horse? And with the added violence of a World War I backdrop, so far removed from our lives?

But great art and entertainment transcend almost everything, just like Joey, the War Horse himself. It’s a simple story of love and trust between the horse and Albert, a young farm boy who gets him as a foal and raises him, presumably forever. But World War I intervened and Joey was sold to the army.

War I was the first major conflict that pitted the British old-school calvary against the Germans and their newly-invented machine guns. However, the horses were no match and nearly a million were killed.

That brings up another question. Would War Horse, the play, be able to fill the vast reaches of the Benedum Center? So it did, in stunning fashion, by elevating a childrens’ novel (albeit through a horse’s narrative) with style and grace and piercing drama.

At times the scenic design merely suggested a house with a window and door and a corral where cast members held sections of the railings. But above that was a wide swathe of what looked to be hand-made paper. The changing buildings, landscapes and dates, projected so subtly overhead, resembled the drawings made by one of the major characters, Captain Charles Stewart. They served to clarify the locales over a four-year time period, 1914-18.

But if those elements conveyed the relative unpretentiousness of the time in rural England and France, the lighting and sound design conjured up the emotional and physical impact of war, like startling bombs, inclement weather and a black light curtain at the rear of the stage through which a raft of villagers or a military regiment or those marvelous horses appeared.

Everything proceeded in a seamless fashion, each bit serving only to progress the plot.

But there was the puppetry, not only life-sized, but larger than life. Joey was given his breath and personality by three men, one at the head, one at the heart and one at the hind. That’s why I was there, to see the choreography, improvisation and movement coordination.

At its best it was undetectable, giving Joey an emotional range and, yes, the heart to accomplish so many feats of heroism. I liked the idea that he was slightly smaller and more muscular than his “friend,” the beautiful black stallion Topthorn. But his reddish brown “coat” gave him a certain warmth in a wash of mostly dark and neutral colors.

It has been written that these puppeteers from Handspring Puppet Company were chosen for different things — some dancers, some actors who moved well and some who were good team players, as might have been the case for the hind section.

So I purposely wasn’t swept away by the horses and took time periodically to observe the manipulation. It was easy to see Christopher Mai initiate the trot as he pulled Joey’s head. Derek Stratton would have to hold a position with bent legs for long periods of time as the heart, but he would slowly pulse for an occasional breath. Rob Laqui had to respond quickly and provide a swift propulsion for the back legs.

Therefore, even in “quiet” moments, there was a sense of being. And when the horses literally “jumped” to the fore, as in the ending to the first act, the movement was nothing short of spectacular. Or to see Joey battle a menacing German tank, which added so much to the mounting intensity.

We are accustomed to seeing an epic sweep to the movie genre. But it is rare to see it on the stage. Bottom line: War Horse has to rank as one of the more memorable theatrical productions in my memory. A must-see.


On Stage: A New “Group” Pas de Deux

November 12, 2012

Photos: Aimee Waeltz

It’s important for Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre and other companies like it to expand their sphere of artistic influence without taking on the financial risks of major touring. It also offers artistic benefits, either to give all members of the company additional performing experience, which is so important, or to showcase some of the younger dancers in a setting that holds less pressure.

In the past few years, PBT has pirouetted to regional destinations like West Virginia University, Shady Side Academy in Fox Chapel and Penn State Fayette’s Eberly Campus just outside of Uniontown. But perhaps the most fertile relationship has developed in Greensburg, where the most recent performance produced a tantalizing program, much better than the recent crop of pop-oriented programs.

It was most intriguing because it included the first viewing of Antony Tudor’s Lilac Garden, which Pittsburgh won’t see until March, George Balanchine’s Serenade with live music(!) from the Westmoreland Symphony and a debut for corps member Yoshiaki Nakano, along with the bright-eyed Amanda Cochrane, in the Peasant Pas de Deux from Giselle.

Mr. Nakano has been a dancer to watch. As a graduate student in the PBT school program, he had trouble controlling his tall thin frame. But his raw technique included a soaring jump, an appetite for conquering space and an undeniable connection with audience, which is something you can’t teach.

At the Palace Theater Mr. Nakano had a better handle on that elusive control, although he held back a little in order to concentrate. But his promise bodes well for the future. As for Ms. Cochrane, she had an unflagging energy and delightful personality in a showpiece that relies on its buoyancy for impact.

Serenade has been rather popular with advanced ballet programs in the area (which is alright with me, because it has always been one of my favorite ballets). But PBT has not performed it since 2004.

While there were eight graduate students in the corps, the women had a silky-smooth, cohesive flow throughout the windswept patterns. Julia Erickson always possessed that leggy Balanchine look and her role here, where she filled the romantic expanse of the music, suited her superbly. Elysa Hotchkiss’ remarkable jump produced an added dimension to her performance, but did not totally define it, because she now enhances the dance with a complimentary phrasing in the porte bras. Alexandra Kochis completed the trio of featured ballerinas with a delicate style.

Daniel Meyer showed a natural flair for dance conducting and set precise tempi for the romantic Tchaikovsky score, allowing the dancers to literally ride the music. After only a few moments of hesitation, the Westmoreland Symphony strings dug in to provide a lush accompaniment. If this is any indication of the full orchestra, the Westmoreland area has a real arts asset in this group.

But Lilac Garden (Jardin aux Lilas) held the real allure for me. It’s a rarity to see Tudor ballets these days. I had seen several at American Ballet Theatre back in the ’60’s and I wondered if the distinctive psycho-drama of the British choreographer would hold up.

The ballet takes place in the Victorian Era, where Caroline (Ms. Kochis), is attending a party prior to her nuptials with The Man She Must Marry (Robert Moore). Also in attendance are Caroline’s lover (Luca Sbrizzi) and the fiancée’s former lover (Julia Erickson).

It’s a rather short ballet, but uncommonly complex as the relationships unfold. The dancers have to have a certain stoicism reminiscent of the Victorian Era so that the underlying emotions dart to the surface, but without becoming melodramatic. At the same time, they also have to convey the overall escalating passions indicated in the score.

Then there’s the idea of the lilacs — a garden filled with that wafting scent — so that entrances and exits have an aromatic feel, drifting in and out.

It’s a lot to think about and the dancers were still making their way in their roles, although Mr. Moore had a wonderful weight to the simplest of gestures, like the turn of his head or the placement of his hand. But it was a good beginning.

For now it looks like Greensburg dance fans are intent on continuing the partnership. Hopefully that will extend to the symphony as well and wonderfully-balanced programs like this.