On Stage: Cirque’s “TORUK” Flies Over Pittsburgh

June 25, 2016

Expectations can sometimes produce limitations. For those who have enjoyed  visiting Cirque du Soleil’s numerous flights of fancy, the Montreal organization has built its audiences through an emphasis on “cirque” or circus acts. However, they have increasingly improved those acts to harbor a real artistic flair in the choreography and obviously wanted to keep growing physically and aesthetically.

The group’s latest production that flew into Pittsburgh, an arena show called TORUK — The First Flight, indicated a new path. Yes, there were spectacular aerial and acrobatic performances, but it was easy to see that TORUK was another breed of performance animal.

Photo: Errisson Lawrence

Photo: Errisson Lawrence

Unlike previous arena shows such as the mega-rock Delirium (2006), the “joy”-ful Alegria (2009) and Fellini-esque Quidam (2011), all in the traditional mold, this show emphasized a new direction, a stretching, if you will, of Cirque’s fertile imagination. It was no longer a show loosely built around a series of standalone acts. There was an obvious emphasis on a cohesive concept show that integrated acrobatics in a far more sophisticated way.

Yes, folks, the acts were still there. A giant webbed loom was crawling with performers and served to “catch” aerial jumpers. The huge skeleton of a reptilian Thanator was the basis for a brilliant group balancing act. A warrior dance used large poles that not only hinged in two but lifted some of the performers high into the air. Yes, it often wasn’t business at usual. And TORUK demanded more of the audience because it didn’t always indicate noticeable endings to draw applause. In some instances, the audience might not be sure if something was finished. (Don’t worry — just settle back and allow yourself the luxury of multiple choices because there is never a single focal point. There is always something else to catch the eye.)

 

TORUK LEADAlthough the Na’vi Storyteller could not always be understood, the story itself was simple enough, a tale of life-long friends, Ralu and Entu, who, just on the brink of manhood, join forces with a new friend, Tsyal, to save the sacred Tree of Souls and thus the Na’vis themselves. It supposedly took place 3,000 years before the film. One note: audiences must get past the fact that these Na’vis aren’t the tall, lithe characters found in James Cameron’s award-winning movie, AVATAR. They are shorter, more muscular characters, but with a lightness and elegant physicality of their own as they prowl and play on a versatile set by Carl Fillion.

Unlike the afore-mentioned arena shows, this wasn’t a set that seemed separated from the audience. Those productions would use oh-so-clever clowns to lure audience members into the fabric of the show through skits. TORUK did it in a different way. Expert, multi-focal direction from Michel Lemieux and Victor Pilon made great use of a three-dimensional landscape that had an island at the center and was ringed with rocks and soft tumbling platforms. It brought the action even closer and  better yet, sent cast members scampering up and down the steps radiating into the nearly 20,000 seat arena’s rafters.TORUK EMUSThe technology, however, was not as simple as the story. It was, if anything the star of the show —  cutting-edge and verging on the spectacle of the opening ceremonies in an Olympic event. This was epic movie-making in the flesh — a true 3-D rendering of its own, inspired by Cameron’s film. It bathed the seats in shades of blue, almost transforming the audience into Na’vis and the special effects included a flood, an earthquake, a volcano and so much more.

TORUK LOOM

Some of it may have seemed vaguely familiar, like the play on Lion King puppetry, so artistic and with AVATAR-like Viperwolves and Direhorses (six legs!), and newly formed Austrapedes (ostrich/pink flamingo/dinosaur) and a Turapede (turtle/shark) added to the mix. There was also a projection at the back that might have been gigantic Na’vi eyes from the movie and the whole story once again circled around a fantastical tree and its environment.

Not only did the familiarity draw people in, but audience members could be part of the production in a new way, by downloading an app onto their iPhones. So when a starlit night appeared, it was enhanced by dozens of tiny screens that twinkled on their own.

TORUK FANSAfter all those dazzling effects, the ending actually topped it all with thousands of LED lights. It was a huge magical message, much like the spaceship that came to rescue ET.

This is a production that filled the vast Consol Energy Center, scene of exciting hockey contests (including this year’s Stanley Cup series and ultimate win), driving rock ‘n roll shows and Monster Jams, none of which can match Cirque du Soleil. TORUK brought something new — a welcome sense of wonder, which is no easy feat.

The city of Pittsburgh even took its cue from TORUK. When the audience left , they were greeted by buildings set against the onset of a night sky, yes, in shades of blue, yet another award, this time from nature itself.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Dance Beat: Dance Films, Twyla, Dance Teachers

October 27, 2015

DANCE ON FILM. We know that the Bolshoi and Royal ballet companies have been putting out live performances aimed at mass market filmgoers for several years now. Click on Bolshoi.  Click on Royal. But it appears that there is another facet, Lincoln Center at the Movies, that has joined in the fun and, at least for the near future, will present Ballet Hispanico (CARMEN.maquia and Club Havana), New York City Ballet’s The Nutcracker (having missed San Francisco Ballet and Alvin Ailey). We all know that dance looks best  in three dimensional live performances. But this is a great opportunity — at last — to see some of America’s best, a treat in itself. As a bonus, Kelly Ripa and Michael Strahan will be hosting. Click on Lincoln Center. Many thanks to the local Cinemark Theaters, particularly Robinson, Monroeville and Pittsburgh Mills, for presenting dance. But it has a better chance of continuing in the future if there is a bigger turnout.

THARP NICK AND EVATWYLA THARP. Although it’s a shame that Pittsburgh is not participating in her 50th Anniversary Tour, she’s ba-a-ack, and bringing former Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre dancers Eva Trapp and Nicholas Coppula with her. You can catch them at Kennedy Center in Washington D.C, Nov. 9-15 and in New York City Nov. 16-22. Click on Twyla for more details and check out a couple of Trapp/Coppula snippets on the Kennedy Center website. Twyla also has a knack for writing and has been keeping a journal with the New York Times. Eva and Nick have been featured in photos. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/31/arts/dance/monsters-unleashed.html?emc=edit_tnt_20150831&nlid=59926186&tntemail0=y&_r=0

THANK A DANCE TEACHER DAY! Probably if you’re reading this blog, you know a dance teacher or two. Local veteran Susan Gillis Kruman reminded me and I’m reminding you to mark your calendar for Dec. 1, when you can officially send them a thanks. Click on National Dance Education Organization.


Dance Beat: Loti Falk Gaffney

October 20, 2015

Maybe they knew something. Above is the tribute that Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre assembled in honor of board founder Loti Falk Gaffney at the 45th Anniversary Gala last April at the Benedum Center. It was a wonderful occasion, with board members fully committed to send PBT to the next level. Her granddaughter accepted on behalf of Loti, who was too frail to travel from her home on East 66th Street in New York City.

She died there on Oct. 13 at the age of 94, surrounded by family and caretakers.

But she left behind an arts legacy that still resonates here in Pittsburgh. I watched her struggle to get PBT on its feet during the early years. And I talked with her prior to the company’s 35th anniversary for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, where she spoke of those difficult, yet exhilarating  times. You can read about it here.


Dance Beat: Bill Shannon, Starz. Flesh and Bone, Bolshoi

June 13, 2015

3RIVERS NEGOTIATION. There was a satisfying conclusion to the Bill Shannon/3Rivers/CREATE2015/Wyndham Grand issue. (See yesterday’s post). Bill was able to complete his contract that evening at 6 p.m. during the cocktail party for CREATE, which looked to be a hit. He pushed his shopping cart, with minimally squeaky wheels, across the social area. Then he donned his “mask” for a walk-through, with considerable interest from attendees. Thank you, Veronica Corpuz, director of the Dollar Bank Three Rivers Arts Festival!

flesh-bone-artFLESH AND BONE. For those of you who have Starz, there will be a new reality show this fall based on a balled company. Titled Flesh and Bone, it will feature honest-to-goodness ballet dancers. Sarah Hayes, former American Ballet Theatre soloist who did many of the technical shots in Natalie Portman’s Black Swan and current member of Semperoper Ballet in Germany, has won the leading role. Also in the cast are former ABT principal dancer Irina Dvoravendo and soloist Sasha Radetsky, plus Ballet Arizona’s Raychel Diane Weiner to lend reality to the show’s ballet world. As if that weren’t enough, former ABT principal and current artistic director of the New Zealand Ballet Ethan Stiefel (Center Stage) will serve as consultant and choreographer. Moira Walley-Beckett, writer on Breaking Bad, will head a production team including  executive producers Lawrence Bender (Inglorious Basterds, Good Will Hunting), Kevin Brown (Rosewell), John Melfi (Sex and the city, House of Cards). Bender and Walley-Beckett are former dancers and Brown’s family served as a basis for the Oscar-nominated feature The Turning Point. Although Bunheads and Breaking Pointe were juicy dance dramas, Flesh and Bone,  has the potential to be a truly adult, perhaps award-winning ballet drama. Stay tuned.

BOLSHOI NEWS. The Bolshoi Ballet is set for a new season to be shown in movie theaters, although the Pittsburgh area audiences have been rather sparse. Hopefully that will change. On tap for 2015-16 are Giselle (Oct. 11), George Balanchine’s Jewels, featuring prodigy Olga Smirnova in Diamonds (Nov. 15), John Neumeier’s The Lady of the Camellias (Dec. 6), The Nutcracker (Dec. 20), Jean-Christophe Maillot’s The Taming of the Shrew (Jan. 24), Spartacus (Mar. 13) and b(Apr. 10). Dates listed are opening nights, but may vary. There is also sad news to report. Maya Plisetskaya, one of the all-time stars of the Bolshoi and a famous Kitri in Don Quixote, passed away. Read about her history and enjoy her perform some of her greatest successes.


Dance Beat: Controversy at 3Rivers and CREATE

June 11, 2015
Bill Shannon, after he was escorted off the Wyndham Hotel property.

Bill Shannon, after he was escorted off the Wyndham Hotel property.

The waters weren’t running smoothly this morning at Three Rivers Arts Festival/CREATE 2015. Resident Pittsburgh genius Bill Shannon showed up at the Wyndham Grand Hotel lobby at 8 a.m. to begin a scheduled pop-up performance in the lobby. Deliberately dressed in a clownish way — checked pants and top, bowler hat, black-rimmed glasses and canvas boots with hard yellow toe overlay, the Crutchmaster began attracting attention.

He blew an air horn while pushing a squeaky red shopping cart. Eventually a man dressed in a suit came up to tell him to stop. Thinking him a rude heckler, Bill engaged back. But it was the manager of the hotel and soon law enforcement officers were involved.

Little did they know that Bill had exhibited at the Tate Liverpool Museum and the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., had spoken at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, had created for Cirque du Soleil and much, much more all over the world.

He was there to perform for CREATE 2015, a technology and arts festival that is a festival within a festival. Very forward-thinking — check it out. It’s a festival within a festival, that being the Three Rivers Arts Festival, also a must-see.

To keep the story short, Bill was escorted across the street from the Wyndham property by three officers, cart squeaking the whole time.

Cornelius Henke with fractured mask showing Bill Shannon.

Cornelius Henke with fractured mask showing Bill Shannon.

But his mates were still able to walk around the mezzanine with a companion piece, a collaborative art/tech creation. Australian Jack Hodges wore  a “mask” of sorts, with duck-taped cell phones, maybe a battery (I’m no techie), and a half dozen or so hollow dot screens forming a fractured face around his head. Actually Bill’s face was being projected on the multiple screens, so he was still “in the building.” Monroeville native Cornelius Henke, the mapper for the project, followed with a cord and electronic box, the tail to this “dragon,” you might say.

Bill is also scheduled for a 6 p.m. performance. Where? Right now that is subject to negotiation. Stay tuned and turn out.

 


Dance Beat: PBT — Bourree-ing Confidently into the Black (and Gold)

April 29, 2015

 

The house curtain comes down for a slide presentation of Loti Falk Gaffney.

The house curtain comes down for a slide presentation of Loti Falk Gaffney.

In the final weekend of its 45th season, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre had plenty to celebrate…and did it in style!

GALA. It began Thursday with the dress rehearsal of La Bayadere. Guests arrived for the 45th Anniversary Season Finale Gala at the Benedum Center, where the lobby was filled with high top tables and champagne was being served. They could then head for the mezzanine, where the company was rehearsing the final act of Bayadere, the Kingdom of the Shades. (Great to see the choreographic patterns from that angle!) Then it was back to the lobby for more champagne and appetizers from the Duquesne Club.

During that time the stage was set with dining tables for over 200 guests. Following the salad, PBT honored artistic founder Nicolas Petrov with a film presentation projected on the house curtain, which was lowered for a few minutes. Curtain up for the entree! Then board founder Loti Falk Gaffney received the same treatment, accepted by her granddaughter. (Mrs. Falk Gaffney, who resides in New York City, is now too frail to travel.)

After PBT honored its past, it set up a bright future for dessert (literally). The board has committed to a $20 million dollar campaign that will grow the endowment at 50 percent, grow the Strip District-Lawrenceville campus with a new annex building and grow artistic priorities with the establishment of an Innovation Fund. Board leadership came from campaign co-chairs Carolyn and Bill Byham (helped achieve 67 percent of the goal during the silent phase and the new building will be named for them) and campaign co-chairs Dawn and Chris Fleischner (provided early significant leadership gifts to the new annex building). Richard E. Rauh endowed the Principal Dancers’ Fund and PBT Trustee James Hardie and his wife Frances endowed a repertory fund. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania  contributed two Economic Growth Initiative Grants — a total of $2.25 million — since the plan’s inception in 2009.

As all of the above unfolds, it should enable PBT to keep up with a national trend, where the best of the ballet companies are receiving both financial and artistic support. It something that needed to be done. Both the Boston and Pennsylvania celebrated their 50th anniversaries with new construction and repertory. Here’s to Pittsburgh accomplishing the same.

 

Yoshiaki Nakano soaring as Solor (Photo: Rich Sofranko)

Yoshiaki Nakano soaring as Solor (Photo: Rich Sofranko)

 

BRUNCH. Costumier Janet Groom-Campbell (maker of those fabulous PBT tutus and so much more) and her husband David Campbell (CEO and president of West Penn Testing Group and antique car aficionado) hosted a tasty Saturday brunch at their home in Staunton Heights, with great vistas of the Allegheny River. Artistic directors Nicolas Petrov and Patricia Wilde were there enjoying the view, along with longtime supporters Melanie and Jim Crockard and former company members Susan Stone, Dr. Justin Glodowski, Roberto Munoz and Nola Nolen among others.

Gabrielle Thurlow as Gamzatti. Photo: Rich Sofranko.

Gabrielle Thurlow as Gamzatti. Photo: Rich Sofranko.

PERFORMANCE. Of course, the weekend was built around four performances of La Bayadere. Read about the first in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Corps member Hannah Carter made her debut as Nikiya, a role well-suited to her beautiful legato flow, at the Sunday matinee. She was paired with soloist Luca Sbrizzi, a pinpoint technician with an unbridled confidence, as Solor. There was nary a principal to be seen, except for a chameleon-like Amanda Cochran as a Temple Dancer (with an equally unrecognizable corps member Joseph Parr). Soloist Alexandra Silva (The Rajah) had an unparalleled authority, corps members Caitlin Peabody (Gamzatti) a conniving energy and Masahiro  Haneji (The Golden Idol) a crisp vertical jump. And you would have to mention another corps member, Ruslan Mukhambetkaliyev, performing all performances as the unmistakably sinuous fakir, Magedaveya, Could there be promotions in the future?

Luca Sbrizzi as The Golden  Idol. Photo: Rich Sofranko.

Luca Sbrizzi as The Golden Idol. Photo: Rich Sofranko.

THE AFTERPARTY. Following a weekend of exotic classical ballet, PBT dancers, alumnae and staff gathered at the company studios to mingle — former principals Kwang-Suk Choi and Steven Annegarn (now ballet master), former soloists Point Park staff member Susan Stowe and financial analyst Holly Baroway and corps members Charon Battles (Program Director for Dance, Local Arts and the Preserving Diverse Cultures Division of the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts!!) and Karen Strassom Gross added to the pool — and to celebrate the end of the 45th season with an enthusiasm that will carry into the future.


Dance Beat: Dirty Ball, Indian Festival, Dancing

April 16, 2015
Top Ten

Top Ten

Years. When The Dirty Ball first began, we didn’t know what to expect as we headed to one city apartment where the Attackers danced in the bathroom and a raw shell of another where we told our dirty secrets and drank dirty martinis. After a decade we know what to expect and Attack Theatre delivers. This time it was on the South Side in a warehouse of epic proportions. The Donor Party, where Queen of the Ball, Michele de la Reza, entered on a “throne” (two ladders, of course, transformed) and, with her “entourage,” presented an intimate thank you from the company. Everyone who had attended all ten took a group picture, whereupon the “curtains” were drawn to reveal what was probably the most breathtaking of all the locations over the years. The epic theme was carried out in Richard Parsakian’s must-see VIP Velvet Lounge, home of his collection of Elvis dolls (in original packaging) and the largest space he has expertly designed. Now for the trio of dances: it all began with a sherbet orange number that showed off the company’s seamless partnering style, with Ashley Williams looking utterly sun-kissed. That was followed by the Epic Production that traveled back and forward in time, which meant that King Peter Kope gathered just about anything — the Robot, Cleopatra, “Risky Business” (an over-the-top and very-welcome-return from Jeff Davis all evening long) and “Cher” (was that really Dane Toney?). And of course, there was the trademark finale from Dirty Dancing. Apparently everyone had the time of their lives…again.

india_landingpage_normal

Tripping. We’ve been to Australia, Quebec, Netherlands and around the world three times (International Festival of Firsts) when the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust is in a festival mode — often thrilling, always probing.  Now the Trust is taking the city to India. Two key dance performances will play a part. Nrityagram Dance Ensemble, last here in 2003, and Askash Odedra Company, making its premiere will also be a part of the Pittsburgh Dance Council season. Also on tap we’ll see a street party with DJ Rekha at the September Gallery Crawl, music of the highest order (Zakir Hussein with SF Jazz & Dave Holland), theater (Why Not Theatre, Tram Theatre and Indian Ink Theatre Company), exhibits (Hetain Patel, Nandini Valli Muthish, Plus One, Birth Series and Sarika Goulatia) and Mystic India, fusing dance, theater and spectacular special effects. Love the logo! (Click on India for more information.)

Time of My Life? The finale song for Dirty Dancing popped up everywhere this past week. Tuesday: The touring production of “Dirty Dancing.” Wednesday: “Dirty Dancing” leads teach Kristine Sorensen and Jon Burnett a few moves on KDKA’s Pittsburgh Today Live. Friday: Finale for Pitt Dance Ensemble. Saturday: Finale for the Dirty Ball. Everyday (it seemed): The commercial for UnitedHealthcare where the signature flying leap comes crashing onto a table.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 619 other followers