Guest Blog: Dance Fireworks at the Beach

July 27, 2009

Keigwin + Company in Water (Excerpt)Born and bred in McKeesport where her family ran a long-time community landmark, Feig’s Bakery, Rebecca Taksel left to study French literature at the University of Pittsburgh with a detour to Sarah Lawrence College, where she majored in dance. She has maintained her passion for both art forms throughout an extensive teaching career. Rebecca is currently at Point Park University, where she teaches English and French courses, with an occasional sojourn into dance criticism. An animal rights advocate, Rebecca regularly contributes creative nonfiction and cultural criticism to the Redwood Coast Review.

This year, for the second time, I was fortunate enough to attend a performance of the Fire Island Dance Festival, a weekend of benefit dance concerts by Dancers Responding to AIDS. At this celebration of dance held every July in the beautiful garden of a private home in the Pines, I was the guest of  dear friend Fred Hecker, whom I met in first grade at White Oak school in the McKeesport school district; Fred has a lovely house steps from the beach.

This year’s four performances, held on Saturday and Sunday, July 18 and 19, raised over $260,000 for AIDS service organizations, bringing the 15-year total to 1.9 million dollars.

Saturday afternoon’s performance was, above all, fun, in keeping with the party-like setting.  More than 150 of us were treated to twelve pieces by ten companies, most of them contemporary.  The Keigwin+Company opened with the first of three light-hearted dances they had prepared on the singularly appropriate theme of water. In these charming pieces, water was poured, drunk, splashed, and once, with hilarious effect, spat, by the teasingly towel-clad dancers.  In comedy, timing is all, and this ensemble never missed.

Jody Melnick, Business of the Bloom (excerpt)Just as appropriate, in an entirely different way, was a solo by Jodi Melnick, a former Twyla Tharp dancer, performed to cello music of Bach. In a flowing white dress, silhouetted against the blue water and sky, Melnick was in constant fluid motion, never posing, her slight form moving through the shapes with the casual, occasionally pedestrian movements associated with Tharp. In the watery setting, she was a very contemporary, unsentimental sprite.

A duet by Jon Bond and Matthew Rich from the Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet  was at the other endCedar Lake Contemporary Ballet: Jon Bond & Matthew Rich in Show of the movement spectrum:  unabashedly powerful, openly sensual, very dramatic.  These two were well-served by the wide-open-spaces feeling of the stage. It was pure pleasure to watch two perfectly-matched male dancers give as good as they got in a dance called “Show Me” that was clearly about the challenges of initial attraction and connection.  This dance used the entire stage with choreography that created beautiful lines of tension between the dancers.

A duet of a very different kind was the Black Swan Pas De Deux. I was a little taken aback by the choice:  the black swan in this blue-and-white afternoon?  I needn’t have worried. From a front-row seat I watched Mary Carmen Catoya and Rolando Sarabia, principals of the Miami City Ballet,  give a performance that was a miracle of balance and precision.  Ms. Catoya, supported so beautifully by Mr. Sarabia that her feet and hands never gave even the slightest tremor through all the lifts, turns, and balances, was piquant and proud in her characterization, as she should be as the evil swan.  This wasn’t just pretty ballet for an uncritical afternoon crowd. The ovation they received was terrific, and deserved.

Another crowd pleaser was “Workin’ for Peanuts” by the Feliciano Dance Company, to music by the company’s director, Angel Feliciano.  A group of seven male dancers created with gestures and an empty box an initial scene of a subway car, with six dancers strap-hanging while the last shyly and furtively spoke to them, peddling his peanut candy.  Suddenly, all seven were facing us in a phalanx of pure menace.  The music was hip-hop, as was the inspiration for the dance style.  But this was grown-up dancing, not cute acrobatics for kids, full of power and energy, gorgeous ever-changing configurations and perfection in the unison work.

Equally beautiful virtuoso ensemble work was offered by the Christopher Huggins company, in which a sextet of dancers managed to dance in wonderful unison while remaining entirely individual.  This is one of the great ongoing challenges for modern and contemporary dance companies that want to avoid the cookie-cutter look of a corps. This company did it beautifully, to a beautiful Steve Reich piece called “Music for 18 Musicians.”

The other companies represented were Armitage Gone! Dance, Zvi Dance, and ComplexionsDanny Tidwell - "The Eternal Vow"Contemporary Ballet.  All of them danced at the high, high level you would expect on a program that drew from the talent pool of New York.  And Danny Tidwell, who was first runner-up in the third season of “So You Think You Can Dance,” performed a solo choreographed for him by Lauren Adams, who is currently a choreographer on the show.

Finally, mention must be made of the host, Bruce Villanch, the remarkable comic writer who is nominated for an Emmy for this year’s Oscar show.  Villanch, known for his lightning fast ad-libbing ability, was very, very funny indeed, delighting the sophisticated New York audience with plenty of spicy jokes and show-biz “dish.”

Christopher Huggins - "PiŽce d'Occasion: Boys will be Boys"

Thanks to Fred Hecker for this wonderful array of photos. For more go to: Fire Island Dance Festival.

Guest Blog: Summer Dance on the Lake

July 11, 2009

Steve SucatoErie-based writer Steve Sucato covers a wide swath of dance in Ohio (Cleveland’s The Plain Dealer), scoots over to upstate New York (The Buffalo News), frequently writes for Erie Times-News and covers dance here in Pittsburgh’s City Paper. That means that he puts a lot of miles on his 1999 Toyota Corolla, which currently clocks in at 210,000 miles. Steve has served as president of the Dance Critics Association and his articles have appeared in a number of dance-related magazines, including Dance Magazine, Pointe and Dance Teacher. Since he lives minutes away from Chautauqua Institution, he offers this preview of upcoming dance performances. I’ll be there as well, definitely on July 14 and August 15 (and maybe more), where I’ll join you on the road.

Photo by Jeff Cravotta

Photo by Jeff Cravotta

In the 25 years Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux has headed The Chautauqua Institution’s summer dance series at the famed Chautauqua, New York resort, he has steadily built the summer performance series into one of the finest in the country — bringing in dancers from all over the country to dance under the moniker of The Chautauqua Ballet Company. In the past several seasons, the series has become more of a Southern affair with The Chautauqua Ballet Company giving way to Bonnefoux’ Charlotte-based North Carolina Dance Theatre, which has become the Institution’s resident dance company. This season NCDT will be the featured company in all but the first of the 8-week summer series’ 6 programs.

The season kicked off July 2 with the 6-member Chautauqua Dance Salon’s “Green Pieces,’ a program of new dance works choreographed by Chautauqua regular Mark Diamond and North Carolina Dance Theatre principal dancer Sasha Janes — all with environmental themes.

On July 14, North Carolina Dance Theatre begins its 6-week residency at the Institution joining the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra under the baton of guest conductor Grant Cooper for an eclectic program of dance works that will include a reprise of Alonzo King’s striking contemporary ballet, “Map,” set to music by Arvo Part, that the company performed at Chautauqua in 2004. Also on the program will be excerpts from a new work by Diamond set to Gustav Holst’s “The Planets,” a work by NCDT resident choreographer Dwight Rhoden, and a bit of Christmas in July in the form of excerpts from the second act of Bonnefoux’ “The Nutcracker Ballet.”

On July 29, the company will present “An Evening of Pas de Deux.” Slated are a mix of contemporary and classical works including Victor Gsovsky’s “Grand Pas Classique” (1972); the balcony scene pas de deux from Bonnefoux’ “Romeo and Juliet,” works by Diamond and Janes and George Balanchine’s famous “Tchaikovsky Pas De Deux” (1960), a ballet originated by the evening’s honoree, longtime Chautauqua dance teacher and dance icon Violette Verdy.

The program will also include the premiere showing of a new video about Verdy produced at the Institution.

August 5 the company returns in “Dance Innovations,” featuring excerpts from Rhoden’s steamy

Photo by Jeff Cravotta

Photo by Jeff Cravotta

“Dirty Truth and Pretty Lies,” inspired by Tennessee Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Tin roof” and set to torch songs by Nina Simone. Joining Rhoden’s work on the program will be Balanchine’s Ballet Ruses masterwork, “Apollon Musagete” (1928), choreographer Mark Godden’s “Romeo and Juliet”-inspired “Constructing Juliet” (2002) and Diamond’s “There Again, Not Slowly,” set to music by British duo Chemical Brothers.

The 2009 dance season wraps up August 15 with NCDT once again being joined by the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra in a program celebrating Chautauqua School of Dance teacher and former New York City Ballet star Patricia McBride’s 20th anniversary at the Institution. The program will feature a new ballet from husband Bonnefoux set to Rossini’s Overtures, Diamond’s “Immortal Design,” inspired by the film classic “Death Takes a Holday” and its remake “Meet Joe Black,” and Balanchine’s “Western Symphony,” staged by McBride.

Dance Notes: Keller, Advocacy, Teaching Position

July 9, 2009

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