Off Stage: Exploring Ballet In a New Way

January 15, 2015

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The Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre has created a much-loved holiday tradition with its multi-million dollar production of The Nutcracker. But sometimes there can be just as much satisfaction to be found in the studio., not necessarily with the professionals, but students.


I was invited to watch such a class with seven very special beginners. There were no overhead lights, just the natural kind, giving the studio a warm, comforting feeling.

The students were reviewing the five ballet positions from their instructors, Kaila Lewis and Jamie Murphy. Also on hand for support was Alyssa Herzog Melby, education and community engagement director at PBT, who was integral in opening up the normally aristocratic world of ballet to those with autism.

It all started with special performances at the Benedum Center using low light and subdued special effects.

Now, with the assistance from the ABOARD’s Autism Connection of PA, PBT has initiated a series of four classes for high school students.

“We push for inclusion at the elementary level,” says outreach and eduction director Lu Randall. “But high school can be more difficult — it’s more competitive.”

There was autism training for the entire ballet school staff and the Nutcracker cast, enhanced by a high interest among PBT board members.

But the class concept may be a whole new thing in the ballet world. Ms. Fulton doesn’t know of a similar program anywhere else.

With this class in place, ballet could eventually become a lifelong movement activity for these students — a real plus.

The students learned warm-up exercises, along with relaxation techniques to help with stress management. There was a brief barre, beginning with plies, tendus and “the hard one,” piques. They jumped. They began to move across the floor.

Then came the fun stuff. The students actually learned slightly simplified, but real dances from the Nutcracker. First, the mice from the Transformation Scene, where they got to sneak around. Then everyone’s favorite, where they became the Pirate, swashbuckles and all.

It was obvious that everyone is enjoying themselves, from the family members sitting along the back wall and applauding enthusiastically to the dancers, whose smiles seem to grow during the class.

One young man even made his parents buy him a pair of ballet slippers. And they were all talking about what they would wear for their informal performance at the end of the sessions.

Cue the lights.


Off Stage: La Danse, La Belle

June 23, 2010

Master documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman’s reputation precedes him in “La Danse — Le Ballet de l’Opera de Paris.” It is his 38th film in a series that aired over PBS, including “The High School,” “The Store” and “State Legislature,” all varied topics about different facets of life itself.

Occasionally the award-winning director repeats himself if the subject warrants it, as in “High School II.” He is also intrigued by the dance, since he made “Ballet,” a film about the American Ballet Theater, in 1995. But a few years ago, he decided to try something a little more exotic and turned his eye to the Paris Opera Ballet, which offered a great deal more history and splendor at the Palais Garnier opera house. The results were shown in limited release (it was in Pittsburgh during the big snow storm) and will be shown on WQED on Saturday at 10 p.m. (Warning: it runs three hours, so you may want to set your TiVo or other such device.)

Don’t expect a lot of help, like the names of the dancers or choreographers and the ballets they create — wait until you view it again to try and figure those things out. “La Danse” unfolds like the dance itself, with rhythm and grace and, as in the very best art, a sense of mystery as to where this is all going.

Wiseman also instinctively understands that the dance is not only about the stage performance. So there are democratic close-ups of costume makers, cafeteria workers and a bee keeper intermingled with rehearsals, performances and still shots of hallways and tunnels. The lighting designers talk in a seemingly eternal list of numbers. The administrators discuss promotions and reform with the dancers. Gradually it all begins to make sense, jigsaw puzzle pieces that form one grand picture.

One image I loved were buckets of security cameras at a fund-raising dinner and the mood lighting that played over them. Other images used the mirrors to break up a dancer’s body like a Cubist painting. The contrasts between the images were plentiful, like shots of a meticulous cleaning staff alternating with the moods of Paris itself. One such dance contrast went from a performance of “Medea” to “The Nutcracker,” a scintillating move, much like cleansing the palette.

There are many films about the dance, but I can recall no other that takes on movement qualities the way “La Danse” does. Don’t miss it.

Off Stage: New York Story

April 3, 2010

Choreographer Jerome Robbins’ most famous work is “West Side Story.” But his connection with New York City can go beyond that neighborhood, as the PBS series, Dance in America, proves with “NY Export: Opus Jazz,” set to air on WQED Easter Sunday at 3 p.m.

This “ballet in sneakers” was created for Robbins’ own short-lived company, Ballet U.S.A., at its debut in Spoleto in 1958. Although he would recreate “NY Export” for other companies, he never transferred it to his own home turf at the New York City Ballet before his death in 1998. The company did that in 2005.

Two of the dancers from that production, NYCB soloists Ellen Bar and Sean Suozzi, didn’t want to let the Robbins ballet disintegrate once again and thought it could play out on film with locations in and around New York like Coney Island. The result is nothing short of poetic. It is a ballet about the alienation of youth, like “West Side Story.” But this one alludes more to the beatnik culture, more “hip” and “groovy,” with emotions that glimmer beneath the surface.

It seems inspired by the cinematic genius of Robbins’ “West Side Story” film. The prelude is a tribute to the sights and sounds of New York. Like the initial zoom onto a playground in the original, this “Opus” gathers shots of young people, all, of course, ethereally beautiful creatures of NYCB.

When Robert Prince’s ultra-stylish jazz beat eases in, they’re in a swimming pool. It’s a look back at a simpler and decidedly more naive time. Limpid arms. Step ball change. Head rolls. Given those elements, it could have been dry, a historic rendering.

But “NY Export” is a lovingly-filmed postcard of New York, from Coney Island to the High Line, where Rachel Rutherford and Craig Hall perform a languid duet (a la “Maria”) on the tracks. In the end, “NY Export” takes on a timeless quality because the dancers dress in casual tee shirts and denims. And it reacquaints us with a ballet master who, in his own right, was the epitome of cool.

If you don’t have TiVo, here’s a taste…

Off Stage: McDreamy McGill

March 16, 2010

Photo by Vince TrupsinPaul McGill is only 22 and already has a resume that would send most Broadway hopefuls reeling. It’s also a study in making the most of your opportunities.

There he was — a junior at Northgate High School, with a fistful of dreams and a camera-ready face. Six days later Paul was in New York City as a part of the original cast revival of “La Cage aux Folles,” covering 15 parts and going to the Professional Performing Arts School.

That whirlwind of a change was orchestrated by Rachelle Rak, daughter of studio owner Rosalene Kenneth and where Paul happened to be studying dance. A Broadway veteran herself (“Cats,” “Fosse,” “Oklahoma!” revival, “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels”), Rachelle happened to mention his name in a telephone conversation with director Jerry Mitchell.

That started a veritable avalanche of activity.

Paul got the news that he was selected on Monday and by Saturday was in New York City rehearsing. In addition to covering those 15 parts, he was attending the Professional Performing Arts School. When “La Cage” closed, Paul moved back to Pittsburgh, set on living a “normal life again”…but not for long.

He found time to appear in a brief role in the Oscar-winning “Man on Wire” (Best Documentary Feature) about high-wire specialist Philippe Petit and his daring walk between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in 1974. (Paul played Philippe as a young man.) Then someone suggested him to the powers-that-be at the Broadway revival of “A Chorus Line.”  Two days after his graduation from Northgate, Paul headed back to New York where he played the role of Mark.

“I did that for two and a half years,” Paul recalls just prior to teaching a master class at Karen Prunzik’s Broadway Dance Studio.  “It was great — I could see how the cast changed.” The original cast members were “realistic about Broadway and life. Some got married, others had babies and three got engaged.”

So what was a newly-minted high school grad to do among these veterans? “I worked on myself — my body, my mind.” That also meant bending the ear of the company’s physical therapist about anatomy, something that went on for the duration of the run. But all good things, as they say….

Paul admits that he became frantic when the show’s closing notice was posted. However, within a week he had booked “West Side Story” and a leading role in the movie remake of “Fame.” What to do?

“It was easy,” he admits. “Snowboy, one of the Jets, or an original role in a feature film.” Without blinking, Paul picked up and moved to Los Angeles and filmed for what turned out to be a grueling three months. “We didn’t get time to warm up — it’s all up to the lighting and camera angles. But when they called ‘Action,’ you had to be ready.”

The worst came when the director filmed the graduation scene — 15 hours straight with just a lunch break. At the end of that action-packed day, the dancers had to do improvisational dances for the closing film credits.

Some of the “teenagers” in the cast brought friends to the set and drank in their trailers between scenes. But Paul was one of a quartet of New Yorkers in “Fame,” professionals who had a strong work ethic and lifestyle in comparison. “There’s a respect and discipline in the theater,” he says.

He also had inspiration from some “true professionals” on the set. Bebe Neuwirth played Sheila in “A Chorus Line” on Broadway in 1980 and took time to swap stories with the young dancer. MeganMullally, who “was funnier when the cameras were off,” also had some advice — “to not even look at the stuff that’s going on around you and keep being yourself, living your life.”

He followed “Fame” with six months of interviews and photo shoots. It also gave him time to think, whereupon Paul decided to come back to his dance roots. “I learned what it’s like to be employed and sit around waiting for things to happen,” he says. So he came back to Pittsburgh, beefing up on dance classes, voice lessons, acting classes and choreography. “I’m making an investment in the future — I have so many ideas and so many plans.” Although stage is his first love, Paul wants to do it all, like Rob Marshall and Gene Kelly, both of whom he labels as “Pittsburgh greats.”

But he barely had time to take a breath. Paul took a sidestep to appear on Nickleodeon’s series, “Victorious.” Then “Fame” came out on DVD in January. And right now he’s filming “House Hunting,” a horror flick, in Charlottesville, Virginia. I guess Paul will keep moving…in what direction is anybody’s guess.

Off Stage: Not Just a Classroom

January 8, 2010

Dance studios all have the a sense of sameness, much like McDonald’s or Friday’s. In the case of a studio, you have the barre, the mirrors, a music source (and a piano if you’re lucky) and perhaps a few chairs. But set a photographer loose and, all of a sudden, there is art. Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Martha Rial has contributed a number of performance photos to CrossCurrents, but here are a few bonus babies, caught off the cuff, for you to enjoy.

Photo by ©Martha Rial

Photo by ©Martha Rial

Photo by ©Martha Rial

Off Stage: Ten Best from the 2K Decade

January 6, 2010

As 2000 approached we dreaded the Y2K millenium bug, supposedly residing in all of our computers. But we “Ought” not have dreaded the first decade of a new century — at least dance-wise. Dance was beginning to explode in many ways, and while we didn’t have a Martha Graham or a George Balanchine  and lost the eternally wise Merce Cunningham, the general level of dance continued to rise. (More on that in the next blog installment.) These are the Top of the Top Ten over the past decade of writing for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Click on each date and you’ll get the complete list, except for 2003, which has inexplicably disappeared, perhaps eaten by a surviving millenium bug?

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre “Indigo in Motion.” A first-rate Pittsburgh production where artistic director Terrence Orr signaled a new direction for the local ballet company. Ballet and jazz? “Indigo” brought in choreographers like Kevin O’Day, Lynne Taylor-Corbett and Dwight Rhoden and successfully paired them with the music of Pittsburgh artists Stanley Turrentine, Lena Horne and Billy Strayhorn. Pittsburgh musicians from the Manchester Craftsmans Guild held court in the Benedum Center pit.  May 4, 2000.

Min Tanaka – This highly respected artist mesmerized in his solo performance at the Warhol Museum, reminding us of Pittsburgh’s fascination with a seemingly incongruous style of dance — Japanese butoh (remember Sankai Juku?). Strangely enough, no one from the usual dance audiences was in attendance because he slipped in during the “Nutcracker” season. Dec. 15, 2001.

Dance Alloy “Hello, Goodbye, I’m Dead!.” This performance about the short-lived mayfly took place back in the day when the Alloy didn’t have “theater” attached to it. Things were a little more free form, but engaging nonetheless. We have come to realize that it’s good to take advantage of home-grown — not only vegetables, but art. And we’re glad that the Alloy is still around to help sustain the local dance scene. May 1, 2002.

George Piper Dances present The Ballet Boyz. The irreverent tone was tempered by the fact that we saw works by William Forsythe, Christopher Wheeldon (now one of the world’s top two ballet choreographers, along with Alexei Ratmansky) and Russell Maliphant. Serious ballet for the masses. Byham Theater, Nov. 1, 2003.

Nederlans Dans Theater. This was probably the only time we will ever get to see NDT, considered one of the world’s foremost companies. We also saw a Pittsburgh Dance Council program at the Benedum Center still heavily influenced by choreographer Jiri Kylian, who just last October had an official farewell concert with the company. In case you missed it, here is a segment of  a Kylian classic, “Symphony of Psalms,” that I discovered on the company website. Mar. 19 2004.

Ralph Lemon “Come Home Charley Patton.” No one tugs at the heart strings like Lemon. He represents honesty in movement and this was one of the most compelling pieces of the decade, putting racism and a lynching at the forefront. Presented by the brand new African American Cultural Center, now known as the August Wilson Center, it also signaled the arrival of an important new presenting organization despite the fact that it wouldn’t get its own building until 2009. Mar. 19, 2005.

Attack Theatre “The Kitchen Sink .” This company sinks its cool tentacles into virtually every corner of the Pittsburgh arts scene (Pittsburgh Opera, Pittsburgh Symphony, Carnegie Mellon University, elementary schools, senior citizens programs). The program marked the 10th anniversary and the arrival of founders Michelle de la Reza and Peter Kope as Pittsburgh’s foremost power couple in the creative arts. Nov. 10, 2006.

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago. HSDC took advantage of its powerful physicality to nab the number one spot for the Pittsburgh Dance Council. This was a Byham Theater show that showed how dance could soar. Feb. 10, 2007.

Ultima Vez “Spiegel” (“Mirror”). Belgian choreographer Wim Vandekeybus deftly illustrated how dance could be frighteningly simple and real. It all came down to timing, even when throwing a brick. Presented by the Pittsburgh Dance Council at the Byham Theater. April 19, 2008.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre “Romeo et Juliette.”  PBT went out on a limb with this ballet when it brought in Jean-Christophe Maillot’s contemporary interpretation. It’s my favorite of all the terpsichorean versions out there (certainly the most heart-wrenching) and the PBT dancers rose to the challenge. It was also good to have seen Maillot’s “Cinderella” with his company, Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo just the year before on the Pittsburgh Dance Council season. Feb. 14, 2009.

P.S. Looking back we had the benefit of several important festivals conceived by the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, including the International Festival of Firsts Part One (2004) and Part Two (2008), which proved that the trend in art is to blend. Movement was a strong part of many performances. Thanks to Paul Organisak for going above and beyond in the 2004 Quebec Festival and especially the  Australian Festival (loved the humor and the truly unique approach to dance).

Off Stage: Dance MVPs 2009

January 4, 2010

In you case you missed it, my Top Ten in dance appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in December. Now we can discuss the performers who infused that choreography and their considerable contributions to a vibrant local dance scene. Kudos to the women, who were extraordinarily strong during 2009.

Woman of Steel. Pearlann Porter is proud of her P’s — prolific, petite, paraphrastic (she can talk about her art at the drop of a hat), perceptive, party hearty, polychromatic and, of course, The Pillow Project. She also moved at a prestissimo pace in 2009, directing, performing and/or choreographing half a dozen full-length extravaganzas at the Space Upstairs, initiating a four-month Urban Experiment (improv dancing in the streets), teaching at Point Park University and then venturing out to choreograph for the Dance Alloy.

Man of Steel. Attack Theatre’s Peter Kope chooses his dance moments carefully these days. But he is now emerging as a talented director with a creative impulse as sharp as they come. Although the Attackers are a wonderfully collaborative group of performers, it is Kope who whittles the productions down to display colorful theatrical threads. He also spearheaded the move to Pittsburgh Opera, which included a second rehearsal studio, outfitted by this master carpenter, just down the alley. And he is, first and foremost, a great dad to Xander.

Dancing Classrooms. With numerous titles to their credit, international ballroom dancers and owners of Art & Style Rozana and Terry Sweeney  showed championship form while teaching fifth grade students in six Pittsburgh Public elementary schools this fall. For 10 weeks and 20 lessons they brought elegance, responsibility and respect into the lives of more than 300 students. This was the inaugural year (hope you saw the documentary “Mad Hot Ballroom” on which the lessons were based) and it set a high standard.

Mata Hari. PBT’s Alexandra Kochis had more disguises than this celebrated spy. I still recall her fresh-faced, independently-minded Juliette and the silent scream at the end of “Romeo et Juliette,” one that carried to the back of the orchestra section at the Benedum Center. She was also a winsome Aurora in “Sleeping Beauty,”  layering her interpretation with great delicacy and detail. But the most surprising was her ensemble work in “Light/The Holocaust & Humanity Project,” where she tossed aside the clarity of her technique for the emotional angles and grotesqueries needed for choreographer Stephen Mills’ contemporary style. She may be the most versatile dancer in Pittsburgh.

The Stanislavski Dancer? Stephanie Dumaine has become a dancer who internalizes the “theater” in Dance Alloy Theater with great finesse. She has created extraordinarily luminous moments in her solo work during the past year, like Stanislavski, building from the “inside out” and the “outside in.”

Best Move. Attack Theatre transported its energetic and effervescent style to a new home at Pittsburgh Opera. The company’s inaugural program, “Incident[s] in the Strip” displayed the space, a blend of historic exposed brick with contemporary and theatrical touches, at its very best. If you haven’t done so, check it out Jan 29 (see Listings) when the company puts on “Game Night and the Seven Minute Dance Series” at its new home in the Strip District.

The Big Switch. It was the big news of the year as the Dance Alloy Theater board summarily dismissed artistic director Beth Corning and instated education director Greer Reed-Jones in her place, the first time the company had not staged a national search for a replacement. But Reed-Jones came with her own resume (Dayton Contemporary Dance principal dancer, CAPA, Pittsburgh Dance Ensemble, independent choreographer) and Corning has re-emerged with her own vision, The Glue Factory, which will assemble internationally-known dancers over 40 in March. We’ll watch for the results during 2010.

Pointe in Time. Always one of the highlights of the Pittsburgh party circuit, there were some reservations when PBT’s fall event was transferred from the elegant black and white ballrooms at the William Penn Hotel to the  more traditional Hilton, where the ballroom there was draped in tons of chiffon. Nevertheless some of the formality disappeared as the guests definitely “got down” to the sounds of Gary Racan and the studio-e Band.

Reaching for the Sky. The energy was literally bouncing off the Dance Alloy walls at the Jones Intensive this past July. Sixty students, all on scholarship, spent two weeks honing their dance skills, capped by a performance at the Kelly-Strayhorn. Wish we could bottle it.

Gone But Not Forgotten. Dancers come and go, but I still find myself luxuriating in the memory of the quartet of PBT dancers who moved on this past May. Maribel Modrono, Christopher Rendall-Jackson, Daisuke Takeuchi and Kaori Ogasawara each left an indelible footprint, both in their artistry and off-stage demeanor, that has formed a chain link of memorable moments.