There is a whole world of inspiration for dance and periodically it centers around issues that are close to the heart. A while back there was Bill T. Jones’ “Still Here” (cancer) and, more recently, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s “Light/Holocaust & Humanity Project.”
Last weekend Maria Caruso took things a step further in “Heart (function vs. emotion)” at the Byham Theater, where the art was not only close to the heart, but all about it. This full-length ballet was reality-based, with a doctor and patients from UPMC, unlike Jones, who integrated his patients with a slide show on multiple screens.
Such productions amount to a balancing act in more ways than one. They strive to do justice to the subject matter, but also have to attend to the choreography itself, in this case through both dancers and non-dancers.
“Heart” began promisingly, with a repeated heartbeat replicated by each of the three members of Cello Fury, made up of Simon Cummings, Ben Munoz and Nicole Myers, along with drummer Dave Throckmorton. The lighting, designed by Steve O’Brien Agnew, came up on the six patients, Pasquale Ceblasio, Patricia Dippold, Julie Drain, Merle Reeseman, Philip Rostek and Holly Tissue-Thompson, then passed on to dancer Colleen Landwerlen. With the protagonists simply and clearly presented, it was on Caruso’s shoulders to convey her own new-found connection to the heart.
The first section revolved around function, demonstrating “the color, texture, movement, flow and macrobiotic behavior of the organ itself” that Caruso saw in observing two actual heart transplants. Following the introduction, each of the patients was paired with one to three dancers, dressed in red and symbolizing the patients’ hearts in phrases that traveled across the stage.
The cast then gathered to present heart motifs, gleaned from the patients themselves, including a slicing action, a slump of the shoulders and fingers crawling up a wall. After an “Interlude” by Bodiography apprentices and trainees, the company members, still young but decidedly committed, took over the “Function” with abstract movement, capped by a solo from Caruso. Clad in a voluminous, gathered skirt and connected to the wings by long “veins,” Caruso translated her medical experience into movement. Seemingly constricted by the skirt, she still took full advantage of her wonderfully fluid and weighted style, slowly working her way around the stage. At the end, she released the skirt and lifted it into a cape, liberated and joyous as she exited.
The second half introduced actual surgical movements from Dr. Robert Kormos, as Meghan Dann and Kelly Basil portrayed the “old” and “new” heart. Then each patient took to the stage as their individual stories were portrayed through dance, leading to the finale.
There was no doubt that Caruso’s choreography was taking on a larger vision. “Heart” contained intriguing links, due to a more sculptural approach. She expanded her landscape, using complex patterns and taking advantage of the inherent sweep of dance.
While it was easy to see that emotions were running high on the stage, I would still have liked to see that translate into more intimate connections between the patients and dancers, particularly in the second act. But that shouldn’t mean that the choreography is too careful about the subject, which it sometimes was.
Providing music for a full-length ballet, which ran over two hours, was no easy task. But Cello Fury was in good form, robust and rhythmic in its winning musical formula. Still, it was good to see them break up the rock and roll surge with the use of harmonics and pizzicato and a particularly lovely accompaniment to Caruso’s solo.
While the balance between heart and art occasionally went askew, it was a laudable effort on the part of all involved.