On Stage: Heart to Art

February 23, 2010

Photo by Eric RoseThere 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 andPhoto by Eric Rose 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.

On Stage: Made for Each Other

November 27, 2009

During the fall dance season, there were three groups that offered dances that were designed by company members. They were, in chronological order, Point Park University’s Conservatory Dance Company (Student Choreography Project), Bodiography Contemporary Ballet (Multiplicity) and Dance Alloy Theatre (Side By Side). Different labels, same philosophy.

This approach has been part and parcel of the local dance scene for a number of years. One good reason might be finances. But, at a deeper level, some company members might show a gift for creating dance and this is a wonderful way to develop those talents.

Opportunities such as these benefit all of these budding choreographers, talented or not, because they come to know the inner workings of movement. By participating in this process, they also develop a finer appreciation of it and an ability to explain it to others.

And perhaps when they work with another choreographer in the future, they will be able to respond more fully. After all, choreography is often a partnership.

Student Choreography Project

Conservatory Dance Company. This was a real surprise as I watched the student choreographers and realized how far dance has come in the 40 years or so that I’ve been watching Pittsburgh move. In the early days, a dance would often start with a concept and then meander through a series of new ideas without providing connective tissue or structure. The CDC choreographers, 12 in all, not only had some intriguing ideas, but the ability to develop them in a structured way, most likely under the guidance of Point Park staff members.

There was a prize to be had. Two of the choreographers would  go on to the American College Dance Festival Association regional conference at Mercyhurst College in Erie and the possibility of participating in the national festival at John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington D.C. next May.

It would have to be said that all of the works on the 2009 program had a certain polish, although the

Student Choreography Project

selective process was responsible for that improvement. The faculty took great care in paring down the applications from 24 to a dozen and the program reflected their input.

Who won, you ask? This had to have been the closest decision yet, but the faculty members chose senior dance majors Ahmad Simmons’ “Unconscious Entrapment” and Michael Bagne’s “De Facto.”

Bodiography Contemporary Ballet. Bodiography took the stage at the Kelly Strayhorn Theater last weekend with a new outlook, not only in choreography, which is what its “Multiplicity” program is all about, but with a bundle of new dancers. As a small contemporary ballet company, artistic director Maria Caruso has dealt well with the rather frequent performer transitions that come with the territory.

Kelly BasilShe faced this first program of the season without experienced dancer Lauren Suflita, the rehearsal director and longtime friend who has been with her from the start. Thus the company skews young at this point, but with graduates from substantial programs at Mercyhurst College, North Carolina School of the Arts and Point Park University.

But this may be the Bodiography group that has the greatest potential. Every dancer had technical expertise as a foundation with which to build a company. As for “Multiplicity,” Caruso interspersed newly ordained choreographers with more experienced fare, amounting to a stronger program.

Caruso is building a partnership with Cello Fury (formerly Cellofourte), a good move when it comes to live music. I’d never heard the previous configuration, but Cello Fury has a parallel energy to Bodiography that should work well. However this particular concert had some intonation problems in the higher registers and the players’ aggressive playing style sometimes seemed overly raw.

Caruso provided two pieces, one a reworking of “Intimate Liasons.” It focused on loss and featured some of Kelly Basil’s best work with Colleen Landwerlen in the emotional landscape of the piece. “No Bad Hair Days” included three breast cancer survivors who related their stories during a solo by Meghan Dann. It signaled a significant change from Caruso, who showed a sculptural sense that was ultimately satisfying. That carried over into her solo, “The Red Dress,” by Ilana Suprun Clyde. Except for an unexpected series of pique turns that seemed out of context, Caruso made it into a powerful showcase.

Although Landwerlen’s “Swing Into the Night” was a lively opening selection, it relied too much on geometric patterns and chorus line elements, and Kaitlin Dann’s “No Character for Every Actor” lacked dimension.

However, Nicole Cerilli’s “Alone in Kyoto” had the linear aesthetic of the Far East and Alex Salerno, company apprentice and student at Point Park, provided a silky little solo in “Child.” Claudie Morris Lawrey contributed an entertaining finale, “Nuances de Chocolat.”

Dance Alloy Theatre.

Pittsburgh’s oldest modern dance troupe is once again changing its configuration (or “alloy”) under the leadership of Greer Reed-Jones and there were signs of change flitting through the FriendshipChristopher Bandy and Michael Walsh studio in “Alloy on Alloy.”

One would expect a certain depth of perspective, given that this company has a seasoned roster of veterans and the dancers’ choreographic selections bore that out. Maribeth Maxa led the evening with “302,” the code number for an involuntary admission to a hospital. It was a turnaround for Maxa, who always exudes a dewy disposition, but set the stage for quirky dance behaviors and straitjackets. I particularly liked Maxa’s astute character observations, although “302” could have been trimmed a bit.

It’s been particularly satisfying to watch Christopher Bandy open himself up to new possibilities at the Alloy. Just last spring, he was still in a balletic mood. But this time he presented a whimsical duet, “Maestro,” where Adrienne Misko seemed to lead Bandy’s a capella vocal accompaniment. Bandy also gave Michael WaStephanie Dumaine and Christopher Bandylsh and Maxa an interactive duet, “Where You’re Not Strong,” based on their longtime friendship. They were playful, supportive and occasionally twisted into a headlock, cementing both their partnership and Bandy’s modern dance transformation.

There was plenty of connective tissue in Walsh’s “Dance By Post-It,” with the premise that anyone could make a dance. Beginning with the words on scraps of paper and a scattershot style, the piece gradually gained a formal structure and a strength that showed Walsh’s increasing sophistication.

Reed-Jones made her choreographic appearance with “Remembrance,” a solo for Caitlin Cahill that drew from recent deaths in Reed-Jones family. It came from a deep emotional core, but marked a change of direction from Reed-Jones in a choreographic break from her own Ailey tradition and the willing establishment of  a new Alloy tradition.

On Stage: A Season of Awareness

November 14, 2009

Bodiography's Lauren Suflita with members of Cello FuryHow often art imitates life. “I always found dance to be very therapeutic,” Maria Caruso begins. “And it has, in general, had some sort of medical component for me, whether it be physical or psychological.” But now her dance is immersed in health issues as she fashions her 2009-2010 season around awareness.

It really began when Caruso met Dr. Sally Boyle, an author and psychologist who has worked with breast cancer patients. Caruso appreciated Dr. Boyle’s feedback and, when the psychologist suggested a script about breast cancer, she was more than willing to listen.

“I heard so much about the patients that I wanted to do something to honor them,” Caruso notes. But life and art began their own serious dance for the Bodiography founder. Caruso’s internist discovered a lump on her left breast, then sent her for a mammogram. The wait was taxing, but the results were good.

She was cancer-free personally, but wanted to continue to be involved artistically and continued on to create “No More Bad Hair Days.” Three cancer survivors will take the stage to read Dr. Boyle’s script, which has put the dancers on an emotional roller coaster. Even Caruso’s mammogram will serve as inspiration.

Says Caruso, “As artists we’re always doing research, sometimes on sensitive subjects. I always ask myself how I can sure that it is portrayed in the best light. I don’t want to simply describe a situation; I want to see the physician, see the patient and create a ballet about their experiences.”

But Caruso’s awareness won’t end with “No Bad Hair Days.” She’s already working with noted heart surgeons for a work based on heart patients that will take place — no guessing here — in February.

Also on Bodiography’s “Multiplicity” program at the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater will be choreography by Ilana Suprun Clyde, Nicole Cerilli, Kaitlin Dann, Colleen Landwerlen, Alex Salerno and a special performance by Cello Fury. Check the CrossCurrent Listings.