On Stage: A Senior Finale

February 13, 2010

If movement could be converted to snow, Point Park University’s student performers whipped up a blizzard of dance at the Byham Theater Thursday night. (Pardon the snow reference, but it’s inevitable given the  nearly 30 inches that fell on Pittsburgh.) Although the program contained what could be termed four finale numbers (or close to it), making it hard to sustain and/or build the energy, there was no doubt that this was the strongest performance yet in six years at Conservatory Dance Company’s annual sojourn to the Byham.

Part of it had to do with the selection of choreography, all physically astute and tapping the students’ seemingly unquenchable wellspring of energy, with Gerald Arpino’s “Light Rain” (Maia Wilkins), Daniel Ezralow’s “SUPER STRAIGHT is coming down” (Cheryl Mann), Doug Varone’s “The Constant Shift of Pulse” (Daniel Charon) and David Parsons’ “Nascimento” (Jason McDole). Repetiteurs are listed in parentheses because they had more than a helpful hand in the program’s success.

Part of it had to do with the use of nuance, a new development in Point Park’s dance program, which has always nurtured mostly forthright performances. With this program, the audience could see elements like phrasing and lyricism, caught within each piece.

Part of it, thought, had to do with the quality of the graduating senior class. That could best be seen in Ezralow’s “SUPER STRAIGHT,” an angular commentary on an uptight, corporate society. Rigid. Isolated. Pressurized. INTENSE.

“SUPER STRAIGHT” didn’t display much in the way of high-flying tricks. The performers banked on the use of control and, in particular, the use of silence. It provided contrast, challenging the performers and audience alike. Although the work took a few moments to build, once the five dancers took hold, they never let go, drawing in the audience as if there was an emotional pull.

Most of them came from prominent roles in the previous CDC production, Kiesha Lalama-White’s  “The Bench.” It was obvious that the connection, the trust was still there. “SUPERSTRAIGHT” took advantage of James Washington’s beautiful sense of balance, Angela Dice’s economy of motion, Ahmad Simmons’ intelligence, combined with a breathtaking vertical jump, and Naila Ansari’s earthy sensuality. Ray Interior fit into the dynamic well, and rose to the occasion during his solo moments.

Solos abounded in all of the works, giving many students a chance to strut their stuff, so to speak, and a nice touch that took advantage of the range of talent. In Parsons’ “Nascimento,” a mostly senior cast avoided taking a youthful response to the Latino beat and instead offered more through a joyous clarity and rhythmic acuity. It was also playfully hot. After a reflective mid-section, the music began percolating in a Bobby McFerrin-like setting and at one point, the audience spontaneously responded with rhythmic clapping. Inspired, the cast skillfully took it to another level.

Varone’s “The Constant Shift of Pulse” was just that. It had movement that seemed to spill across the stage to John Adams’ terrific score, a cross between the rhythmic variety of Igor Stravinsky and the pulsating hypnotic flair of Philip Glass, but still its own animal. Fifteen dancers matched the movement to the music in surprising places. Although the dance seemed to be forgiving in its casualness, it was ultimately demanding in Varone’s underlying complexity, broken by scintillating pauses, that left both dancers and audience breathless at the end.

Created in 1981, Arpino’s “Light Rain” was a brief history lesson in the all-American athleticism that marked The Joffrey Ballet, filtered here through a pseudo-Arabian lens. With rippling lighting and a misty haze settling over the dance, Arpino inserted undulating arms, trembling knees and feet and requisite hip rolls. There were splits, upside down and right side up, both male and female. Perhaps the ballet was awash in a time when Americans were just opening their eyes and ears to other cultures, but it was still well-suited to the CDC dancers and gave a boost to Point Park’s ballet program, where proper programming is a must.

On Stage: The Chicago Connection

February 10, 2010

Point Park University has had a longtime association with Chicago, mostly with Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, a company that took several PPU graduates into the fold over the years (Joe Mooradian, Shan Bai and Cheryl Mann come immediately to mind). And the university’s various dance groups have, over the years, imported choreographers from that city’s deep dish (like its pizza) of dance.

So it was with a sense of nostalgia that PPU welcomed back Mann, considered one of its most distinguished alumna, to set Daniel Ezralow’s highly intense “SUPER STRAIGHT is coming down” for the Byham Theater program this weekend. It’s the year’s most ambitious program, one that will also include Daniel Parson’s “Nascimento,” Doug Varone’s “The Constant Shift of Pulse” and a ballet by Gerald Arpino (see below). But since Mann is a terrific multi-tasker, she was also set to photograph the graduating seniors for their resumes.

The Chicago dancer retired from Hubbard Street in 2007, but she had been establishing a solid parallel career in photography since 1999.  Actually it all started when she was a child — her mother was a photographer who won a contest with a “high contrast, beautifully shot” photograph of her daughter’s  feet (in tights and ballet slippers, of course). Mann took a darkroom class of her own in ninth grade, but really turned to photography in a Hubbard Street workshop, where the dancers would take on other roles in the production.

Mann had at first done humorous dance pieces “because I couldn’t take my choreography seriously.” But at a subsequent workshop, she decided to have an installation in the lobby with a black-and-white portrait of each company member, a “really assertive conceptual shot of the dancer doing something other than dancing.”

She ended up selling two of the prints to longtime Chicago dance critic Hedy Weiss of the Chicago Sun-Times, who forced Mann to charge her. She recalls that “it gave me my first lesson in putting value to my work” and can be seen on her imaginative website, Cheryl Mann Photography.

“It was sort of like choreographing on the dancers – I really like being able to capture a moment on the stage that you’ll never be able to create again,” Mann says. “That’s what I love about shooting dance.”

She is “really happy” to have found this new career, claiming that it has “helped with my transition. It doesn’t fill the void of dance — it never will — but, at least, I feel very close to the stage and connect with it in a different way.” And for now she can “live vicariously” through her younger sister, Selena Moshell, who is touring nationally in “The Lion King.” Could Pittsburgh be on the list?

But the Chicago/Pittsburgh connection goes further than Hubbard Street on the Byham program. Former Joffrey Ballet principal dancer Maia Wilkins also came to Pittsburgh to set Arpino’s East-West fusion of a ballet, “Light Rain.”

The winsome slip of a ballerina spent 18 years at the Joffrey, the last five or so as a favorite partner of former Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre principal Willy Shives. Small world indeed.

After her retirement from the Joffrey along with husband and fellow Joffrey dancer Michael Levine, the couple moved back home to northern California to be near their families and to have their first child, Martin.

But Wilkins had been hired to be a repetiteur with the Arpino Foundation. It was a natural choice for her to continue to set his ballets because Wilkins was Arpino’s pick from the beginning and his muse at the end. When she first came to the Joffrey in New York, Wilkins notes that “it was clear I was there because Mr. Arpino had an interest in me. He took me under his wing.”

But the Joffrey shut down in New York. While the company was on hiatus, in search of a new permanent home, Wilkins headed for Europe with a friend. For three weeks they took classes at various companies to see if there was a good fit.

But her friend would say, “Oh, Maia, you are such an Arpino dancer — it’s stamped on you.” She had the trademark classical strength, with an individualism a freedom of movement that he so admired.

When Arpino headed for Chicago, Wilkins followed and became the face of the Joffrey. With her appointment to the Arpino Foundation, she began thinking. “Mr. Arpino would enter the studio and I’d see the response from the dancers.” She thought, “This needs to be captured somehow, but how do you notate the essence of feeling that he inspired?”

Wilkins wanted to get that across and started doing taped lunches with her ebullient mentor until his death in October, 2008. In the Point Park studio where she coached her cast in”Light Rain,” it was clear that she had passed on the Arpino spirit as the students surged through energetic patterns with, yes, that  signature freedom of movement.

For more information on Conservatory at the Byham, see Listings.

Point Park University also has initiated a series of videos in conjunction with its dance and theater performances. For more on the works at the Byham, click on Cheryl Mann, Maia Wilkins and Jason McDole.

On Stage: “Bench” Marks the Holidays

December 16, 2009

Ahmad Simmons and Angela Dice“The Bench” isn’t your normal holiday treat full of tinsel, glad tidings and mistletoe. But it does provide a sense of family, which is what the holidays are all about, from Thanksgiving to New Year’s and everything in between.

Kiesha Lalama-White’s production for Conservatory Dance Company sticks to tradition, probably the second-most important thing about the holidays. Lalama-White’s  traditional jazz vocabulary and warm-hearted story line, along with cousin David Lalama’s traditional jazz score provide the glue that holds “The Bench” together.

It follows a single family through an album of memories, the kind with which we can all identify. Love. Marriage. Parenthood. Sibling Rivalry. Family Dinners. Lalama-White pushes all the right buttons and while we may realize it, in the end, it’s almost impossible not to be touched.

Everything is clearly etched for the audience. Lalama-White’s style is filled with sharp accents andAngela Dice with Annalee Traylor and Naila Ansari standout scenes include the initial love duet and a conversational dinner with the family. Lalama’s score lays out a rich landscape of sound for the dance, with a live quartet where he plays keyboards and brother Ralph, a wonderful saxophonist in his own right, in tow.

Lewis Folden’s angular screens provides a versatile backdrop with subtly projected abstract patterns and Aimee Greer’s vintage/contemporary costume design adapts to all the situations, particularly with a voluminous skirt that acts as an umbilical cord between mother and daughters. Only visual artist Michael Dickins’ family snapshots are not totally defined.

Angela DiceBut it’s the young cast that brings the story to life. They have to run the gamut, from child-like fights to the ancient aunt who commands everyone’s attention. Ahmad Simmons (Man/Father) and Angela Dice (Woman/Mother) have the maturity to carry roles far beyond their current means. James Washington (Son) has a robust technique and beautiful control of the movements — a fight between him and his father is a highlight — and  Annalee Traylor and Naila Ansari provide wonderful support as the daughters.

All told, “The Bench” is a taut portrayal of family that is one of CDC’s finest productions over the years and a model for the future.

“The Bench” continues through Dec. 20. Check Listings for more information.

Dance Notes: Point Park, Trust Ballroom, W.Va. Ballet

December 15, 2009

GOING GREEN. Point Park University has received the Trane Energy Efficiency Leader in Education Award for its new dance complex, which opened in 2007. If you haven’t seen it, plan a visit. Your best bet might be a performance at the George Roland White Performance Studio, a marvel of a black box theater that really enhances dancers. Some of the benefits to the dance students at Point Park include air quality, lighting, light and temperature, all to keep them healthy and performing at their best.

PITTSBURGH CONNECTIONS. I caught the final performance of Conservatory Dance Company’s Pittsburgh Connections, although I missed former PBT soloist Jeffrey Bullock’s ballet, which was first on the program. But Point Park alum Marissa Balzer produced a little jewel of a work, “Things Behind the Sun.” The piece, inspired by Balzer’s own newlywed status, focused on romance, sexuality and relationships in three couples.  It was intellectually astute and emotionally attractive all at once, with movements that melted into unexpected directions. I hope that Balzer, who is also a busy teacher in the area, can find time for more choreography. Patrick Franz, former Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre artistic director, produced “Cote Jardin,” conceptually interesting for its inspiration, rooted in the French designs of the Versailles gardens of King Louis XIV, it didn’t echo those designs among the 26-member cast. Krisofer Weinstein-Storey, on the other hand, delivered in “Stimela (what is African debt?). Political in nature, it’s primary emphasis was on low-slung movements that produced rhythmic interactions on an African theme.

“TRUST” BALLROOM. “So You Wanta Dance? asks the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust. But the power there must think people do, because they’ve opened The Dance Cafe at the organization’s new Trust Educational Center at 805/807 Liberty Avenue. There are lessons Tues. through Thurs. For more information, go to the website at The Dance Cafe.

A SOUTHERN NUT. Dance Alloy’s Christopher Bandy is scheduled to choreograph excerpts from the “Nutcracker” for the Wheeling Symphony in West Virginia Dec. 18-19. Good news — he’ll be bringing former Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre members with him in Aaron Ingley and Alan Obuzor. See the Wheeling Symphony for more information.

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 Pittsburgh Storey

November 14, 2009

Krisofer StoreyThe voice still sounds the same after all these years. I first interviewed Kristofer Storey back in 1994 as a 17-year-old senior who was setting his sights on the prestigious Juilliard School in New York and maybe a role in a Broadway show. I remarked on his “deep, slow-as-molasses voice.” As it turns out that voice has served him well.

The Homewood native was back in Pittsburgh to set one of his dance works, “Stimela,” on Point Park University’s Conservatory Dance Company. “Stimela” will appear on the “Pittsburgh Connections” program, on view this weekend and next, along with works by Marissa Balzer, Jeffrey Bullock and Patrick Frantz.

It was fun to catch up on things with Storey. As it turned out, Juilliard was “not easy for the ego and not easy for the mind,” but it served as his first introduction to techniques found in Martha Graham and Jose Limon, among others. The young, hard-core ballet dancer from Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s Schenley program soon became well-versed in modern dance.

Upon graduation, he had to turn down an offer from a “Lion King” audition because he had just secured a contract with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. However, he was told to come back “when you get tired of concert dance and want to make a real paycheck.”

The Ailey’s heavy touring schedule only whet his appetite for more. Storey left the company after three years to free-lance and perform with Donald Byrd and Mark Morris, in addition to teaching and choreographing.

But those were the years after September 11 and Storey was ready to explore something new outside the U.S. Through Juilliard he hooked up with American choreographer Kevin O’Day at Mannheim National Theater in Germany. (Yes, that’s the same O’Day who choreographed for PBT’s “Indigo in Motion” and Sting projects.) He also would perform with former PBT expatriates Terence Marling and Lauren Schulz.”It was new for everybody,” Storey recalls. “There was a lot of passion involved.”

Not knowing anything about Mannheim, he bought a Lonely Planet Guide, which told him that it was “not one of the ten nicest cities in Germany.” Mostly destroyed in World War II, it boasted a lot of new construction. But if it wasn’t the prettiest, Storey enjoyed the city’s energy and its central location in Europe.

During his travels, he met his wife, Miriam, who lived in Hamburg. And he decided to see if “Lion King” would make good on the offer so many years ago.Before he say Mufasa, Storey was placed in the Hamburg production in Germany. Since he was already 30 he had the option of making the transition to vocalist. Although Storey had taken a few vocal lessons at Juilliard, he learned on the job, standing next to South African singers who “in essence, had been singing from the womb.”

Storey has been with the company for eight years (yes, “Lion King” translates well into German),Cailin in Kristopher Storey's "Stimela"working his way up the ladder. Now he not only performs, but is learning the artistic end of things with the organization.

It’s been a blessing for his family. While Storey’s wife is attending school working on a degree in psychology, he is able to spend the days with his daughter, Jona, now 2. And he always had vacation time to come back to Pittsburgh and visit with his mom.

The timing was right for “Pittsburgh Connections” and to revisit some other personal connections. So he pulled on his choreographic experience, which included a prize-winning work for Chicago’s Hubbard Street 2, to set “Stimela” on the CDC students.

Inspired by Hugh Masakela’s music, Storey composed a piece about the men who travel from countries all around South Africa. They board coal trains to get to Johannesburg, where they work for pennies a day. “It’s a symbol for tearing apart the African family and community,” he says.

“Stimela” also questions Africa’s debt. Storey’s political views come into play as he notes how many countries built their wealth on the backs of African slaves, including the United States. “Who will pay that African debt?” he asks.

Storey himself still has many questions and is ready to find the answers. But for now, it’s good to redevelop his realtionship with Pittsburgh.