On Stage: More Dance

June 9, 2010

Former Dance Alloy director Beth Corning, now of The Glue Factory Project and more, once commented that Pittsburgh needed two more companies and 15 more dancers to have a viable dance community. Be careful what you wish for, Beth, because the competition is ramping up.

The economy may be struggling, but the artistic spirit is still there as some new groups pop up on the horizon. Besides The Glue Factory, 310 Moment made its debut this year and more is coming.

But this is about newly-appointed August Wilson Dance Ensemble, run by August Wilson Fellow and Dance Alloy artistic director Greer Reed-Jones. I have to say that I had a sense of deja vu as I attended the official inaugural performance at the slave ship-inspired building that is such a terrific addition to Pittsburgh’s performing arts scene. (Note that there is a strong dance component at the Center — a studio with a really grand revolving door and an auditorium with sight lines best served at the back of the orchestra and front of the balcony).

But back to deja vu. That was mostly a result of the programming. The performance opened with Terence Greene’s “Faith,” a piece that has been featured twice, first at the Pittsburgh Black Theatre Dance Ensemble in 2003 and then in the offshoot Pittsburgh Dance Ensemble in 2005. Greer had a hand in both, although they were essentially the same group with different titles. At the end of that first review, I wondered if Pittsburgh would take the company, essentially guest artists and students, to the next level. That didn’t happen and it faded after several years.

Now the August Wilson Center has thrown its considerable weight behind its new ensemble. Once again, Reed-Jones has shown her own talent in stirring the passions and dedication in these young dancers. Once again, she has kept her “Faith,” where a radiant Jasmine Hearn led the way, although she still needs to control her excitement for better impact.

Only this time, the group included a number of Point Park University dancers, including Hearn, instead of adult guest artists, giving the ensemble a grounded maturity that it lacked before, a sense of cohesion. Reed-Jones showed her discerning eye, picking off three of Point Park’s most prominent graduates — Naila Ansari, Angela Dice and James Washington.

Dice was under-utilized, but she showed that Point Park hasn’t graduated a  better young artist with a such a chameleon-like knack for diverse styles. She literally immersed herself in each of the works, from Christopher Huggins’ Ailey-esque “Mothers of War” to the hip-hop inspired “Legacy” by Crystal Frazier. Likewise with Ansari, who projected an intensity that was so grounded, so real.Washington got a “Solo” by Antonio Brown. It showed that he’s a young dancer of uncommon control, with legs like pillars, but still with a sensitivity to the arc of the movement. Then there was tiny Kaylin Horgan, buzzing around the stage like a bee and a much-improved Raymond Ejiofor from Carnegie Mellon. But kudos to all of the dancers. And Gretchen Moore will be moving over to Dance Alloy.

All in all, it was a great outlet for Pittsburgh’s young talent and the audience responded enthusiastically. But then, I’ve seen it before and asked, “Will this community’s immense financial and administrative resources step forward, join hands and take [substitute the August Wilson Dance Ensemble] to the next level?”

Hopefully this was only the beginning.

On Stage: Right on Rennie

May 28, 2010

The explosive raw power of hip-hop remains its main draw, but artists like Philadelphia’s Rennie Harris are taking great measures to rectify that, to give this essentially urban art for substance and layers and, well, respect.

Rennie’s company, Puremovement, had already achieved that with a 2000 performance for the Pittsburgh Dance Council, “Rome and Jewels,” based on Shakespeare’s timeless love story. In the years since, Rennie has gone on to travel the world and become a global spokesperson for American hip-hop and has taken it hard to the university level, where he leads the way at no less than three institutions in codifying the latest form of dance.

The program that the company brought to the August Wilson Center was lighter than “Rome and Jewels.” It was instead filled with plenty of its trademark athletic movement geared to entertain the audience.

The style is easy-going and almost deceptive about its difficulty. Even the company’s women operated largely in their comfort zones in “Something To Do With Love, Volume 1.”  It was teasing and flirty as the womanly trio interacted with a complimentary trio of men. Maybe George Balanchine said “ballet is woman,” but hip-hop is mostly about the b-boys. It was good to see the women given the spotlight.

I loved the hip action and the changing landscape of patterns as the dancers seemed to squiggle into different formations. And that sound of squeaking sneakers — will that overcome the more familiar sounds of taps and hard toe shoes?

The women disappeared after intermission as the men took charge, first in “P-Funk,” a variation on a hip-hop round with the men circling each other and taking turns in the middle, then “March of the Antmen,” a piece with overtones of guns and violence, but not overly dangerous. The finale, “Students of the Asphalt Jungle,” was a display piece, where the men saved their best moves for last.

I have to admit that although hip-hop seems to be based on the fountain of youth and ever-ready freshness, it was pretty grand to see the muscular control and unwavering professionalism of Puremovement. And although I’m not prone to slang, you could say it was purely, totally rad.

If you missed the performance, click on Rennie Harris Puremovement for a video sample.

On Stage: B-boying in Pittsburgh

May 20, 2010

In the short time it’s been around, hip-hop has established a powerful presence around the world. But I didn’t realize how far hip-hop had come until I visited the hallowed ground at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival last summer and encountered Rennie Harris during a two-week workshop. The powers-that-be at Jacob’s  Pillow created a buzz of excitement over the project. I haven’t seen much of hip-hop around Pittsburgh. So when the August Wilson Center brought in Rennie Harris Puremovement, I decided to nose around and see just where it is flourishing here. What emerged was a colorful group of passionate artists, a couple of whom were around at the beginning and several of whom will have an impact in the future. Click on Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

On Stage: King of the World

January 15, 2010

These days dance aficionados are questioning, “Is it ballet or contemporary dance?” With true blue ballet choreographers at a premium — I’m referring to hot commodities like Alexei Ratmansky and Christopher Wheeldon, although neither might attain the stratospheric heights of George Balanchine — ballet companies are stretching their artistic range with an assortment of modern/contemporary choreographers.

Think Twyla Tharp (fast becoming a staple in ballet companies across America), Mark Morris (Rubenesque modern, although classical in music concept), Dwight Rhoden (a fixture at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre and resident choreographer at North Carolina Dance Theatre)…the list is seemingly endless.

Then there is Alonzo King, who is bringing his San Franciso-based company, Alonzo King’s Lines Ballet, to the August Wilson Center this weekend. He spent a number of weeks here during 1999 nurturing The Move, a short-lived company begun by Pittsburgh ballet members Andrew Blight and Terence Marling. But it wasn’t until 2005 that he unleashed his vision with a company performance at the Pittsburgh Dance Council.

Yes, his women perform mostly in pointe shoes and the style is undeniably a variation on the off-center exploration employed by Balanchine. His company begins with ballet barre. But he fudgesthe description on the company website, calling it “contemporary ballet.”

King wants to put it all to rest during a recent phone conversation. “Ballet is a misnomer,” he begins inPhoto by Marty Sohl his robust voice. “It’s an Italian word that means dance and is a moniker for what we term Western classical dance. Everything we do in the West, whether it’s hip hop, whether it’s jazz, whether it’s modern, has to do with the way the Western mind looks at the body front, side, back, above, below.”

But King also asserts that “you can’t get away from what we call classical ballet. It’s basis is not in Europe; it’s basis is in nature and primordial truths. The interpretations of different cultures produced different classical forms and all the great civilizations had that.”

He contends that Europe was in a deep cultural deficit when compared to older civilizations, noting that the Spanish language is full of Arabic terms and both algebra and arabesque are, at their root, Arabic.

Photo by Marty Sohl“People underestimate the science of geometry, which is ballet [or dance],” King goes on to explain. He compares the movements of India’s Kathak with Spanish flamenco, illustrating that the two distinct styles share a commonality in their footwork. In addition, their connection can easily be traced. He also laments that “no one has really done that trace for ballet. Its origins have to go back further than Catherine de Medici.”

But King goes even deeper by stating that everything in ballet can be found in nature (“pirouettes are whirlpools or eddies”). What is a tutu? “Saturn’s rings, the nimbus around a saint’s head, a hula skirt. It’s the honoring of the sacred circle — that’s the point.”

He calls himself a “truth-seeker,” a word that defines King and his global perspective in such locales as China, India and Morocco. His company will bring a contrasting program to Pittsburgh, beginningwith “Signs and Wonders,” a piece that King designed for the Dance Theatre of Harlem in 1995, which combines ballet with African music and storytelling, and “Dust and Light,” a 2008 work that falls at the other end of the King spectrum with music by Poulenc and Corelli.

Then it’s off to new horizons with Bejart Ballet Lausanne, Royal Swedish Ballet and Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo, with detours to work with award-winning authors Colum McCann and Howard Zinn.

It appears that all the world is indeed a King-sized stage.

For more information, visit Listings.

On Stage: A Philadanco Explosion

September 29, 2009

Philadelphia Dance Company provided a real test for the August Wilson Center this last weekend. See what it’s like at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.