On Stage: The Tale of Two Streetcars

September 7, 2015
Eve Mutso as Blanche. Photo: Andy Ross

Eve Mutso as Blanche. Photo: Andy Ross

With its unbridled passions and slow descent into madness, all set against the gradual decay of the Deep South, Tennesse Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire could be adapted into The Great American Ballet. As it turned out, two European companies, Hamburg Ballet and Scottish Ballet, have led the way, although, as it turns out, a pair ex-pat Americans, Hamburg’s artistic director John Neumeier and Scottish director Nancy Meckler, had a profound impact on their respective productions.

Of all the cities in world, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania was the only one to have seen them both.

The productions came at varying points in their careers, however, with Neumeier in one of his first full-length ballets (1983) and Meckler commissioned by the Scottish Ballet towards the end of a long and distinguished theatrical career (2012).

Erik Cavallari (Stanley) and Sophie Laplane (Stella). Photo: Andrew Ross

Erik Cavallari (Stanley) and Sophie Laplane (Stella). Photo: Andrew Ross

Not surprisingly, Neumeier created a sumptuous, more traditional ballet dripping with projections, an extended stage and atmospheric lighting that worked in the expanse of the 2800-seat Benedum Center.  Meckler went for an edgy contemporary look, packing the stage with crates that became a part of the choreography as the dancers constructed the various scenes in the ballet and acted as a Greek chorus. A bare bulb served as a centerpiece, the symbol of Blanche Dubois’ fading hopes and dreams.

The musical scores couldn’t have been further apart. Neumeier tapped Visions Fugitives by Sergei Prokofiev and, for the second act, the jarringly acute Alfred Schnittke, which carried the drama to excruciating heights for some. But Meckler chose both original music and a musical cyclorama of the age, familiar in a way, which perhaps made the Scottish Ballet production more dynamic and accessible. That production was placed on the smaller Byham Theater stage, which could have added to the intensity by compressing it, throwing the emotional intimacy into the audience with unabashed accuracy.

In the end, however, these were told from a masculine and feminine angle, giving them a different weight and perspective. Neumeier’s Blanche was, as I noted, a “wounded butterfly” from the start, with Stanley the manimal as expected. Meckler’s Blanche was drinking in the foreign world around her, but still retaining a certain dignity as she withdrew. Her Stella developed from a young sister to a woman comfortable in her own sensuality. With choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa on the Scottish artistic team, the women had more substance and complexity in their stage presence, particularly in the duets where their roles were heightened.

Blanche's (Eve Mutso) world is falling apart. Photo: Andy Ross

Blanche’s (Eve Mutso) world is falling apart. Photo: Andy Ross

Both productions had their moments of ecstasy. Neumeier was to be lauded for his coordination of choreography, costumes and scenery as a young artist. However, it was the Scottish Ballet that truly captured the epic relationship between Blanche, Stella and Stanley, for a ballet that gave Tennessee Williams’ classic a new relevance more than 60 years after its debut.

It also made a strong case to incorporate more women in ballet.





On Stage: Swedish “Snow”

May 4, 2015

It was our second confrontation with Pittsburgh Dance Council snow. Not the kind you shovel, but the kind you watch in wonder. The first came during the autumn of 2008, when the Inbal Pinto, ironically from Israel, introduced us to Shaker, a piece inspired by a snow globe where dancers slid on Styrofoam beads. This past April brought Swedish choreographer Pontus Lidberg (perhaps more appropriate given his history with snow) and his own Snow, which used white socks and flooring to give that slippery impression. They were very different and so much more than snow, though.

On Stage: Ron and Stevie and Pittsburgh

February 16, 2015

pdc ronald k. brown

Ronald K. Brown returned to Pittsburgh for what was his most cohesive performance yet, one that gave African traditions a contemporary accent. He also gave his program a Pittsburgh accent, inviting a group of local dancers to rehearse and participate, much to their and the audience’s delight. Read about it in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

On Stage: Raw Emotions at Dance Council

May 5, 2010

Pittsburgh Dance Council wound up its 40th anniversary, a spectacular achievement in itself in these hard economic times, last weekend. Subscribers and such were invited to a private shopping event at Saks Fifth Avenue prior to the final season performance by Great Britain’s Vincent Dance Theatre, where participants toasted PDC’s achievements with champagne. Having not been at Saks in a blue moon, I will definitely be back to sample its sophisticated selections. See more on VDT’s performance at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

On Stage: BJM Danse

April 20, 2010

Pittsburgh Dance Council brought Montreal’s BJM Danse to town with an all-female cast of choreographers. Read more at Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

On Stage: A New Dance Model

February 25, 2010

Photo by Chris CorrieWe’ve heard of Aspen, home of the rich and famous, in Colorado. We’re also well aware of Sante Fe, New Mexico, home of the artistically rich, playground of George O’Keefe and the third largest art market in the United States.

The two cities share a high altitude (Aspen at 8,200 feet and Santa Fe surprisingly at 7,000 feet in the foothills of the Rockies) and a strong interest in the cultural arts. They also share a ballet company, appropriately dubbed Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, that is making dance waves in more ways than one.

I touched base with Paul Organisak, vice president of programming for the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust and executive director of the Pittsburgh Dance Council, about second part of the Dance Council’s split season. It marks the first time in memory that PDC began with two companies, then took a nearly four-month hiatus before resuming.

“The companies drove the schedule,” Organisak reassures me. “It depended on their routing and availability.” It also depended on their location, because international touring, with visa issues, has become extremely difficult. For that reason, Great Britain’s Vincent Dance Theater, where Charlotte Vincent is “one of the most powerful dance voices I’ve seen,” will be the only “foreign” troupe on the roster (May 1).

Complexions (Apr. 3) is red hot this year, given the multiple appearances of cofounders Dwight Rhoden and Desmond Richardson on “So You Think You Can Dance.” Besides it’s Richardson’s farewell tour, noteworthy because he has been one of America’s most remarkable male dancers. Organisak also wanted Pittsburgh dance fans to see the work of Aszure Barton in “Jack in the Box”  and Annabelle Lopez Ochoa in “Zip Zap Zoom” on the BJM program (Apr. 17).

That brings us to the “extremely appealing” Aspen Santa Fe, which will lead off this mini-flurry of dance Feb. 26. Executive director Jean-Phillipe Malaty spoke on the phone from Aspen, where, surprisingly, he says there is no snow, particularly the champagne powder for which the mountain community is noted. Global warming? El Nino?

But Aspen has more than snow, including an art museum, theater, a “beautiful Victorian jewel of an opera house” and a “world class music and jazz festival.” For all the square footage and the number of residents (only 6,000), Aspen has become a mecca. “People come here to have the combination of natural beauty and access to world-class art offerings,” Malaty explains.

Photo by Rosalie O'ConnorThey also come from New York, Chicago and other major metropolitan centers. “We have a very educated and sophisticated audience, where they have seen the best dance,” he says. “When they come on vacation they expect the same.”

The ASFB story is all the more remarkable in that it is a relatively young company, founded in 1990 by longtime Aspenite, Bebe Schweppe. In 1996 she convinced Tom Mossbrucker and Malaty, also partners in life, to leave New York and take over her fledgling group. Mossbrucker brought with him a decidedly American approach (School of American Ballet and The Joffrey) and Malaty a European background (Mudra in Belgium, the John Cranko school in Stuttgart) with an American overlay (Ballet Hispanico of New York, Joffrey II, Lyric Opera of Chicago).

They shared a vision however, mostly in line with the Joffrey’s always-contagious freedom of spirit. Mossbrucker, perhaps the quieter of the two, became artistic director. Malaty, with a talent for organization, business and fund-raising, became executive director. He also admits “we couldn’t afford anyone else.”

Beginning in Aspen, performing opportunities quickly arose in Santa Fe. They also found that they had to diversify “out of necessity. We wanted to create a new business model for American dance companies” because many were failing.

They now have two schools, two presenting series (one of the largest in America) and the award-winning Aspen Santa Fe Ballet Folklorico, a free after school dance program where students learn about the Mexican heritage and culture and engage in performances. As Malaty aptly puts it, “We didn’t put all our eggs in one basket.”

Still, it was a lot to swallow — there is a saying that it takes 25 years to build a ballet company. But Malaty and Mossbrucker have achieved national recognition in only 14 years. How did they do it?

There is a long pause followed by one word.  “Serendipity?” Then a soft chuckle. “We don’t do ‘Swan Lake’ and we don’t do ‘Coppelia,” Malaty finally continues. “We don’t have a resident choreographer and the artistic director doesn’t choreograph. We are a true repertory dance company, so we invite top-notch choreographers. Our repertory, from the beginning, was one of the highest level, what we could afford at the time.”

The Pittsburgh Dance Council program at the Byham Theater reflects that — and maybe more connections to the Joffrey ideals. Robert Joffrey launched Twyla Tharp’s career with “Deuce Coupe.” The ASFB program will feature Tharp’s “Sue’s Leg.” Joffrey engaged William Forsythe early on and his “Slingerland” will also appear in Pittsburgh.

But both choreographers are now well established on the international dance scene. Malaty and Mossbrucker hope to carry on the Joffrey tradition further and have caught American choreographer Nicolo Fonte, formerly of Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montreal and Nacho Duato’s Compania Nacional de Danza in Madrid, and Finnish and Boston Ballet resident choreographer Jorma Elo on the proverbial way up.

ASFB will present Fonte’s “In Hidden Seconds.” Malaty says he is of the “biggest American success stories right now.” Elo, who Malaty calls both “the closest to a new voice” in ballet and “the hottest choreographer right now” will close the program with “Red Sweet.”

So the program reflects ASFB’s heady success. Malaty explains that “there has never been any time wasted between management and the artistic directorship. That is really the evil of many dance companies. We also never, never had any conflict between the administration and the board of directors or the artistic director and the dancers. We’ve been really able to focus on what matters, on real challenges and real problems.”

See Listings for more information.

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).