Dance Beat: Alan and Gia

March 5, 2014
Alan Obuzor

Alan Obuzor

Alan. Usually the bastion of raw modern dance, the Kelly Strayhorn Theater reached out to contemporary ballet choreographer Alan Obuzor for its Fresh Works series at the Dance Alloy studios. It was a good fit. Alan chose Pittsburgh songstress Angwenique Wingfield, who provided a memorable collection of songs. Called Looking Back and Moving Forward, the piece visited the past, with Alan moving among and pairing off with three ballerinas, as if these were vestiges of his past. Although the women needed to develop more distinctive and differentiated characters, the work had a breezy, harmonious flow to it that is a trademark of Alan’s work and harbored good potential. See the finished product at the New Hazlett Theater next weekend at Texture Contemporary Ballet’s program. Click on Alan for more info.

Gia. Gia T. Cacalano is noted locally for her ability to design landscapes of improvisation, enhanced by an ability to set her dancers free. She has recently formed a second company called . Together they presented Frameworks at the Wood Street Galleries. This, however, was a departure for Gia. Faced with a collective of five dancers of varying experience and outlook, she was more structured in presenting these artists, with acknowledged success given the fact that the ensemble had worked together for five or six months. It showed that Gia was skilled in presenting imagery to her company and constructing lush phrases phrases for them. Obviously this would be a viable outlet for more local dancers. It was particularly good to see Gretchen Moore (formerly of Dance Alloy and Labco) and Kelly Krepin DeFade (Labco) performing in the Pittsburgh dance arena once again. And Sarah Bauer, Joanna Reed and Alex Salerno also responding so well. Once again as delightful collaboration with the art installation, this time Erwin Redl’s Speed Shift, where LED lights dotted the walls in random fashion.


On Stage: Making Something Out of Nothing

September 18, 2013

Gia T.It’s fun to watch dance at the Wood Street Galleries, most of all because those terrific installations provide a fascinating and often interactive landscape for movement. Gia Cacalano and friends recently refurbished a blank Wood Street Gallery, long and lean white box, with their own film, score and improvisation with impressive results. Click on Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for the details.



Dance Bites: Gia T., Stein l Holum, Brain Dance

July 21, 2013

MORE THAN A TRIO. Gia Cacalano was only supposed to do a quick turn and leave the evening to Ravish Momin’s Tarana. But the evening went above and beyond. Ravish is a Carnegie Mellon graduate with a B.S. in Civil/Environmental Engineering. He bases his music on Indian influences, including rhythmic speech, but with a more contemporary use of meter and syncopation. On July 13 at Wood Street gallery, Tarana, which varies in size with collaborative artists, was a duo with Rick Parker, noted jazz trombonist in New York. It was so much more, however, via a smart use of electronics. Perhaps inspired by Ravish’s background, Gia appeared with scarves wrapped around her bodice both at the beginning and later in the performance with large, satisfying chunks of dance. She responded to the sophisticated musical backdrop with pirouettes that swirled into deep knee drops and a use of open hips, with dramatic tensions that took her performance to another level.

Suli Holum

Suli Holum

PLENTY OF HEART. Stein l Holum Projects is a New York duo, the latest artists tagged by Kelly Strayhorn Theater’s janera solomon. As is her method, she brought them in for a workshop, culminating in a sneak peak at Dance Alloy Studios. While The Wholehearted was a work-in-progress, only excerpts, it was a terrific tour de force for the talented Suli Holum, nominated for a Drama Desk award in 2012. The tale, written by co-director and writer Deborah Stein, is that of a former boxing champ, set to make a comeback but hampered by an emotional past. With KST’s Joseph Hall expertly guiding the Q&A, the audience offered a penetrating feedback, where the artists listened intently. And the production company itself transformed the Alloy space into a boxing ring, with projections, lighting, original music, choreography, live video work — and possible tips for KST in the future. Put the KST’s workshop series on your calendar, well worth the time and modest admission.

A FRICK PARK WALK. Ella Mason has joined the Pittsburgh dance community, forming Yes Brain Dance Theater, and is in the midst of a series of site-specific works. This one, the second in the series, Of Snails and Lips and Walking Sticks, took place in Frick Park, opposite the museum and heading down the trail to the bottom and out again. With a morphing group of dancers (the thoughtful Jasmine Hearn, Beth Ratas, Taylor Knight, Anna Thompson and more) and musicians (percussionists Dave Bernabo and Ketan Bakrania nuanced and effective, with cellist Gordon Kirkwood soulful) at hand, Ella lead the walk herself, gradually unraveling a knit skirt like Hansel and Gretel’s crumbs. Over 25 people and several companion dogs followed her as we had about 10 “encounters,” including a trio improvising on a fallen tree, a conversation/hand dance that descended down the hill, a scene around a giant pile of sticks, a treehugger and cello and a group of creatures that didn’t seem to be snails in this particular environment. Watz the German shepherd playfully nipped at Ella’s skirt to everyone’s delight. Then we all exited up through Tranquil Trail, punctuated by human statues, and gathered around Ella and Gordon and Watz for closure. It was a cool walk on a hot day.

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Dance Beat: PBT, Gia

February 20, 2013

In the Upper Room with Luca Sbrizzi and Kumiko Tsuji

PBT TEASE. Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre will be treading mostly familiar ground during its 2013-14 season, anchoring things with full-length ballets like Swan Lake (Feb. 13-16 with orchestra), Don Quixote (Apr. 11-13 with orchestra) and The Nutcracker (Dec. 6-29), all in the Benedum Center. The season will get an unusual launch, however, with An Evening of Twyla Tharp, although both contemporary pieces, In the Upper Room and Nine Sinatra Songs, previously have been performed here. Nonetheless Twyla’s trademark slouch, coupled with her own musical zest, should give the PBT dancers a spirited send-off into the season (Benedum, Oct. 25-27).

The only new wrinkle so far will come from Julia Adam, who has choreographed for San Francisco Ballet (where she was a principal dancer) and Atlanta Ballet, among others, and is currently Artistic Associate at Ballet Memphis. She brings a cross-cultural fusion of ballet, modern and Israeli folk dance set to traditional Klezmer music in Ketubah, a Pittsburgh premiere that was commissioned by the Houston Ballet in 2004. Set to music by The Best Little Klezmer Band in Texas, it follows a Jewish couple from first glance to wedding night. The work will be part of the annual August Wilson Center program, titled 3×3, along with an encore presentation of Dwight Rhoden’s Smoke ‘n Roses, featuring Pittsburgh songstress Etta Cox. A third choreographer has yet to be determined, but it will definitely be a world premiere (Mar. 7-16).

Don Quixote with Ying Li

Subscriptions for 3, 4 or 5-ballet packages can be purchased by calling 412-454-9107 or going online at Single tickets go on sale in September 2013.

Gia T Presents - January 26, 2013 FlierGIA TEASE. Gia Cacalano returned to her current home away from home, Wood Street Galleries, for an evening-long (and welcome) partnership with Philadelphia dancer Wendell Cooper that served as a preview for a European trip where they would conduct workshops and perform.

It turned out, though, that Mr. Cooper was a skilled videographer, creating a radiating link of light that played constantly during their performances.

Ms. Cacalano began with The Property, a childlike creature (inspired by her daughter’s first beach experience) with whirling legs and an awestruck demeanor. Dressed in a hooded sweatshirt, she tugged at it, but gradually became more daring as the piece progressed, skidding across the floor as she fell.

Mr. Cooper was a “man of one-way tickets and no savings account” in his gender-bending [Bodied]. Cutting wide swathes of movement across the gallery floor, the viewer didn’t know which direction would come next.

Despite their differing approaches to improvisation — she a winsome flower of hidden tensile strength (you could imagine her completing a marathon), he a lush outpouring of muscular movement — they forged a connection on a deep level together in their duet.


On Stage: In Unity There Was Diversity

July 10, 2012

It was a confluence of the arts at a place that invites the entire Pittsburgh community to meet and greet. Shana Simmons, a Pittsburgh daughter but essentially a newbie to the choreographic scene, took on a grand vision, to explore the architectural nooks and crannies of the Union Project. Called Relative Positions, the former church teemed with visual and performing artists for three hours on a hot summer’s eve. Read about it in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. 

On Stage: Improvising Through Dance and Life

March 31, 2012

We often say that the world is connected by six degrees of separation. But the dance world, so familial, has to be half of that.

Over the past few years, we’ve become more acquainted with Gia Cacalano, who has brought her improv skills to the forefront, much to our delight. She has spoken about her brother, Vincent, and will finally bring him here this weekend for BLINK at the Wood Street Galleries for an evening of improvisation with guest artists, musicians and HC Gilje’s light installation, in transit.

But there’s more. As it turns out, Vincent has worked extensively with another improv great, Michael Schumacher, who will be in town next week for the Pittsburgh Dance Council presentation of Last Touch First, a project created by Michael with iconic contemporary choreographer Jiri Kylian.

Small world, indeed. It turns that the pair are good friends and have worked together extensively at Magpie Music Dance Company, based in the Netherlands and a cult favorite in Europe. FYI: The group was founded by Katie Duck and, to put things in perspective, American dancer Steve Paxton, founding father of contact improvisation, often worked with the artists in the collective.

As Vincent puts it, “Improvisation in a Magpie performance is not the antithesis of choreography or composition; it is how the choreography’s and compositions are made, out of practice both in the studio setting and the newness of real time improvised performance. A Magpie performance is about the experience of being there, you are participating in the event and thus, in a sense, the work.”

But how did this Virginia boy, a former gymnast who had some ballet studies but was far more interested in studying theater at the college level, make his way into the farthest reaches  of dance?

It turned out that he was an arts adventurist. The theater program at Virginia Commonwealth was more play-based — it wasn’t about making work. During college breaks, Vincent would join Gia, three years older, in New York where she was studying, and had exposure there to the acclaimed experimental theater company, The Wooster Group, founded by artists like actor Willem DeFoe and monologuist Spalding Gray.

So Vincent began to make his own  work back at VCU, using movement and text. When he showed at a local gallery, the dance people attended, pointing out how it looked like choreography.

He was already taking Laban and had assembled quite a few dance credits, including a ballet class, just for fun. So the young would-be actor “naturally gravitated” into becoming a dance major. During college breaks in NYC, he studied with Alwin Nikolais and Erick Hawkins and performed in a piece by Meg Harper, who was running the Cunningham studio.

Vincent did his first real improvisation, though, with Alwin Nikolais, who designed specific improvisations for performance goals, rather than just an exploration in the studio. “It was the first time I saw it not as a method to make choreography, but as a way within itself,” he recalls. “I remember it very, very distinctly.”

He decided to pursue his masters degree at George Washington University, emphasizing composition and body-movement and alignment theory. While there, Vincent had the occasion to tour with a local company to Germany and the Netherlands.

At a festival in the Netherlands, he met students from the School for New Dance Development. As he recalls, “I liked their work very much and they liked what I was up to.” The enterprising students suggested an exchange program. While in Amsterdam, Vincent met Katie Duck, but returned to finish his degree.

Another colleague informed him that there was a teaching position open at the School, so he headed back to Amsterdam and taught an audition class and got the job. He renewed his friendship with Katy and along with Michael Schumacher and some other artists, founded Magpie.

It grew to a loosely-organized company of 16 improvisers — eight dancers and eight musicians within the space of a decade, from 1995-2000. During that time the group was instrumental in bringing a renewed respect for the art form. But the members then decided to give each other some space to develop personal projects and Magpie became an umbrella organization. Vincent decided that he would accept a position at The Manchester Metropolitan University in England where he could work in an interdisciplinary setting.

But there are signs that Katie is re-organizing Magpie and certainly she and Vincent remain close. In the meantime he is looking forward to bringing his skills to the Pittsburgh dance turf.

He’s “really excited” about BLINK, particularly in coordinating the “movement of light in relationship to our movement. It’s like working with another dancer and it will really play off and with the other dancers and musicians. It kind of reminds me of Nikolais…fascinating.”





On Stage: Improvising Through Life

February 3, 2011

Improvisation has always played a significant role in dance, at the very least where a rehearsal mistake might change the course of the choreography or the performers might take on a phrase of their own creation. But it seems that there is a particularly strong trend forming, where improvising is taking on a larger area of importance in designing the ultimate choreographic structure. Gia Cacalano, who has developed quite a reputation in this arena, sat down to talk about misconceptions and myths about her dance form prior to her recent concert, “Crossing Center Without My Glass Slipper.”

“Well, there’s a lot more risk-taking and a lot more trust involved and a lot more work to get to that place,” the petite artist begins just before a Sunday afternoon rehearsal at The Space Upstairs. “To dance you have to practice dancing. To improvise you have to practice improvising, much more so because it is so abstract, so in the moment.”

She contends that “you have to get your reflexes to a point where you’re not thinking about doing, you’re just doing it. That’s easier said than done.”

An improvising artist must, of course, learn the technique and the aesthetic. But then the dancer develops a body of work that he or she can access through “triggers.” It’s like learning the alphabet — letters, then words, then sentences and paragraphs. And that, Gia observes, takes time to develop the complete language.

So a performance doesn’t come out in a straight forward way, as if the choreography was set on a group. Sometimes the choreography can be dissected by an improvisation. Or an improvisation can be completely broken by a phrase. As Gia puts it, the performance “goes back and forth — there are no absolute rules. Even though I’ve set up a composition, at any given time it can all go out the window.”

To her “it’s exciting and it’s challenging and sometimes you can fail. But that’s okay because that’s how you get something that’s a little more innovative and on the edge and just imaginative.”

This comes from a dancer who once trained in ballet, then Graham and Limon. She did it for so long that “it became stifling. I knew what to expect. I knew what I had to do and I did it again and again and again.”

Gia actually stopped dancing for seven years at age 30 for that reason. Then she encountered butoh artist Maureen Fleming (some of you may remember her eternal backbend at the Pittsburgh Dance Council). “You’re not making it happen, so there’s the element of improvisation,” she explains.

Although Gia concedes that early training gives a dancer technique and precision, she just got disenchanted. With Maureen she began to find her own voice.

Gia came to Pittsburgh in 2002, where she began to figure out how to practice improvisation and how to organize it, noting that “one of the biggest things was flow, pause and exit and, of course, being in the moment of your choice.” She also found that “there’s more freedom in being allowed to fail.”

Now she’s “totally exposing” herself in “Crossing Center.” It was initially inspired by photos of women from Cairo, which set Gia on the idea of traveling through life. But, as the mother of a five-year old girl, she’s recently been immersed in the ideas of Prince Charming and fairy tale settings.

Somehow it all connected. “We all end up crossing the center without our glass slipper,” she says of life at large. “Even for men. It’s not what they tell you in the books.”

Building on her six-year-plus professional relationship with percussionist Jeff Berman, she began creating “Crossing Center.” As it turned out, the performance at The Space Upstairs had many elements from the original idea plus so much more.

The Space was set up like an expanded living room, surrounding numerous shoe arrangements (some with glass-like adornments), a couple of suspended clouds, a small pink tulle canopy and several black boxes.

It was all Gia needed, suggesting modern-day glass slippers and a child-like, fairy tale

imagination, where even a black box could become a castle. I found the movement to be similarly child-like in a way — open, alert and infused with energy.

Beth Ratas walked on in mismatched glam heels, taking photos of the Space and audience with her camera. The rest of what followed had a terrific blend of fantasy and reality. The arm movements were sometimes balletic (never crossing the center line of the body), and being balletic, they were a real allusion to the illusion found in such a traditional art form. Keeping in that vein, the dancers occasionally operated in second position, with arms plunging down the center of the body.

Allison Greene was far more aggressive than I have seen her with a far-flung slide across that center line and later spinning out of control into the unremitting back wall. (Was that reality coming into play?) Along with Gia, who clomped on in huge wading boots, and Jasmine Hearn, so playful, the dancers tiptoed and leaped and the only time you could tell the improv and set choreography apart was in the group sequences.

The second part of the program took those themes to some other world, with Gia unleashed as a solo dancer, pulling on her long ponytail and teetering along that center line, and Jeff, David Bernabo on laptop and Hill Jordon, trombone, interacting with spare musical sophistication. All-in-all this group is a wonderful addition to the Pittsburgh dance scene.

If you missed it, the same “Crossing” cast will tackle another, different SPACE, this time the contemporary art gallery on Liberty Avenue between 8th and 9th streets. And while the cast will remain the same, the performance surely will surely change dramatically. (See Listings.)