On Stage: A Feminist Ballet at the Lake

August 19, 2013
Photo: Brian Smith

Photo: Brian Smith

Chautauqua Institution finished off its dance season with North Carolina Dance Theatre’s finale, which included the last in an impressive series of premieres by Sasha Janes, along with pieces by Mark Diamond and George Balanchine’s semi-wild Western Symphony.

So the professionals finished up on Saturday night, but the students still had to strut their stuff  for parents and friends at the Amphitheater on Sunday afternoon. Maris Battaglia, director of the School of Dance, always comes up with some delicious nuggets. In addition to her Dance For Six, which meant lovely preteen ballerinas with a poise beyond their years, she brought an equally lovely variation on Swan Lake and restaged Michael Vernon’s Susan B. Anthony.

Yes, you read it right, a feminist ballet for 20 young and impressionable ballerinas. The taller girls were the men, dressed in suits and fedoras, accompanied by shorter “spouses,” in long beige dresses with slumped shoulders. They were met by a confident young young woman in bright yellow (Celeste Borman) who inspired them to follow a similar path of independence.

It was met with rousing applause, probably led by their mothers.

Also on the program were Mark’s Water Music, Sasha Janes’ Tango Forte, some modern dance (Jon Lehrer), hip hop (Rachael Humphrey) and the ballet of the summer, the first movement of George Balanchine’s Western Symphony.

It was staged with the passion and verve that Patricia McBride always brought to her roles at New York City Ballet and the students, as always, greatly benefitted from it.

Dance Beat: PBT News and Round-up

February 26, 2013
A student performance at the Amphitheater

A student performance at the Amphitheater

TO THE LAKEPittsburgh Ballet Theatre will make its debut at Chautauqua Institution this summer (Wed., Aug. 21 at 8:15 p.m.), a bit of a surprise since the historic Amphitheater, outdoor performing space, has been the turf of Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux, Patricia McBride and North Carolina Dance Theatre for over 25 years. It’s a company with a decided Balanchine look, a given since the two artistic directors once starred with George Balanchine’s officially “starless” New York City Ballet. So it should provide a tangible style comparison for residents there. If you’re interested in making the drive (a little over two hours from Pittsburgh) up to the picturesque Victorian community and surrounding attractions, check the website for more information.


Olivia Kelly, JoAnna Schmidt and Casey Taylor kick up their heels in the Can-can. Photos: Rich Sofranko

Olivia Kelly, JoAnna Schmidt and Casey Taylor kick up their heels in the Can-can. Photos: Rich Sofranko

BACK TO THE MOULIN ROUGE. Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s production of Moulin Rouge translated well for all three casts over a weekend of performances (click on Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for an article on opening night). Because the movement phrases often were plucked from familiar classroom exercises, tombe pas de bouree glissade (and substitute your favorite jump) —  the dancers could relax and exchange choreographic pleasantries all night long.

That also meant that each audience could peruse different (although never bawdy) takes on the world’s most famous (and infamous) cabaret. Let’s take the Nathalie/Matthew combination first, where there were varying flavors, enough to keep things interesting.

Opening night cast Christine Schwaner and Luca Sbrizzi had an independent clarity and freshness, more in a classical vein, while Friday night’s Alexandra Kochis and Christopher Budzynski, always on top of the technical elements, also connected on an intimate level that helped to sustain the dramatic line.

The Saturday matinee featured a pair of corps members who jumped at the opportunity and did surprisingly well. Caitlin Peabody had plenty of spunk and determination in her first starring role. While hers was a cozy technique, it had a thoughtful, yet piquant quality that suited this role. Her partner, Nicholas Coppula, was detailed in drawing his character as both an art student and a fine romantic lead.

Christine Schwaner as Nathalie

Christine Schwaner as Nathalie

It was hard to pick a favorite between the two Zidlers, Robert Moore’s brooding owner  or Nurlan Abougaliev’s more flamboyant villain. Joseph Parr posed no such problem , however — he was cast as Toulouse-Lautrec for all five performances. In fact, choreographer Jorden Morris singled him out at a post-performance soiree downstairs at the Benedum Center, calling him one of the best among 14 casts that he has worked with on the ballet.

Among the women, La Goulue, the iconic redhead from the famed Toulouse-Lautrec poster, was a juicy role. Elysa Hotchkiss had the snap of a whiplash in her deep backbends, while Julia Erickson brought the requisite star quality to dominate the Can-can. Eva Trapp could use her sensuality at full force, something that also played exceptionally well as the tango lead dancer with Alexandre Silva. Elysa showed off her flickering footwork with partner Alejandro Diaz.

Historically speaking, Moulin Rouge was marvelously detailed, including the Top Hats, perhaps a reference to Valentin the Boneless (also partner of La Goulue), but here a chance to give the men a chance to show off their ballet technique.

I am still puzzled, though, by the woman in green, not to be confused with the Green Fairies, although they appeared all together in Matthew’s absinthe-driven hallucination scene. There was a woman who appeared in Toulouse-Lautrec’s art work, but she had only a green cast, most likely from the eerie lighting inside the club. In this production, she seemed to serve as some sort of muse, but the color coordination with Green Fairies, might have indicated something else. To confuse things more, she was played by the dancers (Amanda Cochrane and Garielle Thurlow) who also appeared as Mome Fromage, without any distinction in the program.

By the way, kudos to this increasingly versatile company, who sometimes played three roles or more.


On Stage: A Spirited Conclusion to the Chautauqua Season.

August 22, 2012

Photo by Tom WolfThere’s always a powerhouse end to the Chautauqua dance season as Chautauqua’s School of Dance produces a student-driven Choreographic Workshop, often with live music from Chautauqua program participants, on Friday afternoon. Then North Carolina Dance Theatre joins with the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra on Saturday night and Chautauqua’s School of Dance students strut their stuff on Sunday afternoon. It’s a win-win situation as parents not only get to see their own children, but the quality of the program and, with a weekend stay, the professional resources of NCDT. (You can read the NCDT review and see the accompanying photo slideshow by clicking on The Chautauquan Daily.)

Now for a few words about the students themselves. Five works came from the Choreographic Workshop and were repeated on the Sunday program. Ranging from the Gershwin-like Preludes to Tango Bramare with a live tango quartet, they were all remarkably astute. This appears to be a trend among various student programs in the area, hinting that dance will perhaps be producing a high level choreographer in the near future.

The School of Dance has been expanding its curriculum and the students performed some contemporary works, always clever, by Jon Lehrer, and modified hip hop for ballet students by Rachel Humphrey, a terrific addition, although Mark Diamond’s Foresight had heavy-handed subject matter that was above the teenagers’ life perceptions.

Some of the treasures of this performance always come from Maris Battaglia, who coaches the younger students, beginning at age 11. They promenade onto the stage like mini-Bolshoi Ballet members, so lifted and pleasant and so in sync as if they had trained together for years. There was an exquisite Pas de Trois for the talented Claire Georgiadis, Caitrin Murphy and Scotto Hamed-Ramos and a brilliant take-off on The Red Shoes, where 14 budding ballerinas, all in white leotards and tights with simple red skirts, carried shoe boxes onto the stage. Yes, they all contained red ballet shoes and followed with smart references to the classic movie.

And it all began so charmingly with Mozart and a bevy of little beauties in blue.

It also ended in a gossamer blue, as Patricia McBride staged George Balanchine’s Serenade, which has become a staple for advanced ballet programs in our area (and we are blessed!) and is obviously a transcendent experience for every young dancer who has had the pleasure of floating through this masterful piece of choreography. Maybe it wasn’t as moonlit as usual, being held in the open air during the afternoon, but the young cast made it feel that way, particularly Isabella LaFreniere, who was only 16, but was making artistic choices worthy of a dancer in her mid-20’s.

The following is a Youtube video featuring Isabella last year at age 15.

On Stage: At the Lake

July 19, 2012

It’s back to Chautauqua for yet another season. To the lake, of course. And the undeniable architectural character of the Athenaeum Hotel. The fountain in Bestor Plaza. Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux. Patricia McBride. The passion for dance that they demonstrate with their company, North Carolina Dance Theater. Read about it in The Chautauquan Daily.

On Stage: A Finale Weekend at Chautauqua

August 29, 2011

The Chautauqua dance season came to a close recently and was packed with activities. Of course, there was the final concert by North Carolina Dance Theatre with the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra, which you can find by clicking on The Chautauquan Daily.

That was a Saturday night event, but Friday afternoon found the Chautauqua School of Dance Choreographic Workshop in the rustic Carnahan-Jackson Dance Studios. Any dance program worth its salt these days incorporates some sort of foray into the process of making dances.

But this one was different, for the student choreographers were able to take advantage of Chautauqua’s fine summer music program and the talent that it yields. According to NCDT artistic director Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux, the choreographers handle it all — searching out their musicians, deciding on the accompaniment, scheduling rehearsals and directing them.

The staff hands out various awards during the in-house performance (best technique, most improved dancer, etc.), but Jacob Casey took home the top choreographic honor for “Into Your Mind,” full of quirky images and with a classically-inspired score by Kellen Degnan, the cellist in his own String Quartet in E Major. Diana Peters captured second prize with the energetic and ambitious “Threaded.”

On Sunday there was the Chautauqua Dance Student Gala, a matinee that showcased teenaged ballet talents and was held in the Amphitheater. The main focus was George Balanchine’s “Donizetti Variations,” beautifully staged, as always, by master teacher Patricia McBride.

Originally called “Variations from ‘Don Sebastian,’” this is a piece that I don’t think I’ve seen before. It is not one of Mr. B’s masterworks, but it still shows the hand of a master.

Light hearted and chock full of technical hurdles, the young cast went for it all with an elegant gusto, led by a confident Laine Habony, only 14, and 17 year-old Philip Martin-Nielson, expertly etching minute details in his variation, both from School of American Ballet.

All student levels had a chance. For the younger dancers, there was the venerable Maris Battaglia, who gave them a whole range of works. A pink-and-white confection of a “Cinderella.” A Bach number (shades of “Concerto Barocco”) where even the tiny ones showed the spark that Chautauqua seems to bring. “Shostakovich by Rostrapovich” which was inspired mostly by “Rubies” with a little “Prodigal Son” thrown in for good measure. And “Dance for Seven,” a little Strauss piece where the dancers could display new partnering moves. All in all, Maris is a real asset to the program.

But she wasn’t the whole story. Guest teacher Michael Vernon created “Place Montmartre.” Can you say Gene Kelly’s “American in Paris?” This had all the bustle and charm of that film ballet (although the music came from the delightful Shostakovich ballet suites), from schoolgirls skittering about in plaid skirts to a Kelly-esque policeman. Aside from an abrupt ending, this was a real winner.

Modern dance choreographer Jon Lehrer, so imaginative, didn’t move the ballet students too far out of their comfort zone  and Rachael Humphrey gave them exposure to hip hop, the first time it has been included on the Gala program.

Of course there were a few solos, including the elegant Isabella LaFreniere in “Black Swan” and Austin Carter in a specially-designed piece by Jean-Pierre called — what else — “For Austin.”

That’s something to cherish, a piece named for you. Yes, they care that much about their students here…