On Stage: 15 Years of “Nut”-iness

December 5, 2016
Alexandra Kochis with Christopher Budzynski in "The Nutcracker." Photo: Rich Sofranko

Alexandra Kochis with Christopher Budzynski in “The Nutcracker.” Photo: Rich Sofranko

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre celebrates 15 years of “Nutcracker” in the Terrence Orr production. Click on Nut for the review.


Dance Beat: Patricia, Matt, Brazzies, Charrette, Attack

August 30, 2016
Patricia Wilde with Savion Glover

Patricia Wilde with Savion Glover

A Wilde Award. Former Pittsburgh artistic director Patricia Wilde added yet another award to her treasure chest. She was honored by the National Museum of Dance in Saratoga, New York, along with famed tap dancer Gregory Hines, whose award was accepted by tapper extraordinaire Savion Glover, who was mentored by Hines. She was surrounded by her family, including children Anya Davis and Yuri Bardyguine, plus a sizable contingent who worked with her at PBT, including Terrence Orr, Harris Ferris, Janet Campbell with David and Roberto Munoz.

Fresh Addition. He has popped up in performances with Attack Theatre ever since he and husband Rubén Garcia, head of the dance department at Point Park University, moved to Pittsburgh two or so years ago. Dance Europe Magazine selected him as one of the “Top 100 Dancers in World” for 2010/2011 and he is a former dancer with Lucinda Childs. But he gave Pittsburgh a sweet surprise this spring at the Kelly Strayhorn Theater, simply titled Matt Pardo: An Evening of New Works. It was actually the culmination of a Master’s of Fine Arts Degree at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and showcased a subtle blend of jazz, which had a certain weight, and contemporary dance, which gave it a liquidity. That clarity and balance in Pardo’s choreography were easiest to see in Matt’s solo and another for Point Park dancer, the talented Justus Whitfield. There were two group dances for Point Park College dancers which further demonstrated a transparency in thought and execution to be found in Pardo’s style. Most exciting, though, was a trio he created with Childs dancers Caitlin Scranton and Sharon Milanese, beautifully interacting in various formations. It was a preview, though, because Pardo and  Scranton have designs on establishing a professional company in Pittsburgh.

BETH CORNING HEADSHOTThe Brazzies. The latest edition of the Brazzy Awards, named after former ballerina and inspirational teacher Leslie Anderson Braswell went to two veterans of the local dance scene. Congratulations to Beth Corning, who always offers deep, thoughtful performances for dancers over 50 (!), this time taking on avant-garde writer Samuel Beckett in Beckett and Beyond, and Christopher Budzynski, principal dancer with Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, who has contributed so much to an array of leading roles, including Swan Lake,  Don Quixote and Le Corsaire.

Christopher Budzynski with wife Alexandra Kochis in "Cinderella."

Christopher Budzynski with wife Alexandra Kochis in “Cinderella.”

Fresh Choreography. This is the must-see project developed at PearlArts Studios. Take a choreographer, give him or her the opportunity to develop work and present it in a  atmosphere, complete with expert feedback (in this instance dance artists Mark Taylor — who seamlessly coordinates things — Michele de la Reza, Jasmine Hearn and visual artist Maritza Mosquera). Do yourself a favor and take in the soft glow of changing light at the Studios, complete with intelligent, nurturing conversation and support for the likes of Jean Paul Weaver, Ella Moriah Mason and Slowdanger duo Anna Thompson and Taylor Knight.

Real Attack. One of my favorite activities, rain or shine. No real dance, just connecting with real dancers (and friends) who proclaim “We’re On a Boat.” The Attackers had a real presence this year, with co-founders Michele de la Reza and Peter Kope, of course, the inimitable executive director Rebecca Himberger, Dane Toney, Ashley Williams, all at Lock Wall One Marina at 23rd Street in the Strip District

 

 


On Stage: Another “Nut”-ty Holiday at PBT

December 6, 2015
Hannah Carter as Marie. Photo: Rich Sofranko

Hannah Carter as Marie. Photo: Rich Sofranko

How do I love thee? Let me count the times I’ve seen the “Nutcracker.” Over the course of 40 years, that means a lot. But I can’t say I have the same pressure as those dance professionals who have participated in countless performances. Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre has the best buy in the city ($30 for a multi-million dollar production). Read about it in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Diana Yohe and Corey Bourbonniere in the Snow Scene. Photo: Rich Sofranko.

Diana Yohe and Corey Bourbonniere in the Snow Scene. Photo: Rich Sofranko.


On Stage: A Ballet Trifecta

November 8, 2015

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre just concluded its opening performance series in grand style with Balanchine, Forsythe and Kylian. Read about it at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

This was as perfectly balanced a repertory program as PBT has ever presented. Something to note — while the audiences were smaller than the more marketable full-length ballets like Swan Lake, they were more enthusiastic, responding to the masterful choreography. So Pittsburgh dance fans know something good when they see it and, with similar programs, I believe Pittsburgh audiences will warm up to the concept of repertory, with a variety that will undoubtably appeal, at some point, to virtually everyone.

George Balanchine knew that, given his famous quote of having an appetizer, an entree and dessert on the program and he understood the concept of a dance “dessert” better than anyone, whipping up a batch of terrific finales like Western Symphony, Stars and Stripes and the Gershwin-inspired Who Cares?. Gradually audiences (and dancers) will graduate to the more dramatic, full-company likes of his Symphony in Three Movements and Symphony in C.

From this program, it seems, too, that Pittsburgh responds to the physicality of the dance — the array of leaps in Sinfonietta, the breathless slicing kicks of In the Middle, the seemingly unlimited dance landscape of Western Symphony.

Behind the scenes, and speaking of breath, corps member Caitlin Peabody, as fiery in Middle as her hair, said that there was a part in this deceptively difficult  ballet where she literally felt that she couldn’t catch her breath. As it turned out, choreographer Forsythe sent a message to “breathe.” And repetiteur Agnes Noltenius, one of the three top-notch artists who set the trio of ballets, reminded the dancers at the dress rehearsal. It worked, resulting in a satisfying breadth of movement as well as a breathable flow of movement, confident and articulate, something that is not always present with this company.

Once again, repetiteurs have transformed PBT, the last one being Shelly Washington in the Twyla Tharp program of Nine Sinatra Songs and In the Upper Room in 2013. And it would be hard to improve on this program. If anything, there could have been a newer work, maybe a commission or a ballet conceived within the past five years. Newer works build a company’s reputation — it’s more difficult to measure up to the international standard seen on YouTube and assorted films created in the classical tradition.

As a bonus, photographer Martha Rial had a free time slot and captured some of the memorable movements of Sinfonietta with her lens. If anyone would like a copy, contact her at martha@martharial.com.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's Yoshiaki Nakano and Hannah Carter perform Sinfonietta. Photo: Martha Rial©

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s Yoshiaki Nakano and Hannah Carter perform Sinfonietta. Photo: Martha Rial©

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's Luca Sbrizzi and Jessica McCann perform Sinfonietta. Photo: Martha Rial©

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s Luca Sbrizzi and Jessica McCann perform Sinfonietta. Photo: Martha Rial©

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's Jessica McCann and Joanna Schmidt perform Sinfonietta. Photo: Martha Rial©

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s Jessica McCann and Joanna Schmidt perform Sinfonietta. Photo: Martha Rial©

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's Corey Bourbonniere, Alexandre Silve and Gabrielle Thrulow perform Sinfonietta. Photo: Martha Rial©

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s Corey Bourbonniere, Alexandre Silve and Gabrielle Thrulow perform Sinfonietta. Photo: Martha Rial©

The final, highly emotional image of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's production of Sinfonietta. Photo: Martha Rial©

The final, highly emotional image of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s production of Sinfonietta. Photo: Martha Rial


Dance Beat: Loti Falk Gaffney

October 20, 2015

Maybe they knew something. Above is the tribute that Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre assembled in honor of board founder Loti Falk Gaffney at the 45th Anniversary Gala last April at the Benedum Center. It was a wonderful occasion, with board members fully committed to send PBT to the next level. Her granddaughter accepted on behalf of Loti, who was too frail to travel from her home on East 66th Street in New York City.

She died there on Oct. 13 at the age of 94, surrounded by family and caretakers.

But she left behind an arts legacy that still resonates here in Pittsburgh. I watched her struggle to get PBT on its feet during the early years. And I talked with her prior to the company’s 35th anniversary for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, where she spoke of those difficult, yet exhilarating  times. You can read about it here.


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.

 

 

 

 


Dance Beat: PBT — Bourree-ing Confidently into the Black (and Gold)

April 29, 2015

 

The house curtain comes down for a slide presentation of Loti Falk Gaffney.

The house curtain comes down for a slide presentation of Loti Falk Gaffney.

In the final weekend of its 45th season, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre had plenty to celebrate…and did it in style!

GALA. It began Thursday with the dress rehearsal of La Bayadere. Guests arrived for the 45th Anniversary Season Finale Gala at the Benedum Center, where the lobby was filled with high top tables and champagne was being served. They could then head for the mezzanine, where the company was rehearsing the final act of Bayadere, the Kingdom of the Shades. (Great to see the choreographic patterns from that angle!) Then it was back to the lobby for more champagne and appetizers from the Duquesne Club.

During that time the stage was set with dining tables for over 200 guests. Following the salad, PBT honored artistic founder Nicolas Petrov with a film presentation projected on the house curtain, which was lowered for a few minutes. Curtain up for the entree! Then board founder Loti Falk Gaffney received the same treatment, accepted by her granddaughter. (Mrs. Falk Gaffney, who resides in New York City, is now too frail to travel.)

After PBT honored its past, it set up a bright future for dessert (literally). The board has committed to a $20 million dollar campaign that will grow the endowment at 50 percent, grow the Strip District-Lawrenceville campus with a new annex building and grow artistic priorities with the establishment of an Innovation Fund. Board leadership came from campaign co-chairs Carolyn and Bill Byham (helped achieve 67 percent of the goal during the silent phase and the new building will be named for them) and campaign co-chairs Dawn and Chris Fleischner (provided early significant leadership gifts to the new annex building). Richard E. Rauh endowed the Principal Dancers’ Fund and PBT Trustee James Hardie and his wife Frances endowed a repertory fund. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania  contributed two Economic Growth Initiative Grants — a total of $2.25 million — since the plan’s inception in 2009.

As all of the above unfolds, it should enable PBT to keep up with a national trend, where the best of the ballet companies are receiving both financial and artistic support. It something that needed to be done. Both the Boston and Pennsylvania celebrated their 50th anniversaries with new construction and repertory. Here’s to Pittsburgh accomplishing the same.

 

Yoshiaki Nakano soaring as Solor (Photo: Rich Sofranko)

Yoshiaki Nakano soaring as Solor (Photo: Rich Sofranko)

 

BRUNCH. Costumier Janet Groom-Campbell (maker of those fabulous PBT tutus and so much more) and her husband David Campbell (CEO and president of West Penn Testing Group and antique car aficionado) hosted a tasty Saturday brunch at their home in Staunton Heights, with great vistas of the Allegheny River. Artistic directors Nicolas Petrov and Patricia Wilde were there enjoying the view, along with longtime supporters Melanie and Jim Crockard and former company members Susan Stone, Dr. Justin Glodowski, Roberto Munoz and Nola Nolen among others.

Gabrielle Thurlow as Gamzatti. Photo: Rich Sofranko.

Gabrielle Thurlow as Gamzatti. Photo: Rich Sofranko.

PERFORMANCE. Of course, the weekend was built around four performances of La Bayadere. Read about the first in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Corps member Hannah Carter made her debut as Nikiya, a role well-suited to her beautiful legato flow, at the Sunday matinee. She was paired with soloist Luca Sbrizzi, a pinpoint technician with an unbridled confidence, as Solor. There was nary a principal to be seen, except for a chameleon-like Amanda Cochran as a Temple Dancer (with an equally unrecognizable corps member Joseph Parr). Soloist Alexandra Silva (The Rajah) had an unparalleled authority, corps members Caitlin Peabody (Gamzatti) a conniving energy and Masahiro  Haneji (The Golden Idol) a crisp vertical jump. And you would have to mention another corps member, Ruslan Mukhambetkaliyev, performing all performances as the unmistakably sinuous fakir, Magedaveya, Could there be promotions in the future?

Luca Sbrizzi as The Golden  Idol. Photo: Rich Sofranko.

Luca Sbrizzi as The Golden Idol. Photo: Rich Sofranko.

THE AFTERPARTY. Following a weekend of exotic classical ballet, PBT dancers, alumnae and staff gathered at the company studios to mingle — former principals Kwang-Suk Choi and Steven Annegarn (now ballet master), former soloists Point Park staff member Susan Stowe and financial analyst Holly Baroway and corps members Charon Battles (Program Director for Dance, Local Arts and the Preserving Diverse Cultures Division of the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts!!) and Karen Strassom Gross added to the pool — and to celebrate the end of the 45th season with an enthusiasm that will carry into the future.