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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
PBT. As it nears the finish of its 45th season, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre seems to be casting its sights on the 50th. For the first time in recent memory it is presenting two mixed repertory nights. The first, with George Balanchine’s Western Symphony, William Forsythe’s in the middle somewhat elevated and Jiri Kylian’s Sinfonietta, opens the season (Benedum Center, Oct. 23-25) and has the potential to be the company’s best program…ever. There is no doubt that this is a great line-up. But more importantly, it has balance, perhaps beginning with the sweeping Sinfonietta, then with the meaty contemporary angles of the Forsythe and finishing with Balanchine’s version of the wild, wild West. The other (Byham Theater, Mar. 10-13) features what appears to be a popular and fairly recent (BalletMet premiere 2010) ballet, noted Canadian choreographer James Kudelka’s Man in Black, inspired by country legend Johnny Cash. It will be accompanied by another local premiere, Michael Smuin’s 1969 pas de deux, The Eternal Idol, and a return of the iconic Jardin aux Lilas (Lilac Garden) by Antony Tudor. The company will bring back Jorden Morris’ version of Peter Pan (Benedum, Feb. 12-14) and, of course, the annual Nutcracker (Benedum, Dec. 4-27). The season will then conclude with the company premiere of Le Corsaire (Benedum, Apr. 15-17), one of those epic ballet warhorses about a pirate who seeks to liberate the woman he loves from kidnappers. The orchestra will accompany the opening program and Le Corsaire. For more information, click on PBT.
CLO. Not falling into the season category (but it will in the future) is the exciting news about the new production of An American in Paris, choreographed by balletic superstar choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, who is also making his directorial debut. It got rave reviews in Paris for this reimagining of the classic Gene Kelly film and set to open on Broadway . The cast is to-die-for, led by New York City Ballet principal dancer Robert Fairchilds and The Royal Ballet’s Leanne Cope, certain to be a dead ringer for Leslie Caron onstage. Check it out at American.
PITTSBURGH ON BROADWAY. Dance aficionados will want to catch Mathilda the Musical, with choreography and movement by Peter Darling, whose other credits include Billie Elliot: The Musical. The Sam Mende/Rob Marshall version of Cabaret returns to Pittsburgh via the 2015-16 Broadway across America season direct from Broadway and The Wizard of Oz gets a bit of a facelift from Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber with some new songs (choreographer is Brit Arlene Phillips). For those who are musical-ly driven, Beautiful — The Carole King Musical will be of interest plus some familiar favorites like Jersey Boys, The Sound of Music and Blue Man Group. For more information, click on Broadway.
JACOB’S PILLOW. Well, well, well. Pittsburgh beat the Pillow to the punch on a couple of appearances taking place on its 2015 season, including Three Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host (the Ira Glass/Monica Bill Barnes collaboration presented by Pittsburgh Dance Council in February), Daniel Ulbricht & Stars of American Ballet (independently presented at the Byham Theater and Cuba’s Malpaso (presented by Kelly Strayhorn Theater with two North American premieres). Of course, Alonzo King LINES Company and Martha Graham Dance Company have touched base here along the way as well. (In a real departure, there will be only one Graham work on the program and a premiere by Mats Ek to celebrate the group’s 90th anniversary.) Keigwin + Company open the season and will include tap sensation Michelle Dorrance and L.A. Project, founded by Benjamin Millepied. Click on Pillow.
We have been watching Beth Corning slowly reveal her own family history during her years in Pittsburgh, show by show, step by step. But she has constructed a special dance family around her personal family via the Glue Factory Project, designed specifically for dancers over 40.
In celebration of Glue’s fifth anniversary, she is putting five performers, all with a local/regional connection, inside at ONCE there was a HOUSE, her fourth iteration of the piece. This time Corning rebuilt the work with Attack Theatre’s Michele de la Reza, Squonk Opera’s Jackie Dempsey, veteran Pittsburgh actor John Gresh, former Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre principal Tamar Rachelle Tolentino and Yoav Kaddar, head of West Virginia University’s dance department and former dancer with Paul Taylor, Jose Limon and Pilobolus.
It’s also the perfect way to celebrate five years in a “huge economic crunch.” Corning will embrace a long stint in Sweden, “that really created my artistic voice and my aesthetics and made them concrete,” by bringing in two Swedish artists later this year.
Re-entering her House along with “grownups who actually knew Dick and Jane,” the educational reading series used from 1930 to 1970 in many schools, was inspired by Pittsburgh.
But this House, which will double its length to an hour, “has changed a lot and the characters are completely different,” she promises. And with multidisciplinary artists around her, “it’s been pretty grand.”
“We acknowledge we’re all pushing our limits on this one — we’re all out of our comfort zone,” Corning says. ” It’s an incredibly vulnerable show; it’s incredibly vulnerable when you really know what you’re dancing about.”
The work she does is deeply personal, deeply engrained in the body and soul. For example, she would “sit and talk and analyze this thing” with Gresh “and find ways into it — it’s so much fun! These are people who are smart, who are there, who are present beyond present.”
So de la Reza might turn into a rehearsal director, helping some of the others. And Dempsey, an accordionist in her professional life, “picks up dance movement faster than most dancers.” Gresh keeps laughing — “he calls himself a baby rhino in a bunch of gazelles.”
They’ve all had to adjust, though. The movement might have to switch legs because of a leg or hip problem because “it’s all part of the Glue Factory.” But according to Corning, there is so much other movement available that the richness of the dance still takes hold.
And that made the process so much more satisfying.
For example, she was enamored with Rachelle Tolentino from her very beginning in Pittsburgh. The ballerina led the company audition for Corning at the Alloy, whereupon she asked her to join the company. “You’re exactly what I’m looking for.” But the knee problem that had curtailed Rachelle Tolentino’s career prevented that.
But a couple of years ago, she coached Corning in her one-woman show, REMAINS. “I had an ‘aha’ moment,” recalls Corning, “as I watched her walk. Seasoned artists can simply walk and say as much as a young dancer does in fifty pirouettes.”
De la Reza hasn’t been coached in 20 years while co-founder of Attack, leading Corning to remark that de la Reza’s experience here is like learning Greek and then immediately performing a theater piece using it.
Corning and Kaddar traded rehearsal time between Morgantown and Pittsburgh, about 90 minutes. She notes, admiringly, that he was “alway on time.” As for Gresh, well, “He’s a honey. That guy’s the real deal — he’s not up there doing lines.”
And Dempsey, an accordionist, she didn’t know that she would “really” be dancing. In fact, she wrote a note to Corning saying, in part, “In two decades of performing, I’ve never been quite so terrified.” But if she “could choose any artist with whom to take this lead, it wold be Beth.”