On Stage: A Hip Hop Christmas

December 11, 2018

The dance field is getting more crowded around this time of year — call it a Holiday Rave. There’s the venerable Nutcracker at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, something that transcends it all. For musical theater lovers, though, there’s Elf. Film buffs might gravitate to Disney’s new The Nutcracker and the Four Realms. But for a contemporary twist, The Hip Hop Christmas is the only game in town.

Most productions have a local flair and with hip hop, the logical locale would have to be New York City. This production boasts plenty of talent, both onstage and in the creative development — director and choreographer Jennifer Weber, whose extensive work straddles concert venues (Jacob’s Pillow, The Kennedy Center). A Bessie-nominated artist (serious stuff), she recently created a new work for New York City Ballet principal dancer Tiler Peck and hip hop legend Lil Buck. Co-creator/writer Mike Fitelson is executive producer at the United Palace, Manhattan’s 4th largest theater in Washington Heights.

And who would have imagined breakdancing to Tchaikovsky (plus a DJ and electric violinist)? Picking up on the beat will be a dozen hip hop artists who tell this new version of the familiar tale, where Marie-Clara, the Nutcracker and Drosselmeyer unfold the story against Manhattan backdrops.

However the face of this particular Nut belongs to Kurtis Blow, pioneer of his hip hop realm. Blow’s claim to fame would have to be “Christmas Rap,” the “most relevant hip hop record of all time” because it has been played every year since 1979 and will be around “200 years from now.”

This Christmas Rapper appreciates that radio supported it, but he is more than a one-trick pony. Not only is he is rapper, but is also a singer, songwriter, record/film producer, b-boy, DJ, public speaker and minister.

According to Blow, The Hip Hop Nutcracker “fits into all of the above.” As the emcee of the touring production, he explores all kinds of opportunities and motivational speaking. “I take them into the ’80’s, a time when good lovemeant having a good time.”

Audience members will hear the iconic Christmas Rap and a medley as well. And yes, the breakdancers perform to Tchaikovsky’s original score. For the the finale, there’s “an incredible holiday season mash-up,” where the crowd is “goin’ crazy as we spread the love.”

He marvels at the Incredible evolution of b-boys and b-girls, where they fuse hip hop with modern dance and ballet and insert complicate new combinations, like a headstand, 1990 and back stand in succession.

Fans will find slight variations like Maria-Clara and Myron the Nutcracker. But Blow’s favorite part is Drosselmeyer’s time travel to a 1988 nightclub, where there is an official pas de deux, Dance of the Flowers and a Russian Dance.

All of it delivered with “more acting and more of the story” than previous versions, asserts Blow. “They bring 150 percent every night.”


Video: Love Letter to Dance

November 8, 2018

On Stage: “Ursula and the 11,000 Virgins” and more…

October 26, 2018

Caitlin Scranton as St. Ursula. Photo: Andrew Jordan

As a child, New York City choreographer Christopher Williams would visit the National Zoo in Washington D.C. and, to his parents’ chagrin, develop “an intensive love of creatures that were other than human. I would come home and imitate pigmy hippos and giraffes,” become involved in an “alternate physicality.”

  When his family moved to Syracuse, New York, he “made a beeline” for the local library and immersed himself in the mystical, the spiritual, the Tolkien. His imaginative, religious and otherworldly approach to dance brought him a Bessie Award, similar to a Tony, and a cult reputation.

Matt Pardo rehearsing St. Stephen at The Space Upstairs. Photo: Ben Viatori.

After producing an outdoor program featuring minimalist postmodern icon Lucinda Childs here last summer, The Blanket, one of Pittsburgh’s newest groups, decided to do a 180 degree turn and bring Mr. Williams to Pittsburgh for a sampling of those Bessie dances, essentially a series of highly theatrical solos about Christian martyrs. One depicts St. Stephen from the all-male “The Golden Legend,” which won a NYC Messie (substituting for the Bessie) in 2009 “for those artists who make [us] think and feel and marvel and rage and laugh.” The other seven martyrs stem from the all-female (and Bessie Award winner in 2005) “Ursula and the 11,000 Virgins.”

St. Ursula (Latin meaning “little female bear) actually wears fur mitts with claws in the production. Suffice it to say that it is something the likes of which Pittsburgh has not yet seen.

Founders Caitlin Scranton and Matt Pardo acknowledge the risk. Of course Ms. Childs and Mr. Williams are “completely and totally different,” according to Ms. Scranton. But without one artistic director, they can “pick projects that are unique and dissimilar from each other. That way we’re not only bringing something totally new to Pittsburgh audiences, but we’re bringing a very new experience to the dancers that we hire.”

Lindsay Fisher-Viatori rehearsing St. Margaret, who was burned, at The Space Upstairs. Photo: Ben Viatori.

Mr. Pardo adds, “That’s been part of the fun of this project, watching Pittsburgh dancers, in all their many iterations, really take to Christopher’s work.”

Ms. Scranton, who has worked extensively with both and is currently touring with Ms. Childs, noted that the two choreographers have been seen “much more robustly abroad, so that’s another interesting layer. Strictly physically, they are so opposite. All of a sudden I can move my back [in Mr. Williams’ work], which is a nice complement.”

As Mr. Pardo, who will perform St. Stephen, puts it, “Though their works are totally different in terms of the end product, they share a love of rigor” and “work generously with you, being specific in every minute detail.” He is excited to “access the lineage inside the Merce Cunningham technique apparent in some of the solos,” along with Mr. Williams’ theatricality, seen in the fantastical costumes, “which brings such an interesting element to this idea of what dance is.”

Christopher Williams rehearsing The Blanket dancers at The Space Upstairs. Photo: Ben Viatori.

Ghosts and spirits, with their airy flow, sometimes haunt the choreographies of dance, like “Giselle” and “La Sylphide.”But then Mr. Williams has taken it a step further, using Tolkien and a similar mythopoeia (writers/artists who create their own mythical universe). The Cloisters, a museum in upper Manhattan that specializes in European medieval architecture, sculpture and fine arts, including the famous “Hunt of the Unicorn” tapestries, is one of his “main haunts.” And his most recent travels have taken him to Ireland and Greece, both substantial lands of mythology, sustaining “this ancient human impulse to think about our origins and use fantastical beings from the other world to help tell our story.” 

It’s been an adventurous journey for this adult perpetrator of the dance fantastical, to “bring a strand of the ancient story into the here and now, to create a visceral, movement-based approach.”

In addition to the nine solos and a short finale that tell stories of martyrdom, the Williams program will involve three males of differing ages who collectively act as a chorus, harassing the women and pushing the stories, which include stretching, stoning and a dragon, to their individual conclusions.

Four musicians — two female vocalists and two musicians who play viola da gamba player and recorder — will interpret a commissioned score by Peter Kirn in the medieval style. And the dancers will wear costumes designed by Michael Oberle and the multi-talented Mr. Williams, who also is expert in puppetry.

“It is absurdly challenging,” Mr. Pardo admits. He describes a phrase for Ms. Scranton as dead-lifting her leg “as high as it will go, then rotating to an arabesque. The arabesque goes into a penche [higher arabesque] as the hand traces cross-laterally across the body.”

Audience reaction will remain a mystery until the performance, “one of the things we’re most excited about, and frankly, most scared about,”  Mr. Pardo says. “The works we are most interested in presenting are high caliber, award-winning artists that may not have been seen in Pittsburgh before.”

In Mr. Williams’ work, audiences will access a different level of theatricality inside of dance. Ms. Scranton points out one new aspect of the martyrs that has developed since its debut in 2005. “Now when I’m watching it, I’m struck by the power of women.” Mr. Pardo reinforces that with, “in this moment, in this time, it highlights powerful women in a very specific way that is very exciting.”

This article was originally published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

PIFOF: Deborah Colker, In the Tunnel, What’s That?

October 25, 2018

Pittsburgh International Festival of Firsts has been a great megaphone for political/social causes, certainly the best way to express sentiments in today’s politically combustible society. Three recent examples:

Deborah Colker Dance Company (Brazil). The first thing that comes to mind about Brazil is the environment, the Amazon River. This was Dance With a Vision. A giant black-and-white screen projected a dry lake bed, the burning of the forests, trees reduced to bare limbs. The dancers, some of them in the film, appeared to gather the vocabulary from those surroundings, be inspired by them. The dance began with creatures, seemingly caked in mud and moving with a heavy, low-slung weight. Gender wasn’t always apparent. Nor was race. What kind of dance was it? Then three women appeared en pointe, exotic birds of a feather. The dancers went on to manipulate giant cages reminiscent of river shanties, giving it more of a sculptural quality, and ended with the face of an indigenous tribesman, his own face caked with mud, but this perhaps by his own choice. Colker is currently in great demand as a choreographer (she was director and choreographer for Cirque du Soleil’s insect-inspired Ovo)  — it was easy to see why). After the performance, the dancers showed up for a Latino dance party at the Cabaret. They were all tiny, not the muscular performers that commanded the stage. But they did a mean, smoothly mesmerizing samba, seemingly capable of transforming themselves into anything dance.

In the Tunnel/Gesher Theater /(Israel). The August Wilson Center was host, so appropriately, to political protest in many forms for the premiere of In the Tunnel. This Israeli production spawned a Palestinian demonstration at the front entrance. (When the cast emerged to offer them seats to the performance, they declined.) Inside were art exhibits addressing Familiar Boundaries, Infinite Possibilities. The centerpiece was Flying Girls, which filled a room of its own with an emotional homage to Nigerian girls and birds and butterflies. It hit you in the guts as it inspired you. So did In the Tunnel. The Israelis left nothing to the imagination. Four soldiers — two Israeli, two Pakestinian — were trapped in a tunnel in the midst of their never-ending conflict. Above them, on a two-tiered set, were a morning television show and the above-ground political developments. It was an important way to view the way the U.S. pop culture was viewed by others and a lens into the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, certainly a method to underscore PIFOF’s cultural and social importance.

What’s That? (Ukraine). This was a Ukrainian interpretation of punk rock, with saxophone, cello, accordion and percussion. It was reminiscent of Lena Dunham’s television series, Girls, an exponential view of the considerable angst found in our ’20’s. The energy was palpable and appreciated, but the musical expertise was not, with out-of-tune instruments played by theatrical actors who assumed that any semblance of technique could be denied in a production. Loved the graffiti-like projections, although the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust’s Education Center was not the ideal forum for the bold design, breaking it into shards that rendered them less important.

PIFOF: Mrs. Krishnan, Gab Squad, Blind Cinema

October 23, 2018

Previous editions of Pittsburgh International Festival of Firsts provided a mystical maze that delved into the latest developments in global performance — all decidedly adult. This year there was a deliberate effort to include children’s and family entertainment, perhaps to lure a wider audience to some of the best artists In the world. Like:

Mrs. Krishnan’s Party (New Zealand). Perhaps the title was misleading. And James, who escorted us to our seats had an undeniable New Zealand accent. Mrs. Krishnan herself was pure Indian, sometimes over-the-top, but a New Zealander as well. No matter. This was an Indian story at its big heart, filled with traditions, history and, yes, food. In fact actors Kalyani Nagarajan and Justin Rogers really cook up a meal, ostensibly for the partygoers (us), but members of the audience frequently did the cooking, set the table and more. And the children — too delightful, you couldn’t have asked for better — passed out balloons and laughed contagiously. This was about as immersive as you can get with a live performance. In fact, when James asked an audience member to reveal a secret, she hesitated because she had become so involved. It doesn’t get any better than that.

Gab Squad. Gab Bonesso, local comedien and, as it turned out, bullying expert, came up with this program, an extension of her school talk. So Gab was a veteran, capable of dealing with middle/high school, such a tricky age for the arts. She began with a monologue, her audience mostly neutral or, in some cases, resistant. And when she started interacting — there’s that trending word — she settled on one girl who had an interest in Harry Potter. The connection was made. But when Gab began to encourage the students to dance, there was some awkward hesitation. Suddenly the Harry Potter fan jumped up, face bright, the awkwardness disappearing as she began dancing. One by one the students joined in, moving and grooving on the drums as well. It was heart-warming and, I’m sure, transformative. And that’s what the arts are all about.

Blind Cinema. I went to the movies. Just don’t ask me the title. Because I went to the Blind Cinema. Yes, I was blindfolded. Just suffice it to say that it was a magical experience, children whispering what they were seeing in little megaphones, like fairy dust on the ear. It’s funny how your other senses take up the slack, a way of brief understanding about some people who do that every day.

PIFOF: Cirque Éloize Hotel

October 18, 2018



Pittsburgh has become a favorite stomping ground for Cirque du Soleil and I have to admit that I have seen virtually everything the venerable Montreal troupe has to offer.

So as I took my seat at the Benedum Center for the PIFOF world premiere of Hotel, I wondered what else this other Montreal circus troupe, Cirque Éloize, could do to impress.

There was much to tickle my fancy.

Montreal has become a hotbed of circus arts and fostered a number of artists and troupes that tour the globe. Soleil is the most famous through their immersive tent shows, Las Vegas productions and the arena performances.

But Hotel showed that the Montreal cirque community has a lot of depth and varying personalities, probably fed by Canada’s National Circus School located there. Hotel was a show that took place in a stylized, Art Deco-inspired lobby, where guests and staffers used the extra long reservation desk, a curvilinear sofa and a geometric backdrop (two triangles with a cube wedged between) as an entertainment playground.

We’ve also seen several stage performances, most notably with the Pittsburgh Symphony. Cirque Éloize doesn’t have razzle dazzle body-enhancing glittering painted costumes (save for a “celebrity” who came and went and surprisingly did not contribute much). Instead the focus was on timing — to the millisecond.

For this was a three ring circus condensed onto a proscenium stage. At times there were multiple acts and stunts overlapping each other — audience members had their pick of performers sliding behind the desk, a head popping out of the sofa or elevated performers peeking from behind the wings.

When the spotlight was on a single act, there were jaw-dropping routines that had a healthy, imaginative dose of choreographed connections. They literally provided twists and turns that kept my interest — the rope girl, almost a tomboy, who tied herself in knots, a juggling act full of invention, human stacks. And they created their own house band.

This Hotel lobby and its inhabitants became an oversized jungle gym, a fun house for all and someplace that I’d like to visit again.





PIFOF: Manifold

October 10, 2018

We see plenty of ballet onstage at the Benedum Center, mostly from Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, but we’ve never seen a ballet (of sorts) projected onto the facade of the former movie palace.

Then came Manifold. There it was — an eight-minute example of projection mapping by Filip Roca and set to an original score by Chinese composer Wang Lu.

In a deft touch that only the Pittsburgh International Festival of Firsts can bring, an orchestra comprised of Pittsburgh musicians led by conductor David Nesta Curtis, brought it all to life.

This was updated Tchaikovsky in a way, packed with waltzes, adagios and sweeping symphonic sounds that closely inspired the ever-changing Benedum patterns as they crawled and swirled across the architecture in response to the music.

The next time we will hear Tchaikovsky will be at Christmas, of course, with the annual production of the Nutcracker.



PIFOF: Beyond

October 2, 2018

It’s the signature face of the Festival of Firsts, a tunnel-like structure that sits in a parking lot across Penn Avenue from the Benedum center. Unlike a tunnel, it’s rather transparent, but ringed with lights that have a computer masterminding their dazzling patterns and music.

This immersive experience is relatively short — 5-6 minutes — but you’ll find Beyond a combination of the space age vibe found in Close Encounters of the Third Kind and the funky aura of a disco ballroom, which might inspire you to move and groove. The above video is just a sampling — events like this are always better in person. And although the Downtown setting is rather bright at night, it’s still an impressive happening.

To avoid unnecessary waiting, the Cultural Trust wants you to reserve your time of entry (a free ticket) online. Click on Beyond!


PIFOF: Quantum Theatre

October 1, 2018

The Pittsburgh International Festival of Firsts comes around once every five years and I’ve seen virtually everything that its sponsor, the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, has had to offer. I feel like it’s taken me around the world and transformed the way I looked at dance in a cross-disciplinary, cross-distance way, with art and theater from an astonishing number of foreign countries.

I began my journey this year at home, with Pittsburgh’s own Quantum Theatre and its production of Chatterton, which actually turned out to be a mini-journey all its own at Trinity Cathedral Downtown (across from the Duquesne Club on Sixth Avenue).

The opening night audience gathered for a glass of hard cider (or water), free to meander among the graves in the churchyard, holding Native American, English, French and American leaders. It was ghostly in its own right, but we were about to have yet another eerie experience inside.

Then we collectively stepped into the historic space itself to get instructions from artistic director Karla Boos. We had received cards that would split us into three groups.

Following her talk, we assembled behind our guides and immediately began scurrying up and down stairs (there is an elevator as well) and in and out of back rooms where various scenes unfolded before our eyes.

It was yet another epically grand Quantum production — is there any other? — where a number of themes swirled though the recesses of the church. The story itself is an original work based on Peter Ackroyd’s book about Thomas Chatterton, an 18th century poet who committed suicide at age 17 and ultimately became a heroic figure in Romantic art.

It was a century later when his name was thrust into a second round of fame. Henry Wallis painted The Death of Chatterton, which was modeled by Victorian author George Meredith.

But it is a second painting, a portrait of an older Chatterton, that sparked a mystery with many questions to be answered, questions that we still have today. What is Truth? Or Reality? What is Fake?

It traverses time, from the present back to the 18th and 19th centuries, sometimes darkly Dickensian, sometimes comedic, always intriguing, mysterious at times. Don’t expect to understand or hear it all.

How they put it all together is anyone’s guess and it would take several viewings to satisfy my curiosity about it all. The cast of 11, led by people like theatrical icon Martin Giles, who also partnered in writing Chatterton with Karla Boos, and the inimitable Helena Ruoti, took on multiple roles with theatrical skill and flair.

Behind the scenes, so to speak, Stephanie Mayer-Staley created rooms with tons of atmosphere, Robert C.T. Steel made highly detailed costumes to delineate various eras, C. Todd Brown lit the church niches with grace and the astonishingly talented Joe Seamons created projections, from flying doves to a church facade to a fire that boggled the imagination.

There’s a bonus (as if it was needed) with Chatterton. A local chef provides a sit-down meal at intermission. Ours was Kate Romane of Black Radish Kitchen, featuring cucumber salad with creme fraiche, meatballs and hot sausage, polenta with fresh corn and basil and white beans with sage. Light, delicious fare with wonderful conversation as we sat around a communal table.

It gave us renewed energy as Chatterton switched gears and put us in new groups for the second act and that Seamons’ finale.

Like a giant jigsaw puzzle evolving before our ever-moving eyes, we gladly immersed ourselves in this mobile form of theatricality, simultaneously becoming a part of history and the current political climate as our own questions began to dance through our minds.

The ghost of Thomas Chatterton Jonathan D. Visser) hovering behind George Meredith (Tim McGeever).

Through Oct. 28.


Dance Beat: New Security Regulations

October 1, 2018

FYI Arts Lovers: The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust will be instituting new security measures in the near future. Below are the details from the Trust:

 After a thorough benchmarking and vetting process against numerous performing arts venues across the country, the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust is launching enhanced guest entry practices for the Byham Theater, the August Wilson Center, and Benedum Center for the Performing Arts. These practices are designed with the convenience of our guests in mind to ensure a safe environment in which outstanding performances in the arts can be enjoyed by all.

The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust always seeks to meet national best practices regarding the safety of our guests. These new protection measures will now require persons entering or reentering our largest performing arts venues to be screened by our onsite security personnel. Our staff will utilize equipment and practices similar to those in place at airports, concerts or sporting events. The new screening process will include a walk through metal detectors and bag inspections. Not only are more and more performing arts venues switching to similar practices, but venue third-party users and renters are also now requiring theater operators to implement these new security measures to better protect their audiences.

These practices will begin to roll out separately at each theater:

  • Byham Theater: October 13th, 2018 during Deborah Colker Dance: Cão sem Plumas
  • August Wilson Center: October 20th, 2018 during Soul Sessions Faith Evans
  • Benedum Center for the Performing Arts: November 16th, 2018 during Billy Gardell

“We’re always excited about providing amazing experiences and performances in the arts, while at the same time, increasing our ability to reassure our guests they are well protected while with us,” Kevin C. Wilkes, Chief Security Officer of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust stated. “We’ve made sure our new systems utilize the most current and effective screening technology without interfering with the arts experience.”

While these new procedures were designed with audience convenience in mind, it is highly recommended that guests arrive to these venues up to 45 minutes earlier than they have in the past, to ensure a timely entry into the venue for the start of the performance. To entice guests to take advantage of this early entry into the theater, the affected venues will offer discounted drinks and concessions during a “Happy Half Hour” prior to each show.


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