Dance Beat: Attack Theatre, Benedum Center

December 2, 2017

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre Gala. It’s called En Pointe, one of Pittsburgh’s top parties. This year’s theme at the Westin Hotel was West Side Story Suite, a salute to the upcoming Jerome Robbins triple bill later in the season. Gala goers saw excerpts from the real West Side Story Suite that will anchor the program, Scherzo and Somewhere. Before that, PBT principals offered duets, first Alexandra Kochis and Luca Sbrizzi in another Robbins’ piece, the lovely In the Night. (By the way, PBT has announced the third ballet on the May program, Fancy Free, about three soldiers on leave in New York that  later became a hit Broadway musical and a movie starring Gene Kelly.) Swan Lake was the other inspiration, featuring flowing lines from Hannah Carter and Alejandro Diaz in the White Swan Pas de Deux and the bravura elements of the Black Swan Pas de Deux from Amanda Cochrane and Yoshiaki Nakano.

Attack-ing Braddock. Attack Theater’s Some Assembly Required has been a true delight to watch over more than ten years. The company provides an interactive learning experience for new audiences and true insight into the improvisatory process for the many fans who follow them. After reviewing a performance at Contemporary Craft, I drove to Braddock, a historic steel mill city showing signs of regrowth along its vital Main Street, to see the company at the gallery, right next to the ‘s restaurant, with a view of the steel mill at work. The subject here was the material and cultural legacy depicted by artist Liz Ensz, most dynamically in sculpture that resembled strip mining. By the way, that was the last time we’ll see company member Anthony Williams for a while. He’s off to pursue his own projects in Europe, but will eventually swing back to the ‘Burgh.


Benedum Center. The venerable performing arts facility celebrated its 30th anniversary this fall, an achievement that was an important marker of the rise in Pittsburgh’s Cultural District out of the ashes of a red light district. During that time, it has played host to thousands of people, enhancing their lives with top-notch programming, and providing a venue to an ever-adventurous  group of local performing arts organizations. It was a group of performances that signaled its arrival and I was there for the world-renowned Pilobolus and a world premiere of Zoology with a score by Pittsburgh composer David Stock. Pittsburgh showed its support of dance here, a community that has continued to grow and prosper and something that I have been privileged to watch along the way. It is part of a quartet of theaters, three of them renovations (Heinz Hall and Byham Theater in addition, plus the contemporary Public Theater) that I think are the best in America. Thanks to the Cultural Trust!


On Stage: Kyle Comes Home

November 12, 2017

It was a real pleasure to see the magnificent Kyle Abraham and his dancers at the August Wilson Center, which was reviewed at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. But I have to underscore my last statement, that Pittsburgh should support him now, not years from now. He is a real arts ambassador for Pittsburgh, which has inspired much of his personal style and content. Perhaps the Pittsburgh dance community can join forces, filtered through the Heinz or Pittsburgh Foundation. Pittsburgh Dance Council, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, August Wilson Center, Point Park University, Kelly Strayhorn Theater can all offer performance, choreographic and grant opportunities, plus workshops and creative residencies. It’s a great collective opportunity for Pittsburgh, given our history with Martha Graham, Paul Taylor and August Wilson.


On Stage: Stringing Steps Together, Bit By Bit

October 19, 2017

Ethan Steinberg lifts Faith Kazmierczak in “Eye of the Beholder.”

Point Park University always opens its season with Student Choreography. Not only choreography by students, but lighting designers and stage managers as well. And the results are quite remarkable.

PPU used to pick the students who submitted the best proposals in their Dance Composition class, amounting to approximately eight works performed repeatedly on a weekend program. But within the past several years, they have made it mandatory for all composition students to participate, resulting in nearly 40 works divided among those four performances.

Jordan Jones

The students are paired with a mentor who teaches the class and oversees the artistic process. When this change first took place, the students demonstrated structure and technique in a mostly academic setting.

In other words, it was good, but it was hard to stand out.

This year there was a change. Again, almost all of the 38 pieces had merit. But now there was substance of concept, with nuance in execution and a real maturity unfolding before our eyes. Kudos to Jason McDole Kiesha Lalama, Mark Burrell, Judith Leifer-Benz and Jay Kirk for their efforts in guiding the young artists.

Diversity was key. This year there was a healthy representation of Latino-inspired works.  I would like to see Michael Ocampo develop Sonidos, Se Mueven Y Tocan, which had a fresh, scintillating combination of flamenco filtered through tap (!) and contemporary (!) dance. And the swirling red skirts in Angelica Luma’s Mujer de Maíz immediately filled the stage and the eyes.

Floyd McLean and Cecilia Benitez in “We the People.”

Perhaps the biggest push for individuality came from Jordan Jones, who left the title of  his piece blank, maybe following in the footsteps of Prince, who also refused to be defined for a period of time. Even though choreographers are not a part of the performance, he got around it with a video that took up the whole back wall, where his giant facial portraits  dominated. The music was driving, the dance hard-hitting commercial. We know where he is going, most likely L.A., but his larger-than-life vision and versatility should carry him far.

The students also took jazz and updated this traditional dance form. Jocelyn Burns’ Body Language cracked the whip with accents. And John DeNeff put Bob Fosse on a contemporary track in Eye of the Beholder, without losing the Fosse focus (and those jazz hands).

There were social issues. Jennifer Romano’s Impetus, which appeared to deal with abuse, this time, though, with petite Madison Scherrer determinedly controlling the much larger and limber frame of Tyler Kerbel. Emily Bordley’s More Than A Statistic made an unnamed crisis, perhaps opioid, the center of attention in a trio that made what is usually a newspaper item personal. Here two friends were split apart when one was drawn into the dark side and the remaining friend was left to deal with the consequences, as if the story would be continued…

Tyler Kerbel and Madison Scherrer in “Impetus.”

And there were wonderful surprises, like the great transition from French cabaret icon Edith Piaf to Impressionistic waves in Cassidy McDermott Smith’s No Regrets, Yet and the use of harnesses to float the dancers in Robert Clores’ Limited Civility. Laura Berne’s Tragedy plus Time reminded me of Paul Taylor’s Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rehearsal). Yes, rehearsals are rich territory to be mined (see also George Balanchine’s Serenade) and Berne added her own observations.

I see a benefit for dance at large in the future. Lynn Dally, head of the Jazz Tap Ensemble, once said that they needed a critical mass for tap to regain a real prominence. She got her wish with the likes of Gregory Hines and Savion Glover.

The same goes for choreography. With programs like this, it won’t be long before we have breakthrough talent that will carry it all to new heights.

Dance on…

 


On Film: Bill Is Back

October 17, 2017

Performer Bill Shannon has been breaking new barriers in dance. Now the globe-trotting artist, based in Pittsburgh, is coming home with his latest work at the Kelly Strayhorn Theater. Here’s a preview of the preview coming up later this month (see Listings):

 


On Stage: LINES

October 9, 2017

Dance writers often think, “been there, done that.” And when Alonzo King LINES Ballet came to town to open the Pittsburgh Dance Council season (see Post-Gazette preview), I had seen his work on three previous occasions. But this performance was different.

It was one of the rare occasions where the performance just flew by, where the performance was mesmerizing, unfolding in a meaningful way. There were only two pieces, “Biophony,” with its environmental trills and roars in its dancescape/soundscape, and “The Propelled Heart,” set to an extended and emotional jazz riff by Lisa Fischer, a mostly unknown backup singer to stars, but a star in her own right.

In the end, the titles did, indeed, say it all. But what lay hidden in those titles was a King-ly universe, full of creativity and originality in the sinuous, organic movement that was given a magnificent voice by a group of dancers who felt every note, every nuance designed by their choreographer.

I would have to say that this performance immediately joined the list of my Dance Council favorites over the years. And the audience, bolstered by a number of dancers and other professionals in the local ballet community, responded with standing ovations for both works.

They also saw one of their own, Jason, a graduate of Point Park University’s dance department who performed with the company, making this meaningful performance ultimately personal.

 


On Stage: Follow the Bouncing Dancers`

August 18, 2017

These guys were here a while back at the Kelly Strayhorn Theater’s Dance Alloy Studios, but I never forgot them. This seemingly nonsensical piece seems particularly necessary in today’s social and political climate. Yes, that’s actually liquid refreshment with which they imbibe. Enjoy this tasty tidbit, along with an accompanying description…

The British/Hungarian pair walked out from behind three giant white scrims onto a white floor, certainly one of the most impressive restylings of the main studio at Dance Alloy. They stood out, in a way, even though they just wore tee shirts, jeans and tennis shoes.

Their eyes roamed. Slyly? I thought I caught a flicker of a smile.

Igor (Urzelai)and Moreno (Solinas) started to sing, maybe in Hungarian (actually Sardinian/Basque), was pleasant enough, but unfortunately had no translation.

Gradually they started “feeling” it, this Idiot-Syncracy, tapping their feet, moving in response to the music. Bouncing!?!  The music faded and that’s all we heard.

I think I had a flicker of a smile.

They unzipped their pants and took them off to reveal their underwear, daring us to react.

There was a leap and then shoes and socks came off. The bouncing became barefoot and quieter. We were left with one pile of clothes neatly folded and the other, well, sloppy. Which didn’t matter because the two piles soon disappeared behind a scrim.

So there the two men were, softly jumping, jumping, jumping, etc. And there they went, sometimes behind a scrim, always perfectly synchronized, gradually developing patterns, rarely taking a break.

One popped out waving a Terrible Towel…jumping.

Then they eventually brought out samples of Tennessee Whiskey for the audience to sample. Puzzled looks here.

A low bass ostinato emerge as we started to hear some heavy breathing. Complexity began to take over the seeming simplicity of the jumping vocabulary.

It became mesmerizing and never wavered. A brief thought — how do they do it? No matter — we all were smiling…

 


On Stage: Water Dance

August 16, 2017

Dance icon Lucinda Childs is flanked by Blanket founders Matt Pardo and Caitlin Scranton. Photo: Ben Viatori

The Monongahela. It was an impossibly perfect night on a Saturday night in Pittsburgh along the Monongahela River where viewers could take in the debut of the city’s newest dance company, The Blanket. Read about it in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Friday night may have been rained out, but a healthy group of party goers gathered at the Society for Contemporary Craft in the Strip District to celebrate the inimitable choreographer herself, Lucinda Childs.

The Blanket: Georgia Bray, Matt Pardo, Sara Spizzichini, Eric Lobenberg, Lucinda Childs, John DeNeff, Caitlin Scranton, Jil Stifel, Sierra Barnett, Lindsay Fisher, Bianca Melidor. Photo: Ben Viatori

The Lake. Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre returned to Chautauqua Institution in western New York State along the shores of the lake from which it got its name. From the time the bus pulled up to the brand new Amphitheater, the dancers were taken with the Victorian beauty of the gated community.

PBT alights from the bus at the back of the new Amphitheater.

Marisa Grywalski and Alejandro Diaz

Emily Simpson and Jake Unger.

The atmosphere was enthralling, all the way through the performance that night. Still, the dancers got a few minutes to take in the vintage scenery.

Jason Zubovic, aka Thea Trix, welcomed one and all to Pittsburgh Luxury Cruises’ Fantasy.

The Allegheny. Attack Theatre has this fun idea called We’re on a Boat. It’s a great way to warp up the season, taking in the beauty of Pittsburgh from the three rivers, rain or shine. It happened to be a great night (my third time and probably my favorite). Michele de la Reza, Peter Kope and fellow Attackers mixed and mingled with

 

 

 


On Stage: Extra! Extra! Dance All Around It!

July 19, 2017

 

Katherine and the Newsies tap through King of New York.

As the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera continues its summer of excellence, it turned to yet another Disney production, the second such this year (The Little Mermaid) at the Benedum Center.  But where Mermaid swam with bubbly tunes over and under the sea, Newsies tackled a more serious matter, the newspaper boys’ strike of 1899 in New York City and laced it with powerful, athletic choreography.

While all Disney productions have messages embedded within them, this production spotlights the problems of child labor during the late 19th century. In a way it’s the flip side of Annie, with its perky, determined cast of girls.

While Newsies doesn’t have the familiarity of Annie, its cast of boys sets it apart as well, although the various roles can be played by young adults who just happen to look like teenagers. That means the choreography can be more complicated and physical.

And it is. The boys have numerous show stopping routines courtesy of director/choreographer Richard Hines (who has a connection to the original Broadway musical). It exploded with Carrying the Banner, spiked by strong jazz moves, and included King of New York, an electrifying tap routine (although you had to wonder where the Newsies got their shiny new shoes). You could tell the audience was waiting for the Newsies to conquer the stage each time as they swaggered up and down the fire escapes in the urban setting.

They are led by a charismatic Jack Kelly, played by Joey Barreiro, who recently finished the national tour (and one of several actors that made the jump to CLO). He’s an actor who knows the value of stillness, one of those people who light up a room (or a theater) with his presence. He also knew how to pace himself, saving his full-throated voice for a forceful rendition of Santa Fe at the end of the first act. Best friend Crutchie (a touching Daniel Quadrino) set the stage when he performed the song as a duet with Jack at the top of the show.

Jack’s love interest, Katherine Plumber (Beth Stafford Laird) had an equally riveting moment in Watch What Happens and could hold her own, much like a budding feminist, with the guys. The production skimmed over shards of history with Joseph Pulitzer (a suitably authoritative Edward Watts) and Governor Teddie Roosevelt (CLO stalwart Gavan Pamer), less so with Bower burlesque hall owner Medda Larkin (a robust Patricia Phillips).

So maybe adults now deliver the “papes” and, on closer inspection, this musical a piece of revisionist history. But at its heart, Newsies is about persistence and courage, qualities that we need even today and it delivers.

 

 

 


On Stage: Under the Sea With the CLO

June 16, 2017

Diana Huey as Ariel. Photo: Mark Tracy.

Just call the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera’s splashy version of Disney’s The Little Mermaid simply bubblelicious. Yes, there are bubbles everywhere — filling the opening scrim, floating in a tower across the stage, defining the beach where Ariel covets a whole new world.

They set the scene for a frothy musical with deeper layers, all designed to pull at the heartstrings. The central theme might focus on Ariel’s journey, one where she struggles to make her dreams come true. And Diana Huey, blessed with a clarion voice so essential for Ariel, keeps everyone tuned into that journey.

Along the way, however, there are plenty of characters to help her, delivering jokes that, in lesser hands, would warrant groans. “Ariel’s acting fishy.” “Dating outside her species.” “Musn’t get cold fins.” “Squid pro quo.” But hey, they all lure the audience into, well, some finny fun.

 

They are clad in outrageously creative costume designs by Amy Clark and Mark Ross. Chief among them are Sebastian, the calypso-singing crab (Melvin Abston), who expertly maneuvered himself not only sideways, but front and center for a rollicking production number, Under the Sea.

Sebastian (Melvin Abston) leads a rollicking version of “Under the Sea.”

Then there is Scuttle (Jamie Torcillini), head sea gull, who fractured the English language in Positoovity, with three other gulls in a nifty vaudevillian tap routine. And of course, Prince Eric (Eric Kunze), who “captured” her heart with his own soaring tenor voice, fit the part of sensitive hero perfectly.

Scuttle (Jamie Torcillini) and friends tap away in “Positivity.” Photo: Mark Tracy.

But what would a Disney story be without villains? And this musical has a trio of memorable miscreants. Flotsam (Brandon Roach) and Jetsam (Frederick Hagreen), an eel-like duo create their own electricity as they slither around the stage, rocking Sweet Child as they roll on shoes with heel wheels.

That leaves the larger-than-life Ursula (Jennifer Allen), aunt of Ariel. She is Goth octopus goddess who may have stolen Ariel’s voice, but had a powerhouse instrument of her own in songs like Poor Unfortunate Souls. Allen dominated the stage, tentacles on alert, whenever she was part of the action.

Ursula (Jennifer Allen) with pals Flotsam (Brandon Roach) and Jetsam (Frederick Hagreen). Photo: Steve Wilson.

Being Disney, you know The Little Mermaid will have a happy ending. Still this story has enough twists and turns amid the currents of the story to satisfy just about everyone and especially the mini-Ariels who attended the performance…tiara, fins and all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


On Stage: Bringing “Paris” Home

June 5, 2017

Paris is (or should be) on everyone’s bucket list, whether it is the City of Light itself or the original movie starring Gene Kelly. Now An American in Paris can come calling to a city nearby. That is, in this case, Pittsburgh, where the Civic Light Opera was instrumental in bringing the Tony Award-winning production to life and is presenting it on its first national tour.

Original Cast members Leanne Cope and Robert Fairchild. Photo: Angela Sterling

So Paris recently made its way to the Benedum Center where it became one of the few productions to truly fill this 2,800-seat house, maybe even better than on Broadway. The star, of course, is the sweeping score, with so many George Gershwin favorites setting a blend of engagement and sophistication that inspires the rest of the production.

If you are looking for a remake of the Kelly movie, don’t bother. For director/choreographer Christopher Wheeldon et. al. have used the story of an American soldier with a talent for art and filled it with so much more.

Instead of Kelly’s Jerry waking up to the sounds of Paris, the audience finds a piano center stage, signaling the importance of the music. The musical Paris virtually billows from there, beginning with the Arc de Triomphe hovering in the background and a huge French flag that covers the stage.

The spectacle continues with the art, so Parisian. It virtually draws the various buildings with charcoal lines as Jerry might have, along with such references as Monet’s light on the Seine and abstract modern art on display. There is a huge production number, ala the Art Deco design of Radio City Music Hall, and the climactic ballet sequence has a touch of Mondrian, with primary colors in geometric shapes.

There is much to bedazzle the viewer. Wheeldon’s vision is epic, where everything seems to be choreographed, even Bob Crowley’s Tony Award-winning set pieces that create a gliding jigsaw puzzle across the stage and drift down and up like clouds. When it’s all over, the audience has been on its own effortless Parisian tour.

And if the set dances on its own, the talented performers, culled from major companies in New York, Chicago, Miami and such, take the ballet style and give it an elegance and purity of line that has never been seen in a Broadway musical up until now, an achievement in itself. (And, by the way, they can sing and act up a storm as well.)

If there is a glitch, it’s that Craig Lucas’ book, taut as it is, builds up the secondary characters. It’s  a great idea on paper, but something that diminishes the relationship between Lise (the vocally superb Sara Esty) and Jerry (National Ballet of Canada principal McGee Maddox). Composer Adam, Etai Benson with a superb dry wit, gets the theatrical emphasis at the start. And Henri, a booming Nick Spangler, gets the benefit of the Radio City Music Hall mega-production.

A word to the wise: with so much to absorb and the huge vision of it all, this delicious Parisian truffle probably would be best to see seated at a distance, the better to savor it. And just like you need time to appreciate Paris itself, maybe it would be good to return for an encore, because this production builds its own stairway to paradise.

Original cast. Photo: Matthew Murphy

 


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