There was some extracurricular activity surrounding Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s annual performance at Hartwood Acres. Enjoy!
PBT PREPARES FOR HOLOCAUST BALLET. Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre will fly to Washington D.C. and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum August 25 in preparation for the local premiere of Stephen Mills’ “Light/The Holocaust & Humanity Project” in November. The dancers will also view “Genocide,” the 1982 Academy Award winner for best documentary, which was produced by Simon Wiesenthal Center and features narration by Elizabeth Taylor and Orson Wells. The Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh will present a talk by Holocaust survivor Sam Weinreb.
CHAUTAUQUA MOVES. Upper St. Clair native Emily Kitka took home a fistful of awards from the Chautauqua dance program this past weekend. At the student choreography recital on Friday, the other students voted her Most Admired as a Dancer and the staff voted her the Technical Merit award. Emily’s choreographic effort, “Withstand,” for which her father, Thomas, played the Astor Piazzolla accompaniment on guitar, was given second prize. In addition, the young dancer, who came from the Thomas School in Bethel Park and studies at the School of American Ballet in New York City, was one of the apprentices who performed with North Carolina Dance Theatre in George Balanchine’s “Western Symphony” on Saturday night.
THE [SECRET] SATURDAY. Has it been five years? The Pillow Project will have a special anniversary concert Dec. 12 at The Space Upstairs. Pearlann Porter isn’t keeping it so secret, though. She’s planning on doing new and retrospective work with some original Pillow members like Donna PridGeon, Ben Wegman and DJ Sorta returning for the occasion. More later…
There are rain dances performed in a ceremonial rite to protect a harvest and then there is dancing in the rain, which Gene Kelly did quite successfully. But the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre was hoping for the opposite at Hartwood Acres on Thursday night.
Alas, it was not to be.
A small crowd of loyal, here-to-the-final-bow onlookers braved threatening skies and forecasts of severe thunderstorms to turn out for the company’s annual outdoor performance. But for only the second time in PBT’s ongoing series at Hartwood Acres, Mother Nature decided to take her own bow — twice.
With artistic director Terrence Orr keeping an eye on the skies, the program began ten minutes early, quickly ushering in “Theme and Variations,” George Balanchine’s homage to Russian classical ballet. This work is a terrific example of cross-breeding. It was created by New York City Ballet’s Balanchine for American Ballet Theatre, where the 1947 original cast was led by Alicia Alonso and Igor Youskevitch, both noted for their technique. When it premiered at NYCB in 1960, Balanchine selected Violette Verdy, noted for her pristine footwork, and the premiere danseur of his time, Edward Villella. Since then, the ballet has periodically been revived in these two alternate universes at ABT and NYCB, perhaps the only ballet outside of the classics to be treated so.
Orr selected Erin Halloran, noted for her own pristine footwork, and Christopher Budzynski, who has an elegantly athletic style similar to Villella’s. The pair also lead the production a couple of years ago in the company performance at Wolf Trap. They were more relaxed and authoritative at Hartwood, beginning with opening theme where they presented the tendu, a staple of the ballet, in various configurations.
It was not long before they launched into a dizzying array of technical challenges. Halloran offered an
effortless series of turns that changed directions, while Budzynski countered with wide open, pliant beats and seven double pirouettes. He later dived into a particularly difficult solo with double ronde jambes en l’air and double aerial turns followed by a pirouette — bravo!
The solos were interspersed with one of Balanchine’s favorite elements, a “daisy chain” where the women hold hands and twist in and among themselves. That set up an extended adagio, seemingly simple, but full of complex poses to show off the ballerina.
There had been a swift rain shower prior to the adagio and Orr emerged afterwards, microphone in hand, to inform the audience that, even though the stage was covered, the dancers’ shoes got wet in the open areas backstage. With a serious concern about slipping, “Theme and Variations” would not proceed with the final polonaise, certainly one of the more stirring moments in ballet.
However, the PBT dancers took the opportunity during intermission to not only change costumes, but to change shoes and begin Dwight Rhoden’s “Step Touch,” set to a nifty doo-wop accompaniment by Charlie Thomas’ Drifters and Pure Gold.
It was interesting to note that Alexandra Kochis and Alexandre Silva took over the prominent roles once danced by now-departed PBT principals Maribel Modrono and Christopher Rendall-Jackson opposite Halloran and Budzynski. But this glimpse at new possibilities was all too short. Once again, there was a passing shower, just enough to wet the new shoes and, by this time, the stage seemed to be affected by the muggy conditions.
After several selections, including Pure Gold’s “Gee Whiz,” and “I Gotta Get Myself a Woman,” Orr once again called a halt to the proceedings, unable to kick it up a notch with Drifters’ selections like “Under the Boardwalk” and “Save the Last Dance for Me.”
But that last dance couldn’t be saved. As Orr put it after the truncated performance, “It was wonderful to see the excitement in the audience. They perservered through rain and lightning, but we just couldn’t get to the finish.”
Well, there’s always “Sleeping Beauty”…
Photos by Martha Rial.
The New Hazlett Theatre’s large white backdrop was partially pulled out along the floor. All of a sudden an unseen fist popped the fabric from the back, sending ripples outward. Everything was reflected in a shallow pool and a corresponding woofer rumbled “ba-bah.” A heartbeat? No, more like a very large drop of water.
I was having a sneak peek of “Floating Point Waves,” a new work that Leiway, a performance art group from New York City, is workshopping at the Hazlett and will perform tonight in a casual info-performance. “The name is about the only thing we’re sure of at this point,” butoh dancer Xifiena Garnica says with a laugh.
Along with video artist Shige Morita (who uses video as a light source rather than an image generator) and audio artist Poland Toledo (actually a native of the South Hills), Garnica is “very early in the process,” although it began last year.
“Floating Point Waves” is a work that is expected to have a premiere in 2011 at New York’s Here Arts Center in Soho. The Center stables from 10 to 15 resident artists each year, with a collaborative span of two years each. It also has two performance spaces available, one seating 150 and the other 75 audience members.
Enter Sara Radelet, executive director of the Hazlett, who explains that August and January generally are considered “down time” at the Hazlett.”We’ve got the venue and the rent is an annual rent,” she explains. “If nobody’s renting the place, my take on it is to invite [outside] people. We’re here and the venue is here and let’s see what happens.”
When Radelet foresaw that no one from the Pittsburgh performing arts community needed the space, she approached the Here group to collaborate on a “retreat.” Pittsburgh foundations only underwrite local artists, so the New Yorkers would have to fund travel and per diem expenses. The Hazlett would provide housing, the theater and technical support.
Initially eight artists were interested, but only Leimay was able to make the time to come. They were pleasantly surprised at the spacious interior, according to Radelet, and were undoubtedly having “fun” with their process.
Butoh was the inspiration for Garnica, who initially collaborated with Morita on a staged performance. But the movement begged a watery environment and further exploration. As Garnica explains, butoh, which was born out of the ashes of post-World War II Japan, could be a dance form, an attitude or “a way of life.”
For these artists, it is the latter. In a regular contemporary performance, says Garnica, “I am dancing” or “I am in a space.” But in butoh, “I become the dance” or “the space becomes me.”
Garnica and Morita assert that “acknowledging the merit of the process is as important as the product.” They will address their process and demonstrate their work-in-progress tonight at 8 p.m. Admission is free.
If any Pittsburgh artists have “a pretty well-formed idea,” the New Hazlett Theatre can provide technical assistance. As Radelet puts it, “We don’t mind long periods of time” and “we’re not intimidated by a firm deadline.” Call 412-320-4610.
I get all warm and fuzzy when someone speaks about dance and the arts with a combination of passion and intelligence. MSNBC host Rachel Maddow, a neighbor of national historic dance site Jacob’s Pillow, recently gave a talk there and offered words like these:
“Sometimes we choose to serve our country in uniform, in war. Sometimes
in elected office. And those are the ways of serving our country that I
think we are trained to easily call heroic. It’s also a service to your
country, I think, to teach poetry in the prisons, to be an incredibly
dedicated student of dance, to fight for funding music and arts education in
the schools. A country without an expectation of minimal artistic literacy,
without a basic structure by which the artists among us can be awakened and
given the choice of following their talents and a way to get to be great at
what they do, is a country that is not actually as great as it could be.
And a country without the capacity to nurture artistic greatness is not
being a great country. It is a service to our country, and sometimes it is
heroic service to our country, to fight for the United States of America to
have the capacity to nurture artistic greatness.”
I came across a little slice of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre history in Chautauqua, where the Dance Circle honored French ballerina and long-time Chautauqua teacher Violette Verdy and featured a new documentary about the former New York City Ballet principal dancer.
But more on the PBT connection later. For those unfamiliar with the considerable historic and personal charms of Verdy, one only has to check a few of nearly 15 million Google hits. Born as Nelly Guillerm in 1933 (which puts her in at around a robust 76), Verdy began with Les Ballets des Champs-Elysees and seemed to conquer the European continent before trying her hand at the United States. After one year with American Ballet Theatre, George Balanchine beckoned her to come to the New York City Ballet, where he created many roles for her including “Emeralds,” “La Source,” “Sonatine” and the champagne fizz of “Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux.”
Verdy directed Paris Opera Ballet and Boston Ballet for a time, but her heart lay in the classroom. She is currently a Distinguished Professor of Music (Ballet) at Indiana University and is in great demand as a guest teacher. This past June, the former ballerina was award the distinguished French Legion of Honour (Chevalier).
But those achievements seem to pale in comparison when meeting Verdy. At a recent performance of “Pas de Deux” by North Carolina Dance Theatre at Chautauqua, two of the dancers admirably performed “Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux”
and a documentary of her career and Chautauqua connections (nearly 20 summers there) was shown.
But when the silver-haired Verdy took the spotlight, she was uncommonly radiant, similar to her performances on stage. Oh yes, that brings up Pittsburgh. She performed “Swan Lake” with the wonderfully athletic American danseur Edward Villella during the early years of PBT at Heinz Hall.
You see, Verdy was instrumental in the explosion of American ballet in the early ’70’s. She performed with many regional ballet companies, lending her considerable star power and technique to their development.
But she went on to do more than that. As she explained it at a reception following the Chautauqua performance, “I was injured at the time and I asked Mr. Balanchine if I could help with auditions.” Those auditions would be connected with the Ford Foundation scholarships that brought some of America’s greatest talent to New York City Ballet’s School of American Ballet.
That meant traveling around the country, talking with local teachers and assessing students — perhaps even teaching a class. It all helped to raise technical standards and establish a definitive American style.
(This is a coaching session with Paris Opera Ballet principal dancer Isabel Guerin in Jerome Robbins” “Dances at a Gathering,” part of a 2001 documentary, “Violette et Mr. B.” available on Amazon.com.)