On Stage: Kiridi/Cinderella

May 30, 2013

BALAFONWe most often think of Cinderella as a blonde, blue-eyed heroine who overcomes difficult circumstances to meet her perfect prince and live in a castle happily ever after. That’s the Disney model. But in Europe, which spawned our images, there are actually 500 different versions.

And the iconic fairy tale goes back further than that, with versions in Greece (Rhodopis), China (Ye Xian), Vietnam (Tám Cám) and many others. More recently the 1990’s brought some twists of fate, with James Finn Garner’s politically-correct, slightly feminist essay and a new diverse interpretation of Richard Roger’s magical Broadway musical, starring Brandy and Whitney Houston.

Cinderella, it turns out that we hardly knew ye.

Things differ more when Cinderella comes out of Africa, including Chinye, from West Africa and Nyasha, a folk tale from Zimbabwe. At the recent Black River African Dance Conference, “Mama” Kadiatou Conte-Forte staged Kiridi for her Balafon West African Dance Ensemble and guest artists at the Kelly Strayhorn Theater.

This version is inspired by a Republic of Guinea custom where a man can not only have several wives, but father a baby out of wedlock and bring it back to be raised in his home. So here Kiridi is an orphan who is abused by her evil stepmother and jealous sister. Her father loves her, but doesn’t stand up against his wife. While working one day, Kiridi meets a man who steals her heart through “the gift of dancing and acts of bravery.”

But the stepmother forbids both love and dance for Kiridi. So she sends the girl to the Khoumba Wali, a sacred forest where death lurks and spirits sleep, to retrieve something from the Great Spirit.

It is a dangerous journey, but the kind Kiridi befriends an old woman along the way, who is really the Great Spirit in disguise. She protects the young orphan both in the forest and when she returns home.

Not all of the theatrical transitions were apparent in this production, so the dramatic episodes and characters within them tended to wander and the script, delivered in four languages — English, French, Soussou and Malie — was not always clear. Perhaps given a larger budget, there could be projected subtitles, similar to those used in opera.

The story itself served as a loose framework for a celebration of dance and music, which were whole-heartedly exuberant. Balafon has never looked better, with numbers that ranged from Mane, a Soussou rhythm/dance to Soko, a Malinki rhythm. and Balanta, a warriors’ dance.

And kudos to “Mama,” obviously a beloved figure in the community, for taking on the role of the evil stepmother with such commitment and power. They were all backed by a powerful 15-member drum ensemble, which added to the excitement and energy that permeated the audience.

And when they all came together at the end, everyone freely expressing themselves through dance and drum, it was hard not to surrender.




On Stage: Hear/Now

May 18, 2013

The ever-lengthening arm of the Kelly Strayhorn Theater continues to operate at Dance Alloy studios, not only with dance classes, but an increasing number of performances that take advantage of the intimate performing space that is available.

The latest was HEAR/NOW, a periodic series devoted to experimental music and sometimes dance. It is raw, spare, sometimes confusing, but the creative side is juicy. The first one primarily centered around music, with movement included.

This time the series framed the dance, where the music was created by the dancers themselves. Maree DeMalia and David Bernabo, the only certifiable musician, per se, on the program, had some choice concepts in their piece.

Maree is a fresh new voice on the local dance scene. In slants revisited/take away the mountain, third in a series,  she worked with Dave, who is knee deep in a current dance trend where musical artists don’t just adhere to a fixed position with their instruments, but instead venture into the movement as well. 

So they played with bags and lights and shadow and the floor. They both also recorded their voices from writings in a notebook, although there was a technical glitch when the recorder itself fell to the floor and stopped at one point. No matter — it was engaging throughout.

They set up the theme for the evening, Experiments in Dance and Sound, in the ensuing works, all of which created a sound score through the dancers’ bodies. But each had an individual character.

In her work-in-progress, Mom, I’m so sweaty, New York City’s Jaime Boyle did it by the numbers. How do you feel? Five days ago? Five months ago? Five years ago? With a clock strapped to her waist, sometimes muffled when she lay on the floor. It was like being caught in a time warp continuum.

And Ohio State University instructor Abby Zbikowski brought two solos, look at my box for herself and jm, performed by Jennifer Meckley, which had a punk-ish feel to the hard-edged physicality. So you could see the hip hop aura, but stylishly invoking substantive modern dance.

Overall it was an informal shocker how the body and, in particular, the floor could be used in such individual ways…to be both visually and aurally satisfying in its own element.


Dance Beat: 3D “Lake,” Dancing Classrooms

May 17, 2013
Photo: Natasha Razina

Photo: Natasha Razina

3D SWAN. Those feathers will seem so real you can touch them in James Cameron’s new technological wonder, Swan Lake. The director of Avatar collaborated with Valery Gergiev, principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, but more importantly the general director and artistic director of the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia. It will star Yekaterina Kondaurova as Odette/Odile. June 6 — theater TBA.

Photo and video: Archie Carpenter

Photo and video: Archie Carpenter

SHINING FACES, FLASHING FEET. The video is in from Dancing Classrooms’ finale. Is there anything better that the faces of young dancers?

Dance Beat: Jacob’s Pillow, PPU, PBT

May 16, 2013

TAP-ETTE? I’m still surprised as I write this, that Michelle Dorrance received the 2013 Jacob’s Pillow Dance Award (the same one awarded to Pittsburgher Kyle Abraham last year), which carries a cash award of $25,000. In a dance form dominated by men, she evidently taps like a butterfly while her rhythms sting like a bee. Check it out on Youtube, by herself and with her company, Dorrance Dance/New York. Love it.

PPU LINKS. Point Park Connections closed the season for the university’s dance department this year. Only in its second year, the program showcased some of the adjunct faculty, which, when combined with last year’s group, seems to be a considerable list. Besides being an opportunity for young choreographers, it gives the students a chance to participate in original works by professionals who included Sarah Everhart, Kellie Hodges, Daniel Karasik, Mariah McLeod, Jill Randolph-Lazzini and Maria Vignone Slutiak.

Photo: Rich Sofranko

Photo: Rich Sofranko

SHARING. Last year Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre broke audience boundaries at the annual Nutcracker with a program designed to enable the blind to “see” the annual holiday favorite. On Dec. 27, 2013 at the Benedum Center, there will be an autism-friendly performance. The entire theater will be reserved for families with individuals on the autism spectrum. The company will create a fully supportive environment, including designated quiet areas and activity stations in the lobby, adjustments to potentially startling light, sound and special effects, an illustrated guide and opportunities for the families to familiarize themselves with the production in advance of the performance. The house lights will remain dimly lit and audience members will be able to come and go as they please. “This is a performance where families can come as they are and be who they are,” said PBT Educational Director Alyssa Herzog Melby, who heads Accessibility Initiatives at PBT. “Whether they are looking for a new artistic experience, bonding time with their family or simply an escape into a magical world, we can offer all of that through this performance. We hope that we can become a model for other ballet companies across the country to open their doors to people on the autism spectrum, sharing the beauty of what we do with all people in our community.” By the way, there will be a PBT edition of No Menu Monday May 20 at Bar Marco in the Strip District. A guest chef will devise the menu, which will be served by company dancers. Food proceeds will benefit PBT’s autism-friendly Nutcracker.

Dance Beat: Dancing Classrooms, PBT, Freddie Franklin

May 13, 2013
Dancing Classrooms 8th Grade Champs: St. Benedict the Moor!

Dancing Classrooms 8th Grade Champs: St. Benedict the Moor!

COLORS OF THE RAINBOW. That’s what Dancing Classrooms Pittsburgh calls its competition events. Well, it’s all over, but we’re still cheering for this year’s dancers, who looked better than ever and made the finals at Pittsburgh Allderdice extremely close. When the dust had settled, it was Lincoln K-5 who took the trophy. Others participating in this exciting final were Gold: Linden K-5; Silver: Miller K-5 and West Liberty K-5 and Bronze: Phillips K-5, Sunnyside and Sister Thea Bowman PreK-8 . And for the first time, DCP expanded to the 8th grade, where the routines and style were much more difficult. Congrats to the four schools who participate in the first year’s event: Winner: St. Benedict The Moor PreK-8; 1st Runner-up: Sister Thea Bowman PreK-8; 2nd Runner-up: Langley K-8 and 3rd Runner-up: Montessori PreK-8. Many of the students were veterans of the 5th grade competition. And while we’re at it, supporters can participate in Pittsburgh Mercy Health System’s online auction to benefit Dancing Classrooms Pittsburgh, which will include tickets to the Pirates, a $100 Pampered Chef gift certificate, 18 holes at Glengarry Golf Links and much more. For more information, click on Dancing Classrooms. It begins June. 1.

Diana Yohe

Diana Yohe

NEWBIE. It looks like Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s 2013-14 company announcements might come in spurts. The first installment is a new apprentice for the upcoming season, Diana Yohe of Cleveland, Ohio. A member of PBT’s graduate program, she received training at Joffrey Ballet’sTrainee Program and Cleveland City Dance and attended summer intensives at San Francisco Ballet, Julliard and Cincinnati Ballet in addition to PBT School. She has already performed with the company in Cinderella, Moulin Rouge® — The Ballet, Giselle, The Nutcracker and George Balanchine’s Serenade, but recently she was featured in the PBT School annual recital as Odette in highlights from the second act of Swan Lake.

A BEAUTIFUL MEMORY. Ballet great Frederic Franklin recently passed away at the age of 98, which triggered a whole raft of memories, both in and out of Pittsburgh. I last saw him perform as the Tutor in American Ballet Theatre’s Swan Lake — age 95! While he traveled the globe during his career, he had strong ties to the early days of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, where he served as artistic director from 1974-76 and set both Giselle and La Sylphide. The company also performed his work, Tribute, several times, the last time celebrating his 50th anniversary in dance in 1982. How wonderful that he contributed to the ballet world for so many years afterward!



On Stage: The Delectable Mark Morris

May 12, 2013
The Muir

The Muir

If you ever wondered why Mark Morris’ choreography had such breadth and wit and intelligence, you only have to talk with him. I found that over the course of several interviews over the years and the Pittsburgh Dance Council audience saw it for themselves after Mark Morris Dance Group’s performance at the Byham Theater (click on Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for the review).

Dressed super-casually in shorts and shirt, with a graying beard, he attracted quite a crowd and didn’t disappoint, jumping on questions he deemed short on critical thinking, but calling one “the best question ever!!”

He’s so-o-o immediate.



Some Q&A tidbits:

Most of it focused on the music, “not live music, just music.” Mark said there was a huge difference between dancing to taped music and making subtle alterations during a music performance. He then asserted that if more choreographers demanded it, like Paul Taylor and Twyla Tharp (yes, he named names!), audiences would get it.

Mark fully admitted that he was as highly knowledgeable about music as choreography  — “I have the most exquisite taste in music of anyone I know.” His favorite musical centuries are the 18th and 20th. He doesn’t like “heldenleben” (the 19th), probably referring to Richard Strauss, which doesn’t have a discernible, danceable beat. It is music that bleeds and bursts.

For those who think his style of dance looks too easy, he revealed that “you’d be surprised how many people can’t do my work” at auditions were 500 people show up and he only needs “1.5 women.”

Mark doesn’t want to do “suppositories of entertainment.” He creates a show for “adults, not thinking babies.”

Afterwards he went out with Carolyn and William Byham, longtime supporters of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, which also happened to present the outspoken choreographer’s “Drink To Me Only With Thine Eyes” this season.

More Morris, please.

On Stage: Celebrating the Spirit — The Dybbuk

May 10, 2013
Alisa Garin Photography

Alisa Garin Photography

There is no doubt that large arts organizations are generally the face of a city. But it is the small arts organizations that are the pulse, able to present rare and original works on a regular basis. Sometimes the twain do meet, though, as in a recent, largely fascinating performance of The Dybbuk: Between Two Worlds.

The title said it all, translated as the brainchild of Aron Zelkowicz, director of the Pittsburgh Jewish Music Festival and celebrating its 10th season, but presented under the umbrella of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra’s Music of the Spirit at the New Hazlett Theater.

The production itself floated between many artistic worlds, officially a multi-media chamber opera combining music, film and dance. That concept was in keeping with this Dybbuk’s gestation. It had been an indelible part of Hassidic Jewish legend long before it appeared S. Ansky’s 1914 production, now considered a seminal Yiddish play.

In the ensuing years, The Dybbuk morphed into other translations and took several ghostly forms on film and television, inspiring writers and directors alike. And in 1974 choreographer Jerome Robbins and composer Leonard Bernstein collaborated on a highly personal, but controversial ballet.

Maybe the Zelkowicz production, using Ofer Ben-Amots’ haunting music and Hebrew libretto (with projected translations), had the right idea, to play upon this tale of shadows and light, mysticism and reality in an abstract fashion.

Kelsey Bartman and Alan Obuzor of Texture Ballet.

The story was simple and actually might seem quite familiar to contemporary audiences, containing elements, as it does, of Romeo and Juliet and The Exorcist. It centers on the story of Leah, daughter of Sender, a rich merchant, who is in love with Hannan, a poor but brilliant scholar. But Sender opposes the match. Hoping to find a way to change his fate, Hannan delves deeply into the magical and spiritual dynamics of the Kaballah, trying to find a way to reclaim Leah’s love.

It takes its toll on him and he dies of exhaustion. When Sender finds a wealthy suitor for Leah, she goes to the Holy Grave, where Cossacks massacred a young couple under the wedding canopy, for guidance. And as Leah herself is about to be married, Hannan, now a dybbuk (a disturbed soul or ghost), possesses her, leaving the young woman torn between two worlds.

But Mr. Ben-Amots wove in additional material, including a glass parable sung by Rabbi Azriel, a morality on how “through clean and transparent glass one sees other people, but when the backside of this glass is covered with silver (or money) one sees only oneself.” And at the start of the third act, he included the tale of The Heart and the Fountain, part of the Kaballah. Although they added to the richness of the story, they also added to the length.

What drove this Dybbuk was the overriding passion of Leah, profoundly sung by Israeli soprano Yahli Toren. A diminutive singer with a powerful voice, she was able to convey the anguish and uncertainty of a young woman by inhabiting the role herself.

The Beggars, in Chloe Moser's Masks.

Her relationship to Hannan was never specific, but more ritualistic because it was played by clarinetist Gilad Harel, who moved freely about the stage. He had some of the most scintillating parts of the evening, weaving virtuoso lines with numerous shades of klezmer music, So while the two could not really connect in a physical manner, he conveyed his own passion through the instrument.

Filling out the cast were baritone Guenko Guechev, who was particularly effective in the exorcism scene, and actor Leon S. Zionts as Sender. The accompaniment was spare, but set a fine atmospheric tone with cellist Bronwyn Banerdt, violinist Jonathan Magness and pianist Shira Shaked, all clustered in one back corner of the stage, with percussionist George Willis opposite. Christine Jordanoff directed the Pappert Women’s Chorale and Children’s Festival Chorus at the end in a transcendent performance, although their angular placement, with Ms. Jordanoff conducting, shifted the emphasis from a theatrical piece to a concert format.

Choreographer Joan Wagman produced some of her best work with four dancers from Texture Contemporary Ballet, who had several expansive dance interludes (including a beggar scene with Chloe Moser’s wonderful masks), but also provided a connective tissue by playing multiple roles.

Although Kelsey Bartman and Alan Obuzor had a lovely duet, the dancers, who usually perform in a contemporary style, wisely adhered to the dramatic overtones under Mr. Zelkowicz’ direction. It was a fine first effort from the cellist and Festival administrator and certainly a significant way to celebrate the organization’s decade-long commitment to artistic excellence.




On Stage: Pittsburgh Dance Council 2013-14 Season

May 5, 2013

They say you can’t go back, but the Pittsburgh Dance Council is ignoring that with its upcoming 2013-14 season. Executive director Paul Organisak, perhaps inspired by the Pittsburgh Festival of Firsts (exciting news in itself!) this fall and which he curated as well, has gone back to the adventuresome, experimental, what-the-hell-was-that programming that many of us knew and loved.

It appears that the PDC companies will include their own list of firsts: two North American premieres in partnership with the Festival, four new companies/projects out of six and seven new choreographers armed with local premieres.

Montreal’s Marie Chouinard will open both the Dance Council season and the Festival of Firsts. Gymnopedies, set to Eric Satie’s minimalist piano pieces, is the North American premiere, and will be paired with Michaux Mouvements, based on the poetry and drawings of Belgian Henri Michaux, which served as the literal jumping off point for the choreography. This will be the Quebec choreographer’s fourth visit to Pittsburgh, which has in the past produced The Rite of Spring and 24 Preludes by Chopin (a personal favorite of Organisak’s), among others (Sept. 28, Byham Theater).

Another sneak peak at the Festival line-up comes with Swiss artists Zimmermann & de Perrot, a physical theater duo, who will be literally thinking out of the box and inside it during Hans was Heiri. According to Organisak, Pittsburghers will see this event before it gets to New York’s Brooklyn Academy of Music (Oct. 18, Byham).

On to the debut of the Brazilian group Compagnie Käfig, an international sensation that takes hip hop and puts it to samba and bossa bova. A company guaranteed to raise the spirits, it has appeared at Jacob’s Pillow and the Spoleto Festival, among others. What more can you do with plastic cups? (Feb. 1, Byham).

One of the highlights of the season is sure to be Ballet du Grand Thèâtre de Genéve and the start of a balletic finish to the season, but showing us where ballet is headed. Yes, this is the only company where George Balanchine served as artistic advisor (1970-78), but it has worked with numerous artists, including Baryshnikov, Kylian and Forsythe. Founded in 1962, the 22-member company brings two emerging artists on the international scene — Andonis Foniadakis’s Gloria, which will create a stylish new symbiosis with music by Baroque composer George Frideric Handel, and Ken Ossola’s Sed Lux Permanet, with sculpted shadow play to Fauré’s Requiem. (Mar. 8, Byham)

Wendy-Whelan-Nisian-Hughes-Photographer-2aAcclaimed New York City Ballet principal dancer Wendy Whelan will be bringing her Restless Creature project, set to debut at Jacob’s Pillow this summer. She will dance four duets with four emerging choreographers — Pittsburgh’s Kyle Abraham, Joshua Beamish, Brian Brooks and Alejandro Cerrudo, whose Lickety Split was a sensation recently at Point Park University’s annual Byham concert. This one is creating a lot of buzz in the dance community. (Mar. 22, Byham)

The final contemporary ballet event will mark the return of Wayne McGregor l Random Dance, (Apr. 26, Byham). He is the resident choreographer at The Royal Ballet in London and it is his company. He has a scientific bent on ballet — using film, music, visual art and technology —  that is truly unique (Apr. 26, Byham).

For ticket information click on Pittsburgh Dance Council.

On Film: It Seems That They Just Keep Getting Younger…Evian

May 1, 2013

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