On Stage: A Summery Encounter

July 31, 2013


It was a perfect summer evening as I made my way to Enright Park. I had googled the location, but arrived to find it surrounded by a maze of chain link fences. No matter, it was a nice walk along the borders of East Liberty and Friendship, the end result yet another gem of a Pittsburgh green space.

And yet another gem of a young local choreographic talent in Jasmine Hearn.

This was the second installment in her site specific work called that’s what she said. I had missed the first in a Lawrenceville garden. This one was subtitled First Dance, in other words, all the emotions, thoughts and situations surrounding that essential part of growing up.

Jasmine and collaborator Beth Ratas had decorated the outdoor basketball court with blue and white and yellow streamers. Oh, the school dance memories, the kind that can span generations!

They approached from a distance, shy and clingy with anticipation, dressed in short party dresses…and athletic shoes.

But this was not to be a sugary summer lemonade of a dance. Beth began with, “I told him no…” as she started to climb the fence, her face unreadable.

The duo finally entered and traced the lines around the basketball hoops. There was some walking and, of course, some hoop shots to be taken. Oh, and a variation on one of those line dances that we all did.

The piece unfolded in movement as natural as a second skin — skips, turns, hugs. There was a play of sunshine, as expected, across their faces. But it was broken by awkward shadows of confusion and frustration and teenage angst, much like the delicate facial techniques of an updated Indian dance.

The series will continue monthly through October at different locations. Tune in via Facebook, but CrossCurrents will also post upcoming segments.


Dance Beat: The Marvelous Margaret

July 28, 2013

ATWOOD MARGARETIt’s a small world. While at Chautauqua to view North Carolina Dance Theatre, I met renowned Canadian author, the marvelous Margaret Atwood. Topped by a halo of gray curls, she is blessed with a radiant skin and a knowing clarity in her eyes.

No wonder she has won so many awards — the Man Booker Prize for Fiction, the Prince of Asurias award for Literature and the Arthur C. Clarke Award for The Handmaid’s Tale, among them. And the last turned out to be a new discovery.

Her book, written in 1985, is a futuristic novel that has been called both science fiction and speculative fiction, where a totalitarian Christian theocracy overthrows the United States government and subjugates women.

Just a little research peaked my interest. The result: it seemed that Handmaid’s Tale still retains its relevance today. So, despite being a latecomer, I bought her book. As it turns out, Handmaid’s Tale is being made into a ballet. Canadian, of course. But former Paul Taylor dancer Lila York, considered one of handmaid_largethe most successful choreographic alumnae of the company, has pursued this ballet for eight years.

It will finally be completed Oct. 16-20 at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet in Manitoba.  And if that is ringing a bell, consider that Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre has produced two ballets by Jordan Morris, yes, of RWB (Peter Pan and Moulin Rouge – The Ballet).

It certainly is a small world and one that I will embrace. More on Margaret (and Handmaid’s Tale) later.

On Stage: Life As We Know It…Not

July 27, 2013


(Click on the circles for a slideshow.)

Choreographer Andre Koslowski has always seemed to take great pleasure in teasing us. Images from his life, and those who mean the most to him, pepper his dance works, sometimes just rubbing elbows in a casual way, at other times each piercing the audience in their own right.

The images are crafted in such a way that they must be taken seriously. But, as it turns out, often they are not.

The scales definitely tipped that way in Andre’s latest Pennsylvania Dance Theatre production at the company’s home base in State College. His very dry sense of humor blossomed in another direction.

Presented at the State Theatre in conjunction with the sprawling, but meaty Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts, the program consisted of one repertory piece, a solo called Guided Tour, that Claire Porter designed for Andre in 2012, and a company premiere, Wiegenlied (Lullaby). So Andre began the program alone, as a museum docent who literally got swept up in his job.

“Ladies and gentlemen, walk this way.”

We’ve virtually all heard those words, but they merely became a jumping off point for Claire’s imagination.

Overall this encore set a different tone than it had in the premiere. The voice and the gestures had a greater sweep from the start and escalated from there, drawing the audience in immediately with the physical humor of it all. Buster Keaton, perhaps?

But the heart of the solo lay in the text. “I know you are trying, but try harder.” “…a re-enactment diorama of another diorama.” Gradually our docent became more frustrated with his invisible group. His sneakers squeaked louder as his voice rose. His movements became more agitated.

Art imitating life imitating art. So outrageously funny.

Things continued in that vein with Wiegenlied, although it took a few minutes to get in sync. We heard haunting strains of a guitar. The lights came up on an arrangement of bare trees surrounded by garbage (Susana Amundarain’s daring design). A usually docile Jennifer Keller lifted her hair and, summoning her most commanding voice, pronounced, “Good ev-e-ning.” Then she walked offstage. No, made one heckuva exit.

Even though the opening moments were seemingly incoherent, it all began to make sense.

These odd relationships would continue, but the audience “got” it.  Andre sauntered to the forefront, dressed in shorts and high heels. He looked great. He was also using a leaf blower.

Later, a pointing finger became a woodpecker. And Andre had a fashion show, enhanced by Naoko Nagata’s costume design. There was a man with an umbrella (composer Efrain Amaya), who slowly began to slide forward from a corner at the back — he was wearing skis. He sang a song with his guitar, ever so slightly out of tune.

These were life scenes, translated to movement and even more out of tune with reality. Long-time company member Tina Kondrath had some of her best career  moments and Jennifer and Andre concluded with complex and seemingly more serious solos, although there could have been a more incisive ending.

Wiegenlied turned out to be a heightened sensory and visual experience, even more so when we realized that our lives would be just as off-kilter if we put ourselves in Andre’s hands.


On Stage: Two For Dance

July 26, 2013
NCDT's Anna Gerberich and Pete Walker Photo: Jeff Cravotta

Anna Gerberich and Pete Walker Photo: Jeff Cravotta



North Carolina Dance Theatre presented its annual Evening of Pas de Deux at Chautauqua Institution, with some excitement. Click on Chautauqua Daily to read the article. CI is trying something new — a Romeo & Juliet Project, which will involve the symphony, opera program and theater in a full-length program that explores various interpretations of Shakespeare’s classic story. NCDT principals Anna Gerberich and Pete Walker will be among 150 artists in this first-ever Chautauqua collaboration. Click on the link below to see a sneak preview of their duet.


On Stage: La Vie

July 23, 2013

ImageWhen you think about it, Pittsburgh hasn’t seen anything quite like Kendra Dennard, alias Vie Boheme. While establishing her dance reputation — long legs, fierce stage persona and all — she was creating a parallel universe as songstress and performer Vie Boheme.

But unlike J Lo, who famously made the jump from contemporary dancer to pop singer and actress, Kendra/Vie has chosen another path. She has meticulously researched the history of black female singers and put together a solo performance, Viva: BLACK, that both educates and entertains.

There was never any doubt that Kendra had that innate star quality, nor that she had the ability to gather other considerable Pittsburgh talents under one roof for her performances. From The Space Upstairs to the August Wilson Center, it turns out that she has gradually been developing this tribute to the women who have played a part in her own development.

At the Kaufmann Center in the Hill District’s Hill House, she was front and center, supported by a tight eight-piece band, a couple of terrific back-up singers (Anquenique Wingfield and Jacquea Mae Olday, who each smartly and deservedly took a turn in the spotlight), a terrific trio of back-up dancers (Abigail Atkins, Ira Cambric and Annalee Traylor) and a highly receptive audience.

The Kaufmann Center is an intimate and flexible space (with plenty of parking in back, on Centre Avenue or at Ebeneezer Baptist Church), although there was still some echo in the Center, blurring lyrics despite acoustical tile adjustments.

It began with a slide and video show listing the performers who provided the rich resource material, including Dinah Washington, Billie Holliday, Eryka Badu, Nina Simone and Michael Jackson.

Josephine Baker was a given — the resemblance to her was uncanny in the video footage. And in fact, Ms. Vie began with the divine Ms. Baker and a pair of songs associated with her, J’ai Deux Amour, which explained her love of Paris, and the more familiar C’est Si Bon. And Nina Simone as well, with Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.

I particularly liked the less familiar, like Hound Dog (Ruth Brown?) and They Say I’m Different, a nod to the great Betty Davis, who was once called “Sly Stone, Mick Jagger and The Jimi Hendrix Experience all rolled into one woman.” Little quotes like this and a perhaps a reference to the voluminous black wig that seemed to come from Betty’s great sense of funk-y fashion.

And therein lay the core of Viva: BLACK — an evening about women who had a sense of adventure and weren’t afraid to speak their mind, both in song and in life.

Like Betty, Vie is the whole package. Her movement has become mesmerizing, with arms that entice and legs that slice the stratosphere. The costumes by Suz Pisano in collaboration with Vie were first rate while Bob Steineck made the most of the lighting system.

I think the photos or footage could be inserted during the course of the evening to help the audience relate to these artists who have meant so much to Vie. She could do a little monologue about some of the others in the midst of it all, just to make it even more meaningful.

Then the third act, with some of her own instantly relatable songs, which sometimes meshed with Billy “Free” Pilgrim’s seductive rap (he had a great transition from a modern day Cab Calloway, bullhorn and all, in St. James Infirmary) would pop to an even greater extent.

Never anything less than glamorous, never anything less than charismatic, Vie Boheme, is on a path to destiny. What is it? That remains to be seen, but once you have seen her, you will follow her closely.


Dance Bites: Gia T., Stein l Holum, Brain Dance

July 21, 2013

MORE THAN A TRIO. Gia Cacalano was only supposed to do a quick turn and leave the evening to Ravish Momin’s Tarana. But the evening went above and beyond. Ravish is a Carnegie Mellon graduate with a B.S. in Civil/Environmental Engineering. He bases his music on Indian influences, including rhythmic speech, but with a more contemporary use of meter and syncopation. On July 13 at Wood Street gallery, Tarana, which varies in size with collaborative artists, was a duo with Rick Parker, noted jazz trombonist in New York. It was so much more, however, via a smart use of electronics. Perhaps inspired by Ravish’s background, Gia appeared with scarves wrapped around her bodice both at the beginning and later in the performance with large, satisfying chunks of dance. She responded to the sophisticated musical backdrop with pirouettes that swirled into deep knee drops and a use of open hips, with dramatic tensions that took her performance to another level.

Suli Holum

Suli Holum

PLENTY OF HEART. Stein l Holum Projects is a New York duo, the latest artists tagged by Kelly Strayhorn Theater’s janera solomon. As is her method, she brought them in for a workshop, culminating in a sneak peak at Dance Alloy Studios. While The Wholehearted was a work-in-progress, only excerpts, it was a terrific tour de force for the talented Suli Holum, nominated for a Drama Desk award in 2012. The tale, written by co-director and writer Deborah Stein, is that of a former boxing champ, set to make a comeback but hampered by an emotional past. With KST’s Joseph Hall expertly guiding the Q&A, the audience offered a penetrating feedback, where the artists listened intently. And the production company itself transformed the Alloy space into a boxing ring, with projections, lighting, original music, choreography, live video work — and possible tips for KST in the future. Put the KST’s workshop series on your calendar, well worth the time and modest admission.

A FRICK PARK WALK. Ella Mason has joined the Pittsburgh dance community, forming Yes Brain Dance Theater, and is in the midst of a series of site-specific works. This one, the second in the series, Of Snails and Lips and Walking Sticks, took place in Frick Park, opposite the museum and heading down the trail to the bottom and out again. With a morphing group of dancers (the thoughtful Jasmine Hearn, Beth Ratas, Taylor Knight, Anna Thompson and more) and musicians (percussionists Dave Bernabo and Ketan Bakrania nuanced and effective, with cellist Gordon Kirkwood soulful) at hand, Ella lead the walk herself, gradually unraveling a knit skirt like Hansel and Gretel’s crumbs. Over 25 people and several companion dogs followed her as we had about 10 “encounters,” including a trio improvising on a fallen tree, a conversation/hand dance that descended down the hill, a scene around a giant pile of sticks, a treehugger and cello and a group of creatures that didn’t seem to be snails in this particular environment. Watz the German shepherd playfully nipped at Ella’s skirt to everyone’s delight. Then we all exited up through Tranquil Trail, punctuated by human statues, and gathered around Ella and Gordon and Watz for closure. It was a cool walk on a hot day.

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On Stage: Texture Rocks

July 19, 2013
Alan Obuzor and Amanda Summers in "Broken Mirror." Photo: Katie Ging Photography

Alan Obuzor and Amanda Summers in “Broken Mirror.” Photo: Katie Ging Photography

I never thought I would see a mosh pit at the ballet. But then Texture Contemporary Ballet is all about breaking the social rules of this aristocratic European art form.

The company presented only its third epic production, Perpetual Motion, at the New Hazlett Theater. While it’s still hard to hold them back, this likable young group is showing signs of structure and thought as the dancers embraced the latest in a dizzying array of cool moves from a trio of choreographers…all used in the same pieces in varying combinations.

You heard me right. I don’t think that has often been done before. Well, maybe Eiko & Koma, the husband-and-wife butoh duo. And Nederlans Dans Theater director Paul Lightfoot and artistic advisor Sol León have worked together since 1989. But offhand I can’t think of anyone else (maybe you can).

Having three choreographers (one piece had four listed) working simultaneously might have been a first, except for the early collaborative days of Pilobolus.

It was fun to discover how Texture’s major contributors had such distinctive personalities as they began to emerge so powerfully. Founder and artistic director Alan Obuzor has a tasty palate of harmonious movement, so lovely to watch, with an eye for integrating large groups. Associate artistic director Kelsey Bartman lives up to her whimsical punk hairdo and pinkish/red hair. Her choreography is full of a crackling good imagination, often with tremendous fun and whimsy.

The latest addition is long-time friend and BalletMet dancer Gabriel Gaffney Smith, who brings a thoughtful weight to the mix. He is the dramaturg of the three, weaving a theatrical thread into the dance.

So what was the result?

Mixed, as you might have surmised, but generally a thumbs up for their efforts and the resulting progress they have achieved. Actually you could have made a mental game of it during the evening, trying to figure who did what where, especially in the final work, MOIP, which stood for the band, Meeting of Important People.

It was the kind of number where the audience could just hang out with the dancers. Dressed casually in tees and stretch pants of varying lengths (Erin Heintzinger and Cindy Jennings were good at making simplicity cool in this production), this was a response to MOIP’s congenial British rock/pop sound, the kind that makes you want to pop along with it.

Much of MOIP inspired an explosion of bodies in differing ways, like the dance floor of a club where the band was actually playing live on an upper balcony, leaving plenty of room to bounce, heads dangling and arms akilter, and yes, form that mosh pit.

The work used 14 songs, covering a lot of territory, from classical ballet leap sequences to a serpentine series of lines where one tiny dancer literally was dragged around until she finally got into the groove.

Although it went on a little too long and got a little too loose, MOIP showed how these young artists are learning the value of silence and reflection to put balance into their dance work.

So I liked the idea of a trio of couples, where they changed partners several times mid-stream, and the moment when Alan, Gabe and Kelsey were left as they sat and listened to the band. They are finding moments like these that blossom into movement, a pivotal step.

That also happened in Broken Mirror, where the dancers, although a little crowded, began by walking across the stage. Little dance poses and phrases started to erupt in the shards of light designed by Nicholas Coppula (just one of his many talents). Or where five men stopped suddenly as if teetering at the precipice of a cliff, a motif that was used later to good effect.

Set to Gabe’s soft new age score (another of his many talents), it had a tendency to smooth out too many wrinkles, unlike Mulberry Way, the opening piece and the strongest because each of the four sections, set to Elbow, had a differing perspective.

I liked the way Kelsey and Gabe balanced each others’ creative impulse, fashioning scenes that could have taken place in a neighborhood. Kelsey took the lead first in Grounds for Divorce, where the dancers stomped and slid in a sock ballet.

Gabe followed with a trio, None One, where Amanda Summers, who is developing an emotionally compelling stage presence, moved through two doors from one man to another in an apparent vein of abuse. (Ironically Gabe and Kelsey also fashioned a fiercely intense, but similar duet, Wash, that followed after Mulberry Way.)

The double pas de deux in the third section, Whether to Fly, featured the three choreographers, along with Ashley Wegman (yes, sometimes you needed a scorecard.) They all constructed two simultaneously intertwining duets in a work that could be performed with only two or with four, as it was done here.

It ended with One Day Like This, a communal wave of linking arms and circular patterns, all in all an intoxicating round of unbounded camaraderie.


On Stage: Another Texture

July 18, 2013


Texture Contemporary Ballet takes to the stage once again in a busy season for the young company. Featured choreographers are founder and artistic director Alan  Obuzor, associate artistic director Kelsey Bartman and guest Gabriel Gaffney Smith who take on a large landscape of dancers. Read about it in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.


On Stage: Kiesha Has Her Eyes On Dance

July 14, 2013


The good news is that Kiesha Lalama’s The Bench is moving forward. We first saw the production in 2009 as part of Point Park University’s dance series. it was a family affair from the start, with cousin and composer David Lalama and tenor saxophonist Ralph Lalama a part of the holiday package.

It told the story of a young man and woman who met, fell in love and married. What followed was the everyman story of an everyday family, where relationships cause both difficulty and great joy. It was something that virtually everyone in the audience could relate to in a different way as they reflected on their own lives, like “a family album come to life.”

So people warmly responded to scenes like the “crazy aunt” at the table scene and the wedding, where the daughter walked down the aisle with her dad.

But there is more good news. It evidently has legs, strong and sure, and has been renamed The Bench: A Journey Into Love. Subtitled “A New Musical Dance Spectacular.” The evening-long work falls into a family-friendly version of productions like “Movin’ Out” and “Contact,” where dance formed the thread.

There was much interest at the outset from Titus Theatricals LLC founder and CEO, Eric McCree to take it to Broadway. With his input, though, that meant that Kiesha had to reconstruct certain elements of the story.l

Now two narrators, both singers, will express the secret thoughts of the main characters in song. Scotland’s Joel Mason, lyricist, joined the team to add another dimension to David’s score.

They were going to do a staged reading, but they bypassed it in favor of a full-blown workshop, according to Kiesha. This has enabled her and David to stay “true to the values” of their work. They added about 20 minutes and got deeper into the characters. While the mother’s stage-dominating dress will remain, the dinner table, a pivotal scene in the original production, will be lengthened and will rotate on a platform to increase its visual impact.

This past week Kiesha and her team, including Point Park staffer Jason McDole and James Washington, who played the son in the original cast, traveled to Boise, Idaho. “Idaho,” you say? Sometimes called the Potato State, it also grows dance companies in the state’s largest city — the critically-acclaimed Trey MacIntyre Project and Ballet Idaho, which made a brief appearance on the reality ballet series “Breaking Pointe” when one of the dancers got dumped from Ballet West and picked up a job there.

So some of those local dancers populated the production and Broadway veteran Tituss Burgess (Jersey Boys, The Little Mermaid, Guys and Dolls) and Angela Birchett (Hairspray, national tour) joined the 15-member cast.

Kiesha met Tituss a while ago and he never left her thoughts. “You know, you meet someone along they way and you don’t know the impact they will have on your life,” explains Kiesha.

But there is more good news. A Pittsburgh group, including traveled there and several Broadway backers, who shall remain nameless for now, as well.

“In some ways, it’s been bigger than I anticipated,” says Kiesha, who is looking to go straight to New York’s Musical Theatre Festival next year.

It’s a difficult process, most likely filled with the kind of obstacles that Dorothy faced in Oz. But Kiesha appears to be determined, noting that  “I am secure with kind of artist that I am.”


On Stage: Back to the Lake

July 11, 2013

ncdt appalachianAnother season at Chautauqua began anew this week as the North Carolina Dance Theater paired with the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra for a program that began with a homespun Appalachian Suite and ended on the classical stages of Russian ballet in Paquita. Read my views in the Chautauquan Daily.

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