On Stage: Stringing Steps Together, Bit By Bit

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…


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