On Stage: A Ballet Trifecta

November 8, 2015

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre just concluded its opening performance series in grand style with Balanchine, Forsythe and Kylian. Read about it at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

This was as perfectly balanced a repertory program as PBT has ever presented. Something to note — while the audiences were smaller than the more marketable full-length ballets like Swan Lake, they were more enthusiastic, responding to the masterful choreography. So Pittsburgh dance fans know something good when they see it and, with similar programs, I believe Pittsburgh audiences will warm up to the concept of repertory, with a variety that will undoubtably appeal, at some point, to virtually everyone.

George Balanchine knew that, given his famous quote of having an appetizer, an entree and dessert on the program and he understood the concept of a dance “dessert” better than anyone, whipping up a batch of terrific finales like Western Symphony, Stars and Stripes and the Gershwin-inspired Who Cares?. Gradually audiences (and dancers) will graduate to the more dramatic, full-company likes of his Symphony in Three Movements and Symphony in C.

From this program, it seems, too, that Pittsburgh responds to the physicality of the dance — the array of leaps in Sinfonietta, the breathless slicing kicks of In the Middle, the seemingly unlimited dance landscape of Western Symphony.

Behind the scenes, and speaking of breath, corps member Caitlin Peabody, as fiery in Middle as her hair, said that there was a part in this deceptively difficult  ballet where she literally felt that she couldn’t catch her breath. As it turned out, choreographer Forsythe sent a message to “breathe.” And repetiteur Agnes Noltenius, one of the three top-notch artists who set the trio of ballets, reminded the dancers at the dress rehearsal. It worked, resulting in a satisfying breadth of movement as well as a breathable flow of movement, confident and articulate, something that is not always present with this company.

Once again, repetiteurs have transformed PBT, the last one being Shelly Washington in the Twyla Tharp program of Nine Sinatra Songs and In the Upper Room in 2013. And it would be hard to improve on this program. If anything, there could have been a newer work, maybe a commission or a ballet conceived within the past five years. Newer works build a company’s reputation — it’s more difficult to measure up to the international standard seen on YouTube and assorted films created in the classical tradition.

As a bonus, photographer Martha Rial had a free time slot and captured some of the memorable movements of Sinfonietta with her lens. If anyone would like a copy, contact her at martha@martharial.com.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's Yoshiaki Nakano and Hannah Carter perform Sinfonietta. Photo: Martha Rial©

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s Yoshiaki Nakano and Hannah Carter perform Sinfonietta. Photo: Martha Rial©

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's Luca Sbrizzi and Jessica McCann perform Sinfonietta. Photo: Martha Rial©

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s Luca Sbrizzi and Jessica McCann perform Sinfonietta. Photo: Martha Rial©

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's Jessica McCann and Joanna Schmidt perform Sinfonietta. Photo: Martha Rial©

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s Jessica McCann and Joanna Schmidt perform Sinfonietta. Photo: Martha Rial©

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's Corey Bourbonniere, Alexandre Silve and Gabrielle Thrulow perform Sinfonietta. Photo: Martha Rial©

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s Corey Bourbonniere, Alexandre Silve and Gabrielle Thrulow perform Sinfonietta. Photo: Martha Rial©

The final, highly emotional image of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's production of Sinfonietta. Photo: Martha Rial©

The final, highly emotional image of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s production of Sinfonietta. Photo: Martha Rial

On Stage: Beautiful Carole King

October 29, 2015
Abby Mueller as Carole King

Abby Mueller as Carole King

I feel the earth move under my feet…

I’ve felt that way for lo so many years when I listen to Carole King’s songs, which I thought were mostly limited to her solo album, Tapestry, released in 1971. But the Tony Award-winning musical inspired by her career, Beautiful, now playing at the Benedum Center and starring a dynamic Abby Muller, proves that there was much more to this pop icon.

This is a glossy rendering of her life from a smart, talented teenager who skipped two grades and left college to become a songwriter to the self-assured artist who produced Tapestry. Along the way she married Gerry Goffin (Liam Tobin), her first love, husband and lyricist. It gives the musical a dramatic edge, alluding to his affairs and drug use.

It also follows the influential New York music publishing house run by Don Kirshner (Curt Bouril), along with another successful partnership there in the entertaining duo of Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann.

The Don Kirshner studio.

The Don Kirshner studio.


But this is jukebox musical, similar to The Jersey Boys. It produces a back story around the surprising number of hits as it educates the public about King’s importance. She was ahead of her time, able to be an understanding wife, a mother to two children and a successful, but in some ways humble artist who follows her dream.

While some of the facts might have been surprising to the public at large, so were the tunes. Who knew that she and Goffin wrote their first big hit, Some Kind of Wonderful, for The Drifters? And Will You Love Me Tomorrow took The Shirelles to the top of the pop charts, the first black female singing group to do so?

The Drifters.

The Drifters.

It didn’t end there, with The Locomotion (Little Eva) and One Fine Day (Janelle Woods) adding to their mix of hits. The chirping Weil (Gulsvig) and and hypochondriac Mann (Ben Fankhauser) were able to mount challenges like You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling (The Righteous Brothers) to give balance and comedy to the production.

And that was just the first act.

Kudos to the entire cast, 24 in all, that loomed larger with its versatility, similar in the that respect to another Tony-winning musical, Once. Not only did they execute great covers of so many familiar songs in the style of the time, but they danced and played a number of extra instruments. It’s all in the current trend of the quadruple-threat (and maybe more) performer.

The production saves some surprises for the end, including (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman, the Aretha Franklin anthem that King and Goffen wrote for her. All along I felt the earth was moving and grooving, but there is a shortened version of “Earth” to add an exclamation point to it all.

This is a juicy musical chunk of rock and roll history, one to be savored. Some audience members will have lived and cherished it, others were probably just being introduced. But there is no doubt that Carole King’s legacy is both timeless and “beautiful.”





On Stage: A Very Full Monteverdi

June 29, 2015


Attack Theater turned schizophrenic this past spring. Co-founder Michele de la Reza was flitting from Pittsburgh Opera’s Daughter of the Regiment (see CrossCurrent’s April 22 post), where she served as assistant choreographer, to the Hillman Auditorium, where the company was collaborating with Chatham Baroque and Ping in Claudio Monteverdi’s The Battle of Tancredi and Clorinda.

You have to love collaborations like this, with two distinctive and vital Pittsburgh arts organizations like Attack and Chatham mentoring a talented start-up like Carnegie Mellon University’s Baroque early/new music vocal ensemble, Ping (which also provided an adventurous and entertaining selection of Monteverdi madrigals before the main event.) Then there was the cherry on top — renowned tenor Aaron Sheehan, playing the narrator with uncommon intelligence and musicality.

Nothing seems to be impossible for the Attackers, though, and it was particularly satisfying to see them helping to open up the Hillman in the Hill District to new audiences.

Perhaps the most satisfying, though, was a rare look/see/hear of Monteverdi’s work, which was far more contemporary than its age might indicate (377 years). More than heralding the transition from Renaissance to Baroque music, this piece surprised and resonated with today’s listeners, given the imaginative use of repeated notes (forerunner of the tremolo), dissonances and assorted musical rules that he broke in service to the text.

It sounded that fresh.

Speaking of which, the love story of Tancredi, a Christian knight, and Clorinda, a Saracen princess and a Muslim, gives an enduring political and religious backdrop that is still so relevant today.

Set against Sheehan and an expanded Chatham Baroque (six instruments, so full and satisfying on this occasion) on the Hillman stage, the artists decided to build another elevated stage in front to provide better sight lines for the audience and the stage action. Although it was connected by a small lower level, almost a miniature canyon that ran the width between the stages and was sometimes cumbersome for the performers to negotiate, it provided a way to highlight the action.

Much of that was provided by Dane Toney (Tancredi) and Kaitlin Dann (Clorinda), with some integration from singing doubles Chloe Holgate and Sean Salamon of Ping. Toney and Dann have never been more compelling, inspired by this tragic story of love and war, and literally transformed by the music that transported them to new emotional levels. They were joined by Ashley Williams in the final section, Regret, which used a trio of early madrigals to bring it all to a poignant conclusion.

On Stage: Dancing in the Regiment

May 15, 2015

There is always a different flavor to the opera when a choreographer is in charge, in this case Sean Curran at Pittsburgh Opera’s Daughter of the Regiment. Maybe it’s because his mind’s eye sees the outcome through a different artistic lens.

Curran is hardly a stranger to the dance community here (Pittsburgh Dance Council, Dance Alloy and Point Park University among them). But in this highly entertaining Regiment, he was wearing another hat (and apparently sporting a spiffy handlebar mustache), that of director.

He had choreographed the Santa Fe Opera version. But because of the nature of Gaetano Donizetti’s comic opera, bursting with physical potential, it was a logical choice for him to stage/direct here in Pittsburgh. So he set about using his three male dancer/soldiers and three female dancer/peasants/ballerinas in a clever fashion, strategically placing them to lead the choral ensemble through more complex than normal choreography (Michele de la Reza of Attack Theater was associate choreographer).

Daughter’s heroine, Marie, was found abandoned on a battlefield as a baby and was adopted by a regiment of soldiers. She grew up with unbridled spunk and nary a feminine grace or wile, but fell for the love-struck Tonio, who joins the regiment just to be near her.

Of course love has to find things to conquer and Marie is spirited away by her rich “aunt” to be “refined.” We all know that they will win out in the end, but how will the lovers get there?

A good amount of artifice was involved, given the candy-coated costumes and a snazzy coloring-book Alpine cyclorama with hidden entrances and exits. There were super-titles, even though the opera was spoken and sung in English.

Why not take things to the extreme? Donizetti provided plenty of vocal calisthenics for lyric coloratura Lisette Oropesa (it was a signature role for all-time great Joan Sutherland) and one of opera’s most exciting arias, Ah, mes amis, resplendent with high “C’s” for rising star Lawrence Brownlee and the pinnacle of this production.

But  these two (and the rest of the cast) were obviously open, to their credit,  for some tongue-in-cheek comedy and physical calisthenics from Curran, making this Daughter of the Regiment a visual as well as aural feast. It was hard to believe that the petite Oropesa, in particular, was as active as she was — the strapping tomboyish stride, being lifted onto a bench in the middle of an aria — while negotiating her vocal minefield.

She also was asked to don a tutu and floral headpiece, ala Edgar Degas’ famous ballet paintings, plus combat boots in a hilarious ballet lesson. That scene signaled a slapstick surge to the finish, with the entire cast throwing aside all operatic caution and whisking the audience through references to Pittsburgh, Paris of the Allegheny to a ribald conclusion.

Opera should be epic, whether musically, dramatically, theatrically or, in this instance, visually. And for a generation brought up on television, Broadway and the Internet,  this Daughter of the Regiment signaled a way to not only attract new audiences but tickle the fancy of established operatic fans.



On Stage: Dance Recitals 2015

May 5, 2015
Ballet Academy of Pittsburgh's Tommie Kesten, winner at the Youth America Grand Prix Semifinals in Pittsburgh Photo: Katie Ging

Ballet Academy of Pittsburgh’s Tommie Kesten, winner at the Youth America Grand Prix Semifinals in Pittsburgh Photo: Katie Ging

Tommie in Esmeralda solo.

Tommie in Esmeralda solo.

It’s grand to note the growth of area dance recitals year upon year. Both business-wise and artistically they contribute so much to the Pittsburgh area. If you have a chance, catch a couple of performances during the recital season. The enthusiasm is contagious! Click on Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for complete listings.

On Stage: Swedish “Snow”

May 4, 2015

It was our second confrontation with Pittsburgh Dance Council snow. Not the kind you shovel, but the kind you watch in wonder. The first came during the autumn of 2008, when the Inbal Pinto, ironically from Israel, introduced us to Shaker, a piece inspired by a snow globe where dancers slid on Styrofoam beads. This past April brought Swedish choreographer Pontus Lidberg (perhaps more appropriate given his history with snow) and his own Snow, which used white socks and flooring to give that slippery impression. They were very different and so much more than snow, though.

On Stage: “(a) Long Here”

April 29, 2015
Taylor Knight.

Taylor Knight.

More than any of her other Projects for the Pillow, Pearlann Porter convincingly is saying “Welcome to my world” with her latest, now on view at The Space Upstairs.

She has always changed the relationship of The Space, converting it to the subject at hand. But this “Time” you may get a healthier glimpse into the workings of her mind.

I arrived at 8 p.m. on a Wednesday, perfectly midway through the installation’s 16-day run.

Yes, installation. That is what the director, dancer and artist is calling it. I found her hard at work drawing parallel lines on a large piece of paper with a crayon.

The rest of the rectangular papers lined the black chalk wall. Pearlann had calculated how long it would take her to work through a full box of 64 crayons and still finish on April 30. (It looks like she’ll save white for last.)

Most of the installation lay along the fringes of her own great, Great Room atop Construction Junction..

There were some nifty large multiple image photos by Aaron Jackendoff in keeping with the dance concept. Some collectibles were placed in still life arrangements — a couple of dusty manual typewriters, keys askew, a slide projector (one of Pearlann’s favorite anti-technology gadgets.)

A large sign saying “Pittsburg.”

You could see some former productions on old T.V.s (like Beth Ratas strikingly striped in Fripp Out/The Book).

I particularly loved the juxtaposition of Eighty Hours — a large black canvas, partially covered with grains of white rice. It was next to One Second, with one grain of rice.

Aaron Jackendoff with dance portraits.

Aaron Jackendoff with dance portraits.

Pearlann wore down a pencil in One Hour and Forty-four Minutes (the same time Apple earns $14,246,575 and there are 64 gun deaths in the U.S.).

There are more facts, some fun, some not.

By now you get the idea — time in so many configurations. Everyone can add to the mix during some integrated activities.

But take time to peruse the installations of this artistic hoarder (and aren’t we glad?). Yes, she saved the pile of clocks, so artfully arranged among the trunks that they once occupied.

As I see it, Pearlann has also become the latest variation on modern art master master Jackson Pollock (think splatter paintings). Why? Because movement, mostly repetitive, is a major part of her art work, which dominates The Space.

But there is more. Can we say obsessive?

Not so much with Accumulation of Nows, performed by mover Taylor Knight and music-maker Anna Thompson. When I saw it, there were 8 Taylors, one live and the rest recorded. They all entered through a door and used a chair and the floor. Fascinating — as he were dancing with shadows of his former self — well-planned and mesmerizing.

Pearlann had one more interation, as performer in Un/Re. A duet where she held a large tree branch and Bekah Kuczma was wrapped in a diaphanous cocoa of tulle, the two performers created a sweet tension as they gradually switched places…in a way.

Although there was no need for it, the evening concluded with improvisation as suggested by the audience. “Half way done.” “Slack.” “Godzilla.”

And, as Pearlann put it, we’re “all out of time.”




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