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.”



On Stage: Baby and Johnny Dance Again

April 8, 2015


Now that Patrick Swayze is gone and Jennifer Grey’s career continues to be defined by it, Dirty Dancing has remained, for the past 28 years, frozen in time. Following the movie’s release in 1987, author Eleanor Bergstein chose to keep the story under wraps and only now has transmitted it to the stage, here a part of Pittsburgh’s Broadway Across America series.

Still frozen, in a way.

There are some things that people want to see virtually untouched by time, like Saturday Night Live reruns or a Tony Bennett concert or a ballet production of Swan Lake.

The musical theater version of Dirty Dancing has that kind of appeal, to recreate a movie that was a surprise hit in the ’80’s. It looked back to the ’60’s with a time capsule story about rebellious young lovers who get it on during the waning days of those family-friendly resorts in the Catskill Mountains, a sweet escape from city heat.

There were questions about the viability of a stage musical from the start. How would they recreate the lush green landscapes surrounding the lodge? Would they include the log balancing scene? How would they reconstruct The Lift?

Well, if that’s your bag, the producers have come up with snazzy sliding panels and projections to move quickly to each scene location. At the Benedum Center there are many greatest hits from the memorable score (I Had the Time of My Life, She’s Like the Wind, Do You Love Me?) and more to be added (Save the Last Dance For Me, Stubborn Kind of Fellow).

The musical playlist itself numbers 44 and the dialogue, which pretty much sticks to the original, just provides connecting links. If you have to put your thumb on it, this hybrid show should be called a dancical, although it doesn’t quite fall into a category that boasts Cats and Contact.  Besides, this Dirty Dancing could benefit by pumping up the cast and choreography (Michele Lynch after Kate Champion) for the kids’ dance numbers — it’s all a little too lean.

The cast, from a distance, looks and, more importantly, moves remarkably like the original cast. The details are almost an exact replica of the film, which may hamper the performers from letting loose.

Gillian Abbott (Baby) touches virtually all the bases — that deep little curve to her back when she dances, the signature moves up the steps.  Samuel Pergande (Johnny) even shares a Joffrey Ballet connection with Swayze, the first a company member, the latter studying at the school. But the technically proficient Pergande doesn’t have that prowling panther-like quality, the Swayze swagger that jumped off the screen.

Kudos to the leggy Penny (Jenny Winton, also a Joffrey alumnus) and a versatile ensemble that actually gets some big vocal numbers.

And to the audience that seemed to patiently take it all in, reliving a time in their own lives, just waiting for “Nobody puts Baby in a corner.”

And, finally, roaring at The Lift.










On Stage: Beth’s Families

March 27, 2015
Beth Corning and John Gresh. Photo: Frank Walsh.

Beth Corning and John Gresh. Photo: Frank Walsh.

We have been watching Beth Corning slowly reveal her own family history during her years in Pittsburgh, show by show, step by step. But she has constructed a special dance family around her personal family via the Glue Factory Project, designed specifically for dancers over 40.

In celebration of Glue’s fifth anniversary, she is putting five performers, all with a local/regional connection, inside at ONCE there was a HOUSE, her fourth iteration of the piece. This time Corning rebuilt the work with Attack Theatre’s Michele de la Reza, Squonk Opera’s Jackie Dempsey, veteran Pittsburgh actor John Gresh, former Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre principal Tamar Rachelle Tolentino and Yoav Kaddar, head of West Virginia University’s dance department and former dancer with Paul Taylor, Jose Limon and Pilobolus.

It’s also the perfect way to celebrate five years in a “huge economic crunch.” Corning will embrace a long stint in Sweden, “that really created my artistic voice and my aesthetics and made them concrete,” by bringing in two Swedish artists later this year.

Re-entering her House along with “grownups who actually knew Dick and Jane,” the educational reading series used from 1930 to 1970 in many schools, was inspired by Pittsburgh.

But this House, which will double its length to an hour, “has changed a lot and the characters are completely different,” she promises. And with multidisciplinary artists around her, “it’s been pretty grand.”

“We acknowledge we’re all pushing our limits on this one — we’re all out of our comfort zone,” Corning says. ” It’s an incredibly vulnerable show; it’s incredibly vulnerable when you really know what you’re dancing about.”

The work she does is deeply personal, deeply engrained in the body and soul. For example, she would “sit and talk and analyze this thing” with Gresh “and find ways into it — it’s so much fun! These are people who are smart, who are there, who are present beyond present.”

So de la Reza might turn into a rehearsal director, helping some of the others. And Dempsey, an accordionist in her professional life, “picks up dance movement faster than most dancers.” Gresh keeps laughing — “he calls himself a baby rhino in a bunch of gazelles.”

They’ve all had to adjust, though. The movement might have to switch legs because of a leg or hip problem because “it’s all part of the Glue Factory.” But according to Corning, there is so much other movement available that the richness of the dance still takes hold.

And that made the process so much more satisfying.

For example, she was enamored with Rachelle Tolentino from her very beginning in Pittsburgh. The ballerina led the company audition for Corning at the Alloy, whereupon she asked her to join the company. “You’re exactly what I’m looking for.” But the knee problem that had curtailed Rachelle Tolentino’s career prevented that.

But a couple of years ago, she coached Corning in her one-woman show, REMAINS. “I had an ‘aha’ moment,” recalls Corning, “as I watched her walk. Seasoned artists can simply walk and say as much as a young dancer does in fifty pirouettes.”

De la Reza hasn’t been coached in 20 years while co-founder of Attack, leading Corning to remark that de la Reza’s experience here is like learning Greek and then immediately performing a theater piece using it.

Corning and Kaddar traded rehearsal time between Morgantown and Pittsburgh, about 90 minutes. She notes, admiringly, that he was “alway on time.” As for Gresh, well, “He’s a honey. That guy’s the real deal — he’s not up there doing lines.”

And Dempsey, an accordionist, she didn’t know that she would “really” be dancing. In fact, she wrote a note to Corning saying, in part, “In two decades of performing, I’ve never been quite so terrified.” But if she “could choose any artist with whom to take this lead, it wold be Beth.”




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