On Stage: Baby and Johnny Dance Again

April 8, 2015

Dirty-Dancing

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.”

 

 


On Stage: Premieres!

March 18, 2015
Jerome Robbins' "The Concert." Photos by Rich Sofranko.

Jerome Robbins’ “The Concert.” Photos by Rich Sofranko.

Jiri Kylian's "Petite Mort." Olivia Kelly and Ruslan Mukhambetkaliyev.

Jiri Kylian’s “Petite Mort.” Olivia Kelly and Ruslan Mukhambetkaliyev.

They weren’t world premieres, but this trio of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s local premieres gave the company’s repertory a new heft in this unprecedented program. Kylian. Morris. Robbins. A true ensemble experience for the dancers. Read about it in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mark Morris' "Sandpaper Ballet."

Mark Morris’ “Sandpaper Ballet.”


On Stage: Unveiling Ballet’s “Beast”

March 7, 2015

 

Nurlan Abougaliev and Amanda Cochrane. Photos: Rich Sofranko.

Nurlan Abougaliev and Amanda Cochrane. Photos: Rich Sofranko.

It’s a never-ending search to satisfy America’s thirst for full-length story ballets. With only a handful of classically-styled productions from which to choose, directors are pressed to satisfy that thirst, despite the fact that these kinds of ballets are almost certain to break the budget.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s Terrence Orr recently reached into his own past to resurrect Lew Christensen’s Beauty and the Beast, which Christensen created for the San Francisco Ballet in 1958 and restaged in 1982. It most likely was the first full-length contemporary ballet to be presented in America and, as such, deserves an acknowledgment.

This is a ballet that has certain positive attributes — it’s a family-oriented production that, given its series of scenic  drops, will most certainly tour well (perhaps without the stairs in front of the castle). As such, it can be a good entry-level ballet to attract new audiences. Its strongest assets, however, are the costumes, which were lovingly refurbished by costumier Janet Groom and her staff. And certainly the rebuilt masks, and especially the new Beast, all by Svi Roussanoff, were a standout.

The score, channeled from lesser-known Tchaikovsky music, worked fit beautifully for the most part, although it would have been enhanced by a live orchestra. The core of the score came from the final movement of Tchaikovsky’s third suite, which George Balanchine put to much better use in his Theme and Variations. (On an odd note, Balanchine’s work premiered in 1947, when Christensen was still associated with the New York City Ballet.)

PBT Beauty Amanda and Nurlan

Christensen chose to adapt Madame LePrince de Beaumont’s original 18th century tale of a young girl who, along with her father, gets lost in the woods, teeming with leaping nymphs and stags, and arrives at the Beast’s castle. When Beauty asks her father to pick a rose, the Beast catches them and dismisses the father, but keeps his Beauty.

The ballet turned out to be composed of the usual storybook bits and pieces, like the character-driven second scene with Beauty’s family, including a pair of wicked stepsisters ala Cinderella. There were five Bluebirds (vivaciously led by Amanda Cochrane), the fluttering arms and beats obviously inspired by the Bluebird pas de deux in The Sleeping Beauty.

Like The Nutcracker, there were flowers, Magic Flowers here. But the choreography lacked flow, coming to a halt to form stiff, angular poses. And when the Courtiers and Roses assembled for the celebratory finale in the transformed prince’s palace, a repetitive series of promenades and runs in linear patterns did not achieve the splendid effect found in Balanchine’s version.

The PBT dancers, however, were confident in their roles, surprisingly spread over five casts. While there was a rather nice duet in the first act where the Beast tries to confess his love for Beauty, the true test for the leading roles came with a more traditional pas de deux at the end.

PBT Beauty finale

So here’s the list: Alexandra Kochis and Alejandro Diaz made a handsome opening night couple, while Julia Erickson and Alexandre Silva used their charismatic authority to great effect. It was good to see Amanda Cochrane paired with the elegant veteran Nurlan Abougaliev. With an attentive and knowledgable partner like that, Cochrane enjoyed a new softness and freedom in her dance. Gabrielle Thurlow brought her innate naturalness to Beauty, while Luca Sbrizzi, always so princely, was technically commanding in the pas de deux. Although I only saw the first act with Hannah Carter and William Moore, there is an aristocratic ease to their balletic style, honed at Britain’s Royal Ballet, that will set them apart in the future.

No doubt Beauty and the Beast, with its inspirational message that true beauty lies within, has struck a chord with audiences over the years. It remains to be seen if this balletic version will find its own admirers.

 

 

 


On Stage: Jil and Ben and Friends

March 3, 2015

JIL STIFEL WAYWARDLAND

You have to love the principle behind New Hazlett Theater’s Community Supported Art (CSA) series: to provide financial and artistic support to Pittsburgh’s emerging artists. That gives them time to more fully develop their ideas and move on to the next level.

However, it didn’t seem like Jil Stifel, an independent dancer and choreographer, and Benjamin Sota, founding director of Zany Umbrella Circus, would fall into that category.

But Jil does mostly solo work and it’s been a long time since Benjamin has inserted his toe (and circus apparatus) into the whirlpool of Pittsburgh dance. This was an opportunity to expand their artistic vision — for Jil, eight artists to coordinate and for Ben, sharing in that and folding his unique talents into a choreographed endeavor.

The result was WaywardLand, a fresh performance piece with four dancers (Jil, Ben, the shimmering Anna Thompson and masterful Taylor Knight, sets and masks by Blaine Siegel, lighting design by Scott Nelson, costume design by Casey Droege and composition and sound design by David Bernabo.

I still remember Jil’s early work (a bathtub piece) and was always impressed with her startling imagination, so different, yet so much her own. And you can’t get much different than the Zany Umbrella Circus, which always brings its own pizazz with it.

The two have known each other since high school and maybe that made it easy to be themselves, yet integrate modern dance and circus arts. That they did surprisingly well.

There were assorted offbeat choreographic vignettes, like a playfulness with “wayward,” pointing quizzically in various directions. There was a jiggly jog, hands atop the head, slipping into flipper hands, as if “What’s up?”

But most movement and timing was determined by the props. That could make things purposeful, as when manipulating a long, twisted fabric rope, or meandering about with large papier mâché minotaur heads or peering from behind notched geometric forms.

The duo created triangles in the movement, perhaps inspired by a large hanger where Ben was slowly lifted in the sky. Maybe a little too slowly, stopping the action. My favorite was the German wheel, actually a double wheel, that became a corral and a circular balancing act for Jil and Ben.

But undoubtedly WaywardLand was a Seussian meeting of some of Pittsburgh’s most inventive, but decidedly adult artists, pointing, just like this piece, in all directions and wondrous for their unconventionality.


On Stage: Attack-ing 20

March 2, 2015
Peter Kope and Michele de la Reza.

Peter Kope and Michele de la Reza.

Attack Theatre has been known for balancing a palpable congeniality with a devil-may-care generosity of movement lo these last 20 years. For the most part, the company’s brand of dance has been, as its name implies, on the “attack,” and we revealed in its vivid physicality.

But for its 20th anniversary celebration, the company surprisingly turned inward for Between, diving into the softer side of their dance, those private moments that they, again, generously shared.

That doesn’t mean that Between didn’t carry a certain amount of risk — any new work is the equivalent of another leap off a tall building. Founders Michele de la Reza and Peter Kope said it centered around a duality, pictured in the duets that formed and unformed, and the creative process, so important in an ensemble that strives for artistic equality among its collaborators. (See Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.)

It all took place in Pittsburgh Opera’s George R. White Studio, running concurrently with its own production of Sumeida’s Song. The Attack production also shared Julia Noulin-Mérat’s dominating scenic design, a raw, towering crosshatch of wooden pallets. Set in one corner of the box theater, it was surrounded by stadium seating on two sides.

Along with Tom Nunn’s exotic lighting, it was remarkable that this intimate design for an Egyptian opera, replete with sand, would transfer so well to an abstract dance work.

Attack’s major addition was a pint-sized antechamber with tables and seating around a sandbox, their way of thinking outside the box and creating yet another dual layer. The audience was split — half started in the antechamber. They then switched at intermission and joined together for an “epilogue.”

ATTACK DAVEIn a very welcome return, musical director Dave Eggar took center stage, playing his cello on an oriental rug. He served as the focal point, a man in search of a song, which led him over to a grand piano. But then, everyone was searching — for an artistic or personal relationship or that creative nugget. Intensely. Passionately.

The connections were there to be made — sand dribbled and drifted between the performing spaces. There also was a blue ball, perhaps the creative impulse that never really leaves? Wads of paper — false starts — developed into a snowball fight (the fun side of this company). And key movements — some spooning, floor work, and hands to lips —  made the transition to both areas as well.

Of course, the music, an original score with a Chopin foundation, swirled between the spaces. Despite the fact that Eggar and percussionist Chuck Palmer (so versatile!) essentially played the same score twice, each side had its own alluring tonal (and sometimes atonal) power. The pair seemed like a handful of musicians with the use of looping effects — one where the music continued in the antechamber while Palmer left and Eggar’s use of ostinato and repetition to construct his own duets. Brilliant.

Best of all, this new work was bound together by uncharacteristic Attack elements. De la Reza and Kope have never looked better and he, in particular, revealed a vulnerability that we have not seen. Along with Dane Toney and Kaitlinn Dann, the four came and went between the two spaces with the precision of a Swiss watch. Of course, dance duets filled in Between. You had to love, especially, the male duet with Attack’s trademark leveraging — so effortless —  and The Embrace, one of Kope and de la Reza’s early works. Performed on a turntable, mesmerizing as it spun like a live Rodin sculpture, the duet had a lightness, a tenderness that had taken on its own patina through the years.

 Between was all so complex and compelling that some people, including me, went back, for there was yet another element, a physical and aural balance that was, simply put, breathtaking.

 


On Stage: Ron and Stevie and Pittsburgh

February 16, 2015

pdc ronald k. brown

Ronald K. Brown returned to Pittsburgh for what was his most cohesive performance yet, one that gave African traditions a contemporary accent. He also gave his program a Pittsburgh accent, inviting a group of local dancers to rehearse and participate, much to their and the audience’s delight. Read about it in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.


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