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.

Dance Beat: Dirty Ball, Indian Festival, Dancing

April 16, 2015
Top Ten

Top Ten

Years. When The Dirty Ball first began, we didn’t know what to expect as we headed to one city apartment where the Attackers danced in the bathroom and a raw shell of another where we told our dirty secrets and drank dirty martinis. After a decade we know what to expect and Attack Theatre delivers. This time it was on the South Side in a warehouse of epic proportions. The Donor Party, where Queen of the Ball, Michele de la Reza, entered on a “throne” (two ladders, of course, transformed) and, with her “entourage,” presented an intimate thank you from the company. Everyone who had attended all ten took a group picture, whereupon the “curtains” were drawn to reveal what was probably the most breathtaking of all the locations over the years. The epic theme was carried out in Richard Parsakian’s must-see VIP Velvet Lounge, home of his collection of Elvis dolls (in original packaging) and the largest space he has expertly designed. Now for the trio of dances: it all began with a sherbet orange number that showed off the company’s seamless partnering style, with Ashley Williams looking utterly sun-kissed. That was followed by the Epic Production that traveled back and forward in time, which meant that King Peter Kope gathered just about anything — the Robot, Cleopatra, “Risky Business” (an over-the-top and very-welcome-return from Jeff Davis all evening long) and “Cher” (was that really Dane Toney?). And of course, there was the trademark finale from Dirty Dancing. Apparently everyone had the time of their lives…again.


Tripping. We’ve been to Australia, Quebec, Netherlands and around the world three times (International Festival of Firsts) when the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust is in a festival mode — often thrilling, always probing.  Now the Trust is taking the city to India. Two key dance performances will play a part. Nrityagram Dance Ensemble, last here in 2003, and Askash Odedra Company, making its premiere will also be a part of the Pittsburgh Dance Council season. Also on tap we’ll see a street party with DJ Rekha at the September Gallery Crawl, music of the highest order (Zakir Hussein with SF Jazz & Dave Holland), theater (Why Not Theatre, Tram Theatre and Indian Ink Theatre Company), exhibits (Hetain Patel, Nandini Valli Muthish, Plus One, Birth Series and Sarika Goulatia) and Mystic India, fusing dance, theater and spectacular special effects. Love the logo! (Click on India for more information.)

Time of My Life? The finale song for Dirty Dancing popped up everywhere this past week. Tuesday: The touring production of “Dirty Dancing.” Wednesday: “Dirty Dancing” leads teach Kristine Sorensen and Jon Burnett a few moves on KDKA’s Pittsburgh Today Live. Friday: Finale for Pitt Dance Ensemble. Saturday: Finale for the Dirty Ball. Everyday (it seemed): The commercial for UnitedHealthcare where the signature flying leap comes crashing onto a table.

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: The Attack Theatre Reunion

February 26, 2015
Attack founders Michele de la Reza and Peter Kope.

Attack founders Michele de la Reza and Peter Kope.

Attack Theater is in the midst of a 20th anniversary season and it’s time for a reunion. Read about it in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

But also read what their dancers have to say, always a mark of a top-notch company —

Dane Toney: This is my 7th season with Attack Theatre and it has been extremely rewarding and fulfilling. Attack Theatre is about collaboration and there is a tremendous amount of respect that flows between artist, performer, administration, audience and community. Each day is different and continues to present new challenges. Those challenges range from transforming an abandoned building into a performance space full of life and energy to creating and then implementing a lesson plan centered on movement about the solar system for a 3rd grade class. There is always something new to learn or discover and explore.

Ashley Williams:

1. Working with Attack Theatre is like drinking from a fire hydrant: the constant creative, physical and emotional challenges involved in keeping up with the rehearsing/performing/teaching/inventing is drenching, mostly in a very good way.

2. Everyday we come to work, the job is different.

3. As a dancer, I’d expect my body to matter to my job. As an Attack Theatre dancer, my mind also really, really matters to my job. That’s cool.

4. I like being asked (by children after an in-school performance): ‘How do you do all them tricks?’

5. I love performing to live music.

Kaitlin Dann: The  reason why I keep coming back to Attack Theatre is because the company truly is anything but stationary. Over the past few years, I have had the privilege to continue evolving as a teaching artist, performer, and collaborator. We build our shows from the ground up giving us accountability in all aspects, from the construction of a stage to the final bow. The cherry on top is simply the astounding way Attack Theatre makes sure to take care of its dancers and administrative staff with salaried contracts and health benefits. I’d be hard pressed for find a more fulfilling company to work for.

Peter and Michele at their signature table.

Peter and Michele at their signature table.


On Stage: Attack-ing 20

October 7, 2014

Attack There tarp

Attack Theatre has reached yet another milestone in dance annals — the 20th anniversary — an accomplishment for any company. They had a tongue-in-cheek approach and called it Are You Still There? Well, yes they are — at the Pittsburgh Coliseum. Check it out in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Attack There ShadowsAttack There Brittanie

On Stage: The Dirty Ball

April 28, 2010

I’ve been labeled a lot of things over the years. But there I was, “The ballsiest,” according to my pin I was given at Attack Theatre’s Dirty Ball, held last weekend in the combined space of the Sports Rock Cafe, Vegas on the Strip and Pharoah’s nightclubs in the Strip District (real bathrooms this year!). That meant that I had attended all five Dirty Balls “and counting”…

They were, from the start, a hit, from the first at an empty city apartment space, where the last-minute crowd overwhelmed the small food pickings. What made it such a success? Well, Attack managed to push all the right buttons. Just the very thought, a Dirty Ball, brings out the marginal badness that the usually conservative Pittsburghers harbor. It was seductive, from the dirty martinis to the dirty secrets, with a high fun factor.

Gradually the audiences have grown from the original 300 or so to more than 1000 this year. The audience is half the show, from teasing bustiers to full-fledged drag. But the Attackers themselves go all out to give attendees their money’s worth, so that it’s not only than a ball, but more like a site-specific performance. The deejays are always terrific and the drinks are included in the price of admission. Although the food always played second fiddle, although there were some downright tasty options this year.

For the VIPs, Richard Parsakian decorated a room with plush red and zebra-striped fabrics, along with deliciously naughty accoutrements. Dancers undulated in nooks and crannies there and in the other spaces, where I loved a display of stacked chairs.

Then there are the rolling showcases, 15 in all in honor of Attack’s birthday. Because the venue was separated into three rooms, the sometimes overlapping schedule kept the pace moving. So Michele de la Reza and company had to move easily from meet-and-greet to move-and-groove.

The company is flirting with nudity this season, partly because of its new home at Pittsburgh Opera in the Strip District and, of course, the idea of a birthday suit. Liz Chang came closest with a softly-lit solo. There were sexy duos, too, most notably between Peter Kope and Dane Toney , with some lotion andand a stripper pole and a menage a trois, deftly handled. Although hampered by some acoustical problems that muffled his transcendent talents, cellist Dave Eggar poured his talents into a rocking set, ably accompanied by percussionist Charlie Palmer.

The finale was spot on — “Dirty Dancing,” of course, with the women channeling their inner Baby and most of the women in the audience singing right along. Dirty never goes out of style.

On Stage: Attack-ing Andy

February 27, 2010

A sizeable crowd convened for the final performance of Attack Theatre’s “Assemble This” at the Andy Warhol Museum Thursday night. They were no doubt ready to grab 15 seconds of fame (as opposed to Andy’s 15 minutes) by engaging in the collective repartee that comes with this format.

There were more than 70 (it’s hard to count given the unorthodox mobility of the audience) in the Warhol lobby when emcee Gary Pletsch called their attention to Attack’s Blank Canvas, performed below some of Andy’s shoes and with an extra “Pop” of energy.

But then he asked them to do a quarter turn and face Andy’s iconic yellow self portrait (1986 ) that greets visitors when they enter his house. Hm-m-m. This posed a new problem because Warhol’s art is so direct and familiar. The audience would have to go behind the usual to the unusual, which seemed a harder task than with some of the abstract renderings that they found in some of the previous galleries.

Well “Andy” generated responses like “narcissism” and yes, “Steeler colors,” “intense, gaunt stare,” “jowly” and “volcanic” (referring to his plumed hairdo). Dane Toney became a “bewildered lost soul in this world” to cellist Dave Eggar’s enticing pizzicato. One particularly successful improv resulted from “artificial top and solid base,” involving Michele de la Reza and Peter Kope in sexually inviting interplay.

Did I hear a repeat of “Swan Lake” from the usually ever-imaginative Eggar? I thought that was against the rules to duplicate previous tunes. No matter. I don’t know how these performers kept everything straight.

The ensemble also made the most of “dark mouth,” as you can imagine. That encompassed biting ass and ear and sundry other parts of the anatomy. Then onward to the fourth floor, where the resourceful Eggar played a terrific brand of elevator music for the lucky passengers.

There the audience was confronted with four of Andy’s Campbell’s soup cans — just for the record, Beef with Vegetable and Barley, Onion made with Beef Stock, Green Pea and Pepper Pot. The audience found them “redundant” and “repetitive” and “hard outside and soft inside.” One viewer called it “personal.” His name was Michael Campbell — honest.

As usual, Eggar and percussionist Charlie Palmer had control over this section. It produced “repetitive childhood memories with an Americana twist” for Ashley Williams and Kope, who had an instant hair fetish. We also got “competitive and nurturing inside a hard container,” difficult to pull off, and an overlay of “sloshy.” Did I catch a “Nut”-ty “Waltz of the Flowers” from Eggar?

Descending to the second floor, Attack trumpeted Keith Haring’s “Untitled Element,” a large white elephant covered with the black outlines of Haring’s symbolic Radiant Babies. There were red accents in the tusks and platform. Okay, forgive me. Being a newsperson, I immediately thought, “What’s black and white and read all over?”

The elephant produced “sunburned, ” both a “starving” and “pregnant” elephant” and “people sucking life out of the elephant.” Attack chose a “puzzle” motif, which was self-explanatory and enterprising with interlocking dancers. Then there was “a surprising, emerging point.” That became a scenario with Kope playing with Eggar on cello. I had heard of four-handed piano playing, but never four-handed cello! Palmer was encouraged to play “inside” his drum box, while the others supported and followed him around the gallery.

Back down on the main floor, but in the theater, Attack’s final premiere unfolded, particularly thoughtful and intimate, as if it was about the process. I’ll still have more to say on Attack-ing next week.


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