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: OR, and Uproar

February 27, 2015
Elisa-Marie Alaio and Darren Michael MacArthur in "Uproar."

Elisa-Marie Alaio and Darren Michael MacArthur in “Uproar.”

It was a concept I haven’t come across before, to present an original play alternating with a dance program, both differing visions of the same subject matter. But off the Wall productions, a postage stamp of a company in Carnegie with big visions, did just that.

Intrigued as I was, I was only able to make my way, finally, at the end of run. And why shouldn’t I be interested? Both centered around a strong-willed female writer and the creative process. Needless to say, I was taken in by it all.

OR,  came first. Written by Liz Duffy Adams, it was a play built on contrasts, whirling around the life and thoughts of English writer and playwright Aphra Behn, played by Erika Cuenca. She was backed by a wall of doors, which allowed for a fast-paced and quick-witted exchanges. There were just three actors, but Robin Abramson playing famed actress Nell Gwynne and others and Ethan Hova switching between King Charles II and William Scott, it seemed like more. Kudos to director John Shepard, who kept things moving seamlessly and to a talented veteran cast.

Off the Wall’s dance wing, fireWALL dance theater, alternated performances with the theater work, but with a different angle on that theme. Elisa-Marie Alaio and Cuenca (also assistant artistic director of off the WALL) joined together to construct a plot that concentrated more on the creative process of the writer. Called Uproar, the trappings bore a more than a passing resemblance (and rhyming rhythm) to OR, but the characters, danced by four dancers in multiple roles as well, were figments of Alaio’s imagination.

There was a significant improvement over fireWALL’s first performance, On the Rox, last spring. Uproar had more depth to the choreography, which was still athletic, but with more sophisticated phrasing. All in all, that growth whets the appetite for what’s ahead as the company matures.


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.

 


Dance Beat: Remembering Mary and Ron

February 25, 2015

Point Park University’s dance department was dealt a double blow with the recent deaths of Marion Petrov and Ron Tassone.

Marion PetrovMary, the wife of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre founder Nicolas Petrov, was remembered by Mackenzie Carpenter in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. I remember Mary performing as a soloist in the early days of PBT, particularly her Russian dance in Swan Lake, so full of a heartfelt nuance. I also took classes with her at Point Park after her retirement. They were challenging, built on a Russian technique, but so musical that 90 minutes seem to fly by. Most of all, though, I remembered her flashing dark eyes and quick wit. To be missed…

Jazz teacher Ron Tassone began the dance program at Point Park following a rich performing career that included seven Broadway shows, plus films and television. After he joined the staff at Point Park in 1974, he choreographed for the Civic Light Opera and numerous regional groups. Read about it in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Prolific and with a purported photographic memory, he seemed to be everywhere. On stage his students and performers captured his signature Broadway brio that fostered many professional dancers.

Always kind and generous, Ron most recently became a father figure to students and colleagues, a jazz treasure to everyone around him. To be missed…


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