Dance Beat: An Exciting Dance Fall (Part 2)

September 26, 2018

Last time, the dance roster included what might be termed the major players, given budget and presence. But it is the small arts initiatives, driven by individual passion and imagination, that give Pittsburgh its richness, its true essence. Try to take in a performance during the coming year:


Bodiography. After a summer that took her to Israel’s Karmiel Festival, Maria Caruso is on a hyper-energetic track this fall. She and her company head for Butler Community College’s Succop Theater Sept. 29. Only a month or so later, they head for the Frick Museum and An Evening with Ballets Russes and Bodiography (Nov. 10), inspired by Isabelle de Borchgrave’s costumes, then head to the Byham Nov. 16-17 for La Roche College Presents Multiplicity, a collection of new works by company members and guest company, BCB Charlotte. After the holidays, the company introduces The Spring Gala (Byham, Mar. 1), a prelude before a European tour to the United Kingdom, Germany and France (Mar. 6-20). They return for an evening dedicated to Martha Graham, Horizons, with the Graham 2 company (Byham, Apr. 26-27). Click on Bodiography.

Corningworks. Beth Corning began her 10th anniversary season of The Glue Factory Project, for dancers over 40, with in the waiting room, a surreal and mystical dance theater piece about death. Come Mar.27-31 at the New Hazlett Theater, though, she turns to IN THE MIDST, “an immersive, sensory exploration, extravaganza.” Click on Glue.

fireWALL dance theater. With yet another premiere, Elisa-Marie Alaio will explore Past Lives, where “we experience many aspects of ourselves playing different roles throughout, reincarnating in different bodies or beings,” before taking her artistic wares to The Royal Family Theater in New York. Carnegie Stage, Nov. 7-9, 11. Wall.

Maree ReMalia. This gentle, yet meticulous choreographer will reveal the culmination of her latest collaboration, A Letter Compiled From All Letters, with multi-media artist Gigi Gatewood and performer Lillian Cho, along with a coterie of local dancers. (New Hazlett, June 14-15).

Jessie Factor.

Slippery Rock University. Another of our wonderful dance universities, SRU, begins with 60×60, 60 second dances to 60 musical compositions (Sept. 27, McKay Dance Studio, SRU). Next the students will tackle Bill T. Jones’ D-Man in the Waters (Part 1) and Jacques Heim’s Bench at the SRU Faculty and Guest Artist Concert (Oct. 21, The Succop Theater at Butler County Community College). The SRU Department of Dance Fall Concert will be a showcase of diverse works by faculty and emerging student choreographers (SRU, Swope Recital Hall), followed by the Winter Concert, with choreography by SRU dance majors, faculty and guest artists (Feb. 2 Succop Theater). Contact Melanie Martin, 724-738-2036.

Anna Thompson and Taylor Knight.

slowdanger. Our first real glimpse of Anna Thompson and Taylor Knight following their recent residency at the prestigious Springboard Danse Montreal this summer. See them at Oct. 6 at 937 Gallery Downtown (2nd floor above Bricolage). Click on slowdanger.

STAYCEE PEARL dance project. The name is enough to pique the interest: There’s a Pink Poodle in My Arcadia. It’s the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts Artist of the Year event. SPdp and Soy Sos collaborate with artist Atticus Adams (Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, Sept. 28). Next is the National Perfomance Network at the Kelly Strayhorn Theater (Dec. 14-15), with …on being…, which will help to broaden “the conversation about race and blackness.”  It’s a return to Octavia Butler, based on her final novel, Fledgling, during the Kelly Strayhorn’s  10th anniversary celebration (Apr. 12-13). And the company will venture into an impressive effort for Pearl PRESENTS — three days featuring both local and national artists like Sidra Bell Dance New York, slowdanger, Island Moving Company and Keerati Jinakunwhiphat (New Hazlett Theater, June 6-9). Click on Pearl.


Kelsey Bartman.


Texture Contemporary Ballet. Texture is ready to hit the ground running, with The Speed of Sound (New Hazlett, Sept. 28-30). Known for its prolific turnout, it’s the 11th installment of the WIP Choreography Project (Carnegie Stage, Nov. 10). Then head to more Uncharted waters to end the season (New Hazlett, Mar. 22-24). Click on Texture.




Christopher Williams

The Blanket. This group debuted last year with a bang, featuring works by Lucinda Childs. Now there is a mouthwatering follow-up with two companion pieces by New York choreographer, dancer, puppeteer and Bessie Award winner Christopher Williams, inspired by medieval tales, Ursula and the 11,000 Virgins and The Golden Legend. (New Hazlett, Oct. 26-28). Click on Blanket. 

Photo: Katie Ging

The Pillow Projects/Ellipses Condition. Whether one title or the other, there’s always plenty food for thought from Pearlann Porter and John Lambert. Catch The Sessions Upstairs, where musicians and dancers workshop ideas and reveal the creative process (Oct. 13), The Invisible Jazz Labs, where artists and scientist improvise together (Nov. 9) and the return of (A) Second Saturday (note the shift in title) where drummer Dave Throckmorton joins the Pillow gang for a night of revelry (Dec. 8). Click on Pillow.


Dance Beat: An Exciting Dance Fall (Part I)

September 25, 2018

The fall has a special place in dance. Not the season upon us, but the purposeful way of quickly changing levels and embracing the floor. However, Fall 2018 may truly become a singularly memorable time in Pittsburgh dance. Various organizations in the dance community have put together fascinating prospects or, in one instance, have gone above and beyond in fashioning a season.

That would be…

Point Park University. The raves are already in for this knockout dance season, worthy of any professional company. The Conservatory of Dance will properly christen the new PNC Theatre in the Pittsburgh Playhouse Downtown Dec. 7-16 with a stellar line-up that includes international choreographic stars like Nacho Duato and Aszure Barton, plus Ballet Met artistic director and former New York City Ballet soloist Edwaard Liang and Tyce Diorio, known from Do You Think You Can Dance. The season will conclude Apr. 18-21, 2019 with established names like Pittsburgh native Kyle Abraham and ballet superstar Christopher Wheeldon, plus Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre favorite Dwight Rhoden of Complexions and Uri Sands, former principal dancer at Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and now an artistic director of Minneapolis’ heralded TU Dance. The Contemporary Choreographers this year at the George Rowland White Performance Studio Oct. 11-Oct. 14 will include Christopher Huggins, Point Park professor Mark Burrell and rising talents Jae Man Too and Peter Chu. Home-grown talents take to the stage with plenty of new works from Faculty Dance Concert (GRWPS, Feb. 21-Feb. 24) and the Student Choreography Project I (GRWPS, Nov. 16-18) and Student Choreography Project II (GRWPS, Apr. 5-7). Tickets: Playhouse.

Yabin Wang Dance

Pittsburgh International Festival of Firsts. One of my favorite events, a time when the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust assembles international, national and regional premieres. In fact, some of the bigger cities around will follow the ‘Burgh’s lead. Joan Didion’s THE WHITE ALBUM goes on to be part of Brooklyn Academy of Music’s (BAM) Next Wave Festival. And Deborah Colker Dance (Brazil) will appear at Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. following its performance here. It will reveal Downtown Pittsburgh as it’s never been seen before. Explore the inner recesses of Trinity Cathedral in Quantum Theatre’s Chatterton or the Cirque Éloize Hotel (Montreal). Political satire permeates In the Tunnel (Israel) and patriotic passion infuses Cri Des Nago (Haiti). There are family-friendly events like Androcles and the Lion (Denmark) with hammocks instead of seats and the interactive Gab Squad (U.S.). Visit 5 Downtown galleries like Wood Street’s Nonotak or the geeky whimsy of Machine Culture at SPACE, all free. Also take in the mapping of the Benedum Center in Manifold with an original score or let lights wash over you in Beyond, near the Benedum. Pittsburgh should feel like the center of the artistic universe. Check it all out by clicking on PIFOF!

Deborah Colker Dance

Pittsburgh Dance Council. Deborah Colker Dance, so in demand right now (Byham Theater, Oct. 13), and Yabin Wang Dance are part of both the PIFOF and PDC series. Wang, considered China’s own superstar choreographer, will present the North American premiere of Moon Dance (Byham, Nov. 2). Notice the prominence of women choreographers, which will continue with lyric beauty of Jessica Lange Dance (Byham, Jan. 26) and red-hot Camille A. Brown & Dancers (August Wilson Center, Mar. 9-10). The sentimental favorite might be Paul Taylor Dance Company, though, a Pittsburgh native who went on to make his mark on modern dance and recently passed away (Byham, Feb. 23). And the ever popular Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo promises to end on a high note (Byham, Apr. 13). Click on Pittsburgh Dance Council.


Cynthia Oliver

Kelly Strayhorn Theater. KST celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, a real achievement for this vital community and visionary organization. It will unwind this signature season, supported by the prestigious Bloomberg Philanthropies, with resident company Phillippine-American Performing Arts in Halo-Halo (Sept. 22) and Cynthia Oliver’s evening-length dance theater work, Virago-Man Dem, which”navigates stereotypes, rumors and half-truths that surround black masculinities” (Sept. 28-29). Choreographer and dancer Trevor Miles joins with visual artist and VJ Julie Mallis for a FRESHWORKS RESIDENCY dealing with the opiod crisis Dec. 7 at KST’s Alloy Studios.  While hosting the Annual National Performance and Visual Arts Network Conference, KST will present Pittsburgh: Live on Stage (Dec. 14-15) with STAYCEE PEARL dance project, Bill Shannon, Angwenique Wingfield, Afro Yacqui Music Collective, slowdanger and Blak App M.A.D.U.S.A.  Particularly exciting, even in the face of all that came before, is the always thought-provoking  David Rousséve in the premiere of REALITY :: Halfway to Dawn (Feb. 1-2). Click on KST.

Mozart in Motion – Amanda Cochrane and Yoshiaki Nakano.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre. PBT opens on an elegant note with Mozart in Motion, featuring works by ballet masters George Balanchine and Jiri Kylian (Benedum, Oct. 26-28). It brings back a new Jorden Morris production of The Great Gatsby (Benedum, Feb. 8-17), which the company presented twice, the original 1987 production and, keeping the Peter Farmer’s scenery and costumes, again in 2008. Could the third time be a charm? And then it’s another encore, this one with Dance Theatre of Harlem at the August Wilson Center (Mar. 15-24). The companies elevate the partnership by performing together in Stanton Welch’s Orange. Of course there is the annual Nutcracker (Benedum, Nov. 30-Dec. 27) and a season-ending Sleeping Beauty (Benedum, May 10-12). Click on PBT.

Attack Theatre. Once again, the Attackers are on the move with a It begins with the art of making dance in Some Assembly Required (Associated Artists of Pittsburgh, Sept. 22 and Braddock Public Library, Sept. 23). Nothing is ever done the same way twice, including The Down and Dirty Dance Party at the Hall at Spirit (Nov. 2) underneath an immersive light installation by Ian Brill and pop-up performances throughout the night. Well, maybe In Defense of Gravity, which the company revisits Nov. 29-Dec. 1 at the Pittsburgh Opera. But then comes the New Hazlett Theater for the premiere of The Rube Goldberg Variations (Apr. 25-27). For more, click on Attack.

More coming…

Dance Beat: Paul and Arthur, Arthur and Paul

September 20, 2018

How sad that two dance giants chose to make their exit in such a quick succession!

Paul Taylor is one of two modern dance choreographers born in the Pittsburgh area (the other being Martha Graham). He told me that he lived here in early childhood, but now his birthplace is being listed as Wilkinsburg. Much has been written about him, but I was fortunate enough to speak with him on several occasions. One was especially amusing. Years ago I went into the Pittsburgh Dance Council to participate in a conference call. But there the connection was disrupted at least 6 or 7 times. Through it all Paul was sincerely amused and patient. And, of course, he still gave a wonderful interview. So when his company comes to Pittsburgh, once again for the Dance Council on Feb. 23 next year, we’ll be viewing the performance with a special embrace.

We’ve also been lucky to host the Dance Theatre of Harlem on numerous occasions, again through the wonderful efforts of PDC. Then the company established a connection with Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre in 2017 and will bring them back in March for a two-week encore. I was able to interview Arthur Mitchell at the Dance Theatre of Harlem and watch him direct a class. What a presence! What a force of nature! How he transformed ballet!

Put these upcoming performances on your must-see calendar. They will be even more meaningful to those who love dance.


Dance Beat: A New Space Downtown

September 18, 2018

Point Park University has done it right. It has finished a substantial expansion to its Downtown campus — the new Pittsburgh Playhouse, a theater complex just across from the Tower at PNC Plaza that will add to Pittsburgh’s already vibrant growth.

The costume shop.

A dress form in the window of the office.

Through the new Playhouse, PPU is embracing the future while it pays homage to the past. The new building features three facades from the buildings that it replaced. Sections of palladium windows from the Stock Exchange peek into the prop shop. The tops extend into the costume shop, while department heads share an office that once belonged to the president, separated by a rich wood partition. There are marble staircases to discover, stained glass ceilings and a quirky elevator to ponder, all of it making for an intriguing, yet seamless construction.

Stained glass ceilings.

Three theaters dominate the premises. The crown jewel is the PNC Theatre, seating 500 with golden curtain and seats and warm wooden tones that undoubtedly will impress visitors. I was likewise impressed by the sight lines and the fact that dancers will be visible from head to toe, even from the front row.

The Highmark Theatre is just across the lobby, which features the  box office and a bar. A black box theater that holds 200, the Highmark has flexible seating and a hangar door that connects with the lobby. Another heavy folding door opens the theater into the street, allowing for more flexibility.

The grand staircase.

The Rauh Theatre is the third, a black box with 99 seats in its flexible plan. It has mesh catwalks, allowing stagehands to hang the lighting. Using new technology, the mesh doesn’t interfere with the lighting design. It will also be the first to house a production, Cabaret, beginning Oct. 26.

During the course of the year the Playhouse will have a “soft” opening, so to speak. The Cabaret production will be followed by the Highmark (Coram Boy, Nov. 16, another relevant Tomé Cousin production), then the PNC Theater (Winter Dance, an all-star line-up on Dec. 7) to allow staff time to acquaint themselves with their new environment.

Transparency will be key in the new building. Presumably taking a cue from the windows of the George Rowland White Performance Center  that open onto the street and the world beyond, the scenery department will offer a similar experience for Pittsburgh pedestrians. But there will also be internal windows that allow visitors to view the theaters and studios when there are no performances in progress. The old box office in the Oakland facility felt cramped, but the new lobby/box office is spacious and also has its own window to the street.

View from the top of the stairs.

There is a cafe on the second floor. While the hours have yet to be decided, one of numerous details that still must be settled, it will eventually open onto its own patio. And the students/performers have a lounge, complete with wireless connections and televisions that enable them to keep track of the rehearsal process.

A real plus will be the addition of a sound stage, the only one Downtown, that extends off the indoor loading dock, big enough for a car.

But locals will have to hold their horses, so to speak, if they want to use the facilities. PPU already has an extremely busy schedule and the powers-that-be will have to see how this 90,000 square foot expansion will respond to its growing reputation.


On Stage: Summer at the CLO

September 11, 2018

By now, most readers know that CrossCurrents focuses on all things dance, especially when the local scene tapers off, as it did this summer.

However, Pittsburgh’s Civic Light Opera took up the slack, with a series of musicals that had plenty to offer in differing choreographic styles. In a thumbnail, there was:

“On Your Feet!” cast.


On Your Feet! A musical deserving of the exclamation point. Once again it was great to hear the surging Latin music with a heavy-duty rock beat pioneered by Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine and to delve into their back story. Who knew how they had to forge their own success? With bright colors so reminiscent of Miami beaches and Serge Trujillo’s equally vivacious choreography, audiences left the Benedum Center on a wave of rhythm.

“Titanic” cast.

Titanic. By comparison, this musical was a study in stillness. With the operatic underpinnings in the score, there was a rightful emphasis on vocal excellence in the cast, who delivered the score with great authority. Director David Bell choreographed the one folk dance, quite lovely and lively, but the stately presence of the stories of the doomed ship (FYI: different from the movie). Unfortunately the much-anticipated climax of it all — the sinking — didn’t live up to expectations.


Brigadoon. We may have Chautauqua Institution a couple of hours away, where the picturesque town blooms every summer like a colorful arts bouquet. But closer to home, Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera had Brigadoon, romantic fantasy of a village that comes to life once every hundred years.

Like the three-dimensional New York hamlet, the Pittsburgh musical proved to be the choreographic highlight of the season. So what follows is more than a thumbnail.  Local dance professionals turned out for opening night, including Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre principal Julia Erickson and her husband, former company member Aaron Ingley, former corps member Caitlin Peabody and director of marketing and communications Aimee DiAndrea.

Aimee turned out to be the reason for their attendance. Garen Scribner (Harry Beaton) was a classmate of hers at the North Carolina School of the Arts. He went on to become a soloist at San Francisco Ballet and a member of Nederlans Dans Theater.

The role of a spurned lover is generally regarded as the catalyst for much of the drama. It has been portrayed by some of the finest male dancers, including American Ballet Theatre’s Harold Laing (1954 movie with Gene Kelly), New York City Ballet principal Edward Villella (1963), Olympic ice skating champion with extensive ballet training John Curry (1980) and NYCB principal Robert Fairchild in the 2017 staging at Lincoln Center by choreographer Christopher Wheeldon. Scribner held his own in that illustrious company during the Pittsburgh production’s Sword Dance and the ensuing chase scene.

Brigadoon is a dance musical with original choreography — looking so Grahamesque these days — by the inimitable Agnes DeMille. The CLO’s Mark Esposito paid homage to her interpretation of Scottish Highland dances, marked by a proud carriage, beautiful footwork and sweeping patterns.

But he updated some of it in intriguingly sophisticated and contemporary ways, particularly the funeral dance where Maggie mourned her unrequited love for Harry. Erica Wong captured the gravity of the moment — solemnly walking around him, yet with a heavenly poetic beauty to the phrasing — one of the real highlights of the show.

Where the dances left off, Lerner and Loewe’s panoramic melodies took hold, played with a real finesse and clarity by the orchestra. Although the scenery was stilted, with urban stairs and flat, although beautiful projections of the Irish countryside, director Dontee Kiehn staged the production with a sure touch and gave the chase scene the drama that it deserves.

With a cast/village capable of hitting all the high notes and moving powerfully through the gloaming, this production had the magic the Brigadoon is capable of delivering.

“Millie” cast.

Thoroughly Modern Millie. Ah, the Charleston, that flapper dance from the ’20’s. Millie was over the top (primarily due to Pittsburgh musical legends Lenora Nemetz and Leslie Uggams), but laced with Alex Sanchez’ oh-so-clever musical numbers: typing tappers, a Nuttycracker Suite, a Nelson Eddy operetta binge and, of course, the title song. This production was like the Bee’s Knees, a tasty drink with an undeniable kick, a zingy summer treat and the perfect conclusion to the CLO season.

Leslie Uggams and Lenora Nemetz.

Dance Beat: KST, PBT, slowdanger

March 15, 2018

In the News. Yes, that’s been the case for the Kelly Strayhorn Theater. Two more deserved grants have come its way: The Pittsburgh Foundation will support the organizations Tenth Anniversary KST Presents programming, allowing for a year-long celebration of artists who challenge our perceptions, something that KST does so well. In addition, the Allegheny Regional Asset District has given KST $50,000 as a capital improvement grant to repair structural concerns in the over 100-year building. As executive director Janera Solomon puts it, “After a decade of living our mission of breaking down barriers, fostering inclusion and supporting diversity, we have discovered that there is an art to being unique, and we are extremely appreciative that some of the region’s foundations feel that we are distinct as well.” And speaking of janera, she has been named a 2018 Woman of Influence by the Pittsburgh Business Times. AND her organization will play host to the 2018 National Performance Visual Artists Network’s Annual Conference, a signal of KST’s increasing nation-wide importance.

Changes. Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre has announced promotions and exits, which will allow for more movement in the company than it has had in a long time. The big news is that 17-year principal dancer Julia Erickson, who could be considered the face of the company, will end her career in October following the season opener, where she will perform George Balanchine’s Divertimento No. 15, originally designed for Balanchine muse Suzanne Farrell. But soloist Alexandre Silva, who has been at PBT for 12 years and is considered a consummate actor and partner who will truly be missed, will also retire following the May performance. Newly-appointed soloists will be bounding phenom Masahiro Haneji, the long-awaited appointment of English stylist William Moore and the pert, detail-oriented JoAnna Schmidt. And corps dancers Olivia Kelly and Daniela Moya will also be leaving at season’s end, completing the group’s biggest changes in several years.

Fast Rising. Anna Thompson and Taylor Knight, also known as slowdanger, not only are Dance Magazine’s 2018 25 to Watch, but have been named emerging artists at Springboard Danse Montréal, a prestigious festival where they will spend three weeks choreographing and rubbing elbows with the likes of Ohad Naharin (Batsheva), Crystal Pite (Kidd Pivot), Maxine Doyle (Punchdrunk) and so much more.

On Stage: A New “Swan”

February 21, 2018

Amanda Cochrane as Odette. Photos: Rich Sofranko

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre debuted its new Peter Farmer Swan Lake this past weekend (click on Post-Gazette) and will continue next week with performances that will also feature Alexandra Kochis with Luca Sbrizzi and one of Julia Erickson’s final performances before she retires from the company. Interestingly, she is paired with Alexander Silva, who was scheduled to perform Siegfried in 2015, but succumbed to injury. He gets a second chance on Friday with Julia, certainly the sentimental performance to anticipate next week.




Marissa Grywalski and Danielle Downey

Amanda Cochrane (Odile) and Yoshiaki Nakano (Siegfried)




Dance Beat: Attack Theatre, Benedum Center

December 2, 2017

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre Gala. It’s called En Pointe, one of Pittsburgh’s top parties. This year’s theme at the Westin Hotel was West Side Story Suite, a salute to the upcoming Jerome Robbins triple bill later in the season. Gala goers saw excerpts from the real West Side Story Suite that will anchor the program, Scherzo and Somewhere. Before that, PBT principals offered duets, first Alexandra Kochis and Luca Sbrizzi in another Robbins’ piece, the lovely In the Night. (By the way, PBT has announced the third ballet on the May program, Fancy Free, about three soldiers on leave in New York that  later became a hit Broadway musical and a movie starring Gene Kelly.) Swan Lake was the other inspiration, featuring flowing lines from Hannah Carter and Alejandro Diaz in the White Swan Pas de Deux and the bravura elements of the Black Swan Pas de Deux from Amanda Cochrane and Yoshiaki Nakano.

Attack-ing Braddock. Attack Theater’s Some Assembly Required has been a true delight to watch over more than ten years. The company provides an interactive learning experience for new audiences and true insight into the improvisatory process for the many fans who follow them. After reviewing a performance at Contemporary Craft, I drove to Braddock, a historic steel mill city showing signs of regrowth along its vital Main Street, to see the company at the gallery, right next to the ‘s restaurant, with a view of the steel mill at work. The subject here was the material and cultural legacy depicted by artist Liz Ensz, most dynamically in sculpture that resembled strip mining. By the way, that was the last time we’ll see company member Anthony Williams for a while. He’s off to pursue his own projects in Europe, but will eventually swing back to the ‘Burgh.

Benedum Center. The venerable performing arts facility celebrated its 30th anniversary this fall, an achievement that was an important marker of the rise in Pittsburgh’s Cultural District out of the ashes of a red light district. During that time, it has played host to thousands of people, enhancing their lives with top-notch programming, and providing a venue to an ever-adventurous  group of local performing arts organizations. It was a group of performances that signaled its arrival and I was there for the world-renowned Pilobolus and a world premiere of Zoology with a score by Pittsburgh composer David Stock. Pittsburgh showed its support of dance here, a community that has continued to grow and prosper and something that I have been privileged to watch along the way. It is part of a quartet of theaters, three of them renovations (Heinz Hall and Byham Theater in addition, plus the contemporary Public Theater) that I think are the best in America. Thanks to the Cultural Trust!

On Stage: Kyle Comes Home

November 12, 2017

It was a real pleasure to see the magnificent Kyle Abraham and his dancers at the August Wilson Center, which was reviewed at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. But I have to underscore my last statement, that Pittsburgh should support him now, not years from now. He is a real arts ambassador for Pittsburgh, which has inspired much of his personal style and content. Perhaps the Pittsburgh dance community can join forces, filtered through the Heinz or Pittsburgh Foundation. Pittsburgh Dance Council, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, August Wilson Center, Point Park University, Kelly Strayhorn Theater can all offer performance, choreographic and grant opportunities, plus workshops and creative residencies. It’s a great collective opportunity for Pittsburgh, given our history with Martha Graham, Paul Taylor and August Wilson.

On Stage: Stringing Steps Together, Bit By Bit

October 19, 2017

Ethan Steinberg lifts Faith Kazmierczak in “Eye of the Beholder.”

Point Park University always opens its season with Student Choreography. Not only choreography by students, but lighting designers and stage managers as well. And the results are quite remarkable.

PPU used to pick the students who submitted the best proposals in their Dance Composition class, amounting to approximately eight works performed repeatedly on a weekend program. But within the past several years, they have made it mandatory for all composition students to participate, resulting in nearly 40 works divided among those four performances.

Jordan Jones

The students are paired with a mentor who teaches the class and oversees the artistic process. When this change first took place, the students demonstrated structure and technique in a mostly academic setting.

In other words, it was good, but it was hard to stand out.

This year there was a change. Again, almost all of the 38 pieces had merit. But now there was substance of concept, with nuance in execution and a real maturity unfolding before our eyes. Kudos to Jason McDole Kiesha Lalama, Mark Burrell, Judith Leifer-Benz and Jay Kirk for their efforts in guiding the young artists.

Diversity was key. This year there was a healthy representation of Latino-inspired works.  I would like to see Michael Ocampo develop Sonidos, Se Mueven Y Tocan, which had a fresh, scintillating combination of flamenco filtered through tap (!) and contemporary (!) dance. And the swirling red skirts in Angelica Luma’s Mujer de Maíz immediately filled the stage and the eyes.

Floyd McLean and Cecilia Benitez in “We the People.”

Perhaps the biggest push for individuality came from Jordan Jones, who left the title of  his piece blank, maybe following in the footsteps of Prince, who also refused to be defined for a period of time. Even though choreographers are not a part of the performance, he got around it with a video that took up the whole back wall, where his giant facial portraits  dominated. The music was driving, the dance hard-hitting commercial. We know where he is going, most likely L.A., but his larger-than-life vision and versatility should carry him far.

The students also took jazz and updated this traditional dance form. Jocelyn Burns’ Body Language cracked the whip with accents. And John DeNeff put Bob Fosse on a contemporary track in Eye of the Beholder, without losing the Fosse focus (and those jazz hands).

There were social issues. Jennifer Romano’s Impetus, which appeared to deal with abuse, this time, though, with petite Madison Scherrer determinedly controlling the much larger and limber frame of Tyler Kerbel. Emily Bordley’s More Than A Statistic made an unnamed crisis, perhaps opioid, the center of attention in a trio that made what is usually a newspaper item personal. Here two friends were split apart when one was drawn into the dark side and the remaining friend was left to deal with the consequences, as if the story would be continued…

Tyler Kerbel and Madison Scherrer in “Impetus.”

And there were wonderful surprises, like the great transition from French cabaret icon Edith Piaf to Impressionistic waves in Cassidy McDermott Smith’s No Regrets, Yet and the use of harnesses to float the dancers in Robert Clores’ Limited Civility. Laura Berne’s Tragedy plus Time reminded me of Paul Taylor’s Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rehearsal). Yes, rehearsals are rich territory to be mined (see also George Balanchine’s Serenade) and Berne added her own observations.

I see a benefit for dance at large in the future. Lynn Dally, head of the Jazz Tap Ensemble, once said that they needed a critical mass for tap to regain a real prominence. She got her wish with the likes of Gregory Hines and Savion Glover.

The same goes for choreography. With programs like this, it won’t be long before we have breakthrough talent that will carry it all to new heights.

Dance on…


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