On Stage: A Ballet Trifecta

November 8, 2015

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre just concluded its opening performance series in grand style with Balanchine, Forsythe and Kylian. Read about it at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

This was as perfectly balanced a repertory program as PBT has ever presented. Something to note — while the audiences were smaller than the more marketable full-length ballets like Swan Lake, they were more enthusiastic, responding to the masterful choreography. So Pittsburgh dance fans know something good when they see it and, with similar programs, I believe Pittsburgh audiences will warm up to the concept of repertory, with a variety that will undoubtably appeal, at some point, to virtually everyone.

George Balanchine knew that, given his famous quote of having an appetizer, an entree and dessert on the program and he understood the concept of a dance “dessert” better than anyone, whipping up a batch of terrific finales like Western Symphony, Stars and Stripes and the Gershwin-inspired Who Cares?. Gradually audiences (and dancers) will graduate to the more dramatic, full-company likes of his Symphony in Three Movements and Symphony in C.

From this program, it seems, too, that Pittsburgh responds to the physicality of the dance — the array of leaps in Sinfonietta, the breathless slicing kicks of In the Middle, the seemingly unlimited dance landscape of Western Symphony.

Behind the scenes, and speaking of breath, corps member Caitlin Peabody, as fiery in Middle as her hair, said that there was a part in this deceptively difficult  ballet where she literally felt that she couldn’t catch her breath. As it turned out, choreographer Forsythe sent a message to “breathe.” And repetiteur Agnes Noltenius, one of the three top-notch artists who set the trio of ballets, reminded the dancers at the dress rehearsal. It worked, resulting in a satisfying breadth of movement as well as a breathable flow of movement, confident and articulate, something that is not always present with this company.

Once again, repetiteurs have transformed PBT, the last one being Shelly Washington in the Twyla Tharp program of Nine Sinatra Songs and In the Upper Room in 2013. And it would be hard to improve on this program. If anything, there could have been a newer work, maybe a commission or a ballet conceived within the past five years. Newer works build a company’s reputation — it’s more difficult to measure up to the international standard seen on YouTube and assorted films created in the classical tradition.

As a bonus, photographer Martha Rial had a free time slot and captured some of the memorable movements of Sinfonietta with her lens. If anyone would like a copy, contact her at martha@martharial.com.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's Yoshiaki Nakano and Hannah Carter perform Sinfonietta. Photo: Martha Rial©

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s Yoshiaki Nakano and Hannah Carter perform Sinfonietta. Photo: Martha Rial©

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's Luca Sbrizzi and Jessica McCann perform Sinfonietta. Photo: Martha Rial©

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s Luca Sbrizzi and Jessica McCann perform Sinfonietta. Photo: Martha Rial©

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's Jessica McCann and Joanna Schmidt perform Sinfonietta. Photo: Martha Rial©

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s Jessica McCann and Joanna Schmidt perform Sinfonietta. Photo: Martha Rial©

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's Corey Bourbonniere, Alexandre Silve and Gabrielle Thrulow perform Sinfonietta. Photo: Martha Rial©

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s Corey Bourbonniere, Alexandre Silve and Gabrielle Thrulow perform Sinfonietta. Photo: Martha Rial©

The final, highly emotional image of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's production of Sinfonietta. Photo: Martha Rial©

The final, highly emotional image of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s production of Sinfonietta. Photo: Martha Rial

Dance Beat: Dance Films, Twyla, Dance Teachers

October 27, 2015

DANCE ON FILM. We know that the Bolshoi and Royal ballet companies have been putting out live performances aimed at mass market filmgoers for several years now. Click on Bolshoi.  Click on Royal. But it appears that there is another facet, Lincoln Center at the Movies, that has joined in the fun and, at least for the near future, will present Ballet Hispanico (CARMEN.maquia and Club Havana), New York City Ballet’s The Nutcracker (having missed San Francisco Ballet and Alvin Ailey). We all know that dance looks best  in three dimensional live performances. But this is a great opportunity — at last — to see some of America’s best, a treat in itself. As a bonus, Kelly Ripa and Michael Strahan will be hosting. Click on Lincoln Center. Many thanks to the local Cinemark Theaters, particularly Robinson, Monroeville and Pittsburgh Mills, for presenting dance. But it has a better chance of continuing in the future if there is a bigger turnout.

THARP NICK AND EVATWYLA THARP. Although it’s a shame that Pittsburgh is not participating in her 50th Anniversary Tour, she’s ba-a-ack, and bringing former Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre dancers Eva Trapp and Nicholas Coppula with her. You can catch them at Kennedy Center in Washington D.C, Nov. 9-15 and in New York City Nov. 16-22. Click on Twyla for more details and check out a couple of Trapp/Coppula snippets on the Kennedy Center website. Twyla also has a knack for writing and has been keeping a journal with the New York Times. Eva and Nick have been featured in photos. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/31/arts/dance/monsters-unleashed.html?emc=edit_tnt_20150831&nlid=59926186&tntemail0=y&_r=0

THANK A DANCE TEACHER DAY! Probably if you’re reading this blog, you know a dance teacher or two. Local veteran Susan Gillis Kruman reminded me and I’m reminding you to mark your calendar for Dec. 1, when you can officially send them a thanks. Click on National Dance Education Organization.

Dance Beat: Loti Falk Gaffney

October 20, 2015

Maybe they knew something. Above is the tribute that Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre assembled in honor of board founder Loti Falk Gaffney at the 45th Anniversary Gala last April at the Benedum Center. It was a wonderful occasion, with board members fully committed to send PBT to the next level. Her granddaughter accepted on behalf of Loti, who was too frail to travel from her home on East 66th Street in New York City.

She died there on Oct. 13 at the age of 94, surrounded by family and caretakers.

But she left behind an arts legacy that still resonates here in Pittsburgh. I watched her struggle to get PBT on its feet during the early years. And I talked with her prior to the company’s 35th anniversary for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, where she spoke of those difficult, yet exhilarating  times. You can read about it here.

Film: Bolshoi Ballet Series

October 9, 2015

The Bolshoi Ballet is full of drama, seen onstage in its performances and offstage in the acid thrown in the face of artistic director Sergei Filin, almost blinding him (yes, he’s still there). There is more, though, to be seen in the current Bolshoi Ballet in Cinema series. So it’s Giselle, but the leads are ballerina superstar Svetlana Zakharova and, hold on, Sergei Polunin, the current “bad boy of ballet.” (Trained at The Royal Ballet, taken into the company, fast-tracked to principal status, surprisingly dropped out, much like GOP House speaker John Boehner and speaker-to-be Kevin McCarthy.) But here he is, live and on film Sunday, Oct. 11 at Cinemark Robinson Township, Monroeville Mall 12 and Cinemark 17 Pittsburgh Mills at 12:55 p.m.(click on Bolshoi). He is not listed on the company’s website, however (come to your own conclusions). Here is also the original on Vimeo (check others on YouTube). While the solo is debatable, the style is not. The tattoos are something else.

On Stage: The Tale of Two Streetcars

September 7, 2015
Eve Mutso as Blanche. Photo: Andy Ross

Eve Mutso as Blanche. Photo: Andy Ross

With its unbridled passions and slow descent into madness, all set against the gradual decay of the Deep South, Tennesse Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire could be adapted into The Great American Ballet. As it turned out, two European companies, Hamburg Ballet and Scottish Ballet, have led the way, although, as it turns out, a pair ex-pat Americans, Hamburg’s artistic director John Neumeier and Scottish director Nancy Meckler, had a profound impact on their respective productions.

Of all the cities in world, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania was the only one to have seen them both.

The productions came at varying points in their careers, however, with Neumeier in one of his first full-length ballets (1983) and Meckler commissioned by the Scottish Ballet towards the end of a long and distinguished theatrical career (2012).

Erik Cavallari (Stanley) and Sophie Laplane (Stella). Photo: Andrew Ross

Erik Cavallari (Stanley) and Sophie Laplane (Stella). Photo: Andrew Ross

Not surprisingly, Neumeier created a sumptuous, more traditional ballet dripping with projections, an extended stage and atmospheric lighting that worked in the expanse of the 2800-seat Benedum Center.  Meckler went for an edgy contemporary look, packing the stage with crates that became a part of the choreography as the dancers constructed the various scenes in the ballet and acted as a Greek chorus. A bare bulb served as a centerpiece, the symbol of Blanche Dubois’ fading hopes and dreams.

The musical scores couldn’t have been further apart. Neumeier tapped Visions Fugitives by Sergei Prokofiev and, for the second act, the jarringly acute Alfred Schnittke, which carried the drama to excruciating heights for some. But Meckler chose both original music and a musical cyclorama of the age, familiar in a way, which perhaps made the Scottish Ballet production more dynamic and accessible. That production was placed on the smaller Byham Theater stage, which could have added to the intensity by compressing it, throwing the emotional intimacy into the audience with unabashed accuracy.

In the end, however, these were told from a masculine and feminine angle, giving them a different weight and perspective. Neumeier’s Blanche was, as I noted, a “wounded butterfly” from the start, with Stanley the manimal as expected. Meckler’s Blanche was drinking in the foreign world around her, but still retaining a certain dignity as she withdrew. Her Stella developed from a young sister to a woman comfortable in her own sensuality. With choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa on the Scottish artistic team, the women had more substance and complexity in their stage presence, particularly in the duets where their roles were heightened.

Blanche's (Eve Mutso) world is falling apart. Photo: Andy Ross

Blanche’s (Eve Mutso) world is falling apart. Photo: Andy Ross

Both productions had their moments of ecstasy. Neumeier was to be lauded for his coordination of choreography, costumes and scenery as a young artist. However, it was the Scottish Ballet that truly captured the epic relationship between Blanche, Stella and Stanley, for a ballet that gave Tennessee Williams’ classic a new relevance more than 60 years after its debut.

It also made a strong case to incorporate more women in ballet.





Dance Beat: Bill Shannon, Starz. Flesh and Bone, Bolshoi

June 13, 2015

3RIVERS NEGOTIATION. There was a satisfying conclusion to the Bill Shannon/3Rivers/CREATE2015/Wyndham Grand issue. (See yesterday’s post). Bill was able to complete his contract that evening at 6 p.m. during the cocktail party for CREATE, which looked to be a hit. He pushed his shopping cart, with minimally squeaky wheels, across the social area. Then he donned his “mask” for a walk-through, with considerable interest from attendees. Thank you, Veronica Corpuz, director of the Dollar Bank Three Rivers Arts Festival!

flesh-bone-artFLESH AND BONE. For those of you who have Starz, there will be a new reality show this fall based on a balled company. Titled Flesh and Bone, it will feature honest-to-goodness ballet dancers. Sarah Hayes, former American Ballet Theatre soloist who did many of the technical shots in Natalie Portman’s Black Swan and current member of Semperoper Ballet in Germany, has won the leading role. Also in the cast are former ABT principal dancer Irina Dvoravendo and soloist Sasha Radetsky, plus Ballet Arizona’s Raychel Diane Weiner to lend reality to the show’s ballet world. As if that weren’t enough, former ABT principal and current artistic director of the New Zealand Ballet Ethan Stiefel (Center Stage) will serve as consultant and choreographer. Moira Walley-Beckett, writer on Breaking Bad, will head a production team including  executive producers Lawrence Bender (Inglorious Basterds, Good Will Hunting), Kevin Brown (Rosewell), John Melfi (Sex and the city, House of Cards). Bender and Walley-Beckett are former dancers and Brown’s family served as a basis for the Oscar-nominated feature The Turning Point. Although Bunheads and Breaking Pointe were juicy dance dramas, Flesh and Bone,  has the potential to be a truly adult, perhaps award-winning ballet drama. Stay tuned.

BOLSHOI NEWS. The Bolshoi Ballet is set for a new season to be shown in movie theaters, although the Pittsburgh area audiences have been rather sparse. Hopefully that will change. On tap for 2015-16 are Giselle (Oct. 11), George Balanchine’s Jewels, featuring prodigy Olga Smirnova in Diamonds (Nov. 15), John Neumeier’s The Lady of the Camellias (Dec. 6), The Nutcracker (Dec. 20), Jean-Christophe Maillot’s The Taming of the Shrew (Jan. 24), Spartacus (Mar. 13) and b(Apr. 10). Dates listed are opening nights, but may vary. There is also sad news to report. Maya Plisetskaya, one of the all-time stars of the Bolshoi and a famous Kitri in Don Quixote, passed away. Read about her history and enjoy her perform some of her greatest successes.

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.


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