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.
It was our second confrontation with Pittsburgh Dance Council snow. Not the kind you shovel, but the kind you watch in wonder. The first came during the autumn of 2008, when the Inbal Pinto, ironically from Israel, introduced us to Shaker, a piece inspired by a snow globe where dancers slid on Styrofoam beads. This past April brought Swedish choreographer Pontus Lidberg (perhaps more appropriate given his history with snow) and his own Snow, which used white socks and flooring to give that slippery impression. They were very different and so much more than snow, though.
In the final weekend of its 45th season, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre had plenty to celebrate…and did it in style!
GALA. It began Thursday with the dress rehearsal of La Bayadere. Guests arrived for the 45th Anniversary Season Finale Gala at the Benedum Center, where the lobby was filled with high top tables and champagne was being served. They could then head for the mezzanine, where the company was rehearsing the final act of Bayadere, the Kingdom of the Shades. (Great to see the choreographic patterns from that angle!) Then it was back to the lobby for more champagne and appetizers from the Duquesne Club.
During that time the stage was set with dining tables for over 200 guests. Following the salad, PBT honored artistic founder Nicolas Petrov with a film presentation projected on the house curtain, which was lowered for a few minutes. Curtain up for the entree! Then board founder Loti Falk Gaffney received the same treatment, accepted by her granddaughter. (Mrs. Falk Gaffney, who resides in New York City, is now too frail to travel.)
After PBT honored its past, it set up a bright future for dessert (literally). The board has committed to a $20 million dollar campaign that will grow the endowment at 50 percent, grow the Strip District-Lawrenceville campus with a new annex building and grow artistic priorities with the establishment of an Innovation Fund. Board leadership came from campaign co-chairs Carolyn and Bill Byham (helped achieve 67 percent of the goal during the silent phase and the new building will be named for them) and campaign co-chairs Dawn and Chris Fleischner (provided early significant leadership gifts to the new annex building). Richard E. Rauh endowed the Principal Dancers’ Fund and PBT Trustee James Hardie and his wife Frances endowed a repertory fund. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania contributed two Economic Growth Initiative Grants — a total of $2.25 million — since the plan’s inception in 2009.
As all of the above unfolds, it should enable PBT to keep up with a national trend, where the best of the ballet companies are receiving both financial and artistic support. It something that needed to be done. Both the Boston and Pennsylvania celebrated their 50th anniversaries with new construction and repertory. Here’s to Pittsburgh accomplishing the same.
BRUNCH. Costumier Janet Groom-Campbell (maker of those fabulous PBT tutus and so much more) and her husband David Campbell (CEO and president of West Penn Testing Group and antique car aficionado) hosted a tasty Saturday brunch at their home in Staunton Heights, with great vistas of the Allegheny River. Artistic directors Nicolas Petrov and Patricia Wilde were there enjoying the view, along with longtime supporters Melanie and Jim Crockard and former company members Susan Stone, Dr. Justin Glodowski, Roberto Munoz and Nola Nolen among others.
PERFORMANCE. Of course, the weekend was built around four performances of La Bayadere. Read about the first in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Corps member Hannah Carter made her debut as Nikiya, a role well-suited to her beautiful legato flow, at the Sunday matinee. She was paired with soloist Luca Sbrizzi, a pinpoint technician with an unbridled confidence, as Solor. There was nary a principal to be seen, except for a chameleon-like Amanda Cochran as a Temple Dancer (with an equally unrecognizable corps member Joseph Parr). Soloist Alexandra Silva (The Rajah) had an unparalleled authority, corps members Caitlin Peabody (Gamzatti) a conniving energy and Masahiro Haneji (The Golden Idol) a crisp vertical jump. And you would have to mention another corps member, Ruslan Mukhambetkaliyev, performing all performances as the unmistakably sinuous fakir, Magedaveya, Could there be promotions in the future?
THE AFTERPARTY. Following a weekend of exotic classical ballet, PBT dancers, alumnae and staff gathered at the company studios to mingle — former principals Kwang-Suk Choi and Steven Annegarn (now ballet master), former soloists Point Park staff member Susan Stowe and financial analyst Holly Baroway and corps members Charon Battles (Program Director for Dance, Local Arts and the Preserving Diverse Cultures Division of the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts!!) and Karen Strassom Gross added to the pool — and to celebrate the end of the 45th season with an enthusiasm that will carry into the future.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
Point Park University’s dance department was dealt a double blow with the recent deaths of Marion Petrov and Ron Tassone.
Mary, 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…
It was fun to delve into the history of American ballet while researching Lew Christensen’s Beauty and the Beast, set to have its local premiere at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre. (Click on Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.) After all he was considered the first American premiere danseur, was George Balanchine’s first Apollo and choreographed a memorable piece, Filling Station, based on a durable American theme. And he was an important building block in developing San Francisco Ballet, now the third largest company in the United States.
While nosing around the internet, I came upon another little piece of history. There are a number of PBT connections to San Francisco, including this little photographic nugget of Robert Vickrey with one of America’s greatest ballerinas, Cynthia Gregory, who went on to star at American Ballet Theatre. Yes, they are atop the Golden Gate Bridge! Bob said they took an elevator most of the way but had to climb a ladder to reach the top. Obviously the daring duo wasn’t afraid of heights (nor the photographer). Cynthia’s mother, however, was most angry that her daughter skipped school…