On Stage: Bringing “Paris” Home

June 5, 2017

Paris is (or should be) on everyone’s bucket list, whether it is the City of Light itself or the original movie starring Gene Kelly. Now An American in Paris can come calling to a city nearby. That is, in this case, Pittsburgh, where the Civic Light Opera was instrumental in bringing the Tony Award-winning production to life and is presenting it on its first national tour.

Original Cast members Leanne Cope and Robert Fairchild. Photo: Angela Sterling

So Paris recently made its way to the Benedum Center where it became one of the few productions to truly fill this 2,800-seat house, maybe even better than on Broadway. The star, of course, is the sweeping score, with so many George Gershwin favorites setting a blend of engagement and sophistication that inspires the rest of the production.

If you are looking for a remake of the Kelly movie, don’t bother. For director/choreographer Christopher Wheeldon et. al. have used the story of an American soldier with a talent for art and filled it with so much more.

Instead of Kelly’s Jerry waking up to the sounds of Paris, the audience finds a piano center stage, signaling the importance of the music. The musical Paris virtually billows from there, beginning with the Arc de Triomphe hovering in the background and a huge French flag that covers the stage.

The spectacle continues with the art, so Parisian. It virtually draws the various buildings with charcoal lines as Jerry might have, along with such references as Monet’s light on the Seine and abstract modern art on display. There is a huge production number, ala the Art Deco design of Radio City Music Hall, and the climactic ballet sequence has a touch of Mondrian, with primary colors in geometric shapes.

There is much to bedazzle the viewer. Wheeldon’s vision is epic, where everything seems to be choreographed, even Bob Crowley’s Tony Award-winning set pieces that create a gliding jigsaw puzzle across the stage and drift down and up like clouds. When it’s all over, the audience has been on its own effortless Parisian tour.

And if the set dances on its own, the talented performers, culled from major companies in New York, Chicago, Miami and such, take the ballet style and give it an elegance and purity of line that has never been seen in a Broadway musical up until now, an achievement in itself. (And, by the way, they can sing and act up a storm as well.)

If there is a glitch, it’s that Craig Lucas’ book, taut as it is, builds up the secondary characters. It’s  a great idea on paper, but something that diminishes the relationship between Lise (the vocally superb Sara Esty) and Jerry (National Ballet of Canada principal McGee Maddox). Composer Adam, Etai Benson with a superb dry wit, gets the theatrical emphasis at the start. And Henri, a booming Nick Spangler, gets the benefit of the Radio City Music Hall mega-production.

A word to the wise: with so much to absorb and the huge vision of it all, this delicious Parisian truffle probably would be best to see seated at a distance, the better to savor it. And just like you need time to appreciate Paris itself, maybe it would be good to return for an encore, because this production builds its own stairway to paradise.

Original cast. Photo: Matthew Murphy


Dance Beat: PBT, CLO Dance Seasons Plus, Jacob’s Pillow

March 30, 2015


PBT. As it nears the finish of its 45th season, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre seems to be casting its sights on the 50th. For the first time in recent memory it is presenting two mixed repertory nights. The first, with George Balanchine’s Western Symphony, William Forsythe’s in the middle somewhat elevated and Jiri Kylian’s Sinfonietta, opens the season (Benedum Center, Oct. 23-25) and has the potential to be the company’s best program…ever. There is no doubt that this is a great line-up. But more importantly, it has balance, perhaps beginning with the sweeping Sinfonietta, then with the meaty contemporary angles of the Forsythe and finishing with Balanchine’s version of the wild, wild West. The other (Byham Theater, Mar. 10-13) features what appears to be a popular and fairly recent (BalletMet premiere 2010) ballet, noted Canadian choreographer James Kudelka’s Man in Black, inspired by country legend Johnny Cash. It will be accompanied by another local premiere, Michael Smuin’s 1969 pas de deux, The Eternal Idol, and a return of the iconic Jardin aux Lilas (Lilac Garden) by Antony Tudor. The company will bring back Jorden Morris’ version of Peter Pan (Benedum, Feb. 12-14) and, of course, the annual Nutcracker (Benedum, Dec. 4-27). The season will then conclude with the company premiere of Le Corsaire (Benedum, Apr. 15-17), one of those epic ballet warhorses about a pirate who seeks to liberate the woman he loves from kidnappers. The orchestra will accompany the opening program and Le Corsaire. For more information, click on PBT.

CLO. Not falling into the season category (but it will in the future) is the exciting news about the new production of An American in Paris, choreographed by balletic superstar choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, who is also making his directorial debut. It got rave reviews in Paris for this reimagining of the classic Gene Kelly film and set to open on Broadway . The cast is to-die-for, led by New York City Ballet principal dancer Robert Fairchilds  and The Royal Ballet’s Leanne Cope, certain to be a dead ringer for Leslie Caron onstage. Check it out at American.

PITTSBURGH ON BROADWAY. Dance aficionados will want to catch Mathilda the Musical, with choreography and movement by Peter Darling, whose other credits include Billie Elliot: The Musical. The Sam Mende/Rob Marshall version of Cabaret returns to Pittsburgh via the 2015-16 Broadway across America season direct from Broadway and The Wizard of Oz gets a bit of a facelift from Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber with some new songs (choreographer is Brit Arlene Phillips). For those who are musical-ly driven, Beautiful — The Carole King Musical will be of interest plus some familiar favorites like Jersey Boys, The Sound of Music and Blue Man Group. For more information, click on Broadway.

JACOB’S PILLOW. Well, well, well. Pittsburgh beat the Pillow to the punch on a couple of appearances taking place on its 2015 season, including Three Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host  (the Ira Glass/Monica Bill Barnes collaboration presented by Pittsburgh Dance Council in February), Daniel Ulbricht & Stars of American Ballet (independently presented at the Byham Theater and Cuba’s Malpaso (presented by Kelly Strayhorn Theater with two North American premieres). Of course, Alonzo King LINES Company and Martha Graham Dance Company have touched base here along the way as well. (In a real departure, there will be only one Graham work on the program and a premiere by Mats Ek to celebrate the group’s 90th anniversary.) Keigwin + Company open the season and will include tap sensation Michelle Dorrance and L.A. Project, founded by Benjamin Millepied. Click on Pillow.



On Stage: Which “Cinderella?”

April 24, 2013

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It’s amazing how we have managed to Disney-fy very dark and scary European fairy tales, which have been tapped for glittering full-length ballets: The Nutcracker, The Sleeping Beauty, but most of all, Cinderella. Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre brought back Septime Webre’s version, a bit of a patchwork quilt on its own with references to other tales. There was no doubt it was designed to appeal to families despite the sometimes jarring, darkly haunting, yet  beautiful score by Prokofiev. Read the review in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

While Septime Webre’s production was child-like and pastel, more recent versions have a contemporary adult perspective. Jean-Christophe Maillot put his Cinderella in bare feet and gave the final pas de deux to the fairy godmother, who was actually Cinderella’s mother, and Cinderella’s father.

Christopher Wheeldon’s co-production for Dutch National Ballet and San Francisco Ballet is receiving rave reviews, calling it the best ever.

Alexei Ratmansky is scheduled to do a new version for the Australian Ballet. It will be set in the 1930’s, like one of his first ballets for the Bolshoi. In an odd twist, he will work with Jérôme Kaplan, who did the costumes for Maillot’s production.  In the meantime, here’s a clip of Ratmansky’s adagio from his original Cinderella, performed by Diana Vishneva and Andrey Merkuriev at a dance competition in Russia.

On Stage: He-e-ere’s “Alice!”

January 22, 2013
Jillian Vanstone in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Photo: Cylia von Tiedemann

Jillian Vanstone in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Photo: Cylia von Tiedemann

WASHINGTON D.C. — “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” is a quintessentially British tale, whimsically based on the Victorian world around author Lewis Carroll. But mostly American audiences at Kennedy Center found a marvelously updated, but still quintessentially British ballet, by choreographer Christopher Wheeldon unfold at a breakneck pace this past weekend.

It was a rarity — an enthralling new full-length ballet — and perhaps the first true action/adventure ballet to hit the stage. There was a lot to swallow, particularly for American audiences not quite as familiar with the story, despite the familiar title.

Mr. Wheeldon has admittedly been enamored with the story since childhood, so he was well aware of the whimsical wordplay and oddball mystery. So he was the perfect choice to take on the challenges of an evening-length production about “Alice,” a co-production of The Royal Ballet and the company that performed it at Kennedy Center, The National Ballet of Canada.

Jillian Vanstone and Aleksandar Antonijevic in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Photo: Cylia von Tiedemann

Jillian Vanstone and Aleksandar Antonijevic in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Photo: Cylia von Tiedemann

Along with the help of author Nicholas Wright on a wickedly strong scenario, Mr. Wheeldon opted to include the most recognizable elements of the story — The Queen of Hearts, The Mad Hatter, The Caterpillar and The Duchess among a virtually flawless Canadian cast — filtered, not through the expected idea of drug hallucinogens, but an equally fantastical dream-like state. (There is another twist, but you’ll have to see for yourself.)

So this production was extremely family-friendly. Novice ballet goers, both young and old, will be particularly captivated by Bob Crowley’s designs, including a Lewis Carroll photographer who, all of a sudden, sprouted a tail and gradually transformed into the White Rabbit, Alice’s plummet down a giant jelly mold (instead of the rabbit hole), real and animated integration in The Pool of Tears sequence, the puppetry that allowed the Cheshire Cat to appear and disappear…and so much more.

It was a jaw-dropping journey for all.

Jillian Vanston and Aleksandar Antonijevic in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Photo: Cylia von Tiedemann

Jillian Vanston and Aleksandar Antonijevic in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Photo: Cylia von Tiedemann

Veteran ballet goers will enjoy The Queen of Hearts (Greta Hodgkinson) sneering take on the Rose Adagio (of course) from “Sleeping Beauty,” here with four very reluctant attendants instead of ardent suitors. Perhaps inspired by British musical hall traditions (with a dash of Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo), it went one step further, becoming a woman imitating a man who is imitating a woman…hilarious.

As for the choreography, it lay mostly in the classical vein. But with Mr. Wheeldon’s superb musical sensibility, the flower garden waltz, so voluptuous, spilled over into the audience as women danced down the aisles and petals floated from the ceiling. And Alice (a lovely Jillian Vanstone) and Jack/The Knave of Hearts (an underused Naoya Ebe) had an appealing duet. Speaking of the music, Joby Talbot had the compositional skills to provide an atmospheric, snarky, but mostly magical score that suited every delectable twist and turn.

It all came to a head in a huge finale, with plenty of action that escalated as the house-of-cards courtroom came tumbling down.

Greta Hodgkinson and Jillian Vanstone in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Photo: Cylia von Tiedemann

Greta Hodgkinson and Jillian Vanstone in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Photo: Cylia von Tiedemann

Yes, this “Alice” had a bit of everything, my dears. There were snippets of Victoriana — with some original John Tenniel drawings and a floral design with cherubs during the waltz. But then there was a contemporary overlay — a Downton Abbey-setting setting at the onset, a bit of Sweeney Todd in The Duchess’ sausage scene and a little Sgt. Pepper via the psychedelia and the White Rabbit, who wore a pair of colored John Lennon glasses.

And there was tap dancing to boot. Robert Stephen (The Mad Hatter) got the biggest ovation of the evening for his snazzy rhythms.

Occasionally this “Alice” went daringly over the top, becoming a mixmaster of images. But then, what dream isn’t? With so much going on, it only made me curiouser and curiouser to see it again.

Dance Beat: Jacob’s Pillow, PBT, PearlArts, Ballet in Cinema

December 15, 2012

Wendy Whelan

PITTSBURGH AT THE PILLOW. Mariclare Hulbert is such a tease. It appears that she’ll be giving us the Jacob’s Pillow 2013 season in bits and pieces. A rejuvenated Dance Theatre of Harlem will make its appearance there in Becket, MA June 19-23 with a program that will include George Balanchine’s Agon, Alvin Ailey’s The Lark Ascending and John Alleyne’s Far But Close By. But my thinking is that folks around here will be more interested in New York City Ballet’s iconic veteran ballerina Wendy Whelan and her Restless Creature program August 14-18. The program will commission young choreographers Joshua Beamish, Brian Brooks, Alejandro Cerrudo and — surprise! — Pittsburgh native Kyle Abraham, each of whom will perform a duet with her. It will be an intoxicating pairing as the ballerina takes on Kyle’s deeply-entrenched hip hop lyricism.

A high-flying Luca Sbrizzi

JUMPING FOR JOY. Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre is reaching out to embrace diversity in its audiences. Not only did the company introduce braille and large-print programs this year, but it piloted a new Audio Description Program at the Dec. 14 performance. Not only did patrons listen to live verbal descriptions during the presentation, but they attended a pre=performance “Touch Tour” in the Benedum Center South Lounge. There attendees could touch costume samples like the Sugarplum Fairy tutu’s stiff netting and intricate embellishment, a textured tactile map of the the stage set layout and signature poses from the choreography, such as the carriage of the hands in the Snow Scene. Volunteers attended a training workshop at the PBT Studios, led by expert dance describer Ermyn King of the Washington, D.C. area. and covering best practice and dance description fundamentals, including Laban Movement Analysis. PBT Education Director Alyssa Herzog Melby, who audio described the production, said that PBT joins “well-established audio description programs for opera and theater,” but is the first to do so for dance.


PEARLARTS2. Staycee and Herman Pearl offered the second installation of their Salon  Series 101 in preparation for a world premiere in February. Called Phrase for Phrase, it attracted an imaginative and smart group of arts aficionados who opened some new doors for dance discussion. Definitely a contemporary take on the word “salon.” Love it.

MORE LIVE BALLET ON FILM. That’s not an oxymoron. Kudos for The Oaks Theater, which posted the next series of Emerging Pictures’ Ballet in Cinema for 2013, where there are several interesting developments to be seen, including a couple of forays into contemporary ballet. Sergei Polunin, an immensely talented Russian and currently the Bad Boy of Ballet, left The Royal Ballet, but curious fans can see him in an encore presentation of “Sleeping Beauty” in January. They can also see a new production with international superstar Natalia Osipova in La Scala’s “Notre Dame De Paris,” the first contemporary ballet, this one by Roland Petit (1965). Also of note are “La Bayadere,” always worthy when the Russians perform it, and The Royal Ballet’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” a big 2011 hit choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon and the second fresh contemporary production, albeit in a classical mode. Complete schedule: The Royal Ballet’s “Sleeping Beauty” Jan. 13 and 15; Bolshoi Ballet’s “La Bayadere” Feb. 17 and 19; La Scala’s “Notre Dame De Paris” Mar. 10 and 12; The Royal Ballet’s “La Fille Mal Gardee” Apr. 7 and 9; The Royal Ballet’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” May 5 and 7; The Royal Ballet’s “Giselle” May 19 and 21. Mark your calendars!

On Stage: The Chicago (Joffrey) Cleveland (Orchestra) Connection

August 27, 2011

The Blossom Music Center is a great venue and within easy striking distance of Pittsburgh. Most of the time it is just that, a showplace for all kinds of music and primarily the Cleveland Orchcstra. But once a year the CO joins forces with Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet, which was a match made in heaven this year. Read about it in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.







On Stage: King of the World

January 15, 2010

These days dance aficionados are questioning, “Is it ballet or contemporary dance?” With true blue ballet choreographers at a premium — I’m referring to hot commodities like Alexei Ratmansky and Christopher Wheeldon, although neither might attain the stratospheric heights of George Balanchine — ballet companies are stretching their artistic range with an assortment of modern/contemporary choreographers.

Think Twyla Tharp (fast becoming a staple in ballet companies across America), Mark Morris (Rubenesque modern, although classical in music concept), Dwight Rhoden (a fixture at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre and resident choreographer at North Carolina Dance Theatre)…the list is seemingly endless.

Then there is Alonzo King, who is bringing his San Franciso-based company, Alonzo King’s Lines Ballet, to the August Wilson Center this weekend. He spent a number of weeks here during 1999 nurturing The Move, a short-lived company begun by Pittsburgh ballet members Andrew Blight and Terence Marling. But it wasn’t until 2005 that he unleashed his vision with a company performance at the Pittsburgh Dance Council.

Yes, his women perform mostly in pointe shoes and the style is undeniably a variation on the off-center exploration employed by Balanchine. His company begins with ballet barre. But he fudgesthe description on the company website, calling it “contemporary ballet.”

King wants to put it all to rest during a recent phone conversation. “Ballet is a misnomer,” he begins inPhoto by Marty Sohl his robust voice. “It’s an Italian word that means dance and is a moniker for what we term Western classical dance. Everything we do in the West, whether it’s hip hop, whether it’s jazz, whether it’s modern, has to do with the way the Western mind looks at the body front, side, back, above, below.”

But King also asserts that “you can’t get away from what we call classical ballet. It’s basis is not in Europe; it’s basis is in nature and primordial truths. The interpretations of different cultures produced different classical forms and all the great civilizations had that.”

He contends that Europe was in a deep cultural deficit when compared to older civilizations, noting that the Spanish language is full of Arabic terms and both algebra and arabesque are, at their root, Arabic.

Photo by Marty Sohl“People underestimate the science of geometry, which is ballet [or dance],” King goes on to explain. He compares the movements of India’s Kathak with Spanish flamenco, illustrating that the two distinct styles share a commonality in their footwork. In addition, their connection can easily be traced. He also laments that “no one has really done that trace for ballet. Its origins have to go back further than Catherine de Medici.”

But King goes even deeper by stating that everything in ballet can be found in nature (“pirouettes are whirlpools or eddies”). What is a tutu? “Saturn’s rings, the nimbus around a saint’s head, a hula skirt. It’s the honoring of the sacred circle — that’s the point.”

He calls himself a “truth-seeker,” a word that defines King and his global perspective in such locales as China, India and Morocco. His company will bring a contrasting program to Pittsburgh, beginningwith “Signs and Wonders,” a piece that King designed for the Dance Theatre of Harlem in 1995, which combines ballet with African music and storytelling, and “Dust and Light,” a 2008 work that falls at the other end of the King spectrum with music by Poulenc and Corelli.

Then it’s off to new horizons with Bejart Ballet Lausanne, Royal Swedish Ballet and Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo, with detours to work with award-winning authors Colum McCann and Howard Zinn.

It appears that all the world is indeed a King-sized stage.

For more information, visit Listings.

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