On Stage: A Hip Hop Christmas

December 11, 2018

The dance field is getting more crowded around this time of year — call it a Holiday Rave. There’s the venerable Nutcracker at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, something that transcends it all. For musical theater lovers, though, there’s Elf. Film buffs might gravitate to Disney’s new The Nutcracker and the Four Realms. But for a contemporary twist, The Hip Hop Christmas is the only game in town.

Most productions have a local flair and with hip hop, the logical locale would have to be New York City. This production boasts plenty of talent, both onstage and in the creative development — director and choreographer Jennifer Weber, whose extensive work straddles concert venues (Jacob’s Pillow, The Kennedy Center). A Bessie-nominated artist (serious stuff), she recently created a new work for New York City Ballet principal dancer Tiler Peck and hip hop legend Lil Buck. Co-creator/writer Mike Fitelson is executive producer at the United Palace, Manhattan’s 4th largest theater in Washington Heights.

And who would have imagined breakdancing to Tchaikovsky (plus a DJ and electric violinist)? Picking up on the beat will be a dozen hip hop artists who tell this new version of the familiar tale, where Marie-Clara, the Nutcracker and Drosselmeyer unfold the story against Manhattan backdrops.

However the face of this particular Nut belongs to Kurtis Blow, pioneer of his hip hop realm. Blow’s claim to fame would have to be “Christmas Rap,” the “most relevant hip hop record of all time” because it has been played every year since 1979 and will be around “200 years from now.”

This Christmas Rapper appreciates that radio supported it, but he is more than a one-trick pony. Not only is he is rapper, but is also a singer, songwriter, record/film producer, b-boy, DJ, public speaker and minister.

According to Blow, The Hip Hop Nutcracker “fits into all of the above.” As the emcee of the touring production, he explores all kinds of opportunities and motivational speaking. “I take them into the ’80’s, a time when good lovemeant having a good time.”

Audience members will hear the iconic Christmas Rap and a medley as well. And yes, the breakdancers perform to Tchaikovsky’s original score. For the the finale, there’s “an incredible holiday season mash-up,” where the crowd is “goin’ crazy as we spread the love.”

He marvels at the Incredible evolution of b-boys and b-girls, where they fuse hip hop with modern dance and ballet and insert complicate new combinations, like a headstand, 1990 and back stand in succession.

Fans will find slight variations like Maria-Clara and Myron the Nutcracker. But Blow’s favorite part is Drosselmeyer’s time travel to a 1988 nightclub, where there is an official pas de deux, Dance of the Flowers and a Russian Dance.

All of it delivered with “more acting and more of the story” than previous versions, asserts Blow. “They bring 150 percent every night.”


Video: Love Letter to Dance

November 8, 2018

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.


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: 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 Film: Bill Is Back

October 17, 2017

Performer Bill Shannon has been breaking new barriers in dance. Now the globe-trotting artist, based in Pittsburgh, is coming home with his latest work at the Kelly Strayhorn Theater. Here’s a preview of the preview coming up later this month (see Listings):


On Stage: LINES

October 9, 2017

Dance writers often think, “been there, done that.” And when Alonzo King LINES Ballet came to town to open the Pittsburgh Dance Council season (see Post-Gazette preview), I had seen his work on three previous occasions. But this performance was different.

It was one of the rare occasions where the performance just flew by, where the performance was mesmerizing, unfolding in a meaningful way. There were only two pieces, “Biophony,” with its environmental trills and roars in its dancescape/soundscape, and “The Propelled Heart,” set to an extended and emotional jazz riff by Lisa Fischer, a mostly unknown backup singer to stars, but a star in her own right.

In the end, the titles did, indeed, say it all. But what lay hidden in those titles was a King-ly universe, full of creativity and originality in the sinuous, organic movement that was given a magnificent voice by a group of dancers who felt every note, every nuance designed by their choreographer.

I would have to say that this performance immediately joined the list of my Dance Council favorites over the years. And the audience, bolstered by a number of dancers and other professionals in the local ballet community, responded with standing ovations for both works.

They also saw one of their own, Jason, a graduate of Point Park University’s dance department who performed with the company, making this meaningful performance ultimately personal.


On Stage: Follow the Bouncing Dancers`

August 18, 2017

These guys were here a while back at the Kelly Strayhorn Theater’s Dance Alloy Studios, but I never forgot them. This seemingly nonsensical piece seems particularly necessary in today’s social and political climate. Yes, that’s actually liquid refreshment with which they imbibe. Enjoy this tasty tidbit, along with an accompanying description…

The British/Hungarian pair walked out from behind three giant white scrims onto a white floor, certainly one of the most impressive restylings of the main studio at Dance Alloy. They stood out, in a way, even though they just wore tee shirts, jeans and tennis shoes.

Their eyes roamed. Slyly? I thought I caught a flicker of a smile.

Igor (Urzelai)and Moreno (Solinas) started to sing, maybe in Hungarian (actually Sardinian/Basque), was pleasant enough, but unfortunately had no translation.

Gradually they started “feeling” it, this Idiot-Syncracy, tapping their feet, moving in response to the music. Bouncing!?!  The music faded and that’s all we heard.

I think I had a flicker of a smile.

They unzipped their pants and took them off to reveal their underwear, daring us to react.

There was a leap and then shoes and socks came off. The bouncing became barefoot and quieter. We were left with one pile of clothes neatly folded and the other, well, sloppy. Which didn’t matter because the two piles soon disappeared behind a scrim.

So there the two men were, softly jumping, jumping, jumping, etc. And there they went, sometimes behind a scrim, always perfectly synchronized, gradually developing patterns, rarely taking a break.

One popped out waving a Terrible Towel…jumping.

Then they eventually brought out samples of Tennessee Whiskey for the audience to sample. Puzzled looks here.

A low bass ostinato emerge as we started to hear some heavy breathing. Complexity began to take over the seeming simplicity of the jumping vocabulary.

It became mesmerizing and never wavered. A brief thought — how do they do it? No matter — we all were smiling…


On Stage: Water Dance

August 16, 2017

Dance icon Lucinda Childs is flanked by Blanket founders Matt Pardo and Caitlin Scranton. Photo: Ben Viatori

The Monongahela. It was an impossibly perfect night on a Saturday night in Pittsburgh along the Monongahela River where viewers could take in the debut of the city’s newest dance company, The Blanket. Read about it in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Friday night may have been rained out, but a healthy group of party goers gathered at the Society for Contemporary Craft in the Strip District to celebrate the inimitable choreographer herself, Lucinda Childs.

The Blanket: Georgia Bray, Matt Pardo, Sara Spizzichini, Eric Lobenberg, Lucinda Childs, John DeNeff, Caitlin Scranton, Jil Stifel, Sierra Barnett, Lindsay Fisher, Bianca Melidor. Photo: Ben Viatori

The Lake. Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre returned to Chautauqua Institution in western New York State along the shores of the lake from which it got its name. From the time the bus pulled up to the brand new Amphitheater, the dancers were taken with the Victorian beauty of the gated community.

PBT alights from the bus at the back of the new Amphitheater.

Marisa Grywalski and Alejandro Diaz

Emily Simpson and Jake Unger.

The atmosphere was enthralling, all the way through the performance that night. Still, the dancers got a few minutes to take in the vintage scenery.

Jason Zubovic, aka Thea Trix, welcomed one and all to Pittsburgh Luxury Cruises’ Fantasy.

The Allegheny. Attack Theatre has this fun idea called We’re on a Boat. It’s a great way to warp up the season, taking in the beauty of Pittsburgh from the three rivers, rain or shine. It happened to be a great night (my third time and probably my favorite). Michele de la Reza, Peter Kope and fellow Attackers mixed and mingled with




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