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: We’ll Miss You, Paul

September 6, 2015

PAUL ORGANISAKIt was reported in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette that Paul Organisak, vice president in charge of programming for the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, was stepping down from a position that he began in 2004. The truth is that he has been an important part of the dance community since 1988, when he became Director of Development for the Pittsburgh Dance Council under Carolelinda Dickey.

I can still recall his enthusiasm for dance and a passion that has never waned over these past 20-some years. Even though he never studied dance, it has been the art form that he held closest to his heart.

And that is the primary reason that we will miss him. Pittsburgh Dance Council is this city’s most adventurous series, bringing us the world in all of its diversity and excitement unlike any other. However, when Paul took over PDC and almost immediately folded it into the Trust, I had my doubts.

It proved to be a winning strategy as more arts organizations have come under the Trust umbrella, with the Dance Council maintaining a certain autonomy.

Now, in a time when dance organizations are fewer and far between, we still get the best here in Pittsburgh. I know, because I have gone to a number of dance critics conferences and found that I had interviewed almost all of the choreographers/panelists prior to their appearances in Pittsburgh.

It’s been that good and a great feeling to have Pittsburgh’s finger on the pulse of dance.

There was a tough spell when the U.S. government made it tough on foreign artists in granting visas and Paul played things a little safer. Then he admitted that subscriptions were down — PDC audiences wanted the unfamiliar, the surprising, the exotic. Since then, he has done that, with seasons that exceeded our expectations.

So now we’ve come to a crossroads. I feel that Paul has been a unwavering advocate for dance at the Trust, which is going on a national, even an international search to replace a Pittsburgh native who has logged more miles and more performances than he probably cares to admit.

It was all done with the purpose of bringing the finest in dance (he gradually added Broadway shows, the Cabaret series, the Trust presents, the International Festival of Firsts and assorted other international festivals that were some of the Trust’s finest efforts to his job description). That adds up to dozens of performances, always featuring new dance, something that I, for one, am grateful.

His gargantuan efforts have resulted in a robust arts atmosphere Downtown in the Cultural District, a real bonus to the quality of life in Pittsburgh.

Thank. You. Paul.



On Video: Dance Your PhD

August 10, 2015


On Video: Lil Buck in “Primetime”

July 22, 2015



On Stage: Womens’ “Admission”

July 16, 2015



Sometimes big ideas come in small packages.

Such was the case with fireWALL’s latest dance offering, Admission, at the postage stamp-sized off the WALL Theater in Carnegie.

It was the fourth piece choreographed by 23-year old Point Park University graduate Elisa-Marie Alaio and her works have created a steep learning curve over the course of her first season. Admission was the apex of that growth.

Right now, whether by design or necessity, Admission was the second all-female work.

It was driven by a corporate glass ceiling concept — very smart. Instead of glass, though, there was a crosshatch of bungee cords attached at the midpoint of the tiny off the WALL theater and also at the foot of the audience risers.

Eight women started at the back, cast in silhouette behind panels. They were seated on stools, moving from one pose to another. Some were bunheads, but these were no ballerinas.

Hands shook. Anxiety? Maybe, but then there was a “power” fist. Something else was afoot.

When the women finally emerged — the section went on for a while — we got the answer to the cables.


Made of the thick kind used to jump off bridges, they produced their own soundscape in addition to Ryan McMasters’ equally tensile accompaniment, full of voices whispering, an underlying beat, water and opera.

It was the stress of the workplace. The release. The manipulation. The constraints of society. And it all became faster, more frustrating, even dangerous in this most compelling of the sections.

The dancers began to unhook the cables. Success, perhaps?

They took off their corporate-driven black jackets to reveal loose-fitting white blouses. Then the dance became more prop-driven — I’m not sure why — with the use of six white chairs.

It turned out that the choreography doled out a sense of equal opportunity among the women. But would there be a winner at the end?

There were group-supported lifts. They linked arms. They huddled like a corporate sisterhood. But the finale turned out to be a jazz group number, more entertainment than substance. So there was no apparent winner, except Alaio and her dancers, who could take pride in their growth.

On Stage: A Very Full Monteverdi

June 29, 2015


Attack Theater turned schizophrenic this past spring. Co-founder Michele de la Reza was flitting from Pittsburgh Opera’s Daughter of the Regiment (see CrossCurrent’s April 22 post), where she served as assistant choreographer, to the Hillman Auditorium, where the company was collaborating with Chatham Baroque and Ping in Claudio Monteverdi’s The Battle of Tancredi and Clorinda.

You have to love collaborations like this, with two distinctive and vital Pittsburgh arts organizations like Attack and Chatham mentoring a talented start-up like Carnegie Mellon University’s Baroque early/new music vocal ensemble, Ping (which also provided an adventurous and entertaining selection of Monteverdi madrigals before the main event.) Then there was the cherry on top — renowned tenor Aaron Sheehan, playing the narrator with uncommon intelligence and musicality.

Nothing seems to be impossible for the Attackers, though, and it was particularly satisfying to see them helping to open up the Hillman in the Hill District to new audiences.

Perhaps the most satisfying, though, was a rare look/see/hear of Monteverdi’s work, which was far more contemporary than its age might indicate (377 years). More than heralding the transition from Renaissance to Baroque music, this piece surprised and resonated with today’s listeners, given the imaginative use of repeated notes (forerunner of the tremolo), dissonances and assorted musical rules that he broke in service to the text.

It sounded that fresh.

Speaking of which, the love story of Tancredi, a Christian knight, and Clorinda, a Saracen princess and a Muslim, gives an enduring political and religious backdrop that is still so relevant today.

Set against Sheehan and an expanded Chatham Baroque (six instruments, so full and satisfying on this occasion) on the Hillman stage, the artists decided to build another elevated stage in front to provide better sight lines for the audience and the stage action. Although it was connected by a small lower level, almost a miniature canyon that ran the width between the stages and was sometimes cumbersome for the performers to negotiate, it provided a way to highlight the action.

Much of that was provided by Dane Toney (Tancredi) and Kaitlin Dann (Clorinda), with some integration from singing doubles Chloe Holgate and Sean Salamon of Ping. Toney and Dann have never been more compelling, inspired by this tragic story of love and war, and literally transformed by the music that transported them to new emotional levels. They were joined by Ashley Williams in the final section, Regret, which used a trio of early madrigals to bring it all to a poignant conclusion.

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.


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