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: Gene Kelly — The Legacy

May 20, 2014

Movie icon Gene Kelly has always been larger than life here, being that he was a Pittsburgh native. This week viewers will have a rare opportunity to see him when Kelly returns to the big screen at the Byham Theater Wednesday night.

Wife Patricia Ward Kelly will bring a separate set of clips in this complimentary piece to her talk at the University of Pittsburgh in 2012, which focused on his use of the camera. The Byham evening will be more personal, an in-depth look at the varying dimensions of Kelly. “There are a couple of similarities,” says his wife. “But much of it will be very, very different.”

So it will again prove something: “Gene — we hardly knew ye.” “People come away with an altered sense of who Gene was,” she notes. “They love him up on the screen, but they kind of think that’s who he really was. They kind of forget that he’s acting up there. I think they think that he danced around the house and was this happy-go-lucky guy. I don’t think they think of him as this guy who was mostly cerebral — sitting down in a chair reading a book, writing poetry and things like that.”

Actually most people don’t know that he directed what we see in movies like On the Town and An American in Paris, choreographed what we see in Singin’ in the Rain. They don’t understand how revolutionary so much of the work was.

“That’s what is really fun about it,” she continues. “People don’t realize that he spoke so many languages [Yiddish, French, Latin and Italian], that he was a cultural ambassador to Africa. They don’t realize that he had these personal friendships with great writers like Carl Sandburg and Samuel Becket and Thornton Wilder.”

So they just come out with a greater appreciation for him.

Patricia underlines that he didn’t just study one form of dance. He studied everything — history, literature, poetry and mathematics. And Kelly wasn’t just that athletic all-American guy. He wasn’t only a tap dancer, but a classically-trained ballet dancer who also conceived what you saw and positioned the camera for what we saw.

Hamburg Ballet artistic director John Neumeier, San Francisco Ballet artistic director Helgi Tomasson, Joffrey Ballet principal dancer Fabrice Calmels, American Ballet Theatre principal dancer Roberto Bolle. The name that they give is Gene Kelly as the man who got them to dance. It’s not Baryshnikov. It’s not Nureyev. It’s Kelly.

“He made it okay for a guy to dance,” Patricia explains. When he saw Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in Pittsburgh, he auditioned and was offered a position in the corps de ballet. But he turned it down, because he didn’t think he could support his family on that salary.

Kelly could go on to study with modern dance pioneers like Martha Graham, Charles Weidman and Doris Humphrey, plus some Spanish dance along the way.

He saw the interconnectedness of it all. So if a young artist asked, “What should we study?” He would say, “Everything.”

Maybe that’s why he touches people in so many ways.


This Renaissance man conceived a completely different style of American dance. “It’s not what Astaire was doing, continuing the tradition of ballroom dancing,” says Patricia. “This was dance that furthered the plot and was incorporated into the plot. Singin’ in the Rain is understood around the world. Instead of saying that he’s in love with a girl and is so happy, he does it all in motion. That was really a shift, something that wasn’t seen before him.”

She continues, “That was the challenge for him — not only to make something that’s really contemporary, but something that’s timeless.”

That’s what still inspires Patricia, who always watches the clips during her talk. ”The funny thing is that I have to remind myself to go back on stage because I get so caught up in what’s going on and I hear the audience responding. It’s a selfish thing for me, because I get so much out of it. I guess it was also a way of dealing with the absence and the loss because it makes him so continually present and alive.”

Thus she shares the legacy, reaping the rewards of his timeless art. “I’m constantly reminded that this is stuff that holds up,” she admits. “It’s sixty-plus years old, but it’s still really vibrant and fresh.”

Patricia happily provides the link to Kelly’s history. “It was personal for me, but I hear how it touches the people. I see the wit of it, the brightness of what he executed.”

So she will greet people before and after the show, giving it her own personal touch, then will talk to four high schools over the next two days. After rehearsals for the Gene Kelly Awards for excellence in high school musicals at the Benedum Center, she will step on stage to present the final awards Saturday“It’s really Gene on Gene that people are getting,” she says of The Legacy talk. “It’s as close as they’re going to come with this guy.”

On Stage: Patricia on Gene Kelly

October 27, 2012

Patricia Ward Kelly has proven that she is determined to keep the Gene Kelly name alive. Not only does she attend the Gene Kelly Awards, but she visits different school while she’s in town and has become something of a name herself here in Pittsburgh. A book on her husband is nearing completion and her recent talk at the University of Pittsburgh was part literary preview and a colorful splash of his films. You had to come away with a renewed respect for the man — a perfectionist who pushed the boundaries of the film industry itself and who cast dance in a new light. Read about the event in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and revel in some film samples from Patricia’s talk:

They said it couldn’t be done, but Gene did this number. He filmed the two men separately, using musical cues and black curtains to achieve a precise mirror image. Gene told Patricia it was the hardest thing he ever did.

This clip from “It’s Always Fair Weather” didn’t have any special effects, just pure Gene. It’s admittedly Patricia’s favorite.

Patricia noted that this portion of “An American in Paris” had to be cut in several countries because it was too sensual.

Most of us have seen the Gene and Jerry the Mouse number, but there’s a popular contemporary version out and about now. Enjoy!

Happy 100th Birthday, Gene!

August 23, 2012

Off Stage: McDreamy McGill

March 16, 2010

Photo by Vince TrupsinPaul McGill is only 22 and already has a resume that would send most Broadway hopefuls reeling. It’s also a study in making the most of your opportunities.

There he was — a junior at Northgate High School, with a fistful of dreams and a camera-ready face. Six days later Paul was in New York City as a part of the original cast revival of “La Cage aux Folles,” covering 15 parts and going to the Professional Performing Arts School.

That whirlwind of a change was orchestrated by Rachelle Rak, daughter of studio owner Rosalene Kenneth and where Paul happened to be studying dance. A Broadway veteran herself (“Cats,” “Fosse,” “Oklahoma!” revival, “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels”), Rachelle happened to mention his name in a telephone conversation with director Jerry Mitchell.

That started a veritable avalanche of activity.

Paul got the news that he was selected on Monday and by Saturday was in New York City rehearsing. In addition to covering those 15 parts, he was attending the Professional Performing Arts School. When “La Cage” closed, Paul moved back to Pittsburgh, set on living a “normal life again”…but not for long.

He found time to appear in a brief role in the Oscar-winning “Man on Wire” (Best Documentary Feature) about high-wire specialist Philippe Petit and his daring walk between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in 1974. (Paul played Philippe as a young man.) Then someone suggested him to the powers-that-be at the Broadway revival of “A Chorus Line.”  Two days after his graduation from Northgate, Paul headed back to New York where he played the role of Mark.

“I did that for two and a half years,” Paul recalls just prior to teaching a master class at Karen Prunzik’s Broadway Dance Studio.  “It was great — I could see how the cast changed.” The original cast members were “realistic about Broadway and life. Some got married, others had babies and three got engaged.”

So what was a newly-minted high school grad to do among these veterans? “I worked on myself — my body, my mind.” That also meant bending the ear of the company’s physical therapist about anatomy, something that went on for the duration of the run. But all good things, as they say….

Paul admits that he became frantic when the show’s closing notice was posted. However, within a week he had booked “West Side Story” and a leading role in the movie remake of “Fame.” What to do?

“It was easy,” he admits. “Snowboy, one of the Jets, or an original role in a feature film.” Without blinking, Paul picked up and moved to Los Angeles and filmed for what turned out to be a grueling three months. “We didn’t get time to warm up — it’s all up to the lighting and camera angles. But when they called ‘Action,’ you had to be ready.”

The worst came when the director filmed the graduation scene — 15 hours straight with just a lunch break. At the end of that action-packed day, the dancers had to do improvisational dances for the closing film credits.

Some of the “teenagers” in the cast brought friends to the set and drank in their trailers between scenes. But Paul was one of a quartet of New Yorkers in “Fame,” professionals who had a strong work ethic and lifestyle in comparison. “There’s a respect and discipline in the theater,” he says.

He also had inspiration from some “true professionals” on the set. Bebe Neuwirth played Sheila in “A Chorus Line” on Broadway in 1980 and took time to swap stories with the young dancer. MeganMullally, who “was funnier when the cameras were off,” also had some advice — “to not even look at the stuff that’s going on around you and keep being yourself, living your life.”

He followed “Fame” with six months of interviews and photo shoots. It also gave him time to think, whereupon Paul decided to come back to his dance roots. “I learned what it’s like to be employed and sit around waiting for things to happen,” he says. So he came back to Pittsburgh, beefing up on dance classes, voice lessons, acting classes and choreography. “I’m making an investment in the future — I have so many ideas and so many plans.” Although stage is his first love, Paul wants to do it all, like Rob Marshall and Gene Kelly, both of whom he labels as “Pittsburgh greats.”

But he barely had time to take a breath. Paul took a sidestep to appear on Nickleodeon’s series, “Victorious.” Then “Fame” came out on DVD in January. And right now he’s filming “House Hunting,” a horror flick, in Charlottesville, Virginia. I guess Paul will keep moving…in what direction is anybody’s guess.

On Stage: Flash! Dance

September 22, 2009

No one joined Gene Kelly as he danced down his movie set of a street in “Singin’ in the Rain.” Now the streets all over the world seem to be awash with seemingly impromptu dance happenings. It’s called flash mob (or flashmob) dancing and it’s finally arrived in Pittsburgh.

Inspired by the G-20 (as most things in the city are these days), Keisha Lalama-White and 300 Point Park University staff members and students joined together for a kick-off (pun intended) to the upcoming array of protests, pundits and politicians.

The flash mob was originated in New York City in 2003 by Billy Wasik, senior editor at Harper’s Magazine. But his targeted store was tipped off. He regrouped to produce a flash mob at Macy’s, where 100 people gathered around an expensive rug to make a “group” purchase.

Now flash mobs, whether they be pillow fights, silent discos or world naked bike rides,  have an organic connection to protests, which, of course, bear considerable relevance to the inherent nature of the G-20.

Point Park chose the upper hand. Three separate groups of approximately 100 dancers each converged on One Oxford Center, PPG Place and U.S. Steel Tower/UPMC Building at 1:15 p.m. At 1:10 p.m., as if on cue, raindrops started to fall. But the weather would not deter these young performers from the swift completion of their dance.

I happened to choose the U.S. Steel/UPMC option. To the strains of Neil Diamond’s “Coming to America,” a voice intoned references to President Obama and the G-20. In true flash mob fashion, one student began gesturing to the sky (miraculously, the rain stopped) and then inviting others to join him.

Like the Internet, the dance became viral. More and more students swiftly latched on to “Celebration.” (After all, flash mob music has to target familiar territory.) They quickly became “We Are Family,” with a little improvisation added to the recipe.

The hoodies, sweatshirts and sweaters came off to reveal orange t-shirts printed with a peace sign and PPU. The Beatles sang, “All You Need Is Love” as they joined hands and formed a human peace sign.

Maybe more people should listen to their message.

See the results:

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