Dance Beat: Kinzua Dam, West Point Ballet, Benjamin Millipied

January 4, 2017


KINZUA DAM. Thanks to more media coverage, celebrity support and the support of organizations like veterans, people are learning about the Indian plight at Standing Rock. But what we don’t remember is how the United States government has exerted force over Indian nations for a large part of our history, taking land that rightfully belonged to them. Western Pennsylvania has an Indian area that was flooded by the Kinzua Dam. The Kelly Strayhorn Theater, a hotspot for minority art, brought in a moving, heartfelt performance by Minneapolis’ Rosy Simas Danse. Rosy went to visit the Kinzua site, where her ancestors were forced to evacuate. Click on Kinzua Dam for a complete history. And from the Seneca Indians’ perspective remembering 50 years ago...

west-point-nutWEST POINT BALLET. The West Point Ballet, located in Coraopolis,d served notice that it is joining the upper tier of local dance studios. Only in its third year, it presented its own “Nutcracker,” showcasing the Cuban ballet style, so poetic and lyrical, and filled with those signature pirouettes that seem so effortless. WPB fielded at least half a dozen young women who distinguished themselves and has a growing contingent of young men that would be the envy of other schools. Congratulations to owners Cynthia Castillo, formerly with Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre and a graduate of the National Ballet of Cuba, and Damien M. Coro, formerly with PBT and the National Ballet of Cuba. Damien performed with the group alongside his twin brother, David, a former principal with the National Ballet of Cuba who is teaching at the Laurel Ballet with his wife, Vanessa Haider, also a former member of the National Ballet. Certainly their combined expertise will enrich the ballet community for many years to come.

peter-farmerPETER FARMER. World famous costume and scenery designer Peter Farmer passed away a few days ago. He worked on a number of productions at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, including the recent Giselle production this past fall. You can read about the process and his career from Janet Groom Campbell, good friend and PBT costumier, here.

BENJAMIN MILLIPIED.  For those who like a juicy ballet backstory, there is an upcoming documentary about Benjamin Millipied (famously the husband of movie star Natalie Porter) and his dramatically short tenure at the Paris Opera Ballet. Called Reset, it should hit movie theaters sometime in January.

DANCE LISTINGS. There’s not a lot happening in January with Pittsburgh dance (see Listings). What is happening?






Film: Bolshoi Ballet Series

October 9, 2015

The Bolshoi Ballet is full of drama, seen onstage in its performances and offstage in the acid thrown in the face of artistic director Sergei Filin, almost blinding him (yes, he’s still there). There is more, though, to be seen in the current Bolshoi Ballet in Cinema series. So it’s Giselle, but the leads are ballerina superstar Svetlana Zakharova and, hold on, Sergei Polunin, the current “bad boy of ballet.” (Trained at The Royal Ballet, taken into the company, fast-tracked to principal status, surprisingly dropped out, much like GOP House speaker John Boehner and speaker-to-be Kevin McCarthy.) But here he is, live and on film Sunday, Oct. 11 at Cinemark Robinson Township, Monroeville Mall 12 and Cinemark 17 Pittsburgh Mills at 12:55 p.m.(click on Bolshoi). He is not listed on the company’s website, however (come to your own conclusions). Here is also the original on Vimeo (check others on YouTube). While the solo is debatable, the style is not. The tattoos are something else.

On Stage: A Real Success From PBT’s Spiritual “Giselle”

October 31, 2012

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Performing any one of the handful of classic full-length ballets is like playing a Mozart violin concerto or a Beethoven piano concerto — everyone knows what’s coming next and/or they have heard it before and are able to strike a comparison. So it’s really difficult to stake out your own territory with ghostly reminders of what has come before. But sometimes things just jell, as PBT did this past weekend in “Giselle,” where virtually everything was just about “perfect” (or about as close as you can come in the ballet world. Read about it in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Myrtha: Elysa Hotchkiss; Berthe: Janet Popaleski; Wilfred: Joseph Parr; Photos: Rich Sofranko

On Stage: Bringing the Spirit of “Giselle” Alive

October 25, 2012

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre ballet master Marianna Tcherkassky, considered one of the great Giselles of her time. Read a previous Post-Gazette article on her (2001) at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. But behind every great ballerina is a great baton, wielded by the orchestra conductor. PBT has someone who fits the bill.


Conductor Charles Barker was faced with a decision — head to Barcelona, Spain with the American Ballet Theatre or come to Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s production of “Giselle.”

Before you get too excited, there were a few other factors, mainly that Charles is a currently a devoted family man. His sons are age 7 and 10 and he knows that it is “critical to spend time” with them” as they grow. In fact, he and his wife spent all of August at the beach, riding bikes and hiking — one day physical and one day “off.”

But it also helped that he had such a great relationship with the local company and its orchestra, perhaps a key reason that PBT extended his contract another three years. He takes great pleasure that the orchestra is always “itching to do it,” calling the local musicians both “impressive” and “talented.”

“There’s a mutual respect there,” he says. “And a willingness to try.”

Along the way over the past years, the repertoire has been deliciously challenging for the maestro “Romeo et Juliette,” “Cinderella,” “The Three Musketeers.” And he hasn’t done this particular production of “Giselle.” Not that this is a Creole Giselle, such as that found in Dance Theater of Harlem or the contemporary version by ballet superstar Sylvie Guillem or any one of approximately 15 other versions he performed(American Ballet Theatre, San Francisco Ballet, Houston Ballet, The Royal Ballet).

Musically this “Giselle” might be pretty similar to the more traditional interpretations. At PBT Mr. Barker will still keep an eye on “entrances and how long to hold a phrase” so that the dancers can perform at an optimum level.

But he won’t allow himself to go “on autopilot. We have to create interest and life and pizzazz.” For that he trusts his Pittsburgh musicians. “Even though they know it well, there will still be a magic and mystery.”

Maybe that’s because he was once an orchestra concertmaster himself. While leading a chamber orchestra, Mr. Barker got the opportunity to lead the group. At first he stood with his violin. The feeling was great, so he “took some lessons, had some great luck” and was soon on his way to The Carnegie and The Metropolitan Opera, even John Curry’s ice skating company.

It was a “trial by fire,” but it was also a “cool job,” as Mr. Barker concluded. “The level of accuracy or perfection is insignificant.” The challenge to conduct 1-2-3-4 “ain’t that hard.”.

The hard part is actually the “conceptual part,” the way to prepare the orchestra, with limited rehearsals, to be ready at the dress rehearsal. “I have to know what the composer wants and verbally translate it to the orchestra — it carries the heavy weight of responsibility.”

So Mr. Barker always brings his “A” game, nothing that “if I’m making things clear and they’re watching what I’m doing, then everything goes smoothly.

It certainly has to be better that one of his early “Giselles,” performed while he was conducting an Australian Ballet tour to China in the ’90’s. Mr. Barker was conducting the Nanjing Song and Dance Orchestra at a facility about three hours west of Shanghai. Not only was this orchestra not on its game, but the audience brought food and talked loudly to their friends. To bridge the language gap, he would sing the first two bars so that the orchestra would zero in on the tempo.

Mentally “swearing a blue streak” and aware of people passing food behind him in the front row, the usually amiable conductor recalls this as the worst “Giselle” he ever led.

But the ballerina playing the title role recalled it differently, as one of her best performances ever.

She was Miranda Coney, who became his wife.

Through Oct. 28 — see Listings.

On Stage: PBT Brings on 2012-13

February 4, 2012

You have to give Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre artistic director Terrence Orr credit. Both he and the marketing department feel that PBT audiences fill the houses for full-length ballets, so he is always in the hunt for contemporary works to fill out the thin glossary of productions that are available.

For the 2012-13 season, just announced, he will give Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s Jorden Morris an encore follow-up to his 2009 reworking of Peter Pan. It’s Moulin Rouge — The Ballet (think of the movie by Baz Luhrmann), which has been wowing audiences in Canada and at Atlanta Ballet, where it made its U.S. premiere last season. The company also got permission from the famed Moulin Rouge itself to use the official trademark.

PBT will also bring back Giselle, and not seen here in over a decade. The company ballerinas can look forward to working with ballet master Marianna Tcherkassky, who was regarded as one of the world’s great Giselles during the course of her career at American Ballet Theatre.

The other slots will be filled with the annual Nutcracker and Septime Webre’s Cinderella, last seen here in 2009 and ending the season.

But the real excitement comes from the triple bill in Unspoken (instead of Uncommon) and once again at the August Wilson Center (a good thing). PBT will bring in another Mark Morris ballet, Joyride, which Morris repetiteur Tina Fehlandt assured me is “totally different” from this year initial (and successful) effort, Maelstrom.

Also on the program is Antony Tudor’s Lilac Garden (1936), which hasn’t been seen at PBT since 1987 (thank you, Patricia Wilde). A gem of a piece by a seminal choreographer in psychological ballet, it is set at a garden party where Caroline, ensconced in a marriage of convenience, must say goodbye to the man she really loves. The program will be completed by a work from the PBT repertory, George Balanchine’s Valse Fantaisie.

The complete schedule is: Giselle (with orchestra), Benedum Center, Oct. 26-28;  The Nutcracker, Benedum, Dec. 7-30; Moulin Rouge — The Ballet, Benedum, Feb. 14-17; Unspoken, August Wilson Center, Mar. 8-17; Cinderella (with orchestra), Benedum, Apr. 19-21. Subscriptions: $60-478.75; 412-454-9107 or (Note that the photos are by iconic New York City dance photographer ©Lois Greenfeld.)

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