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.”


Dance Beat: It’s South Korea, Not North Korea

March 6, 2017

Here we go again!

Back around 2010, Pittsburgh Dance Council executive director Paul Organisak was complaining about visa problems for foreign artists from Spain and South America, forcing him to tailor several seasons around North American companies.

But that involved individual artists and was nothing compared to current surprise attacks, not only during the current travel ban, but resulting from the toxic atmosphere surrounding the Trump administration. The Dance Council, now under Randal Miller, almost didn’t get to present the Seoul-based Bereishit Dance Company this past weekend at the Byham Theater.

Apparently the group, despite having all of its papers in place and having submitted its visa requests last October, inexplicably was denied access to the United States. That forced the cancellation of the first performance of its first American tour at Northrup Auditorium in Minneapolis, scheduled for last Tuesday.

Miller enlisted Senator Bob Casey and some other heavy hitters to intervene because this group is from South Korea, not North Korea. The company arrived in Pittsburgh, actually its second stop and now its first, on Friday after a long flight (around 15 hours) from Seoul. With the help of the Byham’s stellar stage crew, they were able to attend to technical issues, but didn’t get to do a complete run-through.

The Pittsburgh audience didn’t notice, given the company’s disciplined training and seamless technique, mostly martial arts that transcended the divide into contemporary dance. The result was a fresh and invigorating performance, resulting in a standing ovation.

Of note were the two arrows that flew across the front of the stage in Bow, landing with a heavy thud on a wall located on the other side of the stage. They were pinpoint symbols of the clean lines and intense focus in the work, mostly a duet, but occasionally involving a third member. Congratulations to Miller and the Falcon Archers of Canonsburg, for making it work (the only time it will be seen in the U.S.).

Also on the program was Balance and Imbalance, for the five-member troupe, three men and two women. You had to love the contrast between sharp angles and movement “locks,” similar to hip hop, with a beautiful fluidity. Although the title referred to the movement itself, you could also see that in the choreography, which used great skill in folding difficult, acrobatic moves into a lyrical mindset.




Dance Beat: Lovin’ Lil Buck

December 3, 2016

Art is art.

Dance Beat: Teena Marie

January 20, 2016

Custer1 2015

It’s not often that you see an acknowledged hip hop artist who has a foundation in contemporary dance. But it’s even rarer that the artist is a woman.

Teena Marie Custer, trained at Ohio State University, faculty member at Slippery Rock University and battle veteran of Pittsburgh-based Get Down Gang and the all-American, all-woman Venus Fly Trap, was all that at the New Hazlett Theater’s Community Supported Art (CSA) series that ended its season this past summer.

It is a series for artists defined as “seedlings.” Custer may have a longer resume than most, but she added a twist by taking a street savvy dance form and putting it on a concert stage.

That’s been done before you might say. However, Custer set out on a fresh path with My Good Side, using a dramatic thread that embraced the improvisatory nature of hip hop within a structure found in a more traditional contemporary dance. And along the way, she exposed her emotional vulnerability.

It was brave and it was bold.

Custer2 2015She’s calling it hip hop dance theater. Hip hop carries with it a certain bravado along with a disregard for rules in expressing its free style. But Custer set her “Good Side” apart by scratching underneath the surface. We saw an entourage and with it that signature attitude. But Custer also incorporated social media and its invasive nature, grounding the piece in meaningful emotions.

My favorite part was a solo where the choreography had its own taut toughness, along with corralling the hip hop vocabulary.

Moving from red top shoes to a chandelier overhead, Custer’s piece had a definite cool factor. We saw how to take it all in stride. How to take a good selfie. And how to find and hold on to your true self.

Life lessons for all.



On Video: Lil Buck in “Primetime”

July 22, 2015



Dance Beat: Controversy at 3Rivers and CREATE

June 11, 2015
Bill Shannon, after he was escorted off the Wyndham Hotel property.

Bill Shannon, after he was escorted off the Wyndham Hotel property.

The waters weren’t running smoothly this morning at Three Rivers Arts Festival/CREATE 2015. Resident Pittsburgh genius Bill Shannon showed up at the Wyndham Grand Hotel lobby at 8 a.m. to begin a scheduled pop-up performance in the lobby. Deliberately dressed in a clownish way — checked pants and top, bowler hat, black-rimmed glasses and canvas boots with hard yellow toe overlay, the Crutchmaster began attracting attention.

He blew an air horn while pushing a squeaky red shopping cart. Eventually a man dressed in a suit came up to tell him to stop. Thinking him a rude heckler, Bill engaged back. But it was the manager of the hotel and soon law enforcement officers were involved.

Little did they know that Bill had exhibited at the Tate Liverpool Museum and the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., had spoken at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, had created for Cirque du Soleil and much, much more all over the world.

He was there to perform for CREATE 2015, a technology and arts festival that is a festival within a festival. Very forward-thinking — check it out. It’s a festival within a festival, that being the Three Rivers Arts Festival, also a must-see.

To keep the story short, Bill was escorted across the street from the Wyndham property by three officers, cart squeaking the whole time.

Cornelius Henke with fractured mask showing Bill Shannon.

Cornelius Henke with fractured mask showing Bill Shannon.

But his mates were still able to walk around the mezzanine with a companion piece, a collaborative art/tech creation. Australian Jack Hodges wore  a “mask” of sorts, with duck-taped cell phones, maybe a battery (I’m no techie), and a half dozen or so hollow dot screens forming a fractured face around his head. Actually Bill’s face was being projected on the multiple screens, so he was still “in the building.” Monroeville native Cornelius Henke, the mapper for the project, followed with a cord and electronic box, the tail to this “dragon,” you might say.

Bill is also scheduled for a 6 p.m. performance. Where? Right now that is subject to negotiation. Stay tuned and turn out.


On Stage: Compagnie Käfig

February 6, 2014
Photo: Michel Cavalca

Photo: Michel Cavalca

It was almost like a breath of fresh air when France’s Compagnie Käfig breezed into town with its own brand of hip-hop. See what all the excitement was about in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

On Stage: Hear/Now

May 18, 2013

The ever-lengthening arm of the Kelly Strayhorn Theater continues to operate at Dance Alloy studios, not only with dance classes, but an increasing number of performances that take advantage of the intimate performing space that is available.

The latest was HEAR/NOW, a periodic series devoted to experimental music and sometimes dance. It is raw, spare, sometimes confusing, but the creative side is juicy. The first one primarily centered around music, with movement included.

This time the series framed the dance, where the music was created by the dancers themselves. Maree DeMalia and David Bernabo, the only certifiable musician, per se, on the program, had some choice concepts in their piece.

Maree is a fresh new voice on the local dance scene. In slants revisited/take away the mountain, third in a series,  she worked with Dave, who is knee deep in a current dance trend where musical artists don’t just adhere to a fixed position with their instruments, but instead venture into the movement as well. 

So they played with bags and lights and shadow and the floor. They both also recorded their voices from writings in a notebook, although there was a technical glitch when the recorder itself fell to the floor and stopped at one point. No matter — it was engaging throughout.

They set up the theme for the evening, Experiments in Dance and Sound, in the ensuing works, all of which created a sound score through the dancers’ bodies. But each had an individual character.

In her work-in-progress, Mom, I’m so sweaty, New York City’s Jaime Boyle did it by the numbers. How do you feel? Five days ago? Five months ago? Five years ago? With a clock strapped to her waist, sometimes muffled when she lay on the floor. It was like being caught in a time warp continuum.

And Ohio State University instructor Abby Zbikowski brought two solos, look at my box for herself and jm, performed by Jennifer Meckley, which had a punk-ish feel to the hard-edged physicality. So you could see the hip hop aura, but stylishly invoking substantive modern dance.

Overall it was an informal shocker how the body and, in particular, the floor could be used in such individual ways…to be both visually and aurally satisfying in its own element.


On Stage: Pittsburgh Dance Council 2013-14 Season

May 5, 2013

They say you can’t go back, but the Pittsburgh Dance Council is ignoring that with its upcoming 2013-14 season. Executive director Paul Organisak, perhaps inspired by the Pittsburgh Festival of Firsts (exciting news in itself!) this fall and which he curated as well, has gone back to the adventuresome, experimental, what-the-hell-was-that programming that many of us knew and loved.

It appears that the PDC companies will include their own list of firsts: two North American premieres in partnership with the Festival, four new companies/projects out of six and seven new choreographers armed with local premieres.

Montreal’s Marie Chouinard will open both the Dance Council season and the Festival of Firsts. Gymnopedies, set to Eric Satie’s minimalist piano pieces, is the North American premiere, and will be paired with Michaux Mouvements, based on the poetry and drawings of Belgian Henri Michaux, which served as the literal jumping off point for the choreography. This will be the Quebec choreographer’s fourth visit to Pittsburgh, which has in the past produced The Rite of Spring and 24 Preludes by Chopin (a personal favorite of Organisak’s), among others (Sept. 28, Byham Theater).

Another sneak peak at the Festival line-up comes with Swiss artists Zimmermann & de Perrot, a physical theater duo, who will be literally thinking out of the box and inside it during Hans was Heiri. According to Organisak, Pittsburghers will see this event before it gets to New York’s Brooklyn Academy of Music (Oct. 18, Byham).

On to the debut of the Brazilian group Compagnie Käfig, an international sensation that takes hip hop and puts it to samba and bossa bova. A company guaranteed to raise the spirits, it has appeared at Jacob’s Pillow and the Spoleto Festival, among others. What more can you do with plastic cups? (Feb. 1, Byham).

One of the highlights of the season is sure to be Ballet du Grand Thèâtre de Genéve and the start of a balletic finish to the season, but showing us where ballet is headed. Yes, this is the only company where George Balanchine served as artistic advisor (1970-78), but it has worked with numerous artists, including Baryshnikov, Kylian and Forsythe. Founded in 1962, the 22-member company brings two emerging artists on the international scene — Andonis Foniadakis’s Gloria, which will create a stylish new symbiosis with music by Baroque composer George Frideric Handel, and Ken Ossola’s Sed Lux Permanet, with sculpted shadow play to Fauré’s Requiem. (Mar. 8, Byham)

Wendy-Whelan-Nisian-Hughes-Photographer-2aAcclaimed New York City Ballet principal dancer Wendy Whelan will be bringing her Restless Creature project, set to debut at Jacob’s Pillow this summer. She will dance four duets with four emerging choreographers — Pittsburgh’s Kyle Abraham, Joshua Beamish, Brian Brooks and Alejandro Cerrudo, whose Lickety Split was a sensation recently at Point Park University’s annual Byham concert. This one is creating a lot of buzz in the dance community. (Mar. 22, Byham)

The final contemporary ballet event will mark the return of Wayne McGregor l Random Dance, (Apr. 26, Byham). He is the resident choreographer at The Royal Ballet in London and it is his company. He has a scientific bent on ballet — using film, music, visual art and technology —  that is truly unique (Apr. 26, Byham).

For ticket information click on Pittsburgh Dance Council.

On Stage: Point Park’s New Byham Collection

April 27, 2013

Point Park UniversityThere was something old, something new and, yes, something a little blue as Point Park University’s Conservatory Dance Company took to the Byham Theater for its annual formal showcase. And, of course, Point Park borrowed four distinctly different works from around the country to construct an evening that had a balanced zest about it.

For example, it’s important that CDC taps the historical side of dance to expose the students to some of the greats. Certainly some of those have been highly successful, like works from George Balanchine (Valse Fantaisie) and Martha Graham (Heretic).

This time the choice was selections from José Limón’s Choreographic Offering (1964), another seminal piece in the modern dance lexicon. I had my doubts going in — the last time the Limón company came to Pittsburgh, the style looked stodgy. But not so with this production, set by former company member Ryoko Kudo and assisted by dance faculty member Jason McDole.

The beautiful architectural details — it was easy to think of his relationship to former student Paul Taylor (another great choice for CDC’s future) — had sculptural authenticity and weight.

At the Saturday matinee, it was immediately apparent that Kyoko and Jason had worked exceptionally well together, transmitting the dance to the students with a real immediacy so that there was both life and breadth.

They made it so satisfying to watch the dance elements unfold with clarity, like the lovely pinwheel that slowly morphed into a series of turns, arms held high and the dancers’ spirits right along with them.

Point Park UniversityBen Stevenson’s End of Time was one of a series of award-winning pas de deux that he created for various ballet competitions around the world. This particular duet, inspired by a man and a woman who are the last two people on earth, didn’t have the urgency found in the Rachmaninoff score. That only comes with time.

But Veronica Goldberg and Robert Hutchinson wove their way through the seamless series of tricky lifts with an aplomb far beyond their years. 

Raphael Xavier’s A Movement and Front Street Walk were both apparently works-in-progress. Raphael himself has walked with Philadelphia hip hop guru Rennie Harris. While CDC was supposed to present a Harris’ piece, it ultimately evolved into Xavier’s own work.

There were were some engaging elements in this two-part movement study, with no apparent connection to them as of yet. A Movement featured a solo by Elisa Alaio, with an intriguing dichotomy between a front and back bending of the body.

But there was better material to be had in Front Street Walk. Surrounded by sounds of traffic (apparently from Pittsburgh, a nice touch), the dancers were clad in red, black and white and plenty of attitude. I loved the use of a two-dimensional walk, as if flattening the human form a la television.

There were other elements — a slapping of the floor accompanied by giggles and moon walks in new dimensions — that were fresh ideas as well, but lacked a connectivity. The best things about Street Walk was its use of female dominance in what is usually a male-dominated hip hop world. It has the potential to be downright street-sophisticated work, but needs further development.

The highlight of the program came from Alejandro Cerrudo’s “sock hop,” Lickety-Split, created for the dynamic Hubbard Street Dance Chicago. (Well, maybe we can call it “sock slide,” since the performers’ footwear determined some of the dance vocabulary.)

A Pittsburgh Dance Council audience saw the work in 2006, when HSDC took this Indie film of a dance and literally popped the inventive choreography. As it turned out, Lickety was a real find for CDC. Alejandro has been tapped by veteran New York City Ballet ballerina Wendy Whelan to participate in a commission this summer at Jacob’s Pillow that has the dance world buzzing. I’m sure his career will be taking off.

The work itself was sensational — a passionate whisper of a dance that threaded its way through a quirky trio of duos. Filled with life’s uncertainty during the periodic sock slides, it still had a Neverland aspect that floated in the imagination.

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