On Stage: “Ursula and the 11,000 Virgins” and more…

October 26, 2018

Caitlin Scranton as St. Ursula. Photo: Andrew Jordan

As a child, New York City choreographer Christopher Williams would visit the National Zoo in Washington D.C. and, to his parents’ chagrin, develop “an intensive love of creatures that were other than human. I would come home and imitate pigmy hippos and giraffes,” become involved in an “alternate physicality.”

  When his family moved to Syracuse, New York, he “made a beeline” for the local library and immersed himself in the mystical, the spiritual, the Tolkien. His imaginative, religious and otherworldly approach to dance brought him a Bessie Award, similar to a Tony, and a cult reputation.

Matt Pardo rehearsing St. Stephen at The Space Upstairs. Photo: Ben Viatori.

After producing an outdoor program featuring minimalist postmodern icon Lucinda Childs here last summer, The Blanket, one of Pittsburgh’s newest groups, decided to do a 180 degree turn and bring Mr. Williams to Pittsburgh for a sampling of those Bessie dances, essentially a series of highly theatrical solos about Christian martyrs. One depicts St. Stephen from the all-male “The Golden Legend,” which won a NYC Messie (substituting for the Bessie) in 2009 “for those artists who make [us] think and feel and marvel and rage and laugh.” The other seven martyrs stem from the all-female (and Bessie Award winner in 2005) “Ursula and the 11,000 Virgins.”

St. Ursula (Latin meaning “little female bear) actually wears fur mitts with claws in the production. Suffice it to say that it is something the likes of which Pittsburgh has not yet seen.

Founders Caitlin Scranton and Matt Pardo acknowledge the risk. Of course Ms. Childs and Mr. Williams are “completely and totally different,” according to Ms. Scranton. But without one artistic director, they can “pick projects that are unique and dissimilar from each other. That way we’re not only bringing something totally new to Pittsburgh audiences, but we’re bringing a very new experience to the dancers that we hire.”

Lindsay Fisher-Viatori rehearsing St. Margaret, who was burned, at The Space Upstairs. Photo: Ben Viatori.

Mr. Pardo adds, “That’s been part of the fun of this project, watching Pittsburgh dancers, in all their many iterations, really take to Christopher’s work.”

Ms. Scranton, who has worked extensively with both and is currently touring with Ms. Childs, noted that the two choreographers have been seen “much more robustly abroad, so that’s another interesting layer. Strictly physically, they are so opposite. All of a sudden I can move my back [in Mr. Williams’ work], which is a nice complement.”

As Mr. Pardo, who will perform St. Stephen, puts it, “Though their works are totally different in terms of the end product, they share a love of rigor” and “work generously with you, being specific in every minute detail.” He is excited to “access the lineage inside the Merce Cunningham technique apparent in some of the solos,” along with Mr. Williams’ theatricality, seen in the fantastical costumes, “which brings such an interesting element to this idea of what dance is.”

Christopher Williams rehearsing The Blanket dancers at The Space Upstairs. Photo: Ben Viatori.

Ghosts and spirits, with their airy flow, sometimes haunt the choreographies of dance, like “Giselle” and “La Sylphide.”But then Mr. Williams has taken it a step further, using Tolkien and a similar mythopoeia (writers/artists who create their own mythical universe). The Cloisters, a museum in upper Manhattan that specializes in European medieval architecture, sculpture and fine arts, including the famous “Hunt of the Unicorn” tapestries, is one of his “main haunts.” And his most recent travels have taken him to Ireland and Greece, both substantial lands of mythology, sustaining “this ancient human impulse to think about our origins and use fantastical beings from the other world to help tell our story.” 

It’s been an adventurous journey for this adult perpetrator of the dance fantastical, to “bring a strand of the ancient story into the here and now, to create a visceral, movement-based approach.”

In addition to the nine solos and a short finale that tell stories of martyrdom, the Williams program will involve three males of differing ages who collectively act as a chorus, harassing the women and pushing the stories, which include stretching, stoning and a dragon, to their individual conclusions.

Four musicians — two female vocalists and two musicians who play viola da gamba player and recorder — will interpret a commissioned score by Peter Kirn in the medieval style. And the dancers will wear costumes designed by Michael Oberle and the multi-talented Mr. Williams, who also is expert in puppetry.

“It is absurdly challenging,” Mr. Pardo admits. He describes a phrase for Ms. Scranton as dead-lifting her leg “as high as it will go, then rotating to an arabesque. The arabesque goes into a penche [higher arabesque] as the hand traces cross-laterally across the body.”

Audience reaction will remain a mystery until the performance, “one of the things we’re most excited about, and frankly, most scared about,”  Mr. Pardo says. “The works we are most interested in presenting are high caliber, award-winning artists that may not have been seen in Pittsburgh before.”

In Mr. Williams’ work, audiences will access a different level of theatricality inside of dance. Ms. Scranton points out one new aspect of the martyrs that has developed since its debut in 2005. “Now when I’m watching it, I’m struck by the power of women.” Mr. Pardo reinforces that with, “in this moment, in this time, it highlights powerful women in a very specific way that is very exciting.”

This article was originally published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Dance Beat: Patricia, Matt, Brazzies, Charrette, Attack

August 30, 2016
Patricia Wilde with Savion Glover

Patricia Wilde with Savion Glover

A Wilde Award. Former Pittsburgh artistic director Patricia Wilde added yet another award to her treasure chest. She was honored by the National Museum of Dance in Saratoga, New York, along with famed tap dancer Gregory Hines, whose award was accepted by tapper extraordinaire Savion Glover, who was mentored by Hines. She was surrounded by her family, including children Anya Davis and Yuri Bardyguine, plus a sizable contingent who worked with her at PBT, including Terrence Orr, Harris Ferris, Janet Campbell with David and Roberto Munoz.

Fresh Addition. He has popped up in performances with Attack Theatre ever since he and husband Rubén Garcia, head of the dance department at Point Park University, moved to Pittsburgh two or so years ago. Dance Europe Magazine selected him as one of the “Top 100 Dancers in World” for 2010/2011 and he is a former dancer with Lucinda Childs. But he gave Pittsburgh a sweet surprise this spring at the Kelly Strayhorn Theater, simply titled Matt Pardo: An Evening of New Works. It was actually the culmination of a Master’s of Fine Arts Degree at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and showcased a subtle blend of jazz, which had a certain weight, and contemporary dance, which gave it a liquidity. That clarity and balance in Pardo’s choreography were easiest to see in Matt’s solo and another for Point Park dancer, the talented Justus Whitfield. There were two group dances for Point Park College dancers which further demonstrated a transparency in thought and execution to be found in Pardo’s style. Most exciting, though, was a trio he created with Childs dancers Caitlin Scranton and Sharon Milanese, beautifully interacting in various formations. It was a preview, though, because Pardo and  Scranton have designs on establishing a professional company in Pittsburgh.

BETH CORNING HEADSHOTThe Brazzies. The latest edition of the Brazzy Awards, named after former ballerina and inspirational teacher Leslie Anderson Braswell went to two veterans of the local dance scene. Congratulations to Beth Corning, who always offers deep, thoughtful performances for dancers over 50 (!), this time taking on avant-garde writer Samuel Beckett in Beckett and Beyond, and Christopher Budzynski, principal dancer with Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, who has contributed so much to an array of leading roles, including Swan Lake,  Don Quixote and Le Corsaire.

Christopher Budzynski with wife Alexandra Kochis in "Cinderella."

Christopher Budzynski with wife Alexandra Kochis in “Cinderella.”

Fresh Choreography. This is the must-see project developed at PearlArts Studios. Take a choreographer, give him or her the opportunity to develop work and present it in a  atmosphere, complete with expert feedback (in this instance dance artists Mark Taylor — who seamlessly coordinates things — Michele de la Reza, Jasmine Hearn and visual artist Maritza Mosquera). Do yourself a favor and take in the soft glow of changing light at the Studios, complete with intelligent, nurturing conversation and support for the likes of Jean Paul Weaver, Ella Moriah Mason and Slowdanger duo Anna Thompson and Taylor Knight.

Real Attack. One of my favorite activities, rain or shine. No real dance, just connecting with real dancers (and friends) who proclaim “We’re On a Boat.” The Attackers had a real presence this year, with co-founders Michele de la Reza and Peter Kope, of course, the inimitable executive director Rebecca Himberger, Dane Toney, Ashley Williams, all at Lock Wall One Marina at 23rd Street in the Strip District



On Stage: Wrapping Up the Dance

February 5, 2015

A NEW LABEL. It’s no longer Pennsylvania Dance Theatre, operating out of State College. Former Dance Alloy member became its artistic director in 2003 and the company gradually graduated to a home for his brand of dance theater. Just last year the name came to reflect that. Now called TanzTheater André Koslowski, he brought back A Cantankarous Wiegenlied (love the title!), which I’ve seen several times (minus the adjective) in different variations. Yes, André pumped up the volume on his surreal dreamscape of the past few years, so nocturnal, so fascinating with its collection of trees, garbage and, in particular, almost over-the-top, puzzling humans. In an odd way, it was easier to enjoy.

Liz Chang

Liz Chang

SPEAKING OF WRAP. Attack Theatre literally wrapped things up in their popular series, Holiday Unwrapped. They added a variation, though, called Holiday Hijinx and Revue, geared more for the adults, still chock full of dance, games and activities, plus a beer tasting and wine. And wrapping paper. It was good to see Liz Chang again, skating in for the weekend performances, between nursing studies. Also on hand was Matt Pardo, who is performing with Attack on its current projects. (He most recently toured with Lucinda Childs and the revival of DANCE and the world tour of the iconic Einstein on the Beach by Philip Glass, Robert Wilson and Childs and is in Pittsburgh via partner and head of the dance department at Point Park University Ruben Graciani.) Noting Liz and Matt, who replaced Brittanie Brown and James Johnson after Are You Still There?, Attack Theatre is in a new, more flexible mode.

IN A SPIN. The Whirling Dervishes created their own aura at Carnegie Hall in Oakland, deliciously coming in on the heels of the Royal Ballet of Cambodia — so good to observe dance companies that symbolize their countries in such singular and important fashion. The Dervish program featured ethnic music before a quartet of dancers began their famously mesmerizing hypnotic turns. They continued the next night at The Westin Convention Center with an appearance during the 14th annual Friendship Dinner and Award Ceremony, co-sponsored by the Turkish Cultural Center Pennsylvania Pittsburgh (a gem of a local organization as it turned out — we’re lucky to have them) and Peace Islands Institute.

Jessica Marino

Jessica Marino

IN FLIGHT. Dancers are always seeking to escape the earth, but Shana Simmons Dance simply, well, soared with the company’s movement investigation of Passenger at Pittsburgh’s National Aviary. It was my first visit since the new entrance construction and well worth the trip on several levels, including the birds, of course, human connections and environmental extinction. The title referred to the passenger pigeon and, for those unfamiliar with the story of this avian’s plight, it was inspired by the demise of the iconic bird. Once numbering in the billions during the 1800’s, it became extinct by 1914, when Martha, the last survivor, died in captivity. Divided into four sections, the five dancers pecked and preened and fluttered at the start, but without being too literal. Behavior and relationships came next — a whimsical section on nesting (playfully punctuated by “eggs” that rolled out onto the floor) and a mating ritual, never one-dimensional. We knew how it would end and Shana delicately handled it with a “Martha” solo for Jamie Erin Murphy, a little long, but poignantly accompanied by Anna Singer performing Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise. Art then met nature on a more casual note as audience members circulated through the Aviary and interacted with Shana, her “flock” and some new-found feathered friends.

PEARL-ESSENCE. It’s a cozy arts space that is so welcoming that audiences, particularly intellectuals and a surprisingly young crowd who bypass other presenting organizations to support Staycee and Herman Pearl and PearlArts. The latest event, a Salon & Potluck, had a three-hour line-up of poets, singers and dancers (Jamie Erin Murphy/Renee Smith and Alexandra Bodnarchuk testing the waters). After 40 years in Spain, Gail Langstroth moved to Pittsburgh. At PearlArts she initiated me into eurythmy (not the same as eurhythmics), where gesture and movement are related to accompanying text or music. And “Crutchmaster” Bill Shannon made rare and very welcome appearance. He tuned into the effortless elegance of Fred Astaire, but with a political edge. Hope we see more of him…and soon.

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