On Stage: Bringing “Paris” Home

June 5, 2017

Paris is (or should be) on everyone’s bucket list, whether it is the City of Light itself or the original movie starring Gene Kelly. Now An American in Paris can come calling to a city nearby. That is, in this case, Pittsburgh, where the Civic Light Opera was instrumental in bringing the Tony Award-winning production to life and is presenting it on its first national tour.

Original Cast members Leanne Cope and Robert Fairchild. Photo: Angela Sterling

So Paris recently made its way to the Benedum Center where it became one of the few productions to truly fill this 2,800-seat house, maybe even better than on Broadway. The star, of course, is the sweeping score, with so many George Gershwin favorites setting a blend of engagement and sophistication that inspires the rest of the production.

If you are looking for a remake of the Kelly movie, don’t bother. For director/choreographer Christopher Wheeldon et. al. have used the story of an American soldier with a talent for art and filled it with so much more.

Instead of Kelly’s Jerry waking up to the sounds of Paris, the audience finds a piano center stage, signaling the importance of the music. The musical Paris virtually billows from there, beginning with the Arc de Triomphe hovering in the background and a huge French flag that covers the stage.

The spectacle continues with the art, so Parisian. It virtually draws the various buildings with charcoal lines as Jerry might have, along with such references as Monet’s light on the Seine and abstract modern art on display. There is a huge production number, ala the Art Deco design of Radio City Music Hall, and the climactic ballet sequence has a touch of Mondrian, with primary colors in geometric shapes.

There is much to bedazzle the viewer. Wheeldon’s vision is epic, where everything seems to be choreographed, even Bob Crowley’s Tony Award-winning set pieces that create a gliding jigsaw puzzle across the stage and drift down and up like clouds. When it’s all over, the audience has been on its own effortless Parisian tour.

And if the set dances on its own, the talented performers, culled from major companies in New York, Chicago, Miami and such, take the ballet style and give it an elegance and purity of line that has never been seen in a Broadway musical up until now, an achievement in itself. (And, by the way, they can sing and act up a storm as well.)

If there is a glitch, it’s that Craig Lucas’ book, taut as it is, builds up the secondary characters. It’s  a great idea on paper, but something that diminishes the relationship between Lise (the vocally superb Sara Esty) and Jerry (National Ballet of Canada principal McGee Maddox). Composer Adam, Etai Benson with a superb dry wit, gets the theatrical emphasis at the start. And Henri, a booming Nick Spangler, gets the benefit of the Radio City Music Hall mega-production.

A word to the wise: with so much to absorb and the huge vision of it all, this delicious Parisian truffle probably would be best to see seated at a distance, the better to savor it. And just like you need time to appreciate Paris itself, maybe it would be good to return for an encore, because this production builds its own stairway to paradise.

Original cast. Photo: Matthew Murphy


On Stage: Pillow Project Anew

January 23, 2013

Pillow Project Second Saturday Blue RedshiftThere’s a changing of the guard afoot at The Pillow Project. Dance guru Pearlann Porter will be heading to Paris for a couple of months and won’t be back in Pittsburgh until late April. (Don’t worry, she already has projects in place.) During her stay in the City of Light, she’ll be reconnecting with poet and East Liberty native Moe Seager and other artists that she met on her last several trips, as well as delving more deeply into la langue française.

So there was a transition at the latest edition of Second Saturdays. Pearlann could be seen skirting the shadows, but she handed over the brief emcee duties to Zëk Stewart. Caitlyn Cahill was managing the house, something she will continue, and Taylor Knight will be teaching at The Space Upstairs.

All were on hand for this industrial-strength evening of improvisation. Blue Redshift, a tight-as-a-drum funk band with a cool vibe and liberal doses of improv, was oh-so-perfect for the dancers on hand. And when they weren’t dancing, the ensemble members could be seen operating Mike Cooper’s in-the-moment setup. Like Big Brother, they played over the action and manipulated the images so that they were sometimes a smear or a funhouse mirror, often askew, like turning life on its head.

Over on the black wall, chalk artist Jordan Bush was morphing a tiger into…who knows what? As I left, they were just starting to hit an even deeper groove. Time has no meaning here — it’s only about the moment at hand.

Pillow Project Second Saturdays Blue Redshift



Dance Beat: Attack, Pillow Project, Glue Project, Jacob’s Pillow

June 26, 2012

LA BELLA DONNA. When things are going so swimmingly, we resist any changes. We’ve seen Attack Theatre grow from a spontaneous and likable dance ensemble to a stable artistic force that somehow still retains those great attitudes. Executive director Donna Goyak played a major hand in guiding this everyone-wants-to-Friend-them group with her terrific sense of wordplay and an acute business sense toward that stability. Now Donna feels that it’s time to move on and somehow we’re all happy for her, although we hope she stays close at hand. (With La Donna gone, the group will surely stay on track when associate director marketing and corporate partnerships Rebecca Himberger jumps into place. While we’re at it, I have to note Attack’s recent foray once more into the classical music kingdom with Milhaud’s nifty La Crèation du Monde and the Pittsburgh Youth Symphony. Although it followed a complete Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra concert (also dance-oriented, as well as part of the Paris Festival with Stravinsky’s Petrouchka and Gershwin’s terrific American in Paris, along with PSO principal cellist  Anne Williams in Honegger’s cello concerto), many in the audience stuck around for the work. Conducted by the astute Lawrence Loh, with his talented group doing true justice to the difficult score, the Attackers made the two formerly lethargic children in front of me sit up and take notice. But even for adults, Attack always provides a strong visual interest in its collaborations with Heinz Hall orchestras.

Photo: Cassie Kay Photographs

OVERSEAS WITH THE P’S. I caught up with Pearlann Porter about The Pillow Project’s encore trip to Europe. While Paris was once again the centerpiece, with two visits, the two-week May tour also included London, Amsterdam and Dublin. First up was London, where the Pillow dancers could not find any street musicians (“shocking!”), which has rules against that sort of thing. So they headed to a jazz club and then on to Big Ben, Parliament and Piccadilly Circus, where they didn’t loiter per se, but did “intentful and purposeful” neutral movement that perplexed the bobbies a bit, but no more. They found improv master Michael Schumacher in Amsterdam, had some lunch and exchanged ideas and did some similar stillness exercises in this “completely comfortable” and “particular” culture. Paris felt “way more comfortable” because people remembered them. Moe Seager was there and a couple of familiar venues. But the Pittsburgh dancers loved Parisians’ “genuine intrigue about the new — little kids have it.”  As for Dublin, it had an “obscene amount of street musicians.” So the Pillow group just “showed up and started going for it,” moving from player to player, “like bar-hopping, but with musicians.” Pearlann also had news of a mini-tour next spring. The Heinz Endowments has funded the Project’s 2012-13 season, made up of five full performances. It will culminate in a day-long encore at Braddock’s Carrie Furnace sometime in May 2013.

PROJECTS AND PUPPETS. Firebrand choreographer Beth Corning has a new Glue Factory Project set for this September at the New Hazlett Theater. Called “The Life & Death of Little Finn,” it will include “6 puppets, original animation & other numerous moving parts,” including 3 live performers. In the meantime, she’s in New York for her new Solo Project, where she is working with Tony Award-winning director Dominique Serrand (and director of The Moving Company) over the course of a year. The project is funded by an Individual Artist Grant from the Heinz and Pittsburgh foundations. See an animation preview by clicking on Little_Finn_She_Left.html

Photo: David Cooper

THE BIG 80.Yes, Jacob’s Pillow is celebrating a milestone anniversary this year, with plenty of great dance attractions. If you’re in the neighborhood (western Massachusetts), check it out. Click on www.jacobspillow.org. 

Dance Beat: Listings, Pillow, MSDC, Evolve, Lake, Luke

September 7, 2011

Off to Dance. Well the 2011-12 dance season is off on a robust note this week. Check the Listings page for all things September.

Cassie Kay Photography

Off to Paris. Pearlann Porter and The Pillow Project will move from the City of Bridges to the City of Lights this fall. They will collaborate with renowned jazz poet Moe Seager in a series of intimate underground jazz clubs during the evening Oct. 14-17. By day the Pillow, including Brent Luebbert, Kaylin Horgan, Taylor Knight, Rebekah Kuczma and Pearlann, will generate site-specific jazz performances around the streets of the city.

Off to New York. It was great to interact with Pittsburgh’s newest company, the Murphy/Smith Dance Collective at Dance Alloy recently. Jamie Erin Murphy and Renee Danielle Smith have been establishing their local reputations as members of Staycee Pearl dance project and as independent choreographers. Now they’ve established their own group and held a fundraiser to help finance a trip to the Big Apple for  the White Wave 2011 Dumbo Dance Festival in Brooklyn Sept. 23 and 25. There they will perform  “Much More Than Bones” along with company members Alan Obuzor, Cassie Shafer and Laura Warren Warnock.

In the Mix. Sarah Parker reports that she will coordinate the dance for ARTS ALIVE, which benefits Chrohn’s & Colitis Foundation of Pittsburgh, on Oct. 21 at the Cardello Building on the North Side. Look for  Evolve Productions and Continuum Dance Theater, plus music, mural painting, sculpting and interactive performance art. For more info, click on ARTS ALIVE.

From the Lake. Word comes from Chautauqua that Stephen Crosby got a great reception from his two audio-video lectures called: “From Bach to Rock: Inspiring Great Choreographers,” where examples covered “classic perfection, iconic Americana, absurdist spoof, triple-genius collaboration, enigmatic rarity, Latin exuberance, a love-lost fairy tale, romantic jewels, war and redemption – and more.” The topic enticed such notables as Chautauqua Ballet heads Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux and Patricia McBride and former Dance Alloy artistic director Mark Taylor among the enthusiastic audiences. Wife Bonnie also  brought me up to date on a future notable, Laura Neese, who won the National Society of Arts and Letters Solo Choreographic Competition (New York) and went on to place third at the national level. She was accepted to the Limon Professional Studies Program for the fall, but decided against a structured program to develope a “just keep swimming attitude.” So she’s been taking a variety of classes and workshops (Trisha Brown intensive – “brain-bendingly challenging”), seeing work, auditioning, teaching a bit and has been interning at Dance New Amsterdam. Laura also performed with Vital Dance, Checkit Dance and Naganuma 2 over the summer and is

Photo by John Altdorfer

starting with Deborah Carr Dance, a blend of Irish dance and modern, for which Sean Curran is setting a work soon. As Laura puts it, “I feel very much in a period of flux. I’m meeting new people and experiencing new things, and constantly auditioning, making connections, like sending out a myriad of fishing lines, and a few are catching, so I’m following those leads right now.I know I ultimately want to choreograph my own work, but I want to experience performing with a variety of people on order to enrich my perspective. I want to make sure I have something to say and a variety of tools to articulate it.”

On the Page. Point Park fave Luke Murphy, who still maintains his Pittsburgh ties through the newMoves Festival, scored a quote in the Gia Kourlas’ article on his work with Punchdrunk. Read on with by clicking New York Times.

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