Dance Beat: Paul and Arthur, Arthur and Paul

September 20, 2018

How sad that two dance giants chose to make their exit in such a quick succession!

Paul Taylor is one of two modern dance choreographers born in the Pittsburgh area (the other being Martha Graham). He told me that he lived here in early childhood, but now his birthplace is being listed as Wilkinsburg. Much has been written about him, but I was fortunate enough to speak with him on several occasions. One was especially amusing. Years ago I went into the Pittsburgh Dance Council to participate in a conference call. But there the connection was disrupted at least 6 or 7 times. Through it all Paul was sincerely amused and patient. And, of course, he still gave a wonderful interview. So when his company comes to Pittsburgh, once again for the Dance Council on Feb. 23 next year, we’ll be viewing the performance with a special embrace.

We’ve also been lucky to host the Dance Theatre of Harlem on numerous occasions, again through the wonderful efforts of PDC. Then the company established a connection with Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre in 2017 and will bring them back in March for a two-week encore. I was able to interview Arthur Mitchell at the Dance Theatre of Harlem and watch him direct a class. What a presence! What a force of nature! How he transformed ballet!

Put these upcoming performances on your must-see calendar. They will be even more meaningful to those who love dance.


On Stage: Kyle Comes Home

November 12, 2017

It was a real pleasure to see the magnificent Kyle Abraham and his dancers at the August Wilson Center, which was reviewed at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. But I have to underscore my last statement, that Pittsburgh should support him now, not years from now. He is a real arts ambassador for Pittsburgh, which has inspired much of his personal style and content. Perhaps the Pittsburgh dance community can join forces, filtered through the Heinz or Pittsburgh Foundation. Pittsburgh Dance Council, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, August Wilson Center, Point Park University, Kelly Strayhorn Theater can all offer performance, choreographic and grant opportunities, plus workshops and creative residencies. It’s a great collective opportunity for Pittsburgh, given our history with Martha Graham, Paul Taylor and August Wilson.

On Stage: Beth’s Families

March 27, 2015
Beth Corning and John Gresh. Photo: Frank Walsh.

Beth Corning and John Gresh. Photo: Frank Walsh.

We have been watching Beth Corning slowly reveal her own family history during her years in Pittsburgh, show by show, step by step. But she has constructed a special dance family around her personal family via the Glue Factory Project, designed specifically for dancers over 40.

In celebration of Glue’s fifth anniversary, she is putting five performers, all with a local/regional connection, inside at ONCE there was a HOUSE, her fourth iteration of the piece. This time Corning rebuilt the work with Attack Theatre’s Michele de la Reza, Squonk Opera’s Jackie Dempsey, veteran Pittsburgh actor John Gresh, former Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre principal Tamar Rachelle Tolentino and Yoav Kaddar, head of West Virginia University’s dance department and former dancer with Paul Taylor, Jose Limon and Pilobolus.

It’s also the perfect way to celebrate five years in a “huge economic crunch.” Corning will embrace a long stint in Sweden, “that really created my artistic voice and my aesthetics and made them concrete,” by bringing in two Swedish artists later this year.

Re-entering her House along with “grownups who actually knew Dick and Jane,” the educational reading series used from 1930 to 1970 in many schools, was inspired by Pittsburgh.

But this House, which will double its length to an hour, “has changed a lot and the characters are completely different,” she promises. And with multidisciplinary artists around her, “it’s been pretty grand.”

“We acknowledge we’re all pushing our limits on this one — we’re all out of our comfort zone,” Corning says. ” It’s an incredibly vulnerable show; it’s incredibly vulnerable when you really know what you’re dancing about.”

The work she does is deeply personal, deeply engrained in the body and soul. For example, she would “sit and talk and analyze this thing” with Gresh “and find ways into it — it’s so much fun! These are people who are smart, who are there, who are present beyond present.”

So de la Reza might turn into a rehearsal director, helping some of the others. And Dempsey, an accordionist in her professional life, “picks up dance movement faster than most dancers.” Gresh keeps laughing — “he calls himself a baby rhino in a bunch of gazelles.”

They’ve all had to adjust, though. The movement might have to switch legs because of a leg or hip problem because “it’s all part of the Glue Factory.” But according to Corning, there is so much other movement available that the richness of the dance still takes hold.

And that made the process so much more satisfying.

For example, she was enamored with Rachelle Tolentino from her very beginning in Pittsburgh. The ballerina led the company audition for Corning at the Alloy, whereupon she asked her to join the company. “You’re exactly what I’m looking for.” But the knee problem that had curtailed Rachelle Tolentino’s career prevented that.

But a couple of years ago, she coached Corning in her one-woman show, REMAINS. “I had an ‘aha’ moment,” recalls Corning, “as I watched her walk. Seasoned artists can simply walk and say as much as a young dancer does in fifty pirouettes.”

De la Reza hasn’t been coached in 20 years while co-founder of Attack, leading Corning to remark that de la Reza’s experience here is like learning Greek and then immediately performing a theater piece using it.

Corning and Kaddar traded rehearsal time between Morgantown and Pittsburgh, about 90 minutes. She notes, admiringly, that he was “alway on time.” As for Gresh, well, “He’s a honey. That guy’s the real deal — he’s not up there doing lines.”

And Dempsey, an accordionist, she didn’t know that she would “really” be dancing. In fact, she wrote a note to Corning saying, in part, “In two decades of performing, I’ve never been quite so terrified.” But if she “could choose any artist with whom to take this lead, it wold be Beth.”



On Stage: PPU’s Dance Explosion

May 17, 2014
Nick Fearon and Vanessa Guinto in "Wolfgang." Photo: Jeff Swensen

Nick Fearon and Vanessa Guinto in “Wolfgang.” Photo: Jeff Swensen

Conservatory Dance Company literally filled the Byham Theater stage with dance during its annual visit, but in four vastly different ways.

The first was George Balanchine’s Serenade (1934) one of the most memorable ballets in the classical repertory and full of ever-changing tidal patterns that never fail to entice, even after multiple viewings.It was a remarkably cohesive performance, especially give that the student cast was probably not schooled exclusively in the Balanchine technique.

Still, they were confidently led by Kathryn Van Yahres, Cassidy Burk and Alyssa Blad, surprisingly so when partnered by Alex Hathaway and Justus Whitfield. The two young men, in particular, exemplified the wonderful attention to detail used by stager Joysanne Sidimis — how to walk like the Elegy Boy or how to place the arms with authority.

Martha Graham’s Steps in the Street (from CHRONICLE) came from the same time period (1936). The two works couldn’t be more different, one an abstract romantic ballet, the other evoking images of war. Both, however, were connected by the genius of their creators and remained timeless.

They also set a high standard for the rest of the program.

David Parsons has contributed several worthy pieces to the Point Park University dance department (The Envelope, Nuevo). He is an offshoot of Paul Taylor’s athleticism, but without the intellectual purpose behind it.

So the beginning of Wolfgang was unfocused and heavy-handed. Part of that had to do with the sophisticated delicacy of Mozart’s music, a labarinthian task for any choreographer. By the third movement, however, he had settled on a wry humor and lightly etched dance that was more suitable.The students, notwithstanding, gave it their all throughout.

Dwight Rhoden put the exclamation point on the evening with Mercy. There are two ways that a Rhoden piece can come across, given his penchant for a form of choreographic multi-tasking — multiple moves per beat — as either relentless or mesmerizing. With the passion of PPU’s Mercy cast, it was the latter on opening night, despite the fact that the overall intent wasn’t particularly clear, what with a disparate accompaniment from Bach and The Hallelujah Chorus to Indian music driving the dance.

Even so, Will Geoghegan had the solo role of his years of Point Park and the cast certainly followed suit.

On Stage: The Delectable Mark Morris

May 12, 2013
The Muir

The Muir

If you ever wondered why Mark Morris’ choreography had such breadth and wit and intelligence, you only have to talk with him. I found that over the course of several interviews over the years and the Pittsburgh Dance Council audience saw it for themselves after Mark Morris Dance Group’s performance at the Byham Theater (click on Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for the review).

Dressed super-casually in shorts and shirt, with a graying beard, he attracted quite a crowd and didn’t disappoint, jumping on questions he deemed short on critical thinking, but calling one “the best question ever!!”

He’s so-o-o immediate.



Some Q&A tidbits:

Most of it focused on the music, “not live music, just music.” Mark said there was a huge difference between dancing to taped music and making subtle alterations during a music performance. He then asserted that if more choreographers demanded it, like Paul Taylor and Twyla Tharp (yes, he named names!), audiences would get it.

Mark fully admitted that he was as highly knowledgeable about music as choreography  — “I have the most exquisite taste in music of anyone I know.” His favorite musical centuries are the 18th and 20th. He doesn’t like “heldenleben” (the 19th), probably referring to Richard Strauss, which doesn’t have a discernible, danceable beat. It is music that bleeds and bursts.

For those who think his style of dance looks too easy, he revealed that “you’d be surprised how many people can’t do my work” at auditions were 500 people show up and he only needs “1.5 women.”

Mark doesn’t want to do “suppositories of entertainment.” He creates a show for “adults, not thinking babies.”

Afterwards he went out with Carolyn and William Byham, longtime supporters of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, which also happened to present the outspoken choreographer’s “Drink To Me Only With Thine Eyes” this season.

More Morris, please.

On Stage: Adventures in Art

February 17, 2012

What goes up, must come down. Now, what was out, must come in. Parkour and Freerunning, once the territory of Neanderthals, soldiers and Jackie Chan, who all employed similar survival skills, is taking to the concert stage.

Perhaps Dance Works Rotterdam was the first to embrace that concept, mostly due to artistic director Andre Gingras, who has been something of an artistic adventurer for most of his adult life. As a student of theater, English literature and contemporary dance in Toronto, he wanted to expand himself, primarily as a dancer. And that meant New York City, the ultimate mecca for the young Canadian.

Almost immediately he landed a scholarship at the Paul Taylor studio, where principal dancer, Christopher Gillis, became a mentor.  Andre eventually moved on to the Doris Humphrey and Doug Varone companies. But it was on a European vacation five years later that he auditioned for theatrical wizard Robert Wilson, who was creating a major work for the Weimar Festival in Berlin.

It was an immediate click with his work,” Andre recalls. And thus started a four year period where he became a regular contributor to Wilson productions. “Bob is very collaborative. He’s very, very curious about what young artists have to say. He has a huge love and respect for dancers and is really open to your input.”

Andre admits that the experience transformed him as an artist. Since it didn’t matter where Wilson artists lived, Andre slept on the couch in some friends’ apartment in Rotterdam.

Slowly he began dancing with small Rotterdam companies, then making his own work. It started to “take over his life” and Dance Works soon followed.

But he never stopped searching, with forays to India, North Africa and the Middle East. “My goal was to ‘hybridize’ and expand the art form, to really look at what other things could be integrated,” Andre explains.

That included martial arts, especially Brazilian capoeira. Or medical subjects, where he used the “beautiful, interesting vocabulary” of Terret’s Syndrome for his first solo piece, P17.

And the Netherlands sponsors Dancing on the Edge, a special festival in Amsterdam that focuses almost entirely on dance in the Middle East and then sends them through a network of cities.

Through the festival, Andre was connected with a group, El Funoun, in Palistine. He did workshops on contemporary dance technique. But the company was based in folk lore and had young dancers who were trying to look at “what would be the most authentic contemporary manifestation of their indigenous dance.” So they delved into choreography, with great success.

By now it was obvious to Andre that he saw dance everywhere he turned. Freerunning had become a hot commodity in parts of Europe. It’s an offshoot of Parkour, a new movement form that came out of the French army and became an art form of “getting from A to B with the least amount of flourishes, but the most effective way.”

Freerunning “embraced the flourishes and fun things.” It’s almost the same vocabulary, but it’s “a bit more spectacular.” In 2006, Andre was already asking, “Wow — why can’t we put this in a theater? Why does it have to be on the street? It’s such a beautiful language.”

So he hired a guy “to teach these insane things” to his dancers. Although he called the dancers “amazing” in absorbing the information, he realized that he had to put limits on the technique.

“You don’t do it once for a video — you have to do it every night.”

But it worked. Now it’s part of the repertory and his new dancers have to embrace those skills. But he’s careful, noting that “we’re a European dance company and we have workman’s comp people looking over my shoulder. I can’t have them jump four meters down onto concrete. And you can’t do another show like that the next day.”

Pittsburgh audiences can see for themselves this weekend (see CrossCurrents Listings for more information) when Dance Works Rotterdam brings Anatomica to the Byham Theater.

Well, part of it. Andre originally envisioned a three-part series about “the body on display. Why do we display the body? How do we display the body?” He thought it should be three pieces, but only had a good idea for the third one, so he decided to work on that first.

“The body is that magnificent instrument that can do all these extraordinary, remarkable, virtuosic things that fly through the air,” Andre explains of #3. “So it’s very acrobatic.” Next came #1, a beginning segment that shows “why do we show the body. Well, very often that’s tied to sexual drive, the desire to find a mate, to procreate. So we look at courtship rituals, mating dances and online chat room experiences — every that makes us put ourselves out there.”

And what about #2? Andre thinks that he’ll make it in 2014. He quips, “I’m in no rush.”

On Stage: PDC – A New Physicality

May 23, 2011

The past couple of years have been rough for everyone and, for the Pittsburgh Dance Council, it showed in the bottom line. As the Pittsburgh series with a real international flavor, PDC had always surprised and educated us with its global approach.But the economy hit everyone hard.

In the 2008-09 season, which had seven companies, over half of them came from outside the U.S., including Ballet Maribor, Inbal Pinto, Batsheva and Ballet Boyz. The following year, there was only one (Britain’s Vincent Dance Theatre) and Margaret Jenkins’ collaboration with Guandong Modern Dance Company. Last season there were only six groups and Israel’s Barak Marshall pulled out, to be replaced by David Dorfman’s Sly Stone project and giving the series an all-American flavor.

Not that all-American is a bad thing. But there is something more engaging about international diversity. We can say the economy was partly to blame, but so were visas for international artists, which became increasingly difficult. Still it looks like all is on the mend for next year, with a great balance of old favorites and new experiments.

Heidi Latsky’s “Gimp” gives the PDC a seventh concert, although it is a collaboration with the FISA Foundation, which helps girls, women and people with disabilities in southwestern Pennsylvania. The piece, which will combine dancers with and without disabilities, will provide workshops to involve the local community and will PDC’s first foray to the August Wilson Center. PDC patrons might recognize Heidi as a former principal dancer with Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company, where the tiny dancer paired with 200-pound plus Lawrence Goldhuber. In the years since she left the company, she has been forging her own choreographic reputation, as well as forming an interest in the healing art of dance.

The international accent is back, mainly due to the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust’s “Distinctively Dutch Festival,” still to be fully revealed. Hopefully it will follow in the singular footsteps of the Australian and Quebec festivals.

Photo by Robert Benschop

The Dance Council will contribute a pair of programs, both United States premieres (always exciting news!), to the event.  Former Nederlans Dans Theater artistic director and master choreographer Jiri Kylian has joined forces with Michael Schumacher, a leading figure in dance improvisation in Europe, for “Last Touch First.” Dance Works Rotterdam/ Andre Gingras features a revival from the Canadian choreographer, “Anatomica,” first presented by Rambert Dance Company in England and featuring “danger, beauty and consequences of the body on display.”

The rest of the season will comprise a group of American masters. MOMIX has blossomed under Moses Pendleton, also a co-founder of Pilobolus, and Cynthia Quinn since 1980. The company delves into the inventive garden of  “Botanica” with video, projections and some very large props.

Photo by Todd Rosenberg

There will be some downsizing as Paul Taylor, the most revered choreographer of his generation, and Lar Lubovitch, that most symphonic of choreographers, return for the first time to the Byham Theater. Both had previously appeared at the Benedum Center. But they will be highly anticipated, nonetheless.

Joining them will be Karole Armitage, finally making her debut here in Pittsburgh. Known as the “punk ballerina,” she will extend the footprint laid down by George Balanchine in “Three Theories,” based on physicist Brian Greene’s best-selling book, “The Elegant Universe.”

Overall the PDC 2011-12 season exudes a strong potential  in presenting both the force and the artistry of the body in exciting ways. Love the arc of the 2011-12 season, ending with Lar. Welcome back!

The full listing: MOMIX, Byham, Sept. 16-17; Paul Taylor Dance Company, Byham, Oct. 22; Dance Works Rotterdam/ Andre Gingras, Byham, Feb. 18; Armitage Gone! Dance, Byham, Mar. 3; Jiri Kylian and Michael Schumacher, August Wilson Center, Apr. 6-7; Lar Lubovitch, Byham, Apr. 28. Subscription packages run from $109-217. Call 412-456-1390. Heidi Latsky Dance is  a Dance Council Special and will be performed as a separate event at the August Wilson Center – tickets only $17.

On Stage: Through Martha’s Eyes – Part 1

February 22, 2010

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre offered a contemporary (of the ’90’s ilk) view of dance with two iconic dance figures, Paul Taylor and Twyla Tharp. Click on Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for the review.  But here’s a bonus: Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Martha Rial was on hand for the dress rehearsal, resulting in her always-winning view of dance. More tomorrow in Part 2.

Photo by ©Martha Rial

Photo by ©Martha Rial

Photo by ©Martha Rial

Photo by ©Martha Rial

Photo by ©Martha Rial

Photo by ©Martha Rial

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