Off Stage: Exploring Ballet In a New Way

January 15, 2015

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The Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre has created a much-loved holiday tradition with its multi-million dollar production of The Nutcracker. But sometimes there can be just as much satisfaction to be found in the studio., not necessarily with the professionals, but students.


I was invited to watch such a class with seven very special beginners. There were no overhead lights, just the natural kind, giving the studio a warm, comforting feeling.

The students were reviewing the five ballet positions from their instructors, Kaila Lewis and Jamie Murphy. Also on hand for support was Alyssa Herzog Melby, education and community engagement director at PBT, who was integral in opening up the normally aristocratic world of ballet to those with autism.

It all started with special performances at the Benedum Center using low light and subdued special effects.

Now, with the assistance from the ABOARD’s Autism Connection of PA, PBT has initiated a series of four classes for high school students.

“We push for inclusion at the elementary level,” says outreach and eduction director Lu Randall. “But high school can be more difficult — it’s more competitive.”

There was autism training for the entire ballet school staff and the Nutcracker cast, enhanced by a high interest among PBT board members.

But the class concept may be a whole new thing in the ballet world. Ms. Fulton doesn’t know of a similar program anywhere else.

With this class in place, ballet could eventually become a lifelong movement activity for these students — a real plus.

The students learned warm-up exercises, along with relaxation techniques to help with stress management. There was a brief barre, beginning with plies, tendus and “the hard one,” piques. They jumped. They began to move across the floor.

Then came the fun stuff. The students actually learned slightly simplified, but real dances from the Nutcracker. First, the mice from the Transformation Scene, where they got to sneak around. Then everyone’s favorite, where they became the Pirate, swashbuckles and all.

It was obvious that everyone is enjoying themselves, from the family members sitting along the back wall and applauding enthusiastically to the dancers, whose smiles seem to grow during the class.

One young man even made his parents buy him a pair of ballet slippers. And they were all talking about what they would wear for their informal performance at the end of the sessions.

Cue the lights.


On Stage: PBTS Sneak Previews

June 11, 2014
Photos: Rich Sofranko

Photos: Rich Sofranko

Last year Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School started a ballet immersion in its annual recital. There the advanced students performed highlights from Swan Lake, one of the major upcoming productions of the season. This year it was La Bayadere, only the staff chose it as a theme for the whole school.

Set in the exotic Middle East, the Bayadere dances gave the students a chance to peruse a different culture, with more sinuous arms. Not only was it entertaining and certainly something different, they looked as if they enjoyed it and, better yet, understood it.

Marisa Grywalski and Andrew Kaczmarek

Marisa Grywalski and Andrew Kaczmarek

More importantly it gave the advanced students a head start on this iconic Russian ballet, so that when the company performs it next season, they will better complete the effect of a large ballet, especially the signature scene where the corps descends to the stage in a series of penche arabesques, so deceptively difficult.

Maine Kawashima and Masahiro Haneji

Maine Kawashima and Masahiro Haneji

The first half truly belonged to the school, with two pieces (Gust and Dovetail) created by PBTS graduate student Caroline MacDonald and choreographer and high school student and composer Jack Hawn. Not only were they lovely, they showed substantive thought. Jack provided a piano accompaniment for both works (When does he find the time?) They set up different tempi and textures for Caroline’s choreography. Then she showed a knack for developing an interesting vocabulary and provided a lovely complement to the music, a choreographer who certainly bears watching.


On Stage: Annual Dance Studio Listings

May 13, 2014

Ballet Academy of Pittsburgh in Peter Martins' "Eight Easy Pieces"

Every year it gets more exciting to hear what the local dance studios have to offer. More choreography. More themes. More high quality dance. The professional dance scene can only benefit from all this activity, as evidenced by the growing presence of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre alumni. Read more about it in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

On Stage: PBTS — A Midsummer Night’s Dream

June 21, 2013
Eleonora Morris and "Graduation Ball" friends jump for joy. Photos: Rich Sofranko

Eleonora Morris and “Graduation Ball” friends jump for joy. Photos: Rich Sofranko

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School was on the move this year, from the Byham Theater to the August Wilson Center, where the full student body performed twice to accommodate parents and friends in the more intimate venue.

The main attraction for the lower levels was Anastasia Wovchko’s selections from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where even the tiniest ballerinas never missed a beat during Mendelssohn’s twinkling score, executing swirling running patterns and steps with a finely-tuned precision.

Diana Yohe with Masahiro Haneji and Andrew Kaczmarek in "Quattro."

Diana Yohe with Masahiro Haneji and Andrew Kaczmarek in “Quattro.”

That led into the finale, the Grand March, in Europe called the Grand Defile, an exhibition of poise and persistence involving all the student levels and leading to a breathtaking promenade where all of the students gradually filled the stage in rows.

Also on the program, which was also given at Point Park University’s George Roland White Performance Studio as part of Pre-Professional Showcases were the second act of Swan Lake (was it preparation for the PBT season next year?) and James Washington’s contemporary piece Beauty, the Lack of, which showed an astute use of levels and a chance for both Erin Kuwabara and Maine Kawashima, in alternating casts, to score with an emotionally intense solo.

Diana Yohe in "Quattro."

Diana Yohe in “Quattro.”

Michael Smuin’s Quattro a Verdi was a smart selection for, yes, a quartet of PBT school’s best ballet technicians. Although there was nothing new — it was a chamber-sized version of Harald Lander’s Etudes from the floor combinations onward, the piece did gradually build in power and speed to an exciting conclusion. The men (Hunter Finnegan and Masahiro Haneji alternated, while Andrew Kaczmarek appeared at all six shows) impressed, with a noble air about them. Saho Shibayama and Diana Yohe (next year’s company apprentice) had a lovely, mature quality. But the petite powerhouse duo, Maine Kawashima and Mizuki Kubota, brought down the house with sparkling turns and phrasing.

Graduation Ball is one of the more engaging pieces in the repertoire for students, where they can be, well, pretty much themselves. But it’s also packed with technical hurdles among all the comedy, including a fouette duet and a drummer solo with precision aerial turns.

Eleonora Morris finishes her solo as the cadets and schoolgirls look on.

Eleonora Morris finishes her solo as the cadets and schoolgirls look on.

However, the standout role is The Pigtails Girl and here PBTS fielded two real talents. Eleanora Morris has a gorgeous line (though hidden by her dress and knickers) and will be on her way to study with the National Ballet of Canada and Sophie Silnicki made the most of her charismatic presence and will be returning in the fall. What fun they had flirting with the boys at the ball, while showing off their admirable technique.

There was a bonus, too, with PBT soloist Robert Moore en transvesti as the fussy Headmistress and Andre Reyes making his PBT debut (via principal at San Francisco Ballet and Pacific Northwest Ballet and Boston Ballet School) as the General. A duo with impeccable comic timing, they added their own professional nuances to the broad-based humor.

Dance Beat: Roberto/Simon, Ellie, the Arts

February 6, 2013

CRoberto MunozOFFEE KLATSCH. It was great to meet with Roberto Muñoz, former Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre ballet master who has moved on to head schools at the Colorado Ballet and summer sessions at Saratoga Springs Dance Intensive, which has also been expanded to Vail, Colorado. With him was Simon Ball, a former protégé and now principal dancer with Houston Ballet . They were in town to audition prospective students for Saratoga Springs at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre studios. We all go back a long way, to when Simon and his sister April (now a leading dancer in Les Ballets de Monte Carlo) were training with Roberto (then at Point Park University) for the USA International Ballet Competition in Jackson, Mississippi. We talked about it all at the Allegheny Coffee & Tea Exchange — what fun memories! Also quickly apparent was that Roberto hasn’t lost his passion for teaching — he will never stop. And Simon is starting to give back himself, with the help of his mentor. Simon talked about Houston Ballet, where he was a mainstay in the transition over to artistic director Stanton Welch and about the great company studios, where he can now teach wherever he likes. See him talk about his favorite role, Onegin, on YouTube, followed by a tour of the  six-story HB studios, the largest in the U.S.

Ellie MorrisELLIE. Elenora Morris competed in the Prix de Lausanne this past week and, by all accounts, enjoyed herself immensely. Of course, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School  is glad to have her back and looking forward to her continued development. Read all about it on Facebook/Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School.

ARTS ADVOCACY. We’ve seen how people can effect change through the social media and the arts, such a valuable resource, are starting to inspire a similar momentum. Keep the arts alive by supporting Citizens for the Arts in Pennsylvania (also on Facebook).

On Stage: An “Intensive” Summer

August 13, 2012

At the Point. Point Park University’s International Summerdance was rolling merrily along according to its final performance series, which had as strong a dance contingent as I’ve seen over the years. The choreographers provided a whole rainbow of dances, from Scott Romani’s Steal Your Rock ‘n roll to Kathleen Reilly-Reau’s Les Fleurs, where some of the “flowers” were sporting braces. Kiesha Lalama provided an African-layered number that unfolded like a Rubix cube — she’s so mathematical. And nothing was what it seemed in David Storey’s BUT Seriously, Though, where sounds of screams mutated into clown noses — really! At the end, Kiki Lucas transcended the decades, starting with the forties, in the powerfully effective Zap. Photographer Drew Yenchak provides some insight in this slideshow:

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PBTs Diplomatic Relations. I paid a visit to Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School’s Summer Intensive a short time ago and had a chance to talk with a delightful contingent of students from Japan who know a heckuva lot more English than I do Japanese. But more on that later as I work on a story about Japan’s passion for ballet.


Following in Some Big Footsteps. It looks like Ryan Lenkey had a great time making his debut with the New York City Ballet at Saratoga Springs, New York, in the mandolin dance from Peter Martins’ Romeo and Juliet. Since he studies at Pittsburgh Youth Ballet, he was thrilled to work with former PYB member and former NYCB principal dancer Stephen Hanna, who donated his time to work on the mandolin dance with Ryan, and NYCB principal and young guest artist with PYB Daniel Ulbricht, who played Mercutio in the production.

Dance Studio: He Says, She Says at Ballet Academy of Pittsburgh

July 22, 2012

Photos by Katie Ging

It almost seems like a chapter out of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, except that it’s the contemporary version (sorry, West Side Story) where two teenagers fall in love at a ballet school, have a career, open their own school and settle down to raise a family.

And unlike the Verona tale, this one has a happy ending.

The couple in question is Lindsay and Steven Piper, owners of Ballet Academy of Pittsburgh. Steven studied at School of Washington Ballet, Mary Day’s well-respected school that boasts alumnae like American Ballet Theatre’s Kevin McKenzie and Amanda McKerrow, actress Shirley Maclaine and Chelsea Clinton, and Maryland Youth Ballet, Cynthia Fonseca’s well-known school that spawned ABT’s Susan Jaffe, Julie Kent and son Peter Fonseca, among others.

She, then Lindsay LaFrankie, was a homegrown Pittsburgh dancer. Dancing along separate paths, they both decided to try the newly-formed Kirov Academy in Maryland. Steven says it was virtually love at first sight and soon they both found themselves in Pittsburgh. Says Lindsay, “There was something about him…I always knew.”

She wound up at PBT, he at PBT and Nashville Ballet. And when their careers had finished, they both turned to teaching…and school. The couple both completed their degrees in 2002.

Steven satisfied a long-time interest in history with a B.A. in History and Philosophy from the University of Pittsburgh (and is now nearing completion of a masters degree in historical preservation from West Virginia University). Lindsay, as it turned out, had a head for numbers and received a B.A. in Management from Chatham College.

Typical of dancers, they balance each other in life. “It would have been difficult to do this alone,” says Steven. “We have each other to talk about problems.”

And to run the Ballet Academy of Pittsburgh, which they founded in 2006 in Bethel Park. So she teaches ballet and pointe, of course, and he ballet, variations and male technique. Steven particularly cites Mansur Kamaledinov, a fixture on the local ballet scene for years, and a great influence.

Formerly of the Bolshoi Ballet, Mansur settled in Pittsburgh. Steven took many classes, some private with the ballet master. “He was a direct link to Vaganova,” he explains. “We would always do variations after class and the students could all turn like tops.”

It shows in their annual recital, which this year featured selections from “Swan Lake,” which obviously drew from their classical experiences as professionals.

The couple have applied all of their knowledge to teaching the students there and delight in watching their progression. Lindsay handles the bookkeeping and Steven the studio management — scheduling, working with people and the like.

But they sometimes cross reference their roles. They would have to as parents to  Kyra, Ava, Stella and Griffin, ranging from age 10 to several months. Just coordinating the family scheduling — Kyra and Ava do swimming and Girl Scouts, but “just want to do ballet” — involves Lindsay’s parents, who only live a mile away. Somehow the Pipers managed to create a calendar where the couple both teach only one day a week. They’re able to have shifts the rest of the time.

But they’re more than parents. Steven says Lindsay “has a way about her — it just keeps on an even keel. She keeps me going.” His wife adds, “He’s the best dad — loving, caring, patient. And it’s a good thing he has three daughters.” (He knows how to work with a predominantly female clientele at BAP.)

It’s a great story, but it seems to run in the family — Lindsay’s parents were high school sweethearts as well. And together these “best friends” are ready to watch BAP grow, to “keep challenging the kids” and “just be happy.”

Maybe Romeo and Juliet could have benefitted from this approach.



Dance Beat: School Update with PPU, PYB, ALDC, DC PGH.

July 1, 2012

RECONNECTING. Point Park University installed a new series this year called Point Park Connections. That meant extending its performing wing opportunities to adjunct faculty, including like Danielle Pavlik and Pearlann Porter. This was an implementation of PPU’s policy, to make sure that all dance majors have an opportunity to work with professional choreographers and perform original work. It was surprisingly good for a first effort, showing the depth of Point Park’s dancing talent and the adjunct faculty itself.

A SWEEPING BALLET. The Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School Pre-Professional Showcase finished with one of the best, George Balanchine’s Serenade, set to the sweeping Tchaikovsky score of the same name. This work is akin to playing Beethoven or Mozart in an orchestra, where no matter how far down the food chain your part may be, say viola or fourth horn, you somehow feel like an important cog in an organic whole. That was reflected in the rapturous faces of the students, who obviously enjoyed their experience. But the big news from the graduate student program came from the Japanese students, who captured many of the juiciest solos. To balance the program, the advanced students romped through Bournonville’s joyous Napoli divertissements and had another piece of lovely choreography from Alan Obuzor, A Voice in Time.

EN POINTE WITHOUT BREAKING. Pittsburgh Youth Ballet Company’s Jean Gedeon announced that Allison De Bona, one of the stars of CW’s Breaking Pointe and a PYBC alum, will be in town to teach for the school’s summer intensive. Visit the website, PYBC, call 724.969-6000 or email It was good to see that Allison was the lead in George Balanchine’s Walpurgisnacht, which I still fondly recall. But Jean still thinks big, with her talented dancers being featured in Balanchine’s terrific Gershwin-inspired Who Cares? and lovely Waltz of the Hours at the annual recital this year.

MORE THAN DANCE MOMS. Reign Dance Productions presented its annual recital at Shady Side Academy in Fox Chapel. At the same time, Abby Lee Miller Dance Company presented its recital for Lifetime’s Dance Moms series. Yes folks, the Richard E. Rauh Theater was packed to the gills as the cameras rolled for the television show. The Dance Moms themselves only sat in the hall for a short segment, then left, presumably to support their daughters backstage. But the entire recital was filmed, and that also meant the senior company members. Everyone got to do their solos and group numbers over the course of the year. The show itself ran nearly three and a half hours, but the students all acquitted themselves with professionalism, along with a strong dose of youthful spirit. And the graduating seniors shed tears at the thought of leaving the school…really.

TRIPPING THE LIGHT FANTASTIC. Well, Pittsburgh schools’ Dancing Classrooms held its second annual Colors of the Rainbow final team match at Pittsburgh Allderdice High School in May. Pittsburgh Linden K-5 captured the grand champion title for the second time in a close dance-off with Pittsburgh Dilworth PreK-5. Also providing plenty of spirited competition silver medalists Pittsburgh Concord K-5, Pittsburgh Miller K-5 and Sister Thea Bowman PreK-8 Catholic Academy and bronze medalists Pittsburgh Lincoln K-5, Pittsburgh Phillips K-5 and Pittsburgh West Liberty K-5. And Pittsburgh Conroy offered a skilled exhibition. Actually this is a real reality show that has plenty of natural emotion, all of it stemming from the students themselves. The adults then took to the floor in June at Dancing Classrooms’ annual Mad Hot Ballroom event at the Westin Convention Center in Pittsburgh. They had dinner, cocktails, dancing, a silent auction and their own competition, won by Jane and Bob Bukk of Tobacco Free Allegheny. It all raised $35,000 for the program, which I hear will expand to the eighth grade next year, incorporating some of those students in the inaugural program from 2009-10. Dance on!

On Stage: PBTS Blooms in May

June 2, 2011

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School has been in full bloom during the month of May, first with a series of four performances at Point Park University’s George Roland White Performance Studio (May 13-15), featuring the graduate and advanced students. Then some of those numbers were repeated at the Byham Theater May 27, leaving rample room, though, for all the dancers down to the too-cute-for-words Level I.

PBTS is making a serious bid to be, well, taken seriously. With the opening of the Byham House this year, which houses advanced high school students, the school will be able to attract a higher level of talent. But the students’ goals overall, visibly raising the bar from year to year, will be the determining factor down the road.

With a caring, yet demanding faculty, the school performances gave the students the opportunity to take their classroom studies to the next level. Not only were the students once again much improved, but the performances had a wonderful balance.

The major production for the grads was “Paquita,” a pseudo-Spanish, highly classical ballet that offered plenty of opportunities with 6 solo variations and a grand pas de deux, plus romping choreography for the womens’ ensemble. (PBT even loaned them three chandeliers for added sparkle.) This group of dancers offered an ease of movement, born of a confidence from a solid technical foundation.

In addition, there was a sense of style and even a history to be found in the selections, staged by Marjorie Grundvig and Dennis Marshall after Petipa. The delicate “Giselle” (Anna Marie Holmes)and the exotic “Pas d’esclave” Pas de Deux, (Anna Marie Holmes/Pollyana Ribbeiro) had much detail to offer in the ethereal lightness and mysterious beauty of both casts that I saw. And Janet Popeleski concocted an exuberant collection of peasant dances from “Giselle,” with movements suggestive of the ballet, but tailored beautifully for her young charges.

Yet ballet dancers have to have a freedom of movement these days that will translate well to other styles. In that respect, Alan Obuzor is a real choreographic find. He designs organic moves where several phrases can airily intertwine and still keep the dancers interested and interesting. Not many young choreographers have the vision for a large (up to 21 here) group dance and still maintain a viable structure and connection to the music. Although the dancers were challenged by it all, they  looked beautiful in his two numbers, one a tango and the other a sweeping tribute to “The Color of Sound.”

Anastasia Wovchko swept through “The Four Seasons” for the childrens’ classes, filling the dances with evolving patterns. How did they even know where to go? Even the budding “Spring” dancers, so tiny, offered a bit of drama as the audience watched the May pole nearly tip over on several occasions.

But no worry — everyone got through in fine fashion, just in time to take the stage for her finale. Yes all of the participating students squeezed onto the Byham stage, bit by bit. But they didn’t look squeezed; they just looked happy…and deservedly so.

Off Stage: Post-Prix

February 22, 2011

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School students Aviana Adams and Anwen David no doubt have learned scads about grace on the stage. But they had a terrific lesson about grace under pressure when they headed for the Prix de Lausanne in Switzerland a few weeks ago to compete among the best students in the world and having had time to reflect and rest, shared their experience.

Avi and Anwen set out for Europe with different perspectives. Anwen, who has family near London, had crossed the Atlantic before. It was Avi’s first trip out of the United States and she barely slept, opting instead to watch the sun rise from the plane and Tweeting about it to friends.

With a bit of time to kill, Avi (with mom Janet Popeleski) and Anwen (with mom Caroline) hooked up to walk around and get to know their surroundings, full of picturesque houses and, of course, the majestic Alps. Then they went to register (where Avi pulled out some “rusty” French) and warm-up.

Surprise! The studio floor was raked, just the same as the performance stage. As it so happens, the Byham Theater has a raked stage, but the ones at Lausanne were three times the angle, making it decidedly more precipitous to execute pirouettes and, in particular, a menage or series of turns in a circle where pique turns could push upwards then swoop downwards. (FYI: Raked stages, found primarily in Europe, were set at an angle or “rake” so that the audience could see better. In other words, upstage definitely meant that the performer went upwards. And downstage? Obviously a ballet could take on some aspects of a roller coaster.)

Everyone reacted differently. Anwen confessed that, at first, she felt like she was going to fall off the front section, “but that got better as the week went on.” Avi called it “surprisingly lovely” and better than the Byham, which can be tricky because the dancer could forget the slight rake. She noted, “I think I liked it because it was drastically different. With the Lausanne studio you didn’t overthrow your balance. It was a lot easier to turn in my opinion.”

The pair immediately began to make friends, particularly those girls in the 15-16 age group who shared their dressing room. They came from Norway, Sweden, New Zealand, Australia and, yes, America. “Everyone was so friendly,” said Anwen. “I was worried that they might be competitive and pushy, but they were all really nice and happy to meet people.” Avi agreed. She became “fast friends” with New Zealander Alex Cambie. It’s a world where Facebook rules.

The girls had both classical and contemporary classes before they hit the stage, time enough to get used to the spotlight, according to Anwen, with “nine judges and directors from all around the world, cameras and video cameras, all these people watching every little thing you do.” Avi noted that “we were like deer caught in the headlights.”

Things started to settle down, although Avi got tangled with another dancer while feeding into a combination during a contemporary class. She went down and hurt her wrist, forcing her to withdraw from the competition. (A fast healer, she was hoping to have the cast removed today.)

So Avi turned her considerable energy to observing all the girls’ individual coaching sessions with mom. She saw  much attention paid to the pirouettes, where the coach was looking for the dancers to “pull up more right before you land.” She also found some “trigger words” that helped her understand corrections. One was “to take the light with your chest” when the dancer finishes a step or uses a porte bras.

Anwen, in the meantime, got six minutes to take in those corrections, twice with former Paris Opera Ballet principal dancer Monique Lourdieres and once with contemporary choreographer Cathy Marston. She didn’t get through the whole piece with Cathy, although that was true of most of the contestants. Monique helped her with her Italian fouettes and menage, which were difficult on the raked stage, and encouraged her to use “more personality.”

But evidently the judges and dance notables were impressed by her, because even though she didn’t make the finals, Anwen came home with four scholarship offers from Hamburg Ballet School (Hamburg Ballet, whose artistic director, John Neumeier will be presented at PBT in his production of “Streetcar Named Desire” next year), Mannheim Academy of Ballet (Mannheim Ballet, whose artistic director, Kevin O’Day, choreographed several ballets for PBT), Basel Dance Academy and the National Academy of Dance, which is affiliated with the Dutch National Ballet (and whose artistic director, Christopher Powney, sat on the judges’ panel).

Avi came back strengthened by the whole experience, but recalled “how everyone takes the bus and there’s very little pollution. You can fill your water bottle from any tap and it’s okay to drink it — I definitely miss that!” She’s already planning for next year.

As far as advice for those who might consider the competition option?

Anwen said “not to worry about the competition part of it. Try to really enjoy it and learn as much as you can and just have a good time.” Avi added that future competitors should be present about “every single detail and every single correction. But more importantly, dance. Don’t think about what you’re doing, just dance and relax. RELAX.”

It sounds like they both listened to their own advice. But they apparently learned one more thing — how to show grace in an interview as well.

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