Dance Beat: PBT — Bourree-ing Confidently into the Black (and Gold)

April 29, 2015

 

The house curtain comes down for a slide presentation of Loti Falk Gaffney.

The house curtain comes down for a slide presentation of Loti Falk Gaffney.

In the final weekend of its 45th season, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre had plenty to celebrate…and did it in style!

GALA. It began Thursday with the dress rehearsal of La Bayadere. Guests arrived for the 45th Anniversary Season Finale Gala at the Benedum Center, where the lobby was filled with high top tables and champagne was being served. They could then head for the mezzanine, where the company was rehearsing the final act of Bayadere, the Kingdom of the Shades. (Great to see the choreographic patterns from that angle!) Then it was back to the lobby for more champagne and appetizers from the Duquesne Club.

During that time the stage was set with dining tables for over 200 guests. Following the salad, PBT honored artistic founder Nicolas Petrov with a film presentation projected on the house curtain, which was lowered for a few minutes. Curtain up for the entree! Then board founder Loti Falk Gaffney received the same treatment, accepted by her granddaughter. (Mrs. Falk Gaffney, who resides in New York City, is now too frail to travel.)

After PBT honored its past, it set up a bright future for dessert (literally). The board has committed to a $20 million dollar campaign that will grow the endowment at 50 percent, grow the Strip District-Lawrenceville campus with a new annex building and grow artistic priorities with the establishment of an Innovation Fund. Board leadership came from campaign co-chairs Carolyn and Bill Byham (helped achieve 67 percent of the goal during the silent phase and the new building will be named for them) and campaign co-chairs Dawn and Chris Fleischner (provided early significant leadership gifts to the new annex building). Richard E. Rauh endowed the Principal Dancers’ Fund and PBT Trustee James Hardie and his wife Frances endowed a repertory fund. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania  contributed two Economic Growth Initiative Grants — a total of $2.25 million — since the plan’s inception in 2009.

As all of the above unfolds, it should enable PBT to keep up with a national trend, where the best of the ballet companies are receiving both financial and artistic support. It something that needed to be done. Both the Boston and Pennsylvania celebrated their 50th anniversaries with new construction and repertory. Here’s to Pittsburgh accomplishing the same.

 

Yoshiaki Nakano soaring as Solor (Photo: Rich Sofranko)

Yoshiaki Nakano soaring as Solor (Photo: Rich Sofranko)

 

BRUNCH. Costumier Janet Groom-Campbell (maker of those fabulous PBT tutus and so much more) and her husband David Campbell (CEO and president of West Penn Testing Group and antique car aficionado) hosted a tasty Saturday brunch at their home in Staunton Heights, with great vistas of the Allegheny River. Artistic directors Nicolas Petrov and Patricia Wilde were there enjoying the view, along with longtime supporters Melanie and Jim Crockard and former company members Susan Stone, Dr. Justin Glodowski, Roberto Munoz and Nola Nolen among others.

Gabrielle Thurlow as Gamzatti. Photo: Rich Sofranko.

Gabrielle Thurlow as Gamzatti. Photo: Rich Sofranko.

PERFORMANCE. Of course, the weekend was built around four performances of La Bayadere. Read about the first in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Corps member Hannah Carter made her debut as Nikiya, a role well-suited to her beautiful legato flow, at the Sunday matinee. She was paired with soloist Luca Sbrizzi, a pinpoint technician with an unbridled confidence, as Solor. There was nary a principal to be seen, except for a chameleon-like Amanda Cochran as a Temple Dancer (with an equally unrecognizable corps member Joseph Parr). Soloist Alexandra Silva (The Rajah) had an unparalleled authority, corps members Caitlin Peabody (Gamzatti) a conniving energy and Masahiro  Haneji (The Golden Idol) a crisp vertical jump. And you would have to mention another corps member, Ruslan Mukhambetkaliyev, performing all performances as the unmistakably sinuous fakir, Magedaveya, Could there be promotions in the future?

Luca Sbrizzi as The Golden  Idol. Photo: Rich Sofranko.

Luca Sbrizzi as The Golden Idol. Photo: Rich Sofranko.

THE AFTERPARTY. Following a weekend of exotic classical ballet, PBT dancers, alumnae and staff gathered at the company studios to mingle — former principals Kwang-Suk Choi and Steven Annegarn (now ballet master), former soloists Point Park staff member Susan Stowe and financial analyst Holly Baroway and corps members Charon Battles (Program Director for Dance, Local Arts and the Preserving Diverse Cultures Division of the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts!!) and Karen Strassom Gross added to the pool — and to celebrate the end of the 45th season with an enthusiasm that will carry into the future.


Dance Beat: PBT, CLO Dance Seasons Plus, Jacob’s Pillow

March 30, 2015

PBT WESTERN SYMPHONY

PBT. As it nears the finish of its 45th season, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre seems to be casting its sights on the 50th. For the first time in recent memory it is presenting two mixed repertory nights. The first, with George Balanchine’s Western Symphony, William Forsythe’s in the middle somewhat elevated and Jiri Kylian’s Sinfonietta, opens the season (Benedum Center, Oct. 23-25) and has the potential to be the company’s best program…ever. There is no doubt that this is a great line-up. But more importantly, it has balance, perhaps beginning with the sweeping Sinfonietta, then with the meaty contemporary angles of the Forsythe and finishing with Balanchine’s version of the wild, wild West. The other (Byham Theater, Mar. 10-13) features what appears to be a popular and fairly recent (BalletMet premiere 2010) ballet, noted Canadian choreographer James Kudelka’s Man in Black, inspired by country legend Johnny Cash. It will be accompanied by another local premiere, Michael Smuin’s 1969 pas de deux, The Eternal Idol, and a return of the iconic Jardin aux Lilas (Lilac Garden) by Antony Tudor. The company will bring back Jorden Morris’ version of Peter Pan (Benedum, Feb. 12-14) and, of course, the annual Nutcracker (Benedum, Dec. 4-27). The season will then conclude with the company premiere of Le Corsaire (Benedum, Apr. 15-17), one of those epic ballet warhorses about a pirate who seeks to liberate the woman he loves from kidnappers. The orchestra will accompany the opening program and Le Corsaire. For more information, click on PBT.

CLO. Not falling into the season category (but it will in the future) is the exciting news about the new production of An American in Paris, choreographed by balletic superstar choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, who is also making his directorial debut. It got rave reviews in Paris for this reimagining of the classic Gene Kelly film and set to open on Broadway . The cast is to-die-for, led by New York City Ballet principal dancer Robert Fairchilds  and The Royal Ballet’s Leanne Cope, certain to be a dead ringer for Leslie Caron onstage. Check it out at American.

PITTSBURGH ON BROADWAY. Dance aficionados will want to catch Mathilda the Musical, with choreography and movement by Peter Darling, whose other credits include Billie Elliot: The Musical. The Sam Mende/Rob Marshall version of Cabaret returns to Pittsburgh via the 2015-16 Broadway across America season direct from Broadway and The Wizard of Oz gets a bit of a facelift from Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber with some new songs (choreographer is Brit Arlene Phillips). For those who are musical-ly driven, Beautiful — The Carole King Musical will be of interest plus some familiar favorites like Jersey Boys, The Sound of Music and Blue Man Group. For more information, click on Broadway.

JACOB’S PILLOW. Well, well, well. Pittsburgh beat the Pillow to the punch on a couple of appearances taking place on its 2015 season, including Three Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host  (the Ira Glass/Monica Bill Barnes collaboration presented by Pittsburgh Dance Council in February), Daniel Ulbricht & Stars of American Ballet (independently presented at the Byham Theater and Cuba’s Malpaso (presented by Kelly Strayhorn Theater with two North American premieres). Of course, Alonzo King LINES Company and Martha Graham Dance Company have touched base here along the way as well. (In a real departure, there will be only one Graham work on the program and a premiere by Mats Ek to celebrate the group’s 90th anniversary.) Keigwin + Company open the season and will include tap sensation Michelle Dorrance and L.A. Project, founded by Benjamin Millepied. Click on Pillow.

 

 


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: Premieres!

March 18, 2015
Jerome Robbins' "The Concert." Photos by Rich Sofranko.

Jerome Robbins’ “The Concert.” Photos by Rich Sofranko.

Jiri Kylian's "Petite Mort." Olivia Kelly and Ruslan Mukhambetkaliyev.

Jiri Kylian’s “Petite Mort.” Olivia Kelly and Ruslan Mukhambetkaliyev.

They weren’t world premieres, but this trio of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s local premieres gave the company’s repertory a new heft in this unprecedented program. Kylian. Morris. Robbins. A true ensemble experience for the dancers. Read about it in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mark Morris' "Sandpaper Ballet."

Mark Morris’ “Sandpaper Ballet.”


On Stage: Unveiling Ballet’s “Beast”

March 7, 2015

 

Nurlan Abougaliev and Amanda Cochrane. Photos: Rich Sofranko.

Nurlan Abougaliev and Amanda Cochrane. Photos: Rich Sofranko.

It’s a never-ending search to satisfy America’s thirst for full-length story ballets. With only a handful of classically-styled productions from which to choose, directors are pressed to satisfy that thirst, despite the fact that these kinds of ballets are almost certain to break the budget.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s Terrence Orr recently reached into his own past to resurrect Lew Christensen’s Beauty and the Beast, which Christensen created for the San Francisco Ballet in 1958 and restaged in 1982. It most likely was the first full-length contemporary ballet to be presented in America and, as such, deserves an acknowledgment.

This is a ballet that has certain positive attributes — it’s a family-oriented production that, given its series of scenic  drops, will most certainly tour well (perhaps without the stairs in front of the castle). As such, it can be a good entry-level ballet to attract new audiences. Its strongest assets, however, are the costumes, which were lovingly refurbished by costumier Janet Groom and her staff. And certainly the rebuilt masks, and especially the new Beast, all by Svi Roussanoff, were a standout.

The score, channeled from lesser-known Tchaikovsky music, worked fit beautifully for the most part, although it would have been enhanced by a live orchestra. The core of the score came from the final movement of Tchaikovsky’s third suite, which George Balanchine put to much better use in his Theme and Variations. (On an odd note, Balanchine’s work premiered in 1947, when Christensen was still associated with the New York City Ballet.)

PBT Beauty Amanda and Nurlan

Christensen chose to adapt Madame LePrince de Beaumont’s original 18th century tale of a young girl who, along with her father, gets lost in the woods, teeming with leaping nymphs and stags, and arrives at the Beast’s castle. When Beauty asks her father to pick a rose, the Beast catches them and dismisses the father, but keeps his Beauty.

The ballet turned out to be composed of the usual storybook bits and pieces, like the character-driven second scene with Beauty’s family, including a pair of wicked stepsisters ala Cinderella. There were five Bluebirds (vivaciously led by Amanda Cochrane), the fluttering arms and beats obviously inspired by the Bluebird pas de deux in The Sleeping Beauty.

Like The Nutcracker, there were flowers, Magic Flowers here. But the choreography lacked flow, coming to a halt to form stiff, angular poses. And when the Courtiers and Roses assembled for the celebratory finale in the transformed prince’s palace, a repetitive series of promenades and runs in linear patterns did not achieve the splendid effect found in Balanchine’s version.

The PBT dancers, however, were confident in their roles, surprisingly spread over five casts. While there was a rather nice duet in the first act where the Beast tries to confess his love for Beauty, the true test for the leading roles came with a more traditional pas de deux at the end.

PBT Beauty finale

So here’s the list: Alexandra Kochis and Alejandro Diaz made a handsome opening night couple, while Julia Erickson and Alexandre Silva used their charismatic authority to great effect. It was good to see Amanda Cochrane paired with the elegant veteran Nurlan Abougaliev. With an attentive and knowledgable partner like that, Cochrane enjoyed a new softness and freedom in her dance. Gabrielle Thurlow brought her innate naturalness to Beauty, while Luca Sbrizzi, always so princely, was technically commanding in the pas de deux. Although I only saw the first act with Hannah Carter and William Moore, there is an aristocratic ease to their balletic style, honed at Britain’s Royal Ballet, that will set them apart in the future.

No doubt Beauty and the Beast, with its inspirational message that true beauty lies within, has struck a chord with audiences over the years. It remains to be seen if this balletic version will find its own admirers.

 

 

 


Off Stage: Exploring Ballet In a New Way

January 15, 2015

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

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.

Beginners.

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: A Holiday Finish

January 1, 2015
Hannah Carter as Marie. Photos: Rich Sofranko.

Hannah Carter as Marie. Photos: Rich Sofranko.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre brought its annual “Nutcracker” run to a close. Click on Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. I was also able to see Hannah Carter as Marie, a dancer lovely of lines, along with her significant other in real life, William Moore, ready, willing and able as her Nephew/Nutcracker partner.But Julia Erickson established herself as the star attraction of The Nutcracker, this time as the Sugar Plum Fairy. with Alexander Silva deservedly garnering considerable backstage applause from the company for his Cavalier solo. On to 2015…

Gabrielle Thurlow and Luca Sbrizzi.

Gabrielle Thurlow and Luca Sbrizzi.

Julia Erickson and Alejandro Diaz in the Snow Scene.

Julia Erickson and Alejandro Diaz in the Snow Scene.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 582 other followers