On Stage: The History of “Beauty”

February 3, 2015
Jocelyn Vollmar and Richard Carter in the original production of "Beauty and the Beast."

Jocelyn Vollmar and Richard Carter in the original production of “Beauty and the Beast.”

It was fun to delve into the history of American ballet while researching Lew Christensen’s Beauty and the Beast, set to have its local premiere at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre. (Click on Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.) After all he was considered the first American premiere danseur, was George Balanchine’s first Apollo and choreographed a memorable piece, Filling Station, based on a durable American theme. And he was an important building block in developing San Francisco Ballet, now the third largest company in the United States.

While nosing around the internet, I came upon another little piece of history. There are a number of PBT connections to San Francisco, including this little photographic nugget of Robert Vickrey with one of America’s greatest ballerinas, Cynthia Gregory, who went on to star at American Ballet Theatre. Yes, they are atop the Golden Gate Bridge! Bob said they took an elevator most of the way but had to climb a ladder to reach the top. Obviously the daring duo wasn’t afraid of heights (nor the photographer). Cynthia’s mother, however, was most angry that her daughter skipped school…


On Stage: Gene Kelly — The Legacy

May 20, 2014

Movie icon Gene Kelly has always been larger than life here, being that he was a Pittsburgh native. This week viewers will have a rare opportunity to see him when Kelly returns to the big screen at the Byham Theater Wednesday night.

Wife Patricia Ward Kelly will bring a separate set of clips in this complimentary piece to her talk at the University of Pittsburgh in 2012, which focused on his use of the camera. The Byham evening will be more personal, an in-depth look at the varying dimensions of Kelly. “There are a couple of similarities,” says his wife. “But much of it will be very, very different.”

So it will again prove something: “Gene — we hardly knew ye.” “People come away with an altered sense of who Gene was,” she notes. “They love him up on the screen, but they kind of think that’s who he really was. They kind of forget that he’s acting up there. I think they think that he danced around the house and was this happy-go-lucky guy. I don’t think they think of him as this guy who was mostly cerebral — sitting down in a chair reading a book, writing poetry and things like that.”

Actually most people don’t know that he directed what we see in movies like On the Town and An American in Paris, choreographed what we see in Singin’ in the Rain. They don’t understand how revolutionary so much of the work was.

“That’s what is really fun about it,” she continues. “People don’t realize that he spoke so many languages [Yiddish, French, Latin and Italian], that he was a cultural ambassador to Africa. They don’t realize that he had these personal friendships with great writers like Carl Sandburg and Samuel Becket and Thornton Wilder.”

So they just come out with a greater appreciation for him.

Patricia underlines that he didn’t just study one form of dance. He studied everything — history, literature, poetry and mathematics. And Kelly wasn’t just that athletic all-American guy. He wasn’t only a tap dancer, but a classically-trained ballet dancer who also conceived what you saw and positioned the camera for what we saw.

Hamburg Ballet artistic director John Neumeier, San Francisco Ballet artistic director Helgi Tomasson, Joffrey Ballet principal dancer Fabrice Calmels, American Ballet Theatre principal dancer Roberto Bolle. The name that they give is Gene Kelly as the man who got them to dance. It’s not Baryshnikov. It’s not Nureyev. It’s Kelly.

“He made it okay for a guy to dance,” Patricia explains. When he saw Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in Pittsburgh, he auditioned and was offered a position in the corps de ballet. But he turned it down, because he didn’t think he could support his family on that salary.

Kelly could go on to study with modern dance pioneers like Martha Graham, Charles Weidman and Doris Humphrey, plus some Spanish dance along the way.

He saw the interconnectedness of it all. So if a young artist asked, “What should we study?” He would say, “Everything.”

Maybe that’s why he touches people in so many ways.


This Renaissance man conceived a completely different style of American dance. “It’s not what Astaire was doing, continuing the tradition of ballroom dancing,” says Patricia. “This was dance that furthered the plot and was incorporated into the plot. Singin’ in the Rain is understood around the world. Instead of saying that he’s in love with a girl and is so happy, he does it all in motion. That was really a shift, something that wasn’t seen before him.”

She continues, “That was the challenge for him — not only to make something that’s really contemporary, but something that’s timeless.”

That’s what still inspires Patricia, who always watches the clips during her talk. ”The funny thing is that I have to remind myself to go back on stage because I get so caught up in what’s going on and I hear the audience responding. It’s a selfish thing for me, because I get so much out of it. I guess it was also a way of dealing with the absence and the loss because it makes him so continually present and alive.”

Thus she shares the legacy, reaping the rewards of his timeless art. “I’m constantly reminded that this is stuff that holds up,” she admits. “It’s sixty-plus years old, but it’s still really vibrant and fresh.”

Patricia happily provides the link to Kelly’s history. “It was personal for me, but I hear how it touches the people. I see the wit of it, the brightness of what he executed.”

So she will greet people before and after the show, giving it her own personal touch, then will talk to four high schools over the next two days. After rehearsals for the Gene Kelly Awards for excellence in high school musicals at the Benedum Center, she will step on stage to present the final awards Saturday“It’s really Gene on Gene that people are getting,” she says of The Legacy talk. “It’s as close as they’re going to come with this guy.”

On Stage: Which “Cinderella?”

April 24, 2013

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It’s amazing how we have managed to Disney-fy very dark and scary European fairy tales, which have been tapped for glittering full-length ballets: The Nutcracker, The Sleeping Beauty, but most of all, Cinderella. Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre brought back Septime Webre’s version, a bit of a patchwork quilt on its own with references to other tales. There was no doubt it was designed to appeal to families despite the sometimes jarring, darkly haunting, yet  beautiful score by Prokofiev. Read the review in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

While Septime Webre’s production was child-like and pastel, more recent versions have a contemporary adult perspective. Jean-Christophe Maillot put his Cinderella in bare feet and gave the final pas de deux to the fairy godmother, who was actually Cinderella’s mother, and Cinderella’s father.

Christopher Wheeldon’s co-production for Dutch National Ballet and San Francisco Ballet is receiving rave reviews, calling it the best ever.

Alexei Ratmansky is scheduled to do a new version for the Australian Ballet. It will be set in the 1930’s, like one of his first ballets for the Bolshoi. In an odd twist, he will work with Jérôme Kaplan, who did the costumes for Maillot’s production.  In the meantime, here’s a clip of Ratmansky’s adagio from his original Cinderella, performed by Diana Vishneva and Andrey Merkuriev at a dance competition in Russia.

Dance Beat: PBT Israel, Hear/Now, Murphy/Smith, Stephen, Andre

October 8, 2012

Photo: Aimee Waeltz

ISRAEL WRAP-UP. Artists from Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre paid a breakfast visit to the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh to wrap up the details of the company’s recent visit to Israel. Bolstered by a slide show, some of the dancers shared their experiences along with marketing director Aimee Waeltz. After JFGP director of operations Sue Linzer talked about Pittsburgh’s sister city, Karmiel, where the dance festival was held, Cooper Verona described how there was folk dancing everywhere, even on a nearby basketball court. They tried to participate, but “it’s more complicated than you think.”Julia Erickson focused on the Karmiel performance, where the “energy from the audience was unprecedented,” while Gabrielle Thurlow was impressed by the similarities between the two cities in size and development. She and the others got to meet the mayor (like our Mayor Ravenstahl?) and received a book about Karmiel. Alejandro Diaz mentioned their tour of Nazareth and how a volunteer tour helped them out. In Haifa, Caitlin Peabody went gaga over tons of vegetables, hummus and herbs at dinner meals, while Eva Trapp commented on “the most incredible salad ever!” The presentation ended with a video by PBT’s versatile Nicholas Coppula.

CAN YOU HEAR/SEE IT? The Kelly-Strayhorn Theater, so bold in its artistic maneuvers this season, has concocted an intimate musical exploration called Hear/Now Music Series that explores the latest in jazz and contemporary sounds. A recent performance at the Dance Alloy studios featured quite a bit of dance. Husband-and-wife duo Jil Stifel and Blaine Segal returned with “Progenitor,” an environmental work that had good intentions as she, a gentle, living creature probed his raw, hand-made plastic biosphere made from found objects. Found objects and found sounds of another ilk penetrated David Bernabo’s cross-disciplinary work involved robust movement and musical input from all who participated, including a bassist, an artist/carpenter who literally put together a piece of furniture (which actually determined the 40-minute running time) and dancerTaylor Knight, who looks so different every time we see him. The Point Park University grad is charting his own diverse path, yet his compelling movement never changes. However that left little time for the stars of the evening who were at the end of an American tour and found themselves at the end of an already length evening. The Swiss-made NoReduce, a quartet who perpetuated a journey of their own through progressive jazz resonated better than expected despite the questionable acoustics at the Alloy.

ON THE MOVE. Jamie Murphy and Renee Smith of Murphy/Smith Collective need your help for their latest project. They are developing a piece under the working title I Am Woman, which will explore the historical and current aspects of womens’ rights. The 30-minute work will be presented Dec. 7 at Pittsburgh Dance Center as part of an Independent Artists Series. You can respond with your thoughts and suggestions at murphysmithdance@wordpress.com.

TALKING A GOOD GAME. Stephen Crosby has about as good a delivery as any speaker I have encountered. Not a dancer himself, but married to one, Bonnie, which sparked his interest, he has an insightful and entertaining way of delving into just about anything. His latest subject was Jerome Robbins: Demon Master of Ballet and Broadway, given this past summerat Chautauqua. In the audience were North Carolina Dance Theatre’s Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux and Patricia McBride (original cast of Robbins’ Dances at a Gathering and more), plus former Dance Alloy artistic director Mark Taylor, with Barbara. February finds him in Naples with From Bach to Rock: Inspiring Great Choreographers. Click on Stephen Crosby for more information.

GUY TALK. Directors Marjorie Grundvig and Dennis Marshall have hired former San Francisco Ballet and Pacific Northwest Ballet principal Andre Reyes as the newest member of the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School. Although he will teach a variety of classes in the pre-professional program, he will be the first designated instructor for Men’s Technique, which has caused a lot of excitement.

Dance Beat: PBT, Kennedy Center, La Roche

March 5, 2010

Tim on the Move. Longtime Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre supporter Timothy Evans follows his passion just about everywhere. His trip to San Francisco Ballet’s “Swan Lake” was a perfect example. Robert Vickrey, assistant to Terrance Orr, arranged for Tim to get tickets through PBT photographer Rich Sofranko, whose son performs with the company. There he saw Sarah Van Patten as the Swan Queen. (“Excellent!”) Former PBT principal Christopher Rendall-Jackson’s mother also took Tim to brunch and the Cartier Exhibition. Tim learned from her that Chris is doing well in Harvard Law School and that his wife, former PBT soloist Kaori Ogasawara, is expecting their second child.

Kennedy Center Announcement. John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts announced its dual upcoming seasons. The ballet portion includes the Big Three — New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre and Joffrey Ballet, plus the Mariinsky. The season will conclude with back-to-back runs of the Ballet Nacional de Cuba and the Royal Danish Ballet. Of special note is ABT’s local premiere of Alexei Ratmansky’s “The Bright Stream,” a full-length ballet that propelled him onto the international stage while he was still at the Bolshoi. And audiences can see the future of ballet in Proteges III, with students from Bolshoi Ballet Academy, Julio Bocca Foundation Ballet Argentino School of the Arts, The Royal Danish Ballet School and Tokyo’s New National Theater Ballet School. The contemporary dance season has a strong American accent with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, Paul Taylor Company and a special presentation of Five First Ladies of Dance (Germaine Acogny, Carmen de Lavallade, Diane McIntyre, Bebe Miller and Jawole Willa Jo Zollar). Latino choreographers Tania Perez-Salas Compania de Danza (Mexico) and Companhia de danca Deborah Colker (Brazil) complete the season. For more information, click on Kennedy Ballet and Kennedy Contemporary Dance.

Building from the Ground Up. George Balanchine famously said, “But first a school.” And PBT is concentrating some energy on its school program. Housing is always an issue and PBT saw a need in order to keep up with top notch schools across the country. The site is the former rectory of St. John the Baptist Catholic Church which is now the Church Brew Works in Lawrenceville, only a short distance up Liberty Avenue from the company’s headquarters in the Strip District. Called the Byham House, it will provide housing for 16 students.

La Roche on the Move Two. La Roche College Dance Theatre heads back to New York City Mar. 13 for a performance of “Celebrate the Spirit” at the Ailey Citigroup Theater in The Joan Weill Center of Dance. The program will feature the music of Mahalia Jackson and Diana Ross and will include a guest performance by GESTURES. For more information, email nicole.kubit@laroche.edu.

On Stage: PBT — Ten from Forty

October 16, 2009

There aren’t many who have stuck around for the long haul at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre. The nature of the ballet company beast would have it so, with the relatively short careers of dancers, the gypsy nature of this artistic business and the small salaries that push staff onto a different lifepath.

As the 4oth anniversary season opens this weekend at the Benedum Center with “Sleeping Beauty,”  I’ve seen just about all the PBT had to offer, yes, from those gangly early performances at the Pittsburgh Playhouse to the professional expertise that the company now displays at the Benedum. While the company has released good news in this economic climate — three years in the black and the hiring of Charles Barker to conduct and administer the orchestra are reason enough to celebrate — it might be fun to look back at a list  of dancers.

The dancers all shared one thing — a clean technique and attention to detail. In a ballet world where more (extension, turns, speed) is the norm, sometimes at the expense of clarity, Patricia Wilde and Terrence Orr in particular maintained a traditional discipline  in their stylistic approach. The funny thing is, to my eyes, other companies sometimes can look unbridled as a result.

As I combed through my stash of programs, I recalled many wonderful memories produced by hundreds of dancers who bourreed, jeted or simply passed through the company doors. These Top Ten dancers have all made major contributions to the legacy of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre over the years and are listed in order of their PBT careers. If you have any other favorites, tell me why at jvranish1@comcast.net.

1.  New York City Ballet’s Violette Verdy, who with Edward Villella, helped jump start the fledgling Pittsburgh company with several seasons of guest appearances during the early years. It’s hard to decipher which one had the bigger impact. But their combined undeniable star power in works like “Swan Lake” gave Pittsburgh audiences a sense of what to expect from ballet. After a stellar career at NYCB, Verdy is now a Distinguished Professor of Music (Ballet) at Indiana University and was awarded the French Legion of Honor (Chevalier) in June for her contributions to the field of dance. Villella, of course, is the artistic director of Miami City Ballet.

2. Alexander Filipov (1971-76). The Russian dancer was a natural for “Romeo and Juliet” and was PBTs first bona fide heartthrob. Dancers whispered how he did 10 pirouettes in the studio and held a balance at the end, but it was his flamboyant presence on stage that brought him accolades from fans. Filipov shared his time at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre as a soloist at American Ballet Theatre and principal dancer at San Francisco Ballet and currently teaches in New York City.

3. Tamar Rachelle (1978-95). The first of PBT’s long-term ballerinas, Rachelle was a first-rate dramatic actress who was transformative on the stage, easily bridging such diverse roles as Giselle and the Cowgirl in “Rodeo.” In one of the most dramatic finishes to a PBT career, Rachelle took a leave of absence in 1995 due to a knee injury. Working on her own for virtually two years, she came back to perform one final time in Bruce Wells’ “Romeo and Juliet.” Married to former PBT soloist Ernest Tolentino, she continues to teach ballet and Pilates at several Pittsburgh locations, including PBT.

4. Laura Desiree (1982-1998). Another dancer who consistently made her way up the company ladder. Like Rachelle, whose PBT path ran virtually parallel to hers, Desiree will be remembered for her versatility — and a quiet intensity. Favorite roles for which she will be remembered include”Swan Lake,” Lizzie Borden in de Mille’s “Fall River Legend.” Desiree also played a leading role in developing major roles in “American Dream,” a 1995 triple bill of women choreographers, where romped in overalls to Pete Seeger’s feminist-inspired “Engineer.” She and her husband, former PBT principal character dancer Brian Bloomquist currently live in the Washington D.C. area.

5. Maria Teresa del Real (1984-86). This spitfire of a dancer added a real confidence boost to the women’s roster. Her technique was such that she had scored a bronze medal at the International Ballet Competition in Varna (the first American in ten years) before coming here, where she performed in such diverse roles as “Swan Lake” (a particularly spectacular Odile) and Ohad Naharin’s “Tabula Rasa,” which is my all-time favorite PBT commission (but that’s another list). She left with fellow principal dancer Pablo Savoye to dance in Europe, and notably wound up her career at the English National Ballet. Del Real currently teaches at Central Ballet School in London, which is a feeder school for Northern Ballet Theatre.

6. Nanci Crowley (1987-97). Able to create wondrous arcs with her uncommonly long legs and beautifully arched feet, Crowley made her mark in the Balanchine repertoire before taking on “Swan Lake,” where she was particularly well-suited for Odette.  She went on to join The Joffrey Ballet and then Les Grands Ballets Canadiens and LaLaLa Human Steps in Montreal. Seemingly indestructable, she moved south to Ballet Arizona for two seasons under Ib Andersen, former PBT ballet master, ending her career, rightfully so, with a performance in Balanchine’s “Agon.” She currently runs the company school.

7. Stephen Annegarn (1993 – 2002). Annegarn brought with him a very British, proper approach to line and stage deportment that was much admired by company men. On stage he was the perfect prince, but could also handle character studies like the title role of “Dracula” and was regarded by the women as a terrific partner. Annegarn had a year’s break in service when he went to Pacific Northwest Ballet, but returned to marry company member Erin Halloran. He continues to influence the company in his role as ballet master.

8. Willy Shives (1993-97). Shives arrived with an American can-do attitude and quickly progressedMaribel Modrono from soloist to principal dancer. While more athletically inclined, he broadened his artistic focus with princely roles in all the ballet classics. Even though he officially retired, The Joffrey Ballet’s Gerald Arpino convinced Shives to return to the stage with his company. Following his retirement there, he continues with the Joffrey as ballet master, but still has a considerable fan base here in Pittsburgh.

9. Ying Li and Jiabin Pan (1994-2004). Okay, it’s cheating. But rarely did you hear a sentence containing one without the other. It was always “Ying and Jiabin” and likewise they were often paired together. Pan learned to embrace contemporary dance, American-style, in premieres like “Ballad of You and Me” and “Indigo in Motion,” where he used his panther-like quality to good effect. Li made her Pittsburgh debut as one of the four little swans in “Swan Lake,” but it was apparent from the start that she was queen material. After a gala good-bye in one more “Swan Lake,” the couple returned to their native China, where they head the country’s newest ballet company, one of only seven, in the city of Suzhou at a new facility, Suzhou Science and Cultural Arts Center, near Shanghai. The pair continue to choreograph, with Pan showing an interest in the techniques he learned under Dwight Rhoden and Kevin O’Day.

10. Maribel Modrono (1997-09). Trained in the Balanchine tradition, she came with her twin sister, Mabel, to do the classics. But when Mabel left due to injury, Modrono ramped up her personality to twice the size. Reinventing herself over the years, she used her buoyant personality and fearlessness to infuse both classical (“Carmen,” “Swan Lake”) and contemporary (“Rubies,” “Carmina Burana”) works. Offstage she was an extra arm for the publicity department, extending her goodwill to patrons and students alike.

There were other favorites. From the early days: Dinko Bogdanic (Stuttgart Ballet) and PBT’s version of the baby ballerinas, Jordeen Ivanov and JoAnn McCarthy. And the virtuosic Peter Schaufuss, who went on to head companies like English National Ballet and Danish Ballet. From the Wilde years, the elegant Pablo Savoye and Scott Jovovich plus Janet Popeleski, a dancers’ dancer and mighty soloists Alexander Nagiba and Ernest Tolentino. And the recently retired and already much-missed Christopher Rendall-Jackson and Kaori Ogasawara.

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