Dance Beat: Kinzua Dam, West Point Ballet, Benjamin Millipied

January 4, 2017


KINZUA DAM. Thanks to more media coverage, celebrity support and the support of organizations like veterans, people are learning about the Indian plight at Standing Rock. But what we don’t remember is how the United States government has exerted force over Indian nations for a large part of our history, taking land that rightfully belonged to them. Western Pennsylvania has an Indian area that was flooded by the Kinzua Dam. The Kelly Strayhorn Theater, a hotspot for minority art, brought in a moving, heartfelt performance by Minneapolis’ Rosy Simas Danse. Rosy went to visit the Kinzua site, where her ancestors were forced to evacuate. Click on Kinzua Dam for a complete history. And from the Seneca Indians’ perspective remembering 50 years ago...

west-point-nutWEST POINT BALLET. The West Point Ballet, located in Coraopolis,d served notice that it is joining the upper tier of local dance studios. Only in its third year, it presented its own “Nutcracker,” showcasing the Cuban ballet style, so poetic and lyrical, and filled with those signature pirouettes that seem so effortless. WPB fielded at least half a dozen young women who distinguished themselves and has a growing contingent of young men that would be the envy of other schools. Congratulations to owners Cynthia Castillo, formerly with Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre and a graduate of the National Ballet of Cuba, and Damien M. Coro, formerly with PBT and the National Ballet of Cuba. Damien performed with the group alongside his twin brother, David, a former principal with the National Ballet of Cuba who is teaching at the Laurel Ballet with his wife, Vanessa Haider, also a former member of the National Ballet. Certainly their combined expertise will enrich the ballet community for many years to come.

peter-farmerPETER FARMER. World famous costume and scenery designer Peter Farmer passed away a few days ago. He worked on a number of productions at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, including the recent Giselle production this past fall. You can read about the process and his career from Janet Groom Campbell, good friend and PBT costumier, here.

BENJAMIN MILLIPIED.  For those who like a juicy ballet backstory, there is an upcoming documentary about Benjamin Millipied (famously the husband of movie star Natalie Porter) and his dramatically short tenure at the Paris Opera Ballet. Called Reset, it should hit movie theaters sometime in January.

DANCE LISTINGS. There’s not a lot happening in January with Pittsburgh dance (see Listings). What is happening?






On Stage: 15 Years of “Nut”-iness

December 5, 2016
Alexandra Kochis with Christopher Budzynski in "The Nutcracker." Photo: Rich Sofranko

Alexandra Kochis with Christopher Budzynski in “The Nutcracker.” Photo: Rich Sofranko

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre celebrates 15 years of “Nutcracker” in the Terrence Orr production. Click on Nut for the review.

On Stage: The Innermost Corps of Ballet

August 7, 2014
Accompanied by wife and son, Steven Hadala takes his final bow after a performance as Gamache in "Don Quixote." Photo: Aimee Waeltz

Accompanied by wife and son, Steven Hadala takes his final bow after a performance as Gamache in “Don Quixote.” Photo: Aimee Waeltz

It was a classy finish to Steven Hadala’s career as a corps de ballet member of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, where the whole company gathered around him after his final performance. Read about it in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. But former PBT corps dancer Desiree Mastriano Arredondo, who knew Hadala briefly during her career with PBT, wrote to me following the article. “I just wanted to point out that PBT honors all of its members, in my opinion,” she said in her email. “When I retired four months pregnant in 1998 to move to Houston with my husband and soon-to-be child, [artistic director Patricia] Wilde gave me a performance of the Scotch Lass in [George Balanchine’s] “Scotch Symphony” and presented me with flowers after my performance. It was a beautiful send off, and one I will never forget!”

Steven Hadala (Drosselmeyer) asks for a kiss from Alexandra Kochis (Marie) in "The Nutcracker." Photo: Rich Sofranko

Steven Hadala (Drosselmeyer) asks for a kiss from Alexandra Kochis (Marie) in “The Nutcracker.” Photo: Rich Sofranko



Dance Beat: PBT

April 25, 2014
Alexandra Kochis Photos: Rich Sofranko

Alexandra Kochis Photos: Rich Sofranko

ENDING AND BEGINNING. Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre ended its season in various areas of sunny Spain. First there was a weekend of Don Quixote performances at the Benedum Center (read about it in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette). And the Sunday matinee was followed by a reception at Larrimor’s (the latest cool place for Downtown organizations), where attendees could not only nosh on a great buffet and sip sangria and wine, but listen to the Spanish duende (or soul) of Alba Flamenca.


Alejandro Diaz

Alejandro Diaz

PBT also had a surprise announcement involving the annual mixed bill. Not only was it moved from the August Wilson Center and then the Byham Theater, but with the help of an anonymous donor, the program will be held at the Benedum Center with full orchestra to help celebrate the company’s 45th anniversary. The program will include a triple bill from three master choreographers: the wit of Mark Morris’ Sandpaper Ballet and Jerome Robbins’ The Concert flanking Jiri Kylian’s more dramatic Petite Mort. There is no doubt that this will be a rich program, with works that are already lauded in the classical ballet repertoire. And therein lies the rub. This will be part of a 45th season that will look back rather than send the company into the future — The Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker, Beauty and the Beast and La Bayadere. The “Premieres” program is supposed to be adventurous, but artistic director Terrence Orr has chosen to play it safe…and increasingly so in a ballet world that is continually pushing the envelope.

In the meantime, enjoy some snippets…


Dance Beat: Jacob’s Pillow, PBT, PearlArts, Ballet in Cinema

December 15, 2012

Wendy Whelan

PITTSBURGH AT THE PILLOW. Mariclare Hulbert is such a tease. It appears that she’ll be giving us the Jacob’s Pillow 2013 season in bits and pieces. A rejuvenated Dance Theatre of Harlem will make its appearance there in Becket, MA June 19-23 with a program that will include George Balanchine’s Agon, Alvin Ailey’s The Lark Ascending and John Alleyne’s Far But Close By. But my thinking is that folks around here will be more interested in New York City Ballet’s iconic veteran ballerina Wendy Whelan and her Restless Creature program August 14-18. The program will commission young choreographers Joshua Beamish, Brian Brooks, Alejandro Cerrudo and — surprise! — Pittsburgh native Kyle Abraham, each of whom will perform a duet with her. It will be an intoxicating pairing as the ballerina takes on Kyle’s deeply-entrenched hip hop lyricism.

A high-flying Luca Sbrizzi

JUMPING FOR JOY. Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre is reaching out to embrace diversity in its audiences. Not only did the company introduce braille and large-print programs this year, but it piloted a new Audio Description Program at the Dec. 14 performance. Not only did patrons listen to live verbal descriptions during the presentation, but they attended a pre=performance “Touch Tour” in the Benedum Center South Lounge. There attendees could touch costume samples like the Sugarplum Fairy tutu’s stiff netting and intricate embellishment, a textured tactile map of the the stage set layout and signature poses from the choreography, such as the carriage of the hands in the Snow Scene. Volunteers attended a training workshop at the PBT Studios, led by expert dance describer Ermyn King of the Washington, D.C. area. and covering best practice and dance description fundamentals, including Laban Movement Analysis. PBT Education Director Alyssa Herzog Melby, who audio described the production, said that PBT joins “well-established audio description programs for opera and theater,” but is the first to do so for dance.


PEARLARTS2. Staycee and Herman Pearl offered the second installation of their Salon  Series 101 in preparation for a world premiere in February. Called Phrase for Phrase, it attracted an imaginative and smart group of arts aficionados who opened some new doors for dance discussion. Definitely a contemporary take on the word “salon.” Love it.

MORE LIVE BALLET ON FILM. That’s not an oxymoron. Kudos for The Oaks Theater, which posted the next series of Emerging Pictures’ Ballet in Cinema for 2013, where there are several interesting developments to be seen, including a couple of forays into contemporary ballet. Sergei Polunin, an immensely talented Russian and currently the Bad Boy of Ballet, left The Royal Ballet, but curious fans can see him in an encore presentation of “Sleeping Beauty” in January. They can also see a new production with international superstar Natalia Osipova in La Scala’s “Notre Dame De Paris,” the first contemporary ballet, this one by Roland Petit (1965). Also of note are “La Bayadere,” always worthy when the Russians perform it, and The Royal Ballet’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” a big 2011 hit choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon and the second fresh contemporary production, albeit in a classical mode. Complete schedule: The Royal Ballet’s “Sleeping Beauty” Jan. 13 and 15; Bolshoi Ballet’s “La Bayadere” Feb. 17 and 19; La Scala’s “Notre Dame De Paris” Mar. 10 and 12; The Royal Ballet’s “La Fille Mal Gardee” Apr. 7 and 9; The Royal Ballet’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” May 5 and 7; The Royal Ballet’s “Giselle” May 19 and 21. Mark your calendars!

On Stage: PBT Begins a New “Nut”- ty Decade

December 11, 2012
Photos: Rich Sofranko

Photos: Rich Sofranko

Christine Schwaner as Marie

It’s the eleventh year for Terrence Orr’s Pittsburgh-laden production of “The Nutcracker.” Some are still familiar icons — the Heinz truck, the amusement park that we all know is really Kennywood. Some are lesser know — the Stahlbaum house that really existed in Shadyside, known as the McKee Mansion and the much-lamented demise of Kaufmann’s (now Macy’s), represented by the overhead clock and a book that blows up during the Transformation. After all these years, my favorite is still the view of the city from Mt. Washington in the Snow Scene. But if you’re a first-timer, as many families are, it’s obvious (particularly at matinees) that everyone has their own opinion. Of course, you can read my opinion in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

The Russians are coming to the Land of Enchantment

Nurlan Abougaliev's Drosselmeyer entertains at the Stahlbaum party.

On Stage: New soloists and dancers prepare for PBT’s Hartwood

August 17, 2011

Photos by Rich Sofranko

I can’t remember a year when Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre kept virtually all of its dancers as it will going into the 2011-12 season. Turnover is to be expected in any company and PBT has had times when it replaced up to 13 dancers, almost half the ensemble.

Not this year — only corps member Alison Kappes was forced to retire with a knee problem. Although artistic director Terrence Orr will not replace her, he will promote two dancers, the long, lithe Elysa Hotchkiss and the long overdue Luca Sbrizzi, to soloist positions.

For those who feed on all the new faces at PBT, there will be three apprentices, Olivia Kelly from PBT’s grad school, Cooper Verona from Houston Ballet School and Raffaele Zarrella from Princess Grace Academy in Monte Carlo.

Although Raffaele hasn’t arrived yet — he is experiencing problems with his visa — the other four sat down to talk about their new paths with the company.

It’s been a great couple of years for Elysa, who felt that her burgeoning confidence  played a part in her promotion, although her artistic director once remarked that she “feels things more than most dancers.”

Maybe her personal life played a part, too — she married Rob Walls last summer. (He surprised her with a ring after a “Nutcracker” performance, complete with company members and choreography.)

Noted for her airy jump as well, the Erie native hopes “to continue to grow, both emotionally and physically.” And instead of trying to fit in with the other members of the corps, she can display more of her own individuality.

To her that means “freedom,” a word that punctuates the conversation more than once.

In her first season as a soloist, she’s looking forward to “Coppelia” rehearsals. But Elysa also can’t wait for more of Dwight Rhoden, who will be staging another PBT premiere this year, noting that, yes, “I love his freedom.”

Luca, on the other hand, vows that “nothing will change — neither my work ethic nor my passion for dance!” The word “passion” peppers his answers.

But, after all, he is Italian and it frequently shows. Born in Udine, a small town outside Venice, he started ballet with his sister at age 8. He admits that he almost quit at age 15, but was talked out of it by a favorite teacher, who brought back the passion.

As it so happened Mikko Nissinen, artistic director of the Boston Ballet, was a friend of the teacher. He saw Luca at 17 and offered him a scholarship. So young ballet dancer hopped an airplane for America, although he didn’t speak English.

Luca spent two years in the school and another two in Boston Ballet’s second company, but ultimately decided that “the atmosphere there wasn’t for me.” He auditioned at several other companies before deciding on PBT. “I felt at home here,” he explains (passionately). “I just love Pittsburgh!”

So does apprentice Cooper Verona, although he hasn’t developed the total connection with the Steel City yet. It’s a lot like home, though. A native of Rockville, Connecticut, he headed south to North Carolina School of the Arts for his junior and senior year of high school, then to the Houston Ballet Academy last year.

However he called Houston “foreign,” ultimately deciding that he liked the four seasons. Besides, his bike got stolen there. Cooper actually applied for PBT’s grad school, but with his height and great proportions, was accepted as an apprentice. A Pittsburgh friend of his parents replaced the stolen bike with a “new used” one upon his arrival here. Now Cooper looks forward to tackling Pittsburgh’s hills.

It took him a while to accept ballet though. Cooper started out in tap, attracted by a Sesame Street episode in first grade that featured superstar Savion Glover (“about alphabets or something”). But the ballet teacher at the studio “kind of stole” him. Also a sports enthusiast (soccer, baseball, basketball, golfing, Frisbee), he “kind of did everything” through the eighth grade.

Ballet won out, because it “seemed like it was a pure thing to do.”  (And also at the urging of his teacher.)

Olivia enjoys purity as well. Some may remember her lovely, nuanced “Giselle” at the PBT School performances this past spring.

Born in St. Louis, she grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio and studied at Ballet Tech. But by age 13, she was comfortably ensconced in the Kirov Academy in Washington, D.C. “I had a blast,” she said. “You get to live in a dorm with all your friends — what could go wrong?”

Upon graduation after five years of training, she was accepted into the grad school here and was asked to stay an extra year. It paid off.

But Olivia might have to put her many interests on hold. Like travel — she’s been to Vienna, Budapest, the Caribbean and China, where her family lived in Shanghai. And scrapbooking. And designing mini-cupcakes.

Maybe that will pay off as well. After all, ballet mistress Marianna Tcherkassky was noted for her “Giselle” at American Ballet Theatre.

On Stage: The Magic is Back

December 13, 2010

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre began its annual “Nutcracker” run last weekend. For some, it’s a holiday rite of passage. Read about it in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

On Stage: A Nutcracker Tale (With a Happy Ending)

December 2, 2010

Photo by J. Verno

On June 24, 2010, Aliyah Busselberg’s life-long dream of dancing the leading role of “Clara” in The Nutcracker looked as though it had come to an end.  The ten year-old Pittsburgh Youth Ballet Company dancer was playing soccer when she and two friends collided, crashing to the ground in a tangle of arms and legs.  Watching nearby, her parents quickly realized that something was wrong when she didn’t get up with the others. Her foot and ankle angled sharply away from the rest of the leg.  Referencing the Harry Potter films in classic 10 year-old fashion, Aliyah recalls that “It looked like Harry Potter’s wrist after he lost all of the bones in his arm”.

Fractures through the lower leg growth plate were confirmed in the emergency room and Aliyah was told that she would spend the next several months in a cast extending from her toes up to her thigh.  The time for recovery was uncertain, but could be as long as four months.  Upon hearing the news, Aliyah pursed her lips the way she often does when struggling to contain her emotions and her eyes welled up.  “I guess there’s no more ballet, I’m not going to [American Ballet Theatre], and I might not even be in Pittsburgh Youth Ballet Company’s The Nutcracker . . .”

Aliyah’s summer plans unraveled.  She was forced to withdraw from training at prestigious ballet summer intensive programs, including two weeks in New York City at American Ballet Theatre and three weeks with Pittsburgh Youth Ballet Company (PYBC).  Summer training with her PA West Classic Division soccer team was also naturally out of the question.

No one could tell for certain how much function Aliyah would recover by the time of The Nutcracker performances, but the question was clearly in the forefront of her mind from the minute she realized the severity of her injury.   Last year in the summer she had been dancing in New York City Ballet’s production of Coppélia in Saratoga Springs, New York. This year, she faced the prospect of interminable hours on the living room couch.

On September 9, 2010, Aliyah called her father from the doctor’s office.  “I have some bad news about my cast”, she said glumly.  This was followed with an ecstatic shout: “It’s in my hand!”.

The boot finally came off nearly a month later.  It had been 15 weeks since Aliyah had used her left leg without some kind of support.  Her left thigh had atrophied, and her left calf muscle was virtually gone. She limped so dramatically that it was hard to imagine her doing any significant walking, let alone dancing.  That didn’t stop her from going to ballet that very night.  Or the next.  Or the next.  She started taking nine ballet classes a week.

Over the ensuing weeks Aliyah would spend two to four hours nearly every day rehabilitating her leg at the barre.  In those initial days without the boot, dancing any role at all in The Nutcracker—let alone her dream role of Clara, the leading character in the story, seemed like a long shot to just about everyone.  Even Aliyah, despite having danced in that role for a school performance the previous year, questioned whether she could be ready for the part.  Frustrated with her apparent lack of progress, one night she petitioned PYBC Artistic Director Jean Gedeon: “If I can’t dance in The Nutcracker, can I at least be Fritz [Clara’s little brother who breaks the doll]?”

Contrary to her own expectations, Aliyah was named for the leading role of Clara just two weeks after she had resumed dancing. “The teachers and I knew what a really good actress she was, so we wanted her for the part.  Before her injury, she had already proven herself to be an extremely hard worker, taking many extra ballet classes every week, so we were confident that she would be back in no time,” Gedeon recounts.  “I really believed in her talent and the proverbial four D’s to become a dancer:  Desire, Determination, Dedication and Discipline were always present” Gedeon said.

As time passed and the extent of Aliyah’s work ethic became clear, even Gedeon admits she still had one small doubt: “The thing that disturbed me the most was that in class she seemed to be making fine progress pointing her toes and doing exercises at the barre and center better than expected because she was concentrating so hard, but when it came time to walking naturally outside the studio she walked with both feet flat like she was in two boots…. that gave me a little bit of pause.  Aliyah would come up to me and ask me, ‘What can I do to get better?’  “Maybe you should try to walk normally and learn to run naturally.”

And walk more she did.  Frequently, on her basement treadmill, after three hours of ballet class was over.  Aliyah recalls her experience saying “I was so tired, I thought I would fall asleep on the treadmill and hurt myself.  I didn’t want to do it, but I knew it was the only way to get back.”  As The Nutcracker performance loomed closer, Aliyah’s progress accelerated: she transitioned from barre exercises to working on pirouettes and jumps and leaps in the center.  One of the biggest milestones in Aliyah’s mind was eventually being approved for pointe work.  “My first day back at ballet, I felt like I couldn’t do anything, but I told myself, this is just the start.  When I finally passed my pointe test I felt excited, like I could do anything that I put my mind to.”

With little time remaining before her performance as Clara, Aliyah still feels like she is not dancing at 100%, but she remains firm in her resolve: “When this is all over, I think that my left leg will be stronger than my right.  It was always the weaker leg before [the injury], and now it’s got a lot of catching up to do”.

What has Aliyah learned from the ordeal? “To appreciate what you have.  You can dance through blisters and growing pains, but physically it’s very hard to dance with no muscle in your leg.  Almost impossible.” Almost.  Recent rehearsals indicate that Aliyah has continued to make progress, conquering her fouettes turns on her injured foot.  But beyond mastering the technical aspects of the performance, it just might be that Aliyah’s new-found insights about loss will thread their way into her exceptional portrayal of a little girl with a broken toy nutcracker on Christmas Day.

Aliyah will perform her dream role as Clara on Dec. 3 at 7:30 p.m. at Upper St. Clair Theater. But she will perform in all Pittsburgh Youth Ballet performances (see Listings). Thanks to Jean Gedeon for sending this and to Amy White, who wrote Aliyah’s story. As a reminder for those of you who miss Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s Balanchine “Nutcracker,” PYB has received permission to do the unparalleled Balanchine version of “Snowflakes.”


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