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: Varekai Flying High

March 31, 2014


Aerial Straps - Photo: Rick Diamond

Aerial Straps – Photo: Rick Diamond

It’s not often that a show from Cirque du Soleil makes such a successful transition from tent to arena as Varekai has done. It attracted a large crowd to University of Pittsburgh’s Petersen Events Center. And they were rewarded. Read about it in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.


Russian Swings Photo: Rick Diamond

Russian Swings Photo: Rick Diamond

Handbalancing on Canes

Handbalancing on Canes

On Stage: Patricia on Gene Kelly

October 27, 2012

Patricia Ward Kelly has proven that she is determined to keep the Gene Kelly name alive. Not only does she attend the Gene Kelly Awards, but she visits different school while she’s in town and has become something of a name herself here in Pittsburgh. A book on her husband is nearing completion and her recent talk at the University of Pittsburgh was part literary preview and a colorful splash of his films. You had to come away with a renewed respect for the man — a perfectionist who pushed the boundaries of the film industry itself and who cast dance in a new light. Read about the event in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and revel in some film samples from Patricia’s talk:

They said it couldn’t be done, but Gene did this number. He filmed the two men separately, using musical cues and black curtains to achieve a precise mirror image. Gene told Patricia it was the hardest thing he ever did.

This clip from “It’s Always Fair Weather” didn’t have any special effects, just pure Gene. It’s admittedly Patricia’s favorite.

Patricia noted that this portion of “An American in Paris” had to be cut in several countries because it was too sensual.

Most of us have seen the Gene and Jerry the Mouse number, but there’s a popular contemporary version out and about now. Enjoy!

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.



On Stage: Newfound Art in Lostwax

June 25, 2012

Blinking (2010)

No wonder Jamie Jewett felt a sense of déjà vu when he came to work on his friend’s house here in Pittsburgh (Aaron Henderson, assistant professor at the Studio Arts Department at the University of Pittsburgh). Currently working out of Providence, the artistic director of Lostwax talked about the faded mill sites in the Rhode Island capitol.

But more than that, he is an unabashed fan of Gene Kelly and couldn’t wait to visit his hometown and begin a week’s residency at the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater in East Liberty, which opened a whole new interactive summer series built around works-in-progress.

His company, the 10-year old Lostwax, is part of a burgeoning dance scene in the New England state. Lostwax, you say? Just for the record, the title comes from a very ancient casting process. Among the steps to making something like a metal sculpture are model-making, moldmaking and burnout, where a wax copy is heated, then melts and runs out…and is lost.

That idea can also be seen in juniper berries, which can be toxic when eaten in large amounts. But they can also be distilled and used to flavor gin, still retaining the essence of the berry. And it can be seen in his latest project, Particular, which gets its inspiration from the group behavior of a flock of starlings or a school of fish, or even rain.

“There are a lot of things that we view as a collective,” he begins. “But they are made of specifics that we can also think of as unique and particular and beautiful. I’m interested in that dialogue.”

The dialogue takes place on stage, forming a new brand of communication between the technology, the music and the dance…and the humans who are creating it, in this case Jamie as choreographer and artistic director of Lostwax, and R. Luke Dubois, composer and currently director of the Brooklyn Experimental Media Center at the Polytechnic Institute of New York University.

The music came from Luke’s kitchen, sort of found objects of everyday life, but remixed in different ways on his laptop. The dance came from Jaime’s movement ideas. They are both also media artists, so the “media happens in the space somewhere between us.”

It relies on an advanced computer animation that was famously used to create the bats in Tim Burton’s 1989 flick, Batman. Called Boids Algorithm, it is a mathematical equation that describes the individual’s behavior in a flock.

But Particular relies on the synthesis of it all.

Jaime asserts that synthesis is nothing new in dance. After all, Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes had the likes of Stravinsky and Picasso folded into the artistic mix. Merce Cunningham used composer John Cage and assorted visual artists. “Dance has always used technology as soon as it is available,” he says, although the participating artists worked independently before assembling the final product.

But his maxim is “no technology without need.” And unlike previous companies, he is interested in the antithesis, where different parts of the work are developed in dialogue with each other.

That’s why the week-long residency at KST was so important to Jaime. “It gives us a time to be in one place, where we can set up our gear and leave it so we can focus on the creative act,” he says.

Actually it turned out that there were two works-in-progress. They showed the first cut of Melt, a video transfer of a former Lostwax piece. Since dance is so fleeting, this was a way of preserving it in another form.

It began with the nifty image of a retro refrigerator and a cascade of ice cubes inside. Slippery blocks of ice contrasted with the crusty mill setting. The movement filled in the spaces, then moved outside and inside a river. As yet, the film was somewhat jumpy, both in the camera work and the various angles and could benefit from smoother transition. But there was very good news that KST had purchased a huge scrim that gave the film the clarity it deserved.

Lostwax must have worked fast on Particular, which had three segments to present. The first had a lacy series of circles repeatedly passing like a Xerox machine, although the choreography didn’t establish itself in the way it should.

However, the piece seemed to escalate from there and the growth was satisfying. In the second segment, there was a flickering border along the bottom of the scrim, where shadows of the dancers were sometimes revealed in real time. And the choreography seemed to balance that.

Then it escalated to the idea of the flock in the most successful of the segments, where both individual and group behavior was visible in a sweep of poetry. On the scrim where abstractions of birds, while the stage the stage was occupied with unfolding movement patterns. Similar, but independent.

There were so many layers to observe here. I liked the idea that the various elements, dance, music and video, carried a real relationship, unlike other multi-media productions where they might interfere with the viewer’s concentration. And within each genre, you could observe subsets of the original idea — flock versus individual. It all seemed to harmonize…

KST executive director janera solomon indicated that this might be the start of a new relationship. This could be one very cool team to watch.

On Stage: Attack-ing Pitt

January 2, 2012

It’s a phenomenon alright. More and more companies are encouraging their dancers to participate in the creative act of choreography. The Kelly-Strayhorn promotes independent choreographers from Pittsburgh’s dancerly ranks. Just this fall Point Park University presented student choreography and Bodiography its annual Multiplicity program at the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater. At Bodiography the dancers thought long and hard about their conceptual direction (a good thing), plus artistic director Maria Caruso performed a solo and long-time member Lauren Suflita Skrabalak (it was so good to see her again!) unveiled a new interest in choreography.

But Attack Theatre has come up with a new wrinkle. The company has joined forces  (via a grant) with the University of Pittsburgh’s graduate program in music composition. The organizations presented an informal concert at the Pittsburgh Opera space in the Strip District that had a surprisingly finished look about it.

For the record, there were seven composers, many of them playing in the evening’s live accompaniment, another plus. For the record, they were Matt Aelmore, Aaron Brooks, Chris Capizzi, Bomi Jang, Jonghee Kang, Charles Lwanga and Sookyung Sui. Those composers were paired (not necessarily in this order) with choreographers Jeff Davis, Michele de la Reza, Peter Kope (twice), Michael Walsh, Ashley Williams and the dynamic duo Renee Smith and Jamie Murphy.

The variety was terrific, from de la Reza’s delicious partnering in “Playback” (Brooks) to the gentle jazz of “Scenes,” where Williams captured a rainy afternoon (Capizzi). Davis had a whimsical touch in “Gifts From the Sea” (Kang) and Kope and Aelmore combined for a nonsensical solo for Toney, probably the audience favorite.

Shades of Merce Cunningham, Attack took some existing phrases and repurposed them  to the new music to lighten the load on the dancers (a good thing because Toney was in four of the seven works and the Attack dancers had just completed Holiday Unwrapped and PO’S Pearl Fishers). Hope it becomes an annual event, and, signaled by the inclusion of choreographers Murphy, Smith and Walsh and dancers Kaitlin Dann, Shana Simmons and Jessica Marino, grows to include more from the dance community.




On Stage: Higher Dance Education

May 9, 2011

It’s spring and it’s nice to know that dance students can continue to bloom in college in a number of different ways. I was able to attend three local performances at La Roche College, University of Indiana and University of Pittsburgh — all different and serving the needs of their students.

La Roche College: In its first year under the directorship of Maria Caruso (Bodiography), La Roche had the most formal presentation at the Byham Theater. Maria wanted to involve the Pittsburgh arts community, which meant that there were appearances by her own company members and apprentices from Bodiography, Fluidity Dance Company from Tyrone, PA and Slippery Rock University, plus the hugely talented rock group, Crossing Boundaries. It made for a long program, as Maria was the first to admit, but the La Roche dance majors and minors participated in more than 50 percent of the evening, leaving room for growth next year.

Indiana University of Pennsylvania: I recently made it up to IUP to see Ronald K. Brown/Evidence, but this was my first sighting of the dance department at the Palace Theater in Greensburg, where four of the university students were participating in a project with New York choreographer Ben Munisteri. It turned out to be a lecture/demonstration, a prelude to a full performance with the company later in the week. But Ben turned out to be quite warm and informative, with the dancers surprisingly supple and adaptive.

University of Pittsburgh: Susan Gillis-Kruman has done yeoman’s work at Pitt, creating a unique program that allows opportunities for dance minors and numerous others with a continuing interest in dance. She brings in guest teachers in order to expose hundreds of students to all types and forms of dance. And the annual recital of the Pitt Dance Ensemble is created and choreographed by the students themselves. This was the first time that they appeared in the Alumni Hall auditorium. Great, but I missed the smell of chlorine from the pool in Trees Hall…just a little.

On Stage: Alegria the Amazing

October 9, 2009

The Snowstorm“Alegria” is one of Cirque du Soleil’s earliest productions. It helped to set the tone for the Montreal-based company’s  success back in 1993 and it appears that it is providing a new direction in these tough economic times.

“Alegria” arrived at the Petersen Events Center on the University of Pittsburgh campus on Wednesday sans Big Top — yes, that colorful and charming environment that envelops the viewer like a surreal womb during the performance. This production might bear more than a passing resemblance to “Delirium,” which played the Mellon Arena. But then, “Delirium” was designed for that kind of space.The Cyr Wheel

There was only one question: Would “Alegria” be able to overcome the mishmash of steel girders in a sports arena to transport the audience into its own mythical kingdom? There were standards here, established by a pair of Cirque-taculars, “Quidam” (2002) and “Varekai” (2006) in Pittsburgh and the full Monty of productions that I was able to see in Las Vegas, where entire rooms were built to house the productions in various hotels.

The bottom line answer was “yes,” although it took a little longer. The stage was like a geometric tongue of a thrust stage, bordered on three-sides by onlookers. The floor seating around the stage was placed in clumps (although later it became apparent that the spaces in between were needed to work the rigging for the explosive high bar finale). These performers didn’t have the usually advantage of the intimacy of the Big Top. Nor did they have the benefit of giant revolving plates, swimming pools and the like for the larger Vegas shows.

The Fire TwirlersSo they worked a little harder and it paid off.

In a way, it was good to see “Alegria” later in the scheme of things, in order to appreciate Cirque’s evolution and go back to its roots. There were themes of kings and fools, old and young and working together for change (a familiar thought of late in the United States). But the focus was on the traditional circus acts with costume upgrades (loved the spurting white wigs on the musicians and the White Singer’s contrasting tutu and sensible boots) and a smattering of choreographed movement for transitions.

With Rene Dupere’s popular, tuneful score, “Alegria” revolved around the acts and they were gee-whiz, drop-dead terrific. Ah, the afore-mentioned high bar act, where seven men combined two trapeze catchers with a whirlwind of multiple swings on the high bars. I still don’t know how they coordinated four men at once, barely missing each other. But then, the Flying Man, rebounding on a bungee cord high above the audience, gave them a run for those stick-in-the-throat gasps.

There was sculptural beauty to behold in the Mongolian contortionists, who slowly revolved on anThe Hand Balancing Actelevated platform and muscular lyricism in two male solos, one a Ukrainian handbalancing act and the other revolving inside a large silver metal circle called the Cyr wheel. The hottest act was, of course, a pair of fire twirlers — Cirque always has diversity in mind.

An “X” marked the spot for a rebounding troupe of trampoline artists. Then another group rebounded off long white poles called Russian Bars, where it was fascinating to watch how the catchers, here called porters, adjusted while the flyers were tumbling in mid-air to allow them to land on the narrow pole.

Which brings us to the clowns. This group had to be my favorites of all the Cirque shows. I particularly loved the brotherly duo, who teased each other and competed in games of one up manship.  But then we could discern “just give me a hug” and “I love you” among the conversational gibberish.

  1. The Russian BarsBest of all, they appeared as a mini-Greek chorus, commenting on previous acts, like a hilarious flexible pole exchange between the two of them. When it all ended, they were a big factor into turning us all into kids as we left the arena, enthralled and thrilled at the same time.

If this is the Cirque wave of the future, turning some of the shows into leaner, meaner traveling machines, I’m for it. I don’t want the organization to give up on those magical one-of-a-kind tents, but if this format allows Cirque shows to pop in and out of town quickly on a more regular basis, bring it on.

Cirque du Soleil’s “Alegria” runs through Sunday at Petersen Events Center. Visit Ticketmaster for more information. All photos by © Martha Rial. Martha is a Pittsburgh-based photographer who specializes in documentary, editorial, travel and portrait photography. A former staff member of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, where she won the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for Spot News Photography on the lives of refugees in Rwanda and Burunda, and the St. Petersburg Times, she has won the Scripps Howard Foundation Award, a National Headliner Award and has been named Pennsylvania News Photographer of the Year. Martha frequently lectures and exhibits nationally and is available for domestic and international assignments. Contact: mrial@aol.com.

Off Stage: With the One and Only Cirque

October 9, 2009

So I didn’t need to climb Cardiac Hill on Wednesday afternoon and search for the loading dock entrance into the Petersen Events Center on the University of Pittsburgh campus. But it was an unbeatable opportunity to take a look at Cirque du Soleil artists preparing for their appearances here in Pittsburgh. While waiting to be escorted to the open rehearsal, I looked over the names on the placard beside the guard, most of them virtually unspellable. There were also notices for strength testing, a reminder that this job is briefer than most.

After a long hike with my escorts (all of whom wore 4-inch heels), we emerged in the performing area with the Cirque stage reaching out to the audience in Enterprise style (beam me up, Scotty). The back section was angled upwards, where the orchestra would be housed and the geometric front pierced into the audience.

A group of Eastern European trampoline artists (an educated guess judging by the accents and probably the owners of some of those names on the placard) was rehearsing its trampoline act. Over and over. Higher and higher. More twists. An occasional fall to prove that they are human.

Underneath the orchestra area is the entrance backstage, where the Cirque-ers could warm-up with Pilates equipment to stretch and what looked like steel rigging for more high-flying moves. Artistic director Brooke Webb took a few minutes to talk about the details behind the imagination.

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