Dance Beat: Helen, Marianna, YAGP

February 15, 2017
Enjoying the after-preview festivities are dancers Sarah Zielinski, Sonja Gable and Chelsea Neiss. At the table are choreographer Helen Simoneau and, standing behind, Attack co-founder Michele de la Reza.

Enjoying the after-preview festivities are dancers Sarah Zielinski, Sonja Gable and Chelsea Neiss. At the table are choreographer Helen Simoneau and, standing behind, Attack co-founder Michele de la Reza.

Attack-ing Helen. Attack Theatre was full of surprises for a preview of its new work by Quebec choreographer Helen Simoneau. Former board member Todd Owens was energetically bartending with some home-cooked concoctions — tequila-based — to match Moe’s deliciosa Mexican buffet. Attack members Dane Toney and Anthony Williams were taking a break, watching Helen’s all-female cast in the tantalizing snippets that they had prepared. There were the familiar, always-welcome Ashley Williams and Kaitlin Dann, plus newbie Sarah Zielinski. Also be prepared to get acquainted with project-based additions Sonja Gable and Chelsea Neiss when the piece makes its official premiere in May at the Kelly Strayhorn Theater. It was a nice stretch for the company, moving with a smooth weight and seamless connections as they explored new vocabulary and phrasing.

Photo: Kenn Duncan

Photo: Kenn Duncan

Marianna at the Museum. Wouldn’t we all like to be showcased in the Smithsonian along with Dorothy’s ruby slippers and Kermit the Frog? Well, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre ballet mistress Marianna Tcherkassky is now part of an ongoing exhibition at the Museum of American History. Only three ballerinas are featured — well, their costumes — in American Ballet. French ballerina Violette Verdy inspired George Balanchine at New York City Ballet (a costume from one of her performances at the White House can be seen) and Misty Copeland is defining new standards at American Ballet Theatre (her costume from On the Town, where she spun into a limited-run leading role, is on display). Marianna’s contribution is a costume from the first act of Giselle, for which she is noted and which she performed many times with Mikhail Baryshnikov. Check it out.

Budding Ballerinas. Then there are those young talents that participated in the Youth America Grand Prix Semi-Finals at Upper St. Clair High School. Veridy Treu, 15, of Pittsburgh Ballet House captured the Senior Age Division and will move on to the finals in New York City. Also placing in the Top 12 were Alexia Norris,16, and Francesca Siudela, 17, of West Point Ballet and Alexandra Topalova, 16, Pittsburgh Ballet House, who placed second in the Contemporary Dance Category. Alan Obuzor of Pittsburgh Youth Ballet Company and Kwang-Suk Choi of Pittsburgh Ballet House were given Outstanding Teacher awards. For more results, click on YAGP.


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

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.

On the Road: Viva la Violette!

August 14, 2009

Violette VerdyI came across a little slice of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre history in Chautauqua, where the Dance Circle honored French ballerina and long-time Chautauqua teacher Violette Verdy and featured a new documentary about the former New York City Ballet principal dancer.

But more on the PBT connection later. For those unfamiliar with the considerable historic and personal charms of Verdy, one only has to check a few of nearly 15 million Google hits. Born as Nelly Guillerm in 1933 (which puts her in at around a robust 76), Verdy began with Les Ballets des Champs-Elysees and seemed to conquer the European continent before trying her hand at the United States. After one year with American Ballet Theatre, George Balanchine beckoned her to come to the New York City Ballet, where he created many roles for her including “Emeralds,” “La Source,” “Sonatine” and the champagne fizz of “Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux.”

Verdy directed Paris Opera Ballet and Boston Ballet for a time, but her heart lay in the classroom. She is currently a Distinguished Professor of Music (Ballet) at Indiana University and is in great demand as a guest teacher. This past June, the former ballerina was award the distinguished French Legion of Honour (Chevalier).

Former New York City Ballet Stars Violette Verdy and Patricia McBride at Chautauqua

Former New York City Ballet Stars Violette Verdy and Patricia McBride at Chautauqua

But those achievements seem to pale in comparison when meeting Verdy. At a recent performance of “Pas de Deux” by North Carolina Dance Theatre at Chautauqua, two of the dancers admirably performed “Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux”
and a documentary of her career and Chautauqua connections (nearly 20 summers there) was shown.

But when the silver-haired Verdy took the spotlight, she was uncommonly radiant, similar to her performances on stage. Oh yes, that brings up Pittsburgh. She performed “Swan Lake” with the wonderfully athletic American danseur Edward Villella during the early years of PBT at Heinz Hall.

You see, Verdy was instrumental in the explosion of American ballet in the early ’70’s. She performed with many regional ballet companies, lending her considerable star power and technique to their development.

But she went on to do more than that. As she explained it at a reception following the Chautauqua performance, “I was injured at the time and I asked Mr. Balanchine if I could help with auditions.” Those auditions would be connected with the Ford Foundation scholarships that brought some of America’s greatest talent to New York City Ballet’s School of American Ballet.

That meant traveling around the country, talking with local teachers and assessing students — perhaps even teaching a class. It all helped to raise technical standards and establish a definitive American style.

Merci, Violette.

(This is a coaching session with Paris Opera Ballet principal dancer Isabel Guerin in Jerome Robbins” “Dances at a Gathering,” part of a 2001 documentary, “Violette et Mr. B.” available on

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