Intermittent quacking issued from the Just Ducky Tours amphibious vehicle floating along the Monongahela River. Revolutionary War–era reenactors recreated historical events at Fort Pitt. Bridge traffic rumbled overhead. This ambient symphony at Pittsburgh's Point State Park accompanied The Blanket as the dancers rehearsed and performed Lucinda Childs: The Early Works, a retrospective of four architectural, pedestrian works choreographed by the award-winning, post-modern dance maven between 1975 and 1978.
The Blanket, a project-by-project driven ensemble established in 2016 by Matt Pardo and Caitlin Scranton, aims to enhance Pittsburgh's modern dance community through reconstructions, commissions and collaborations with noted choreographers. Last weekend's presentation, which included Childs' Radial Courses, Katema, Reclining Rondo and Interior Drama, marked its first major presentation, challenging the dancers to perform the intricate choreography originally set to silence in an ambient, unpredictable soundscape.
PBT presents a Nutcracker geared to children with autism disorders.
“This is a performance where families can come as they are and be who they are,” says Alyssa Herzog Melby, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s education director, about the company’s first autism-friendly performance of The Nutcracker, which she championed. The troupe, directed by Terrence Orr, follows the lead of the Theatre Development Fund’s Autism Theatre Initiative, which facilitates performances of Broadway productions for sensory-sensitive audiences. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, autism spectrum disorders affect 1 in 88 children nationally.
Christine Schwaner in Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's Nutcracker. Photo by Rich Sofranko, Courtesy PBT
Working with several local autism support organizations, PBT assembled a 10-member panel that scrutinized a DVD of the company’s The Nutcracker. Participants suggested removing the flares from Drosselmeyer’s magic tricks and reducing the volume of the recorded Tchaikovsky score for the ballet’s two-hour duration. Orr’s choreography remains unchanged, but lighting adjustments may be necessary.
PBT, which has worked closely with the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust throughout the process, assembled a pictorial pre-visit guide as an introduction to the theatergoing experience, and will offer a real-time opportunity to explore the Benedum Center, where the ballet will be performed. Designated quiet and activity stations will be made available, along with more than 50 education and health care volunteers. Ushering staff, who were trained for an autism-friendly performance of Disney’s The Lion King, staged in September at the Benedum, are working the house. A clinical advisor prepared the troupe’s 29 artists for potential distractions during the December 27 matinee, which will be performed with dim house lighting.
Ensemble member Stephen Hadala, a veteran Drosselmeyer, is excited to reach an audience new to The Nutcracker. “We, as an organization, can set the standard for ballet companies in other cities. This experience is something I will treasure forever.”
Three women tell their stories.
Photo by Frank Walsh, courtesy Corning Works
“I love working with people who push me, rather than need to be pushed,” says Beth Corning, who relishes brainstorming and performing with seasoned artists via The Glue Factory Project, an initiative she launched in 2000. For its latest iteration, Corning unites with Nora Chipaumire and Francoise Fournier for Recipes Our Mothers Gave Us, which premieres in January in Pittsburgh, current home base for the director of Corning Works. Her provocative dance-theater productions tackle issues synonymous with adult life, including loss, attaining maturity, and jockeying for power within social hierarchies. For Corning, the project is more than an annual production: “It is a philosophy.”
Cooking themes first enticed Corning while creating Remains (2013), her one-woman show about preserving memories. That project took a different artistic turn, but the yen to “do something with food continued to simmer on a backburner—pun intended,” she quips. Recipes will be staged as a three-ring circus. Opting for an international cast defined by cultural and aesthetic differences, she invited the earthy Chipaumire, a Zimbabwean known for her fusion of African and contemporary dance, and the cool, quiet, Parisian-style dancer/actress Fournier, a French Swede, into her choreographic mix. “These artists can say a great deal by just standing there,” says Corning, herself a bold creative force with keen theatrical sensibilities. She anticipates that each will imbue the process with “her own individual magic.” —Karen Dacko
Point Park University students celebrate world dance.
PPU students with Judith Leifer-Bentz, Photo: John Mckieth, Courtesy Point Park
Just a hop, skip, and a grand jeté from the Monongahela River, Point Park University’s burgeoning academic village expands past downtown Pittsburgh, while its global outlook embraces the outside world. This March, an annual food, craft, and music festival highlighted the flavors of Australia, Tibet, Ireland, Vietnam, and other countries. And at the month’s end, the university’s eight airy dance studios overflowed capacity, offering students a taste of butoh, Latin, Ukrainian, West African, and Middle Eastern dance.
While the food and music festival is an initiative of Point Park’s Office of International Student Services and Enrollment, the dance festival is entirely student run. “The two international celebrations are independent events, but we try to overlap them,” says Megan Meyer, current president of the Dance Club, which has sponsored Point Park’s World Cultural Dance Week for the last four years.
A brainchild of past Dance Club president Shonica Gooden, WCDW was modeled on a program from her former high school that allowed students to explore dances of various cultures. Gooden, a 2011 grad who is currently dancing in Rogers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella on Broadway, had hoped that a series of diverse master classes would not only expand the club’s visibility across campus, but also provide artistic connections outside Point Park’s Conservatory of Performing Arts.
“Exposing students to world dance is so important,” says PPU jazz teacher Kiesha Lalama. “[This week] forces students to step out beyond what they know and it deepens their appreciation of all kinds of dance.” Though PPU’s dance curriculum already includes classes in character, folk, ballroom, and Dunham technique, WCDW “shows what else they are hungry for, and they make it happen for themselves.”
Students began planning for this spring’s festival last October. Meyer and club officers arranged for funding from PPU’s United Student Government coalition; additional costs were offset with earnings from club raffles and bake sales. They looked for professional dancers from the outside community who might be able to teach, and scheduled classes that would be open to the entire university population.
Dance faculty members give up their usual class slots in order to make time for WCDW events. For instance, Lalama hosted two workshops: one taught by PPU alum Natalie M. Kapeluck, artistic director of Kyiv Ukrainian Dance Ensemble, and the other by Desiree S. Lee, a West African dance specialist. Salsa and cha-cha instruction replaced a Horton class, and in place of Judith Leifer-Bentz’s Graham-based modern class, Lani Fand Weissbach, the founder of Erie-based Shen & Bones Performance Group, led an introduction to butoh.
Freshman dance major Christian Warner enthused over the opportunity for self-discovery. The classes, he said, “brought different things to me. West African was very energetic; butoh was very internal. I’m so glad that I got to participate.” Butoh in particular taught him to trust his body and to approach something new with an open mind.
Experiences like Warner’s are exactly what makes WCDW so successful, and Dance Club president Meyer says that the 2013 events exceeded her expectations. “Some students had to observe classes, because there wasn’t enough space for them to participate,” she says, noting her plans for expansion in 2014. “There’s always room for new styles,” she says. “In the past we’ve had hula and East Indian Classical Dance. Native American might be cool to try next.”
Karen Dacko is a Point Park University alumna and a former Dance Club secretary.
Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre
Byham Theater, Pittsburgh, PA
March 15-18, 2007
Reviewed by Karen Dacko
As the song goes, Time to Change. While that tune was one of seven in Dwight Rhoden’s jazzy/bluesy concoction Smoke ‘n Roses, it was apropos of PBT’s first main stage event held at the 1,400 seat Byham Theater. The move from the vast Benedum Center to the smaller house for this mixed bill showcased the youth and vitality of PBT’s 30 dancers.
Circular patterning, revolving lifts, and multiple pirouettes highlighted Dennis Nahat’s fluid Moments (1998), a four-movement neo-classical work with an evocative Mendelssohn score. Thematic steps introduced in the opening ensemble section—sit-spins, pirouettes with the working legs en avant, and C-jumps by the men—filtered throughout the work. On opening night Christine Schwaner and Nurlan Abougaliev elegantly performed Suspended in Time, a well-crafted pas de deux. Her variation was initiated by bourrées alternated with walking; his solo mingled pirouettes and dips that brought him to his knees. A Giselle-like passage (him kneeling, her bourréeing to him from behind) launched their swirling adagio.
Like Moments, Salvatore Aiello’s humorous Clowns and Others (1978) ended where it began, with a full cast grouping. Here, the 14 dancers were dressed in individualized clown attire as they romped through a series of character-driven vignettes. A loving couple elicited laughter from the audience with a misplaced kiss (on her chest) before they hit their puckered targets and was subsequently seen in a thematic lip-lock. The little girl with a beanie on her head and a balloon in her hand learned a lesson about lost and found and lost again; while a tightrope walker’s misstep resulted in a deeper sense of loss for the ensemble. In a silly episode, a bat-wielding clown swatted at the others while a trembling girl knelt and prayed to be spared. She was. The batter instead beat himself on the head while receding into the wings.
Rhoden’s non-narrative premiere wrapped itself around songstress Etta Cox, who performed in the pit. It proved to be a vehicle for veteran principal Erin Halloran, whose sinewy bare legs attacked Rhoden’s fractured classical vocabulary with confidence and precision. She maintained grace and clarity as partner Christopher Rendall-Jackson deftly negotiated her supple frame through twisted and complex adagio passages that would have looked muddled if performed by a lesser artist.
Ronald K. Brown and company in Upside Down.
Courtesy Ron Brown/Evidence
Ronald K. Brown/Evidence
November 30December 1, 2001
Reviewed by Karen Dacko
Ronald K. Brown, artistic director of Evidence, told audiences in a post-performance talk that his emotionally powerful Walking Out the Dark (2001) springs from poems and letters he wrote after his mother's death in 1996. The contemporary work for three men and one woman, which premiered at the American Dance Festival in June, focuses on a family's need to mourn and reconcile. However, the appropriately sparse piece, which literally buries the cast in fifty pounds of dirt that tumbles from the ceiling ("the earth of grief"), acquired deeper connotations for Brown following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
On September 5, Brown's troupe launched the last "On Stage" series at New York City's now decimated Twin Towers. Dark was not on that program. "The Towers were our backdrop," says Brown, recalling the audience's warm reception. After the attacks, he received numerous phone calls: " Your program was the last time I was there,' they told me. I felt like a hole had been bored into my chest."
Brown realized that Dark, with its contemplative mien and graphic imagery, would be overwhelming for his dancers and audiences in the days following the attacks. He shelved it until the Pittsburgh Dance Council concerts, returning it to active repertoire with a reduced cast but unchanged content. The effect was dramatically focused, architecturally uncluttered, and visually compelling.
Says dancer Diedre N. Dawkins, "It makes you go to a place you don't want to go toand look in the mirror."
Brown says that in performance, he mourns those lost in the attack, emphasizes family connections, and questions both the government's truthfulness and his beliefs. Parallels to the recovery effort are unavoidable. "We are these spirits buried in this rubble, and we can ascend," he says.
Following a brief voiceover, the curtain rose to dirgelike music on four figures with bowed heads. They stood in a spacious circle, each initially interacting with the dancer directly opposite. In an opening sequence, Dawkins, in the spotlight, lay on her back, one arm extended overhead (a pose others later assumed); after rising, she executed a solid grand rond de jambe, eventually returning to place as Brown advanced to perform these movements. Elsewhere the dancers reprised a reverent kneeling posture, accompanied by face-covering gestures, but it was Brown who most richly imbued these movements with drama and palpable emotion. Also memorable were both Arcell Cabuag's repeated approach to a detached Daryl Spiers, who remained unyielding to his supplication for forgiveness, and a contraction-based solo for Dawkins. While birdcalls introduced limited spatial exploration, the dancewhich projected a sense of timelessnesswas primarily circular, until the bodies unexpectedly aligned and the gentle shower of dirt descended.
In Upside Down (1998), which showcased the strength and sinuous lines of its six dancers, the brisk African dance movements were directed downward initially, as bodies sloped forward with relaxed knees and widely separated feet. The men's torsos were controlled and graceful, as their arms continuously sliced through space. Following a diagonal processional in which Cabuag was borne by the ensemble, focus shifted upward, but the dancers' bent knees kept the weight grounded. The repetitive vocabulary was punctuated by wrist rotations, exaggerated footsteps, and upward curvatures of outstretched arms. The piece effectively concluded with a rerun of this funeral procession, cleverly switched to the opposite diagonal.
In eight fast-paced vignettes, High Life (2000) traced the northern migration and social evolution of African people into the American tapestry. With a pastiche score, prop manipulation, and quick, era-defining costume changes, the work was provocative (especially the slave auction sequence) and likeable, allowing the dancers to display their dramatic capabilities. Best was a jazzy nightclub scene where Dawkins, a charismatic mover, was the featured vamp, with sashaying hips and jaunty shoulders. Later, backache predominated as elderly ladies, with spines curved, hands pressed above hip level, and derrieres jutting, amusingly hobbled.
Gillian Beauchamp in Mark Taylor's Pope Joan.
Photo courtesy Dance Alloy
October 1314, 2000
Reviewed by Karen Dacko
Initiating its twenty-fifth anniversary season, the six-member Dance Alloy, directed by Mark Taylor, ventured into new artistic territory with mixed results. It presented Taylors Pope Joan, a fifty-minute dance oratorio, conceived by composer Anne LeBaron and co-produced by Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble.
According to a medieval legend, Joan disguised herself as a Benedictine monk to acquire an education. Elected pope in 856, she later fell in love with a Vatican guard. Discovered when she gave birth to a son during a papal procession, she was executed in 858.
Despite the Dark Ages reference, the swift-paced production with its deconstruction of a poem cycle by Enid Shomer, its leather-clad cast, postmodern dance vocabulary, and percussive, jazzy musical outbursts has a contemporary edge that fixated on Joans carnality.
Departing from the Alloys starless policy, Joan thrust an adequate Gillian Beauchamp into the leading role, which was shared with strong soprano Kristin Norderval. The women bore a remarkable likeness to one another that was accentuated through similar hairstyles. The choreography clearly melded the two performers: As Beauchamp posed, arms outstretched sideways, Norderval stepped behind her and assumed the same stance while Beauchamp lowered her arms and exited.
Joans fleeting solo dance passages were less satisfying.
Joan is too often flanked by the ensemble, or she is locked in grappling caressesmore dispassionate than sensualor poses with her lover (Michael Walsh, a powerful presence) wrapped around her knees. Consequently, her independent strength never emerges.
Memorable imagery is generated by manipulation of long poles that reference the Vatican guard. These poles form arches, crucifixes, accusatory fingers, and a roiling mattress. In one scene, Joan lies on the floor as the ensemble circles, poles directly aimed at her abdomen. Withdrawn simultaneously, the plunger-like effect produces a telling theatrical moment.
Completing the program were Taylors Province (1989), which featured role-reversal partnering for Elizabeth Swallow and André Koslowski, and George Crumbs Ancient Voices of Children (1970), an audience-challenging non-dance offering.
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Dance Alloy company members Michael Walsh and Gwen Hunter Ritchie are shown onscreen and onstage in Translocations: What If?
Photograph by Sarah Higgins
Carnegie Mellon University
September 14, 1999
Reviewed by Karen Dacko
Carnegie Mellon University, has instituted Wats: On?-The Jill Watson Festival Across the Arts, an annual three-day celebration of multidisciplinary lectures, video presentations, and performances to honor the memory of their graduate award-winning architect Jill Watson who perished in a 1996 airline crash off Long Island, New York.
Opening night paired the dedication of architectural artist Magdalena Jetelova's underground installation, "Translocation," with choreographer Mark Taylor's thirty-five-minute site-specific premiere, Translocations: What If? Taylor, collaborating with video artist Joe Seamans, successfully explored Jetelova's penchant for dislocation via inspired, canny insight into the choreographic process.
The well-crafted work began in silence on the bare wooden lecture hall stage. The four Dance Alloy members, dressed in gauzy white, executed stylized warm-up stretches until a godlike Taylor appeared onscreen overhead. His commands and complicated instructions, preceded by "What if . . .," elicited chuckles from the audience, as various groupings of dancersaccompanied by an ever-changing scoreexperimentally reprised two lyrical movement phrases from different stage directions. The skillfully wrought spatial levels and varied timing, plus sharp visual contrasts, entertainingly introduced the concept of dislocation.
More challenging to assimilate, part two rotated the vertical axis through projected images, reflective ofbut not synchronized withthe live action. Frames of softly upstretched arms, soles of feet, and extended legs created an arresting montage of the onscreen dancers, who, clad in loose black garments, were often seen angled, upside down, or sideways.Complementing these skewed perceptions, the onstage choreographybuilt on counterbalance and weightemphasized angular shapes, which were created through partnering. For example, in an extended pairing, a couple leaned backward, neck to neck. As they slowly moved forward, pushing against each other, the pressure was palpable.
The work concluded as dancers exited or froze, fetally curled, then reappeared, standing motionless onscreen. The devicethough predictablewas artistically satisfying. The final image of Taylor slowly walking diagonally toward the onscreen cast translated as a powerful theatrical moment.
In a unique epilogue, curled bodies lined the path from the auditorium to Jetelova's underground installation site for the unveiling ceremony.
Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre
August 16, 1998
Reviewed by Karen Dacko
Mother Nature's unnerving pre-show--including one grandiose lightning bolt--threatened to upstage Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's seventeenth annual performance at Hartwood, an open-field venue that boasts an acoustically excellent covered stage shell.
PBT has previously offered Ivanov's Swan Lake, Act II here. However, this year's staging, which added six Hunters and a variation for Benno, was customized by artistic director Terrence Orr. Always well-crafted with detailed nuances, Laura Desiree's Odette evoked greater poignancy via an enhanced use of gestures--upper body, head, and especially arms. The improvement is astounding. Her performance was majestic. As Siegfried, Steven Annegarn demonstrated increased emotional depth and a few new adagio tricks. For example, he pushed Odette pronouncedly forward at the crest of the split-lifts, achieving a soaring effect. The female ensemble is improving stylistically, as some swans--notably Sara DiMaio--are positively avian.
Newly hired soloist Douglas Gawriljuk, whose full potential is yet to be tapped, and recently promoted principals Mabel and Maribel Modrono (who are identical twins) offered an even-keeled presentation of Petipa's pas de trois from the first act of Swan Lake. It offered the welcome reinstatement of a series of air turns for the male and inexplicably modified the coda's pirouette sequence to utilize just one danseuse. Gawriljuk demonstrated a high jump accompanying well-stretched feet and clean, countable entrechats. Both women have lovely carriage and are free of affectation.
The exotic Unknown Territory (1986), choreographed by the late Choo-San Goh to a percussive score, requires a charismatic lead couple to carry the thirty-minute work. Newly promoted soloist Erin Halloran, though not yet riveting, has both the grace and malleability for the sensuous undulations and contortions required. Sometimes stoic, sometimes fierce, the athletic Alexander Nagiba was most successful when pouncing, crouching, and flinging his compact body floorward. The corps performed admirably, but the absence of design elements that couldn't be accommodated at Hartwood undercut the work's full visual impact.
In Petipa's Le Corsaire Pas de Deux, pale and fragile Ying Li provided a sharp physical contrast to Stanko Milov, who, suntanned and muscular, seemed to tower and overpower. Their adagio was fraught with boisterous partnering and blatantly manipulated multiple pirouettes that concluded with imprecise waist-level holds. Faring better individually, Li skillfully graduated her extensions in the variation's five successive développés à la seconde and later offered secure single and double fouettés. Milov's pas de ciseaux--forceful, picture-perfect midair thrusts--highlighted his solo and punctuated the finale, eliciting bravos from the audience.
Gelabert-Azzopardi companyia de dansa
Pittsburgh High School for the Creative and Performing Arts (CAPA)
October 13–16, 2004
Reviewed by Karen Dacko
Spanish dancer and choreographer Cesc Gelabert’s talent, elegance, and presence enrapt his audiences. In his Preludis, the co-director of Barcelona-based Gelabert-Azzopardi companyia de dansa gave an honest, convincing performance that never faltered.
CAPA’s auditorium offered an intimate venue for this presentation by the Pittsburgh International Festival of Firsts, an initiative of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust that showcases U.S. premieres of dance and theater works. The 45-minute solo was staged in an arresting visual environment of a dozen freestanding sculptures (most resembling quirky, unlit streetlights with red, teardrop-shaped globes) arranged to suggest a clock’s face.
Preludes of Bach, Chopin, Debussy, Mompou, and Santos, played by an onstage pianist, provided a parallel performance that complemented but did not influence the contemporary ballet. The work unfolded clockwise as a series of short variations, each delineated by unique thematic gestures.
Dressed in dark trousers and a knit shirt with an open collar, the mature artist quietly entered in stocking feet from stage left. With his trim form bathed in green light, he struck a slightly forward-leaning, profile posture with both arms extended behind him. At “six o’clock” Gelabert faced the audience, fingers in his mouth, his elbows jutting outwards at his sides. With eyes closed, he explored his senses, drawing one hand beneath his nose as if inhaling a fragrant scent and later slathering his person with washing movements. At “midnight,” he ceremoniously affixed a three-tiered black hat to his bald pate. Eyes open, he curled his fingers into arthritic contractions and lunged forward in a grotesquely amusing crouch. In another variation, he collapsed, rested, or slept on a bean-shaped set piece.
Many gestures paired skewed adaptations of classical port de bras with subtle, rudimentary sautés and rond de jambe, sequential demi-plié/relevé, and pump turns. A deceptively simple but effective demi-pointe combination displayed his solid balance. Showers of perspiration released by his most animated movements revealed the intensity of his efforts.
The closing moments recapped key phrases twice, leaving an indelible impression of the artist’s skillfully wrought movements before he faded into upstage darkness.
For more information: www.gelabertazzopardi.com