Dance Review: ANALOGY/DORA: TRAMONTANE by Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

For over 30 years, renowned choreographer, Bill T. Jones, has built a prolific repertoire of dance works. Throughout his career he has received a number of accolades, including a MacArthur Genius Award, the Kennedy Center Honors, and two Tony Awards for Best Choreography. Jones has tackled difficult topics in his work, including the AIDS epidemic and the sex trade. This piece was equally challenging in subject matter.

ANALOGY/DORA…is based on the life of Dora Amelan, a Holocaust survivor who worked as a nurse in detention camps in southern France. The piece was choreographed last year, and was presented at the August Wilson Center this past weekend.

The company members took turns telling Amelan’s story. As movement swirled around them, one dancer at a time spoke into a hand-held microphone. The text relayed Amelan’s own words in a harrowing account of her bravery and what she sometimes described as “luck.”

Nick Hallett and Emily Manzo performed live music from the open wings, a mix of classical French songs and present-day electronica. The sound worked well to support the emotion of the spoken word.

Though Amelan’s story was one of survival, it was not without tragic loss. Early on, the dancers rolled a cot onto the stage as a portrayal of her mother’s death. Here, the accompanying movement was technical and clean. Despite the dancers’ exceptional execution of the movement, the choreography did not fully reveal the despair of the moment.

At times, the piece did a better job conveying the horrors of the war. Portable walls (created by Bjorn Amelan) served various purposes throughout the show. In one vivid section, Amelan’s story recounted her father’s illegal travel to France. Antonio Brown performed a solo in which he struggled against one of the structures falling on him. The movement was simple, the image impactful.

Another section that worked well came near the end, when the dancers depicted Amelan’s sister’s death. From one corner, I-Ling Liu performed a solo of minimal gestures. Eventually, Rena Butler picked up on the movement from across the stage. And Jenna Riegel eventually began the same phrase. In that moment, there was a trace of solidarity between them, despite heavy grief.

That section turned to a unison phrase of big jumps in and out of the floor. The choreography was neatly arranged. One would have imagined disorder or dread even amongst a coming together. The choreography could have been bolder.

The piece continued in that same manner. While some sections revealed deep sorrow, others fell short. Amelan’s description of the deplorable conditions of the barracks was haunting. But the movement didn’t portray the same ghastly quality. Later, though, a series of slow motion partnering duets showed the care and support each of the survivors gave one another.

To close, peace was declared. The dancers attended a party where Marcel Marceau and his brother performed. Marceau’s character made appearances throughout the show. Like the rest of the cast, Carlo Antonio Villanueva performed his role well. His movement was precise and subtle, just as mime should be.

The dancers joined hands in the end and formed a line, weaving around the moveable walls. This had a folk-dance effect, communal and complete with exuberant smiles. The lights went down on the dancers’ silhouettes. The joy in their conclusion felt abrupt.

Continuing to share Holocaust stories is incredibly important. Jones’s depiction of Amelan’s personal story was a touching tribute and a necessity in keeping the devastation of the time well documented. Though the movement was worthy of a more stirring depiction, the heart of the piece was clear.


Dance Review: LAWS OF ATTRACTION by Attack Theatre

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

For over two decades, Attack Theatre has transformed otherwise unknown Pittsburgh sites into ultra-creative performance spaces. In their latest work, Laws of Attraction, they took on an old auto body repair shop located in Uptown.

The two-act show was inspired by the study of science. About a year ago, the company taught creative movement classes to elementary students at Winchester Thurston. There, the science teacher asked if the dancers could center their lesson around “the complexity of bridges.” The concept grew from there, culminating in an almost two-hour long show.

Laws of Attraction featured five dancers, including Nile Alicia Ruff who joined the company most recently, and live musician (and painter), Ian Green. Under the direction of co-artistic directors, Michele de la Reza and Peter Kope, the performers used scientific concepts like weight transfer, structural supports, and counterbalance to build movement phrases. Like most Attack shows, props were used; however, exploring these themes with their bodies worked equally well.

No Attack show would be complete without the use of witty metaphor. The piece tied elementary classroom concepts to the nature of human relationships. Throughout the show, they played with phrases like, “Why does everything revolve around you?” And, “Nothing can pull us apart.”

The first half brought a healthy dose of partnering phrases that naturally invoked the science of kinesiology. Ashley Williams stood on top of Kaitlin Dann while the narrator (pre-recorded) declared, “I don’t understand why you’re always right on top of me.” Each dancer continued with individual solos in and out of the floor that left them breathless on their backs. The narrator spoke again. “You’re exhausting me; I’m tired of all these ups and downs.”

In another section, Anthony Williams placed magnetic shapes on a large metal door. The dancers then built similar shapes with their legs, arms, and torsos, darting about the space as the music crescendoed.

The women performed a memorable trio, each partnering with a ladder. The three of them took turns climbing it, cartwheeling inside of it, and jumping in and around it. Many duets also stood out. Dane Toney’s and Ruff’s extended lines complimented each other well. Anthony Williams and Dann played two patrons in a neighborhood bar, eyeing each other from across the room. Their short relationship ended with, “I’m sorry; I want to go in another direction.”

The second half brought signature Attack athleticism in the form of child-like play. In one section, the dancers performed on hover boards. Although long, the segment was mesmerizing. The boards waved as the dancers calmly snaked around one another, gesturing and turning the entire time. The choreography never resorted to trickery; rather, the group found ways to turn the obvious into artistic.

They did the same with a giant seesaw. Each took their turn on one side, investigating weight and simple physics. A lovely moment ensued when Dann and Ashley Williams found a counterbalance. To illustrate swing, climbing and falling, the dancers manipulated a dangling rope swing throughout the show. Both Ashley and Anthony Williams impressed the audience by climbing the rope in what felt like five seconds.

Most eloquent was how Attack managed to blend the exploration of relationships with the investigation of science. The ending led us back to the opening relationship, when Ashley Williams needed space from Dann. Their attraction couldn’t keep them apart. The two ended in an embrace. Perhaps our human attractions are mere chemistry.

Laws of Attraction was smart, entertaining, and easily educational for a classroom of students. Attack continues to create well-made dances with clever storytelling that compliments exciting and playful movement. Don’t miss the remainder of this performance run; see details below.

Laws of Attraction continues for one more weekend, April 27th-30th at 8:00 p.m. The shows are located at 300 Gist St., Uptown. Check the website for parking information and ticket costs:

Dance Review: REMAINDER NORTHSIDE by Attack Theatre

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

Attack Theatre spent eighteen months working on their latest piece, Remainder Northside. For that year and a half, they taught creative movement at various Northside schools, after-school, and summer programs. In getting to know the youth of the neighborhood, they created an hour-long group dance that loosely shared the kids’ thoughts and experiences.

Before the show began, the company gave the audience a taste of their creative process. The directors and dancers spoke about how they turned the stories they’d heard into movement. One child had spoken of a gym teacher who swung his whistle— that became a circle of the dancers’ lower arm. Another remembered a trip to Cedar Point—that manifested as a “pointed” gesture with straight elbows.

In classic Attack fashion, co-directors, Michele de la Reza and Peter Kope, had the audience try the movement from our seats. Rather than reading a program note, we understood the through-line of the show by doing the choreography ourselves.

To open the piece, the dancers entered as if arriving at school. They placed their belongings in lockers and took their seats on a bench. De la Reza performed slow movements behind a see-through scrim while the dancers followed along; the section was reminiscent of a game of Simon Says.

One by one, the dancers broke from the bench to perform individual solos. Anthony Williams moved between spotlights, sometimes with an inquisitive feel, but sometimes tentative, with fear behind his eyes. Kaitlin Dann’s solo had a similar tone, emotionally back and forth. Both dancers moved swiftly in and out of the floor. Dann moved with precision down to her fingers, and Williams with sleek elongation of his limbs. Dane Toney finished the section, covering the space with long lines and lightness on his feet.

The musicians (Dave Eggar, Chuck Palmer, and Domenica Fossati) set the tone for each section, moving from atmospheric to rhythmic to experimental. At one point, they switched instruments with one another. And a few times, they danced right alongside the company members.

Remainder utilized a sparse set, and the choreography centered on highly physical movement. Anyone who has followed Attack over the years knows their stage design can be complex and their theatrics can drive a show. Here, the dancing reigned supreme.

Ashley Williams and Dann performed a unique duet where they tossed themselves to the floor with athleticism. Later, the men performed an equally impressive duo. Both pairs partnered with fluidity and strength. The four company members came together in a group section while de la Reza matched their movement from the rafters. A sense of wonderment filled the theater.

In another section, the dancers used their own bodies to create rhythms that turned into a dance party of sorts. Although the celebratory nature was a nice change of pace, the movement felt novice.

Later, there was a moment when the piece seemed to be ending. The dancers sat, childlike with awe, watching de la Reza solo as if a mother figure. The group joined her in a hopeful phrase, laying footsteps in a pathway while de la Reza lit the space with a lantern. The image was touching and would have made for a lovely and subtle close.

Instead the group came together in one last phrase. The musicians picked up the pace singing “I’ll go wherever you go, wherever our footsteps lead the way.” Each dancer showed optimism and community in group partnering interspersed with solos. Although their technique shined, the choreography was a bit sentimental.

In Remainder, Attack reminded us of their capability to pare down humor and theatrics, highlighting instead their remarkable partnering and technical abilities. Even more, the piece gave voice to an important Pittsburgh community and showed the universality of children’s experiences everywhere.


Dance Review: THE WINTER’S TALE by Quantum Theatre in collaboration with Chatham Baroque and Attack Theatre

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

A little known fact in the Pittsburgh dance community is that Michele de la Reza, co-director of Attack Theatre, performed mime as her first stage experience. She eventually went on to receive a degree in dance from the renowned Juilliard School, but her original training never left her.

Her partner, Peter Kope, also has dramatic experience. At age eight, his first role was as an actor. Together, Kope and de la Reza are entering into their 21st season of choreographing contemporary dance. But they have also spent their careers creating movement for close to twenty different operas.

Their latest collaboration, with Quantum Theatre and Chatham Baroque, was unique in that the show included all four Attack members: Kaitlin Dann, Dane Toney, Anthony Williams, and Ashley Williams. The dancers made up a large part of the production. Most impressive was their ability to change characters throughout the two and a half hour show. At times, they provided background, abstracting emotions or landscape. In other scenes, they took on literal roles.

The Winter’s Tale was written by Shakespeare in his late career, and provides both humor and tragedy in its ultimate story of love. Quantum’s artistic director, Karla Boos, collaborated with Andres Cladera and Chatham Baroque to transform the play into what is known as a “pasticcio.” The term refers to a style of opera that uses different composers to adapt an existing work. Included were musical works by Bach, Purcell, Handel, Vivaldi, and others.

The story moved from dark to hopeful. King Leontes imprisoned his pregnant wife, Hermione, whom he accused of infidelity with his best friend, Polixenes. When Hermione ultimately died, Leontes fell apart, filled with regret and sorrow. Only after sixteen years did the family find peace and happiness.

In addition to the remarkable singing and acting, the dancing showed exquisite range. Modern dancers are often trained to tone down their facial expressions and emote with their bodies. On the other hand, stage acting calls for a wide breadth when it comes to use of the face. The dancers slipped in and out of this easily, depending on the scene. De la Reza and Kope coached them on finding authenticity within the exaggeration.

There were many standout moments in terms of the movement. In one scene, Leontes ordered Antigonus, his steward, to abandon his newborn baby. Antigonus obliged, taking the infant to a forest. While video projection showed the sinister image of vines intertwining and rising up, the dancers wove their own limbs in and around each other. Their movement brought life to the forest.

Another rich phrase came when the dancers turned difficult partnering into a fight scene. The movement reflected the anger of Leontes, and added a layer of emotion to the production.

The dancers were skilled with their humor as well. To signify the famous (or perhaps infamous) Shakespeare scene when Antigonus is eaten by a bear, all four of them staged their own deaths. They convulsed on the floor in jest until their bodies contracted and then flopped dramatically into stillness.

It’s always a challenge for an adult to play the part of a child. Dann took on the role of Mamilius, the king’s son whose death is brought on by grief. She and the other three dancers brought out their inner children without mimicry. The movement was wisely choreographed as light and playful.

Sometimes the choreography simply matched the mood. In a bleak moment, the dancers paired off in the two balconies and performed slow partnering phrases under low light. Near the end, the dancers used the entirety of the stage in big, technical movement that matched the period well, although not literally. De la Reza and Kope chose balletic movement, regal in nature and reminiscent of a stately court processional.

The show succeeded in many ways. The caliber of each artistic genre was unmatched. Quantum Theatre and Chatham Baroque continue into their 25th anniversary seasons with quality and creative performances. And Attack Theatre proved, once again, their flair for the dramatic and a mastery in choreographing and performing opera.

The Winter’s Tale runs through October 3rd at the 19th-century music hall in The Union Trust Building downtown. Visit for show details and ticket purchasing.

Dance Review: LIGHTLAB 9 at The Space Upstairs

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

A few years ago, local artists, David Bernabo and Taylor Knight, created the LightLab Performance Series in an effort to give voice to the experimental movement. Bernabo’s background is largely in music and visual art, while Knight received a degree in dance from Point Park University. Their styles and interests mesh, though. Bernabo developed his own untrained movement style over the years. And Knight solidified a reputation as a musician under the moniker, slowdanger, with his partner, Anna Thompson.

LightLab shows are often stripped down and low-key, without major lighting or costuming. The works happen in site-specific locations, most locally, but some out of town. Friday night, The Space Upstairs in Point Breeze (home to The Pillow Project) hosted the 9th event. In addition to the featured performance, five-minute slots were filled with other dancers, musicians, and writers in an open-mic fashion.

Connor Hestdalen, a poet with Persian Pittsburgh, collaborated with ukulele player, Jeremy Mikush, in a short reading and musical improvisation. Roberto Guido also shared poetry, humorous and poignant with a feminist perspective. Hannah Barnard performed a movement improvisation alongside Flux (Darnell Weaver) on live viola; the two communicated with artistic grace.

Jean-Paul Weaver also danced, moving lightly with his signature long lines and ethereal quality. Bernabo performed a short piece that had a running motif. He used various objects, like bells and containers of grains, to create contagious and uplifting rhythms. Shiloh Hodges impressed the audience with seamless fluidity and a candor about her performance.

The featured work was choreographed by S+Vois (Shantelle Jackson) from New York City. Knight and Thompson met Jackson years ago when she danced in Pittsburgh, and have stayed connected ever since. The three of them performed at Dixon Place this past spring and discussed a possible Pittsburgh show then.

Acts was the result, a 3-section group piece shown intermittently throughout the evening. These snippets were choreographed in a short, four-day residency and included Jackson, Thompson, Knight, Hodges, Flux, and Morgan Hawkins.

The work was dark, both literally and figuratively. The performers wore all black and danced under low light. S+Vois entered first. She moved toward the audience in a stumbling way, her boots weaving a pattern of heavy footfall. The rest of the cast crept in behind her in an equally eerie walk forward. They encircled S+Vois and helped ease her fall to the floor. From hands and knees, the performers eventually rose up, creature-like, and lightly stomped their feet as the lights faded.

In the next section, four performers faced the back wall, shaking and gasping in a startling, yet moving moment. They eventually moved as a clump, collapsing in on on each other with struggle. This led into a beautiful unison floor phrase that continued as a solo by Hodges. The section lent itself to the description S+Vois provided of the work – “…an experiment in undoing duality, an opening of space and an allowing of self-riddance.” The somewhat volatile nature of the opening contrasted the expansiveness of the ending.

In the final section, Thompson danced a solo of simple and clear shapes. Her arabesque crumbled then morphed, sleepily. She accompanied herself by singing about the malleability of memory. Knight then joined her. The two shared weight in sparse partnering phrases that showed their interdependency.

A quartet of wavy arm gestures followed. The dancers then pressed seamlessly into handstands that melted into the floor. Flux entered, playing the viola. Individual solos crescendoed with his music. The dancers left the stage while Flux continued to play, and the lights went out.

Acts worked well as vignettes, but would also succeed as a fully developed show of its own. S+Vois’s choices were certainly compelling, and worthy of more material. LightLab continues to be a vehicle for noteworthy artists.

Correction: The piece near the end of the review, with Taylor Knight and Anna Thompson, was their own choreography, not S+Vois’s choreography.


Dance Review: DANCE AFRICA PITTSBURGH at the Kelly Strayhorn Theater

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

Friday evening kicked off a weekend of events that honored African music and dance, and African diaspora. Presented by The Legacy Arts Project and the Kelly Strayhorn Theater, Dance Africa returned to Pittsburgh for its fourth year.

Founder of Dance Africa, Dr. “Baba” Chuck Davis, started the show with a tribute to the “elders” in the audience. Davis asked those over 55 to stand, as a way to honor the life experience and knowledge they possess.

At that moment, a single drumbeat from behind the curtain began the official performance. Dancers, musicians and community members proceeded down the aisle and onto the stage singing traditional songs, sometimes in a call-and-response fashion with the audience.

With a theme of “healing,” there was a therapeutic feel from the beginning. As the group processed off stage, local dancer, Anthony Williams, walked on. A list of names was read as Williams moved, acknowledging prominent blacks who have kept African art and culture alive in this country. Williams used slow, deliberate movements that gave him a regal look, leaping and turning with clarity and grace.

Act One featured the Balafon West African Dance Ensemble of Pittsburgh and Washington, DC (including their youth group), and Legacy Arts of Pittsburgh. “Foko” opened the show with ten kids playing infectious and intricate rhythms on the djembe drums lining the stage. Their music and intermittent movement had passion and precision.

The second piece, “OYA,” was dedicated to the women of African diaspora. Six women joined the youth in movement alternating between slow undulations through the spine and arms to fast-paced and rhythmic foot patterns. Similarly, “The Forest” celebrated the coming of age for women, and utilized both children and adults. The dancers’ energy was contagious; the audience cheered and clapped throughout.

The first half concluded with an interlude from the drummers that led into a high-energy section of dance. The movement began with cartwheels and somersaults from two young girls, and ended with ten women performing individual solos that highlighted their skills. Most impressive was the stamina and athleticism required to get through the section, and the performers’ ability to maintain their energy with absolute joy.

Act Two featured the Kulu Mele Dance and Drum ensemble from Philadelphia. “Yemaya,” their first work, was based on the goddess of the living ocean who is said to cure infertility in women. The performers wore dresses of blue and white to mimic the waves of the ocean. As it is at sea, there wasn’t a true moment of stillness in the piece. The movement was circular and hypnotic, and the dancers rippled across the stage as if entranced by the power of the goddess.

“Ogun” was inspired by the divine warrior of the same name who is believed to make the planet a better place. The trio of men were clad in bright green, and carried swords in a show of tenacity. Each of the dancers maintained a fluidity in their strength, power and dexterity.

The show crescendoed into a series of shorter works. “N’gri” featured three women in complex rhythms and exciting jumps inspired by a gazelle. “Soboninkun” was a short solo piece with the dancer masked and costumed as an antelope. The dance itself is traditionally performed following a harvest.

“Manjani” is a dance to traditionally “test the skills of the dancers” and was performed by three women who exhibited community more than competition. Another trio, “Hip-Hop to African Rhythms,” fused old and new styles. The men took turns showing off their best moves, competing in good humor with big jumps and gymnastic handstands.

The last piece, “Fula Fare,” brought the men and women together in a dynamic group section that celebrated the Fula people of Guinea. The work demonstrated the spirited nature of African dance, a community feeling sometimes lacking in modern day arts.

Erin Perry, Executive Director of Dance Africa, said in her program note, “We can all attest to the necessity for more healing energy worldwide…Such is the work that we are called to do, to utilize our gifts and share them for the betterment of humanity.” The unique program worked to uplift us and remind us of our oneness.


Dance Preview: CHARETTE at PearlArts Studios

Previewed by Adrienne Totino

Many professional dancers studied their craft in a college or university setting where students are often expected to create their own work in choreography and composition classes. The environment is supportive and helpful, with feedback from professors and peers.

But as in all art forms, we improve with practice. Some choreographic skill is honed in those four years of study, but one’s craft is far from perfected at graduation. By then, the competitive world of professional dance can be overwhelming. Joining a company is an option for only an elite few; many end up making their own work, simply to have an opportunity to perform.

For Staycee Pearl, director of Staycee Pearl dance project, it is important that choreographers continue to receive feedback on their work. She says, “We all get stuck in our creative bubbles and we get other people stuck with us…we fall in love with our own processes.”

Pearl goes on to say that she normally receives constructive criticism before presenting a new piece, and that it can be equally helpful to have someone outside the dance genre offer their assessment.

After this year’s newMoves Contemporary Dance Festival at the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater, Pearl spoke with many artists who were craving commentary on the works-in-progress they had just presented. She says, “People were asking for it, people who don’t have the resources to get it.”

As a leader in the Pittsburgh dance network, Pearl thought she might be able to help.  Not by offering her own advice, but by holding an event that would allow dancers to showcase their choreography, giving them an opportunity to perform, but to also receive feedback from members of the arts community.

Mark Taylor immediately came to Pearl’s mind as someone to moderate the event. Taylor is the former director of the Pittsburgh Dance Alloy, and currently runs the Center for BodyMindMovement. He has had a relationship with Pearl since her early career, and she has always valued his opinions and advice.

In addition to Taylor’s longtime experience, Pearl notes his genuine quality. “He’s open-minded and gentle…he’s not going to tell you what to do, but he will give you things to think about.”

Taylor came up with the name of the event, charrette. He and Pearl have been using the  following definition for the word: a meeting in which all stakeholders in a project attempt to resolve conflicts and map solutions.

Each event will follow the same basic structure. Taylor will begin by interviewing a choreographer, so the viewers might gain insight into their style and process. Then, the artist will present ten to fifteen minutes worth of material. To follow, 2 or 3 skilled professionals in varying genres will give their reactions to the work. Some of the professionals include Lenore Thomas, a printmaker and professor at the University of Pittsburgh, Aaron Henderson, a videography also at Pitt (and former STREB dancer), and a few local dance makers.

After the initial feedback, Pearl hopes to have discussion between the choreographers and responders; the performers might ask questions and receive more direct feedback if they need or want it. The audience may also have a chance to comment. This is something Pearl is still considering.

On Thursday, July 16th, presenters include Anthony Williams, Moriah Ella Mason, Pearlann Porter, and the Slowdanger duo. For the Thursday, August 20th showing, we will see Darcinda Louise Shaffner, Shana Simmons, Jamie Murphy, Joan Wagner, Alexandra Bodnarchuk, and Ariel Stanton-Penkert with Marissa Guthrie. One of the choreographers will receive free studio time at PearlArts Studios to continue the development of their piece. They will then present their updated work at a later date.

Pearl cares deeply about the craft of movement, and explains that although choreographers often see their own creation thoroughly, it still might not translate to the audience. The “charrette” process will help to elevate the choreography representing Pittsburgh today.

Event Details:

Where: PearlArts Studios: 201 North Braddock Avenue, 6th Floor, in Point Breeze

When: July 16th and August 20th, 7:00 p.m. (doors open at 6:30)

Cost: Suggested donation of $5, at the door

Dance Review: PROGRAM C of the newMoves Contemporary Dance Festival

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

Few cities have the audience for an entire festival of contemporary dance, yet Pittsburgh has arrived on the national scene as a place for this lesser known performing art to grow. Now, in its sixth year, newMoves is thriving with local and national dancers, and viewers from various artistic and non-artistic backgrounds.

Program C of the show took place Saturday night at the KST, after the festival’s headliner, BodyCartography Project from Minneapolis, presented work at the Alloy Studios in Friendship. The show featured mostly works-in-progress, giving multiple choreographers the chance to put their fresh ideas to the stage.

To open the show, Brady Sanders presented The Screen Between Us, a quartet that investigated our addiction to smart phones. The dancers used their own hand-held devices to light their faces, a perfect reminder of how we disengage from others in exchange for less meaningful communication.

With perfect wit, Sanders chose Vic Damone’s version of “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” to accompany the dancers. In one moment, two performers looked down at their screens during the lyric, “…pardon the way that I stare.” The effect was humorous and frightening at the same time. Sanders was successful in many ways, from the blend of text and music to the exceptionally talented dancers. His work places him on the Pittsburgh scene as a choreographer to watch.

Jean-Paul Weaver, originally from Denver and now living in Pittsburgh, slowed the pace with a solo called Lalin (Latin for “moon”). Weaver was interested in the tide, pull and fluidity of life, as represented by the lunar phases. His movement reflected his ideas well; fluid is a perfect way to describe his technique.

An image of the waxing and waning moon was projected behind Weaver as he ebbed and flowed through long lines, quiet jumps and circular transitions. The piece lulled the audience into a lovely state of calm.

From Ohio came the Factory Street Studio dancers, four seniors in high school who co-choreographed Revolution under the guidance of Elizabeth Atwell. Their dance-making process began with a prompt – what is dance? – and ultimately became an expression of their community.

The quartet began with simple walking patterns that transitioned into duets. Most impressive was the partnering skills of the dancers, something not often seen at their age. The movement was light and lyrical with an emphasis on technique and integration, a nice change of pace from televised dance for young women that focuses heavily on tricks.

Megan Mazarick, from Philadelphia, brought an impressive solo, monster, to the stage. Mazarick was inspired by a residency she did in Egypt and the “inner ferociousness” of the women she met there. The choreography also dealt with female identity and being “unlady-like.”

Mazarick traveled down a long diagonal, using movement that she stopped and started, froze, and rewound (a remarkable feat). Her technique was powerful and athletic, articulated from her eyes to her toes. The performance was rich with highly intelligent imagery, a standout of the evening.

To close the show, Anthony Williams presented a group piece, beingHUMAN. Williams is a local choreographer who recently performed a residency at the Alloy Studios. This time, his idea came from an imagined future where our technological obsession has persisted.

Williams used pop music, silver costuming, and flashing light to create a high-energy piece with a futuristic feel. The movement ranged from big and technical to intricate gestures, like fingers tapping a keyboard. Each dancer had their own unique style, but the cast performed particularly well as a unit.

The festival proved Pittsburgh’s dedication to contemporary dance, and also the high level of work we present. Director of the KST, Janera Solomon, wondered if the program might highlight our local dance aesthetic. More than anything, the three-night run showed our experimental nature and our diversity of artistic voices.


Dance Review: WRITTEN ON WATER and SNOW by Pontus Lidberg Dance

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino 

With only one remaining performance next month, the Pittsburgh Dance Council season is officially winding down. On Saturday night at the Byham Theater, Pontus Lidberg Dance brought uniqueness to an eclectic lineup.

Lidberg is a Swedish choreographer and filmmaker whose dance work has garnered attention since the company’s debut in 2011. Lidberg’s experience in film translates to the stage, with highly visual and rich movement palettes. His Pittsburgh debut was no exception. In Written on Water and Snow, the choreography evoked lush imagery.

Written on Water opened the show, as a prelude to Snow. Originally, the piece was conceived as a pas de deux for the American Ballet Theater. Since then, it has been expanded and now includes three dancers.

The piece highlighted the partnering skills of the dancers, which Lidberg thinks of as a conversation with the body. Dramatic string music by Stefan Levin set the scene, while bright light came up on Lidberg and Barton Cowperthwaite. The third dancer, Kaitlyn Gilliland, entered sporadically while the men conversed in light leaps and lifts, then deep, grounded pliés.

The pace quickened when Gilliland joined the men in a more definitive manner. Upright, balletic shapes were easily interspersed with undulation through the spine and off-center release that took the dancers to the floor. The movement itself was the high point, intricate and imaginative.

Near the end, a waltzing lilt had the dancers moving through quick, technical phrases with moments of stillness and gestures of touch that showed the vulnerability and uncertainty of human relationships. A dusting of “snow” fell from the rafters, enhancing the feeling of fragility. To finish, the three stood face to face, as if in realization, then turned away from one another as the lights faded.

Snow followed intermission and, in a way, picked up where the trio left off. The piece featured four dancers, adding Christopher Adams to the cast. As a fifth character, a Japanese-style Bunraku puppet also played a large role.

The quartet was originally choreographed to Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, but has since been reworked to an electronic score by Ryan Francis. During the creation of the piece, Lidberg was interested in the thoughts and desires that animate us, and in contrast, the detached way in which nature occurs without thought.

To begin, three of the dancers, masked and in shadow, manipulated the child-like puppet. The fourth dancer brought a balloon to the stage, which momentarily carried the child/puppet away. Mary Poppins came to mind, swinging from her umbrella with glee.

The performers remained masked throughout, a lighter covering over their faces while they danced, and a darker tone with a heavy hood while they engaged the puppet. Snow fell continuously; as winter can be both wistful and somber, so was the piece.

At times, the dancers skipped playfully into rollicking phrases reminiscent of youth. But an eeriness took over when their unison or partnering broke away, and when the puppet shivered with cold, rubbing his hands together for warmth.

That haunted sense continued when snow pushed forcibly from the wings, pressing the dancers back with indifference. Later, the balloon popped, bursting the astonishment of young life.

Neither the puppet or snowfall detracted from the beauty of the movement. Like the first piece, the choreography stood on its own. Eventually, all four dancers swept through individual motifs that melded into a circular unison mimicking the spiral of seasons.

In closing, the force of movement halted swiftly. Before the dancers shed their masks entirely, the lights went to black. While the unveiling could have been cliché, the result felt genuine. Lidberg succeeded in presenting the universal grace of both art and nature, the unrelenting storm of life experience.


Dance Review: CANDESCENCE by Gia T. Presents

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

Gia Cacalano has come a long way since her traditional Martha Graham training in New York City. Although she respects choreographed modern dance immensely, performing another artist’s rehearsed movement never felt comfortable to her.

After quitting dance for seven years, Cacalano finally found the style that suits her best—improvisation. Over the last decade, she has made a name for herself creatively in Pittsburgh, despite her shyness and discomfort with the public.

Friday, she performed the first piece of her new season, fully funded by the Heinz Endowments Small Arts Initiative. Her solo, Candescence, took place at the Wood Street Galleries, a studio that has hosted her and her ensembles many times.

Cacalano performed alongside the latest art installation at the gallery. Mirjana Vodopija, originally from Croatia, was one of the artists in residence. Her work, Absence of Self, included three large prints, two of which utilized video animation. Each print pictured desolate, snowy or icy landscapes. In one, a complete white-out, Vodopija stood with her back to the camera. In the others, her image was digitally projected, in intervals, walking away from each scene.

Although Cacalano spent little time with the art, her ideas about the work were strong. The prints inspired her to think of several themes: ridding the ego, being seen or not seen, the loss of self that comes through our age of technology, and the shedding of our various selves.

Cacalano entered the space with an investigative energy common in her improvisations. Her inquisitive nature allows her to relate to the space in which she performs, a quality important in connecting the physical and visual art. Cacalano’s heightened awareness showed from the beginning; she timed a determined walk with Vodopija’s figure on one screen almost immediately.

The choice of costume and props also spoke to the artwork. Cacalano began sheathed in several layers, including a skirt made of bubble wrap and a black hat nearly covering her eyes. The layering of her clothes represented the layers of her self, some of which she shed throughout the piece.

In her hands, she carried several pair of latex gloves, eventually placing them on the floor in a purposeful and careful manner. She later explained the gloves as a representation of the “sterile” and technical way we present our lives online, perhaps the place where we most lack our true selves.

All of this related well to the images on the screens. The movement often mirrored the feeling of seclusion. For example, Cacalano positioned herself behind the screen a few times, leaving only her legs and feet visible to the audience. Still, the dance wasn’t melancholic. Cacalano included a healthy amount of movement simply pleasing to the eye, physically attacking a phrase with lightness on her feet.

The music was recorded by Kagi-Jong Kag Park, an artist out of Amsterdam who will mix live sound for Cacalano’s April ensemble show. Cacalano stayed connected to the electronic beats, seeming to discard a layer of clothing, or “self,” each time a new section began.

She moved from the bigger, released movement at which she excels, to tiny gestures easy to miss, like a foot slowly turning in, or one finger pointing subtly into the distance. Sweeping progressions showed off her technical range, and concluded with deep pliés, lunges, and near splits (with no feeling of flashiness).

The piece ended when she exited with certainty in the direction of one print,   disappearing from our view as did Vodopija’s own shape on the screen. The timing matched up spontaneously but artfully, which is the beauty of improvisation and Cacalano’s skill.


Dance Review: WAYWARDLAND by Jil Stifel and Ben Sota

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

Each season, the New Hazlett Theater chooses a handful of local artists in multiple genres to perform as part of their CSA (Community Supported Art) series. Last Thursday, Jil Stifel and Ben Sota presented WaywardLand, an hour-long quartet also featuring Anna Thompson and Taylor Knight.

The piece was a collaboration of styles; Stifel’s background is mostly in modern dance, while Sota’s expertise is in contemporary circus. I couldn’t help but think about their work in light of the 2015 Grammy Awards which aired four days earlier. Kristen Wiig and local dancer and reality TV star, Maddie Ziegler, performed a duet to Sia’s “Chandelier.” The audience loved it, and more people were talking about modern dance than ever before.

Like ballet, tap or jazz, modern has its own set of prescribed movements, but is also open to the creation of the artist. The choreography often has no specific storyline and instead offers imagery the audience can interpret however they wish.

Stifel’s work normally falls into this non-narrative category. She does it well, with off-beat innovation. On the other hand, the Wiig/Ziegler performance used movements once considered interesting but now overplayed. Yet, that Grammy performance received accolades other local artists with more innovation might never earn.

Stifel and Sota’s WaywardLand could have easily gone the way of overdone. When people think of the circus, they might envision death-defying stunts like tight-rope walking and trapeze flying. Both were involved in the piece, but not in any dramatic way. Although Sota possesses those sensational skills, he and the performers opted for unpredictability instead.

For example, midway through the dance, the back curtain parted and out rolled a 150-pound German wheel (imagine a human-size hamster wheel with only a few spokes). Rather than using the apparatus in an expected way, the performers highlighted its varied uses. They lay the wheel flat and moved inside it, swaying left and right as if on a boat drifting at sea. Sota and Stifel eventually used the prop in a more traditional way, but they flipped and cartwheeled with playfulness rather than spectacle.

All four dancers utilized stilts. While the device might sometimes be used as a gimmick, the gear enhanced the main image prevalent throughout the piece—the Greek mythological figure of a minotaur, half-human and half-bull. The dancers bucked and growled, stomping their elevated feet like animals poised for a fight.

Even without the stilts, the choreography included creature-like gestures interspersed throughout phrases of larger movement. Their leaps and turns and floor-work, both on and off center, bore no resemblance to the usual ordering of steps we often see in contemporary dance.

The piece cannot be reviewed without mentioning the scenic and music design that contributed greatly to the fantastical feel of the work. Blaine Siegel created the set, which included repurposed doors, minotaur masks, and ropes dressed in various fabrics hanging on the rafters and arranged on the stage. David Bernabo generated the sound, a mix of percussion, accordion, bass, violin, piano, looped wind and more, all of which added to the dreamy atmosphere.

WaywardLand had the quality of a Dali painting, whimsical yet somehow completely sensical. The journey was circuitous, with unusual stops along the way. Unlike the melodrama of a televised dance production, this piece had thought-provoking bells and whistles, stimulating images without the frills.

Dance Interview: Pittsburgh ballerina, Maria Caruso, premieres her final stage performance

Interviewed by Adrienne Totino

Pittsburgh ballerina, Maria Caruso, has had quite an impressive career as a performer, director, and educator. The path she took as a dancer was more of a circuitous pirouette than a straight arabesque. Now that she has solidified her role in the community, she is ready to step down from the stage.

Caruso’s decision to stop performing came after the premiere of her 2014 ballet, Left Leg, Right Brain. She says she had been waiting for the moment when her company, Bodiography Contemporary Ballet, was in the right place. “I realized there is a great deal of leadership in the company, and they are ready to keep catapulting forward.”

To describe Caruso’s work, one must understand her history. Like many ballerinas, she was enrolled in dance by the age of 2. Her teachers recognized her passion and drive right away. But, Caruso didn’t just love movement; she thrived academically as well. At age 16, she had already taken college courses and graduated from high school. Although one of her longtime dreams was to go to medical school, she chose to continue with dance at the collegiate level.

After graduating from Florida State, she moved to NYC in hopes of building a career. She quickly realized that, despite her high level of technical ability, her curvy body type wasn’t desirable in the classical ballet world. Hence, Bodiography was born out of Caruso’s eagerness to use dancers of varying shapes and sizes. Two years later, the company had their first professional season in Pittsburgh, her hometown.

For many years, Caruso mostly choreographed rock ballets. In 2009, she presented Something About Nothing, a show set to the music of Pink Floyd. After one of the performances, Dr. Dennis McNamara of the UPMC Cardiovascular Institute, approached Caruso about her choreography. The two spoke about his work in heart disease and Caruso’s interest in the medical field, and how the two might be combined. Not long after, she choreographed the first of many medical themed shows, Heart: Function vs. Emotion.

Caruso took a major step from musically driven material to science-based and therapeutic choreography. In Heart, as well as her 3 other medical ballets, Caruso did heavy research into each health condition (even observing a transplant surgery), and involved patients of various diseases in the actual shows.

Heart brought awareness to transplant and PAH patients, while 108 Minutes dove into limb, organ, and tissue replacement. Whispers of Light had a more psychological angle, raising awareness for Highmark’s Caring Place and focusing on children who had lost a family member or loved one. Left Leg, Right Brain highlighted the story of local artist and filmmaker, Frank Ferraro. The piece shed light on Parkinson’s, through Ferraro’s personal experience with the disease.

The non-dancers who have performed in these ballets have had a range of feelings about the choreographic and performance process, ranging from deep gratitude to Caruso for sharing their stories, to cathartic experiences that have helped them with self-acceptance.

Caruso will continue her work in this way, but also has a desire to get back to the musically-inspired choreography that initially gained her a following in 2002.

Next month, on February 20th and 21st, Bodiography will present a 50-minute long ballet set to the music of Coldplay. Before that, an 8-minute pas de deux will open the show. And to close, Caruso will perform a 35-minute solo to end her performance career.

The solo will highlight Caruso’s work as an artist and entrepreneur. The stage will hold many of the props Caruso has used in different pieces over the years. A mirror, a bed, and a desk are just a few. The backdrop will be set with a clothesline holding Caruso’s old costumes. Through movement vignettes with voiceover sound of Caruso telling her story, the audience will witness the trajectory of her career over the past 14 years. (Show details and ticket information below.)

Although choreographing the solo has brought her to tears, Caruso is ready to move forward. She will still direct and make work for Bodiography. In the future, she hopes to offer a sampling of both medically and musically motivated work. For 2016, she would like to focus on raising awareness and support for children with cancer. In addition, she is considering a rock ballet featuring famed music duos.

As always, Caruso has other projects keeping her busy. After the premiere of Whispers of Light (2013), one cast member’s mother reached out to her wondering if there was a way for Caruso to codify her choreographic process into a dance therapy system. Caruso jumped at the idea, and has since written a book, Bodiography Dance Movement Therapy System: The Healing Power of Dance and Movement for EveryBODY. And she now has trained facilitators working in various health and healing organizations.

At Vincentian (a rehabilitation center), Caruso and her teachers will work with patients for a full year, a program fully supported by Highmark Blue Cross/Blue Shield. After only 16 weeks of being there, Caruso says the participants are moving better, and three students who normally use a wheelchair were able to stand on their own.

There is no doubt that Caruso’s life changed the moment she began work on Heart. She has found a way to combine her love of science and movement, and she has grown tremendously in the process. The Pittsburgh dance audience will miss seeing her on stage, but the community at large will benefit from her work outside the studio.

To see Caruso in her final stage performance, check out the following show details.

What: My Journey (Reflections, Perceptions, and Misconceptions)
When: February 20th and 21st at 8:00 p.m.
Where: Byham Theater, 101 6th St., Downtown
Cost: Tickets start at $26.75.

Dance Review: PASSENGER by Shana Simmons Dance

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

In Pittsburgh, and other cities, site-specific dance has become commonplace. From small parks to large warehouses and everything in between, choreographers have taken their work outside the classical theater for many years.

This past weekend, Shana Simmons and her dance collective brought their latest piece, Passenger, to the National Aviary on the North Side. The evening-length show was part of a nationwide effort (Project Passenger Pigeon) to bring awareness to the centennial anniversary of the bird’s extinction.

The performance was broken up into four parts. Sections 1 through 3 took place in the atrium of the Aviary. Underneath a dome of glass, seating was arranged in a semi-circle.  Feathers, twigs, and cloth created a border in front of the chairs; the dancers performed within that intimate space.

In the first part, “Bird Beauty,” the performers explored the movement of these unique pigeons, not only in flight, but also on the ground. Wearing elegant costumes of wide slit pants and fitted tank tops with a “tail” in the back, the dancers began with slow moving unison as if migrating together. The phrases used big extension of the arms that showed off their wingspan, and light, airy jumps.

Interspersed with the larger movements were quirky pecks of the dancers’ heads (beaks) and sharp twitches of their elbows (wings). The gestures were intriguing, technical but not cartoonish. Despite the literal interpretation, Simmons and the cast created something accessible without mockery – a difficult task.

Part 2, “Bird/Human Behavior,” explored relationships between the two. A few standout moments came in this section. The first was an ode to nesting behavior in humans and birds. Each performer gathered the materials lining the space, then used smooth partnering and floor-work to build their nest. They worked together with simple weight sharing and bigger lifts. Everything about the section felt organic, proving just how much research went into the project.

The other exceptional moment brought humor to the work. In a mating ritual, Brady Sanders and Ashley Kostelnik imitated the process of two birds coupling. A voice on the sound system described what was happening, informing us that either gender initiates contact and sometimes one bird might rebuff the advance. The other dancers vied for Sanders’ attention, flirting more like humans and highlighting the aspect of competition prevalent in most animals.

To transition into the third section, “The Last…Martha,” the dancers’ movement crescendoed as they ran forward in a breathless flight or fight for their lives. They pushed each other down repeatedly while feathers, from their hair and costumes, and from the ground, were frantically propelled into the air.

Finally, only one dancer remained. Jamie Murphy played the part of Martha, the last known passenger pigeon to die in 1914 at the Cincinnati Zoo. Murphy’s solo was accompanied by live vocalist, Anna Singer, who performed Rachmaninoff’s “Vocalise.” The song and the solo were both haunting. A sense of loneliness overtook the air of freedom that began the piece. As Murphy rolled to her back, the others blew feathers over her body, an ode to the loss of an entire species.

After the main performance, the audience was permitted to walk through the Aviary’s “Free Fly Zones” in a fourth and final section. While observing warblers, penguins, starlings, and other unusual birds, the dancers kept the performance alive by improvising throughout the space. Simmons and the dancers succeeded in both educating and entertaining the audience, another challenging feat.

Despite a somewhat abrupt transition between the second and third section, Passenger told a daunting story in an incredibly beautiful way. With streamlined choreography, skilled dancers, exquisite costuming and well-suited sound, everything about the piece worked. Simmons not only sparked my interest in the subject matter, but also had me longing to get back to the Aviary and learn more.


Dance Review: Loving Black by Anthony Williams

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

“I’m a man. I’m black. I’m queer. I’m skinny. I’m awkward.” Anthony Williams, a dancer and teacher in Pittsburgh, began his choreographic process by reflecting on himself. He chose labels that described him, then researched some of those labels for a more universal look at what it means to be a black man in our society.

Loving Black, an all-male quartet, premiered Friday night at the Kelly Strayhorn Theater’s Alloy Studios. As part of the “Fresh Works” series, Williams was given 80 hours of studio time, along with technical support, to create a work-in-progress.

The dance began in darkness with the sound of the infamous Willie Lynch speech given in 1712. Lynch disturbingly gave instructions on how to control one’s slaves by exaggerating their physical differences and turning them against each other. In one haunting line, Lynch wrote, “I have outlined a number of differences among the slaves, and I take these differences and make them bigger. I use fear, distrust, and envy for control purposes.”

As the lights came up, the four dancers did exactly the opposite. Each performer moved into the same strong standing position. They proceeded into a bold unison phrase that highlighted their similarities and brought them together.

Eventually, the dancers split into duets. In one meaningful moment, Jovan Sharp repeatedly pushed off the embrace of Michael Bishop. The section highlighted Williams’ interest in how black men relate to each other physically. Here, we heard the words of poet and speaker, Mark Gonzales. “As with most men, it is easier for me to give hugs than to accept them.” Sharp and Bishop finally embraced.

Jean-Paul Weaver entered and the three dancers continued in a trio of partnering that deftly showed off their strength and fluidity. That culminated into a phrase of “stepping,” a rhythmic style with African roots that uses stomping and clapping. The men laughed, enjoying themselves.

When Williams entered, the performers turned away in rejection. Williams soloed in and around them, as if trying to be part of the group. The three others gradually joined in behind him, but from a distance. They ultimately came together for a technical section of phrase-work with long lines and challenging balances high on their toes.

The piece ended on a celebratory note. With gymnastic movement, the performers rolled into and out of the floor with ease. They pressed into handstands only to rise to their feet again. The luxurious extension through their bodies signified inclusion. Just before the lights went out, they fell onto their backs in exasperated joy.

Overall, Williams choreographed what he intended. One of his goals, he said, was to “find our similarities as black men, and pick each other up.” The show was certainly uplifting; audience members rose to their feet, and nearly everyone stayed in the theater for a gratifying question and answer session. As a work-in-progress, my hope is for the piece to be fully fleshed out and lengthened, to dive deeper into the important questions Williams posed.


Dance Review: Kimono
by Mark Conway Thompson

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

The Kelly Strayhorn Theater hosted its first “Fresh Works” showing of the season on Friday night. The program gives Pittsburgh-based artists eighty hours of rehearsal space and technical support, to work on mixed-genre collaborations.

Kimono was directed by Mark Conway Thompson, who worked internationally as a mime for multiple decades. He performed the trio with Taylor Knight and Anna Thompson, both of whom graduated from Point Park University in 2012 and have been dancing in Pittsburgh ever since.

The 40-minute work-in-progress dealt with predation and was partly inspired by a fictional artist who found healing from trauma through the making of kimonos. Conway Thompson also drew inspiration from real life victims of abuse. For example, Japanese artist and World War II POW, Itchiku Kubota, also used art as a way to rebuild his life after war. And Shelomo Selinger, a Holocaust survivor, took to sculpting as his pathway to emotional freedom.

To begin, Conway Thompson and Knight stood nude under low lighting, performing the first of many intricate gestural phrases of the hands and fingers. The image was one of the only abstract moments in the show, and was quite beautiful. The movement developed further, in two separate solos by the men. Eventually alone, Knight stood center stage while a masked figure, Anna Thompson, moved toward him. She swiftly attacked him with a knife and the lights went down.

Conway Thompson later took his turn as predator. Knight and Anna Thompson performed a captivating duet of precisely mimed gestures that sometimes articulated all the way through their spines. Conway Thompson hid, just barely visible, near the back corner of the studio space, masked, as if stalking the others. One by one, he assaulted them, and carried them off-stage.

The aftermath of the attacks was the most haunting and mesmerizing part of the piece. Knight entered first, wearing loose-fitted gray clothing. His appearance was disheveled and his body language projected emotional agony. He tiptoed around in a staggering manner, feet turned in and back hunched. As if he were fighting off his inner demons, he began thrashing and gasping. He stripped his clothes, in a cathartic purge, and fell to the ground. Conway Thompson covered his body in a butterfly kimono signifying Knight’s freedom and ability to move forward.

Anna Thompson began her own purification in a similar state. In a baggy gray dress, she sank to her knees almost immediately, clutching what looked like a bloodied rag. She also gasped, swallowing the air, and ripped off her dress. The process of ridding herself from her predator was both difficult to watch and impossible to ignore. Knight eventually offered her a kimono. The two of them walked off as the lights went down.

The piece was quite literal in its interpretation of the pain and trauma of victimhood. In some ways, it felt necessary to push the depicted violence. Because we are a culture desensitized to brutality, the piece needed to be overt with the point.

On the other hand, some of the props were a bit too obvious. The predator’s mask, for example, felt cartoonish. At other times during the piece, the cast used simple black fabric to cover their faces; that would have sufficed as the attacker’s disguise, and would have been more frightening than the mask. Conway Thompson did say that some of the set props were subject to change. A toned-down approach would be more powerful.

The piece was timely and important, especially in light of recent news stories dealing with shootings, domestic violence, and corporal punishment. Conway Thompson expressed accurately that we have a hero worship of predators in this country. He said his desire with Kimono is to “push back at the bully, bad guy, strong man attitude…to render it unfashionable.”

There is a saying that, in the creation of art, it is better to go too far and pull back later than to never go far enough. The cast performed the work with authenticity, bravery, and uninhibited candor. With some honing and fine-tuning, the finished product has the potential to bring meaningful awareness to this crucial issue.


Dance Review: being Here…/this time
by Marjani Forté

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

New York choreographer, Marjani Forté, brought the newest version of her three-year work to the Alloy Studios Friday night. Being Here…/this time investigated mental illness, addiction, and poverty in America. Forté was initially inspired by an experience she had on the subway train with a “symptomatic” woman in crisis. That led her to various conversations with peers and ultimately to six women in Connecticut, all of whom shared their personal traumas.

The sixty-minute show was split into four installments. Audience members were free to watch the first three sections in whatever order they chose. To conclude the show, everyone came together for the final trio.

Two installments took place in the main studio. A diagonal row of chairs cut the space in half, creating two intimate places for solos and duets to occur. In the first section I watched, the audience was given earplugs to drown out any background noise. Alice Sheppard performed a solo bound by a wheelchair. She began with rigid gestures as local dancer, Jasmine Hearn, entered from the side and pressed herself against the back wall.

Sheppard quickly pushed her chair toward the audience, stopping within inches of one man. She stared at him intensely; her energy and movement became more heated. Hearn disappeared as Sheppard fell off the wheelchair smiling maniacally then gasping, twitching and even sucking her own toe. The effect of the section was almost frightening, certainly powerful and thought-provoking.

In the next installment, we were given headphones to listen to accompaniment for another studio duet. Tendayi Kuumba entered the space backwards from the far wall. The sound of kids playing flooded our ears, but quickly turned to cries of sadness and a voice layered over top insisting, “We’re okay.”

Kuumba’s movement was equally as severe as Sheppard’s, but the dynamic of her solo felt much more laden with grief. Perhaps it was the lullaby that morphed out of the sound and text. Or Kuumba’s delicate lift of an arm after pointing fiercely and directly. She, too, stared straight into an audience member’s eyes. Her gaze was notably different, though. We could feel her struggle, see her anguish.

Hearn weaved her way into this installment as well, alternating between laughing and crying, all while stumbling in a seemingly aimless pattern. Although she had moments of bigger, technical phrases, most impressive was the expression in her eyes. She searched the room with a lost but determined gaze.

Forté performed her installation in a small corner of the lobby. The audience sat all around her; she was perched slightly above us with a blurred video image projected on the wall to her right. Forté said the image was taken from a rehearsal, but represented angels or communication with others.

To start, Forté closed her eyes as if to center herself. She then pulled up a gospel song on her iPhone, called “I Won’t Complain.” The movement she used was subtle compared to the others’. Her gestures were sparse, held back in emotion as the lyrics suggested. She rubbed her knuckles with anxiety, pulled her fist to her mouth in frustration, and hid her face in shame. Eventually she teetered on the edge of her chair and fell off with open arms. The most powerful part of the section was when she walked away. The music remained for what felt like several minutes. Her absence was visceral.

Back in the main studio, Sheppard, Hearn, and Kuumba performed the final installment. Forté’s lack of presence was still notable, but we were hopeful her character had moved forward. The three others came together in a unison phrase that combined gestures from the earlier sections. They frantically counted down from ten as the movement escalated, then broke into their individual motifs.

The movement slowed, and Hearn spun in dizzying circles, arms wide in surrender to her experience. I got the sense that these women were doing the best they could with the lives they’d been given. I thought of my own experiences with strangers and people close to me who have suffered from mental illness and addiction. The piece drew out a sense of compassion for what Kuumba poignantly described as “the beast” inside us all.


Dance Review: Texture Contemporary Ballet in Life, Love, & Jazz

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

On Saturday night at the New Hazlett Theater, Texture Contemporary Ballet presented a two hour long show of five works in various styles, proving once again that the company is capable of much more than ballet technique.

Associate Director of the company, Kelsey Bartman, opened the show with her group piece, Fun. The popular rock band of the same name accompanied the seventeen dancers through a playful romp of shoulder shimmies, big, jazzy unison, and flat out, non-technical jamming to the music.

The highlights of the piece came in two contrasting sections. In a humorous moment, several women came toward each other in a slow motion fight scene reminiscent of the West Side Story Jets and Sharks. The other high point was Bartman’s solo, under a wide spotlight. Bartman seemed to be more expressive than usual, showing off a fluid torso and emotional transitions into and out of the light.

In Hollowed, Bartman and Executive Director, Alan Obuzor, performed a pas de deux to the haunting voice of Lana Del Rey. The two moved effortlessly from pirouettes to interesting gestures, and as always, their partnering showed an incredible comfort level between them.

Amanda Summers shined as the soloist in Bartman’s, Spinning Plates. Moments of traditionally light, ethereal movement countered her ease with more weighted dynamics. Most impressive was her ability to emote without drama. Summers had an honest quality about her.

Detachment. Without Reason by Gabriel Gaffney Smith had the most interesting choreography of the evening. The dancers wore pant suits in grey and black, a unique change from the normally scantily clad ballerina. The piece blended dissonant rock sounds with spoken word and even a few seconds in silence. Much of the movement was athletic and bound, with an unpredictable trio of intertwined limbs and frenzied, passionate partnering.

To close the show, the Marty Ashby Quartet played live, original jazz compositions from the theater’s rafters, in Life, Love, & Jazz. The piece showcased Texture’s technical abilities in both ballet and jazz. A throwback to the Fosse era, the dancers were calm and collected, moving easily across the stage in frontal, audience-focused sequences. The choreography matched the musicians’ smooth sultriness and quick rhythms. A cheeky section had five men swooning and even fainting over the lovely Alexandra Tiso. And a duet between Obuzor and Katie Miller stood out for its purity of movement and delicate lifts.

Texture’s work has certainly grown over the past year. Bartman and Obuzor are honing their choreographic skills and will only continue to grow. The two take obvious risks in movement invention; not often do we see unusual gestures and floor work in a ballet concert, even a contemporary one. I still crave deeper themes in their choreography, subjects that investigate nontraditional topics. The company is young, and it will be interesting to see the direction they take as keep growing locally and nationally.


Dance Review: The Ubiquitous Mass of Us by Maree ReMalia/merrygogo

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

One of the biggest challenges as a performing artist is to create work meaningful for the choreographer and cast, while simultaneously allowing the audience to be drawn in to that deeply personal world. This seems especially true for non-narrative work, which has no storyline. The story is ours to imagine.

Choreographer, Maree ReMalia, struck that balance in her latest work, The Ubiquitous Mass of Us. The group of nine performed the piece as part of the New Hazlett Theater’s CSA program. The house was packed, as eager and expressive as the cast.

The interdisciplinary performance fell under the category of “dance” for ReMalia, with movement ranging from exploratory and pedestrian to technical. Also incorporated was an ample dose of theater, self-generated sound, and an elaborate set created by Blaine Siegel.

To begin, the performers emerged from the rafters and balconies. Playwright and filmmaker, Paul Kruse, arrived onstage first, gesturing and sounding out caveman-like syllables. “Gah!” and “Shah!” He drummed his fingers against the cardboard boxes Siegel had glued together, painted, and stacked in various places around the space.

Adil Mansoor, a theater artist, dove into a monologue about space, using text that had been written by dance scholars over the years. The idea of how we take up space was one inspiration for the piece. During the choreographic process, the dancers also explored questions of identity. Who are we as individuals? Who are we together? How far beyond what we conceive of ourselves can we go? Mansoor struggled against the words in frustration, but willed himself to continue.

The entire group moved to the back corner of the stage, clumped together and laughing hysterically. We didn’t know why we were chuckling along, but the laughter was contagious. Eventually, the music began, created by Dave Bernabo (also a performer in the piece). The sound Bernabo produced matched the idiosyncrasies of the individuals.

After a slow motion section and a beautifully simple line the dancers formed, more hilarity ensued. Joseph Hall unexpectedly dropped into a middle split, and then Moriah Ella Mason joined him in a battle of extreme yoga postures. When they couldn’t outdo each other, Hall stuck his fist in his mouth, and Mason pulled her toes to her lips.

Another funny moment came when Kruse performed a less than perfect tap dance for Anna Thompson and Taylor Knight. Thompson and Knight, unimpressed, made a puking sound, and a gagging motion.

Interspersed throughout the hour-long show were a few lighter, unique movement phrases, influenced by ReMalia’s study of Gaga Technique which encourages dancers to push the limits of their personal movement vocabulary.

Continuously, though, the work came back to a bound, bold, and intense style of moving that displayed both struggle and release. The humor also remained. Jil Stifel and Mansoor catcalled the others, which led into a lovely solo by Stifel. Soon enough, a strange pair of voices, hidden behind a stack of boxes, accompanied Stifel quite dramatically with the famous Auld Land Syne song.

Mansoor eventually came back to his monologue from the beginning. “Space is a place for transformation,” he shouted, as his cast members began destroying the set, deconstructing boxes and tossing them about. One box, hanging from the ceiling, dumped Styrofoam peanuts onto the stage. The dancers screamed, running around as if they’d gone mad. All nine of them rushed toward us, shouting like mayhem, and the lights went black.

ReMalia and her group did an incredible job going beyond their natural tendencies to reveal something interesting about each one of them. That push somehow made us want to join in on what looked like pure and unrestrained fun.

Overall, the comedy was impressive, the structure was fulfilling, and the performers came together in a cohesive way that is incredibly difficult in multi-disciplinary art.


Dance Review: We Sing the Body Eclectic by Shana Simmons Dance and I am Woman by Murphy/Smith Dance Collective

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

The first ever Pittsburgh Fringe Festival took place over the weekend, with more than 20 performing arts shows in various venues around Shadyside. The now worldwide festival was modeled after the original, in Edinburgh, and supports up-and-coming artists in theater and dance, all of whom are “on the fringe” of the mainstream arts scene.

On Saturday night, back to back dance performances took place at the Winchester Thurston dance studio. Local companies, Shana Simmons Dance, and Murphy/Smith Dance Collective, shared short works with an intimate and engaged audience.

I am Woman was choreographed by Jamie Murphy and Renee Smith, and originally premiered in December of 2012. The two were inspired by a heated election season and the women’s issues that were passionately debated. They decided to look at the history of women throughout the decades, creating an evening-length work with seven dancers.

For this festival, they showed excerpts of the piece, utilizing five dancers. In the first segment, the performers dressed in skirts, aprons, and pearls, while a voice over the speaker system gave instructions on how to be a good wife. “Be happy to see him!” we heard, in reference to the husband, after his work day. The dancers smiled cheekily and moved lightly on their toes through their supposedly joyful housewife duties.

Later, Jamie Murphy shed her dainty garments for a pair of simple striped pants. She moved in and out of the floor with ease, flexing her muscles as the sound morphed into a pastor and his male congregation complaining about women who do not dress feminine enough. Eventually, the other women entered the space wearing similarly tailored pants, and form-fitted blazers. They performed in unison over top of Hillary Clinton’s voice echoing sentiments for women’s equality.

Despite the topic having been explored quite a bit in the arts, I am Woman felt relevant. In fact, many of us could still use the history lesson. The Murphy/Smith Dance Collective took us back in time in a creative and interesting way.

In We Sing the Body Eclectic, Shana Simmons and the Eclectic Laboratory Chamber Orchestra (ELCO), explored ways in which we are affected by technology. The piece utilized four dancers and a large group of musicians. Similarly to I am Woman, the sound was equally intriguing as the movement.

To begin, ELCO used three different John Cage pieces, organized by artistic director, David Matthews. The second work was an original composition of “crackly” phone sounds by associate director, Alan Tormey. The final piece was called “Syndakit” by renowned performer and composer, Elliott Sharp.

In the first section, the dancers followed a digital clock, projected on the far wall, to guide the timing of their movement. The musicians watched closely and chose corresponding sounds, similar to how Cage worked with Merce Cunningham in early modern dance.

The dancing ranged from incredibly slow-motion walking, to intricate partnering. As the piece crescendoed, the performers used running transitions between big bursts of athletic movement, showing off their stamina and power.

Overall, the work cleverly portrayed the influence of technology on our minds and bodies. The concentrated but sometimes catatonic state of the dancers’ measured moments mirrored the lull of the laptop screen. And their frenetic, rapid quality was reminiscent of our need for instant gratification, a sad side effect of the tiny devices we call “smart” phones.

The festival’s simple goal of giving smaller, innovative artists performance opportunity made the weekend worthwhile. Hopefully the events will spark annual interest.


Dance Review: Far by Wayne McGregor/Random Dance

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

The Pittsburgh Dance Council concluded its 2013-2014 season with London company, Wayne McGregor/Random Dance. The international troupe featured ten performers from South Africa, Albania, Switzerland, and Poland, to name just a few places.

Far was an hour-long collaboration between McGregor, the dancers, and musician, Ben Frost. The set design was equally important, and included a large light board at the back of the stage, created by Random International.

During the group’s ten-week creative process, McGregor took inspiration from 20th century artist, Francis Bacon, and the Age of Enlightenment, a 17th century cultural movement of intellectuals that used rational thought to challenge religion and other traditions. Specifically, McGregor and the dancers analyzed the book Flesh in the Age of Reason and grotesque, figurative images by Bacon.

The paintings greatly influenced the movement, said Jamaican dancer, Michael-John Harper. He explained that Bacon’s work provoked them to “dig deep in their minds, and break habits to keep the choreography fresh and alive.”

Indeed, the piece had a freshness about it. The dancers clearly had a strong foundation in classical ballet. The first section, a prologue to the piece, resembled a modern pas de deux with long lines and seamless partnering. Interspersed, though, were snaky undulations of the spine and intricate gestures.

The light board gave its own show, at first faintly beaming like a starry sky, then erupting like a frenzied meteor shower. For much of the beginning, small sections of solos and duets occurred under that silvery glow. The sound was mostly dissonant, atmospheric; combined with the movement, the effect was somewhat animalistic.

During the middle of the piece, a group of women entered the stage under brighter light and to the accompaniment of a lilting female voice. The movement escalated in various solos, but retained the same liquid quality from earlier.

Eventually the men entered, partnering with the women. There were quick entrances and exits into the exposed wings as the sound turned eerie, almost frightening. The lighting became frantic, numbers flashing on the board as if counting down to something significant. Dancers huddled off to the side, watching and waiting for their turn.

As the piece progressed, moments of unison brought the performers together for brief interludes. The music became sinister, including sounds of animals screaming, and text sprinkled in but barely perceptible. The dancers seemed to be moved by an outside force, which gave the shape of the piece an otherworldly feel.

The movement slowed to a serene duet with effortless partnering, and light vocal accompaniment. To conclude the piece, one woman lay flat on her back as her partner walked off slowly. The light board flashed and fizzled. The sound faded and the curtains closed.

Dancer, Daniela Neugebauer, explained the work as a series of deaths, the end of an era. Far did have a dystopian quality. Perhaps our day and age is changing and a new time is upon us. For Wayne McGregor and his company, the future looks quite impressive.


Dance Review: Just Us…The Journey Continues by Reed Dance

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

Over the weekend, Reed Dance premiered Just Us…The Journey Continues. The show was their first since leaving the August Wilson Center. Despite the group’s makeover (several new company members and a smaller performing venue), they emerged as bold and fiery as ever.

The Alloy Studios was a great place to see the dancers up close and personal. The small black box allowed for many of the perks of a traditional theater – intricate lighting design, raked seating, and a lobby for chit-chat. And with its intimacy, we were able to see the dancers’ vivid expressions and the details of their movements.

Reed chose six works for the program, a blend of old and new repertoire. Terence Greene, a Cleveland choreographer who has worked with the company quite a bit, presented two joyful and expressive large group pieces. “Breath” and “Faith” both had an infectious, crowd-pleasing effect.

Each dance accentuated Greene’s contemporary and African styles, which the performers handled with ease. The costumes stood out as well. In “Breath,” local artist, Vanessa German, made exquisite dresses for the women – black and deep orange with detailed patterns. For “Faith,” Cleveland School of the Arts provided long robes for the men and bright blue, flowing dresses for the women.

“Faith” closed the show, as it always should, and had the audience clapping, singing and raising their hands as if in Sunday Baptist church, Greene’s imagined setting for the piece. Kaylin Horgan performed the female solo this time around. Her effervescence lit up the stage (maybe even the entire neighborhood), convincing and moving.

NYC choreographer, Christopher Huggins, also had two works in the show – “Mothers of War” and “The List.” The former portrayed the agonizing truths of war. An emotional duet between Antonio Brown and Rebekah Kuczma bookended the dramatic progression from the group throughout. The latter piece also described painful anguish, following one Jewish family’s horror through the Holocaust.

To break up the high-energy tempo of the show, two smaller works perfectly changed the pace. In the first half, Brown performed a solo called “Knock Knock.” The piece showed off his seemingly liquid joints and athleticism. Utilizing powerful text and a pulsating beat, Brown told the story of one man’s navigation through life without a father.

In the second half, Kaylin Horgan and Rebekah Kuczma performed a world premiere by NYC choreographer, Sidra Bell. “Now You Can Let Go” was perhaps the most unique piece in the show. With quirky, angular gestures and unpredictable partnering, the movement was sometimes tender, and oftentimes curious. Reed said the duet spoke to the women’s friendship.

Just Us… proved that Reed Dance will continue to shine under their new name. Each dancer had the versatility to perform the company’s wide range of repertory, with stamina and finesse as stunning as always.

Dance Review: Beautiful Struggle By Baker & Tapaga Dance Project

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

Director of the Kelly Strayhorn Theater (KST), Janera Solomon, enjoys taking risks when choosing artists to perform at the thriving East Liberty space. Attracting patrons to the more unusual shows at the theater has become her specialty.

The Pittsburgh contemporary dance scene used to be small; we could count on seeing the same audience members at each show. Not true anymore, especially not at the KST. Friday evening, the lobby filled up with dance enthusiasts, community members, and what looked to be several newcomers.

Baker & Tarpaga Dance Project performed their latest version of an old work, “Beautiful Struggle.” Esther Baker, co-choreographer for the company (along with her husband, Olivier Tarpaga), was inspired lately by her role as an activist to dismantle white supremacy. Though the show could be described by some as “challenging,” people of all walks of life were engaged from the beginning.

The show started with an installation in the lobby. Baker stood on a 4×4 table, dressed in only underwear, a blonde wig, and red high heels. Volunteers instructed us to take a marker and write something directly on Baker’s body. Specifically, we were to write about a struggle of our own. Many went for it, without shyness. Others hung back and watched as Baker changed positions to offer different body parts.

From there, we progressed into the theater where the 45-minute choreographed piece took place. Tarpaga stood among the audience, playing bass and chanting rhythms with unique sound. Dancer, Lindsay Fisher, stood above him and watched while Tarpaga made his way to the stage and continued playing live music.

Fisher began a small phrase of movement that represented one of the major themes of the piece, our basic human struggle. In smooth and precise undulations through her torso, she scrambled around the front of the stage and then fell backwards as if knocked down by an outside force. That simple action escalated until Danté Brown joined her and the two skittishly crawled to the back of the stage, curled into fetal positions.

Eventually, Baker entered. She shook and twitched, hands tied by ropes to the table that had been used in the lobby. Her own distress was clear, but not specific. Perhaps she was putting movement to her own difficulties in life – navigating an interracial marriage and parenting a mixed race daughter in a world where prejudice still exists.

The voice of white anti-racism activist, Tim Wise, boomed over the sound of Tarpaga’s drumming, and Sabela Grimes’ live mixed beats. We heard one line repeatedly, “There is no such thing as the white race.”

Tarpaga and Grimes alternated between dancing and playing music. In one moment, Tarpaga performed an athletic phrase of African and contemporary movement. Later, Grimes had a short hip-hop solo that sent wavy motion through his chest and arms.

Brown, whose own work explores gender, provided the flash of comic relief. His solo reflected masculinity and femininity in their stereotypical forms. He shadowboxed with tight fists, and then sashayed like a model in the next second. All the while, he spoke to the audience. “You like this step? How about you, girl?”

The dancers came together at different times, sometimes in quick duets or smaller groups. Under a strobe light, all five of them showed off their individual styles in various movement sequences around the table.

To end, Fisher reminded us of the racial “struggle” still prevalent in today’s society. She staggered, fought, and fell down, again and again. We could hear her labored breath as the lights went down.

As Baker explained after the show, “beauty and violence can coexist.” The audience certainly witnessed both in the thought-provoking piece. Although the work was based on the personal journeys of the performers, the commentary was inclusive, compelling, and important for all of us.

Dance Review: Recipes our Mothers Gave Us by Corningworks

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

A cheery voice boomed through the speakers at the New Hazlett Theater’s Saturday performance of Recipes Our Mothers Gave Us. “You have thirty seconds to choose your ingredients to make a happy life!”

Beth Corning, director of Corningworks, and her dancing partners, Maria Cheng and Francoise Fournier, all rushed to the back of the stage like contestants of a competition reality show, determined to cook up the right recipe for success.

That section came near the beginning of the hour-long dance theater production, and it was perhaps the most memorable: hilarious, but poignant and relevant. The entire show questioned the old clichés we were taught by our mothers. What “recipes” were passed down to us, and how many of those succeeded and failed?

Corning, who choreographed the show as part of the Glue Factory Project (dedicated to performers over age forty), added a Ken doll to her pot of “soup.” And later, as per the American way, a dash of white happy pills.

Cheng, a Chinese choreographer, playwright and actor, dropped a toy piano into her stew, which may have been a quip at the stereotype of Asian-Americans as aspiring pianists.

Fournier, a French-Swedish dancer, rocked a baby doll before tossing it into her mix. Fournier had many moments throughout the show that questioned the old convention of our biological clocks ticking.

Another funny, yet dark, moment came when Fournier performed an emotional solo under low lights. Cheng and Corning stood above her, making critical comments about the movement. They contradicted themselves constantly, proving the point that everyone has their own version of happiness, not to be projected onto others. “Too slow,” Cheng said. “No, too fast,” insisted Corning. Too fat! Too lean! And on and on until Fournier walked off the stage while the two continued to argue over what was right.

That section ended with Cheng speaking honestly about what her mother thought about womanhood. Beauty was sexy, and sex would keep her from being alone. To which Cheng asked the audience, “What if being alone is better than bad sex?”

The show was filled with that wonderful balance of humor and seriousness. Although there was no precise narrative, the three performers seemed to let go of what they’d been taught, to write new and unique grocery lists.

After mindlessly pushing a baby carriage around, Fournier placed it over her head, flipping the notion that children make women happy literally upside down. Cheng tried to squeeze herself into a stainless steel pot, only to discover she didn’t fit that mold. She tossed the ingredients in the air instead, and joyfully pranced through it before exiting the stage. And Corning danced to the beat of her own kitchen whisk. She stopped furiously stirring her soup in favor of her own lighthearted dance.

The show ended on a more subdued note. The three of them each lay on individual cooking carts they’d used throughout the performance. They wondered quietly if they were destined to become their mothers. Was it simply in their DNA? Corning shushed them, shunning the idea.

The stage went silent, then dark. The answer was clear. Life was what these seasoned performers had made of it. Like the full red wine they’d left onstage, in clear, tall glasses, these women had definitely become better with age. That particular cliché must be true.

Dance Review: Objects of Desire By Continuum Dance Theater

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

For the past nine months, Sarah Parker, Artistic Director of Continuum Dance Theater, has been working on her latest evening length work, as part of the New Hazlett’s CSA (Community Supported Art) series.

Saturday night, for one show only, “Objects of Desire” premiered at the theater. The choreography came from Parker’s musing on the subject of desire, and what people truly want in life.

While the choreographic process is often limited to behind closed doors, Parker and her company went straight into the community to create the piece. In several free open rehearsals, at places like the Fairmont Hotel, a juice bar, and the Kaufmann Center, they presented works-in-progress, and asked audiences to answer three questions. What have you desired in the past? What do you desire now? What do you desire for the future?

Dancer, Jess Marino, said the answers ranged from superficial to deep. A preschooler said he wanted a briefcase, and an elderly woman said she wished for good health. The company sorted through hundreds of answers and pulled out a few commonalities they then used to create the dance. Some themes included money, power, materialism and relationships.

The fifty-minute narrative centered around dancer, Michelle Skeirik, with the four other company members representing Skeirik’s desires. To begin, each dancer entered from different parts of the theater – the stage, the balcony and the audience. The set was quite elaborate, and included household objects like couches, chairs, shelves, a desk and a full-length mirror. We felt as if we were in Skeirik’s home.

In each section, the dancers explored different “objects” they desired. Parker wanted the choreography to feel like a movie. Her hope was that the audience would understand each theme clearly, so she used props as literal representations.

Piggybanks were tossed back and forth between each dancer in an exploration of money and power. The movement was bound and aggressive, fast and feverish, and gave the feeling of cut-throat attitudes and ultimate desperation.

The performers donned fur coats and pearls for a section about materialism. A woman they saw at the Fairmont hotel, dressed in fancy attire and head held high, inspired the movement. With tongue and cheek attitudes, the performers primped and posed, as if modeling their goods. Eventually, the pearls became heavy in their hands, weighting them down.

The most beautiful and poignant moment happened under low lights and in front of two tall mirrors. Heather Jacobs performed a solo to the haunting voice of Israeli singer-songwriter, Asaf Avidan. Jacobs’ movement was light, yet melancholic. Eventually, Skeirik joined her in a duet of conflict that shed light on the struggle of relationships. Skeirik became entangled in a bouquet of balloons until Jacobs finally freed her.

The lights came up slowly, revealing Jess Marino covered in a pile of bras that represented sex and sexuality. She and each dancer performed the section in seductive tops, weaving through the space in magnetic solos, whispered duets and partnered groups.

In the end, none of the objects held the same importance as they did at the beginning. Skeirik hesitantly tucked everything into a box, peering in for a few final glimpses of the objects she once desired. Again, Asaf Avidan’s voice filled the theater with lyrics about becoming old and the potential to share stories of a time passed. Skeirik finally closed the box and walked away as the lights faded.

Parker’s choreography exposed the superficial desires we all have at different times in our lives. But in the end, she reminded us the objects we crave may be meaningless on our path to true happiness.

Dance Review: See What I Hear by Murphy/Smith Dance Collective

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

For the choreographic duo, Jamie Murphy and Renee Smith, sound matters. Murphy deals with hearing loss in her left ear. And Smith’s grandfather has suffered from hearing damage since serving in the war. In the dance collective’s latest piece, See What I Hear, the two explored ways in which we are affected by sound or silence.

The evening-length work took place at the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater for two nights and one child friendly matinee. Seven dancers took to the stage with an array of musical accompaniment. Gordon Nunn composed the pre-recorded sound, and the dancers performed live, using their own voices.

Large sheets of paper created the set; some dangled from the rafters and some lay crumpled at the back of the stage. One long, thinner sheet created a pathway from the back right corner to the front left. The dancers moved in and around and on top of the sheets, which added another layer to the soundscape.

To begin, we heard rushing water and hushed but excited voices. The dancers entered gradually, a few from the audience. As a group, they performed a gestural movement phrase that mimicked each sound they made. For example, we heard the creak of a screen door opening while the dancers used a pulling arm motion. Without the beat of traditional music, the dancers had to tune into each other with heightened sensibility.

Later, Smith performed a solo while five dancers voiced the accompaniment using a deep but breathy “whoosh,” a high-pitched “boop boop boop,” and more. When they noisily crescendoed, Shana Simmons tried to shush them, then yelled “Stop it!” which put an end to the racket. Eventually that led to a duet between Murphy and Smith. They manipulated each other with simple but interesting partnering, a calm after the sound storm.

One particularly compelling section used video projection to show how different sounds affect different people. Abigail Adkins moved lightly and freely to the image of birds chirping. Laura Warnock used pointed gestures to accent a smart phone’s many tones. When presented with the image of war and repetitive gun shots, Lamar Williams and Brady Sanders were jolted into spastic motion. In a humorous moment, Smith had a frenetic solo of fist pumping and hair pulling to the sight and sound of a Jerry Springer show. Eventually the solos and sounds overlapped and the audience was bombarded with a barrage of noise that ended in screaming, laughter and a blackout.

The lights came back up slowly. Murphy, Smith and Sanders all moved quietly on top of the sheets of paper. Sanders performed a lovely solo; paper shifted underneath him as he appeared weightless on his feet.

Each dancer re-entered, making their way to the diagonal pathway across the stage. Their individual movement phrases, combined with unison and moments of contact, showed how communication through touch is important. To end, they frantically tore down the paper, ripped it, and kicked it in a final wave of sound before the lights went down.

In a day and age of buzzing smart phones, beeping texts and dinging email notifications, the show reminded us to broaden our senses and heighten our awareness. I personally walked out with an appreciation for the bustling sounds of East Liberty, thankful that the Murphy/Smith Dance Collective created art that demanded a level of mindfulness important for all of us.


Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

Gia Cacalano and her multimedia ensemble brought new work to the Wood Street Galleries this past weekend. The show was a continuation of a piece they presented last March called “The Frequency of Structure and Flow Part 2.”

The piece was created as a deliberately pared down version of the first. Or, what one of the dancers, Vincent Cacialano, described as “the skeleton.” Back in the spring, the ensemble collaborated with French artist, Miguel Chevalier, whose video installation covered the walls in bold and bright images.

This time, the performers were given a blank slate, as no visual artist was currently in residence. Cacalano explained that she wanted to let the space dictate the performance. The result was simple and quite stunning.

Five dancers performed, four from the regular group – Cacalano and her brother, Vincent, from the UK, Wendell Cooper from NYC, and Jil Stifel from Pittsburgh. Newcomer, Joanna Reed, also joined the ensemble for the first time.

Philadelphia musician, Michael McDermott, created the music, some recorded and some mixed live during the show. And Wendell Cooper created black and white video footage that was projected against the walls.

Because all of the movement was improvised, the show differed each night. However, the group did work within a structure of five or six sections to keep an overall shape and cohesiveness to the piece.

Like all of Cacalano’s work, the themes were loose, open to interpretation and focused largely on the movement connections between each dancer. The quality always has a meditative feel that is gracefully hypnotic. Although there were definite dynamic changes within the hour long show, the through-line felt like Zen stillness.

Perhaps that is because of each performers’ heightened awareness of each other that puts our smartphone culture to shame. Each dancer took their time exploring the space as if it had been the first time they stepped foot onto the gallery floor. The connection they had to one another was astonishing, considering their long distance working relationships.

The piece began with slow and purposeful walking that gradually expanded into small movement gestures and eventually larger phrases and powerful fast moving sections. Solos organically shifted into duets and group segments, each as interesting as the last.

A few moments stood out in particular. Cacalano and Stifel shared a duet of discovery that had a soothing sense of calm, and ended as they seemed to disappear while the sound and images faded.

Afterward, Cooper, Cacialano and Reed entered the space in near silence, simply standing for what felt like a few minutes. With incredible patience and a comfort level reserved for only the most seasoned performers, they allowed the audience to watch the movement of their breath and subtle shifting of weight and expression. The effect was completely engrossing.

That moment steadily built into a high energy group section with all five dancers weaving in and out of each other. The video images flashed bright while each performer managed to effortlessly stay composed despite the beautiful chaos.

The section ended with an exciting solo from Cooper who seemed to defy gravity with his light-footed, off-center style. He ended up lying center stage while Cacalano soloed around him. She eventually pulled him to standing, cradling Cooper in her arms and pulling him offstage in a completely gratifying ending.

The audience exhaled, relaxed into the same present state of mind as the performers, and waited silently for a bit before sharing their grateful applause.

Dance Review: Sidra Bell Dance New York In ‘Garment”

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

Sidra Bell is more than a choreographer; she is a philosopher who thinks deeply about life and art. In addition to her MFA in choreography, she holds a degree in history from Yale, lectures at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia and was an adjunct professor at Barnard College. Her smarts come through in the dances she makes, but not in a traditional or predictable way.

Bell first worked with the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater in 2009 for the newMoves festival. Since then she has been back several times, in various locations. Last week, she and her dancers rehearsed a brand new piece at the Alloy Studios that will premiere in the spring of 2014. To culminate the week-long residency, her performers showed the work-in-progress, “Garment,” on Friday.

The dance was mainly about identity, specifically how we shift identities. Audience seating was not only in the round, but a few chairs were situated right in the middle of the dance floor, to allow for more active viewing.

“The passivity of culture bothers me, and affects how I approach dance,” Bell says. The seating arrangement worked to fit her goal. The five dancers weaved in and around the chairs, approaching the audience directly, breaking our perceived personal space, and sometimes even touching us. “Touch is a strange phenomenon in our society,” she says, admitting that she considers dance making a place to break rules and “misbehave.”

Lucky for the company, our Pittsburgh dance community was up for it. One woman watched intently as a dancer crawled onto the empty chair next to her. Another seemed totally at ease when a dancer sat in her lap.

Most of the thirty-minute piece was that up close and personal. Much of it was a whirlwind of frenetic solo movement. And although there is truth in the saying, “everything in art has already been done,” there were some truly unique moments.

Dancer and Associate Artist Director of the company, Alexandra Johnson, had a wild solo that half resembled krumping with her free, hard-hitting and uninhibited style. Slower partnering phrases seemed to happen accidentally, the dancers molding into each other.

At one point, the performers manipulated one another in slow, hypnotic waves, adjusting body parts, clothing and even hair. Because there was so much to see, in every part of the studio (Bell likes to “split focus”), the one unison phrase was deeply satisfying.

It will be fascinating to see how the piece changes and grows from now until next spring. As always, the dance community will welcome Sidra Bell Dance New York back to Pittsburgh with an eager and open mind.


Dance Review: Texture Contemporary Ballet In ‘Perpetual Motion’

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

Texture Contemporary Ballet is just two years young, and the company is already taking huge balletic steps. They have impressed the local dance scene, but have been noticed nationally as well. The Jacob’s Pillow Inside/Out Festival in Massachusetts will host the company as one of only a few groups from Pittsburgh.

In fact, hot off their latest performance at the New Hazlett Theater, the group is set to hit the world renowned festival this Friday.

“Perpetual Motion” ran for four consecutive shows over the weekend and featured four world premieres. The choreography was mostly split between Alan Obuzor (Artistic Director), Kelsey Bartman (Associate Artistic Director) and Gabriel Gaffney Smith (Dancer and Composer for the group).

In the first piece, “Mulberry Way,” more than ten dancers took the stage. In Part 1, the large group showed off their classical and contemporary skills, blurring the lines between genres.

Using a more melancholy sound by the rock band, Elbow, the following two sections slowed down, and had a more emotional component. In a lovely trio (Part 2), Amanda Summers moved through two doors and between two partners with beautiful technique and a relatable lack of clarity.

Part 3 featured a quartet of difficult partnering that was both inventive and emotive. To close the piece, the entire group entered for a playful section that ended on a deeply satisfying note.

“Wash” was the second dance on the program, a duet between Bartman and Smith and music by Bon Iver. The two moved smoothly in and out of the floor, alternating between quick and sharp to slow and sweeping dynamics. Their relationship had believable tension.

The third piece, “Broken Mirror,” was the highlight of the evening. With solid choreography reminiscent of the late great Merce Cunningham, the large cast used walking patterns to transition in and out of movement phrases. The dance had a slow build that crescendoed near the end and eventually subsided into the subtle partnering and solo movements of the beginning. In its simplicity, the audience was lulled into a mesmerized state.

The program ended on a high note with live music by Meeting of Important People. Although the piece, “MOIP,” went on a bit too long, the dancers’ energy was infectious. Some parts had humor that required acting and more jazzy technique. Some parts were downright contemporary, practically non-balletic, and proved the span of each performer’s experience.

Mostly, though, “MOIP” was a celebration of movement that ended with an elated fall to the floor and quick blackout. The dance was a testament to the energy of Texture and their staying power among the city’s finest dance companies.


Dance Review: Continuum Dance Theater at the Three Rivers Arts Festival

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

After a week of on and off rain that is typical for Pittsburgh’s annual Three Rivers Arts Festival, the sun shone brightly on Point State Park for Saturday’s activities.

As one of the final dance performances of the week, Continuum Dance Theater hit the Second Stage at Gateway Center to perform an excerpt of their latest work, “Objects of DESIRE.”

The piece will premiere in full at the New Hazlett this December, as part of the theater’s first ever “CSA: Artist Harvest” performance series. Through interviews with local community members, the company has gathered material about what we desire most in life to inspire their choreography.

For an audience of mostly festival patrons (with a few familiar dancer faces), Continuum showed a small section of their work, but also polled us on our own “American Dream,” using those answers to inform their movement.

To start, dancer Jess Marino lay buried in a heap of bras, eventually digging her way out and performing a solo amongst the sexy lingerie. The image brought to mind the unfortunate reality of women as sexual “objects.” Shana Simmons joined her and the two continued in a duet that took them right off the small stage and into the audience. Despite the concrete and lack of space, they managed to show off their partnering skills and even some floor work.

After the short excerpt, the audience was asked to write down something that they desired in the past, right now, and for the future. From the collection of responses, Marino and Simmons chose a few words and promised to incorporate them into a movement section they would perform near the end of their hour long set.

Before that, they gave the audience another chance to influence the show. In a game of improvisation, a few patrons were given small signs, each with one word written in large print – balance, pursuit, union, consistency, and others. During that section, audience members held up their signs, one at a time, and the dancers let that particular word affect their movement. For example, during “balance,” they teetered precariously from the edge of the stage, mostly dancing on one leg.

To finish the show as promised, Marino and Simmons revealed their chosen responses to the question of what we, as an audience, truly desire. They picked several meaningful answers: a family, wisdom, true happiness. And some humorous: girls, a bigger butt.

With those words in mind, they performed the same excerpt they began with, using our responses to change the quality of their movement. One moment resembled “wisdom,” when Simmons perched thoughtfully at the edge of the stage. And there was definitely a nod to “bigger butt,” when Marino shook her not-so-large backside center stage.

Among the visual art that fills the festival, it was nice to have live performance also included. To be a part of Continuum’s choreographic process was clearly fun for everyone who eagerly watched, nodded, and applauded as the dancers simultaneously educated and entertained us.


Check out the Continuum Dance Theater website for details of the full-length show this December:


Dance Review: ( ) by The Pillow Project

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

In the dark quiet of late Saturday night, The Pillow Project welcomed an intimate crowd for their latest work, a study about distance and connection titled: ( ).

Director of the Project, Pearlann Porter, has always been curious about a relationship quality she refers to as “the space between us.” Her philosophical nature leads her to create work that is both inquisitive and passionate. Despite the lack of storyline that may confuse a non-regular audience member, everyone leaves feeling the emotion of the performers.

Although a distinct feeling comes through in all of Porter’s work, it is not because of any overdramatic performance style by the dancers. It’s actually the opposite. The movement is minimal, but the lighting, set-up and music always provide a meaningful tone.

This show opened with three couples, each wrapped in an embrace, under individual and very dim spotlights. Pedestrian and street sounds accompanied their subtle movement – a slight turn, a shift of the head and neck, a touch of the cheek. The closeness of each couple, both physically and emotionally, was palpable and quite sensual.

As the lights went down soft string music began, eventually revealing David Pellow playing live upright bass while two dancers took the center of the space. The couple maintained close contact at first, and seemed to be engaged in a gentle struggle of push and pull. Eventually they broke apart, but remained connected by a long band of fabric looped around their bodies.

The slow pace of the music picked up and the dancers responded with quick bursts of movement. Eventually the two freed themselves from the fabric connecting them, but ended up coming back together physically at the end of the section.

For the rest of the show, each couple took their turn entering and exiting the space, sometimes leaving their partner alone for a moment of solo material. Atmospheric music eventually pulsed a rhythmic beat, giving opportunity for the dancers to react with more prominence and weight.

Even when left alone, each performer maintained their connection to the group, sometimes mirroring a couple’s movement from afar, sometimes simply keeping eye contact. That was all part of Porter’s larger point – that despite the distance between us, that empty space remains full and alive.

Like much of Porter’s work, the show lulled the audience into a hypnotic dream-like state, and eased us back to reality slowly with stillness from the dancers, followed by a revisit to the sound that began the show, and finally a gentle lifting of the lights.

As always, Porter thanked the audience and invited everyone to stay for coffee and discussion. While the rest of the world is home on their “pillow,” Porter and her artists find inspiration in the late night musings of life and art. What happened Saturday night after the lights came up will likely be fodder for her next show.