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.