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.
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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.
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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.
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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.

DANCE REVIEW: GIA T. PRESENTS AT THE WOOD STREET GALLERIES

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.

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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.

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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.

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Check out the Continuum Dance Theater website for details of the full-length show this December: http://continuumdancetheater.blogspot.com/.

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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.

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Dance Review: Mash Up Body by Anonymous Bodies

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

Executive Director of Pittsburgh’s Kelly-Strayhorn Theater, Janera Solomon, met Kate Watson-Wallace eight years ago at the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival. Solomon was impressed with her creative idea for a dance trilogy called “American Spaces,” where she would create work in a house, a car, and a store. The two developed a relationship, and since then, Watson-Wallace has performed in Pittsburgh several times.

This time, she and her company, Anonymous Bodies, spent a year in residency at the theater, working on her world premiere of “Mash Up Body,” an installation piece that ran this past weekend for an intimate crowd at the Alloy Studios.

The studio was transformed into a theater-in-the-round, with black curtains draped over the floor to ceiling windows, new lighting, and a full sound board for collaborator and musician, Christopher Sean Powell.

The hour long show took place in two “acts.” In the first half, partially inspired by a David Lynch film, the performers dressed in all black, casually entering and exiting the space from the audience seating. The shape of the phrasing did have a “Lynchian” feel, random like a dream sequence, at times baffling, but always entertaining.

In creating the piece, Watson-Wallace was interested in the “random ways in which we use our bodies to play people we are not.” The dancers did use traditional movement styles, but just as we would start to see a classic contemporary phrase, the performers would suddenly stop, pose in an unusual way, model a runway walk, or even talk to an audience member. Each performer showed us their many distinct qualities, sometimes spastic and sometimes quite vulnerable.

Mostly, the work was humorous. In one section, Devynn Emory spoke into a microphone, directing the other dancers in random tasks – breathing in and out; lifting one another; and lying down to snuggle. The audience even joined in for the “tonal work,” poking fun at the vocal spiritual practice.

The second half was mostly improvised, with the idea of “mashing up” or wrecking the first half. Cori Olinghouse entered the space in loud pink and purple clothing, an orange chair slung over her shoulder before she threw it violently to the floor. The rest of the cast entered in the same bright colors, trashing the space with cords, clothing and more chairs.

One hilarious moment came near the end when Marjani Forte mimicked Watson-Wallace in a classic question and answer forum that often follows dance performances. “Thank you for having us…Yes, I was interested in having a variety of bodies on stage…Thank you so much to the Kelly-Strayhorn.”

The music grew louder over Forte’s voice on the microphone, and suddenly the entire cast was dancing, party-style, to Janet Jackson’s “All For You.”

If it all sounds like sixty minutes of random absurdity, I assure you it wasn’t. In fact, it didn’t go on quite long enough, and Watson-Wallace could have been on stage much more often.

Of Watson-Wallace’s work, Solomon said it best: “Even in the moments when she pushes her audience, she’s not simply toying…she’s inviting us into her world and asking us to consider seeing her (and ourselves) differently. I appreciate that opportunity.”

The audience clearly appreciated the opportunity as well, showering the performers with excited applause. Although we may have been unsure of what we had just witnessed, it somehow resonated with us deeply. And that kind of resonance, to me, equals success.

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Dance Review: Black Grace at the Byham Theater

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

With all the American contemporary dance happening in Pittsburgh lately, New Zealand company, Black Grace, came as a welcome surprise Saturday night.

Founding Artistic Director and Choreographer, Neil Ieremia, was born and raised in New Zealand, but attributes his signature style to his Samoan heritage. Growing up, singing and dancing were part of his traditional culture.

The company was formed in 1995, and for years was comprised of all men. When the original dancers’ careers came to a close, Ieremia found it difficult to find many new male dancers. He joked that in New Zealand, men are usually “growing beards and playing rugby.” Admittedly, I haven’t seen a rugby match since college, but the athletic style of Black Grace seemed equally, if not more, physically taxing than the extremely vigorous sport.

Ieremia asserts that the women he added to the company bring elegant lines to the choreography. But the men were equally impressive in that area. The entire company had an incredible athleticism that barely slowed during the two hour show. To develop the speed and stamina necessary to perform the work, the dancers cross-train, running hills and even wrestling to stay in shape.

The first half, called “Pati Pati,” was influenced by traditional Samoan dances that use body slapping and seated motifs. To the beat of a drum, the dancers pounded the floor, clapped their hands, and stomped their feet in complicated rhythms.

A particularly intricate section that used snapping and chanting came from an old piece about children’s hand games. The dancers had precision and power unlike anything I’ve ever seen. In repetitive jumps and falls to the floor, the energy didn’t waiver even once.

The second half began in silence, with a slower rhythm and partnering sequences using smaller groups of dancers. One visually beautiful section used a large light blue cloth. The dancers weaved in and around it, wrapped themselves inside of it, and lifted one another over top of it. Eventually, they held the cloth still, while images of varying landscapes were projected onto it. To the sounds of nature, scenes of mountains, oceans and seasons changing gave a break from the more vigorous movement.

Act 2 included more contemporary material, proving Ieremia’s talent in multiple genres. The tempo varied, and his use of space expanded from large group unison to interesting duets and trios. Although the program was a touch too long, the audience rose to their feet at the end, in awe of the uniqueness and dynamism that is distinctly Black Grace.

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Dance Review: On Being by Staycee Pearl Dance Project

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

Staycee Pearl’s latest evening length work, “…on being…” began as an exploration of post-blackness in America, a concept even Pearl had trouble defining because of its broad meaning.

She and her company spent months researching black art, music, literature, dance and more. While they gained insight and inspiration, none of them could come up with a singular definition of black culture in the 21st century. As one dancer, Mariana Batista, said, “I have many more questions now than when we started.”

In modern dance, there certainly isn’t a clear characterization of black movement. Established African-American choreographers of today have their own signature styles, from Camille A. Brown’s rhythm to Kyle Abraham’s intricacy, to Sidra Bell’s theatricality.

Pearl’s choices usually bring a mix of past and present. Within a phrase of her movement, one may see a big, technical leap reminiscent of her time at the Alvin Ailey school. And in the next second, her dancers may sink to the floor with the release styles more prevalent today.

“…on being…” suited the cast, all of whom excel at multiple genres. But what they brought to the stage in terms of self-exploration was even more exciting. Her dancers realized they could not define themselves by their race, when so much factored into their artistic experience. Gender played a role in their work, as did sexuality.

The result was a non-narrative piece focused on the individuality of the dancers. Although the five of them come from varying life experiences, they were strong as a unit. Perhaps that was the point. “We are all very round, whole people,” Jessica Marino wisely noted.

Herman Pearl, Staycee’s husband and collaborator, mixed music that ranged from recognizable soul to hypnotic waves of atmospheric sound. Each dancer had plenty of solo moments wrapped around duets, trios and a few sections featuring all five of them.

One particularly memorable duet was between Seth Grier and Ethan Gwynn. To a spliced version of “Natural Woman,” the two moved simplistically, allowing the audience to ponder notions of sexuality and gender without hitting us over the head with any overt message.

The quiet and lovely Jasmine Hearn also had some beautiful moments, many quite theatrical. She seemed to step outside her comfort zone, showing growth in her performance ability.

Jessica Marino and Mariana Batista were equally breathtaking, most notably in a duet of unique floor phrasing.

The most interesting part of the evening came when Internet persona, Hennessy Youngman, talked (via video footage) about how to be a “successful black artist.” He sarcastically instructed his audience to fall back on slavery as something white people are likely interested in. His humor was a reminder of cultural stereotypes still present in our day and age.

Pearl’s piece worked because there was no direct message. The choreography explored themes that she couldn’t, and may never, define. Because she was comfortable with that, the audience was, too.

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Dance Review: Backlit in a Whole New D by The Pillow Project

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

There’s just something about Pearlann Porter. Her company, The Pillow Project, presents work unlike anything else on the Pittsburgh dance scene. Her latest evening length show was the product of a 16 year work in progress. The result was hypnotic.

“Backlit in a Whole New D” premiered this past weekend, and was set to music that captured Porter’s attention back in 1996. It might be difficult to imagine five contemporary dancers improvising to a punk rap group. But The Beastie Boys’ lesser known instrumental album, “The In Sound from Way Out,” feels more jazz and funk than hip-hop.

After several attempts at choreographed material, Porter realized that the music called for improvisation. By that time, her style of “free jazz” had solidified and she had a host of dancers perfect for the job. Rather than moving to the music, she teaches her dancers to play the music with their bodies. This doesn’t come easily for all trained artists. Porter says it requires a certain “honesty.”

What adds a unique dimension to Porter’s work is the “luminography” design by collaborating artist, Mike Cooper. Cooper uses a camera and several projectors to light the dancers in unusual ways, often creating stunning visual effects. His work in this show was the most complex I had seen.

Like most of the performances that take place at The Space Upstairs (the Pillow’s home), the vibe was more communal than concert dance. The couches, chairs and high top tables gave the space an intimate bar feel. In fact, martinis were served after the show.

Audience members snuggled in with their complimentary 3D glasses, and watched as the company casually entered from various parts of the large room. Under low light, the movement began with what felt like good old fashioned groovin’. Immediately evident was just how much the music fed the dancers’ souls.

What was even more impressive was how each performer connected with the lighting. Depending on where they landed a phrase of movement, one dancer’s hand lit up in red, while another’s face was bathed in blue.

But that wasn’t even half of it. Eventually, the images of the dancers were projected onto the back wall, and then multiplied. The effect was like watching the dance through a kaleidoscope. Black and white images came in waves, on and off the wall. The 3D glasses, which we were instructed to wear when we pleased, gave it a colorful, even hallucinogenic look.

The dancers seemed to be conversing among themselves through movement that ranged from shadow boxing to playful taunting to flat out jamming to the contagious beat. One stunning and tribal moment came when they all clumped together and pounded the floor, shouting in ecstasy.

Each individual grabbed the audience’s attention in different ways. The young Grant Haralson rolled up his shirtsleeves and performed a short solo that showed off his technique and theatrics. Riva Strauss simply strutted forward and slipped off her jacket, and the crowd was sucked in. And, as far as I’m concerned, Taylor Knight could improvise for hours to the sound of nothing, and it would be impossible to look away. Near the end of the show, he improvised with a cigarette, and somehow made smoking look like an art form.

“Backlit in a Whole New D” was one of The Pillow Project’s most innovative works to date. I’m looking forward to what Porter dreams up next.
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Dance Review: Private Places by IdiosynCrazy Productions

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

Philadelphia based dance company, IdiosynCrazy, shook up the local contemporary dance scene this past weekend in their hilarious and haunting new work, “Private Places.”

Audience members gathered in the lobby of the Alloy Studios, much like travelers huddled around the entrance gate to an airplane. The piece was inspired by just that – the inside of an airline cabin. Not only was Artistic Director, Jumatatu Poe, interested in people who work in tight, enclosed spaces, but also how flight attendants in particular are trained in “emotional management.”

We’ve all heard stories of passengers losing their cool; maybe we’ve even witnessed it. And we’ve seen the calm, but strange smiles on the faces of the flight attendants taught to deal with such outbursts. Think of the Saturday Night Live airline skit from the early 90’s – David Spade and Helen Hunt as disgruntled attendants, rushing passengers out with a snarky “Bye-Bye.”

The eight performers of IdiosynCrazy took that idea about one hundred steps further, deeply investigating human relationships and what might happen if psychological madness ensued during a regular commercial flight.

Each audience member was assigned a letter – A, B, C or D – which indicated our seating during the performance. Three dancers greeted us in the lobby, with the kind of insincere smiles that indicate something boiling underneath. One group at a time, they ushered us to our seats.

The third floor studio was transformed into an airline cabin. A long, rectangular space was enclosed by large plastic sheets. Movable chairs were lined up in four rows. Dancers sat us individually, with a blank stare that sometimes lingered a bit too long. We waited and watched, as others were greeted and sat in the same peculiar manner.

Right away, the neuroses of the performers developed. In a robotic tone, three dancers circled each other maniacally, repeating the phrase “Do you need anything from me?” Others moved about as if drugged, making strange sounds one would imagine hearing in the hallways of a mental institution. Another trio danced a slow unison phrase of overly sexual movement. Poe was inspired by a dance form called J-Setting, a club culture that pushes boundaries of masculinity and femininity, and is popular in the gay community.

All of this happened in the small aisle space in between seating, to the lulling tic-tock sound of a metronome. Dancers bullied audience members, asking them to get up and move, and invading their personal space. Somehow it was funny, and the group of us were willing to go along for the ride.

As the piece continued, the dancers appeared to be breaking down emotionally, moaning, crying and shouting. The physical and sexual barriers continued to fall away. Costumes came off, revealing bare breasts and bottoms. And in an escalation of fury, the entire cast came together and stripped completely.

The revelation was slow enough that we didn’t feel like voyeurs. Perhaps it was because the disorder was well underway when we arrived. We were invited into it. By the end, we certainly had more questions than answers. But for reasons I’m not even sure of, the whole thing made sense. Maybe in our own “private places,” we can relate to the chaos in this crazy world.

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Dance Review: Drenched by Luke Murphy

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

“There is something about when you are soaked by a heavy rain. You give in…realize that sunshine is not coming. There is an empowerment that comes with it. I think of passion that way,” says dancer and choreographer, Luke Murphy.

The Ireland native and Point Park graduate brought his latest duet, Drenched, to the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater this past weekend, for its US premiere. Murphy showed snippets of the piece as part of the East Liberty Live Series over the summer, leaving audience members intrigued and excited for the full length version.

The hour-long finished product did not disappoint. Murphy and his dancing partner, Carlye Eckert, brought their quiet passion to the stage in an exploration of romance. The aim of the piece was to deconstruct idealistic notions of romantic relationships portrayed by the media, arts and literature.

Sometimes humorous and other times beautifully realistic, Murphy and Eckert revealed how passion can, indeed, feel like being “drenched” by a downpour.

The piece opened with a more conventional image of a romantic partnership, an embrace. The two dancers swayed slowly center stage as the lights rose gently, then fell not long after.

A solo by Eckert led into a very funny section where Murphy wrote love letters to a woman named Agnes, as Sinead O’Connor’s Nothing Compares to You blared over the speakers. What began as amorous affection, ended in name calling and beer drinking when Murphy realized that Agnes didn’t feel the same way.

Another hilarious part came later in the evening when popular movie scenes were projected onto a large screen. When Rose and Jack, main characters from Titanic, moved into the famous “flying” scene, Murphy and Eckert acted the parts while a robotic voice gave them stage directions – Take two steps forward; close eyes; tilt head; hands on waist. The section used incredible wit to expose the insincerity of the scene.

To break up the moments of dry humor, the dancers used effortless partnering, and impressive movement phrases to convey the more genuine aspects of a relationship. Two of those sections stood out.

The first came after a scene from Gone with the Wind, when Clark Gable spoke the line, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” Murphy and Eckert moved through a mostly disconnected duet, as rose petals fell from the rafters over their bodies. An honest sense of letting go came to mind.

The second was near the end of the show, when the dancers performed a more intense section, representative of an argument. Devoid of melodrama, the two pushed and pulled against each other, using quick and bound energy to depict an emotional struggle. The effect was authentic, and quite moving.

To close, Murphy cleverly brought back the image from the opening, this time with a more realistic version of what it means to be in a partnership. In what appeared to be a balancing act, the two leaned against one another, working to stay afloat despite the water that had soaked them.

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Dance Preview: Twenty Eighty-Four by the Pillow Project

Preview by Adrienne Totino

“No matter how much we seem to annihilate ourselves, there is always a rebirth,” says Pearlann Porter, Artistic Director of the Pillow Project. Her latest work is, in fact, a revival. The piece, “Twenty Eighty-Four,” was originally created in 2008, but will premiere in its newest incarnation for six more shows this week.

The evening length work was originally inspired by Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, and Orwell’s1984. Porter describes the main theme of the show as “the disconnected feeling we have about our place in this very isolating, yet demanding time….the panicky need to embrace this information age, knowing that we might lose our sense of real interaction.”

There are two main characters in the cast of seven. Riva Strauss plays the part of the information obsessed, overcome with the fear of getting left behind and not knowing what is going on in the world. Zek Stewart plays the opposite role, detaching himself from the age of information, resigned to the fact that he cannot change the world we live in. But despite their differing points of view, they find themselves in the exact same place – isolated, and feeling numb.

Although the piece is quite dark, it doesn’t come without Porter’s optimistic side, inspired by the science and philosophy of Carl Sagan. “To grow, as a whole, you need to fall,” Porter says. “Maybe we need to go down this road, to go off a cliff together, then step backwards and try it all again.”

As always, Porter has created a highly elaborate set for the performance. At her Point Breeze location, The Space Upstairs, huge walls create a semicircular stage, with the audience placed in two corners. The walls are covered from floor to ceiling with propaganda designed by local artist, Jordan Bush. Decaying papers are scattered all over the floor.

The look feels very “menacing and archaic,” says Porter. There are a mountain of old televisions in one corner, all obsolete. The dancers’ clothing is worn out and unwashed, to convey the sense of a tired and battered humanity.

Although the movement will be improvised, the piece was meticulously directed by Porter, perhaps her most technical work to date. In collaboration with lighting designer Mike Cooper, Porter has created moments where the entire space is lit, and times when the audience can only see a small part of a performer. News channels blare on large screens, while live tweeting occurs throughout.

Porter is highly regarded in Pittsburgh for creating stunning visual landscapes through technology. And despite the strong opinion in her work, she finds a way to free herself from the self-absorption sometimes found in politically charged art. As a deep and critical thinker, she isn’t capable of righteousness.

Of the directorial process, she says, “I ask myself three questions – is the work simple, clear, and open? By simplifying the feel, it allows everyone to contribute their own perspective. I think that’s the role of the artist. We’re supposed to speak of our time, but transcend the specifics of words.”

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Show Details:

Where? The Space Upstairs – 214 N. Lexington Street in Point Breeze, Pittsburgh.

When? October 22, 24, 25, 26, 27 & 28. Doors open at 8:00 p.m. The show begins precisely at 8:30. Latecomers will not be allowed entrance.

How much? $15 general admission, or $10 for current students.

http://www.showclix.com/search#Twenty%20Eighty%20Four

*Enter the code “STUDENT” and present your current student ID at the door for the discount.____________

Dance Review: Camille A. Brown & Dancers in Mr. Tol E. Rance at the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

The Kelly-Strayhorn Theater welcomed Camille A. Brown back to the Pittsburgh stage for the world premiere of her latest work, “Mr. TOL E. RAncE.” Brown says her relationship with the theater happened “very organically,” when she first performed a solo in 2009 for the newMoves Contemporary Dance Festival. This past Friday and Saturday night, Brown brought her entire company to perform.

When Brown originally set out to create a piece about the first blacks on Broadway, one of her board members directed her to a book by Mel Watkins called On the Real Side: A History of African American Comedy from Slavery to Chris Rock. She immediately tore through the material she needed, but came back to the book later, curious about what she’d missed. That, in turn, led her to more research, and ultimately broadened her theme to the history of African American humor.

The show was, in fact, humorous. Brown is known for her love of theater. She knew when she began choreographing that the piece called for theatrical comedy. Sprinkled in, though, were definite moments of poignancy, thought-provoking and heartfelt.

Act One opened with live piano by company collaborator, Scott Patterson. The dancers entered gradually, wearing gray pants and tops, suspenders and matching caps, costumes that resembled old minstrel show clothing. Their movement was slow, suspended, and darkly lit, to not compete with the musical performance.

As the sound suddenly crescendoed, so did the dance. In fast, furious movement, inspired by the tap genre, all seven dancers performed frenetic phrases of intricate, rhythmic steps. Most impressive was that the piano eventually quieted; the dancers didn’t follow any beat, but remained in unison by listening to the sound of their breath and the stomp of their feet. The section was a nod to famous black duos, like the Nicholas Brothers.

The piece slowed down as video projection took us through the years of black television sitcoms: Diff’rent Strokes, Good Times, The Cosby Show, Bernie Mac, and the classic Fresh Prince of Bel Air. The dancers hilariously shouted the lyrics to the theme song of the latter, and parodied the moves of that time with a quite perfected “running man.”

Act Two began with a different feeling. What started as an amusing disagreement between two dancers turned into an all out fight between the entire group. The scene set up a section about stereotypes in the black culture. The company mimicked an “awards ceremony,” wearing white gloves that were common in blackface shows, when white men mocked African Americans in offensive acts of racism.

One of Brown’s goals was to not only give an historical context, but to also show how current media and entertainment biases still exist. After some satirical booty shaking, crotch grabbing and ass smacking, the dancers came to an abrupt and powerful stop, leaving one male performer on the stage as the lights dimmed. The deliberate, yet simple gestures of the dancer were projected on the back curtain as the solo unfolded. The image had a reflective quality, as if he were looking into the future at himself, from a different time. Would his former self be pleased with society’s forward progress? Or saddened by old conventions still fixed?

The curtain eventually lowered, revealing the rest of the company in shadow, emerging slowly from the back as Erykah Badu’s “On & On” played in spurts. The movement of the group depicted struggle as they advanced. Six dancers fell to the ground, leaving Brown and Patterson to close the show.

Patterson played the simple melody of “What a Wonderful World,” providing just the right amount of hope, with a sense of realism, to end. Brown moved clearly and unhurriedly as the audience held their breath. She removed her white gloves, and the lights faded.

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Dance Review: Youth Moves at the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

Friday night at the Kelly Strayhorn Theater (KST) came as a wonderful and relieving surprise. It had been a long time since I’d seen anyone under twenty take the dance stage. In the day and age of Dance Moms and So You Think You Can Dance, watching children and teens perform has become an all and out spectacle – mostly tricks and sexy outfits, without depth or artistry.

Thankfully, the pageant feel was non-existent in East Liberty over the weekend. YouthMoves, a program the KST began four years ago, brought to the stage five young companies from the Pittsburgh area, in an effort to give young dancers a professional performance opportunity.

To open the show, resident choreographer of the theater, Staycee Pearl, presented her pre-professional company, SPdp2. The group performed three short pieces, all in the contemporary style, with Pearl’s signature, but very subtle, infusion of hip-hop. Each dancer had their moment of solo material, and displayed impressive technical integration that often comes much later in a dancer’s career. The movement ranged from slow and deliberate, to more high energy, and included simple partnering and interesting gestures.

Elena’s Dancers Elite, a company located in North Huntingdon, PA, performed twice on the program. The group studies dance styles more typical of kids – tap, jazz, hip-hop, and ballet. Although competition companies oftentimes emphasize performance over technique, these young girls had both. Their first work was a high energy, jazzy routine without a “showboat” feel. The second was more lyrical, sweet without the sugar coating.

Visionary Dance Academy also presented two works. Their studio emphasizes technique, while allowing each student to recognize his/her own unique style. That individualism showed. In brightly colored costumes, this large group excited the audience with hip-hop, contemporary and African movement. The kids’ lively confidence imbued the theater, and their message of positivity uplifted everyone in attendance.

The second half of the show brought two distinctive styles, ballet and musical theater dance, to round out the program.

Mid-Atlantic Contemporary Ballet Company featured a trio of young girls. Their technical mastery was evident from the moment they began. Bathed in deep red lighting, they effortlessly moved from classically long lines, accentuated by pointe shoes, to more modern parallel legs and flexed feet. The piece was dramatic, solemn but not glum. The dancers were sophisticated performers without any of the shyness that comes with being onstage at that age.

To close the show, Alumni Theater Company wowed the audience with scenes from the hit musical, Rent. The troupe had just performed the full show at the New Hazlett Theater a week earlier. While the bigger group dance scenes were impressive, it was hard to ignore the talent of the three featured singers. The scenes “Out Tonight,” and “Tango: Maureen” were particularly animated. The performers proved that the lost art of singing and dancing simultaneously is still possible.

The energy in the audience left the theater buzzing with enthusiasm. A dance party broke out on the stage. A new wave of young dancers received their congratulations. And another successful dance event at the Kelly-Strayhorn came to an upbeat end.

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Dance Review: The Pillow Project’s Second Saturday Speak Eazy

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

“Second Saturday” at the Pillow Project keeps getting better and better. To call it a “happening,” rather than a performance or show, is right on target. Who else in the city combines the most happening art, dance, music and culture, and turns it into something that feels like the hottest underground club in town? Pearlann Porter, that’s who.

The company’s Point Breeze hub, “The Space Upstairs,” was jam packed Saturday night. Not surprising, as they are typically full for the regular monthly event. The theme this time, “The Speak Eazy,” featured sounds of the 1920s to the 1950s by musical guest and host, Vie Boheme.

Boheme and her band kicked off the evening by explaining the subject matter they considered before putting the show together. Prohibition, public drunkenness, and “the threat of the woman’s mind” all made the list. To go along with the topic, Porter announced that there would be a secret password to receive the “bathtub gin” after 10 p.m. The stage was set.

“Can I have some movement?” Boheme ad libbed as her band began a smooth swing. Audience members lounged throughout the space on vintage couches, chairs, high tops and floor pillows, waiting for the first dancer. “I said. Can I have some movement? Boheme asked again.

As usual, the dancers seemed to appear out of nowhere, like they walked in off the street and decided they had to express themselves through movement that instant. All of the dance was performed in Porter’s signature style of “jazzing the music,” a technique she created that uses improvisation to physically express sound.

This show happened to coincide with the Pillow’s Summer Intensive Study Program, which meant that Porter’s students had the opportunity to perform alongside professionals. One by one, they made their way to the open space, reserved for artists, and let the keyboard, bass, drums and horns infuse their bodies with early jazz. Boheme, also a dancer, interacted with each performer, singing to them in acknowledgement.

In between band sets, DJ Jay Malls provided sounds of that period on original 78 records. The quintessential scratchy sound accompanied classics like “Come Rain or Come Shine.” Boheme encouraged people to mingle, enjoy a drink at the bar, or even a hot dog from the Franktuary truck parked outside.

To add to the entertainment, Jordan Bush created spontaneous drawings throughout the space. Special guest, Alaina Dopico, read her poetry while a duet of dance emerged. And new “fellow” of the Pillow Project, Riva Strauss performed part of a solo to premiere in full this fall. She described the piece as “an awakening…coming to a conscious understanding.” Dressed in a long, blue, fitted gown, she danced on a gold structure, raised from the ground. Although her face was masked, the intensity and articulation of her body communicated the emotion clearly.

It is hard to say when the evening ended. Porter’s functions can go on well into the early morning hours, and only the most passionate last that long. I was asleep before the stroke of midnight, filled up with the thriving art of Pittsburgh’s unconventional, and the hope that the secret of “Second Saturday” makes its way, in loud whispers, around the city.

 

 

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Dance Review: Art and Style Studio Annual Showcase

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

The Art and Style Dance Studio might be tucked away from the bustle of Pittsburgh’s South Side, but inside the nondescript building on Jane Street is a sense of liveliness unique to ballroom dance. Terry and Rozana Sweeney, the owners, hold classes and performances in latin and ballroom styles, for students of all ages and levels.

The space lends itself brilliantly to performance and competition. A sprawling wood floor provides plenty of room for the sweeping rise and fall of a waltz. The tall ceiling and round balcony compliment the regal nature of a fox trot. Even a sizzling salsa grabs the attention of the audience, seated up close and personal.

Friday marked the studio’s ninth annual showcase, where students competed with their partners in the style of their choice. The Sweeney’s choreographed each number, then coached the couples in technique, style and performance for a month prior.

Said Rozana Sweeney, “Compared to the competition we run every March for competitors from all over the country, this event is a more personal one for our students.”

The evening featured fourteen routines in an array of styles ranging from cha-cha to jive. Dancers competed as “amateur adults,” or “juniors.” Audience members were responsible for choosing the winners, via voting cards.

A group number opened the show. Two couples danced the bolero, a romantic and slower tempo latin dance. The women wore black flowing dresses with multicolored scarves at their waists and flowers in their hair. They rocked and swayed in their partners’ arms to the gentle lilt of the music.

In a more animated routine, dancers Mike MacConnel and Gena Melago danced a jive. MacConnel, an energetic performer, played the part of the quintessential nerd. The two brought sass and laughter to the audience.

Maria Chaderina and Adam Glatz danced a cha-cha, wowing the crowd with their fluid limbs and sultry hip undulations. Originally from Russia, Chaderina recently received her Ph.D in Finance from Carnegie Mellon University. She is clearly talented in many ways.

The crowd pleasers of the evening were seven-year-old Christopher Paluselli and nine-year-old Alyse Fay. The juniors danced a paso doble, and exhibited all the intensity and sharpness the style demands. Although they showed well practiced technique, their cuteness gave them an edge.

The overall winners of the evening were Becky Stern and Mike MacConnel. Their tango told the story of one woman’s fantasy. MacConnel played the part of a flirtatious restaurant waiter, while Stern was a customer bored with her date. They danced to “La Cumparsita,” a famous and instantly recognizable tango. In using both the ballroom and Argentine style of the dance, the two traveled through the space with drama, interspersing moments of close hold and articulate foot patterns. Their theatrical skill, in addition to the crisp clarity of their bodies, won them the show.

For anyone with a desire to cultivate their own inner ballroom dancer, check out Art and Style Studio. The Sweeney’s continue to teach students, regardless of their level, how to move with grace and flair. Each performer floated through the evening with poise and confidence.
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Dance Review: New Moves Contemporary Dance Festival, Program B

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

Modern dance devotees flooded The Kelly-Strayhorn Theater over the weekend for the 4th annual newMoves Contemporary Dance Festival. The three day long celebration brought sixteen choreographers and over 40 dancers to the bustling East Liberty sprawl.

Program B took place on Friday, and hosted a range of national and international performers and companies from Pittsburgh, NYC, Philadelphia and, for the first time, Budapest, Hungary.

The evening felt significantly more bold than in previous years, with work that ranged from technical to theatrical and in some cases, an impressive blend of both. Each piece fit into the festival’s unexpected theme of “identity.” Exploration of one’s individuality seemed fresh on the minds of the young dancers and choreographers involved.

The show opened with the August Wilson Center Dance Ensemble from right here in Pittsburgh. The company performed “TORQUE,” choreographed by Point Park professor, Kiesha Lalama.

To the sounds of traditional Irish and West African rhythms infused with electronic beats, the piece investigated how we try to escape the “daily grind.” Through a combination of slow, snaky undulations, and quick, fierce gestures, the company once again displayed their physical prowess. The tight unison of their movement proved the likeness of each dancer, despite their physical differences.

From Philadelphia came IdiosynCrazy Productions and Anonymous Bodies, two different duets that shared an edgy dance theater style.

IdiosynCrazy explored the theme of “sameness” in their work, “Plastic City.” The duo wondered how they might appear more similar despite their different anatomies, skin colors and movement habits. They succeeded in their quirky but seamless floor work and the unpredictable humor interspersed.

Anonymous Bodies presented a piece that used mostly dramatic elements to communicate their themes – a static TV screen, laptop computer, American flags and silver wigs that concealed the two dancers’ faces. They examined “theories of identity” with repetitive and often pedestrian movement mingled with moments of striking stillness.

Marjani Forte, of NYC, performed a solo about self-acceptance entitled “EGO.” Through the study of fear, change, growth and insecurity, Forte unearthed a wide range of movement dynamics, presenting herself as complex yet well-rounded and able to accept herself fully.

All the way from Hungary, in their first U.S. tour, Bloom! Dance Collective closed the show with their award winning full length dance, “CITY.” The company described the piece as a “political pamphlet entwined with movement,” and dealt with issues of belonging versus discrimination in urban life.

In light of the recent and frustrating immigration debates, the company managed to present the topic with hilarious mockery that had the audience doubled over with laughter. Perhaps it was the full frontal nudity right from the start. Body parts flipped and flopped as the dancers stood confidently front and center, bouncing to circus music that set the stage for satire.

The piece did take a more serious tone at times, revealing the intelligence of the choreographers. A robotic voice, similar to an automated and unwanted telemarketer, repeatedly shamed one dancer who only wanted to be part of the group. The voice taunted – “Nobody wants you here,” “Put your clothes on,” and “You look like a criminal.” Although the work was largely theatrical, the movement quality was sweeping, with an ebb and flow that not only carried the piece, but held it together in a clean and clear way.

The success of the closing dance in particular raised the standard for newMoves, and brought attention to what will continue to “bloom” for the festival’s future.
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