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Pittsburgh: There Is An Explosion of Dance

ART TIMES Jun, 2004

Brand New Day: Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre (Randy Choura Photo)

The old image of Pittsburgh as a city of belching black smoke and dirt disappeared a long time ago. The three rivers that converge there provide many scenic views, as do the new sports stadiums. The Frick and Carnegie Mellon museums are the positive result of all that coal, steel and railroad money. The Science Museum, the Andy Warhol Museum, the art galleries and the many small town-like areas that surround the main city and its colleges and universities make it a very livable place. But the abundance of performing arts, including the symphony and theater groups, but especially dance, is truly amazing for a city with a regional population of 1.2 million.

At the center of dance (but by no means encompassing all of it) are three organizations: Pittsburgh Dance Council, Dance Alloy, which began in 1976 as a collective of eight modern dancers, and Pittsburgh Ballet Theater, now in its 35th year.

Paul Organisak, a musicologist raised in Pittsburgh, is head of the Pittsburgh Dance Council and sees as his mission the presentation of the finest of the world’s dance companies. He says that his choice of seven to nine performances a year is driven, in part, by the very sophisticated dance audience, which challenges him, and by a personal aesthetic based on diversity. He includes such classics as Paul Taylor and Mark Morris, but also wishes to show what is new. He books two houses, the Byham, seating 1300, and the Benedum, seating 2900. There is a choice of a complete subscription series or the opportunity to create a personal four performance series. This year’s offerings included Noche Flamenco, the Nederlands Dance Theatre, Les Ballet Jazz de Montreal, O Vertigo (from Israel) and Ballet Boys (from England). Some performances sell out completely.

Dance Alloy of Pittsburgh has a new executive and artistic director, Beth Corning, fresh from ten years in Minneapolis and before that, New York and Sweden. This organization has two studios and facilities in Friendship, which is known as the Pennsylvania Avenue Arts Corridor and is just outside main Pittsburgh. Here they offer classes and their company of five dancers, three women and two men, on a thirty-four week contract, rehearse. The group, led for the past 12 years by Mark Taylor, presented mainly his work, but she wants to return to the repertory concept and perform more dance theater, rather than abstract pieces. The program they offered in their spring season, "Four Decades, Four Works, Four Nights," presented a work from the 70’s, the 80’s, the 90’s and the present. The dances were choreographed by Mark Taylor, Victoria Marks, Corning and three of the original dancers.

They have two home seasons, fall and spring, with performances Friday through Monday. The latter is "pay what you can" and they have found that this brings in new audiences. One of Dance Alloy’s most exciting projects is called "Sight on Site," an underwritten series of 45 minute programs presented throughout the city – at lunchtime for instance – in which dance is brought to wherever different clusters of people congregate.

Next season they will present works by Joe Goode, from California, David Shimotakahara, from Cleveland, and Per Jonsson, from Sweden. Corning hopes to continue to bring in international choreographers.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, known locally as PBT, is the eighth largest ballet company in the United States and has been headed by Terence Orr, former American Ballet Theatre dancer and ballet master,since 1997. The company had its beginnings under Nicholas Petrov, a Yugoslavian choreographer, who was able to obtain the support of Point Park College for what was essentially a student group with guest principles. When the company separated from the college a few years later, Mr. and Mrs. Leon Falk purchased a downtown building that provided space for rehearsal studios and a school. In the 1974-75 season Frederic Franklin staged Giselle and Leonid Massine set his ballet Gaite Parisienne. By PBT’s tenth anniversary the dancers had become unionized, they began touring and were performing such works as Les Sylphides (Fokine) and Miss Julie (Birgit Culberg).

When Patricia Wilde, former Balanchine ballerina, took over in 1982 she began to focus on giving the dancers a clean, precise technique and added more Balanchine ballets to the repertoire. The company also moved to its current site, a former warehouse with five studios, costume and production shops and administrative and school offices. Company premieres have included Tabula Rasa (Ohad Naharin), stagings of Bronislava Nijinska’s Les Noces, Alvin Ailey’s The River and works by Antony Tudor, Paul Taylor, Agnes DeMille and others.

Orr, whose Nutcracker for his company was set in 19th century Pittsburgh, says that in this ballet he tried to keep everyone’s attention (adult and child) and also wanted to stay true to the original story. He introduced a dragon into the Chinese dance, brought back the trepak in the Russian one and had Marie and the Prince danced by adults, making it a real love story.

Giselle, the production seen in March, was well rehearsed and the willis were intense and ethereal enough to keep the attention of any member of the audience. Orr staged this version in conjunction with Marianna Tcherkassy, the ballet mistress and former American Ballet Theatre ballerina, basing it on the 1842 choreography by Coralli and Perrot as it has trickled down through the years, but says he tried to emphasize the fact that it is actually a love triangle.

Asked about changes he has seen since his arrival, he says both the men and the women are stronger dancers and better actors. Although he wishes to continue presenting the classics he is also very interested in the choreographers of today, especially those capable of influencing the company. Since PBT has a history of collaborating with modern as well as ballet creators it is not surprising to learn of the jazz program," Indigo In Motion," a dance tribute to Pittsburgh’s jazz legends which utilized live accompaniment and included a work set to the music of Billy Strayhorn. There was also "Brand New Day," which included two ballets to the music of Sting. The current season ended with "Springsteen and Seeger," incorporating one work set to Bruce Springsteen’s songs and one to Pete Seeger’s. Orr is also bringing in English and Canadian choreographers for next year’s programs.

The Dance Council is technically a division of the Cultural Trust, established to develop the arts in Pittsburgh and also a presenting organization that owns and operates several theaters. The current Broadway series includes Movin’ Out, the Twyla Tharp/Billy Joel musical that is all dance and no dialogue. While I was in Pittsburgh Dance of Desire, combining Celtic, flamenco, Middle Eastern, Irish, ballroom and ballet, was at Heinz Hall, somehow related to the Pittsburgh Symphony organization. There was also something called 80’s Rock Ballet, presented at the Byham by the Heinz Small Arts Initiative. Dance is booming in Pittsburgh; it was almost relaxing to return to New York!

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