A Leap to Broadway?: Pittsburgh choreographer Kiesha Lalama's dance show 'The Bench' sets sights on New York, national tour


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Kiesha Lalama has many titles: Pittsburgh CLO education director, associate professor of dance at Point Park University, choreographer, mom.

She's an instrumental part of the annual Pittsburgh CLO Gene Kelly Awards for Excellence in High School Musical Theater, and she's created works for musical theater groups, local and national dance companies and film, including the Pittsburgh-set "The Perks of Being a Wallflower."

What drives her in these varied roles is a love for telling stories.

"Everyone has tried to put me in a box for years. 'You're a concert choreographer, you're musical theater. No, you should do film,' " said Ms. Lalama, 40, of Center, Beaver County. "No, I just make dances. ... I do feel like I create works that the audience and the dancers can relate to."

In her latest project, "The Bench: Journey Into Love," Ms. Lalama tells the story of love's many facets through contemporary dance, lyrics inspired by inspirational quotes and live jazz music composed by her cousin, David Lalama. But rather than catering to the usual classical theater and dance crowds, Ms. Lalama is adapting the show, first staged in 2009 for Point Park's Conservatory Dance Company, for the commercial theater industry, with hopes of finding a home for it on tour or even on Broadway one day.

In 2011, she teamed up with Boise, Idaho-based Titus Theatricals, a production company specializing in developing nontraditional stage works.

Boise is a "developmental city that some people don't know about, but it's going to be on the map very soon," executive producer Eric McCree said.

Boise dance companies such as the Trey McIntyre Project have harvested a growing appreciation for the arts, and Broadway musicals, including "War Horse" and "The Light in the Piazza," have used Boise's facilities to adapt their productions for touring, he said. Compared with New York and other large arts cities, Boise offers a greater abundance of affordable space and amenities.

"The Bench" premiered earlier this month at a workshop at the Nampa Civic Center in Boise. It featured dancers from Ballet Idaho and the Boise Dance Co-op, plus vocalists Angela Birchett and Tituss Burgess of Broadway fame ("Good Vibrations," "Jersey Boys," "The Little Mermaid" and "Guys and Dolls").

Audiences for the pair of performances were peppered with potential investors and producers, as well as Ms. Lalama's family, colleagues and friends who made the trip from Pittsburgh.

Humble beginnings

Her career has been a tapestry of travels to some of the world's most culturally rich cities, but her Beaver County upbringing has had as much impact on the artist she has become.

"I was always a teacher and choreographer," she said. "I started choreographing at 7. I looked at my gymnastics coach and said, 'That doesn't go with the music for my floor routine.' He said, 'Choreograph it yourself.'

"I said, 'I will,' so I did."

She studied dance at Point Park, but her time as a professional performer was cut short by knee injuries. She owned a dance studio for 10 years while simultaneously adjunct-teaching dance at Point Park. She transitioned into a full-time position at the university and eventually let her studio go. Then came the call to interview to be the education director at Pittsburgh CLO, a job she's held for seven years.

"I always say her basement and her home in Center Township" have been among her primary influences, said Jason McDole, a visiting guest artist at Point Park University who has known Ms. Lalama since childhood. He served as her rehearsal assistant when she first staged "The Bench" at Point Park and has been her "right-hand assistant" ever since.

"The Bench" began as a photograph by Michael Dickins of a gray-haired couple seated on a wooden bench. When Ms. Lalama saw it, she wondered: How did this couple meet? How long had they been married? What challenges and celebrations had they encountered together?

While driving to Virginia Beach for a business trip, "I literally started drawing on Burger King napkins because I got food for my kids," she said.

She envisioned a young couple falling in love and the children they would have, with scenes centered around family meals and posing for family photos. She created a story about romance, infatuation, new love, naive love, family and lost love.

She choreographed the piece to fulfill a practicum project assignment while pursuing a master's degree at Goddard College in Vermont. To thread it all together, she incorporated some of her favorite quotes. For the original score, she contacted her cousin, a professor of music at Hofstra University in New York who grew up in West Aliquippa. Because there was no script, Ms. Lalama had to describe the kind of music she was seeking for her full-length show.

"I'd literally write, 'I need six minutes, sort of a waltzy feel, they're in a park and they fall in love.' That was it. That was all I had to give him."

He came up with a jazz score that would allow musicians -- and dancers -- the flexibility to improvise in some sections, making no two performances exactly alike.

"Even if they play the same pieces, it should still be something different, if you really pay attention," Mr. Lalama said.

"The Bench" premiered at the Pittsburgh Playhouse as part of the Point Park Conservatory Dance Company's holiday concert. The conservatory revived it in 2010.

"People loved it, the cast loved it, it was rewarding for me, my parents loved it, my family -- all those things that you wish for and want happened," Ms. Lalama said.

Toeing new territory

Ms. Lalama never planned for "The Bench" to have a life beyond Point Park. But a chance encounter in 2010 with Mr. McCree of Titus Theatricals at the Broadway League conference in New York changed the show's path.

"Five days into the conference, he looked at me and said, 'How come everyone in this room knows you're a choreographer except me?' " They exchanged contact information, and Ms. Lalama asked him to consider her to help choreograph a project he was working on.

"He called me back and said, 'You're perfect for the show, but that's not why I'm calling you. What is "The Bench"?' "

From reading a bit about the show and seeing some video clips, he was intrigued. Commercial theater today is flooded with musicals such as "The Lion King," "Shrek" and "Mamma Mia!" that take movies, books and contemporary music and adapt them for the stage. Mr. McCree was in search of something fresh.

"The way that Kiesha and David paired the choreography and music together was very unique," he said. "A lot of times in musical theater, there's a structure to something and it never changes."

With some adjustments, such as more lyrics and richer characters, he believed "The Bench" might gain traction as a mainstream musical.

"My biggest concern was that I would be sacrificing the artistic integrity of what I knew worked," Ms. Lalama said. "I didn't want to mess with it too much."

Instead of redoing the show, she delved deeper into it. The quotes became the inspiration for the lyrics by Scotland-based performer, playwright and poet Joel Mason. She fleshed out the plot by assigning more complex storylines to the siblings, whose characters were never developed for the Point Park productions.

In the years since she had conceived "The Bench," her family had faced some losses and she had entered the new territory of raising adolescent boys. These experiences helped her shape these characters.

"It's really, really evolved because of different things that I've asked questions about and people who have come into my life and have left my life," Ms. Lalama said. "By investigating those stories, the parents' story is even more solid. It has more substance and more value, and you don't even have to sacrifice the dancing. The dancing just becomes more believable, so the bar has just been raised overall."

'Burgh to Boise & beyond

The full creative team for "The Bench" arrived in Boise July 7, marking the first time Ms. Lalama had met in person many of the dancers and the lyricist, Mr. Mason. She had less than a week to teach the choreography, add the live musicians and singers and rehearse.

To assist her, she brought along Mr. McDole and Point Park dance grads Kellie Hodges and James Washington, who performed in the show at Point Park. Before they left, they rehearsed in Ms. Lalama's backyard.

"All the neighborhood people came out. Little kids are sitting there like, 'what's happening?' "

Ms. Hodges also danced in the Boise performance, along with Tobin Del Cuore of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago and dancers from Boise-based dance companies.

"The Bench" workshop performances attracted a couple of hundred people, followed by talks with audiences to gauge reactions to the show's additions.

"I think every one of our expectations were met," Mr. McCree said. "Our goals were to see the integration of lyrics and the new storyteller approach to it, and we saw that on every level."

The creative team will spend the year continuing to refine the production and explore opportunities to perform it next summer in New York City. By 2016, Mr. McCree would like to see "The Bench" on tour. Performing it at venues around the world would help it build a fan base, he said, that could allow it to find a home on Broadway, off-Broadway or in another city altogether.

"Maybe years ago I would have thought just Broadway, that's all I want out of life," Ms. Lalama said. "But after seeing it and seeing how it really impacted the lives of people -- they were thanking me and women emailing me and crying -- it makes me cry.

"They want to go home and call their moms and say, 'Thank you.' "

"That's what it's all about. It's not about a place. It's about a place within."

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Sara Bauknecht: sbauknecht@post-gazette.com or on Twitter @SaraB_PG. First Published July 28, 2013 4:00 AM


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