Dance review: Chautauqua experience boosts Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre performance

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What a difference a performance makes.

At Hartwood Acres there was a pervading drizzle for Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's annual season opener on Sunday, although much of the hardy and supportive audience remained for the end. But just three days later, PBT had perfect weather at Chautauqua Institution in New York to complete the company's first outdoor doubleheader.

The program was virtually the same -- Mark Morris' "Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes," Dwight Rhoden's "Step Touch" and "Peasant Pas de Deux," with Antony Tudor's "Jardin aux Lilas" added to the mix in Chautauqua.

But the feeling was different. Certainly the weather could have played a part, but the company seemed genuinely enthralled by its day trip to Chautauqua's lovely Victorian setting by the lake.

"Drink to Me" was the stalwart feature of the two programs, with both audiences appreciative of Mr. Morris' sophisticated use of the Virgil Thomson score for solo piano, both classical and modern at the same time, and given a decisive interpretation by company pianist Yoland Collin.

That may be due to the fact that the company has become more familiar with the bubbling rhythmic syncopations, sometimes as engagingly simple as plie and releve, along with the underlying whimsy, braced with leaps that bound around the stage like giggling rapids. And they have begun to embrace the poetic twist at the end, where the title song gives the movement a moonlit aura.

Just back from the Beijing Ballet Competition, where he took the gold medal, Yoshiaki Nakano was brimming with confidence in the tango-esque section, marked with snapping, bullish poses. He was also featured in the "Peasant Pas de Deux" with the charming Amanda Cochrane. There he showed how much he has grown into his height since last season, looking more refined and graciously authoritative, with vertical aerial turns that descended into the most miraculously deep plies.

"Jardin" was a thoughtful selection for the Chautauquan environment, established in 1878 and once a living example of the era that Tudor eschewed in this 1936 balletic masterwork.

So there are delineated characters such as Caroline, the Bride-to-be (Alexandra Kochis), Her Lover (Alejandro Diaz), The Man She Must Marry (Robert Moore) and An Episode in His Past (Julia Erickson). Deceptively difficult, "Jardin" plays so much with light and shadow of hidden emotions and the facades that the characters have built.

There are several segments that expose those emotions, however, something that Ms. Erickson tapped so well. Otherwise there was still such a sense of respect from the dancers that it bound them and kept the ballet from reaching its full potential.

Like "Drink to Me," "Step Touch" is a choreographic seesaw. But instead of juxtaposing ballet and modern, Mr. Rhoden offered ballet flavored with '50s sounds of doo-wop. Upon reflection, the two seemingly disparate forms offer a sense of precision -- ballet in the technique, doo-wop in the movements of the background singers.

So "Step Touch" isn't as odd a hybrid dance as it may seem. Of all the ballets, though, it received the most diverse performances. At Hartwood, it was strangely lyrical and restrained, perhaps because it was the first ballet of the evening and the dancers were uncertain of their footing.

There was a complete turnaround at Chautauqua, however, where "Step Touch" was uploaded with personality and the dancers were able to jump convincingly between the two idioms (the only way to perform a Rhoden ballet).

It was good to see Christopher Budzynski, just back from a back injury, with a bold jazz attack in his solos. And Eva Trapp capped a magical night with her own "Magic Moment."

There were glimpses of the company's newest additions as well -- Hannah Carter, William Moore, Ruslan Mukhambetkaliyev and Diana Yohe -- all physically gifted and already blending seamlessly into the company.


Former Post-Gazette critic Jane Vranish: She blogs at


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