Bodiography gives a face to Parkinson's disease

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People might not often associate dance with disease.

In Bodiography Contemporary Ballet's latest work, "Left Leg, Right Brain," dancers demonstrated how the tremors and other traits of Parkinson's disease can color choreography.

On Friday, opening night brought to Byham Theater a healthy-sized audience, which included representatives from the Michael J. Fox Foundation and the National Parkinson Foundation, Western Pennsylvania. The performance opened with a film introducing Pittsburgh-based filmmaker and artist Frank Ferraro, who first experienced symptoms of Parkinson's at age 38. He was diagnosed with the disease at 41.

Clips showed a younger, more active Mr. Ferraro skateboarding, creating sculptures with power tools and playing baseball -- all things Parkinson's has since erased. During the course of the ballet, film snippets followed Mr. Ferraro from diagnosis to present day.

It was wise of Maria Caruso, choreographer and founding artistic director of Bodiography, to make Mr. Ferraro's story the foundation for the ballet. Whether people watching knew someone with Parkinson's, they could put a face with it. Mr. Ferraro also is to be commended; it was courageous for him to adapt his struggles for the stage.

Dancing was meant to reflect Mr. Ferraro's journey. Early sections featured an ensemble in pointe shoes and short vibrantly colored dresses. Movement was athletic and hurried (a nod to Mr. Ferraro's active lifestyle pre-Parkinson's?), resulting in some timing issues on pirouettes and battements. Musicians from the Craig Davis Jazz Ensemble and Pittsburgh Festival Orchestra joined them on stage and brought great energy to the jazz score.

Choreography grew more grounded and lyrical as the performance progressed. Sometimes dancers would let limbs go limp or step and drag a leg behind, choreographic manifestations of Parkinson's impacts on Mr. Ferraro's physical state. Another section included lots of partnering where dancers tossed, caught and lifted one another. (A reference to the support -- literal and figurative -- that connections with others can provide, perhaps?)

About mid-way, a trio of dancers dressed in black, including Ms. Caruso, slinked onto the stage. Eventually they enticed the others to drink with them at a table in the corner. Were they drowning their sorrows in drink? Or was it a toast to turning something as uncomfortable and debilitating as Parkinson's into beautiful dancing?

During some portions it was easy to forget that gestures had been extracted from the disease's symptoms, and they came across as pure dancing. On one hand, this is an accomplishment. On the other, more restless abandon in dancers' interpretation of some choreography, particularly in the latter half of the show, could have helped the dancing embody even more of the rawness of Mr. Ferraro's reality depicted in the film.

The final moments were among the most poignant of the night. Like the disease, Ms. Caruso forcefully confronted another dancer, who stopped her. All fell still, silent. The dancer gracefully moved about the stage, carried by Anna Singer's rich operatic vocals. It all unfolded as a sort of reverent soliloquy expressed through dance rather than words.

The dancer ended the show standing strong and staring ahead, looking life in the eye.

Sara Bauknecht:

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