Pittsburgh Ballet adeptly tackles 3 different art forms

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It probably was by sheer coincidence that Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's "3x3" program at the August Wilson Center shared some common ground, exploring the musical roots of three distinctive and indigenous art forms and filtering them through differing choreographic lenses. However, it gave Friday's repertory program a gratifying cultural balance rarely found in ballet.

Julia Adam chose the wild, mystical and eminently danceable klezmer music for the Pittsburgh premiere of "Ketubah." Beginning with a curling trademark clarinet solo to set the mood, she moved through an engaging game of "musical chairs" to introduce the bride and groom, followed by ritual wedding elements and ending in a traditional celebration.

The light, which included an array of movable candles suspended above the dance, bathed the stage in warm sepia tones, as if the audience was watching a piece of living history. Ms. Adam created a thoughtful vocabulary for the dancers, combining ballet with the folk elements, particularly in the arms, held aloft or unfolding to instigate the action.

She also was eminently musical, accentuating the "hiccups" in the score and taking note of the sinuous slides that are so alluring in klezmer music. The dancers, led by Caitlin Peabody and Cooper Verona, fit nicely into the beautiful structure of the choreography, the best of the night, although they had yet to find the real inner intensity of this Eastern European excursion.

If Ms. Adam favored structure, Viktor Plotnikov was the flower child among the choreographers in the world premiere of "In Your Eyes." While he embraced a totally creative approach, it was hard to find the focal point in this ballet.

Mr. Plotnikov used Antonin Dvorak's "American" quartet, accompanied by members of the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre orchestra. While the composer drew from American folklore, most likely spirituals or Indian accents, the choreographer ignored those elements.

The costumes gave a hint, though. Designed by Mr. Plotnikov and Janet Groom Campbell, they covered dusky hues of the rainbow in a lovely ombre shading, where the colors lightened in the middle at the tutu. They also were covered, not in Indian symbols, but in doodles.

And therein lay the clue to the choreography, which resembled one continuous squiggly line of steps. As we have seen in his previous efforts, Mr. Plotnikov does not like to repeat himself. And apparently he is on a quest -- to dare to be different. This approach sufficed for the first movement and maybe part of the second. But the steps grew acrobatic, meandering, even awkward in the forced partnering and transitions.

It appeared that Mr. Plotnikov, who also is possessed with a tart and whimsical sense of humor, might have a more noble philosophy surpassing that -- to break down the bastions of artificiality in the courtly style of ballet and make it appealing and fun for audiences. (He even included references to "Coppelia" in the mix.)

Yet those bon mots need to revolve around some kind of structure. Mr. Plotnikov should take that plethora of constant originality and do some extensive editing. To the cast's credit, they committed to this rambling journey and made much of it a sugary physical treat, particularly the fearless Julia Erickson with Robert Moore.

The third choreographer, Dwight Rhoden, has often confounded the PBT dancers with his own rhythmic complexity. But they found the key in "Smoke 'n Roses," a finale bolstered even further by Pittsburgh jazz icon Etta Cox and a live jazz quintet.

Yes, jazz, America's contribution to the music lexicon. The dancers really responded to the idea of improvisation, so they weren't always in sync. Nor did they have to be. They instead filled the choreography to the brim with their individuality and that, in itself, was truly satisfying.

Post-Gazette critic Jane Vranish can be reached at jvranish1@comcast.net. She also blogs on www.pittsburghcrosscurrents.com.

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