Review: Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre shares the stage with Dance Theatre of Harlem
March 18, 2017 3:51 PM
Dancers from the Dance Theatre of Harlem perform at the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre and DTH private party and performance on Thursday at the August Wilson Center for African American Culture, Downtown.
Dance Theatre of Harlem's Chyrstyn Fentroy & Francis Lawrence in the "Black Swan" pas de deux.
Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's Diana Yohe and Corey Bourbonniere in Dwight Rhoden's "Ave Maria."
By Jane Vranish / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
It was a grand night for ballet at the August Wilson Center on Thursday, the official start of a two-week partnership between Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre and Dance Theatre of Harlem.
AWC was packed for a private benefit performance to celebrate DTH’s return to Pittsburgh (the last time here was 2001), as well as provide the funds for PBT’s community scholarship program. The diversity and beauty of the audience itself, which included Motown star Smokey Robinson and meandered around AWC’s distinctive building for food, drink and light conversation, created an overall excitement for the performance that served as the centerpiece.
The partnership also provided challenges for each ensemble, so that the companies seemed to feed off of each other.
BNY Mellon presents Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre and Dance Theatre of Harlem
When: Program 1 will be performed 8 p.m. Saturday; 7 p.m. March 23 and 2 p.m. March 25-26. Program 2 will be staged 8 p.m. Friday and March 24-25 and 2 p.m. next Sunday.
Where: August Wilson Center for African American Culture, Downtown.
Tickets: Start at $28 at www.pbt.org, 412-456-6666 or the Box Office at Theater Square, Downtown. Tickets to the opening night preview party/performance start at $150 at www.pbt.org. Proceeds from the event will benefit PBT’s community youth scholarship program.
Much has been made of the DTH legacy, how former New York City Ballet principal dancer Arthur Mitchell (and pioneer himself there) founded the company following Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968. But even today, ballet dancers of color, particularly women, have found their acceptance slow in the European aristocratic tradition of this art form.
American Ballet Theatre’s Misty Copeland, the company’s first African-American female principal, has changed the tenor of things, so the merging of black and white in this event took on the socio-political aspect of a “next step.”
The run has programs that differ each time in some way, either through the works themselves or changing casts. One major link, though, is the insertion every time of Black Swan pas de deux from “Swan Lake,” where the companies split it in half, alternating those halves on subsequent performances.
One might have hoped for a more intricate way of interweaving the dancers, but obviously there would be a rehearsal issue that didn’t make it feasible. At its best, it gave the program a gala feel, with the dancers launching into the familiar steps as if shot from a bow and arrow. It was a segment, however, that was more challenging for DTH, coming off of a ten year hiatus only in 2013.
It is a company that is still building itself mostly through contemporary works, under the expertise of artistic director Virginia Johnson. Not so much with “Brahms Variations,” where they showed their considerable skills and a creamy style. This is still a new company, but it already realizes its meaning and its heritage.
“Brahms” was created by African-American choreographer Robert Garland, long associated with DTH and the author of three of the four works that the company brought to the project.
The others, seen on a return visit on Friday, provided a platform for the group’s unique talents — ballet not only with class, but sass. You had to love the dry humor of “New Bach,” where the “new” meant going beyond the Balanchine-inspired struts and an angular final hip thrust and inserting sinuous arms and hip rolls straight from the dance floor.
Then there was Mr. Garland’s “Return,” filled with memories of Aretha Franklin and James Brown. Speaking of which, Da’Von Doane, who could do The Shuffle as easily as a pirouette, led the finale to “Superbad” with an elegant attitude.
The presence of DTH helped PBT, a company that can often hold back, find its groove. Artistic director Terrence Orr contributed two works by one of his favorites, black choreographer Dwight Rhoden. They will be performed on all programs.
His “Ave Maria,” a popular staple in the PBT repertoire and a guilt-ridden choreographic rendering of Adam and Eve after The Fall, gave the fearless Amanda Cochrane the opportunity to let loose with skittish legs and a mane of long blond hair in her duet with an attentive Alejandro Diaz.
Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre in Dwight Rhoden's "StrayLifeLushHorn." (Rich Sofranko)
And “StrayLifeLushHorn,” despite its playful name, is a highly difficult maze of steps for the PBT dancers to unravel. Set to John Wilson’s driving arrangement of music by Pittsburgh’s own Billy Strayhorn, it is a brilliant kaleidoscope of colors and patterns, sometimes moving so fast that the eye can’t apprehend everything.
The Pittsburgh Jazz Orchestra, under the direction of Marty Ashby, was breathtakingly taut. And by Friday, the PBT dancers, couched in the rhythms and soaring with the horns, were able to feel Mr. Rhoden’s vision for the first time since its 2000 premiere, capturing its unrelenting intensity in glorious fashion.
This pairing, you might say a pas de deux of voluminous proportions, pushed each ensemble off in new directions. So in a way, the project formed a temporary company and, by taking the lead from Mr. Rhoden’s clever title, we’ll call it DPTBHT. Catch it before it disappears.
Former Post-Gazette critic Jane Vranish: email@example.com. She blogs at pittsburghcrosscurrents.com.
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