Point Park dance department to honor Douglas Bentz in Byham showcase
April 13, 2017 12:00 AM
Shawn Lesniak, AJ Libert and Robert Clores in "Let's Swing" by Douglas Bentz.
Paige Devitt and Shawn Lesniak in "Let's Swing" by Douglas Bentz.
Terrell Rogers, Bianca Melidor, John DeNeff, andCollin Khamphouy in "Missa Brevis" by Jose Limon.
Damond Garner and Faith Flanders in "Continuo" by Antony Tudor.
Courtesy of Point Park/Photo by Jack Mitchell
Douglas Bentz during his days as a professional dancer in a photo taken by Dance Magazine photographer Jack Mitchell in the 1980s. After a 40-year teaching career at Point Park University, he will retire at the end of the semester.
Courtesy of Point Park
By Sara Bauknecht / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Each spring, the Byham Theater showcase presented by Point Park University’s Conservatory Dance Company is considered a crowning moment for student dancers. Oftentimes, it’s their first taste of dancing repertoire by some of the industry’s premier artists in a professional theater.
Point Park Conservatory Dance Company
Where: Byham Theater, Downtown.
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday.
This year’s show -— which opens Thursday and runs through Saturday -— is shaping up to be extra special, and a little bittersweet. Students will pay tribute to Douglas Bentz with a revival of his jazz piece “Let’s Swing,” featuring the Benny Benack Big Band. After 40-plus years on faculty, Mr. Bentz will retire at the end of the semester. Works by Antony Tudor, Jose Limon and Stefanie Batten Bland will round out the program.
The twists and turns of Mr. Bentz’s career could fill a storybook. One of his most memorable moments? Teaching a pirouette class in a hut with dirt floors in Uganda, where he was affectionately called “Swami Doug,” he recalls. He’s also enjoyed stints on Broadway, as well as with Luigi Jazz Dance Company, New Jersey Ballet and Switzerland’s Grand Ballet of Geneva. He even headed his own Pittsburgh-based contemporary dance company in the 1980s with his wife, Judith Leifer.
He caught the dance bug as a kid watching Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly’s fancy footwork on TV and performing in musicals at Penn Hills High School. He earned a bachelor’s degree in dance from Butler University in Indianapolis.
“I was drawn to it automatically,” he says. “There was no going back.”
In the 1970s, he helped pioneer Point Park’s dance department — and it all started with a toe injury. He was dancing at the time with Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, then still under the direction of its founder Nicolas Petrov. Unable to do much, he was tasked with pitching in with the college’s dance program, also launched by Mr. Petrov.
“You get your record player, and you go teach,” were Mr. Petrov’s only instructions, he recalls. “I went over thinking this is going to be one of those gigs for extra pay. I hadn’t really taught much. The next thing I know, I was offered a contract.”
Except for a sabbatical last fall to become a certified Pilates instructor, he’s taught at Point Park ever since.
“It's remarkable that it's gone from this mom-and-pop kind of thing on Wood Street in Pittsburgh to one of the top conservatories in the world,” says dance department chair Ruben Graciani. “Doug is one of those people who made that happen.”
At age 67, Mr. Bentz is ready for his next adventure — which will include teaching Pilates, he says — and wants to “go out with a swing” at Byham Theater. His piece “Let’s Swing” stars five couples in a time warp that harks back to the 1940s.
That set the tone for the rest of the program, Mr. Graciani says, so he paired it with “Missa Brevis” (1958) by the late Mr. Limon. His contribution is inspired by the hardships of war and the resilience of the human spirit.
“To do it well, you have to be invested and so clear and concise with the movement,” Mr. Graciani says.
To lighten the mood, he’s selected “Continuo” (1985), which the late Mr. Tudor set to Pachelbel's Canon. He’s also committed to spotlighting female choreographers, so he’s included Ms. Batten Bland’s “Patient(ce)” (2015), an interdisciplinary work that grew out of conversations with her father, filmmaker/composer Ed Bland.
“I feel like the Point Park Byham show, and frankly all of our shows, are these undiscovered nuggets of amazing performances in Pittsburgh,” Mr. Graciani says. “Every piece on the program is connected to our human condition in some way. I encourage people to come with an open mind and an open heart and allow the work to resonate.”
Sara Bauknecht: email@example.com or on Twitter and Instagram @SaraB_PG.
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