Best Dance Concert of 2008: Ultima Vez

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There was a sense of deja vu that the Pittsburgh dance scene produced in 2008. Not only were there two different "Alice in Wonderland" productions within the same month, but the alternative rock group Radiohead coincidentally inspired two productions in the same weekend. Other than that, dance took its inspiration from a highly individual and globular perspective, from the wild, wild West to the slicing Argentinian tango, from Japanese minimalism to the rhythms of Africa. It was quite a trip.

1. Ultima Vez, "Spiegel" (Pittsburgh Dance Council, Byham Theater, April 19): "Spiegel" ("Mirror") gave Pittsburgh dance seemingly without refinement or technique, raw and immediate. A collection of choreographic shards gathered over the course of 20 years by Belgian artist Wim Vandekeybus, "Spiegel" patched them together in nothing less than a brilliant manner, proving that the purest of movement can emanate from throwing a brick or hanging upside down in a chair.

2. Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo, "Cinderella" (PDC, Benedum Center, Feb. 23): A familiar fairy tale told by a fresh new choreographic and artistic voice. Jean-Christophe Maillot made sense of this fantasy without losing its ethereal luster amid a wonderful scenic design of movable white screens. In addition, Maillot transformed the tale by putting his heroine in bare feet and casting her real mother as the fairy godmother and the central figure.

3. Dance Alloy, "Feed Your Head Cafe" (New Hazlett Theater, March 28): Moving in a surreal setting of chaotic black and white tile, Beth Corning's 50-ish Alice looked back through her own personal looking glass, which somehow included "Alice's Restaurant" and Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit." A big budget production for an intimately sized company.

4. Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, "Alice in Wonderland" (Benedum, April 17): This "Alice" was a big budget production for a big company. Quintessentially English (after all, choreographer Derek Deane is a Brit), it followed Lewis Carroll's classic tale virtually to a "T." With characters broad enough to entertain the youngest fan, an original musical score by Carl Davis and lavish costumes and sets that dazzled without end, this was a piece of wonderful family entertainment, with plenty of action for the dancers as well.

5. Inbal Pinto, "Shaker" (PDC, Byham, Nov. 3): This Israeli company transported the Dance Council audience inside a snow globe where the dancers swished and swirled in a curiously wonderful way. Magical.

6. Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, "Forever Love" (Byham, Feb. 14-17): The PBT dancers provided a trio of notable pas de deux that showcased the company's growing authority, through both technique and stage presence. But the surprise was Lauri Stallings' "glint," set to and performed by local musician B.E. Taylor and featuring large glass pieces by Christo Braun. With movement that fractured and splintered the ballet idiom, Stallings proved that she is a young choreographer of great promise.

7. Attack Theatre, "Preserve and Pursue" (New Hazlett, Feb. 2): This decidedly American group took a real risk when it brought Japanese composers Somei Satoh and Miyuki Ito into the fold for this concert. They inspired the reflective "Trapped" and the more vigorous "A Furious Wind," which included mega-cellist Dave Eggar.

8. Doug Varone and Dancers (PDC, Byham, Nov. 22): Although Varone's newly premiered "Alchemy," based on journalist Daniel Pearl and the Bible's Book of Daniel, was still in the formative stage, Varone still produced a sublime pair of works in his organically accessible style with the moon-lit beauty of "Lux" and sweet vintage overlay of "Tomorrow."

9. Dance Alloy, "Schakt" (New Hazlett, Dec. 5): Thunderous in concept as a trio of dancers' hammers pounded heavy metal sheets to a percussive score by Peter Bengtsson, this piece by Swedish choreographer Per Jonssons reached its full potential this year. A piece where not a movement was wasted.

10. Ballet Maribor, "Radio & Juliet" (PDC Byham, Oct. 11)/The Pillow Project, "2084" (Construction Junction, Oct. 20): OK, this is a cheat. But the Dance Council and Pillow Project struck a chord with Radiohead fans, and they turned out in droves to make it a musical weekend. Surprisingly both productions used virtually the same music, but Ballet Maribor gave a sharp, contemporary dance reading of "Romeo and Juliet" while Pearlann Porter intriguingly plumbed the depths of George Orwell's "1984" in a break-out production for her local group.

Also noteworthy

While the Top Ten for 2008 focuses on the outstanding company performance, the MVP list looks at the performers and some of those behind the scenes. Here are a few additional highlights to 2008:

Woman of Steel: Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's Erin Halloran has always been noted for her technique. But she has gone above and beyond, using that technique to convey a quiet authority and unmatched grace that sets the standard for the other women at PBT. Still going strong after 19 years with the company, she just keeps getting better.

Man of Steel: Dance Alloy's Michael Walsh has gradually honed his art over the years. The one-time college cheerleader was inexperienced when he joined the local modern dance company in 1999 under Mark Taylor. He worked hard but had to transform himself under current director Beth Corning to include ballet training in his repertoire. It paid off -- Walsh's style is now compact and stylish, with not a wasted movement.

Motherly Pas de Deux: The Dirty Ball pulls out all the stops to surprise and confound and it succeeded when "Dirty Burt's Western Revue" climaxed with a trio of pregnant harem dancers led by co-artistic director and mom-to-be Michele de la Reza. They all looked beautiful and sexy, confidently showing how far dance has come from the days when dancers retired to have children.

Thinking Out of the Box: Congratulations to choreographer and teacher Gina Desko, who reinvented her vision and opened the Grey Box Theater March 28 in Lawrenceville. A black box theater geared to intimate performances in dance and theater (and parties, too), this was a great addition to the burgeoning Lawrenceville scene.

Annie: She was the toast of Broadway during the '90s. But Ann Reinking still had those gorgeous gams and that distinctive husky voice, as evidenced when she visited Point Park University April 27 to conduct a choreographic seminar on 40 young dancers.

Scenic Bouquet: PBT didn't quite tiptoe through the tulips, but the company did dance among the Chihuly glass sculptures Feb. 24 at Phipps Conservatory during a spectacular one-of-a-kind event that benefited both local art groups. No one could match the natural beauty of this backdrop during 2008.

Jane Vranish can be reached at .


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