'Bench' family: 'Something to be said for DNA'

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There's no place like home for the holidays, full of family and food, memories and merriment ... and more food. But when the Conservatory Dance Company's "The Bench" hits the stage, it will already have a built-in family connection because three members of the Lalama family will form the artistic core of the production.

Keisha Lalama-White, Point Park staff member and one of Dance Magazine's 25 to Watch, is the creator and choreographer and the youngest. Next comes cousin David Lalama, composer/pianist and associate chair of the music department at Hofstra University and his older brother Ralph Lalama, Grammy Award-winning saxophonist.

They all hail from Mancini territory in West Aliquippa, where the only way in and out comes via the Henry Mancini Memorial Bridge.

Once upon a time, the Mancinis were close family friends -- Aunt Pauline was Henry's godmother.

But then, everything and everybody are closely connected when you're Italian.

It was an era where music filled the streets. David swears that everyone "all played instruments and went to the local Catholic school. There were pianos in everyone's home," he says. "Everywhere you went -- weddings, confirmations, church -- there was music."

The brothers recall traditional Sunday meals at their grandparents' home. "Everyone was screaming, meatballs were flying and the pasta was home-made," Ralph exults in a boisterous voice. He recalls it as "electric," with the constant talk spearheaded by Aunt Anna Mae and Aunt Din.

Kiesha is by far the baby of the bunch -- Ralph and David are about as old as her father in this "humongous" Italian family. One of her earliest memories is Christmas Eve, when her two cousins, on vacation from Youngstown State University, would play carols and often improvise.

As she grew, she began to follow her cousins, both by then based in New York City to local appearances in Pittsburgh at spots such as the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, opening for Maynard Ferguson, or playing the Balcony and Holiday Inn with the likes of Roger Humphries and Spider Rondinelli. "I was in awe of not only their technical skill, but their raw passion for everything," she says of her cousins.

"They loved what they did and believed in it."

In recent years at the traditional holiday gatherings, Kiesha began batting around ideas for a family project. Although they always talked about it, there were problems with her cousins' busy schedules.

David also teaches at Manhattan School of Music and has a string of appearances, compositions and arrangements to his credit. Ralph is featured soloist with the iconic Vanguard Jazz Orchestra in New York's Village on Monday nights and has traveled the world with artists such as Barry Harris, Mel Torme and Carmen McRae.

Kiesha persisted until she found Michael Dickins' family-style photographs a couple of years ago. But it wasn't until this past spring that, while traveling to a dance festival with husband, Roy, and sons Jake and Jax, "The Bench," a work using both her musical theater sense and multimedia interests, began to take shape.

Using whatever was handy -- napkins, scrap paper, a Burger King cup -- she began to write her new stage family's time line. "It poured out in 30 minutes," she says, still amazed by it all.

When Kiesha felt she had something "substantial," she gave it to David, who recalled that "once she gave me the script, it was, quite frankly, pretty easy. I started hearing the music right away -- there's something to be said for DNA."

With Ralph also on board, Kiesha and David went ahead with their long-distance collaboration. During "The Bench" performances, Ralph and David will play on stage in a combo with Pittsburgh jazz musicians such as David Glover and Paul Thompson while Kiesha, who David calls "the spirit, the heart and the soul" of the project, oversees it all.

Overlapping family connections will permeate the footlights, from the Lalamas to the cast members to the audience. As Kiesha puts it, "For the most part, it's not my journey -- it could be anybody's."


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