Elise Ritzel and John Litzler perform Trey McIntyre's "Blue Until June Suite."
By Sara Bauknecht Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Rigorous rehearsals, studying with repetiteurs, executing works by dance icons George Balanchine and Bill T. Jones -- it's an agenda fit for professional dancers.
Yet, it's all in a day's work for students with Point Park University's Conservatory Dance Company gearing up for their annual showcase at Byham Theater, Downtown. From Thursday through Saturday, the dancers will stage choreography by Trey McIntyre and Toru Shimazaki and works danced by powerhouse troupes such as Hubbard Street Dance Chicago and Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company.
The Byham program is a centerpiece of students' performance season -- and college careers -- for the taste of the working dance world it supplies.
"Students are having the opportunities to work with really meaty choreography," said Susan Stowe, chair of Point Park's dance program. "They are really having some professional experience while they're still students at the university."
Point Park University's Conservatory Dance Company
Where: Byham Theater, Downtown.
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday.
These experiences start with the audition process, where students are assigned numbers and show off their skills for choreographers. After casting, repetiteurs travel to Pittsburgh to set the choreography. Learning from these artists gives students the chance to begin forging ties with professionals.
"We've had several students who've kept in touch with a choreographer through the years and got work through that networking opportunity," Ms. Stowe said.
One example is Cheryl Mann, a Point Park alumna who danced with Hubbard Street for more than a decade and is helping students for the second consecutive year.
"It was very exciting for me [while studying at Point Park] to get to meet these people who were dancing in the field, and they helped me a lot when I graduated to make those connections again," Ms. Mann said.
"It's the best gift that I could give from having such a positive experience there and such a long career."
"There's been a real bond there" when alumni get to work with students, Ms. Stowe said.
Students look at Ms. Mann's career as an example of what post-college life may be like.
"Obviously, that would give any dancer at Point Park a lot of hope for their future," said sophomore dance major Zachary Kapeluck, 19, of Carnegie. "It also gives you kind of a good viewpoint to see what you need to do in school and how much you need to work to get to where you want to be."
But connections and hard work only go so far if dancers don't have versatility. This is another lesson the faculty is striving to instill in budding performers.
"We're trying to make students realize that the state of the arts as it stands now isn't lucrative enough financially to enable dancers to just dance one particular style," said associate professor of dance Jay Kirk.
This message is reflected in the mix of balletic, modern and jazz works lined up for this weekend. The evening will open with Mr. Balanchine's "Valse Fantaisie," which Ms. Stowe describes as "a bright and happy piece" that's a "tour de force." It is set to a score by Russian composer Mikhail Glinka.
Next on the bill will be the more contemporary "D-Man in the Waters," a 1989 dance by Mr. Jones crafted when many members of the dance community were succumbing to HIV/AIDS.
"The piece is very much about the company coming together and finding a way to survive loss and pain," said Catherine Cabeen, a former Bill T. Jones company member who taught "D-Man" to Point Park dancers.
Blind falls and daredevil partnering stunts serve as "that metaphor of being able to trust the people around you," she said.
It was choreographed to vigorous Felix Mendelssohn music because his compositions were a rebellion against the norm for music during his era, paralleling the dancers' struggle against sadness.
Mr. McIntyre's "Blue Until June Suite" with Etta James music will follow intermission. "The vocabulary is based on classical ballet, but there's a real contemporary vein that runs throughout the whole work," said Mr. Kirk, the piece's rehearsal director. Its challenge lies in its artistic delivery, because students have to seek out their own motivations for the movements rather than a repetiteur suggesting them, Mr. Kirk said.
The program will close with Mr. Shimazaki's "Bardo," a word referencing what happens to the body after it dies. It tells the story of this suspended state between life and death through global dance rhythms and high-energy steps infused with allusions to Japanese culture.
It's such an "amazing athletic piece that the dancers just fly through it," Ms. Stowe said. "It should leave the audience on its feet, I hope."