Conservatory Dance members Erin Kouwe, left, and Zachary Kapeluck perform Toru Shimazaki's "Bardo."
By Jane Vranish Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
You might say that Point Park University's Conservatory Dance Company had a heavy history tutorial, as it spanned 40 years from Balanchine to "Bardo" during its annual sojourn across town to the Byham Theater. But the students learned their lesson well.
They were able to immerse themselves in the masters during a classically driven first half Thursday night, beginning with George Balanchine's "Valse Fantaisie." The iconic ballet choreographer actually toyed with Mikhail Glinka's music several times over the course of his career. This was the 1967 version, a pink confection featuring a buoyant cast led by Alaina Gergerich and Hank Hunter.
Because the Point Park dance program prides itself on its versatility, these ballet dancers were not drenched in the Balanchine style. But they had the wonderful uptick that the waltz affords and produced the company's most successful foray into the Balanchine idiom yet.
Bill T. Jones, however, may not be considered classical by any means. But this 1989 excerpt from "D-Man in the Waters" used Felix Mendelssohn's "Octet," and it proved to be a classic in its own right.
It's been easy to forget how musical Mr. Jones is, given his most recent highly successful forays into theatrical dance (the Lincoln-esque "Fondly Do We Hope ... Fervently Do We Pray," the Broadway hit "Fela!") and as a 2010 Kennedy Center honoree on his way to becoming a true dance treasure. But there is still an undeniable life force that permeates all of his work.
"D-Man" was created in response to the AIDS crisis of the time yet was filled with a jubilant air of hope. The images were plentiful -- a repeated eagerness to get to the front of the line, comforting support for those who softly faltered and occasional swimming about, of course.
But I loved the way it afforded these dancers, so often choreographically tapped simply for their high-bounding energy, a chance to display a wellspring of movement qualities -- tenderness, lyrical, reflective, a quiet joy, all within the numerous helter-skelter pleasures of Mr. Jones' resplendent vision.
For a student cast (and it was hard to remember that at times) who literally dove into the movement, this was a well-nigh perfect performance. It was also mindful of the fact that Mr. Jones, who is HIV-positive, is thankfully still with us.
"D-Man" was a hard act to follow, and maybe Trey McIntyre's "Blue Until June Suite" (2000) suffered a little as a result. But he is still in great demand for his brand of ballet, one that wears its heart on its sleeve and has a distinctly American spirit.
Set to music by Etta James, Mr. McIntyre's blend of ballet and the blues received an unbounded emotional rendering from the cast, ardently led by Lauren Blakeney, Elise Ritzel and John Lizler.
Given all that came before, it was inevitable that the sweeping landscape of Toru Shimazaki's "Bardo" (2008) would conclude the program. This was contemporary dance with a right-between-the-eyes impact.
The Japanese definition of "bardo" means the intermediate state between two lives on Earth -- death and one's next birth. Either that state is a constantly shifting, even chaotic limbo, or this powerful piece was designed as a showcase for the stunning lighting design executed by Josh Monroe.
With the lighting alternating between white heat and warm earth tones, it conveyed the duality of the theme as 10 dancers lashed and slashed in group formation. Next Erin Kouwe lay twitching in a rectangle of light, where she was joined by Zachary Kapeluck in the first of two duets. Ms. Kouwe defined mercurial, using both weight and fluidity in effortless fashion, while Mr. Kapeluck responded with a muscular sensuality.
"Bardo" itself began to assemble like an Indian knot, moving back and forth, rising and falling as it began to form a sculptural density. And when it all exploded and Ms. Kouwe began walking into her next life, it could also be interpreted as a transitional symbol for these students, whether it be a future dance career or simply the next dance.
Yes, the dance. Perhaps for the first time at the Conservatory Dance Company, viewers were able to see much of the choreography for what it was intended and a tribute to these young dancers and a new standard of professionalism.