Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre excels in mixed-repertory 'Uncommon'

Ballet review

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What was not to love about Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's succulent dance foray among the hallmark composers known as the three B's -- Bach, Beethoven and Brahms? Called "Uncommon," it wasn't a full-length theatrical production, but in many respects was a more massive undertaking.

Perhaps the best balanced mixed-repertory program PBT artistic director Terrence Orr has produced during his tenure here, "Uncommon" produced an evening of firsts, with two local premieres, Mark Morris' first PBT ballet, "Maelstrom," and Dennis Nahat's "Brahms Quintet" -- plus a world premiere, Dwight Rhoden's "Chromatic."

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's 'Uncommon'

Where: August Wilson Center, Downtown.

When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday.

Tickets: $50; 412-456-6666 or www.pbt.org.

It was also the initial performance of a new three-year partnership in which PBT will perform annually at the August Wilson Center. Lastly, the audiences could luxuriate in the live accompaniment by members of the PBT orchestra in a chamber music setting that was all that and more.

The appeal of it all came by watching how each choreographer visualized the music and translated it into dance. Mr. Nahat was inspired by the Americans landing on the moon in 1969, but strangely set his ballet to Brahms' String Quintet in G Major, a difficult work marked by dicey intonation from the musicians. Although the piece had some soft lifts and airy ballerina "walks" resembling a lunar landscape, it actually connected better with Brahms' original intent. Though he produced it at the end of a productive career, the work relishes the vivaciousness of youth.

How else to explain the whizzing chaine turns and ebullient Hungarian folk inflections in the finale? Or the fussy chiffon costumes that might have been meant as a colorful nebula pattern, but read as a floral design on stage?

It was a pleasant enough piece, sometimes marred by Mr. Nahat's penchant for directional changes that interrupted the dancers' (and Brahms') sense of urgency. But the rest of the program soared.

I found it oddly comforting how both Mr. Morris and Mr. Rhoden were indelibly wedded to the inner workings of the music and how successful they both were with such different outcomes.

The PBT dancers seemed to feel at home right from the start in "Maelstrom," which had, as the title indicated, whirling streams of movement. Although they have become familiar as individuals over the seasons, I saw not those dancers here, moving so effortlessly, but the dance itself.

Beethoven planned the first movement of his "Ghost" trio to be part of an opera he was penning based on Shakespeare's "Macbeth" (as in the three weird sisters). But in this early work created for San Francisco Ballet in 1994, Mr. Morris seemed to be inspired by the middle section of Beethoven's "Ghost" trio, where the music was at its most ethereal.

In fact, numerous fragments of romantic ballet, particularly "Giselle," permeated it: gossamer bourrees for the women, an occasional hand furtively brushing the brow and sustained "Wili"-like arabesques. For good measure, the men sometimes fell to the ground much like Giselle's paramour, Albrecht.

The dancers straddled all full-length ballet worlds, seen in the burgundy and beige costumes that gave off both an aristocratic, peasant and, yes, slightly ghostly vibe, as Mr. Morris' wicked smart sense of humor unfolded as a thing of beauty.

You could say that Mr. Rhoden was also initially inspired by a central composition in "Chromatic," a direct title reference to the futuristic improvisational display, at once florid and structured, by the harpsichord in Bach's Fantasia.

This piece was a brilliant deconstruction of Bach's life, times and music, certainly the best we've seen from Mr. Rhoden in seven ballets for PBT over more than a decade. He has always had a singular vision for the movement, spilling over with unbridled imagination and physical hunger, eager to explore a new destiny for dance.

Now he is editing that plethora of ideas with a sure hand. So where Mr. Morris' choreography depicted the dance like liquid lava and sprinkled the music in multiple spurts over many body parts, Mr. Rhoden was lean and mean, layering his movement in broad linear phrases despite devilish tempi, which the musicians, particularly dueling keyboardists Yoland Collin (piano) and Marc Giosi (harpsichord) easily mastered.

Alejandro Diaz dynamically conjured up the opening -- part conductor, part courtly Baroque gentleman, part hip-hop mogul. The rest of the ballet would continue that alluring mix, maintaining both a historic connection and contemporary overlay, with terrific jazz play on Bach's syncopations. And it stood up to different interpretations, with soloist Elysa Hotchkiss so fluid and sweeping in a breakout role that worked beautifully on opening night Friday, and equally well with Julia Erickson's fierce angularity on Saturday.

The dancers were stylishly clad in Christine Darch's pastel striped unitards while Michael Korsch's hazy lighting was pierced with heavenly rays, playing on the dancers and rendering them, as Martha Graham liked to attest, acrobats of God.

Former Post-Gazette critic Jane Vranish: jvranish1@comcast.net . She also blogs at pittsburghcrosscurrents.com. First Published February 7, 2012 5:00 AM


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