They are the yin and yang of Pittsburgh dance, where the balance is always changing, the energies flowing back and forth. Texture Contemporary Ballet founder and artistic director Alan Obuzor seems to reflect, absorb and create, while associate artistic director Kelsey Bartman is unwaveringly bright and engaged.
But backstage at the New Hazlett Theater prior to a performance, it was obvious that those qualities also were in a state of flux, just like their 2-year-old company. There had been a change, with the normally exuberant Ms. Bartman more thoughtful and the usually reticent Mr. Obuzor more forthcoming.
But not in the dance.
Company members in rehearsal can do the same series of moves, without glancing in the mirror, without consulting each other.
But it's been that way from the start, when Ms. Bartman was in her first year around age 12 with Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School and Mr. Obuzor, at 16, had just joined the company. She became best friends with his sister Sarah and eventually Mr. Obuzor's "adopted" sister.
They started hanging out with a group of people, including dancer/composer Gabriel Smith. "All of us were really passionate about dance and art, creating new stuff, trying new things," recalled Mr. Obuzor. "We were just half joking, half talking and dreaming about one day putting together something big."
So they thought they would "put on a show," which snowballed faster than they expected. Ms. Bartman was able to accommodate the summer schedule, despite being with the Nashville Ballet. Then she got an offer from St. Louis Ballet, somewhat less convenient in terms of distance, and was faced with a decision.
The end result? "Texture was worth fighting for," she explained. "I didn't want to do strictly classical ballet. This was where I needed to be."
Apparently so did many other dancers, mostly alumni of PBT and Point Park University, but including others outside the state who heard about Texture. (Dance, even at the national level, is still a small community in many respects.)
They plunged ahead, not knowing if there would be two people or 200 in the audience. It has been, for the most part, exhilarating in "being able to do whatever you want," as Mr. Obuzor put it.
And while there have been ups and downs, the partnership has been solid. "He was one of my influences when I was in school," Ms. Bartman said. "He challenges me without having to say anything."
"Just go do it," Mr. Obuzor said is one of the company's inside jokes. When they try to describe something to each other, without success, the pair often resort to moving and discover, "Oh, that's what you wanted!"
Often in the process, he does a step, she does a step. He does something and she changes it and vice versa. Occasionally, when they want to do something different, they compromise. But in the end, they frequently can't remember who did what.
That probably won't matter on their upcoming program at the New Hazlett, "There's Something About Fontina." The title comes from another inside joke about the dairy-obsessed dancers, who have a particular craving for Fontina cheese. As Ms. Bartman laughs, "We noticed that if we eat a lot of cheese and don't sleep much, we get the most creative -- it's a recipe for brilliance!"
Maybe Mr. Obuzor was munching away for his new work, "Can Reality Acutely Create Knowledge?" with music by Max Richter and others. The dancers will wear socks instead of pointe shoes. He simply noted that "I wanted to create something a little different from what I usually do."
On the other hand, Ms. Bartman chose two "knee plays" (as in the connecting joints or interludes) from Philip Glass' "Einstein on the Beach," saying that this abstract work will be a more balletic departure from her "quirky and wonky" stylings.
In addition to Jamie Murphy and Renee Smith's premiere, "Accidentally," there will be three short works from both artists. "Ice Ice," with music from Mr. Smith, will feature dancers with one pointe shoe and one combat boot (jokes intended) and "Not While I'm Around" from "Sweeney Todd." And they will put the cap on "Ode to Divorce," which Ms. Bartman began in Nashville but never completed.
It's all part of the dream or a reaction to all that cheese. Ms. Bartman likens classical ballet to the Mona Lisa. "People will always love it," she says. "And you should always go see it. But people like how we are molding ballet into something different like abstract paintings."
Adds Mr. Obuzor, "I love ballet and it will go on forever. But it's also important to change the word ballet in people's heads so it's what they don't necessarily expect."