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Concerto Caprice, Sting/ING Situations, Lost and Found
Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre
Filene Center, Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts
Vienna, Virginia, USA
August 24, 2004

By George Jackson
copyright © 2004 by George Jackson
published August 30, 2004

Mention the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre to Washington dancegoers who have memories going back 8 seasons and they'll recall a piece of Americana, a baseball ballet the company brought to Wolf Trap. No one, though, seems to remember much about the work, only that Patricia Wilde was artistic director then and people were surprised that this Balanchine alumna so wasted her dancers' time and that of the audience. This time, ahead of time, people were wondering whether Ms. Wilde's successor, Terrence S. Orr—known from his years as a leading character artist with American Ballet Theatre—was following in her footsteps. Two of the ballets for Wolf Trap would have scores by the rock star Sting. After so many failed attempts everywhere to do ballet to music other than that of the classical tradition, haven't company directors learned better? Ballet evolved to classical music and the kinship holds almost as much for modern dance despite some exceptions—Paul Taylor's "Company B" (with singing by the Andrews Sisters) and, to a degree, Twyla Tharp's "Sinatra Songs".

At the start of the program one could postpone thinking about Sting because Wolf Trap had commissioned a new work from what the printed program termed an emerging choreographer, Susan Shields. She is local, from the Washington area, and started out classical. After an apprenticeship with Mary Day's Washington Ballet, Ms. Shields danced in modern companies, but those of choreographers or directors who were balletically trained—Laura Dean, Lar Lubovitch, Mark Morris, Jacek Luminski, Mikhail Baryshnikov. Currently, she is on George Mason University's faculty.

Ms. Shields's choice of music was a winner, a rhythmically vivid concerto grosso that almost sounds 18th Century but is by a 20th Century American composer trained in Italy, Vittorio Giannini. The title of the new ballet, "Concerto Caprice", rings trite though the piece itself isn't. The first movement out of three is fleet, fresh, vivid. Twelve dancers are positioned in a rectangular formation, four people wide by three deep, with airy aisles between bodies. The number of women equals the number of men. Like the music, in which different instruments become prominent singly or in distinct combinations and then merge with the ensemble as others come to the fore, diverse dancers step into and out of the limelight. Ms. Shields is no copycat, but influences come to mind. Think of a triangle with corners consisting of Mr. Morris's bouncy musicality (as in "Gloria"), George Balanchine's formal sparkle (as in "Concerto Barocco") and Harald Lander's exhilerating sense of show-off (as in "Etudes"), then the "Concerto Caprice" choreography would be at the geometric center.

The second movement, an adagio, is too busy. There are entrances and exits galore. The purpose still is to highlight a succession of different soloists, but the effect is one of visual fragmentation. It is contrary to the music's slow and sustained flow. Perhaps, Ms. Shields might have avoided the distracting comings and goings if another influence had come into play—Leonide Massine's symphonic technique in which the dominant movement line is passed from one group of dancers to another and the initial dancers don't disappear but become subsidiary.

The Shields ballet's fast finale works well again, both visually and musically, even though it isn't as tight or bold as the beginning. All in all, I look forward to seeing this piece again and to the choreographer's future commissions. Janet Marie Groom's costumes, raspberry sorbet and white, and Barbara E. Thompson's stylish but unmannered lighting let one see the dance action clearly.

Sting's music sounds—to my ear—slick, shallow and unvaried. Although the choreography by Kevin O'Day for the second of the two pieces to Sting song collections was interesting enough that I could shut out the whiney-voiced musical renditions, there was little to recommend the first piece, Matjash Mrozewski's "Lost and Found". One section, a trio to just instrumental sound that was danced by two men and a woman, started developing. Then another man entered, the whining began and dance invention ceased. Mr. Morozewski was working in a balletic style but his step combinations were pedestrian, his dynamics tepid, his dramatics predictable. Some sort of visual story tied the songs together, with Erin Halloran as a knowing woman in a mauve gown, Jennifer Langenstein as a vulnerable innocent in a white dress and the yellow-clad Kaori Ogasawara as a heedless female among assorted males. Martha Graham told it better.

"Sting/ING Situations" isn't a ballet in the strict sense. Mr. O'Day uses a ballet modern base to do disco dancing. Bodies are loose, the movement intertwined, the mood is sullen at times, the effect raunchy. Adding to the sensuality are Mark Zappone's see-through costumes, generally black net above the waist and sheer black stretch cloth below. Much anatomy shows (though groins are covered, in some instances it is by an underlayer of prominent white). Good bodies are important to spinning out the movement sequences, and this company has them. There's more, though, than sexuality that's appealing about Mr. O'Day's work. He explores the approaches dancers take when working out and improvising, and also the mood swings that skew their physical logic.

By current standards, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's roster of 30 or so is remarkably uniform in size and shape. Trained by Marianna Tcherkassky (fomer Mary Day student and ABT principal, also Mrs. Orr) and Steven Annegarn (from Britain's Royal Ballet institutions) assisted by Dana Arey and Roberto Munoz, the dancers move as an ensemble. Maribel Modrono, who appeared in Ms. Shields's ballet, has a distinctive glamor.

Photos, all from Susan Shields's "Concerto Caprice," are by Scott Suchman

Originally published:
Volume 2, No. 33
August 30, 2004

Copyright ©2004 by George Jackson


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