Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Pick of the Week - Pittsburgh Ballet Kicks Off 2015 Season with Trio of Landmark Ballets

A Scene from "Western Symphony" Photo Credit: Duane Rieder
    Today, when I opened an email from the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre I was shocked to hear of the passing of Loti Falk Gaffney, PBT’s founding board chair.
I had the pleasure of first meeting Mrs. Falk Gaffney at a time when she was married to industrialist and philanthropist, Leon Falk. I was just starting my writing career as a contributor to the "Pitt News," the student newspaper at the University of Pittsburgh. Assigned to write a piece on the ballet, I got to visit the PBT offices, where I first encountered Mrs. Falk Gaffney.
    I remember her sweet disposition, but most of all, that she had the most lustrous blue eyes I’d ever seen which gleamed and sparkled as though made of chiseled sapphire. I also recall taking two copies of the issue in which my article was published, scrolled them up, tied them with a red ribbon and sheepishly presented them to Mrs. Falk Gaffney and then PBT artistic director, Patricia Wilde.
    Both ladies accepted them graciously, and Mrs. Falk Gaffney even invited me to learn more about ballet by perusing the PBT library.
    On another occasion, I went backstage at Heinz Hall for a ballet performance one snowy winter’s evening and again saw Mrs. Falk Gaffney and her sparkling blue eyes. After we exchanged a few words, I left, and as I opened the door onto Penn Avenue, I was greeted by a big crash of thunder. Lightning in the dead of winter? Ever since, I always thought of her as having an "electric" personality that lie underneath her calm, cool demeanor.
This weekend, a video tribute to this most remarkable women produced by WQED will be play in the lobby of the Benedum Center before the performances and during intermission, and all three performances will be dedicated to her memory.
    Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre kicks off its 2015-2016 season with a triple bill program featuring world-class choreographers George Balanchine, William Forsythe and Jiri Kylián. Mixed Repertory #1 – featuring Balanchine’s "Western Symphony," Forsythe’s "In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated" and Kylián’s "Sinfonietta" – takes the stage Oct. 23-25, at the Benedum Center.
     "These are iconic choreographers who changed the face of modern-day ballet," said PBT Artistic Director Terrence S. Orr. "Each took a new approach to the traditional vocabulary to explore the boundaries of the human body and innovate on the classical aesthetic. This is an important step forward for our repertory and an energy-charged program for our audiences."
     The program samples three distinct approaches to classical technique. The mood moves from the rollicking "Western Symphony" to the high-octane "In the Middle Somewhat Elevated" and the free-spirited "Sinfonietta." The PBT Orchestra will accompany "Western Symphony" and "Sinfonietta" under the direction of guest conductor Benjamin Pope of the Royal Ballet of Flanders. "In the Middle Somewhat Elevated" is set to electronic music.
     Single tickets start at $28 and are available at www.pbt.org, by calling 412-456-6666 or visiting the Box Office at Theater Square. Groups of 10 or more can save up to 50% on tickets by calling 412-454-9101 or emailinggroupsales@pittsburghballet.org. Show times: 8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 23; 8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 24; and 2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 25.
Mixed Repertory #1:
  "Western Symphony"  featuring the PBT Orchestra
    George Balanchine’s high-spirited "Western Symphony" ventures into the frontier of classical ballet and American folk dance. With the women in frilly frocks and the men in kerchiefs and cowboy hats, the scene is a dusty Old West town where folks are ready for a night on the town. Balanchine commissioned American composer Hershy Kay, who orchestrated a symphony in four movements inspired by popular folk tunes, including "Red River Valley," "The Gal I Left Behind Me" and "Goodnight, Ladies."
    Despite its backdrop, "Western Symphony" is, in essence, a classical ballet. Rooted in traditional ballet vocabulary, the choreography alludes to the formations and gestures of American folk dance with playful twists on classic steps. According to Kay, Balanchine commissioned the score following a visit to Wyoming, and many recall his fascination in American themes and penchant for western apparel. The work is non-narrative, but does move through a series of vignettes fueled by charismatic lead couples.  From flirtatious one-upmanship to romance and whimsy, Balanchine develops character and charm but is sure to "let dance be the star of the show."
Scene from "In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated" Photo Credit: Duane Rieder

"In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated" 
    Electronic music drives  William Forsythe’s thrilling "In the Middle Somewhat Elevated."  The Guardian called this "the work that changed ballet forever… a high-voltage shock to the world of ballet that would spread far from the stage of the Opera Garnier."
The dancers feign a detached attitude, but the technique demands exacting, intensely physical execution. Forsythe describes the work as "a theme and variations in the strictest sense. Making use of academic virtuosity, it extends and accelerates these traditional figures of classical ballet." The minimalist set imparts a futuristic vibe. Yet, in a subtle a nod to the opulence of the Paris Opera where it premiered, two golden cherries hang – in the middle, somewhat elevated – from center stage.

"Sinfonietta" featuring the PBT Orchestra
Scene from "Sinfonetta" Photo Credit: Duane Rieder
 The mood turns to elation with Jiri  Kylián’s free-spirited "Sinfonietta."A work in five movements, "Sinfonietta" is a sweeping ensemble ballet inspired by Leoš Janácek’s score of the same name. "The sound of trumpets resounds in the air and a green field and blue sky beckon. Exhilaratingly, a flock of figures is released into space. These are, in fact, male dancers leaping on stage and they gallop in circles like wild horses. This dynamic image is the key to Jir? Kylián’s exultant choreographic style in Sinfonietta," wrote New York Times critic Anna Kisselgoff in the ‘90s.
     Featuring signature double duets and bold, evocative movement, the work strives to visualize the spirit of the "modern, free Czech." "Sinfonietta" was one of the Czech choreographer’s first works to meet resounding success in America. Kylián calls the work one of his most "innocent and spontaneous," choreographed in short order at a time of transition for Nederlands Dans Theater.
    According to Kylián, "The audience, which was present at the premiere in Charleston USA in the summer of  1978 was unable to hear the last "Fanfare" of the music, because they already stood on top of their chairs, cheering and throwing their program books into the air. This was the moment that totally changed NDT."
    About the Choreographers: 
    Russian-born choreographer George Balanchine (1904-1983) is widely regarded as the foremost contemporary choreographer in ballet. Referred to as "the father of American ballet," Balanchine created more than 400 works found in the repertoires of the world's major ballet companies.
Czech choreographer Jirí Kylián served as Nederlands Dans Theater artistic director for more than 20 years and continues to choreograph for the company today. He has created 72 ballets for NDT, and his entire body of work includes 92 creations for companies, including Stuttgart Ballet, Paris Opera, Swedish Television and the Tokyo Ballet.
William Forsythe, who is regarded as one of the most important current choreographers, danced with the Joffrey Ballet and Stuttgart Ballet, where he was appointed resident choreographer in 1976. After serving for 20 years as director of Ballet Frankfurt, he founded an independent ensemble, The Forsythe Company, in 2005.

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