Philly fringe: ‘Gala’ rouses the crowd with both pro dancers and wannabes

Updated: September 14, 2016 — 3:36 PM EDT

by Merilyn Jackson, For The Inquirer

Jerome Bel’s Gala, opened Tuesday night at the Prince Theater as part of the FringeArts festival, with 20 people of every size, shape, age, gender who gave a dance performance that brought the audience to its feet, demanding four curtain calls. Sure, there were some ringers, former Pennsylvania Ballet Dancer, Anne White, contemporary dancer/choreographer, Megan Bridge, and, I suspect, smashing Latino dancer, Edgardo Colon, along, perhaps, with another few. A couple of young boys knocked every one’s socks off but their own. One was boy wonder, Tristan Price, Bridge’s son.

I was reluctant to review a show that included non-professional dancers. It doesn’t seem fair. But each of them was game and put out marvelous individuality in Bel’s loosely structured show.

A sandwich board off to the side announces each section. The first, “Ballet,” required each to do a ballet relevé tour, a simple full turn with one foot in demi-point and the other bent and pointed at the knee. Solo grand jetés followed. Some could and some couldn’t, but oh my, the grit and spirit of the dancer made each attempt delightful.

Although wheelchair user Delano Turnipseed could not accomplish these feats, he did not let his spinal-cord injury impede his pleasure in being part of this cast. In the next section, his upper-body strength and movement showed that not only is he fit, but he must have cut one cool figure on the dance floor before his injury and still does. In the section called “Bow,” Turnipseed, rolled his wrist toward the audience in a courtly manner.

Once the “Company” section began, all the dancers onstage together followed the lead of a solo dancer. The young Price led the company in his dance to David Bowie’s Space Oddity, even succeeding in a step up a wall. A Cambodian dancer led the group in a graceful floor-based pose using her hands and fingers. Rhythmic Twirler, Helen Gassmann brought hilarious mayhem as batons whirled up into the flies and even the best of the dancers missed most of their catches. But she never missed hers.

I wish I knew the name of the woman who brought the house down with her version of New York, New York, turned into Philly, Philly. She even had the kids tossing off some odd piece of clothing. It was a most joyous not-to-be missed tanzmesse.

‘Firebird’ leaps in, bringing heat and light

By Merilyn Jackson FOR THE INQUIRER

Posted: June 09, 2003


Photo Paul Kolnik

Pennsylvania Ballet Principal Dancer Arantxa Ochoa in Kudelka’s Firebird

If you’d like to know how Serge Diaghilev’s spectacular Ballets Russes might have looked, see choreographer and artistic director of National Ballet of Canada James Kudelka’s Firebird at the Academy of Music this week.

No single American ballet company could afford anything as sumptuous. But with Canada’s visionary funders and a consortium of the Houston Ballet and American Ballet Theater (ABT), Kudelka has created a wondrous ballet that would have made Diaghilev jealous. ABT has yet to perform it in New York, making this its East Coast premiere.

When it opened Friday evening, the appearance of the Pennsylvania Ballet’s Firebird magically broke the spell of gloom that’s been hanging over Philadelphia. And with Lila York’s radiant Concerto 488 crisply preceding it, inside the theater it was a Mozart spring and a Stravinsky rebirth of the world.

The Royal Danish Ballet premiered Concerto 488 in 2001; this is its American debut. The dance bloomed to a deeply felt reading of a Mozart piano concerto by Martha Koeneman with the orchestra of the Pennsylvania Ballet, conducted by Beatrice Jona Affron.

A former Paul Taylor dancer, York filled her choreography with canon-like phrasing and divertimenti to complement the music. A trio of trios swiftly broke into solos, duets and larger combinations. On Friday, David Krensing gave his lead solos a debonair flair. In Saturday’s matinee cast, lead soloist Alexei Borovik put more air under his outstretched legs in mid-leap, but early on both dancers had near-slips in the same section of the stage.

Francis Veyette and Christine Cox, dancing superbly throughout, melted my heart with their soulful duet. When the insouciant Jennifer Smith playfully distracted Veyette, Cox left and Brian Debes joined them; Veyette exited and Debes and Smith melted into more soulfulness, but then Cox reentered and they all had a carefree trio of souffle-light lifts. The beautiful patternings make this a great neo-romantic ballet.

Friday’s performance was marred by lighting brownouts. But by Saturday, John Hoey’s lighting achieved what we sorely crave: the lingering twilight of a late spring day, the last blaze of sun before it blinks away.

At the finale, the fairytale Firebird, who rescues a dark kingdom from its oppressor, gave us the more dazzling blaze of a glorious sunrise. Firebird Arantxa Ochoa’s fragility was heart-stopping. Kudelka poured his best choreography into her role and lightly derided Swan Lake with a line dance of the Princesses.

Princess Vasilisa leapt and turned winsomely in the restrictive bustles the princesses wore over their gauze leggings (all by costumer Santo Loquasto). Kastchei the Deathless – whose evil spell has petrified his knights – had stylized movement reminiscent of Egyptian hieroglyphs. Krensing, on Saturday, brought out his dourness.

Tara Keating as Kastchei’s wife and Yosbel Delgado as the General engaged in a conspiratorial dance just before the Prince recalled the Firebird to rescue him from Kastchei’s grip. The apotheosis came as the Firebird showed Kastchei his death in a dream.

The orchestra’s reading of Stravinsky’s score lacked luster. When the “Danse Infernale” began – the thunderous theme that heralds the end of Kastchei – the tuba and trombones gave it no breath at all.

Pennsylvania Ballet’s artistic director Roy Kaiser, who engaged Kudelka to set the piece on the company, deserves kudos for the programming and casting of both works. Concerto’s soft blue costumes, billowing white curtained wings and lyricism, contrasted radically with Firebird’s brilliant, jewel-toned costumes, opulent scenery and greatly varied dance.

This is the way to put on ballet – the way Diaghilev would have dared.

Pennsylvania Ballet Performs James Kudelka’s The Firebird and Lila York’s Concerto 488 through Saturday at the Academy of Music, Broad and Locust Streets. Tickets: $19 to $92. Information: 215-893-1999 or

Wolf-in-Skins, a feast of primal song and dance

20130129_inq_dm1wolf29z-aANDREW JORDAN

Jordan Isadore, Steven Zarzecki, and Matthew Flatley in the dance-opera collaboration “Wolf-in-Skins,”

Merilyn Jackson, For The Inquirer Published Tuesday, January 29, 2013, 1:08 AM

A full moon soared diagonally across the stage backdrop at Temple’s Conwell Theater Friday night for the opening of Wolf-in-Skins. Hounds and wolves bayed; the hair on my neck prickled. The animals loped in on all fours, knuckles fisted like paws. From the opposite fly, three consorts of the prince regent of Annwfn (Gwyn ap Nudd, a stag) danced across in vertical contrast, often in relevé. Their breasts were cupped loosely in petals, their diaphanous empire-waist tutus flared by acrylic. This tale, drawn from pre-Christian Celtic mythology, takes place when man and beast mated and procreated, if only in myth.

Wolf-in-Skins is the brainchild of choreographer Christopher Williams in collaboration with composer Gregory Spears, and this was but a preview – Act I of six, and a short excerpt of Act II. Terry Fox, director of Philadelphia Dance Projects, laudably brought this huge project to Philadelphia on her shoestring budget.

Not since the gang rape by antlered men in Tomasz Wesolowski’s Rite of Spring in Warsaw have I seen costumes and movement this primal and erotic. Williams staged an equally savage disrobing of Bleiddwen, Kira Rae Blazek, by the hounds of the stag, Burr Johnson. Johnson is a peerless Gwyn ap Nudd, his anguished, serpentine torso undulating in conflicted seduction of Bleiddwen even as he is banishing her for loving “the flesh of men.” Bleiddwen has whelped three bastard sons by Gwydion, the nephew of King Math; now she is turned into a she-wolf Gwydion cannot recognize.

Geoff McDonald conducted Spears’ postminimalist, early music-influenced scorean for a small ensemble and a four-voice “Greek chorus” singing in polyphonic harmonies, with soprano or countertenor breakouts. Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek and Anthony Roth Costanzo gave voice to Bleiddwen and her son Gwrgi. Matthew Flatley danced Gwrgi until he changed into a human who serves the king as a footman, at which point Costanzo took the role in a tour-de-force of movement, acting, and singing.

The great Caitlin Scranton, seen here in 2010 in Lucinda Childs’ Dance, and again in excerpts of Williams’ Saints project in 2011, is one of Gwyn ap Nudd’s consorts. Six Philadelphia dancers danced the roles of courtesans and mock courtesans in this cast of 30.

Even without the puppets and additional acts to come, Williams has realized his intention to create a Gesamtkunstwerk – a total synthesis of the arts. With lighting by Joe Levasseur, set design by Michael Wang and Tom Lee, and sensational costumes by Ciera Wells, Carol Binion, and Andrew Jordan, it’s a visual feast. If dance is looking for new directions, I say one way to go is on this lush, sensual, and primal path.

Senegal, Japan fused into dance

Posted: April 28, 2008

Japanese-born Kota Yamazaki started his dance company, Fluid hug-hug, not long after moving to New York in 2002. Last year, he won a Bessie Award with Germaine Acogny for choreographing FAGAALA on Compagnie Jant-Bi, which Acogny directs in Senegal.

Interested in researching Butoh, a post-World War II performance art, Acogny visited Japan in 2000, met Butoh-master Yamazaki, and invited him to work with her. He visited three times, teaching her dancers Butoh techniques and immersing himself in Senegalese dance traditions.

Rise:Rose, which also resulted from that research, received its Philadelphia premiere Friday and Saturday at the Painted Bride. Yamazaki danced with Michou Szabo and Mina Nishimura to make a short but engrossing evening of fusion dance fathered by the often grotesque and mysterious Butoh, but mothered by traditional and ancient African steps.

The concerts were the culmination of a four-week residency exchange between Charles Anderson and Yamazaki hosted by the Bride called trxfr->transfer. Anderson’s dancetheatre X performed Yamazaki’s In-Ou on the weekend of April 18.

Szabo and Nishimura danced with intense focus, but Yamazaki is definitely the fluid in the company. His solos were pure mastery. Like the dancers in the piece he choreographed for Anderson’s company the previous week, he moved his body in Butoh-gone-manic ways, flinging limbs about as if he had no joints.

Also effective was a trio started by Nishimura and joined by the two men in a diagonal line behind her. Marching mechanically, they created striking rhythms by stomping their feet but barely moving out of place.

Yamazaki made excellent musical choices from several sources. A 1970s piano piece by Gavin Bryars, “White’s SS,” inspired the most lyrical beauty. Szabo and Nishimura crawl stealthily like feral animals stalking prey, but instead of pouncing, melt into the floor.

Stephen Crawford designed the spare set with a large, cloud-like canopy of crushed paper suspended on one side. In another corner, water dripped slowly into a pan filled with blazing-red flowers. Depending on the lighting, it could be fire or water. So counting the floor as the earth, Yamazaki represented all the ancient elements and seemed to be saying, whether we are Japanese, African or any ethnicity: These are the elements that motivate all of us.

A World Of Dance Styles Comes Together Here

June 18, 1999|By Merilyn Jackson, FOR THE INQUIRER

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