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Pittsburgh Ballet joins forces with August Wilson center

The boom in Pittsburgh dance collaborations took a big step forward Monday when Pittsburgh Ballet Theater and the August Wilson Center announced a partnership of at least three years in performance and education.

Last month, the ballet announced it would debut at the center in 2012, Feb. 8 through 12. Monday, it announced annual performances at the center will be ongoing, with dates already set for March 2013 and March 2014. Other joint efforts in performance being discussed include festivals and co-commissions of new works, according to ballet executive director Harris Ferris.

The agreement is "a step in our strategic plan to become the pre-eminent center for African-American culture," said the August Wilson Center's president Andre Kimo Stone Guest. The center already presents performances by touring dance groups and its own dance ensemble.

The new partnership serves the ballet's goals of increasing performance opportunities for its professional dancers and enriching the scope of its ballet school. Ferris said he wouldn't be surprised if ticket demand necessitated more than a single weekend of performances in the center's intimate 486-seat theater.

The program for the ballet's debut at the center will include a world premiere by choreographer Dwight Rhoden. He's founder and artistic director of Complexions Contemporary Ballet, which is based in New York City and performed on the Dance Council series in April 2010. In addition, the ballet has already performed seven of Rhoden's works. He said his new piece will be based on music by Johann Sebastian Bach and employ dancers from the ballet and the August Wilson Center Dance Ensemble.

The remainder of the program will include Pittsburgh Ballet's first performance of "Maelstrom," a work by living legend Mark Morris, and "Brahms' Quintet" by Dennis Nahat. Ballet artistic director Terrence S. Orr danced in American Ballet Theatre's premiere of Nahat's work in 1979.

The educational collaboration will create a continuum from "mommy and me" dance classes through to professional training, such as at Point Park University, according to Guest.

The August Wilson Dance Academy began in October 2010 and has 40 students in the current semester, which began in January. Greer Reed-Jones, who is director of the academy, the center's dance ensemble and of Dance Alloy Theater, said the academy has dancers as young as three.

"It's all about exposure," Reed-Jones said. She and the ballet school's co-director Marjorie Grundvig are passionate about starting early. "If you wait until 14 to decide you want to dance," Grundvig said, "you won't be a ballerina."

Television dance shows reflect the increasing popularity of dance, which fuels Reed-Jones optimism about demand for dance classes. "With Hines Ward, who we know as a football star, going on 'Dancing With the Stars,' " she said she's sure that "dance is going to become even cooler for boys and girls."

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