Pittsburgh Ballet Theater makes 'Uncommon' debut at Wilson Center

| Sunday, Feb. 5, 2012

Pittsburgh Ballet Theater made its debut last week at the August Wilson Center with a program fittingly called "Uncommon." In presenting three non-narrative ballets by three outstanding choreographers in chronological order, the last a world premiere, the program offered convincing evidence of an art form progressing.

The performance began with Dennis Nahat's "Brahms' Quintet," which was first performed in 1969 by American Ballet Theatre in New York City. Johannes Brahms is an uncommon choice for a ballet composer. Although he wrote many Hungarian dances and waltzes, his rhythms are usually more subtle and varying than typical for dance. Nahat fell in love with Brahms' String Quintet No. 2 in G minor accidentally, by putting on the wrong side of an LP record.

Nahat's piece is testimony to his loving perception. An apt, simple gesture, such as straight arms extending to the sides for a strong cadence, exemplified one winning aspect. Even more impressive was the third movement duet, in which Nahat was able to match Brahms' very subtle blend of feelings. Christine Schwaner and Yoshiaka Nakano were the sensitive partners at Saturday afternoon's performance.

The ballet was written for principal dancers. Orr's decision to cast members of the corps de ballet in some solo roles was not only good for their development. It was also vindicated in performance.

The premiere of "Maelstrom" by Mark Morris was given by San Francisco Ballet in 1994. He one the most celebrated choreographers of our time, famous for his imagination and musicality.

"Maelstrom" is set to Ludwig van Beethoven's Piano Trio in D minor, Op. 70 No. 1. Morris uses 14 dancers arranged as 7 couples in a remarkably fluid texture of movement that fits the music like a slipper. It includes many wonderful touches, such as flutter-step on pointe with the feet widely separately rather than the more common feet closely together. In the slow movement, he makes bold use of space that spanned the stage and also focused on dense groups of dancers to convey the haunting qualities of the music.

The world premiere of Dwight Rhoden's "Chromatic" capped the stimulating afternoon of dance. He's the founding artistic director of Complexions Contemporary Ballet in New York City. His work is well-known locally for the many excellent pieces he's created for Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre. Pittsburgh Dance Council presented his company in April 2010.

Rhoden's choreography for "Chromatic" is both dynamic and supple. It includes what he calls "curlicues," which correspond to the short patterns of notes Johann Sebastian Bach used as compositional cells. Rhoden doesn't Mickey Mouse Bach. The choreographer creates a fresh counterpoint that adds his inventive accents and contemporary attitudes and gestures to lines in motion. The sheer variety of inventive arm and shoulder language was striking, and at times, even humorous.

All the music was performed live in the theater's pit and amplified through speakers on the side of the stage. The musical performances were mostly excellent, with pianist Yolland Collin wand cellist Elisa Kohanski most superb. But the risks of live performance were present, too. Violin intonation went uncomfortably sharp for a while at the end of the first movement of the Brahms.

"Uncommon" will be repeated at the?August?Wilson?Center?for African American Culture, Downtown, at 2 p.m. Sunday and Feb. 12; 7:30 p.m. Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday; and 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday. Admission: $50. Details: 412-456-6666 or www.pbt.org .

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