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Point Park University's dance program took the right steps

| Thursday, Jan. 28, 2010

Success can be measured many ways, but its aura is unmistakable.

Point Park University's dance program, part of its Conservatory of the Performing Arts, has achieved national renown for the quality of its graduates. They often return to Pittsburgh as part of touring ballet companies, such as Les Ballets de Monte Carlo and Hubbard Street Dance, as well as Broadway musical theater shows like the Rockettes.

In September, Justin Myles from Mechanicsville, Md., returned in "Stomp." He graduated from Point Park in 2004 and says the dance program "stripped me down and built me back up."

"It definitely geared me up for stage performance," Myles says. "They have such an incredible curriculum and give you a great opportunity to perform on a monthly basis. College definitely made me a better, more well-rounded dancer. It prepared me mentally and physically for what to expect in the real world of entertainment and turned me into a kick-ass performer."

The hiring of dancer and choreographer Nicholas Petrov in 1967 was a decisive moment for Point Park's dance program. His vision led to vast expansion of the program, and to the birth of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre at Point Park in 1969.

Now Point Park auditions 900 to 1,000 aspiring dancers annually for less than 100 openings. There are 85 freshmen among 270 dance students for the 2009-2010 academic year. Fifteen auditions are held each year in Pittsburgh, Chicago, Atlanta, Toronto and sometimes Washington, D.C.

Moira Price auditioned for Point Park's dance program in D.C.

"My family is all mathematicians, but I never wanted to do anything else but be a dancer," she says. "Living in Annapolis, Md., between Baltimore and Washington, I knew I wanted to be in a big city. Reading 'Dance Magazine,' I saw Point Park was holding regional auditions in Washington and went."

Although she visited dance schools in New York City to audition, Point Park's regional audition process gave a very positive impression. When she was accepted by Point Park, she decided to come to Pittsburgh before she heard from the other schools to which she applied.

"I love the program," says Price, now in her junior year. "It's very demanding, but that's what you need if you want to be a performer. Point Park has a very large program in comparison with other schools, but I've never felt anonymous. The faculty makes it a point to know their students. It really feels like I'm part of a community."

Sometimes new students arrive with inadequate training, which is worked on right away.

"We emphasize correct execution so they don't become injured," says Susan Stowe, chair of the dance department. "We erase bad habits and rebuild their technique. We encourage them to branch out. Dancers who come having studied only one particular style have to open their minds up to all that's available."

The students work in the state-of-the-art dance studio, which opened in 2007.

Public student performances take place at Pittsburgh Playhouse in Oakland, but every spring, the student dancers perform at the Byham Theater, Downtown.

The curriculum offers concentrations in ballet, jazz or modern, although many students opt for dual concentration, according Stowe. Students are taught by 11 full-time and about 19 adjunct faculty. Eight semesters of technique class in the chosen concentration are required.

Studies also include related techniques, such as folk, character and tap, as well as theory and composition.

And because "music and dance go hand in hand," Stowe says, "we feel they need to be trained both musically and technically in dance."

Finally, the dance students learn the elements of backstage work. Basics of lighting and sound production are the most important, according to Stowe. Scenery and costumes also are touched upon.

One of Petrov's most important moves was to hire Ron Tassone in 1969 to start the jazz program.

"When I first got here, it was strictly a ballet school," Tassone says. "I was the one who said to Nick Petrov that not everybody can be in a ballet company or a modern dance company. Let's train them to make a living at it. Let's train for shows, movies, TV, cruise ships. So they let me build the curriculum for what was the first university in the U.S. to offer a jazz major in dance."

Tassone is a graduate of the Juilliard School in New York City, and upon graduation started at the top by being hired for the Broadway show "Gypsy." In all, he did eight Broadway shows, as well as film and television.

Legendary choreographer Jerome Robbins already knew Tassone's work when he arrived at the audition for "Gypsy." Tassone was told, "You don't have to dance. All you have to do is sing for the composer, Jule Styne." He had a signed contract the next day.

That's why Tassone encourages his students to study singing.

The result is that Tassone's Point Park students are highly competitive. At one point in the '80s, he had a student dancing in every major show on Broadway except "Les Miserables," and one of his students was stage manager of that hit.

He says students today pick up things faster now than they did when he started the program 35 years ago.

"As a matter of fact, when I take students to New York City I'm asked how I teach the kids to be so quick," he says. "It's because, every day, I do something different in class. They have to pick up a lyrical form as opposed to the faster forms."

Many Point Park dance students, such as Erin Harold from Stoneboro, Mercer County, speak with affection of individual teachers. Harold took a leave of absence from her senior year at Point Park this fall to join the Rockettes for their Christmas show that played this season in the Benedum Center, Downtown.

"One of my best decisions was to study Jazz Dance 1 as a first-term freshman with adjunct faculty member Maria Slutiak." Harold says. "She has been just unbelievable. She was always very involved with all of us. We've become very close and get together even when I'm not registered for her classes."

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