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Twyla Tharp, Dwight Rhoden shine at Pittsburgh Ballet

| Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The dancers of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre thrived on diverse challenges presented by two choreographers this weekend at the company's penultimate production of the season.

Two pieces by Twyla Tharp were completely modern in attitude, while Dwight Rhoden's staging of "Carmina Burana" embraced pagan antiquity with fresh perspectives.

Tharp's "Octet" was the stunning opening work in which four female and four male dancers show that elegance and athleticism can go hand in hand. The partnering ranges from outright rejection to cool partnering, with the men supportive of the women's often self-absorbed assertion.

The climax of "Octet" was breathtaking. Danielle Downey, Julia Erickson, Kristen Rusnak and Eva Trap went on point and percussively matched the speed of the music's subdivided beats. It wasn't just a burst, and it certainly wasn't a blur. It was far more impressive. The four women went back and forth and back and forth diagonally across the stage on a long and sustained flurry of steps that was as clear and precise as a virtuoso musical performance -- and just as breathtaking.

When Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre goes touring, Tharp's "Octet" should be on the short list of repertoire to showcase the company's excellence.

Tharp's "Known by Heart ('Junk') Duet" was a character study of droll humor in which an elegant woman and a guy from the street match up, or don't. It uses the classic form of a pas de deux, with solo dances in the middle.

Christopher Budzynski's solo was emotionally open, full of personality and another example of his mastery of stage-scale expression. Maribel Modrono's playfulness was ravishingly cooler.

The Pittsburgh premiere of Dwight Rhoden's take on Carl Orff's music for "Carmina Burana" was a big bold production. It seized attention right from the start -- as it must.

The curtain rose as the big chorus "O Fortuna" thundered out over loudspeakers and from the orchestra pit on a spectacular tableau. Under a huge four-leaf flower, the female goddess of fortune sat in a gigantic red dress, which trailed out to spokes on a wheel held by dancers.

Rhoden's inventiveness was striking on many levels. One of the ways Fortune's blessings shine is in love. Rhoden created simultaneous and very different duets performed on benches that it would take several viewing to absorb. He also had a striking realization of the song for a pig being roasted, and swept at the end to a powerful conclusion.

The interpretative options Rhoden declined were interesting, too. He did not treat the Barn Dance as a full company romp, with duets for contrast. He also departed more quickly from the ritualistic air of the opening than might have been expected.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre Orchestra played Orff's flamboyant music very well for conductor Charles Barker, who often kept the instrumentalists softer than ideal for practical reasons, although certainly defensible because of the composer's markings.

The amplification of the solo singers and Mendelssohn Choir was well handled at the control board. The Mendelssohn Choir will not be amplified when it performs "Carmina Burana" in February 2009 with Manfred Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.

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