Steel City Troupe Has Iron Grip on Demanding Program

By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 23, 2007

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre must have felt right at home as cold, wet winds made a surprise appearance at the Filene Center on Tuesday night at Wolf Trap -- but even if it felt like Steelers weather, there was good cheer onstage, where the dancers turned in solid performances in a trio of works that underscored this company's most remarkable quality: getting the job done.

The basics were covered. "Theme and Variations," one of George Balanchine's most eloquent and compelling arguments about the richness of classical ballet, was danced with a disciplined attention to form. There was style and sensitivity in Twyla Tharp's lovingly schmaltzy "Nine Sinatra Songs." And Dwight Rhoden's overlong "Smoke 'n Roses," whose chief reward was the live jazz band that accompanied it, got a crisp, workmanlike performance. Legs snapped skyward with just as much juice at the end as they had at vocalist Etta Cox's first buttery notes.

Missing, however, were the smaller details. "Theme's" impressive look -- glittering crystal chandeliers suspended above a stage full of regally arrayed ballerinas dripping with gems -- drew applause before the first step was danced. The leading pair, Erin Halloran and Christopher Budzynski, handled the considerable technical demands with assurance. Halloran is an especially striking dancer, a dark-haired beauty with nice feet and a simple and elegant way of moving her arms. Yet there was something detached about her performance, as if her mind were distant, or at least not as absorbed in the music as it was with perfecting the steps. One longed for more warmth and liveliness, more responsiveness to her partner and to Tchaikovsky.

Mind you, this is a relatively minor fault in the grand scheme of things. If technique is a given, I'll take an understated ballerina over a flagrantly off-key one. If the corps was a bit ragged toward the end of "Theme," at least the whole cast got the tone right, there as well as in the other works, which points to a strong rehearsal process. ("Theme" was staged by Artistic Director Terrence S. Orr, the former American Ballet Theatre principal dancer.)

Understatement found its way into "Nine Sinatra Songs," which was mostly a good thing, except for those parts that required more abandon. A few of the couples who swooned and tangled with each other could have used a little loosening up. Not Christine Schwaner and Christopher Bandy, who floated through the opening number, "Softly as I Leave You," which left the most vivid memory -- of pillowy softness and a note-perfect interpretation of a big, fat, sappily gorgeous love song. "Strangers in the Night" was also fine, with Patricia Hachey and Stephen Hadala engaging in a prickly tango, she doing most of the leading. "My Way" -- used twice and both times choreographed for multiple couples -- featured Tharp's best showboating, hitting all the emotional beats of the song with the soaring, razzmatazz lifts you might see in an ice-dancing show.

Could anyone stay stone-faced with all that going on? You'd think Tharp's sumptuous moves and Sinatra's well-traveled voice wouldn't fail to draw out each dancer's inner romantic. Nonetheless, a couple of sections of this work lacked fizz.

The dancers didn't have to worry about emotions in "Smoke 'n Roses," a new work by Rhoden, a choreographer of growing popularity who has created works for such companies as Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Miami City Ballet and the Joffrey Ballet. Rhoden's works generally possess a fast-paced fluency of movement, and this one was no different, though the five-piece jazz band added a fresh touch, and Cox's smooth, elastic voice was a show unto itself. The piece started off strong, with the dancers' response to Cox's edgy, desperate and increasingly rebellious vibe moving them through tight little explosions and mini-meltdowns and finally into grand-scale physical release. Release Rhoden-style means surgically clean extensions, staccato turns and wrenching abdominal crunches, all executed with cool, expressionless precision.

Yet ultimately, what seemed to stem from great feeling looked devoid of it. The dancers delivered with force. You registered the impact, but not much else.

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