Good Vibes Permeate Inaugural ‘Open Air’ Artist Showcase [REVIEW]

Jil Stifel in “The Secret of Hiding”. Photo by Anita Buzzy Prentiss.

OPEN AIR SERIES 2021 Artists Showcase
Curated by Richard Parsakian
Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre Stage at Flagstaff Hill
Schenley Park, Pittsburgh PA
May 20, 2021


Reviewed by Steve Sucato

Terpsichorean Richard Parsakian’s curated dance showcase for Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s inaugural Open Air Series followed a similar format to his highly successful Pittsburgh Pride dance showcases of years past.  A stylistic variety of small dance works from ten mostly local artists or those with ties to Pittsburgh, meant there was likely something for everyone in the audience.

Vanessa German. Photo by Anita Buzzy Prentiss.

In sweltering conditions on Thursday afternoon, May 20, the showcase opened not with a dance work, but with Citizen artist Vanessa German’s impassioned spoken word message of love for the independent artist. “Fly the sky artists,” exuded German to an appreciative audience of fellow artists and arts supporters.

Next, Pittsburgh’s comeback kid (at heart) Nick M. Daniels who resurfaced from a 20-year hiatus several years ago to begin performing again, continued with his current string of dramatic solo works with an excerpt from his latest, “Contrapasso”.

Wearing a theatrical mask and in a long teal dress, Daniels performed to a slow operatic music by Vivaldi. Daniels’ simple, determined choreography and performance of it, relied less on skilled movement technique and more on operatic drama of which Daniels embraced nicely and that proved the somewhat raw solo’s saving grace.

Nick Daniels in “Contrapasso”. Photo by Anita Buzzy Prentiss.
Dancers in Jennifer Keller’s “Second Thoughts”. Photo by Anita Buzzy Prentiss.

Switching stylistic gears, Slippery Rock University Dance Department Chair and longtime area dancer/choreographer Jennifer Keller’s “Second Thoughts” (2018) featured an all-female quartet of former Slippery Rock dancers including Maddison Manolis and Alison Vitale Co-Artistic Directors of contemporary dance troupe, MVment.

The contact improvisation modern dance work to recorded percussive music by Aphex Twin performed by Alarm Will Sound, was a sequence of small dancer poses separated by runs and lifts. Keller’s somewhat academic movement phrases for the women traveled back and forth and up and down PBT’s raked stage at steady pace. The dancers’ solid performances and the work overall proved pleasing.

The showcase’s mixed bag of dancer and choreographic talent continued with former Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company dancer Antonio Brown’s fledgling company, Antonio Brown Dance. The lone import in the showcase, Brown’s New York-based troupe performed his trio, “The Three of Us”.  Danced to a foot-tapping music compilation put together by Brown, the piece took off in fits, starts, kicks and spins punctuating in movement sounds contained within the soundtrack. Brown’s unison choreography like Keller’s before was also characterized by dancers stopping to pose in mini tableaus throughout.

Antonio Brown Dance in “The Three of Us”. Photo by Anita Buzzy Prentiss.
Jil Stifel in “The Secret of Hiding”. Photo by Anita Buzzy Prentiss.

In Jil Stifel’s solo “The Secret of Hiding”, the bright-eyed veteran performer in a yellow dress, followed the instruction of a voiceover to direct her dancing. She walked, spun, took to the stage floor, and engaged in animated arm movements. “What’s your definition of love?”, the recorded voice asked. Stifel answered with a delightfully quirky solo that brought a bit of love to those watching.

While this first Open Air Series showcase contained many fine performances and a heaping helping of good vibes, its gem turned out to be Point Park University graduate Kaylin Horgan’s “The Night Says There’s a Sunrise in Your Eyes”. Horgan, who is also a dancer with Antonio Brown Dance, chose for this showcase instead of performing, to further spread her choreographic wings. Having seen prior works of hers, this latest effort is a meaningful leap forward in her progression as a dancemaker.

Danced to music Denver-based band Born in the Flood, the beautifully crafted contemporary/modern dance work for six performers spread out over the stage in a relaxed unfolding of bodies that stretched into back bending and joyously slow writhing movement that just looked and felt right. While adroit performances were turned in by the entire cast, dancer Cecilia Benitez, another Point Park dancer, captivated with her smooth dancing and illuminating stage presence.

Kaylin Horgan’s “The Night Says There’s a Sunrise in Your Eyes”. Photo by Anita Buzzy Prentiss.
James Gilmer in “Untitled for You”. Photo by Anita Buzzy Prentiss.

Pittsburgh-native and company member with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, James Gilmer returned home in the new solo “Untitled for You”, created for him by Antonio Brown. Danced to the recorded song “Cucurrucucu Paloma” sung by Gilmer, the quiet solo had Gilmer swaying and swirling his arms as well as engaging in bendy floorwork. Hastily put together for this showcase, “Untitled for You” needed a bit more development and rehearsing to properly showcase Gilmer’s talent.

After James Washington Manning’s diva attitude-inspired work “Launch” for a strutting quartet of powerful women, former Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre star Julia Erickson’s latest piece “Mutual Arising” took the stage.

Dancers in James Washington Manning’s “Launch”. Photo by Anita Buzzy Prentiss.
Hope Formica and Abbey Klinger in Julia Erickson’s “Mutual Arising”. Photo by Anita Buzzy Prentiss.

A duet for dancers Hope Formica and Abbey Klinger in floor-length skirts and towering hair buns dancing to the song “Faith’s Hymn” by Beautiful Chorus, the women leaned and flowed across the stage falling into embraces in a steady stream of supportive movement looking like some tai chi ballet in its calming beauty.

Dancers in Danny Herman and Rocker Verastique’s “Benny”. Photo by Anita Buzzy Prentiss.

Concluding the showcase was Broadway veterans and Point Park dance faculty members Danny Herman and Rocker Verastique’s jazz dance spectacle “Benny”. In it, fifteen beaming and energetic dancers ripped through Herman and Verastique’s choreography to Benny Goodman music filled with the usual Broadway jazz tropes, Fosse arms, jazz hands, head rolls, shuffles, and finger snapping. Basking in the work’s delightful cliché, the audience ate up the production number and rewarded it, and Parsakian’s Open Air Artist Showcase, with enthusiastic applause.

Steve Sucato is a former dancer turned arts writer/critic. He is Chairman Emeritus of the Dance Critics Association and Associate Editor of ExploreDance.com.