The troupe's show this past Saturday, at the Byham, was extraordinary, with one exception.
The "extraordinary" part shouldn't be a surprise; the Pittsburgh Dance Council has a good track record, and this New York-based company -- though it's never played Pittsburgh before -- is renowned.
The troupe's founding artistic directors are both Alvin Ailey alumni, and the three-act show generally met the high expectations that lineage creates. The marvelously athletic dancers seamlessly combined ballet, jazz, African and modern dance -- even some Irish folk dance, and probably lots of stuff I didn't catch.
Act I was the first movement of a longer 2009 work titled Mercy. Aurally, it began with a long note from a church organ, prelude to an epic flood of spiritually infused imagery embodied by as many as 16 dancers at a time. With the stage blanketed by a patterned lighting grid, and a heavily collaged soundtrack (including bits of Handel's Messiah), it was actually a bit overwhelming, in a good way. Standout sequences included a solo by Desmond Richardson, set to audio of a preacher in full cry.
Richardson, by the way, is one of the troupe's co-founders; the other is Dwight Rhoden, who choreographed all but one of the evening's seven short works. Rhoden's also known here for his frequent work with Pittsburgh Ballet.
Act II highlights included "Momentary Forevers," an airy and abstract but still athletic duet, danced by Natiya Kezevadze and Juan Rodriguez to a clever soundtrack that joined a Handel piece to a John Cage composition. An excerpt of "Moody Booty Blues" for five dancers demonstrated that Rhoden is among the few choreographers who could combine blues music and ballet. And Rhoden's "Solo" (1998), danced by Richardson, was a brief but powerfully piece performed to music by Prince, its dark soulfulness enhanced by the red-lit stage.
All that would have made for a full and satisfying evening. But while I'm probably in the minority on this, I would been happier without "Rise," Rhoden's 25-minute work set to U2 songs.
Not that I dislike U2. In fact, it's somewhat the opposite: I can seldom abide dances choreographed to music I've heard 500 times. Especially if I like those songs, and especially if there are seven of those songs in a row. There's just too much mental topography there for a dance to fruitfully refashion.
I was also a little surprised by the choreography: As anyone who's seen his "Ave Maria" can attest, Rhoden's work can be deeply moving. (The PBT staged it here a couple months back.) And even this evening, until "Rise," I'd caught nary a whiff of cliché. So why, when Bono sings, "I'm still running," do we see dancers running across the stage? And why have dancers repeat the arm-pumping, jumping-up-and-down gestures we've seen a million times at rock concerts? I would have doubted even Rhoden could make something new of them, and "Rise" proved the point.