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Kiesha Lalama-White's The Bench is a late highlight of the local dance season. 

click to enlarge Ahmad Simmons and Angela Dice in The Bench. - COURTESY OF DREW YENCHAK

From the rafters, a wooden park bench is lowered onto the stage. With it comes a story -- one that begins, as many stories do, with a man and a woman and the meeting of two hearts. 

In "The Encounter," the opening scene in choreographer Kiesha Lalama-White's The Bench, dancers Ahmad Simmons and Angela Dice meet during a mirthful group dance. Seated alone on the bench, the pair then move through an encapsulated courtship in which their passions and trepidations about committing to a relationship are played out in minutes. 

The scene, like the half-dozen others in The Bench, is an abridged step in the journey from falling in love and getting married to having kids and growing old. 

The Bench, a contemporary jazz-dance work in two acts, premiered at the Pittsbugh Playhouse this past Friday. The brilliantly crafted work is one of the best dance works Point Park University has produced and one of the best of Pittsburgh's 2009 dance season.

The Bench is set to an original jazz score by Lalama-White's cousin David Lalama, performed live by an ensemble of musicians including Grammy Award-winning saxophonist Ralph Lalama (who's also Lalama-White's cousin). Lalama-White, a Point Park University dance instructor, was named one of Dance Magazine's "25 to Watch" in 2009.

In The Bench, Lalama-White's sophisticated and clever choreography was showcased in first-act scenes like a bold and defiant solo by Dice in "The Decision," and a riveting and emotional duet between Simmons and dancer James Washington in "Parenthood." Such scenes showed the talented Lalama-White at the top of her game as a choreographer.

The work, performed adroitly by student members of Point Park's Conservatory Dance Company, integrated into each scene a "life lesson" in the form of a quotation from such famous figures as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, projected onto a stage curtain. 

Another constant was the bench, which served as a gathering place for the dancers, a refuge for some of the work's characters, and a place where cherished memories were made.

In the work's second act, Lalama-White showed she is equally adept at comedy. The couple, now married with grown children, hosts a dinner for the family that includes appearances by a pushy aunt, an amorous boyfriend and a doddering grandmother. Delivered like family snapshots, the characters at the dinner pause and pose in time with accents in Lalama's music, making for a delightful and humorous bit of theater and a highlight of the work.

The Bench concluded with two poignant scenes. In one, the couple coped with letting go of a daughter to marriage. In the other, they reached the end of their time on earth and left behind their children and their families to continue the cycle of life and family again.

 

Point Park University's Conservatory Dance Company performs The Bench 8 p.m. Fri., Dec. 18; 2 and 8 p.m. Sat., Dec. 19; and 2 p.m. Sun., Dec. 20. Pittsburgh Playhouse, 222 Craft Ave., Oakland. $18-20. 412-621-4445 or www.pittsburghplayhouse.com

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