MAC Ballet fills Pittsburgh dance void

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Two local dancers fill a void in the Pittsburgh professional dance world, forming a new ballet company offering Pittsburgh dancers a reason to stay in the area.

Introducing the Mid-Atlantic Contemporary Ballet Company (MAC Ballet), a collaboration between co-directors, Gerard Holt and Miriam Scigliano.

Holt, a former Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre dancer, didn’t initially choose dance as his first profession. As a preadolescent, Holt was considering a career in acting, but his parents told him to broaden out and think larger. Cautioned to be more versatile in the entertainment industry, he was told, “You can’t just act. You need to develop other abilities.”

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DANCE ANYONE?—Gerard Holt co-artistic director has Danielle Shearer from Shaler and Elizabeth Doyle of Allison Park stretch before practicing a new routine. (Photos by J. L. Martello)

Born and raised in Hartfort, Conn., Holt enrolled in dance classes at the local community center, in where the North End Dance Troupe offered classes. That is where he was exposed to instructors from the Dance Theater of Harlem, Connecticut Dance Theater and the Hartford Ballet. “My first summer scholarship was to the Dance Theater of Harlem at the age of 12. When I came back home to Hartford, I studied with the Hartford Ballet,” Holt said. Instructors told him that he was talented and he had a good shot at becoming a professional dancer. It was then that he forgot about his thoughts of acting.

“The thing with ballet school, if you are talented, and especially of you are a male, they just lock you in, even more so if you are an African-American male,” Holt said.

Being both male and Black helped Holt as he forged his career as a ballet dancer. “At that time there weren’t a lot of males in ballet.” Holt said. As time progressed, ballet underwent a renaissance during the 1980s and with a boom in arts and culture, more males joined the dance community. “Being a Black male certainly helped with the whole diversity issue. Companies and schools wanting to get grants and endowments were pushed to become more diverse, so many big-named schools were making it a point to bring in more African-American and minority students male and female,” Holt explained.

With sights set on larger horizons, Holt trained in the summers at the school of American Ballet, the official ballet school of New York City Ballet. He completed his training in San Francisco, and at age 16, he was offered a contract with the Hartford Ballet Company. As a teen, it was difficult, juggling school and work. Additionally, he endured racial remarks from instructors at the company. “People asked: ‘What are you doing at the ballet? You should be playing for the New York Knicks,’” Holt recalls. Regarding his dancing virtuosity, he heard remarks like, “All Black people jump like that in Africa.” Holt said he learned to deal with it. He didn’t tell his parents about many of the comments, because his parents would have “caused a scene” and he could have dealt with possible blackballing in the ballet arena.

“I learned very early to be strong and take criticism,” Holt said. Something that he thinks is lacking in students today.

In 1990, Holt moved to Pittsburgh and began his seven-year career with the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre. While at PBT, he was able to stretch his leaping virtuoso abilities and was featured in many different parts. After sustaining an injury, Holt retired from PBT and three years later became the director of La Roche University’s Dance Department.

“Most dancers moonlight as ballet teachers on the side,” Holt said. Through his many years and teaching positions, he built a strong clientele. He taught community classes at Point Park University and the Western Pennsylvania Performing Arts Company, as well as, other area dance schools at a pre-professional Masters level.

Holt began to notice as students came to the end of their training, they were coming to him and asking for directional assistance. Many wanted to stay in the area, but had little options to continue dancing ballet. “PBT has its own ballet school and most of their dancers filter in from their school. There are other dance companies but they feature more modern dance versus ballet,” Holt explained.

With these concerns in mind, Holt envisioned a professional outlet that focused mostly on ballet as another option for dancers, enabling them to stay in the Pittsburgh area. It was something that Pittsburgh needed. Holt partnered with his long-time friend and colleague, Miriam Scigliano, and together they formed the Mid-Atlantic Contemporary Ballet Company.

Scigliano and Holt comprise original choreography along with traditional ballet moves, but MAC Ballet isn’t your grandmother’s Swan Lake.

Holt has been working on a piece titled: Scarlet Women of the Bible, that profiles four “scarlet” women featured in the Bible including, Eve, Jezebel, Delilah and Bathsheba, that will tell these biblical stories through dance.

The company debuted at the Father Ryan Performing Arts Center in McKees Rocks in January and will hold a spring performance on Friday, June 24 at the Father Ryan Performing Arts Center.

(For more information about performances, visit the Company’s website at: http://www.macballet.org.)

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