Through her Allegro Dance company, Anna Pishner Harsh turns Italian traditions into a cultural treasure to preserve and pass on.
The traditions of Italian dance — like those of any traditional art form — only have two places to go: either the dusty confines of museum exhibits and history books, or back into the spotlight to live in real time. Picking the latter requires much more than just pluck. You have to take on the multiple roles of ambassador, preservationist and electric artist, all propelled by indomitable passion.
Anna Pishner Harsh — director, founder and choreographer for the Allegro Dance Company — boasts energy and dedication equal to the task. Based in Wheeling, West Virginia, Allegro mounts performances that explore Italy’s history and offer a contemporary view of the nation through its rich, varied forms of dance.
A double-degree holder in dance and communication, Pishner traveled throughout Italy and the U.S. to find and archive the traditional dances that turn up in performances and workshops. She’s also completed a documentary: “La Danza: Bridging Time Through Dance.” She talks to Lou&A about her work with Allegro, her love of dance and the deep Italian roots that grew into her lifelong mission.
Lou&A: Tell us about your Italian lineage.
Anna Pishner Harsh: Both sides of my family are Italian. My mother’s parents were born in San Giovanni in Fiore; they came to the United States in the early 1920s. My father’s parents came from Caulonia Reggio di Calabria. The Piscioneri name turned into Pishner once they came to Ellis Island. Today, I still have family that live there, as well as in other parts of Italy, that I keep in touch with and visit as often as I can.
Lou&A: What was it like growing up Italian?
Pishner Harsh: It taught me to love and cherish three things in life: faith, family and food. I grew up in an artistic and creative house. My brother played piano, and I took dance lessons from age 4. Pasta on Sundays with my grandparents and extended family always featured laughter, stories and of course song and dance.
My parents loved to sing and dance. Both of my grandfathers played the mandolin and even going back 500 years in my family tree there is music and dance. It’s in my DNA! My brother and I entertained for festivals and other organizations since we were little. He played the piano or accordion, and I danced. We looked forward to performing for our local Italian festival in Clarksburg, West Virginia, each year since 1979. Standing on my front porch and smelling the fresh bread and pasta being made was enticing enough to perform! The festival was only two blocks from my parents’ house. Later on, my brother formed a band called Amici, which also collaborates with me.
Dancing for these festivals and taking formal lessons just felt normal to me and what I was supposed to do. I had aunts and uncles that would teach me tarantella steps and traditional dances. It became a tradition, and to this day I still perform at the West Virginia Italian Heritage Festival.
Lou&A: It sounds like the artistic lightbulb went off at an early age.
Pishner Harsh: I remember a book on dance my mother gave me about the world of dance through the eyes of a stage performer. I still have that book — all tattered and worn out from reading it so much. That book, plus watching old musicals with my parents, really inspired me to do this for the rest of my life. After high school, I went to college at Slippery Rock University where I majored in dance and where Allegro Dance Company was born. I did my final college thesis project on dance and the Italian culture, and that’s where it all started for my company.
Lou&A: How do you approach dance from artistic and traditional points of view?
Pishner Harsh: I have gone to Italy several times through the years to visit family and friends. Each time, I study and research more dances to preserve and perform them here in the United States. It’s very important to me to do the dances justice and not just choreograph something to entertain crowds. My mission is to teach about the Italian culture and inspire the audience.
I found a few dance teachers in Naples that help me mold my showcase to look and feel as authentic as possible. They are always so wildly curious to know what motivates my enthusiasm. It can be challenging to find some of these rare dances. My teachers are very protective and proud of their history. Preserving these dances in the United States is important because they’re fading away. Traditional Italian dance is passed on from generation to generation. Filming and documenting these dances became part of my job for Allegro.
Lou&A: Take us through some of your career highlights.
Pishner Harsh: We’ve performed at Italian festivals across the United States from Maryland to North Carolina. Of course, performing in Italy and attending a daily audience at the Vatican was a great honor since we were blessed by Pope John Paul II in 2000. My grandmother Maria was still alive at the time and excited because she watched it live on TV. When I came home, she told me how proud she was. My Nonna said in her broken English, “Anna, once you dance for Jesus you can’t dance any higher.”
Another achievement was creating the documentary. It was a challenge but rewarding to know that others in the future can learn from my experiences. In 2013, I received the Excellence in Education award from my hometown Italian festival. Finally, meeting so many amazing and inspiring artists and other Italians throughout the years has made the hard work worthwhile.
Lou&A: What lies ahead for you and Allegro?
Pishner Harsh: I plan on continuing my research to find dances from all 20 regions of Italy and publish a dance workbook that would be available to schools, universities and libraries across the United States. Allegro Dance Company will also continue to tour to perform at cultural venues and give workshops on Italian dance.
Lou&A: What do you find most rewarding about this work and the path you’ve chosen?
Pishner Harsh: It’s seeing the audience smile or discover traditional Italian dance for the first time. It’s the joy it brings to all generations especially the Italians that thank me with tears in their eyes for allowing them to see a memory come alive again through my show. “It’s like seeing home again,” they tell me after seeing a performance. It keeps me motivated to keep going.
And all of the dances tell a story. The lesson I’ve learned from researching these dances is that we are all alike and together in this big world. I want to leave these “danceprints” behind so that other generations after me can enjoy and celebrate the Italian culture and be inspired to keep making history of their own.
For more information about the company visit www.allegrodancecompany.net
The above appears in the August 2019 issue of the print version of Fra Noi. Our gorgeous, monthly magazine contains a veritable feast of news and views, profiles and features, entertainment and culture. To subscribe, click here.