Verb Ballets Wades into the Uncertain Waters of Performing under Pandemic


Verb Ballets rehearsing Kate Webb’s “Still Moving”. Photo by Kate Webb.

By Steve Sucato

Verb Ballets‘ in-studio performance of The Cleveland Havana Ballet Project Return Celebration on March 13 was the last in-person performance I attended and one of the very last given in Northeast Ohio before pretty much the entire dance world shutdown operations because of the COVID-19 global pandemic.

Now more than 3-months later Verb along with the rest of the state of Ohio has begun to cautiously dip their toes into the uncertain waters of an eventual return to perceived normalcy.  The dancers have returned to the studio under enhanced precautionary measures to take class and to work on the first not-from-home created program, Fresh Inventions 2020. The in-studio performance will be livestreamed Friday, June 26 at 7 p.m.

Like almost all dance organizations large and small, the negative financial ramifications of the pandemic have been keenly felt, says Verb’s producing artistic director, Dr. Margaret Carlson.

“Our earned income revenue stream is almost nothing now and we have come to the realization that our normal ways of doing business is not possible,” says Carlson. “We do the most performing in the summer months and almost all of what was scheduled has all been cancelled.”

That says Carlson, has meant she and the staff and dancers have had to do a lot of brainstorming about creating and adopting new, less viably sustaining business model approaches that they hope will be temporary.

One such outcome of that revised thinking is the resurrecting of the dancer choreography led program Fresh Inventions 2020 that was shelved when Cleveland Public Theatre’s DanceWorks 2020 it was part of was cancelled this past April.

The original theme of the program says Carlson, was to be a collection of repertory works centered on social justice.  While some of the prior ideas for dance works have carried over to the upcoming program, Carlson says she dropped the theme caveat because of the pandemic upending the ability to bring some of those ideas to fruition and the desire, especially now, to open the program up to more spirit-lifting dance pieces.  

All of those works however have come with their own set of new constraints because of the COVID-19 virus. Verbs dancers are required to wear masks while they dance, cannot touch one another unless they cohabitate and have to maintain social distancing guidelines when possible and wash their hands often along with everything touched in the studio.  That has meant the five choreographers with works on the program have had to become additionally creative in their approaches to their dance works.

Along with all of Verb’s new approaches to dancing and performing, has also come a need for investment in new technologies and equipment to make those things happen.  “Technology always means money for services and equipment and we are barely floating now,” says Carlson. The company is making an initial investment in just what is needed to make the livestream happen with an eye in future on adding multiple camera angles to their livestream shoots and theater lighting in their studio/performance space. For now the company is counting on the dancing and dance works to engage, uplift and entertain the virtual audience who clicks in on June 26.

Here is a rundown of what’s on tap:

The program’s lone guest choreographer, Robert Wesner’s 13 minute piece for 6-dancers, “WRAP” was begun back in March and is the Neos Dance Theatre director’s experimentation with choreographing ballet movement to rap music.

Bronx-native and 13-year company member Lieneke Matte’s latest work for Verb, “With A Little Help,” she says is her longest at 11 minutes. The varied-movement-styled piece for 14-dancers, set to music Charles Gounod, George Gershwin and Joe Cocker says Matte, takes its inspiration from the idea that one person can make a difference in the lives of others. “Sometimes we just need someone there to remind us to find joy in the little things,” says Matte.

“Tumultuous Rest” is what Antonio Morillo is calling his third work for the company. The 7 minute contemporary dance piece for 9-women he says is an abstract reflection on his past 3 months of solitude due to the pandemic.  The piece is danced to music by composers Ezio Bosso, Ólafur Arnalds, Nils Frahm and others.

The newest dancer with a work on the program, Miami-native and second year company apprentice Hunter Hoffman’s “The Deafening Words Unspoken” [Tentative title] is a 4 ½ minute work-in-progress duet set to Akron rock duo The Black Keys’ song “Little Black Submarines”.  Says Hoffman of it, “I chose to create more of a ‘canvas’ for the audience to place their own interpretation on…something about the lyrics [of the song] gave me a feeling of a missing connection between these people and I chose to explore that by giving the audience an eye into what was going on in their heads and how our imaginations can run wild when we think of all the things we want to say to someone but can’t for whatever reason.”

Rounding out the program’s offerings will be 5-year company member Kate Webb’s 7 minute piece for 13-dancers, “Still Moving”.  Danced to a reading of a Rabindranath Tagore poem (from which the piece gets its inspiration) and music by Philip Glass, Webb describes the work’s movement language as “neo-fosse with escapist undertones” and it as being “a reflection on all of the parts of being human that still churn internally despite any constraints placed upon us.”  

Verb Ballets presents a livestream virtual showing of Fresh Inventions 2020 on the Zoom platform at 7 p.m., Friday, June 26. Tickets by donation (minimum $10 each) and information at https://verbballets.org/fresh-inventions-showing/

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.

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Grand Rapids Ballet’s ‘Virtual Program II: An Evening with Penny Saunders’ Shows the Beginnings of a Programming Way Forward |REVIEW


Grand Rapids Ballet’s women in Penny Saunders’ “Testimony”. Photo by Jade Butler.

By Steve Sucato

Welcome to dance’s new reality. The COVID-19 global pandemic has spawned many changes in our lives including how dance is being created, shown, viewed and now reviewed. It is in some ways as if the familiar dance-on-film genre had suddenly become the performance medium of choice for dancers and dancemakers to create and stage works and audiences to view it.

For the many dance organizations forced to divert their creative paths from ones leading to a physical theater space to now one in “the cloud,” the transition has been slow and somewhat rudimentary in outcome compared to their established dance-on-film counterparts. Nonetheless, for all those starved for a return to art in their lives, a virtual performance is better than no performance and one that is open to a myriad of possibilities for performers and audiences alike.

I have reviewed on a few occasions in the past live simulcasts of a dance productions and many dance films. Grand Rapids Ballet’s Virtual Program II: An Evening with Penny Saunders however, represents my first foray in reviewing dance made specifically for a virtual stage.

The hour and forty minute program streamed over GRB’s Vimeo channel for a donation to the company, began with salutations by GRB artistic director James Sofranko and introductions to each of the four works shown by Penny Saunders, GRB’s resident choreographer.

The lone new work on the program, “Amiss,” was also the first the company has produced since the pandemic cancelled the remainder of their 2019-2020 season in late March. Set to a soundscape arranged by Saunders that included music by New York composer Michael Wall, the work began with, and was interlaced throughout with, a voiceover cacophony of dancers and others in the GRB family, describing their lives, fears and frustrations because of COVID-19. The most striking of them to cut through was that of a child dance student trying to understand why the world had suddenly changed and seeking reassurance that it was okay to feel sad about it. Those voices at the outset then gave way to Wall’s cover of Mazzy Star’s 1993 hit song “Fade Into You” as visually we saw dancer Isaac Aoki mimicking playing a piano on keys made out of black tape affixed to a white table. The dancing then began in earnest inside the all-too-familiar online visual format of Zoom squares. Dancers at home (or outdoors) captured themselves on webcams of varying quality moving in electronic unison to simple contemporary dance choreography by Saunders with her occupying one Zoom square watching them perform.

Yuka Oba-Muschiana in “Amiss”. Photo by Isaac Aoki.

Predominately a landscape of bare white walls and rooms without furniture, the look was stark and the mood gray, like our lives appear to be now devoid of those things we feel enrich us. The feeling of things being amiss and the missing of things integral to our lives permeated the piece and the dancers’ performances of it.

Sensitized as an audience to expect a lot more visually from premade filmed productions than most live performances, “Amiss” was at a distinct disadvantage from the outset in holding audience members’ attention. The use of spare visual effects only left us wanting more.

“Amiss’” shiner moments came in those that explored more personal relationships between the dancers such as a mildly humorous duet between GRB dancer roommates Nigel Tau and Matthew Wenckowski. The pair danced indoors and out in an entangled, somewhat wrestled duet to voiceovers of them talking about their cooped-up lives together with their cat Louie. Sanders’ choreography here was engaging as were the video angles shown of it.

Of the pure dancing contained in the work, the scenes of dancers Adriana Wagenveld, Gretchen Steimle and Yuka Oba-Muschiana out in Michigan’s greenery came closest to the dance-on-film experience that I feel dance companies and artists (short of live simulcast programs) must embrace further to give audiences an entertaining and meaningful virtual presentation worth a deserving price of admission.

Saunders calls “Amiss” a love letter to Grand Rapids Ballet. To those who volunteered to be a part of it, that love appeared to be felt. With video editing from Quinton Wharton, the work was a hopeful beginning to what GRB and other companies can create in a time that demands newfound creativity in dance.

Sarah Marley and James Cunningham in Saunders’ “Again”. Photo courtesy of Grand Rapids Ballet.

The remainder of the program consisted of past recordings of works-in-the-theater by Saunders from GRB’s repertory. Primarily shot as archival records, these performances were not in most cases intended for public consumption. That being said, they offered up a nice sampling of Saunders’ work and of GRB’s dancers’ talent.

First up was the duet “Again” (2020) from this past season. It was danced by company newcomers James Cunningham, a former soloist with Cincinnati Ballet, and Sarah Marley, a former dancer with Smuin Ballet to more music by Wall. The touching piece about a performer’s final onstage moment, the work offered up a window into former Hubbard Street Dance Chicago dancer Saunders’ choreographic style – dense with beauty, nuance and grace that Cunningham and Marley thoughtfully conveyed.

Grand Rapids Ballet in Penny Saunders’ “Testimony”. Photo by Jade Butler.

Next, “Testimony” (2019) was a response to the divisive Supreme Court confirmation hearings of Clarence Thomas and Brett Kavanaugh and the unjust treatment of women who came forward to testify in them. Danced to music by Nico Mulhy, Atticus Ross and Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor along with archival audio recordings from news accounts of those confirmation hearings, the group work for 18-dancers carried with it an ominous tone.  The work gave a slight nod to Kurt Jooss’ The Green Table (1932) with dancers Wenckowski and Oba-Muschiana combatively circling a table not in a dance of death as in Jooss’ ballet, but in a dance of the death of credibility for the women who testify. Full of eye-catching dancer patterns and unison movement, “Testimony” solidly brought home its thought-provoking message.

Isaac Aoki, Matthew Wenckowski, and Gretchen Steimle in Saunders’ “Ghost Light”. Photo by Trey McIntyre

The last of Saunders’ works on the program and one of her best known, 2014’s “Ghost Light” was set to music by Bach, Alexandre Desplait, Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh and others. The clever, humorous and at times melancholy work, took its inspiration from the superstition surrounding the stage light or ghost light left on when the theater is dark to prevent people falling off the stage and, it is said, defend against the possibly deadly mayhem caused by the ghosts of past performers. In the work, Steimle, Aoki, Wenckowski and Steven Houser channel the spirits of past performers Maria Callas, Harry Houdini, Fred Astaire and Duke Ellington who get up to a bit mischief but also, especially Steimle as Callas, appear to lament the loss of their former stage careers.

GRB’s Virtual Program II closed as its inaugural virtual program had with a “Choreographers and Cocktails” question and answer session via Zoom hosted by Sofranko in which Saunders from Salt Lake City, and Wharton from Hawaii, answered questions about the program’s works and their careers while sipping libations.

For the online audience in attendance, Virtual Program II: An Evening with Penny Saunders was in some ways an even fuller production than would be had in the theater given its added behind-the-scenes commentary delving into each work and the closing Q & A that had the feel of being privy to a cast party conversation. And while the dance-going experience was different and may take some getting used to, it was rich in its own right.

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.

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The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust announces Pittsburgh Dance Council Spring 2021 Season


Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in Alvin Ailey’s ‘Revelations’. Photo by Paul Kolnik.

The 51st season begins in January 2021 and will host
Contemporary Dance, U.S. and World Premieres and Outdoor Ice-Dancing Spectacle!
The Pittsburgh Dance Council also announces Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater rescheduled performance date from the 50th anniversary 2019-2020 season! 

By Diana Roth

Now in its 51st season of presenting contemporary dance, the Pittsburgh Dance Council, a division of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, is proud to continue this long-standing and distinguished support of dance during the Spring 2021 Season.  The upcoming season features innovative, award-winning contemporary dance companies Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, on Saturday, January 16, 2021 at the Byham Theater; Complexions Contemporary Dance, Saturday, February 13, 2021 at the Byham Theater; and the world premiere of Carte Blanche– an outdoor ice-dancing spectacle by Le Patin Libre on Friday, March 5 and Saturday, March 6, 2021 at the MassMutual Pittsburgh Ice Rink at PPG Place; and Pilobolus, Friday, April 9 and Saturday, April 10, 2021 at the Byham Theater.

The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust is also pleased to announce the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater presenting sponsor BNY Mellon, part of the Pittsburgh Dance Council’s 50th anniversary season (2019-2020), has been rescheduled (from May 5, 2020) to April 22, 2021 of that same season, at the Benedum Center.  

Randal Miller, Director of Dance Programming and Special Projects for the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust comments, “I look forward to welcoming our audiences back to the Cultural District to share another season of unforgettable experiences.  The season is anchored by return engagements of some of the most recognized names in American contemporary dance with Hubbard Street Dance Chicago and Complexions Contemporary Ballet, Pilobolus.  We will also build on our previous successes in presenting large-scale site-specific dance with the Montreal based Le Patin Libre and their unique fusion of contemporary dance and figure skating.” 

Mr. Miller further notes, “I’m also proud to announce the rescheduling of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, a company whose history with the Dance Council goes back to our first presentation in 1969.  The presentation of this company had been intended as a capstone of our first 50 years, so I am excited that we are going to be able to bring this company to Pittsburgh in April 2021.  We are grateful to Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater for being a part of the Dance Council’s extraordinary presenting history and look forward to the company’s return.”

About Pittsburgh Dance Council Spring 2021 Season

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago in Ohad Naharin’s ‘Minus 16’. Photo by Todd Rosenberg.

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago (United States)
Saturday, January 16 2021 | Byham Theater

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago grew out of the Lou Conte Dance Studio at LaSalle and Hubbard Streets in 1977. For more than four decades, the company has introduced audiences to original, cutting-edge contemporary dance through new and diverse repertoire created by an eclectic group of the world’s leading choreographers.

The evening’s program will include Ohad Naharin’s Minus 16, Osnel Delgado’s Windless Hold, and Azsure Barton’s Return to Patience.

Larissa Gerszke and Jared Brunson in ‘Bach 25’. Courtesy of Complexions Contemporary Ballet

Complexions Contemporary Ballet (United States)
February 13, 2021 | Byham Theater

Combining technical precision, power and passion, Complexions Contemporary Ballet transcends tradition in a groundbreaking mix of styles ranging from ballet to hip hop.  Founded by Desmond Richardson and Dwight Rhoden, former members of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, the company has been featured several times on the hit show So You Think You Can Dance.

Showcasing the company’s dynamism, the evening’s program features two contrasting pieces: Bach 25, a fast-paced, jubilant work celebrating the music of classical composer Johann Sebastian Bach, and Woke, a sociopolitical work set to a remix of music by Kendrick Lamar, Logic, Drake, Diplo, and more.

Le Patin Libre. Photo by Rolline Laporte.

Le Patin Libre (Montreal, Canada)
Friday, March 5 & Saturday, March 6, 2021 | MassMutual Pittsburgh Ice Rink at PPG Place

Le Patin Libre is a contemporary ice skating company from Montreal.  Founded by high level figure skaters who wanted to use their virtuosity outside the constraints of competitions, they established an on-ice show business and transformed their athleticism into a means of free expression, creating contemporary dance pieces that exploit the amazing choreographic and theatrical potential of glide. 

Over the years, their enthusiastic first experiences and acrobatics slowly evolved toward choreographic research.  In Carte Blanche, a world premiere, the company will revisit parts of their show stopping repertory and debut innovative new material.

Pilobolus’ Quincy Ellis and Heather Favretto in ‘Untitled’ (1975). Photo by Brigid Pierce.

Pilobolus (United States)
Friday, April 9 & Saturday, April 10, 2021 | Byham Theater
Co-presentation with Dentons Cohen & Grigsby Trust Presents

For this fiftieth anniversary celebration, Pilobolus questions its own “givens,” turns its traditions sideways, and brings its past into the future – in a thoroughly engaging new way.  As fresh and vibrant as ever, Pilobolus – that feisty arts organism– puts the “Oh!” in BIG FIVE OH!, and continues to morph its way thrillingly into audiences’ hearts and minds.

The celebration includes the vintage classic, Untitled, the high-voltage Megawatt, signature shadow works, and a few concepts that have never been seen before.

From the 2019-2020 Pittsburgh Dance Council season, rescheduled performance date for:

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in Alvin Ailey’s ‘Revelations’. Photo by Paul Kolnik.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (United States)
April 22, 2021 | Benedum Center

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater embodies 61 years of groundbreaking achievement in modern dance.  The company has performed for an estimated 25 million people in 48 states and 71 countries on six continents, growing beyond the limits of the stage to encompass education at all levels, community outreach, and cultural diplomacy.  As the first company ever presented by the Pittsburgh Dance Council in its inaugural season, it is only fitting that Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater was scheduled as part of the Dance Council’s 2019-2020 50th anniversary season.  The company will be performing Mr. Ailey’s signature piece, Revelations

Tickets

Single tickets (as low as $10) for the Pittsburgh Dance Council Spring 2021 Season will be available at a later date at TrustArts.org/DANCE, by calling Guest Services 412-456-6666.

Subscription packages are available for $40-$220.  To subscribe, call 412-456-1390. Groups of 10 or more tickets, please call 412-471-6930. For more information visit, TrustArts.org/DANCE.

# # #

The Pittsburgh Dance Council joined the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust as a programming division in 2002. The mission of Pittsburgh Dance Council is to bring the best contemporary dance companies from around the world to the Cultural District. Each season, Pittsburgh Dance Council presents diverse, world-class contemporary works, including U.S. and world premieres.

The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust has overseen one of Pittsburgh’s most historic transformations: turning a seedy red-light district into a magnet destination for arts lovers, residents, visitors, and business owners.  Founded in 1984, the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust is a non-profit arts organization whose mission is the cultural and economic revitalization of a 14-block arts and entertainment/residential neighborhood called the Cultural District.  The District is one of the country’s largest land masses “curated” by a single nonprofit arts organization.  A major catalytic force in the city, the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust is a unique model of how public-private partnerships can reinvent a city with authenticity, innovation and creativity.  Using the arts as an economic catalyst, the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust has holistically created a world-renowned Cultural District that is revitalizing the city, improving the regional economy and enhancing Pittsburgh’s quality of life.  Thanks to the support of foundations, corporations, government agencies and thousands of private citizens, the Trust stands as a national model of urban redevelopment through the arts.

TrustArts.org | @CulturalTrust on Facebook · Instagram · Twitter

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