Verb Ballets: ‘Carnival Macabre’, ‘Building Bridges Together’ [REVIEWS]


Verb Ballets’ Daniel Cho and Julie Russel in Carnival Macabre. Photo by Kolman Rosenberg.

Reviewed by Steve Sucato

Carnival Macabre
Verb Ballets with Neil Zaza
Virtual Performance
October 30, 2020


Created as a stand-in for Verb Ballets and guitarist Neil Zaza’s popular One Dark Night…, A Rock Symphony of the Macabre (2019), Carnival Macabre (2020) was a made for the internet short film seeking to capture the spirit of One Dark Night’s Halloween rock symphony live show.

The October 30 pay-to-view virtual program began with on-camera interviews with Zaza and Verb choreographer/dancer Antonio Morillo offering insight into the production and how COVID-19 safety measures were put into place in its filming that included the dancers and Zaza wearing masks and being socially distanced from one another.

Tame in terms of fright factor by today’s standards, Carnival Macabre began with Zaza and Verbs’ dancers costumed as various ghoulish characters (including some from well-known story ballets) in a cemetery — Zaza wailing away on his guitar and the dancers moving about the headstones as well as a giant upright coffin with a large “Z” emblazoned on it. Later in the film, the dancers would use that coffin as a portal to another performance space.

(L-R) Verb Ballets’ Daniel Cho, Robert Carter and Julie Russel in Carnival Macabre. Photo by Kolman Rosenberg.
Neil Zaza in Carnival Macabre. Photo by Kolman Rosenberg.

Feeling like a long-running music video for Zaza’s Trans-Siberian Orchestra-like expansive rock music taken from his album One Dark Night, the film strung together dance references to classic story ballets along with clips from F. W. Murnau’s 1922 silent German Expressionist horror film, Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror.

Morillo’s choreography for the ballet was mostly on the serviceable side with a few flowery ballet moments. It shined most in the fifth-year company member’s rendition of the “Dance of the Knights” (Capulets) from the ballet Romeo and Juliet. Also included because of guest cast member Robert Carter of Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo fame, was a less humorous staging of “the Trocks’” parody of Mikhail Fokine’s The Dying Swan (originally The Swan). A lively, musically fun program overall, Carnival Macabre did not take itself too seriously nor did it rise to a level of high art. Rather, in a year hell bent on crushing spirits, it offered up a small reprise from the pain.  

Building Bridges Together
Verb Ballets and BlueWater Chamber Orchestra
Virtual Performance
November 21, 2020

Verb Ballets’ Benjamin Shepard and Kelly Korfhage in Heinz Poll’s “Adagio for Two Dancers”. Photo by Kolman Rosenberg.

A joint performance between Verb Ballets and Cleveland’s BlueWater Chamber Orchestra, Building Bridges Together featured three works (2 dance, 1 music only) set to string compositions.

The seed for the two arts organizations coming together was planted a couple summer’s ago when Verb artistic director Dr. Margaret Carlson and associate artistic director Richard Dickinson met with BlueWater artistic director/conductor Daniel Meyer at Lakeside Chautauqua. Fast forward to pandemic plagued 2020 and that idea to collaborate came to fruition in the form of a joint 45-minute pay-to-view virtual program.

The program began with the two groups coming together on Heinz Poll’s “Adagio for Two Dancers” (1973), a sumptuous pas de deux that has shown up in several of Verb’s performances over the past several seasons. Danced with feeling once again by Kelly Korfhage and Benjamin Shepard, the body melding piece with intricate partnering and difficult lifts, took on a different look this time round. Edited together with shots of the orchestra sharing the screen, the dancers’ bodies at times were cut off or pushed off to the side presenting, I feel, a less impactful rendition of the pas de deux. Conversely, seeing and hearing BlueWater’s heartfelt playing of the ballet’s score by Italian Baroque composer Tomoso Albinoni proved a bonus.

Next, the orchestra was on its own performing Austrian composer Anton Webern’s 1905 string quartet, “Langsamer Satz” (slow movement). The 10-minute lyrical piece is said to have been inspired by a hike Webern took with his soon-to-be wife Wilhelmine Mörtl. Once again BlueWater’s musicians acquitted themselves nicely in the meandering work with a well-balanced and tempered performance.

The program closed with a reprise of former Verb dancer Michael (Hinton) Escovedo’s “Broken Bridges” (2016). Another work on the program with a connection to former Ohio Ballet founder Heinz Poll, the ballet was set to Dmitri Shostakovich’s “Chamber Symphony in C minor Op. 110A,” the same music Poll used in his 1968 ballet “Elegiac Song”.

The ballet for 8 dancers was a tribute to Escovedo’s late grandmother Bridgett who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease and the caregiver relationship she and Escovedo’s mother Shawna Hinton had with her late in life.

Escovedo’s choreography for the ballet wonderfully captured the emotional turmoil that plagued his grandmother, portrayed by dancer Kate Webb, who was losing her grip on who she was and lashed out in anger and desperation at those around her. Even in a COVID-19 mask that covered the expression from her mouth, Webb radiated through piercing eyes the frantic and pained expressions that Bridgett must have felt in a tour de force performance that cut to the heart. Add to that steady performances by the rest of cast and that of BlueWater Chamber Orchestra, and Building Bridges Together made for a splendid collaboration this reviewer hopes will be repeated in the future.

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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Pivoting and Pitfalls: BalletMet’s Edwaard Liang Talks Programming a New Season in a Time of Pandemic


BalletMet in The Nutcracker. Photo by Jennifer Zmuda Dance Photography.

By Steve Sucato

With uncertainty being the underlying theme of 2020, Columbus, Ohio’s BalletMet has taken a wait and see approach to announcing its new 2020-21 dance season. While many ballet companies in the U.S. have given into the inevitability of having to conduct their seasons in the virtual world and have announced their new season, BalletMet artistic director Edwaard Liang and staff have chosen to not to set in stone any plans. Rather they have been doling out programming announcements and performance programs one at a time. For that latter part of this year those have come in the form of streaming previously recorded repertory works from their achieves for free to audiences.  But Liang sees drawbacks to committing to an all virtual season as many of his colleagues at other dance companies have. The most glaring being the growing effect of virtual programming fatigue on audiences. For its previous online showings of Justin Peck’s “In Creases” (2012) and Christopher Wheeldon’s “Fool’s Paradise” (2007), both works under 30-minutes, Liang says only 60% of the virtual audience viewed each ballet for more 10-minutes. That begs the question as to whether there is going to be a continued audience for their virtual programming and whether BalletMet can afford the necessary equipment, staff and expertise to create new virtual productions.  

“Every company has a different financial situation,” says Liang. “Some companies have an endowment, some deeper pockets because of their boards of directors and some are majority contributed income. We probably suffer more than other companies because we are 65% earned income. You take away that chuck of the pie and it is hard to move forward.”

While Liang says adopting a pay model for future online programming is certainly on the table, it is not a lone solution that will keep organization’s doors open.

“I don’t think any non-profit is going to say no to any earned revenue,” says Liang. “We are all trying to go for the paid online model. Talking with artistic directors Peter Boal [at Pacific Northwest Ballet], Lourdes Lopez [Miami City Ballet] and others that changed to all digital seasons, however, not one of them or any development or financial directors at those organizations say there is a future in it in terms of a [positive] financial impact for their organizations. This approach is just to keep our names out there and to give something back to the community while we are fundraising.”

Liang says he spends the bulk of his time these days fundraising for the company and sees that as a larger lifeline for the organization.

“Our Columbus audience has been really wonderful and have stepped up during this time in their support of the company,” says Liang. “That has been a huge positive for us. Our Keep us Dancing fund drive has also received a $275,000 challenge grant.”

BalletMet in The Nutcracker. Photo by Jennifer Zmuda Dance Photography.

Those fundraising efforts have allowed the company to offer local audiences and beyond its current online program, A Nutcracker Holiday. Running now through December 27, 2020, A Nutcracker Holiday is a replacement for its most popular in-theater production lost due to the pandemic, its annual The Nutcracker ballet. The online Nutcracker-themed experience available for free at anutcrackerholiday.balletmet.org is headlined by the all-new “Clara’s Nutcracker Prince,” a 30-minute film featuring an abbreviated version of former BalletMet artistic director Gerard Charles’ The Nutcracker ballet taken from footage from previous recordings of the stage production and featuring Tchaikovsky’s iconic score for the ballet performed by the Columbus Symphony. Added to that, Liang created a scenario in which the ballet’s main character Clara Staulbaum, now a teenaged adult, looks back on her favorite childhood memory that forms the basis of The Nutcracker story.

In watching the film, actress Kate Mason as the older Clara does a marvelous job narrating the ballet’s story, adding a warmth and delight to the film that is sure to resonate with children of all ages. The film breezes through the ballet’s act one party scene while still hitting the highpoints in the storytelling. The meat of the production’s dancing then comes at the end of the act when both Clara and her nutcracker toy are transformed into teenagers in the ballet’s snow scene and then continues throughout the rest of the ballet.

Kudos to Jenifer Zmuda who filmed, directed, and edited (Julio Alvia is also credited) “Clara’s Nutcracker Prince”.  As a cut-down Nutcracker production, it managed to capture much of the tradition and magic of the full ballet while still telling the ballet’s story clearly and succinctly. It is an attention-span friendly and heartwarming view for the entire family.

Also, a part of A Nutcracker Holiday online are children’s activities including The Nutcracker scavenger adventure, coloring pages and holiday crafts along with several seasonal food recipes, themed Spotify playlists, a reprise of BalletMet’s popular web series Finding Clara and a grand raffle to support the organization.

Edwaard Liang. Photo by Jennifer Zmuda Dance Photography.

As for the new season Liang says plans are made for two repertory programs that will hopefully be performed live at BalletMet’s performance space to audiences of thirty or less weekends from March – May 2021.

BalletMet’s company dancers will not be back to work until January. Liang says they will be ushered back slowly beginning with a couple weeks of classes and then dive into 6 weeks of rehearsals on 4 new ballets from BalletMet dancers Karen Wing and Leiland Charles, former BalletMet dancer Gabriel Gaffney Smith and Liang that will be performed in the aforementioned programs.  

“That is what is on the books,” says Liang. “Quite honestly though I am not sure we are going to be able to do 12 weekends of shows because I don’t know what is going to happen with the pandemic.”

Also, in the planning stages is a third program slated for June 2021 that could include the ballet Giselle.

Liang says BalletMet’s strategy is to push forward and create new work and when they get the green light from government health officials and dancer union AGMA, add in select excerpts from existing repertory works to those upcoming programs.  

Pivoting, pirouetting, and planning on a metaphorical dance floor that is constantly shifting under them will continue to be the order of each day for Liang and many other dance company directors and staff for the foreseeable future.  “Everyone has a different recipe on moving their organizations forward but everyone is being heroic and warriors pushing through during this pandemic,” says Liang.

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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‘Echo Mine v2’ Brings Message of Loss and Remembrance to Global Audience [REVIEW]


Above: Califone in concert at Schubas in Chicago. Photo by Patrick Monaghan. Below: Robyn Mineko Williams, foreground, and Jacqueline Burnett in Echo Mine v2. Photo by Andre Walker.

Califone and Robyn Mineko Williams & Artists
Echo Mine v2
Audiotree STAGED Series Webcast

October 27, 2020

Reviewed by Steve Sucato

For those who missed Echo Mine, Robyn Mineko Williams and Artists and Chicago experimental rock band Califone’s acclaimed 2019 collaboration, October 27th’s online restaging, Echo Mine v2 offered up an even more in-depth viewing experience than perhaps the live show.  The evening-length work was inspired by and created alongside late founding member of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago (HSDC) and longtime director of the Lou Conte Dance Studio, Claire Bataille.  

Choreographed by former HSDC dancer Robyn Mineko Williams in collaboration with Bataille, the work was originally conceived as a gift from Williams to Bataille, her mentor. Bataille, before she died, said she wanted the theme of the work to be about loss, not knowing how prophetic that would be in the arc of its creation for those she left behind to finish and perform the work.

Echo Mine v2’s Audiotree STAGED Series webcast brought that heartfelt message contained in the original production now to a worldwide audience in their homes during a time of pandemic when loss of all kinds has been at the forefront of our collective thinking.

From left: Jacqueline Burnett, Meredith Dincolo, and Robyn Mineko Williams in Echo Mine v2. Onscreen: Claire Bataille. Original scenic and projection design by CandyStations (Deborah Johnson). Photo by Andre Walker.
Jacqueline Burnett, left, and Robyn Mineko Williams in Echo Mine v2. Photo by Andre Walker.

The webcast began with video footage of Bataille rehearsing a solo created for the work before her passing that would serve as the jumping off point and the anchor of Echo Mine. In front of the video screen it played on at Chicago’s Lincoln Hall, were Califone performing the opening music to the work. And in front of both was a solo female dancer who ducked and dove in and out of contemporary dance movement that appeared spurred on in its musicality and intent by Califone’s music.

Lincoln Hall’s wooden stage floor that dancers Meredith Dincolo, Jacqueline Burnett and Williams performed on was unvarnished, worn and speckled with remnants of red paint appearing symbolic of the stain of artistic blood given to vocation and audience by the trio and all the performers that came before them on that stage.  Tension, emotional distress, and cold resolve infused Williams’ ritualistic choreography for the women in long skirts and bare feet who sagged and swayed to Califone’s moody 21st century prog rock meets Radiohead music.

Throughout the work archival video of Bataille at different stages of her life became more than a backdrop to the dancing, but rather became another integral performer in driving home its messages.

Meredith Dincolo in Echo Mine v2. Original scenic and projection design by CandyStations (Deborah Johnson). Photo by Andre Walker.

After a section in the work that took on a sort of Polynesian feel with hips shaking and pumping in choreography that oozed feminine marianismo, the piece produced its most poignant moment in a solo danced by Williams.  To a voiceover recording of Bataille speaking about advice she had received from others about her cancer, and then to a Califone ballad, Williams began the solo by walking briskly to sit in a chair. She then aggressively and repeatedly brushed her hands and arms upward across her face and head. Then getting up from the chair, she walked a few steps forward and crumpled to the ground as if heavy with the memory of Bataille and her illness. It was an emotionally effective moment.

In the end Echo Mine v2 served to deliver that same sense of love and loss felt by its performers for a woman that meant so much to them as Echo Mine. The difference being in doing so, the work’s reflection on loss universal to all of us was delivered to a global audience. With adroit performances by the dancers and musicians recorded with care, Echo Mine v2’s webcast was another fitting and moving tribute to Bataille and her dance legacy.

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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