Cuba’s Malpaso Dance Company Returns to Cleveland with Program of Quiet Brilliance


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Malpaso Dance Company in Ohad Naharin’s “Tabula Rasa”. Photo by Nir Arieli.

Malpaso Dance Company
Playhouse Square’s Allen Theatre
Cleveland, Ohio
August 10, 2019

Reviewed by Steve Sucato

With previous performances in Cleveland in 2016 and 2017, Malpaso Dance Company’s return this past Saturday to Playhouse Square and the Allen Theatre felt like seeing a dear friend again.

Presented by DANCECleveland in collaboration with American Dance Festival to close out the third annual American Dance Festival in Cleveland, the Cuban contemporary dance company this time offered up a triple bill of quiet yet emotionally riveting dance works.  

Their evening program began with choreographer Sonya Tayeh’s 2017 commissioned work, “Face The Torrent”.  Choreographed in part during a creative residency provided by DANCECleveland, the work , said Tayeh in a Facebook live interview, was inspired by her recent concerns over “the state of the world” and an urge to “unify, rally and gather.”

Best known for her choreography for Broadway’s Moulin Rouge! The Musical and her Emmy Award-nominated work on TV’s So You Think You Can Dance, Tayeh brought some of that same rich emotional content that made her a darling of SYTYCD fans to “Face The Torrent”.

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Malpaso Dance Company in Sonya Tayeh’s “Face the Torrent”. Photo by Rose Eichenbaum.

Danced to music by cellist/composer Colette Alexander with folk duo The Bengsons, the 20-minute piece for 8 dancers began with the cast in a horizontal line across the back of the stage moving in a slow cautious walk forward evoking a feeling of impending doom in their demeanor, one that Tayeh says she incorporated into the work after having intense dreams of a huge body of water coming at her.  

Led by dancer Abel Rojo who appeared particularly struck by whatever dark forces were descending on the dancers, Rojo often broke from the dancers’ unison walks in lines across the stage to sink into pained cowering with his arms shielding his face and head.

The dancers’ straight line walking then gave way to embracing and intertwining movement with the cast pairing off in male/female couples as Alexander’s haunting cello music became invaded by distorted whispers of a female voice saying “I wonder how to cope with this?” Tayeh’s velvety partnered movement in this section was the picture of beauty and melancholy and Malpaso’s dancers radiated both. Stark, dramatic and carefully-crafted, “Face The Torrent” left a lasting impression.

Next was company dancer Beatriz Garcia’s debut work for Malpaso, “Being (Ser)” (2018). The 12-minute trio set music by Italian composer Ezio Bosso was danced by Garcia, Dunia Acosta and Armando Gomez.

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(L-R) Malpaso Dance Company’s Armando Gomez, Dunia Acosta and Beatriz Garcia in Beatriz Garcia’s “Being (Ser)”. Photo by Nir Arieli.

Costumed in all white and dancing in socks, the trio of performers spent the first part of the work repeatedly traversing the stage in idiosyncratic solo movement phrases that entered from one side of the stage and exited the other.  Those solo riffs then turned into duets and a trio as the work progressed. Garcia’s contemporary dance choreography favored movement that bent and twisted the dancers’ shoulders and torsos, and like “Face The Torrent”, had the trio bunching and intertwining their bodies in close-quartered movement phrases. The work was a fine effort for the promising choreographer that fit right in with the style and quality of the works in the company’s diverse repertory. One hopes to see more from Garcia as choreographer for the company in addition to her adroit dancing.

The program then closed with another thoughtful and atmospheric work, Ohad Naharin’s “Tabula Rasa”, set to music of the same name by composer Arvo Pärt.

Created on nearby Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre in 1986 (and who inexplicably haven’t performed it in over 20 years), the over 30-year-old, 30-minute modern dance piece whose title means “clean slate”, felt like a newly-minted work on Malpaso’s 10 dancers who appeared to own the former Batsheva Dance Company director’s “gaga” movement language as if it were a part of their upbringing.

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Malpaso Dance Company in Ohad Naharin’s “Tabula Rasa”. Photo by Nir Arieli.

Naharin’s simply structured unison movement phrases for the work full of leans and sways was an adept counterpoint to Pärt’s passionate string music that tore at one’s soul with a desperate longing.  And while Naharin’s clever choreography did not parallel the music’s aching, the choreographer did incorporate into it a few heartbreaking moments. One such scene had the dancers pairing off with one dancer charging into the other’s arms in desperate embraces. Ms. Acosta made such a charge only to have her male partner turn his back on her at the last moment causing her to crash to the floor stunned and dejected.

“Tabula Rasa” is prime example of Naharin’s early genius as a choreographer. A precursor to his often performed masterwork “Minus 16” (1999), it is itself masterful and was a fitting closer to Malpaso’s program that wowed the Allen Theatre audience with its emotion and exquisite music and thoughtful dancing. A standing ovation was given from the appreciative audience signaling a hope that Malpaso will continue to make Cleveland a regular stop on future U.S. tours.

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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With its Second Season Production ‘Collide,’ Deos Contemporary Ballet Looks to Up its Visibility around Western Michigan


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Deos Contemporary Ballet dancers Kristen Hammer, Christine Settembrino, and Kathryn Tokar rehearsing Tess Sinke’s “Remembrance.” Photo by Jon Clay.

By Steve Sucato

Tess Sinke’s Deos Contemporary Ballet enters its sophomore season with a new mixed repertory program of dance works and bit of growth as an organization. The Grand Rapids, Michigan-based, summer-only troupe consisting of local professional dancers and those from around the country, will not only be returning to downtown Grand Rapids’ Peter Martin Wege Theatre for performances of its latest production Collide on August 2 & 3, but will also repeat the production in nearby Muskegon on August 9 & 10 at the Frauenthal Center’s Beardsley Theater.

For a company still looking to get a foothold with Grand Rapids dance audiences, the move to add performances in a second city is an ambitious step forward. One Sinke hopes will pay off in higher visibility for the company going forward.

As with last summer’s inaugural production An Evening of Brahms, this summer’s Collide will predominately be a showcase of Sinke’s choreography along with a new ballet by former Grand Rapids Ballet star Cassidy Isaacson, and a reprise of Attila Mosolygo’s “Brahms Trio” from last season.

The program (subject to change) will open with Senke’s new 4-minute ballet “Martha” that she says was inspired by the many strong women in her life. The warrior-like ballet for 5 women costumed in red is set to Daniel Pemberton’s song “Jackeyes Tale,” from the soundtrack to the 2017 film, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword.

Next will be Isaacson’s debut work for Deos, “Happiness Does Not Wait” to music of the same name by Iceland’s Ólafur Arnalds. The 4-minute contemporary dance work looks at two different personal relationships juxtaposed together onstage. In one, a male-female couple struggles with a one-sided relationship while in the other, an all-female couple who are both fully invested in theirs thrives. Isaacson says she drew inspiration for the work from recent personal experience with her boyfriend who took a leap of faith in their relationship and moved with her to San Francisco after she accepted a dancer contract with Smuin Ballet.

A veteran dance studio competition choreographer, Isaacson says she ramps up the intensity and technical levels of her choreography when working with professional dancers. “I do very energetic and athletic works and I love pushing the boundaries in partnering and floor work,”  she says.

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Deos Contemporary Ballet dancers Michael Burke and Melissa Ludwig rehearsing Tess Sinke’s “Remembrance.” Photo by Jon Clay.

“Remembrance,” another new ballet by Sinke, also has its genesis in personal experience. This time stemming from Sinke’s recent devastating miscarriages.

“My husband and I have dealt with two miscarriages in the last 8 months and the ballet is about how society views miscarriage and infertility, and how it is still taboo to talk about,” says Sinke. “Most women deal with this struggle on their own, almost feeling like it is not something they are not allowed to grieve about.”

Also danced to music by Ólafur Arnalds, the 15-minute contemporary ballet in 4 movements is for 9 dancers (8 female, 1 male) including Kathryn Tokar of Virginia’s Charlottesville Ballet who says of Sinke’s approach to the ballet, “Tess is really good at creating emotional and gestural movement that isn’t too literal in conveying the work’s subject matter.”

In “Remembrance,” the dancers are seen reaching for a single light bulb suspended above them just out of reach. The lit bulb is meant to symbolize for those who have experienced a miscarriage the life they wanted to bring into the world but was lost.

The program then shifts moods to lighthearted with Sinke’s new ballet “Curiosity,” danced to music by London based singer-songwriter Ben Cocks. The 12-minute piece for 8 dancers costumed in all white says Sinke “is just that inner child in all of us coming out.”

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Deos Contemporary Ballet dancers Gracie Holway and David Sent rehearsing Tess Sinke’s “Unfinished.” Photo by Jon Clay.

Following Mosolygo’s aforementioned “Brahms Trio,” will be Sinke’s new 10-minute pas de deux “Unfinished” danced to Iskra String Quartet’s recording of composer Peter Gregson’s “Chorale (Five).” Taking its inspiration from the line “Do not look for healing at the feet of those who broke you,” contained in Canadian-Indian poet Rupi Kaur’s poetry collection Milk and Honey, the work features a male character that represents the darkness in a female character’s life that she ultimately chooses to move away from.

Rounding out the program will be Sinke’s re-worked ballet “Lord, Look Down.”  Created in 2012 while Sinke was a student at Mercyhurst University in Erie, Pennsylvania, the 15-minute multimedia ballet for 11 dancers to music by Dmitri Shostakovich, John Williams and others, features a 20-foot church pew set piece. Says Sinke of the ballet, “It is an inward look at ‘the church’ as being a place where we often feel we need to be perfect when in reality it is a place where people who are flawed and have made mistakes come together to love one another without judgement.”

Deos Contemporary Ballet performs Collide, 7:30 p.m., Friday, August 2 and on 2:00 & 7:30 p.m., Saturday, August 3 at the Peter Martin Wege Theatre, 341 Ellsworth Avenue SW, Grand Rapids, Michigan. Tickets are $35 and available at ticketmaster.com or by calling (800) 982-2787. The program repeats 7:30 p.m., Friday, August 9 and Saturday, August 10 at the Frauenthal Center’s Beardsley Theater, 425 W. Western Ave., Muskegon, Michigan. Tickets are $35/Advance, $40/Day of Show and are available at startickets.com or by calling (800) 585-3737. More information at deosballet.com.

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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BalletX Marked the Spot for Great Dance at ADF in CLE


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BalletX in Lil Buck’s “Express”. Photo courtesy of BalletX.

BalletX
Playhouse Square’s Ohio Theatre
Cleveland, Ohio
July 27, 2019

Reviewed by Steve Sucato

Philadelphia’s BalletX opened DANCECleveland’s 2019-2020 season this past Saturday as part of year three of the annual American Dance Festival in Cleveland. The contemporary ballet company founded in 2005 by former Pennsylvania Ballet dancers Christine Cox and Matthew Neenan, made its Cleveland debut at Playhouse Square’s Ohio Theatre in a program featuring three diverse works that by its end, brought the audience to its feet in appreciation.

Known as a breeding ground for new works by contemporary choreographic voices from around the globe, much has happened with BalletX since its last visit to Northeast Ohio back in 2013. Neenan has moved on from company leadership to concentrate fully on his burgeoning choreographic career and BalletX in 2018 opened its new Center for World Premiere Choreography, moving into a new 5,000 square foot studio and administrative home in Philadelphia.

What hadn’t changed since 2013, was the ability of the company and its 10 dancers (including former GroundWorks Dance Theater dancer Blake Krapels) from knocking an audience’s socks off with world class dancing in world class dance works.

The program opened with choreographer Nicolo Fonte’s latest ballet for the company “Steep Drop, Euphoric” (2019) set to music by Ezio Bosso and Ólafur Arnalds. The 25-minute piece began with the jolting screech of string instruments to usher in the first of many traveling dancer tableaus that would be integral to the look of the ballet beginning with dancer Chloe Perkes being lifted to stand atop the shoulders of several other dancers.

Fonte’s choreographic style for the ballet had BalletX’s full complement of dancers flowing from one smoothly formed tableau of dancers being lifted or melting into one another’s arms a la the works of choreographers Lar Lubovich and Doug Varone.  The lush movement was characterized by the dancers swaying and sinking into close-quartered interactions with each other, arms often suspended in air briefly. Fonte alternated the  pace of the ballet with quick bursts of movement by individual dancers mixed in with slower group dance phrases.

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BalletX in Nicolo Fonte’s “Steep Drop, Euphoric”. Photo courtesy of BalletX.

At one end of the rear of the stage, a long piece of what looked to be Marley dance floor (the slip-resistant surface the dancers perform on) hung from the rafters and was unrolled to the stage floor, suggesting a road to the heavens. The image jived with Fonte’s thoughts on the ballet contained in the program notes that read: “Perhaps the only places left unexplored are the canyons of your interior geography, the dark alleys of your consciousness – one of which might lead you to your road to bliss.”

That interior geography and potential road to bliss appeared to belong to Perkes’ character who throughout the ballet stepped in and out of dancing with the others to stand on the Marley road and gaze back at her fellow performers as if reflecting on her life.

In a later section of the ballet, dancers Andrea Yorita and Zachary Kapeluck launched into the first of two successive pas de deuxs. Yorita, a diminutive powerhouse, burst about the stage with spritely energy showing off her beautiful extension, turning ability, and footwork.  A second pas de deux immediately followed with dancers Skyler Lubin and Stanley Glover continuing the barrage of beautiful choreography that culminated in the dancers forming a quartet spiced with partnered lifts.  After a heartfelt solo danced by Perkes in spotlight moving along the Marley road, the ballet ended as it began with her standing atop several dancers’ shoulders reaching out. This time not toward the Marley road leading out on to the stage, but the one leading upward.

Next the company switched its stylistic gears in Charles “Lil Buck” Riley’s “Express” (2018), danced to jazz music by The Late Show with Stephen Colbert bandleader Jon Batiste.  Lil Buck, a dancer, actor and model from Memphis, Tennessee, burst onto the dance scene in a big way in the past few years in large part due to his “Memphis jookin” hip hop dance version of Michel Fokine’s ballet classic “The Dying Swan” that went viral.

For the 16-minute “Express,” the choreographer fused his mostly improvised jookin movement language with ballet and jazz movement to create a hybrid style that fit nicely on BalletX’s dancers.  Costumed in streetwear and sneakers for the men, pointe shoes for the women (at least to begin with), the work was overall a fun, flirty, and jazzy play on male/female relationship banter.

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Stanley Glover in Lil Buck’s “Express”. Photo courtesy of BalletX.

The work’s finest moment came in a solo by featured dancer Glover to Batiste’s melancholy dirge “Saint James Infirmary Blues.” The silky smooth Glover moved with the freedom of Lil Buck himself in the jookin-flavored solo.

By work’s end the women had swapped their point shoes for red Nike sneakers, and the entire cast of 10, especially dancer Cali Quan, let their funk flag fly in a frenetically fabulous finale to the Jon Batiste and Stay Human song “Express Yourself (Say Yes)” capped by Batiste asking the question, “What is Jazz?”

The program ended most satisfyingly with a reprise of Neenan’s signature ballet for the company, “The Last Glass”(2010) that the company performed in Akron in 2013.

Inspired by what Neenan referred to as “wild street-parade,” the 25-minute ballet all 10 dancers was set to suite of 8 tunes by American indie-rock band Beirut, and whose emotional lyrics Neenan took to heart in his choreography.

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BalletX in Matthew Neenan’s “The Last Glass”. Photo courtesy of BalletX.

I wrote of the ballet in 2013:  As if splashing through puddles of emotion that covered the stage, the dancers kicked up anger, joy and sadness, which then clung to them, giving their characters an underlying motivation and exposing their imperfections.

Masterfully-crafted in its dancer formations, group movements on and off the stage, and its transitions between dance phrases, Neenan wrapped a clever tapestry of contemporary ballet movement and beauty around several very relatable human stories contained within the ballet.  None so emotionally penetrating than that of characters portrayed by Perkes and Krapels in which Perkes seemed to be recalling the joys and heartache of being with Krapels, a lover she lost.  The haunting image of a heartbroken Perkes walking slowly across the stage, head in hand as the carnival of humanity carried on all around her, was one that could be universally felt.

It is perhaps fitting BalletX and DANCECleveland chose to repeat Neenan’s “The Last Glass,” as the ballet warrants repeated viewings to take in its full glory. One can only marvel at Neenan’s ability to conjure up such an exquisite creation.

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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