Verb Ballets’ All-Female Choreographer Program Delivers Mixed Results


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Verb Ballets Elizabeth “Betsie” Schaeffer and Antonio Morillo in Kay Eichman’s “Mendelssohn Italian Symphony”. Photo by Jackie Sajewski.

Verb Ballets – 4X4: Four Works by Female Choreographers
Breen Center for the Performing Arts
Cleveland, OH
February 8, 2020

Reviewed by Steve Sucato

No doubt Verb Ballets production of 4X4: Four Works by Female Choreographers is to be commended for giving more opportunities to female choreographers. As a production however, it delivered mixed results with those opportunities.

Dedicated to the memory of Millie Carlson, the mother of Verb Ballets artistic director Margaret Carlson, the program led off with a reprise of Kay Eichman’s neo-classical ballet “Mendelssohn Italian Symphony” (2018) that was set to music of the same name by Felix Mendelssohn. Inspired by its invigorating music Eichman’s ballet in 3 sections was awash in musicality and Verb’s dancers performed it with enthusiasm and effervescence. Skirting the line between an academic look and feel to the choreography and that of a truer artistry, Eichman’s ballet had its four male/female couples executing lovely group movement patterns, engaging phrases and changes in dancing pace that was a delightful beginning to the stylistically varied program.

And while Eichman’s ballet served to illuminate Verb’s dancers, the next work, Verb principal dancer Kate Webb’s “Stellar Syncopations” (2019), was more earthbound in its effect.

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Verb Ballets in Kate Webb’s “Stellar Syncopations”. Photo by Kolman Rosenberg.

A relative newbie as a choreographer, Webb’s ballet showed she is still finding her way as a choreographer in terms of craft and editing. The ballet, said to visualize the life-cycle of a star, was further hampered by the music it was set to. Commissioned for Verb’s 2019 joint program with the Chamber Music Society of Ohio entitled Akron Legends of Jazz and Dance, Webb set “Excursions” by jazz pianist Pat Pace that was used for choreographer Heinz Poll’s 1982 ballet of the same name. And while Pace’s score had its own musical merits, the forced marriage of the less than dance friendly and dated composition with Webb as choreographer resulted in a ballet that was a bit clunky at times and had trouble holding interest. Kudos however to Verb artistic director Margaret Carlson for giving her artists other opportunities to create, and to Webb for her efforts, but the ballet overall proved itself not ready for prime time. I look forward however to seeing the promising Webb’s evolution as choreographer in future works.

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Lieneke Matte and Benjamin Sheppard in Agrippina Vaganova’s “Diana y Acteon Pas de Deux”. Photo by Kolman Rosenberg.

Next, Verb dancers Lieneke Matte and Benjamin Sheppard performed Agrippina Vaganova’s 1935 showpiece “Diana y Acteon Pas de Deux”. Restaged by Cuba’s Laura Alonzo, the 8-minute classical pas de deux, a favorite of ballet competitions, got the most out of Matte and Sheppard as dancers. The pair turned in a respectful performance of the technically difficult and somewhat flashy pas de deux full of lifts, jumps and pirouettes to the delight of the Breen Center audience.

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Verb Ballets in Stephanie Martinez’s “Wandering On”. Photo by Kolman Rosenberg.

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(L-R) Daniel Cho, Antonio Morillo, Benjamin Shepard and Hunter Hoffman in Stephanie Martinez’s “Wandering On”. Photo by Kolman Rosenberg.

The program concluded with Chicago-based choreographer Stephanie Martinez’s Wandering On (2017).  The contemporary dance work for 4 men and 7 women set to music by composers Lars Meyer, Ezio Bosso and others on a theme of traveling to another realm in search of freedom and enlightenment had the most comfortable fit on Verb’s dancers. A vibrant work with snappy movement, Verb’s dancers appeared to kick their performance energy and stage presence into overdrive.  Of particular note in the atmospheric work was a men’s section bursting with jumps, leaps and aggressive turns and the performances of dancers Emily Dietz, Daniel Cho and newcomer Elizabeth “Betsie” Schaeffer.

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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Bodiography’s ‘Unveiled’ Revealed Caruso’s Entertaining Forward Vision


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Bodiography in Virginie Mécène’s “Curse Upon Iron”. Photo by Eric Rose.

Bodiography Contemporary Ballet Company – Unveiled
Byham Theater
Pittsburgh, PA
February 7, 2020

Reviewed by Steve Sucato

A greater diversity in its repertoire and a showcasing of the organization’s many performance troupes is what Bodiography Contemporary Ballet Company founding artistic director Maria Caruso says is driving the current direction of the organization. That path forward was on display for all to see in Bodiography’s latest home season production Unveiled.

The 90-minute program was highlighted by another of Caruso and company’s collaborations with artists who have ties to the Martha Graham Dance Company — Graham 2 director Virginie Mécène and former Graham Company star Jacqulyn Buglisi and her Buglisi Dance Theatre.

The stylistically varied program began however not with the work of a former Graham disciple, but with a reprise of former Anna Sokolow Dance Company dancer and professor of dance emerita at Princeton University, Ze’eva Cohen’s 20-minute “Meditation on a Square,” commissioned by Bodiography in 2006.

The pseudo-classical modern dance work set to ambient music by Scottish multi-percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie, appeared to reflect on the secular and the sacred in our everyday lives. For the work, the Israeli-born Cohen used a mix of music including traditional Sephardic song that helped conjure up an idealized image of a decades-old Israeli village where young men gathered to play basketball and young women to folk dance.  Ironically, the scene depicting youth life felt a bit juvenile itself in its choreographic approach. Cohen made up for it in sections that followed with spiritual themes to them including a dramatic male duet performed with feeling by BCB’s Derrick Izumi and guest artist Ty Graynor of the Limon Dance Company. The duet was one of struggle both physically and of faith.

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(l-r) Ty Graynor and Derrick Izumi in Ze’eva Cohen’s “Meditation on a Square.” Photo by Eric Rose.

The remainder of “Meditation on a Square” followed a similar pattern with the secular life sections somewhat lacking (apart from an entertaining women’s folk dance trio) compared to those with more sacred intent.

Following a reprise of Caruso’s 2012 ballet Fractured and Rebuilt, performed by Bodiography’s student troupe BCB2, the main company premiered Caruso’s “No Strings Attached.”

The ballet was set to music by Ludovico Einaudi, Marbeya Sound and the Nelue song “No strings Attached” (feat. Kayele) and was inspired by Caruso’s “recent nights in the Al Wadi desert looking at the stars while being serenaded by a world class DJ,” says the program notes. That inspiration manifested itself onstage as a fast-paced and free-spirited ballet. In it were plenty of movement fireworks for Bodiography’s dancers including lifts, leaps and dizzyingly quick turns across the stage. It also contained some real head-scratching moments such as when the stylishly-costumed women in the ballet suddenly stopped in their tracks to execute awkward headstands in the middle of the stage.

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Virginie Mécène and Kevin Predmore in Jacqulyn Buglisi’s “Threshold”. Photo by Eric Rose.

The meat of the program and its most engaging works came after intermission beginning with Buglisi’s signature duet “Threshold” (1991). Danced to Estonian composer Arvo Pӓrt’s haunting Fratres, the 18-minute piece performed by Mécène and husband Kevin Predmore, opened on Mécène under an oval layer of fabric that covered center stage. Mécène writhed and contorted her body as if escaping a birthing sac.  Limbs jutted and stretched at the fabric membrane with an inherent grace.  The dramatic duet had a Graham-like quality in its approach. Then free of her bonds, Mécène crawled onto the back of Predmore who marched her around the stage on all fours. Said to be the embodiment of the angel of death, Predmore’s character appeared determined yet caring in ushering Mécène’s character across the threshold between life and what comes after.  The work’s stunning and powerful imagery came to a climax with Mécène rising to stand atop Predmore’s back and him rearing up like a stallion before he returned her to the fabric tomb she emerged from and then exited the stage on all fours.

Both mature dancers exuded an undeniable stage presence honed over decades in the work and their performances were passionately brilliant.

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Bodiography in Virginie Mécène’s “Curse Upon Iron”. Photo by Eric Rose.

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Blakeley White-McGuire in Jacqulyn Buglisi’s “In the name of the fire, and the flame, and grace”. Photo Eric Rose.

Next, came the premiere of Mécène’s commissioned work for Bodiography, “Curse Upon Iron”.  The 7-minute work for 9 dancers took its title from another Estonian composer Veljo Tormis’ uber dramatic music the work is set to. Mécène’s choreography was big and bold and along with Tormis’ music evoked a sense of menace and intrigue.  Also a nod to Graham in its look, the work was anything but a curse for Bodiography’s dancers who were spectacular in it.

Switching gears from the fullness of “Curse Upon Iron,” Buglisi’s new solo “In the name of the fire, and the flame, and grace” (2019), performed by former Graham Company principal dancer Blakeley White-McGuire, was a reaction to the current world refugee crisis and spoke to a feeling of being invisible in the world. Danced to music by Max Richter, White-McGuire dipped, lunged and let out silent screams along a thoughtfully-crafted path of movement. Her vivid facial expressions and depth of feeling gave voice to a work whose sentiments carried beyond the moment.

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Ty Graynor and Bethany Schimonsky in Maria Caruso’s “Light by Love 2”. Photo by Eric Rose.

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Maria Caruso in her solo “Unveiled”. Photo by Eric Rose.

A sequel to one of Caruso’s best and most celebrated ballet works, the critically-acclaimed romantic pas de deux “Light by Love” (2015), the premiere of “Light by Love 2” picked up where the original left off with its two lovers taking the next step in their relationship. Performed by Graynor and Bodiography’s Bethany Schimonsky, “Light by Love 2”captured the tenderness of the original in close-quartered and embracing choreography but it lacked a bit of the original’s genuineness. Nonetheless, the pas de deux was a lovely next scene in what Caruso hopes will blossom into an evening-length ballet.

The premiere of Carsuo’s latest solo work for herself “Unveiled” followed. A nod to several past solos involving sensual movement and costume changes during it. Caruso at her most Fosse-like jazz sultriness began the slinky solo costumed in a black men’s suit and hat then danced her way out of them and into a choreographic display of her feminine wiles that concluded with her back in the men’s suit by solo’s end.

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Bodiography in Maria Caruso’s “Psalm 23”. Photo by Eric Rose.

Rounding out the diversely entertaining program was Caruso’s latest group work “Psalm 23” danced to music by Bobby McFerrin. The spirited and spiritual work served as a sort of thank you note to the audience for being a part of Unveiled and those in the audience responded in kind with robust applause at program’s end.

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 Debut of Canada’s RUBBERBANDance Group Brings with it a Unique Blend of Hip Hop and Contemporary Dance Styles


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RUBBERBANDance Group in “Vic’s Mix”. Photo by Bill Hebert.

By Steve Sucato

One of the early pioneers of the seamless blending of hip hop dance styles and those of contemporary dance, Victor Quijada’s Montreal-based RUBBERBANDance Group has, the past decade or so, been creating the future of dance while waiting for the dance world to slowly catch up to that future.

Presented by DANCECleveland and Tri-C Performing Arts, the critically acclaimed company will make its Ohio debut on Saturday, November 9 at Playhouse Square’s Mimi Ohio Theatre for one performance only.

Born and raised in Los Angeles to Mexican parents (his father a foundry worker and his mother a factory worker), Quijada found his way to dance at age 8 through b-boying circles and hip-hop clubs. Formal training in other dance styles followed with Quijada becoming a member of LA’s Rudy Perez Performance Ensemble. His career as a professional dancer took off in the late 1990’s when he joined Twyla Tharp’s dance company THARP! and continued in stints with Eliot Feld’s Ballets Tech and Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal. His choreographic career came with the founding RUBBERBAND in 2002.

In a 2013 article for The Scotsman, Quijada said he is the product of “the culture I grew up in, the respect and wonder I have for art, the professional career I had in those high caliber classical and contemporary dance companies, and the interface between those places… If one of those things had been missing, it wouldn’t have led me here.”

Along with starting RUBBERBAND as an experiment in the movement blending of what he calls “the two poles that inhabit him,” Quijada conceived a technique for dancers he calls the RUBBERBAND Method that “combines the energy of hip hop, the refinement of classical ballet, and the angular quality of contemporary dance.”

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RUBBERBANDance Group in “Vic’s Mix”. Photo by Bill Hebert.

That signature technique will be seen in full force in the company’s presentation of Vic’s Mix (2016), a retrospective and remix show that Quijada says he revises and remounts every 5-years and samples some of what he feels is his best bits of choreography from some 40 creations he has made for RUBBERBAND and other dance companies. Saturday’s 75-minute Vic’s Mix program will spans works from 2002-2013.

“It’s a look back on things that are still relevant to me and a chance for me to re-appropriate my own works that I have made for other companies,” said Quijada on the phone from Montreal.

Set to a soundtrack by various composers including original music from longtime company collaborator Jasper Gahunia, Vic’s Mix is delivered in 2 acts. Act 1 covers excerpts from Quijada’s early creations from 2002-2005 performed in sneakers. It will give audiences a taste of Quijada’s evolution as a choreographer and his use of the RUBBERBAND Method. Included in the act will be “The Traviattle” (2003) set to Giuseppe Verdi’s “Libiamo ne’ lieti calici” from the opera La traviata, a piece Quijada originally choreographed as part of his evening-length work Metabolism that has become an audience favorite.

Act 2 revisits excerpts from works made between 2008-2013 including “Second Coming,” a piece Quijada made for Scottish Dance Theatre in (2012). The aptly named work followed Quijada’s very first commission outside of RUBBERBAND, 2003’s “Self Observation Without Judgement” for Scottish Dance Theatre that earned the United Kingdom’s Peter Darrell Choreographic Award. Also a part of act 2 will be an excerpt from 2008’s Punto Ciego, inspired by the nonlinear approaches of author Milan Kundera and filmmaker Quentin Tarantino.

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RUBBERBANDance Group in “Vic’s Mix”. Photo by Bill Hebert.

Vic’s Mix will be performed by RUBBERBAND’s 8-member company who are all steeped in the RUBBERBAND Method after intense training.

“Time here with RUBBERBAND kind of passes like dog years,” says Quijada. “The amount of change and growth in one year for a dancer is enough for 7-years.”

And while Saturday’s program will be RUBBERBAND’s area debut, Quijada’s work has been seen here before with Hubbard Street Dance Chicago’s performance of his “Physikal Linguistiks” in 2010 presented by DANCECleveland.  And the RUBBERBAND Method’s influences were seen recently in former company member James Gregg’s work “éveillé” (2018) for GroundWorks DanceTheater.

With Vic’s Mix Quijada says audiences will experience those things that drove the creation of his works in the first place: “human interactions, intimacy and connection, comedy and the feelings of highs and lows.”

RUBBERBANDance Group performs Vic’s Mix, 7:30 p.m., Saturday, November 9; Playhouse Square’s Mimi Ohio Theatre, 1511 Euclid Ave., Downtown, Cleveland. Tickets are $25-50. For tickets and information visit playhousesquare.org or call (216) 241-6000.

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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North Pointe Ballet Production Celebrates The ‘Why’ Of What They Do


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North Pointe Ballet in “What’s Your Why?”. Photo by Paul Lender, Left of Center photography.

By Steve Sucato

Why artists do what they do is a constant source of curiosity for many.  It is perhaps in trying to understand their motivations that we gain a better understanding of them and their art.  In North Pointe Ballet’s program What’s Your Why?, March 14 and 15 at the Lorain Palace Theater, the West Side ballet company seeks in part to answer those questions of understanding for themselves and audiences.

“The whole show is a reflection on what motivates us as artists and people,” says NPB’s founding director Janet Strukely-Dziak.

An encore performance of the 90-minute repertory program in 3-acts that the company premiered last October at Cleveland’s Near West Theatre, What’s Your Why? begins with Strukely-Dziak’s frenetically-paced group ballet “The Chase” (2009).

Performed to music from the soundtrack of the 2004 movie National Treasure by former YES guitarist Trevor Rabin, “The Chase” gets its inspiration from a young ballet dancer’s constant drive toward perfection,” says Strukely-Dziak.

Next, the company will perform excerpts from Arthur Saint-Leon’s 1870 comedic ballet “Coppelia”, adapted and staged for the company by NPB assistant director Melaina Kampf.

Rounding out the program’s first act will be “Quiet Chaos” (2003) choreographed by former Mercyhurst University Dance Department chair Tauna Hunter, a former mentor of Strukely-Dziak’s. Set to music by Philip Glass and Canadian singer-songwriter Jennifer Berezan, the ballet for 8-dancers is about escaping life’s day-to-day chaos and finding peace.

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North Pointe Ballet dancer in Tauna Hunter’s “Quiet Chaos”. Photo by Paul Lender, Left of Center photography.

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North Pointe Ballet in “Swan Lake”. Photo by Paul Lender, Left of Center photography.

Act 2 of the program coincidentally showcases Act II of Marius Petitpa and Lev Ivanov’s ballet “Swan Lake” (1895) to music by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky. It features NPB principal dancer Elizabeth Radachi as Odette, the White Swan and Matthew Robinson, formerly of Cleveland’s Dancing Wheels, as Prince Siegfried.  In a recent rehearsal of the ballet at Jillian Rian’s Dance School in North Ridgeville, the statuesque Radachi, partnered by Robinson, showed a quiet and steady confidence in her dancing while leading a young corps de ballet of dancers of varying skill as swans.

Act 3 contains the most personal of the ballets on the program in the form of Strukely-Dziak’s “Because of You,” which tells of the motivations behind her founding NPB in 2016 and of the company’s underlying mission to make classical ballet accessible to the community it serves by offering family-friendly, easy-to-understand, professional ballet productions in the western suburbs of Cleveland.

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Janet Strukely-Dziak and son Lucas in “Because of You”. Photo by Paul Lender, Left of Center photography.

Set to an eclectic mix of rock and dance music from Guns N’ Roses, The Doors, Michael Jackson, Justin Timberlake and others performed live by the NPB band, the emotional ballet stars Strukely-Dziak and her 9-year-old autistic son Lucas and looks back on their lives at the genesis of North Pointe Ballet. In addition to the pair, the cast will include NPB company and student ensemble dancers as well as performers from Lorain’s Spectrum Resource Center & School.

“The ballet and the program are a reflection of what North Pointe Ballet is all about” says Strukely-Dziak. “We are all in this together; let’s share our love of dance with everyone”.

North Pointe Ballet presents encore performances of What’s Your Why?, 7 p.m., Saturday, March 14 and 2 p.m., Sunday, March 15; Lorain Palace Theater, 617 Broadway Ave., Lorain, OH. Tickets are $15-20 and available at northpointeballet.org, lorainpalace.org or by calling (440) 245-2323.

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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