Poetry, Tai Chi and Shakespeare: Beijing Dance Theater’s Cleveland Debut had Range

From “Farewell, Shadows”. Photo by Han Jiang.

Beijing Dance Theater
Playhouse Square – Ohio Theatre
Cleveland, Ohio
February 2, 2019

Reviewed by Steve Sucato

As the curtain rose this past Friday at Playhouse Square’s Ohio Theatre, it revealed a sculptural piece suspended low over the stage looking like a deconstructed top spinning round. That image was soon replaced by dancers clad in black shorts and tops who, as the sculpture was raised slowly into the rafters, filtered onto the bare stage and began a flurry of stylized contemporary dance choreography.  It was the first glimpse of Beijing Dance Theater making their Cleveland debut as the first Chinese troupe presented by DANCECleveland (in collaboration with Tri-C Performing Arts and Cleveland Public Library) in its 63-year history.  

Founded in 2008 by award-winning choreographer/artistic director WANG Yuanyuan, Beijing Dance Theater (BDT) is one of a scant few contemporary dance companies in China. The dozen-plus member troupe showed its stylistic range in a trio of varied repertory works by WANG presented February 2 beginning with “Farewell, Shadows,” an excerpt from her 2014 work Wild Grass.  

Set to music by Frenchman Kangding Ray, the work resembled a William Forsythe work such as “In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated” or that of choreographer Jiři Kylián (whom WANG says she admires) in its approach. BDT’s dancers marched emotionless on and off the stage taking turns occupying the audience’s gaze in various dancer configurations and performing sleek, sharp-angled choreography that twisted, turned and saw taught legs rocketing skyward.

Inspired by Lu Xin’s 100-year-old poem about control, WANG created the work as an abstract reflection on China’s current and past repressive social and political climates — the 20-minute piece was ripe with images of being controlled and controlling others in the dancers’ partnered movements.

From “Farewell, Shadows”. Photo by Han Jiang.

A solid opener overall, the only knocks on its performance were a lack crispness at times in the dancing and some of the partnering appeared a bit shaky. A standout however, in the work and throughout the program, was dancer HU Jing whose fluid movements and captivating stage presence commanded attention.

Next, tapping into her traditional Chinese folk dance background learned at the Beijing Dance Academy, WANG’s “Crossing” (2008) mixed traditional Chinese dance with that of sped up Tai Chi movement.  

Danced to an atmospheric score by WU Jun and LIU Bo, the 17-minute work began with a solo dancer rolling out a streamer along a corridor of light at the rear of the otherwise darkened stage. Soon other dancers joined in rolling out more streamers across the lengths of the floor to frame and bisect the stage space.

The quiet work showcased a swirling, elegant movement language that fit well on the cast of six men and four women both technically and seemingly spiritually. Costumed in loose-fitting grey pants and teal shirts, the dancers, in various groupings and configurations, appeared to swirl and melt into WANG’s choreography creating a mesmerizing visual display.

ZHAO Wuyue as Ophelia in WANG Yuanyuan’s “Hamlet”. Photo by Han Jiang.

While “Crossing” laid out a clear path of intent from start to finish, the program’s final work, a 37-minute excerpt from WANG’s Hamlet, felt disjointed. Joining Shakespeare’s tragic tale near its end and lacking the ballet’s dramatic sets because they wouldn’t fit the Ohio Theatre’s stage space, the surreal Hamlet excerpt lacked context on its own. Further hindered by WANG’s abstract approach to portraying the Prince’s inner struggle with good and evil over avenging his father’s death, the work’s beauty took a while to come into focus. Danced to music by German composer Dirk Haubrich, at the outset the excerpt appeared more like a scene from a dark version of the ballet Coppélia than Hamlet. Dancer ZHENG Jie as Prince Hamlet flitted about the stage moving the limbs of and repositioning the bodies of over half a dozen dancers representing characters in story that were symbolically or metaphorically made doll-like. Perhaps alluding to his character on the verge of madness, ZHENG imbued the Prince with an almost over-the-top theatricality in the repetitive scene which lasted long after its symbolic point had been made.  

Salvation for the excerpt followed however in the form of dancer ZHAO Wuyue as the radiant ghost of Hamlet’s doomed love interest Ophelia.  In a white dress and appearing before Prince Hamlet, ZHAO, while slowly and gracefully dancing about the stage, dropped a seemingly endless supply of confetti representative of minute flower petals from her hands as she danced. The scene had a Giselle-like quality to it with a frightened and perhaps guilt-ridden Prince Hamlet haunted by her presence.  ZHAO’s performance was spellbindingly beautiful and capped off a mostly successful debut for Beijing Dance Theater that brought the audience to its feet in appreciation.

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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‘Multiplicity’ Program brings together all of Bodiography’s Sister Companies

Christen Weimer’s “Mother’s Little Helper”. Photo by Eric Rosé.

Bodiography Contemporary Ballet – Multiplicity
Byham Theater
Pittsburgh, PA
November 17, 2018

Reviewed by Steve Sucato

After a 3-year hiatus Bodiography Contemporary Ballet’s longest running dance series Multiplicity returned to Pittsburgh’s Byham Theater on November 17 with its usual cavalcade of repertory works by current and former company members. What made this iteration of Multiplicity different from prior programs was that the works were for the first time performed by all three of the organization’s sister troupes: Bodiography Contemporary Ballet, BCB Charlotte and BCB3.

The program kicked off with Amanda Fisher’s re-envisioned “Pizzicato” (2018), a 7-minute work danced to upbeat music by The Piano Guys featuring eight of Bodiography Contemporary Ballet’s dancers in crimson dresses. A reaction to the mood of the music, Fisher’s choreography, while resembling stylized ballet classroom exercises, was slightly seductive and aesthetically pleasing.  Highlighting the piece, and Multiplicity overall, was standout dancer Nicole Jamison who has fast become a star for the company.

Amanda Fisher’s “Pizzicato”. Photo by Eric Rosé.

Maria Caruso’s “Valley of Her”. Photo by Eric Rosé.

Next, BCB3, a troupe of retired Bodiography dancers performed artistic director Maria Caruso’s latest effort “Valley of Her”. The 13 ½ minute piece in four sections was danced to music by Pittsburgh indie folk band Ryan Hoffman and the Pioneers that began with a brief solo sung by dancer Michaelina McGee before she joined her fellow BCB3 performers. Caruso’s choreography for the all-female cast of eight appeared measured and focused predominantly on shape and line. The women partnered each other in lifts and sculptural poses. Although choreographically simplistic looking, the work, thanks in large part to the band’s music, had a certain allure to it.

After choreographer Christen Weimer’s body image-themed “Mother’s Little Helper” (2018) for Bodiography Contemporary Ballet’s dancers, company trainees Josef Hartman and Renee Simeone shone  in a reprise of Andrea Levick’s powerful duet “Retorque” (2018). An emerging talent, Levick showed a level of maturity as a choreographer in her movement choices for the duet performed to music by Glass Animals. That was especially evident in sections of the work where the dancers engaged in expressive solo riffs and partnered dancing that mixed hip hop and contemporary dance styles.

Andrea Levick’s “Retorque”. Photo by Eric Rosé.

The program’s first half concluded with perhaps the best work of the evening, Caruso’s “Journey” (2008). Set to music by Philip Glass, the seasoned trio of Amanda Fisher, Melissa Tyler and Jamison were lovely in Caruso’s sharp and musical contemporary ballet choreography. The ballet was Caruso at her creative best.

The program’s second half opened with an homage to the struggles of young mothers, Caruso’s “Really?!” for BCB Charlotte dancers (plus Jamison). Set to music by Kansas City’s Quixotic, the 7-minute piece was a bit “Fosse” meets “frustrated mom” pantomime that offered little to be engaged with.

Maria Caruso’s “Really?!”. Photo by Eric Rosé.

Next, Jamison took on the role of choreographer for her fellow Bodiography Contemporary Ballet dancers. Her piece “Curdle” (2018), danced to music by Ezio Bosso, Nils Frahm, and Yann Tiersen , portrayed “the dissolution of an ideal.” Lively and gestural with the dancers engaging in arm movements that landed behind their heads and them tapping their fingers on the stage floor, the work proved interesting in parts.

A vehicle for BCB Charlotte’s quartet of dancers to don sultry and sexy demeanors, Caruso’s “Runaway Runway” (2018) cast the group as runway models in a cat walk driven jaunt. Given BCB Charlotte dancers’ mature, engaging stage presence as skilled performers, it would have been great to see the group in a dance work with some real substance and meaty choreography. Both “Really?!” and “Runaway Runway” fell short in doing that.

Maria Caruso’s “Runaway Runway”. Photo by Eric Rosé.
Maria Caruso’s “Submerged”. Photo by Eric Rosé.

Rounding out the program were Kristie Corso’s “Cliff’s Edge” (2018) for the main company about how life’s stresses and setbacks can adversely affect relationships with those we most care about, and a reprise Caruso’s “Submerged” (2018), a ballet inspired by 2018 Academy Award Best Picture-winner The Shape of Water, that had Bodiography’s dancers swimming through a mesmerizing succession of dance phrases that together were a solid closer to an up and down program.

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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Neos Dance Theatre’s ‘1940’s Nutcracker’ brings Nostalgia to a Beloved Holiday Tradition

Neos 1940 Nutcracker 2016 green1

Anna Trumbo in Neos Dance Theatre’s “1940’s Nutcracker.” Photo courtesy of Neos Dance Theatre.

By Steve Sucato

As holiday traditions go, The Nutcracker ballet ranks among this country’s most well known. German author E.T.A. Hoffmann’s classic tale reworked by French writer Alexandre Dumas (The Three Musketeers) into the saccharine version we know about the fantastical adventure to faraway lands of young girl with her beloved Nutcracker doll come to life, is one that has entertained audiences and sparked the imagination of young children for decades.

Memorable characters such as uncle Drosselmeyer, the Mouse King, Sugar Plum Fairy and of course Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart…wait…what…Bogie and Bacall? That’s right, in Northeast Ohio’s Neos Dance Theatre’s 1940’s Nutcracker the Hollywood stars are just a few of the unusual characters to appear in this unique, regionally-flavored production.

Perhaps the most re-interpreted ballet story in history, there are hundreds of versions of The Nutcracker at all levels from dance school productions to million dollar-plus extravaganza’s to choose from each holiday season across the country.

For choreographer and  founding artistic director of Neos, Robert Wesner, the idea for a Nutcracker set in the 1940’s came from his having performed various versions of the ballet upwards of a thousand times in his dance career and feeling he could improve on it.

“For me, I always felt the first and second acts of the ballet [as they are done traditionally] lacked a through line,” says Wesner. “I wanted better storytelling and a fuller representation of the main character’s journey.”


Neos Dance Theatre’s Kassandra Lee as Marie in the “1940’s Nutcracker.” Photo courtesy of Neos Dance Theatre.

Wesner says in thinking about his vision for a Nutcracker production he began to look at how we as a culture [in the U.S.] celebrate Christmas. “I feel as though our conceptions of the holiday are pretty rooted in old Christmas-themed movies from the 1940’s such as “Miracle on 34th Street” and “It’s a Wonderful Life,” says Wesner. “What really sealed the deal for me that this concept could work for a Nutcracker production was the time period was within arm’s reach of the memory of a lot of audience members.”

Currently there are three different versions of Neos’ 2-hour 1940’s Nutcracker specific to regions in northern Ohio. This year the company will perform two of them with a cast of upwards of fifty dancers. The first, at the Renaissance Theatre in Mansfield, Ohio December 8 & 9 is themed to Richland County circa the 1940s. The second, December 14-16 at Lorain County Community College’s Stocker Arts Center in Elyria is themed to Lorain County during that period.

While the dance elements for each version and Tchaikovsky’s iconic score for the ballet are basically the same in each, the video backdrops used in the ballet gleaned from historical photos and imagery specific to each region changes.

“The experience for an audience member to be able to look at their own history and see a bit of themselves in it is impactful,” says Wesner.

With this approach Neos’ 1940’s Nutcracker not only seeks to deliver the magic of the Nutcracker story to its younger audience members, but also a familiarity and sense of nostalgia for those members young at heart.


Neos Dance Theatre dancers in “1940’s Nutcracker.” Photo courtesy of Neos Dance Theatre.

Neos’ Nutcracker maintains the ballet’s familiar structure in telling the dreamstate story of young Marie (Clara in other productions) adventures and budding romance.  Where it most differs from others is in its substitution of familiar characters from the original with those from the 1940’s. Johnny, Maries’ next door neighbor becomes the Nutcracker Prince, Bogie and Bacall take the place of the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier, Marie’s WWII soldier father becomes Drosselmeyer and Mae West and Rosie the Riveter make appearances in the place of other second act characters.

In a holiday landscape littered with cookie-cutter Nutcracker productions, Neos’ 1940’s Nutcracker is a wonderfully refreshing change for those seeking something different without giving up any of the charm and magic the Nutcracker story carries with it.


Neos Dance Theatre dancers in “1940’s Nutcracker.” Photo courtesy of Neos Dance Theatre.

Neos Dance Theatre performs 1940’s Nutcracker:

8 p.m., Saturday, December 8 and 2 p.m., Sunday, December 9 at the Renaissance Theatre, 138 Park Avenue West, Mansfield, Ohio. Tickets are $15-50 (Veterans with valid IDs are eligible for two free tickets for either performance when reserved in advance at the Renaissance box office).  To purchase tickets or for more information visit neosdancetheatre.org, mansfieldtickets.com or call (419) 522-2726.

11 a.m., Friday, December 14 (Student Matinee), 7:30 p.m., Saturday, December 15 and 2 p.m., Sunday, December 16. Lorain County Community College’s Stocker Arts Center – Hoke Theatre, 1005 N Abbe Rd, Elyria, Ohio.  Tickets are $5-35. To purchase tickets or for more information visit neosdancetheatre.org, lorainccc/stocker.edu or call (440) 366-4040.

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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