Magic and Medieval Song Power GroundWorks DanceTheater’s Latest Production at Cain Park


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Damien Highfield and Felise Bagley in Adam Barruch’s “Hex.” Photo by Mark Horning.

GroundWorks DanceTheater
Cain Park – Alma Theater
Cleveland Heights, Ohio
July 15-17, 2016

Reviewed by Steve Sucato

The usual oppressive heat that seems to plague GroundWorks DanceTheater’s annual summer program at Cain Park’s Alma Theater was nowhere to be found on July 16 making the company’s already eagerly anticipated dance production even more enjoyable to experience.

It began with the world-premiere of Brooklyn-based choreographer Adam Barruch’s “Hex” that from the get-go, cast a spell over the audience. The clever work themed on magic and mysticism was played out in detailed choreography dense with animated hand and body gestures, Rube Goldberg machine-like passing of a “grimoire” (a book of magic spells or invocations), and wonderfully timed and executed bits of physical acting by GroundWorks’ dancers who fainted, froze and convulsed after having spells cast on them.

Set to a cinematic soundscape compiled by Barruch that included music by Morton Feldman, American composer Keith Kenniff (a.k.a. Goldmund), and Texas ambient music duo Stars of Lid, “Hex,” said Barruch in an earlier in-studio showing of the work, got its inspiration from a book on Wicca he says his parent’s had that sparked his interest in magic and mysticism.  In “Hex,” Barruch pitted GroundWorks’ five dancers – including new dancer Stephanie Terasaki in for Annika Sheaff who is on maternity leave – against one another in a competition to possess a grimoire that would allow them wield control over the others.

Like a tame Harry Potter movie magic battle without the wands, the dancers twisted, turned and literally bent over backwards to gather, grasp and hold onto the grimoire. In wonderfully interconnected choreography that often circled back on itself, the dancers repeatedly cast debilitating spells on one another only to have them quickly broken.

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(l-r) Lauren Garson, Damien Highfield, Stephanie Terasaki, Michael Marquez and Felise Bagley in Adam Barruch’s “Hex.” Photo by Mark Horning.

Felise Bagley captivated as the more experienced sorceress of the bunch, often claiming control of the grimoire. In one memorable scene she opened it and rotated it causing several other dancers under a trance to move in unison with the book’s movements and suddenly collapse to the floor when she slammed the grimoire shut.

Mostly the target of many of the dancer’s spells, Terasaki, a recent Juilliard grad, was marvelous in both her technical and acting skills absorbing and feeding back to the audience a real sense of taken over by the spells cast on her.

Ouija board hand movements by dancers over the book, an altar-like table as the grimoire’s home, a pyramid outline on the stage floor, and Dennis Duggan’s ominous mood lighting all added to the work’s occult-like energy that swept over the theater tingling one’s senses throughout.

Hex ended with an entranced Terasaki, standing on the grimoire caught in loop of hand and arm movements that circled her head with ever increasing speed.

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GroundWorks DanceTheater in David Shimotakahara’s “Carmina Burana.” Photo by Mark Horning

Where “Hex” mesmerized, GroundWorks’ artistic director David Shimotakahara’s compact version of his “Carmina Burana” (2016) performed to Carl Orff’s bold and booming score was as an invigorating wake up call.

Performed this past May in conjunction with the Akron Symphony Orchestra, choir, opera soloists and a much larger group of dancers, this pocket-sized version of it performed to recorded music with only eight dancers was bound to be less impactful. Despite that, within the intimate setting of the Alma Theater, the work had a level of expansiveness to it.

It was delivered as a series of dance vignettes themed on the cautionary songs in Orff’s score about drinking, gluttony, gambling and others he took from 24 poems in the medieval text Carmina Burana.

Costumed in long black and red reversible skirts reminiscent of those used in Heinz Poll’s “Bolero,” the dancers (4 men, 4 women), including three guests also with Juilliard connections, swooshed and swayed the skirts into motion to Orff’s powerhouse “O Fortuna” that opened the work. At times the choreography had a ceremonial feel  and included some folk dance patterning in it.

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Michael Marquez in David Shimotakahara’s “Carmina Burana.” Photo by Mark Horning.

Utilizing Shimotakahara’s signature ballet/modern movement style, the dancers appeared in duets, trios and en masse depicting the feel of the stories contained in Orff’s songs from swinging from a rope a la a circus act, to acting like drunkards and engaging in playful frolicking.

Of the many grander dance productions of Carmina Burana in circulation, Shimotakahara’s understated version was pleasant enough and GroundWorks’ dancers performed it with determination and vitality.

The program repeats August 5 & 6 as part of the Heinz Poll Summer Dance Festival at Glendale Cemetery, 150 Glendale Ave., Akron, Ohio. The family-friendly performances are free. For more information visit akrondancefestival.org.

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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Otake Masterful in Biscayne Bay Butoh Program


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Eiko Otake performs “A Body in Places” at Miami’s Vizcaya Museum and Gardens. Photo by Armando Rodriguez.

Eiko Otake – A Body in Places
Vizcaya Museum & Gardens
Miami, Florida
March 30, 2016

Reviewed by Steve Sucato

A bolt of red fabric hung down from a second floor half-wall that surrounded Miami’s Vizcaya Museum & Gardens’ Enclosed Courtyard. Behind it dancer/choreographer Eiko Otake bit off a mouthful of petals from white chrysanthemum and spit them out to cascade down to where a gathering of spectators stood watching her. Otake then darted along the second floor hallway crying out “Let me in” and “Please open.”

This bizarre behavior, and what was to follow, helped define a mischievous and melancholy character Otake cultivated in the latest chapter of her site-specific solo project, A Body in Places.

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Eiko Otake performs “A Body in Places” at Miami’s Vizcaya Museum and Gardens. Photo by Armando Rodriguez.

Begun in 2014, Otake has performed the partially improvised A Body in Places at numerous sites in Japan, Hong Kong and the United States; perhaps none grander than Vizcaya, the former winter home of International Harvester founder James Deering.

For Otake, one half of Butoh’s most famous duo of Eiko & Koma, the rapid pace of this work was a marked departure from the usual glacial-pace she and husband Koma perform movement at.

In a white and black multi-layered traditional-looking Japanese costume, Otake then descended a flight of stairs and weaved her way through the 100 plus onlookers, briefly stopping to interact with a few before exited out Vizcaya’s manor house’s Enclosed Loggia onto the East Terrace that overlooked Biscayne Bay where the remainder of the performance played out.

Like a woman out of place and time, Otake’s character constantly searched for solace from those around her and from her surroundings.

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Eiko Otake performs “A Body in Places” at Miami’s Vizcaya Museum and Gardens. Photo by Armando Rodriguez.

Moving from one area of Vizcaya’s grounds to another, the scene resembled a golf gallery following her like some petite Tiger Woods. Finding a puddle of water, Otake stood in it staring off into the distance as the swell of followers surrounded her.

There was a quiet beauty to Otake’s movements, despite a growing sense that her character, who became more and more desperate, might be contemplating a watery end by throwing herself into the Bay.

Juxtaposed in this scene of desperation and ceremony was the playful antics of 3-year-old Benjamin. The boy, in a shark t-shirt and eating an apple, was fixated on Otake approaching her on several occasions to marvel at what she was doing like some novel toy come to life.

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Eiko Otake performs “A Body in Places” at Miami’s Vizcaya Museum and Gardens. Photo by Armando Rodriguez.

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Eiko Otake performs “A Body in Places” at Miami’s Vizcaya Museum and Gardens. Photo by Armando Rodriguez.

The piece continued with Otake moving about the Terrace toward Vizcaya’s dock area, drinking water from a bowl and shedding layers of her costume only to pick them up from the ground her teeth.

After mournfully lying prone on the ground for a spell and then tossing handfuls of chrysanthemums into the bay, the work concluded with Otake escaping the crowd down a flight of stairs to the water’s edge, not to jump in, but to look to the heavens before taking a bow.

Much could be read into Otake’s character and the intent of the solo work. Whatever the interpretation, the piece was in many ways secondary to Otake as performer. She was masterful in her expressions, timing and ability to read the audience; teasing us along with just enough to peak our curiosity as to what was next. A legendary performer in a wonderfully picturesque setting, what more could a dance lover ask for.

A Body in Places Miami was presented by Tigertail Productions in conjuction with the Consulate General of Japan.

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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MorrisonDance and Elu Dance Company Double Bill Food for the Soul


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Elu Dance Company’s (L-R) Mikaela Clark and Mackenzie Valley in “barefaced.” Photo by Lauren Stonestreet.

MorrisonDance – HUManIMALS
Elu Dance Company – barefaced
Gordon Square Theatre at Cleveland Public Theatre

Cleveland, Ohio
March 17-19, 2016

Reviewed by Steve Sucato

Kicking off Cleveland Public Theatre annual DanceWorks series, the split bill of Cleveland-based modern dance troupes MorrisonDance and Elu Dance Company (formerly Without Words Movement), provided an evening of opposites; one, the dance equivalent of snack food. The other, a dish filled with complex flavors ─ both satisfying in their own rights.

The program, on March 17 at CPT’s Gordon Square Theatre, began with MorrisonDance’s HUManIMALS, choreographed by company founder Sarah Morrison and Taliesin Reid Haugh.

The multimedia work tapped into the similarities and differences humans share with our animal kingdom brethren and began with “Murmuration Improvisation,” a structured improvisation performed by the company’s dancers.

Dancing in front of a video projection of random people’s feet as they walked down a street (compiled from footage from RiMind and keepturningleft.co.uk), MorrisonDance’s performers mimicked those in the video. This was a recurring theme throughout the piece with a video being shown and then the performers emulating the action in it in some way afterwards. Moving to music by Marconi Union, the dancers walked about as Inlet Dance Theatre’s Joshua Brown seated in the audience, called out word suggestions from the audience such as “strength” and “passion” that then directed the performer’s actions. The improvisation was an exercise in the obvious and proved uninteresting.

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MorrisonDance in Sarah Morrison’s “Peacock Spider.” Photo © Bob Perkoski, http://www.Perkoski.com

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MorrisonDance in Taliesin Reid Haugh’s “Simian Suit Sequence.” Photo © Bob Perkoski, http://www.Perkoski.com

Next, video from a 2010 episode of PBS’s Nature showed a pat of Chilean flamencos moving about as a prelude to Morrison’s “Why?,” in which six dancers basically recreated what the flamencos in the videos did. Wearing flamenco heads created by Scott Radke and dancing to music by Irish cellist Vyvienne Long, the dancers’ amusing impressions of flamencos proved pleasing.  A similar vignette about the movements of the peacock spider followed.

Keeping with the uncomplicated theme of HUManIMALS, Haugh’s “Simian Suit Sequence” began with the showing of a popular YouTube video from Frans de Waal’s “Moral Behavior in Animals” TED talk in which Capuchin monkeys were given unequal rewards for doing the same task. Like humans the monkeys reacted poorly to the inequality. In Haugh’s dance work that followed, Morrison portrayed a lab worker monitoring the activity of three other dancers that acted like monkeys in feel-good, hip hop-infused choreography.

On the whole HUManIMALS was lighthearted fare suitable for audiences of all ages.

MorrisonDance’s half of the evening concluded with the group work “A Sense of belonging,” choreographed by Morrison, and its most challenging and complex work, the solo “Saudade,” created and performed by MaryPat Dorr.  Meaning a feeling of longing, melancholy, or nostalgia, “Saudade,” was danced to music by art pop collective The Irrepressibles and was an emotional cloudburst compared to HUManIMALS beaming sunshine. Dorr’s performance of the solo rendered a special beauty that was spellbinding.

Where MorrisonDance’s HUManIMALS had the simple joys of a cartoon, Elu Dance Company’s barefaced had all the earmarks of a Greek tragedy.

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Elu Dance Company’s (L-R) Mikaela Clark and Mackenzie Valley in “barefaced.” Photo by Lauren Stonestreet.

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Elu Dance Company’s Mikaela Clark in “barefaced.” Photo by Lauren Stonestreet.

Directed, choreographed and performed by company founders Mikaela Clark and Mackenzie Valley, barefaced was heavily inspired by C.S. Lewis’ 1956 novel “Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold” and was a cut above the prior works I have seen from the pair as well as being a highlight of Cleveland’s 2015-2016 dance season.

Following the novel’s storyline, Clark and Valley played out in dance the heartbreaking tale of Psyche and her older sister Orual and their emotional bond. Set to music composed, performed and recorded by artists from Ohio-based non-profit Ancient Path, the dance-theater piece also used recorded narration of excerpts from C.S. Lewis’ novel to smartly help drive its storytelling.

In the work, Clark portrayed Psyche, the cast out wife of Cupid looking for redemption, and Valley, danced the role of her older sister Orual, a mortal woman jealous of the life of a goddess Psyche had and resentful of Cupid for luring Psyche away from her and leaving her eternally alone and lonely.

Danced on and around a multi-tiered set piece by Mark Sugiuchi that the performers used as a symbolic ladder to the realm of the gods, the work had the feel of a Martha Graham mythology-themed ballet but with very different movement language. The athletic pair of Clark and Valley danced with strength and grace in well-crafted choreography filled with rounded arm and shoulder movements and characterized by emotionally riveting acting that brilliantly revealed the joys and plight of their characters.

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Elu Dance Company’s Mackenzie Valley in “barefaced.” Photo by Lauren Stonestreet.

Thoughtful, poignant and smartly conceived, barefaced enhanced in dance Lewis’ captivating story.  Clark and Valley were marvelous in eliciting empathy, sympathy and caring for their characters from the audience. And with its captivating story and powerful dancing, barefaced left a lasting impression that lingered long after Clark and Valley took their final bows.

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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In ‘Monchichi,’ Company Wang Ramirez Reveal the Future of Contemporary Dance


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Company Wang Ramirez in “Monchichi.” Photo by Nika Kramer.

Company Wang Ramirez – Monchichi
Capitol Theatre at the Riffe Center
Columbus, Ohio
March 1, 2016

Reviewed by Steve Sucato

Pulsating electronic music filled Columbus’ Capitol Theatre at the Riffe Center as Sébastien Ramirez and Honji Wang, a.k.a. Company Wang Ramirez, took the stage March 1 in their 2011 dance-theater piece Monchichi.

Not to be confused with the line of popular Japanese stuffed toy monkeys, the 55-minute Monchichi combined an abstraction of hip hop dance with other dance styles and martial arts movement that could very well represent the first salvo in the next trend in contemporary dance. Frenchman and former hip-hop B-boy, Ramirez and ballet-trained Wang – a German-born dancer of Korean descent – were nothing short of stellar in the abstract work that infused narrative, atmospheric lighting effects and a dose of humor. The pairs’ dancing throughout it was crisp, polished and masterful. On shadowy stage occupied only by a leafless tree, Wang, costumed in lingerie and sporting a top bun, moved her hands in bird-like flaps as a shirtless, shoeless Ramirez in long pants skittered behind her in movement blending hip hop flamenco dance.

Performed to music composed by Everdayz (Ila Koutchoukov) along with selections from Carlos Gardel, Alva Noto, Nick Cave and others, the pair moved through individual riffs that were as practiced as Tai Chi and as smooth as silk.

As the work progressed, the once sparse tree glowed red with bulbs that lit sparking imagery of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Just one of many images the two dancers conjured up in choreography that had them chasing one another, bickering with each other, and spouting random narrative including Ramirez recounting living in Germany and an old man from his neighborhood being named Monchichi.

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Company Wang Ramirez in “Monchichi.” Photo by Nika Kramer.

Much more could be written about the many layered goings on onstage and the smart and interesting interactions between Wang and Ramirez, but only seeing the work for yourself can do it justice. In the end what transpired in Monchichi was a captivating slice of life delivered by some killer dancers that was a highlight of this and any other dance season.

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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2016 ‘Spring to Dance Festival’ Swan Song for Founder Uthoff


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Dayton Contemporary Dance Company (DCDC) performs Sunday, May 29, 2016 at Anheuser-Busch Performance Hall. Photo courtesy of Dance St. Louis.


By Steve Sucato

Dance St. Louis’ 9th annual Emerson Spring to Dance Festival, May 27-29 at the Touhill Performing Arts Center on the campus of the University of Missouri-St. Louis, will be a bittersweet one for Festival founder Michael Uthoff. After a decade as executive and artistic director of the 50-year-old Missouri presenting organization, Uthoff is stepping down to pursue other opportunities.

The product of a dancer household in Santiago, Chile, Uthoff’s parents, Ernst Uthoff and Lola Botka were dancers and founded the Chilean National Ballet. Uthoff took up dance late by today’s standards beginning after high school. Moving to the U.S., he studied at New York’s Juilliard School, the School of American Ballet and the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance. His professional career as a dancer included stints with the José Limón Company and as a principal dancer with Joffrey Ballet. In 1973, he founded Hartford Ballet and in 1992 he became artistic director of Ballet Arizona in Phoenix. As a choreographer, he has created ballets for numerous companies including Ballet Nacional Chileno, Royal Winnipeg Ballet, Hartford Ballet and Ballet Arizona.

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Michael Uthoff

In taking over the leadership of Dance St. Louis in 2006, among the many initiatives Uthoff started or built upon at Dance St. Louis was the Emerson Spring to Dance Festival.

“I felt there was a great deal of talent especially in the mid-west that wasn’t seen,” says Uthoff.  “I was in awe of the quality and variety of dance that nobody knew about.”

With Spring to Dance, Uthoff says he saw an opportunity to make dance more accessible to audiences by featuring an eclectic mix of those undiscovered artists and troupes.

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Aerial Dance Chicago performs Sunday, May 29, 2016 in Anheuser-Busch Performance Hall. Photo courtesy of Dance St. Louis.

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Grand Rapids Ballet performs Saturday, May 28, 2016 in Anheuser-Busch Performance Hall. Photo courtesy of Grand Rapids Ballet.

Uthoff says he receives around 100 applications per year from dance artists and companies wanting to be a part of the $200,000 plus Festival. And while the main focus has been on choosing local and regional dance artists and troupes, past Festivals have also included performances by members of more recognizable companies including Joffrey Ballet, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Dance Theatre of Harlem and Pilobolus.

While other dance festivals of this type such as New York City Center’s Fall for Dance Festival rely more heavily on big name dance companies to attract audiences, Uthoff and Dance St. Louis did so by offering audiences a lot of dance of varying styles at an affordable price. In the process they created one of the most important national dance festivals for regional dance artists and troupes there is.

“You look at companies such as Ballet Memphis, Lucky Plush, Eisenhower Dance and others that got themselves moving forward very fast because of the Festival.” says Uthoff.

In addition, the festival has shined a spotlight on Dance St. Louis and dance in St. Louis with regular appearances at Spring to Dance by local dance troupes including Saint Louis Ballet, The Big Muddy Dance Company, Modern American Dance Company (MADCO) and others.

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Helen Simoneau Danse performs Saturday, May 28, 2016 in the Lee Theater. Photo courtesy of Dance St. Louis.

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The Big Muddy Dance Company performs Sunday, May 29, 2016 in the Anheuser-Busch Performance Hall. Photo courtesy of Dance St. Louis.

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The Dancing Wheels Company performs Saturday, May 28, 2016 in the Anheuser-Busch Performance Hall. Photo courtesy of The Dancing Wheels Company.

Not only are introduces audiences to new dance companies, Utoff says another by-product is introducing the dance companies to each other.

“These companies were watching each other for the first time,” says Uthoff. “In many cases they didn’t know the other existed. A cross-pollination began to occur where choreographers from one company were being hired by another because of what had been seen at Spring to Dance.”

Having been a dancer, choreographer and artistic director for decades, Uthoff says he loved being on the other side of the fence as a dance presenter with Dance St. Louis.

“I was given the freedom to implement certain artistic endeavors that fostered creativity in other people,” says Uthoff.  “Part of that was allowing lesser known companies to be seen in an environment that hopefully will bring them greater acclaim and success.”

Here’s a look at the Festival’s nightly performances (subject to change) at Touhill Performing Arts Center’s two theaters:

Friday, May 27, 2016

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Push Dance Company performs Friday, May 28, 2016 in the Lee Theater. Photo by Matt Haber.

Lee Theater – 6 -7 PM

PUSH Dance Company (San Francisco, CA)
Barkin/Selissen Project (New York, NY)
Laura Careless/Alchemy for Nomads (Brooklyn, NY)
Afriky Lolo (St. Louis, MO)

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Peridance Contemporary Dance Company performs Friday, May 28, 2016 in Anheuser-Busch Performance Hall. Photo by Cherylynn Tsushima.

Anheuser-Busch Performance Hall – 7:30 – 9:30 PM

Owen/Cox Dance Group (Kansas City, MO)
Houston METdance Company (Houston, TX)
Peridance Contemporary Dance Company (New York, NY)
Saint Louis Ballet (St. Louis, MO)
Jennifer Muller/The Works (New York, NY)
Giordano Dance Chicago (Chicago, IL)

Saturday, May 28, 2016

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Project 44 performs Saturday, May 28, 2016 in the Lee Theater. Photo courtesy of Dance St. Louis.

Lee Theater – 6 -7 PM

Common Thread Contemporary Dance Company (St. Louis, MO)
Project 44 (Astoria, NY)
Helen Simoneau Danse (Winston-Salem, NC)
BODYART (Los Angeles, CA)

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Chicago Tap Theatre performs Saturday, May 28, 2016 in Anheuser-Busch Performance Hall. Photo courtesy of Dance St. Louis.

Anheuser-Busch Performance Hall 7:30 – 9:30 PM

MADCO (St. Louis, MO)
Thodos Dance Chicago (Chicago, IL)
Joel Hall Dancers (Chicago, IL)
Chicago Tap Theatre (Chicago, IL)
The Dancing Wheels Company (Cleveland, OH)
Grand Rapids Ballet (Grand Rapids, MI)

Sunday, May 29, 2016

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Cheyenne Phillips performs Sunday, May 29, 2016 in the Lee Theater. Photo by Gerry Love.

Lee Theater – 6 -7 PM

3 Soloists
Tayia Deria
Tyra Kopf
Cheyenne Phillips

Common Thread Contemporary Dance Company [LINDSAY HAWKINS]
The Big Muddy Dance Company [AUDREY SIMES]
MADCO [HANNA BRICSTON]

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Ballet Memphis performs Sunday, May 29, 2016 in Anheuser-Busch Performance Hall. Photo courtesy of Dance St. Louis.

Anheuser-Busch Performance Hall 7:30 – 9:30 PM

The Big Muddy Dance Company (St. Louis, MO)
Eisenhower Dance (Southfield, MI)
Joffrey Ballet Duet (Chicago, IL)
Aerial Dance Chicago (Chicago, IL)
Dayton Contemporary Dance Company (Dayton, OH)
Ballet Memphis (Memphis, TN)

Location

The Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center on the campus of the University of Missouri-St. Louis
1 University Blvd
St. Louis, MO 63121
(866) 516-4949

Single Ticket Prices

Lee Theater – $10 per night
Anheuser-Busch Performance Hall – $15 per night
Tickets to see all of the performances in both theaters – $20 per night (while supplies last)
Tickets are available at the Dance St. Louis box office at 3310 Samuel Shepard Drive (in Grand Center), St. Louis, MO 63103, or by calling 314-534-6622 or by visiting dancestlouis.org

Dance St. Louis

Dance St. Louis is widely recognized as the leading dance presenter in St. Louis, the Midwest and by the professional dance community. Founded in 1966, Dance St. Louis has been bringing the greatest dance of the world to St. Louis audiences for 50 years. Dance St. Louis is dedicated to the enrichment of the cultural landscape and artistic reputation of St. Louis by presenting great dance companies and educational opportunities that make dance accessible to everyone. Dance St. Louis also conducts a broad range of education programs for the St. Louis community. Each year, the Education Outreach Program introduces thousands of schoolchildren to the magic of dance through in-school workshops and mainstage performances. For more information, please visit dancestlouis.org.

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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Cleveland Ballet’s Reenvisioned ‘Coppélia’ a Triumph


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Cleveland Ballet’s Lauren Stenroos as Swanilda and Nicholas Montero as Franz in Ramón Oller’s “Coppélia.” Photo by Mark Horning.

Cleveland Ballet – Coppélia
Ohio Theatre at Playhouse Square
Cleveland, Ohio
May 13-14, 2016

Reviewed by Steve Sucato

For Gladisa Guadalupe’s new Cleveland Ballet, the decision to hire Spanish choreographer Ramón Oller to create its very first story ballet was genius. The world-premiere of Oller’s re-envisioned Coppélia, May 13 at Playhouse Square’s Ohio Theatre was just what Cleveland’s newest resident ballet company needed to advance its goals of becoming a force on the local dance scene and beyond.

The comic ballet, choreographed by Arthur Saint-Léon in 1870 to music by composer Léo Delibes, is based on tales by E. T. A. Hoffmann and is about eccentric inventor Dr. Coppélius who makes life-size dancing dolls including his beloved Coppélia, and the mishaps that happen when local villagers mistake her for real.

Oller’s new 80-minute production began with him in the role of Dr. Coppélius, magically directing Coppélia (Elena Cvetkovich) in a contemporary dance solo that revealed the nature of Dr. Coppélius’ feelings for the doll and his Pinocchio-like obsession to make her real. From there the ballet’s storyline followed tradition with village lad Franz, danced by Spaniard Nicholas Montero of New York City’s Joffrey Ballet Concert Group, becoming enamored with Coppélia and threatening his relationship with his intended Swanilda, portrayed marvelously by Cleveland-area’s Lauren Stenroos.

The biggest difference in Oller’s choreography over other ballet versions was replacing much of the Saint-Léon’s (and later Marius Petipa’s) mazurkas and other folk dances with beefier and more technically challenging dancing for Cleveland Ballet’s compact troupe of four male/female couples. The vibrant choreography included for the men, lots of jumps and turns in the air, and for the women, rapid turns on pointe and leaps. Not only did Oller’s choreography sit well on the young troupe, it also breathed new life into an often stale ballet classic.

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Cleveland Ballet’s Nicholas Montero (L) and dancers in Ramón Oller’s “Coppélia.” Photo by Mark Horning.

It was clear from the sparse set design of the façade of Dr. Coppélius house and little else, that Guadalupe and Cleveland Ballet Board Chairman Michael Krasnyansky chose to put their modest production budget as a startup company into the ballet’s dancing. It paid off. The company was well rehearsed performed the charming ballet with conviction.

The remainder of the ballet’s first act played out as it usually does with Franz’s eyes wandering toward Coppélia who sat in a balcony window, and Stenroos as Swanilda, deliciously pouting and rebuking his insincere apologies over it.

Oller’s somewhat slapstick choreography injected plenty of humor into the act which the young cast at times had trouble not telegraphing in bouts of forced acting. One perfectly timed and delivered moment however, saw Montero whip his leg in the air in a half circle just as Stenroos keenly ducked to avoid it.

After some festivities celebrating the engagement of Franz and Swanilda that included an obligatory dance featuring students from the School of Cleveland Ballet and its Youth Ballet Company (including a few talents we may see in the company in future), the first act ended with Dr. Coppélius dropping his house key after a scuffle with some village boys, and Swanilda finding it and she and her female companions entering Coppélius’ house to confront Coppélia. Not long after, Franz did the same via a ladder at the house’s balcony window.

As delightful as the ballet’s first act was, its second act proved even better.

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Cleveland Ballet’s Lauren Stenroos as Swanilda (L) and Elena Cvetkovich as Coppélia (R) in Ramón Oller’s “Coppélia.” Photo by Mark Horning.

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Ramón Oller as Dr. Coppélius in “Coppélia.” Photo by Mark Horning.

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Cleveland Ballet dancers in Ramón Oller’s “Coppélia.” Photo by Mark Horning.

Once in the house Swanilda and friends discovered a treasure trove of mechanical dolls, some costumed in the garb of other nations, while others looked like stitched dolls awaiting one. Accidently activated, the dolls danced for the girls’ amusement and also signaled Dr. Coppélius of their presence in his workshop. In quick order Coppélius chased all but Swanilda out. She, discovering Coppélia is a doll, pretends to be her. Franz arrives only to be cornered by Coppélius who drugs him and casts a spell to transfer his life force into Coppélia. After a clever series of duets and interactions between Oller and Stenroos pretending to be Coppélia, Dr. Coppélius’ plans go awry and the young couple escapes, leaving him in an emotional shamble.

The ballet’s finest moments came in a newly created fantasy scene (with lighting by Trad Burns) that followed, in which Coppélius dreamed of dancing with Coppélia and that all was forgiven between him Franz, Swanilda and the village folk. In it, Oller created a marvelous contemporary dance for Cvetkovich as Coppélia who danced it with feeling, and a passionate pas de deux for Montero and Stenroos filled with gracefully sweeping movement and arcing lifts that the pair adroitly executed. The cast’s other professional dancers then joined in a wedding celebration for Franz and Swanilda replete with nicely-crafted choreography to conclude the entertaining ballet.

The fantasy scene heralded the wonderful potential of this new Cleveland Ballet and left the audience wanting more. Kudos to Oller and cast, along with the inspired performances of Montero, Stenroos, Cvetkovich and dancers Victor Jarvis, Lüna Sayag and Jonathan Leonard.

With the success of Coppélia, Cleveland Ballet is sure to garner new fans of the company. And for those taking a wait and see approach toward the new company, wait no more.

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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Filed under Dance Reviews 2016