GroundWorks’ Program Proves Intriguing and Entertaining


Photo by Dale Dong.

Photo by Dale Dong.

Cain Park – Alma Theater
Cleveland Heights, Ohio
August 18, 2013

By Steve Sucato

For the 11th straight summer GroundWorks DanceTheater presented a program of repertory works at Cleveland Heights, Ohio’s Cain Park. The 5-member troupe, which for the past 15-years has been the Cleveland-Akron area’s most consistent in quality continued that trend with a trio of works performed in the Park’s intimate Alma Theater.

The program opened with artistic director David Shimotakahara’s 2003 work “Before With After”.

Set to 11 keyboard compositions by J.S. Bach, the work mixed ballet and modern dance styles. Shimotakahara’s light and airy choreography early on resembled a court dance, with the work’s quintet of dancers stepping in to greet one another then pausing to exchange sheepish grins or pensive looks.

The work’s two male dancers, Damien Highfield and Gary Lenington saw plenty of action alternately lifting its three female dancers up and around their shoulders or onto their backs.

Various temporary interpersonal relationships formed between dancers. One involved Highfield and dancer Annika Sheaff, who when not casting looks of disappointment at Highfield, darted her eyes about. At one point they landed on her outstretched arm and traced a path down to her hand, palm flat, as she began paddling the air, drawing her body to follow in the direction of momentum created from her arm’s movement. The statuesque former Pilobolus dancer’s performance in the work was an appealing blend of delicacy and strength.

GroundWorks DanceTheater dancers Damien Highfield and Noelle Cotler. Photo by Dale Dong.

GroundWorks DanceTheater dancers Damien Highfield and Noelle Cotler. Photo by Dale Dong.

Also captivating, was GroundWorks’ newest dancer, the spunky Noelle Cotler. In a playful duet with Lenington she shot him come hither eyes and a mischievous smile as the pair came together to maneuver in tight, intertwining circles.

Sheaff and Cotler then joined forces for a friendly and somewhat zany competition in which the two skipped with, stomped at and teased one another.

While the work’s many vignettes contained solid dancing and entertaining moments, a few felt like filler and the piece seemed to go on a bit long. 

“Delightfully peculiar” best described the program’s next work; former GroundWorks star Amy Miller’s latest commission for the company “Way Leads to Way” (2013).  Set to a cinematic collage of music including selections from Texas ambient music composer Jeff McIlwain (a.k.a. Lucine ICL) and Mexican electronica artist Fernando Corona (a.k.a. Murcof),  “Way Leads to Way” was the program’s most intriguing offering. 

The work for the full complement of GroundWorks’ dancers, took snippets of unrelated scenes such as snaking dance club moves, sprinters in blocks before the start of a race and slow-motion movement, and combined them with an ambient soundtrack infused with buzzes, static noise, humming and whines, to produce an avant-garde contemporary dance work that was eminently compelling in its disjointed quirkiness.

Sheaff once again showed her range as a performer pulling attention from her fellow dancers with a series of bizarre facial expressions that were at odds with the beauty of her outstretched body positions that spoke of buoyancy and grace.

The tone of the work switched gears mid-way with its soundtrack now reflecting a thunderstorm sounds, the effect bolstered by Dennis Duggan’s dark, atmospheric lighting for the piece.  The dancing also appeared more improvisational with the dancers taking on child-like attitudes and executing movements reminiscent of a game of hopscotch.  Solidly danced by GroundWorks’ ensemble, “Way Leads to Way” made the unusual, memorable.

New York-based choreographer Doug Elkins’ “My Hummingbird At The High Line” (2012) added the final textural layer to GroundWorks diverse program.

Danced to an interesting mix of classic crooner tunes from “Rat Pack” members Sammy Davis Jr., Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra along with a Handel aria and other selections, the work tinged with humor, sexual overtones and dancer comradery had the feel of an episode of TV’s Friends.

GroundWorks DanceTheater dancers Felise Bagley and Damien Highfield. Photo by Dale Dong.

GroundWorks DanceTheater dancers Felise Bagley and Damien Highfield. Photo by Dale Dong.

From the outset, Elkins’ choreography had an ease about it blending jazz, hip hop and modern dance styles, while seeming to not take itself too seriously. A comedic confrontation between Highfield and Lenington led things off, the two casting capoeira-style high kicks in each other’s direction.  That lighthearted attitude continued in a duet between Sheaff and Lenington. The duet was full of guffaws in their partnering of each other causing them to stop and retry lifts and movements. The two vocalized instructions to one another along with various grunts and noises that come from physical exertion.

Frivolity then gave way to a more serious tone in the latter part of the work with a provocative duet between Cotler and longtime company member Felise Bagley. Set to rock music by Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, the pair moved in and out of brief entanglements suggesting a mutual attraction that was later cemented by a stolen kiss by Cotler.

An overall success, GroundWorks’ program proved entertaining with marvelous performances by its ensemble. GroundWorks’ current dancer lineup perhaps the most balanced and cohesive the company has fielded in years.  

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