GroundWorks’ Otherworldly Program Worth Visiting


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GroundWorks’ dancers Damien Highfield and Feslise Bagley in David Shimotakahara’s “Ghost Opera.” Photo by Dale Dong.

GroundWorks  DanceTheater – Spring Program
E.J. Thomas Hall at The University of Akron
Akron, OH
March 4, 2016

Reviewed by Steve Sucato

The sound of fierce winds whistled accompanied by the whir of a large fan as it came to life gaving texture to the image of dancer Felise Bagley, held aloft by two others, her long black hair being blown back she appeared to float like a gull caught in an updraft. The evocative image was the first salvo in a slew of several quiet, surreal moments in the world-premiere of New York choreographer Loni Landon’s “Falling Awake,” performed by Cleveland’s GroundWorks DanceTheater, Friday, March 4 at The University of Akron’s E.J. Thomas Hall.

That opening image of floating on air came from what Landon called “anxiety-filled” dreams after Hurricane Sandy. And as in her dreams, the image, in one form or another, reoccurred throughout the 30-minute work.

Danced to a sound collage that included environmental sounds and music by Zoe Keating, Nils Frahm and others, the work, for five dancers had a dream-like feel to it.  Lighting designer Dennis Duggan added to that feel by casting a shadowy veil over the stage that gave the work a slight cinematic feel. Perhaps a bit too understated, Duggan’s lighting could have been ramped up adding more lighting effects to augment shifts in the work’s dramatic mood .

Directed through the point of view of dancer Michael Marquez, Landon’s abstract choreography for the piece, she says, was meant to feel like “a continuous stream of consciousness.” But as in many dreams, that stream felt muddled in its direction and meaning. What we were left with was a meandering drift of dancers engaged in somewhat visually appealing movement.

Unfortunately, like other young choreographers, Landon’s choreography at times was plagued with overused contemporary dance devises such as performers touching and nudging one another to initiate motion, or seeming to wield Jedi powers to push and pull another’s body with a hand motion.  Where Landon shined was in the pacing of the work and the use of stillness in her choreography resulting in some breathtakingly beautiful moments.

“Falling Awake” had its dancers bent, tilted, twisted, swooping and swaying in a succession of solos, duets, trios and group choreography that often doubled back on itself repeating images, steps and movement phrases.

Expressive and musical with moments of dissonance and quiet splendor, “Falling Awake,” was a work with more promise than what it delivered. GroundWorks’ dancers however, performed it with precision and grace.

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From 2014, GroundWorks’ Annika Sheaff in David Shimotakahara’s “Ghost Opera.” Photo by Dale Dong.

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GroundWorks’ Felise Bagley in David Shimotakahara’s “Ghost Opera.”

The program’s second half featured the reprise of GroundWorks artistic director David Shimotakahara’s “Ghost Opera” ( 2014).

Inspired by and danced to Chinese composer Tan Dun’s score of the same name, performed live by a string quintet of Cleveland Institute of Music graduates, “Ghost Opera” was truly a marriage of musician and dancer. The score, which blended classical contemporary and traditional Chinese music, featured the sounds of water being splashed, instrument bows being pulled over metal plates, and the rustling of paper. The wildly expressive composition with its multiple layers, at times evoked a sense of  being in contact with ancestral spirits and at other times, a sense of quiet mysticism.

As GroundWorks’ moved about the stage, so did the musicians who played standard string instruments, a Chinese Pipa (a four-stringed lute), banged stones together and in a Tourettes-like manner, vocalized ghostly utterances and shrills.

Shimotakahara’s abstract choreography for the piece was a solid mix of contemporary ballet and modern dance choreography that paired well with Dun’s music and a theme of ancestral spirits being called to convene with the living. The movement was contemplative, ritualistic at times, and fit the mood of the work. Like Landon’s imagery of a person hovering in air, Shimotakahara had a similar reference contained within a quirky solo by dancer Annika Sheaff where she lay across a wooden liquor crate with the word “spirits” on it like superwoman in flight.

Again, GroundWorks’ dancers were splendid, as were the accomplished musicians in the cast.

In the end GroundWorks’ Spring Program, like waking from a vivid dream, left one with many feelings, impressions and images worth remembering along with some that are best forgotten.

GroundWorks DanceTheaters’ Spring Program will repeat 7:30 p.m., Friday, March 18 and Saturday, March 19, 2016 at St. Ignatius High School’s Breen Center for Performing Arts, 2008 West 30th Street, Cleveland, Ohio. Tickets are $25.00/preferred, $20.00/general and $10.00/child & student; (216) 751-0088 or groundworksdance.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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Filed under Dance Reviews 2016

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