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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