GroundWorks DanceTheater’s Program a Triumph for Company and Two Retiring Dancers


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GroundWorks DanceTheater’s Damien Highfield and Taylor Johnson in James Gregg’s “éveillé.” Photo by Mark Horning.

GroundWorks DanceTheater – 2018 Spring Concert Series
EJ Thomas Hall at University of Akron

Akron, Ohio
March 3, 2018

Reviewed by Steve Sucato

There can be no doubt that many of those who came to see  GroundWorks DanceTheater’s 2018 Spring Concert Series on Saturday, March 3 at Akron University’s EJ Thomas Hall, did so to see retiring company stalwarts Felise Bagley and Damien Highfield’s last performance with the company in Akron.  Not only did those assembled get to see the pair excel in all three works on the program, they also got to take in James Gregg’s “éveillé”, one of the best dance works the company has ever mounted and one of the best presented by anyone in the region in recent memory.

The world-premiere of Gregg’s semi-narrative dance work heavily-infused with urban-influenced (hip hop, break dance) dance movement, took its inspiration from Italian poet Giambattista Basile’s dark and perverse version of the Sleeping Beauty story entitled “The Sun, Moon and Talia,” included his 1634 collection of fairytales, the Pentamerone.  It tells of Talia, a great lord’s daughter who falls into a magical slumber as foretold by astrologers after a splinter of flax pierces her skin. The lord places her in one of his country estates where she is discovered after a time by a King who mistakenly thinks she is dead but is so enraptured by her beauty, that he has his way with her before returning to his castle. Talia then gives birth to twins she names Sun and Moon, waking her from her slumber. The King then discovers Talia is alive and he is the father of her children as does his wife the Evil Queen who hatches a plan to kill Talia and punish her adulterous husband by having him eat a meal made from the flesh of Sun and Moon.

While Gregg’s dance version loosely-based on Basile’s tale maintained the same characters (although Talia was renamed Beauty in his version), his altered storyline was far less gruesome. The Los Angeles-based choreographer’s genius with the work was in capturing the emotions surrounding the characters’ interactions rather than trying to present a concrete visualization of the Basile’s story.

Set to music by Ben Frost, Bach and others, “éveillé” (French for “awake”), began with Highfield as the King in spotlight standing atop a platform several feet above the stage that was part of an abstract, modular set. On this perch, Highfield lit into a series of gestural motions, moving his hands and arms back and forth as the work’s other four dancers filtered onto the stage below him. Then coming down to meet them, Highfield and dancer Taylor Johnson as Beauty engaged in a similarly animated and aggressively active duet that had them in partially hunched body postures and intently moving in and around each other.

Gregg’s hybrid movement language for the work that he says stems from the use of “fixed points” that the dancers launch themselves from, appears derived in part from his own personal experiences as a former dancer with Bodytraffic, Les Ballet Jazz de Montreal and most notably Victor Quijada’s RUBBERBANDance Group whose movement language employs similar upright torso, weight shifting and space carving motions. Gregg’s expansive and emotive choreography stretched the talents of GroundWorks’ dancers in ways unlike any other prior Groundwork’s piece. Each of the work’s five dancers which also included Gemma Freitas Bender as Sun, Tyler Ring as Moon and Bagley as the Evil Queen, delivered a plethora of delicious dance phrases that illustrated their characters’ motivations. Bagley as the Evil Queen was eerily cold and calculated.

The work’s most moving dancing came in a closing pas de deux performed by its stars, Highfield and Johnson. Emotionally powerful, the pair’s forceful and staccato dancing to music that matched, movingly captured the complicated feelings of love the two had for each other. And like the rest of the work, it left the audience noticeably affected and impressed by what they had just witnessed.

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GroundWorks DanceTheater’s Taylor Johnson, Tyler Ring, Gemma Freitas Bender and Damien Highfield In David Shimotakahara’s “Passenger.” Photo by Mark Horning.

Next came the world-premiere of GroundWorks artistic director David Shimotakahara’s “Passenger,” a 20-minute work danced primarily to five sections of American composer John Adams’ chamber work “John’s Book of Alleged Dances.”

Said to be a visual interpretation of the music, Shimotakahara’s choreography mirrored the moods and stylistic shifts in the music with his own shifts in movement style that blended a variety of dance styles.  While Gregg’s work surprised the audience with something bold and new for the company, “Passenger,” and Shimotakahara’s “Circadian” that followed, reminded fans of Groundworks of what drew them to them to the company in the first place.

“Passenger’s” sections had its five dancers engaging in various solos, duets and group dancing that moved from a jazzy hoedown feel to a Bagley and Highfield duet that included Latin ballroom-like moves, turns and butt wiggles.  Highlighting the piece was a compelling duet danced by Freitas Bender and Ring set to music by pianist and composer Dustin O’Halloran.

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GroundWorks DanceTheater’s Felise Bagley and Damien Highfield in David Shimotakahara’s “Circadian.” Photo by Mark Horning.

Capping the program and Bagley and Highfield’s nearly two decades-long careers with GroundWorks, was the reprise of “Circadian” (2000). Described by him as being built on “a gesture that becomes an extended reach” and “the force of attraction,” the 13-minute duet set to a dynamic original score by Gustavo Aguilar, proved a fitting send off to Bagley and Highfield whose innumerable talents, range, and stage presence were encapsulated in it.  Both dancers displayed a measure of refined dancing, polish and emotional intensity in the beloved duet that began with them dancing as isolated beings slowly and inexorably being drawn toward each other.  Once together they fell into intertwining partnering moves, lifts, holds and intermittently, knee-to-chest hops. One such hop startlingly had Bagley caught mid-jump by Highfield right on a musical punctuation in Aguilar’s music.

Perhaps no better send-off for Bagley and Highfield, GroundWorks’ 2018 Spring Concert Series was a triumph as was the performances of the pair in it. And although Bagley and Highfield will no longer be with the company, both dancers will remain a memorable and enduring part of GroundWorks’ legacy and that of dance in Northeast, Ohio.  Area audiences will have one more chance to see the pair dance with the company this Saturday, April 7 at Saint Ignatius High School’s Breen Center for the Performing Arts.

GroundWorks DanceTheater performs its 2018 Spring Concert Series, 7:30 p.m., Saturday, April 7 at Saint Ignatius High School’s Breen Center for the Performing Arts, 2008 W. 30th St., Cleveland. Tickets are $10-30. For more information and tickets visit groundworksdance.org or call (216) 751-0088.

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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