By Steve Sucato
On October 31st Neos Dance Theatre co-founder/artistic director Robert Wesner and Mississippi’s Belhaven University announced that he will be joining the Belhaven University Dance Department as senior instructor of dance and resident choreographer beginning in the fall of 2020. As he and the company prepare for their latest production, Home for the Holidays, a Big Band Christmas, December 21 & 22 at Lorain County Community College’s Stocker Arts Center, I talked with Wesner about his impending move, what it means for him and his family, and what it spells for the future of one of Northeast Ohio’s most beloved dance companies.
How did your new position at Belhaven University come about?
I had done some work as a guest choreographer and Neos had performed there before. The college is now really investing in the dance program and they wanted to expand their faculty and recruitment efforts. They knew of me and my work and reached out to me to see if I would be interested in joining the faculty.
What convinced you to take the job and move across the country?
As a small artist organization you are always living on the edge in terms of funding. It’s just difficult looking into the future to plan for our basic needs and those of the organization. This job came out of nowhere, but I really felt like the right thing to do for my family’s future.
What does this mean for the future of Neos Dance Theatre?
I am not quite ready to announce our plans for 2020, but I will have summers off and foresee programming for Neos in Northeast Ohio during those summer months as well as mounting other projects that are in the works.
Neos will no longer be a full-time dance company?
It will revert to how it began as a project-based company where we hire dancers as we need them and will rehearse and present work in the summer months. It will be a bittersweet ending to see the dancers we have been working with for so long transition out of Neos and look for other opportunities. I have been talking with the dancers and other directors about job placement for them.
Was there any thought of maintaining the company and organization as is and handing it over to another artistic director?
The board of directors and me knowing the intricacies of how I work and the infrastructure of the organization didn’t think that was viable. We are still a fairly young organization, only 7-years old, and we just didn’t have the time to institutionalize the organization for long-term sustainability.
You are giving your 1940s-themed The Nutcracker production a rest this holiday season in favor of a new holiday-themed show, tell me about it.
I have done collaborations with a couple big bands in the past but this is the first time we [Neos Dance Theatre] will be doing a holiday production with classic Christmas songs everybody recognizes such as “Sleigh Ride,” “Run Run Rudolph,” “White Christmas” and “Silver Bells,” plus some great Christmas songs that haven’t been so overplayed.
Who are your musical collaborators for this?
Acclaimed area singer Kelly Knowlton will join a band of high-caliber live musicians from the Cleveland Jazz Orchestra and elsewhere assembled by band leader Paul Martin.
I understand you and the company will be singing and tap dancing in this.
This production has that variety show feel and is a lot of fun. A couple of things that guided my decision making on what music we selected were how diverse of a range of movement genres I could choreograph in. We’re doing some classical ballet, some musical-theater style jazz, contemporary works, swing, tap dance and more. It has been really fun to artistically push the dancers.
It is also going to be a family-affair as well I hear.
All four of my daughters will be singing in it. I will be singing at least two songs and we will do one with the entire family in a sort Wesner/von Trapp number a la “The Sound of Music”.
While Wesner’s new post represents a big change for him and his family, he is keen to emphasize this is not the end of Neos Dance Theatre but a transition that will maintain its presence in Northeast Ohio at the minimum during the summer months. As for how that will look for the communities Neos has served in Akron, Ashland, Mansfield, Oberlin and beyond, and the future of the Neos Center for Dance as well as projects like the Akron-based dance-centric fringe festival Lose Your Marbles Wesner started in 2017, that remains to be seen.
Neos Dance Theatre presents Home for the Holidays, a Big Band Christmas, 7:30 p.m., Saturday, December 21 and 2 p.m., Sunday December 22 at Lorain County Community College’s Hoke Theatre of Stocker Arts Center, 1005 N. Abbe Road, Elyria. Tickets are $15-35. For Tickets and information call (440) 366-4040 or visit neosdancetheatre.org or lorainccc.edu/stocker.
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.