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Of Sideshows, Photo Memories and Atoms, GroundWorks Dance Theater’s ‘Summer Series’ Promises a Carnival of Visual Delights


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GroundWorks’ artistic director David Shimotakahara (rear) rehearsing with dancers Spencer Dennis (left) and Annie Morgan. Photo courtesy of GroundWorks Dance Theater.

By Steve Sucato

Childhood memories of Looney Tunes cartoons and circus sideshows provided the creative spark for GroundWorks DanceTheater artistic director/choreographer David Shimotakahara’s latest dance work, “Sud Buster’s Dream” that will make its premiere as part of the company’s new dance season-opening its 17th Summer Series program this weekend, July 19-21 at Cain Park’s Alma Theater in Cleveland Heights.

The 30-minute contemporary dance work is set to an early American jazz score of the music Shimotakahara says he has always been drawn to since hearing some of it as the backdrop to the cartoons he watched as a child.

“I was always thinking it would be fun to do a work with that kind of cartoon movement zaniness; like wear the dog gets stretched into a hot dog, a giraffe’s neck get twirled up like a pretzel stick or feet were dancing without a body,” says Shimotakahara.

Using those images and that style of music as a starting point, Shimotakahara says he also was inspired to use images of iconic sideshow acts – Sword swallowers, The Seal Boy, The Bearded Lady and The Siamese Twins  as influences for movement invention in the work for GroundWorks’ five dancers.

“Those popular acts represented what people felt was odd and unusual. Then, and now, we see oddities in ‘the other’ and fear being cast as such,” says Shimotakahara.

In a recent rehearsal of the work I sat in on, second –year company dancer Annie Morgan moved through a solo that twisted her fingers, arms and legs up in knots, almost immobilizing her.  Shimotakahara says with that imagery he was thinking back to images of  escape artists like Harry Houdini wriggling and twisting to  free themselves from ropes, chains or a straitjacket in their acts.

The work, featuring a large set piece of a stage curtain the dancers emerge from behind for various dances, lends a show within a show motif to the bizarrely entertaining piece.  Titled after one of the period songs used in the work by Tiny Parham and his Musicians,  “Sud Buster’s Dream,” Shimotakahara also draws parallels to The Roaring Twenties of the last century and the changes in culture, the great disparity of wealth and in opportunities available, to what is going on in the country today. “There were definitely winners and losers,” says Shimotakahara.

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GroundWorks’ Annie Morgan. Photo courtesy of GroundWorks Dance Theater.

Also premiering on the Summer Series program will be award-winning Chicago choreographer  Robyn Mineko Williams’ latest commissioned work for the company, “We Three”.  The 17-minute piece is performed to a suite of songs by Canadian music group Timber Timbre including their 2011 hit “Lonesome Hunter”.  Says Mineko Williams by phone from Michigan, “I like creating worlds that feel timeless. Each section [of the work] makes sense in the order it is presented, but maybe that’s not the real story’s order.”

Continuing a recurring pattern in her recent works of assembling a series of non-linear memories played out in vignettes by the dancers, for “We Three”,  the former dance with Hubbard Street Dance Chicago dancer says “To me all of characters and sections all belong in the same environment. There is a lot of reflection going on with the characters in the work. It could be reflections on relationships with others of a reflection of themselves. ”

Williams uses the analogy of leafing through a photo album where each of the  photos you look at comes to live for a few seconds. The viewer decides what story or relationship those in the photo have.  “I don’t know what the relationship is between the characters in work, but in my imagination they all existed in these photo album photos together,” says Williams.

From the relationship of human beings to the relative combining capacity of an atom, the remaining work on the program will be a reprise of GroundWorks’ artistic associate Amy Miller’s “Valence” (2009).

Created to an original sound score by composer and Dean of the Conservatory at Oberlin College and Conservatory, Peter Swendsen , “Valence” began as an exploration of how dance could become music and music could become dance,” says Miller. “The overall visual concept the 20-minute work uses circular running patterns not unlike electrons in every atom that throughout the work set up collisions of these orbits that manifest in the form of dancer duets, trios and group sections.  Each dancer ends up having a different ‘valence’ or capacity to connect with every other dancer.  I think the piece also reminds us of the power of connection to create great things in an often chaotic world.”

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GroundWorks’ artistic director David Shimotakahara (rear) rehearsing with new dancers Spencer Dennis (left) and Michael Arellano. Photo courtesy of GroundWorks Dance Theater.

New to GroundWorks this season are dancers Michael Arellano, a recent graduate of Western Michigan University and Phoenix, Arizona-native Spencer Dennis, who replace departing dancers Robert Rubama and Tyler Ring. Arellano and Dennis together with returning dancers Morgan, Alexis Britford and Nicole Hennington, they make up perhaps GroundWorks’ youngest company to date.

The Summer Series program will also be repeated in free performances at Akron’s Goodyear Metro Park, August 2 & 3 as part of The Heinz Poll Summer Dance Festival.

GroundWorks Dance Theater presents its Summer Series, 7 p.m., Friday, July 19 & Saturday, July 20 and 2 p.m., Sunday, July 21. Alma Theater, Cain Park, 14591 Superior Road, Cleveland Heights, Ohio.  Tickets are $25/advance, $28/day of show. For tickets and information visit: https://www.cainpark.com/281/GroundWorks-Dancetheater or call (216) 371-3000.

GroundWorks Dance Theater presents its Summer Series in Akron, 8:45 p.m., Friday, August 2 & Saturday, August 3 at Goodyear Metro Park, 2077 Newton St, Akron, Ohio. FREE admission. For more information visit http://akrondancefestival.org/.

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Squirt Guns, T.S. Eliot and Live Music are all part of Chamber Dance Project’s ‘New Works +’


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CDP dancers in Diane Coburn Bruning’s “Songs by Cole”. Photo by Eduardo Patino, NYC.

By Steve Sucato

Award-winning choreographer Diane Coburn Bruning’s Chamber Dance Project celebrates its sixth Washington season with New Works +, June 20-22 at D.C.’s Sidney Harmon Hall.

The summer-only, project-based company whose model is to bring together dancers when they are on layoff and pair them with musicians to create new work was founded in New York in 2000 and has continued its commitment to live music and dance performance in Washington since its 2014 debut season at The Kennedy Center.

An unabashed champion of live music in collaboration with dance, Coburn Bruning says “too often company directors hide behind the excuse that live music is expensive. Chamber music is a pretty versatile option. The history of the art form has been inextricably intertwined with live music. It has only been the last thirty to forty years that it has become expeditious to use recorded music.  There is nothing spontaneous about dancing to recorded music you have heard multiple times.”

Needless to say, all of the works on the program, including its two world-premieres, will feature live music of varying style. “We actually have more musicians on stage throughout the evening than dancers,” says Coburn Bruning. Those musicians have performed with the National Gallery Orchestra, the National Philharmonic Orchestra, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and “The President’s Own” United States Marine Chamber Orchestra among others.

As for those dancers, many of the cast of seven from BalletMet, Milwaukee Ballet and Washington Ballet are familiar faces to CDP audiences. New this season will be former Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre principal dancer Julia Erickson.

Says Erickson of her CDP experience thus far: “It is always a valuable experience to get to work with other seasoned dancers from different companies. We have diverse professional backgrounds, so we bring different bodies of experience to the table.”

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CDP dancers rehearsing Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s “Rondo Ma Non Troppo”. Photo by Tanya Green Photography.

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Francesca Dugarte and Julia Erickson rehearsing Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s “Rondo Ma Non Troppo”. Photo by Emmanuel Williams.

The first of the premiere works on the program comes from highly sought-after, award-winning Colombian-Belgian choreographer, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa. This year’s Jacob’s Pillow Dance Award-winner, Lopez Ochoa has created over 60 dance works on companies across the globe including New York City Ballet, Ballet Nacional de Cuba, Finnish National Ballet, English National Ballet, Les Grands Ballets Canadiens and San Francisco Ballet.

Her 12-minute quartet, “Rondo Ma Non Troppo” to the first movement of Franz Schubert’s “String Quartet No. 14 in D minor” (Death and the Maiden), is titled after a musical form with a recurring leading theme along with a tempo mark directing that a passage is to be played a certain way, but not too much so.

“Normally, I have the idea for a piece then I look for the music. Here I chose the music first,” says Lopez Ochoa.

Lopez Ochoa says she came into the creative process with CDP’s dancers knowing that she wanted to create a quartet and that she wanted it to start with a circle. “As I arrived to the studio, I saw these round tables I thought we could use one to make circular movement around and then get rid of it,” she says. “But I loved the table so much I kept it in the work.”

Ochoa says she then began researching table dances and their symbolism. Coming upon King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table legend and its group equality in decision making, Lopez Ochoa says, “Intuitively, I now wanted to make a very democratic ballet, not about two men and two women, but four people.”

A frequent user of props in her works, Lopez Ochoa says, “In the beginning a prop is very much an enemy. I tell the dancers that the prop is a very bad dancer and that they need to treat it as if it is their partner. You have to guide it and be very precise with it and then it becomes a very good dancer.”

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Davit Hovhannisyan and Luz San Miguel in Diane Coburn Bruning’s “Journey”. Photo by Eduardo Patino, NYC.

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CDP dancers in Diane Coburn Bruning’s “Songs by Cole”. Photo by Eduardo Patino, NYC.

The program will also include reprises of two Coburn Bruning repertory favorites. The heartfelt, 8-minute “Journey” (2003) is a pas de deux to Samuel Barber’s familiar “Adagio for Strings” that was originally created on former New York City Ballet star Peter Boal (now artistic director of Seattle’s Pacific Northwest Ballet) and dancer Lisa Tachick in memory of Coburn Bruning’s father.  While 2017’s “Songs by Cole” is a 25-minute crowd-pleaser for all seven dancers to seven songs by Cole Porter including “C’est Magnifique,” “You Got That Thing” and “Night and Day” played live by a jazz trio featuring vocalist Shacara Rogers.

Says Coburn Bruning of the ballet, “the difficulty in using such a famous song as “Night and Day” is how do you contend with such well-known, wonderful music?” Her solution for “Night and Day” was to make to make all about the costuming. “I wanted a dress with a long train and that emphasized the flow and sculpture of it and the woman in it.” In this case BalletMet’s Francesca Dugarte.  For her tongue-in-cheek interpretation of “Don’t Fence Me In,” Coburn Bruning created a cowboy dance take on Swan Lake’s “Dance of the Little Swans” complete with cowboy boots, hats and a squirt gun fight.

Opening New Works +’s second half and making its Washington debut, will be the duet from “Extremely Close” (2008), by former Hubbard Street Dance Chicago dancer and resident choreographer, Alejandro Cerrudo. The 7-minute piece danced to music by Philip Glass played live by pianist Sophia Kim Cook, begins in silence with white feathers slowly drifting from the rafters on to the stage floor and collecting like snow as the audience returns from intermission.

Says Coburn Bruning, “It’s the kind of work I look for. Something powerfully evocative that does not tell you how to think or tell you a story, but elicits something from each audience member that is unique to them.”

Also included on the program are two music only selections by CDP’s resident chamber orchestra; “Duo,” to Zoltán Kodály’s “Duo for Violin and Cello, op. 7: I. Allegro serioso, non troppo” and “Duel,” to Chris Rogerson’s “String Quartet No. 1: I. Duel”.

Rounding out the 95-minute program will be the premiere of “Prufrock,” co-conceived and directed by Coburn Bruning and theatre director Matt Torney.  Inspired by T.S. Eliot’s 1910 poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” the 13-minute avant-garde dance work for five dancers to a commissioned score by James Bigbee Garver (performed live on three computers), is a very different work for Coburn Bruning she says. “I wanted to create a piece where the audience had to assimilate it from different fragments presented on different parts of the stage.”

The work’s fifteen non-linear fragments appear as somewhat disjointed images from the poem but do not follow the progression of Eliot’s stream of consciousness composition delivered by narrator Torney. “It will be the most active engagement of the audience on the program,” says Coburn Bruning.

Chamber Dance Project performs New Works +, 7:30 p.m., Thursday, June 20, 8 p.m., Friday, June 21, and 2 p.m. & 8 p.m., June 22. Sidney Harmon Hall, 610 F Street NW, Washington, D.C. Tickets are $35-52 and $125-175 for June 20’s Opening Night Performance and Summer Solstice Party at the Hotel Monaco. To purchase tickets, call (202) 547-1122 or visit chamberdance.org. In addition, Chamber Dance Project’s Bring a Child for Free program offers a Saturday, June 22 matinee ticket for young people up to age 18 accompanied by a paying adult. An all-ages onstage workshop with company dancers follows the performance. Call (202) 547-1122 for more information and tickets.

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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Integrated First: Dancing Wheels’ Program to Highlight Works by Choreographers with Disabilities


Meredith Aleigha Wells and Celina Speck of The Dancing Wheels Company in Od.yssey choreographed by Marc Brew. Photo credit Robert Howard.

Meredith Aleigha Wells and Celina Speck of The Dancing Wheels Company in “Od:yssey” choreographed by Marc Brew. Photo credit Robert Howard.

By Steve Sucato

Quite possibly the first dance production of its kind in the United States, Cleveland’s Dancing Wheels, America’s oldest physically integrated dance company (dancers with and without disabilities), will present Reverse.Reboot.Reveal! featuring a trio of commissioned works by a trio of choreographers with disabilities.

The program, Friday, June 14 at Playhouse Square’s Allen Theatre will also coincide with the national Dance/USA Conference being held in Cleveland for the first time.  Says Dancing Wheels founder/artistic director Mary Verdi-Fletcher of the unique production: “Few artists with disabilities have had the opportunity to hone their skills as choreographers. We want to help change that and expand the public’s vision of the artistry of those with disabilities.”

The first of two works on the 2-hour program by choreographers working from wheelchairs, the premiere of award-winning Australian choreographer Marc Brew’s “Od:yssey” explores ideas of restriction.

Brew, the best known of three commissioned choreographers, is the artistic director of Oakland’s AXIS Dance Company. A former ballet dancer and choreographic protégé of resident choreographer of England’s Royal Ballet, Wayne McGregor, Brew says the 16-minute “Od:yssey” represents a journey that starts at its end and works its way backwards. Danced to music by Iceland’s Ólafur Arnalds, the contemporary dance piece also explores a variety of relationships and interactions between the dancers.

A cast of 8 will take on Brew’s challenging choreography he says was born out of improvisation exercises in getting to know the strengths of Dancing Wheels’ dancers. “I always try in my work to get the best out of every dancer,” says Brew.

Next, the premiere of Laurel Lawson’s “the tenderness of things lost and found” had as its creative jumping off point in the dark Russian fairytale of Baba Yaga, a witch who flies around in a mortar, wields a pestle, and dwells in a forest hut standing atop chicken legs.

“I was not setting out to make narrative ballet,” says Lawson. “It’s more abstract and more about mood and relationships.”

A dancer/choreographer with Atlanta’s Full Radius Dance and disabled artists’ collective Kinetic Light, as well as a member of the USA Women’s Olympic Sled Hockey team, Lawson says of her process, “I tend toward making works that are athletic and about connections and emotional truths.”

In a recent rehearsal of the 15-minute piece for 10 dancers set to music by Prokofiev, Zoe Keating, Emmylou Harris and Norwegian folk band Byrdi, I found the work to be sculptural, dramatic and brooding.

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Justin Collin and Florent Devlesaver in “Fly”. Photo by Lou Breton/M6

In contrast, “Fly” (2012), performed by guest dancers Justin Collin and Florent Devlesaver from Belgium will be an inspirational affair. Choreographed by Collin, the 7-minute duet appeared on the French TV show La France a un incroyable talent (France Has Incredible Talent) in 2017.

Danced to music by Ludovico Einaudi and Ólafur Arnalds, the work, says Collin, was inspired by Devlesaver. “He gives 100% to his passion.  Our friendship was born through dance, and we wanted to share it on the stage.”

The pair met seven years ago and have been performing all over the globe as a duo for the past five. Says Collin, Fly and their other collaborations reflect “The desire to defend the accessibility of dance for all…and to be seen as two dancers, and not as one ‘valid’ person and one person in a wheelchair.”

After an intermission, Reverse.Reboot.Reveal’s second half will lead off with a 16-minute excerpt of Antoine Hunter’s “Giggling Flame and Roaring Waves” (2016); the third work by a choreographer with a disability (deafness).

Hunter, the founder and  director of San Francisco’s Urban Jazz Dance Company and the Bay Area Deaf International Dance Festival, says his piece danced to jazz music by Roy Hargrove and Miles Davis, was inspired by those around him and his upbringing in the Bay area. The work for 10 dancers incorporates into its movement language elements of sign language and afro jazz.

In staging the work on Dancing Wheels’ dancers who do not sign, Hunter took the approach of voicing some instructions and writing others. Says Hunter, “they [the dancers] have to learn my body language and I have to learn theirs. It’s a spiritual thing for us to connect as artists.”

Matt Bowman and Tanya Ewell of The Dancing Wheels Company in Od.yssey choreographed by Marc Brew. Photo credit Robert Howard.

Matt Bowman and Tanya Ewell of The Dancing Wheels Company in Od:yssey choreographed by Marc Brew. Photo credit Robert Howard.

Next, members of the School of Dancing Wheels Performance Ensemble will dance “Goodmorning” to music of the same name by William Fitzsimmons. The 3-minute piece choreographed by school administrator Deborah Reilly and the dancers “highlights the beautiful ability of movement to provide a voice for all.”

Then after a brief presentation by Dancing Wheels board member John Voso, Jr. and Broadway legend and friend of the company Ben Vereen, the program will close with the premiere of company resident choreographer and rehearsal director Catherine Meredith’s “Five by Nina”. The 20-minute work for a cast of 11 to a suite of songs sung by the late Nina Simone says Meredith, reflects on Simone’s life as a singer and civil rights activist as well as her fluid sexuality and turbulent relationship with her second husband.

Immediately following the production the audience is invited to a champagne and dessert reception in the lobby to meet the artists.

The Dancing Wheels Company presents Reverse.Reboot.Reveal!, 8 p.m., Friday, June 14. Playhouse Square’s Allen Theatre, 1407 Euclid Ave., Cleveland. Tickets are $40/General Admission, $35/groups of 10 or more, $30/DanceUSA Members and Conference Attendees (use the code DanceUSA) and can be purchased online at playhousesquare.org or by calling the Playhouse Square Box Office at 216-640-8600.  In addition, $125 VIP tickets are available and include pre-performance hors d’oeuvres, cocktails, silent auction, prime seating for the concert and the post-performance champagne and dessert reception. For VIP tickets visit dancingwheels.org/reverserebootreveal.

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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