Category Archives: Airings

Michael Sakamoto: ‘Soil’- Worldview on Who

Soil Pic 2- Photo by JaNelle Weatherford

Chey Chankethya, Nguyen Nguyen and Waewdao Sirisook in Michael Sakamoto’s “Soil.” Photo by JaNelle Weatherford.

By Steve Sucato

Who am I? It’s a philosophical question many have pondered.  It also the central thought in interdisciplinary artist Michael Sakamoto’s latest creation Soil. Premiered in 2017, the multimedia dance-theater work makes its Pittsburgh debut March 9 & 10, at the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater as part of its World Stage Series.

The hourlong, intermission-less work conceived, directed and choreographed by Sakamoto in collaboration with Cambodian classical dancer Chey Chankethya, Thai traditional and contemporary dancer Waewdao Sirisook, and Vietnamese-American contemporary dancer Nguyen Nguyen, explores crisis in the three Southeast Asian cultures the performers have a connection to, and who also have had “a historically fraught relationship with the United States, Western culture, and hegemony,” says Sakamoto.

Using personal narratives of the performers, a methodology Sakamoto says he often employs in his works, “Soil draws on dance forms and multicultural landscapes of America and Asia, performing a vision of 21st Century global society. This expression of intercultural being both connects with and challenges the audience’s sense of identity.”

The work got its start in 2012 when, says Sakamoto, “I had come to the point, as many artists do, where I was a bit tired of my own style. I wanted to be stretched and challenged away from my own singular voice, and also to do something from a more feminine perspective. I asked Kethya [Chankethya] and Waewdao [Sirisook] to collaborate on a duet, and then Nguyen [Nguyen], who was our colleague in Los Angeles asked to join.”

The collaboration also took Sakamoto out of his comfort zone.  “As a Butoh artist also heavily influenced by popping and hip-hop culture, my movement inspirations and motivations are both internal/external and physical/psychological,” says Sakamoto. Alternately he feels, the three forms of dance Chankethya, Sirisook and Nguyen brought to the choreography were quite visual, symbolic, and spatial.

Soil - Photo by JaNelle Weatherford

Chey Chankethya, Nguyen Nguyen and Waewdao Sirisook in Michael Sakamoto’s “Soil.” Photo by JaNelle Weatherford.

Soil Pic 5- HI RES Photo by JaNelle Weatherford

Nguyen Nguyen and Waewdao Sirisook in Michael Sakamoto’s “Soil.” Photo by JaNelle Weatherford.

“We had to gradually develop a shared language, and it came in the form of personal questions that each performer answers in their own way,” says Sakamoto.  “We excavated personal narrative and those experiences and feelings dictated the form and content of each scene. Each performer adapted their movement and personality to each moment as needed, just like any good actor would.”

As to each of the performer’s particular relationship with the work’s themes? Sakamoto says Nguyen is a post-Vietnam War refugee from South Vietnam whose family settled in America, Sirisook is native of Northern Thailand dealing with an unrealistic and touristic image of her country, and the majority of Chankethya’s forebears perished in the Khmer Rouge genocide.

Set to Japanese koto and guitar music by Reiko Imanishi and Shinichi Isohata with additional music by Raphael Xavier, Soil also employs dialogue written by the performers, various props and video to add subtext to the work.

Sakamoto says ultimately in Soil the question of who am I? is simultaneously asked by the way the performers express themselves, and answered in their individual identities. “We are not looking for neat and tidy images of cultural identity because there are none,” says Sakamoto.  “Just the opposite, in fact. This is our truth that we try and gift to the audience. In this historical moment of divisiveness and violence [in the world], we must remember that despite our inherent differences we can love ourselves and one another in all of our messy and transformative beauty.”

Michael Sakamoto: Soil will be performed 8 p.m., Friday, March 9 and Saturday, March 10, Kelly-Strayhorn Theater, 5941 Penn Ave., East Liberty.  Pay What Makes You Happy ticket pricing. or (412) 363-3000.

Steve Sucato is a former dancer turned arts writer/critic. He is Chairman Emeritus of the Dance Critics Association and Associate Editor of


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GroundWorks DanceTheater’s ‘Spring Concert Series’ Features New Works & Says Farewell to Two Beloved Dancers


GroundWorks’ Felise Bagley and Damien Highfield. Photo by Downie Photography.

By Steve Sucato

Like a favorite character on a long running television series or movie franchise, when they are no longer a part of our lives we feel a sense of loss. For dance fans, that same feeling can come when a favorite performer moves on to other pursuits.

For followers of Cleveland’s GroundWorks DanceTheater, such will be the case as two of its longtime company favorites, Felise Bagley and Damien Highfield will take their final bow with the 19-year-old contemporary dance troupe after the conclusion of its 2018 Spring Concert Series, Saturday, March 3 at Akron University’s EJ Thomas Hall and Saturday, April 7 at Cleveland’s Saint Ignatius High School’s Breen Center for the Performing Arts.

Hailing from the South Shore of Long Island, Felise Bagley says she doesn’t recall a time when she didn’t know she was going to be a dancer.  “I started dancing before she could remember,” she says.  “There are photos of me dancing in cute outfits at a young age that I don’t remember having taken place.”

Bagley was further spurred on by her artistic family, her father an artist, and mother, who studied ballet with a Russian woman in Queens, would take her to see the New York City Ballet and other dance and arts events as a child. Her early dance training began with Willa Damien, a former soloist with Maurice Béjart’s Ballet of the 20th Century. She then went on to study at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s school before dancing professionally with Philadanco, Joffrey II and Ohio Ballet en route to GroundWorks.

In addition to dance, Bagley growing up also competed in gymnastics and diving throughout her high school years and took horseback riding, piano and flute lessons as well as drawing lessons at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology.

Known for her work ethic, dedication to her craft and impeccable facility, Bagley, to many, is one of those dance artists that seemingly could dance forever. Asked in an interview surrounding her receiving the 2015 Mid-career Cleveland Arts Prize in theatre & dance about her longevity as a performer, she replied: “I always feel brand new after one of our performances… why would I stop?”

So why is she stopping?

She’s not, she says, just moving on from GroundWorks.


GroundWorks’ Felise Bagley. Photo by Downie Photography.

“Seventeen years is way beyond anyone’s expectations to stay in one place as a dancer,” says Bagley.  “Most dancers don’t even have careers that last that long. It feels like the right time to make a move. I feel really accomplished and fulfilled with my time at GroundWorks but I also have this yearning to experience other things.”

Like 40-year-old New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, Bagley at 46 is an anomaly. While she is still among the best dancers in the region, most of her contemporaries have long since retired from dance company life.

Bagley says she has left the door open to dance and choreograph as opportunities arise, but for now her attention has shifted to Gyrotonics, where she is a certified instructor at Inspiral Motion in Shaker Heights.

In addition to the fond memories of the people, places and performances she has had as a member of GroundWorks, Bagley says some of her favorite moments have been in the creative process working with GroundWorks artistic director/choreographer David Shimotakahara and a slew of guest choreographers including Robert Moses, Beth Corning, Lynn Taylor Corbett, David Parker and “well most everyone,” she says.  “I have really tried to take what the choreographers have created and make it come alive in my own way.”

Also making his final appearances as a member of GroundWorks is Columbus-native, Highfield who began his dance journey at age 5 as a way to help him deal with his Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and to address his fascination with disco and John Travolta. He trained at Columbus’ BalletMet along with his two brothers and two sisters but was the only one who went on to pursue a career in dance.

Highfield says he got his first taste of performing in 1980 in BalletMet’s The Nutcracker production and never looked back. “Once you get onstage it’s addictive like a drug,” says Highfield of that first experience.

As a teen in addition to dancing with BalletMet’s the short-lived JazzMet, he took viola lessons, played soccer and was involved in theater and choir.

Highfield received a BFA in Dance from Butler University and went on to dance professionally with Atlanta Ballet and Ohio Ballet for 7-years before joining GroundWorks fulltime in 2007. Highfield had been guesting with Shimotakahara and GroundWorks since 1999.


GroundWorks’ Damien Highfield. Photo by Downie Photography.

Now 44 and having gone through a broken foot, torn meniscus and several bulged discs over his 25+ year professional dance career, Highfield says his body told him it was time to retire. So when the opportunity to purchase Akron’s Stage Center dancewear/shoe store came his way recently, he says he couldn’t pass it up.

“I look back on my career and I did everything I wanted to do and am very happy,” says Highfield. But as with Bagley, don’t look for him to completely stop dancing. He also plans to choreograph and guest dance when opportunities arise.

Highfield says his rewards from being a member of GroundWorks came in the comradely he shared with his fellow company members over the years.

“There were only five us so the dancers were the company and the company were the dancers,” he says. “We did everything, danced, choreographed and did outreach. And when a new dancer joined the company, we learned their style they learned ours. We grew together as a family. That is what I truly enjoyed and will miss the most.”

Of the works he has done as a member of GroundWorks, Highfield says many were memorable including those of choreographers Ronen Koresh, Kate Weare, Amy Miller and Gina Gibney. Recent works of Shimotakahara’s such as “House of Sparrows” and “Boom Boom” also rank high on his list. It is Shimotakahara’s early works however, he says he found most rewarding including “Sweet,” “Opening Seating,” and the very first work he collaborated on for the company, 2000’s “Circadian.” He and Bagley will reprise the duet in the Spring Concert Series. It will serve to bookend his career he says.

One of Shimotakahara’s most enduring dance works, “Circadian,” says Shimotakahara “was built on a gesture that becomes an extended reach. We also worked on ideas of things accumulating over time and of things being pulled together and apart. It’s about the force of attraction.”

Originally set to flute and harp music says Highfield, the 13-minute duet’s dynamic replacement score by longtime GroundWorks collaborator Gustavo Aguilar is a large part of its character and appeal with audiences.

“I think it lands emotionally,” says Shimotakahara of the work. “I like the tension created between the work’s formality and its emotional core.”


GroundWorks’ Felise Bagley and Damien Highfield. Photo by Mark Horning.


GroundWorks’ Felise Bagley and Damien Highfield. Photo by Mark Horning.

The first of two world-premieres on the program, choreographer James Gregg’s “éveillé” (awake) was inspired by Italian poet Giambattista Basile’s version of the Sleeping Beauty story entitled “The Sun, Moon and Talia,” taken from his 1634 collection of fairytales, the Pentamerone.

Not your Disney take on Sleeping Beauty, rather Basile’s tale involves necrophilia, rape, adultery, cannibalism and attempted murder. Don’t worry you won’t be seeing all of that on stage in Gregg’s interpretation. What you will see is a break dance and contemporary dance version loosely based on Basile’s story that captures the complex emotions involved with each of its characters who experience lust, love, betrayal and tragedy.

Set to music by Ben Frost from the 2011 Australian erotic drama film “Sleeping Beauty,” “éveillé” tells of Talia (renamed Beauty in this version), danced by Taylor Johnson who is a great lord’s daughter and who falls into a magical slumber as foretold by astrologers after a splinter of flax pierces her skin. She is then discovered after a period of time by a King, portrayed by Highfield, alone in an abandon house. Mistakenly thinking she was dead but still enraptured by her beauty, the King makes love to her. Beauty then gives birth to twins, a boy (Tyler Ring) and girl (Gemma Freitas Bender) that she names Sun and Moon.  The King then finds out Beauty is alive and he is the father of her children, so too does his wife the Evil Queen (Bagley) who hatches a plan to kill Beauty and get even with her adulterous husband by having him eat a meal made from the flesh of his and Beauty’s dead children.

A recipient of a 2015 Princess Grace Choreography Fellowship Award, Gregg, a former dancer with Bodytraffic, Les Ballet Jazz de Montreal, Rubberband Dance Group and River North Dance Company, has created choreographic works for Danceworks Chicago, Ballet X, Northwest Dance Project and Whim W’Him. This is his first creation for GroundWorks.

Of “éveillé,” Gregg said in a blog interview for GroundWorks, “My works are like a puzzle piece. I love creating movement from the inside out and exploring different paths through which the body can move.”

Rounding out the program will be the premiere of Shimotakahara’s “Passenger,” a work that takes its cue from 5-sections of American composer John Adams’ chamber work “John’s Book of Alleged Dances.”

Shimotakahara says of Adams’ score:  “I heard so many possibilities in the music almost from the first time I listened to it. It goes through so many references with regard to styles, genres and cultural idioms in the music. It’s almost like he is taking us on a magic carpet ride.”

That varied approach to the music also influenced Shimotakahara’s approach to the work’s choreography which he says uses several differing dance styles. Also a part of the 20-minute work for all five of GroundWorks dancers, is the idea that while all of us are may be together on this journey called life, ultimately we travel alone. That idea he says is best expressed in a duet within the work danced by Freitas Bender and Ring that is set to music by pianist and composer Dustin O’Halloran.


GroundWorks’ Felise Bagley and Damien Highfield. Photo by Downie Photography.

For Shimotakahara and GroundWorks, the departure of Bagley and Highfield is, as they say, the end of an era. A microcosm of the company’s evolution contained in their bodies, minds and performances, the pair’s departure will forever change the company as did their arrival as dancers almost two decades ago. As now the lone remaining artistic link to GroundWorks beginnings, Shimotakahara waxed poetic:

“I just have nothing but gratitude and respect of the both of them. To think back to where the company started and what the company was built on, we have stayed true to the initial idea [of new works that challenge the range of its artists] of the company and we have evolved together. The fact that they have committed to that for such a long time is special.  The new artists that are going to come into the company are going to change it.  I am prepared to allow that to happen. I not going to expect them to come in and dance like Felise and Damien. I know that I am not going to create the same type of work I would have continuing to work with them. That is the nature of what we have been doing all along with GroundWorks. Dancers come and go and the work does shifts. I think that is a good thing, a healthy thing.”

GroundWorks DanceTheater performs its 2018 Spring Concert Series, 7:30 p.m., Saturday, March 3 at Akron University’s EJ Thomas Hall, 198 Hill St., Akron and 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 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

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Riverdance’s 20th Anniversary World Tour Offers Much More than Nostalgia


A scene from Riverdance. Photo by Jack Hartin © Riverdance.

By Steve Sucato

When Riverdance began its first North American tour Bill Clinton was president, there was no such thing as an iPod, iPad or iPhone and Beyoncé was just that woman in Destiny’s Child. Now into its 20th year, few touring dance shows have achieved as much staying power.  A Huntington Featured Performance, Riverdance’s 20th Anniversary World Tour makes a stop in Cleveland, February 13-18 for 8 shows at Playhouse Square’s KeyBank State Theatre.

Seen globally live by over 25 million people and on television by over 3 billion, Riverdance continues to delight and pull in new audience members each year.

Produced by Moya Doherty and directed by John McColgan, Riverdance is more than just Irish dance and music, the show, set to composer Bill Whelan’s Grammy Award-winning score, includes an infusion of international dance and music as well.

“Outside of the Irish dancing we also have Russian, Spanish and American Tap dancers in the show,” says associate director, Padraic Moyles.  “As with most cultures or nations, the Irish found themselves migrating to different parts of the globe. Engaging with new cultures and experiencing their traditions and art forms have helped shape their culture and I feel that is true for so many countries around the world.”

Riverdance - The Show (Countess Cathleen)

A scene from Riverdance: Countess Cathleen. Photo by Jack Hartin © Riverdance.


A scene from Riverdance: Thunderstorm. Photo by Jack Hartin © Riverdance.

The show plays into that evolution of humankind beginning with our earliest ancestors. Through a series of dance and music numbers in the productions’ first half, it shows them coming to terms with the world and with themselves. The production’s second half then takes that journey through modern times, finally concluding with a celebratory return to Riverdance’s Irish roots.

Credited for helping to create an Irish dance craze in the U.S. shortly after its debut, a slew of other shows with Irish dancing in them appeared including several by former Riverdance star and choreographer Michael Flatley. So one can be forgiven thinking they have seen Riverdance when maybe they haven’t.

“I’m often amazed by the number of people who feel they have seen Riverdance [before], but when they describe what they’ve seen, you quickly realize that they are referring to another show,” says Moyles. “I guess in some way that is the power of the brand. But it would be a real shame [for them]not to see the original.”

Even if you have seen Riverdance before, the changes made to show over its past two decades on tour mean there is always something new to see. For this 20th Anniversary World Tour, a new ladies hard shoe Irish dance number was added. “Anna Livia,” choreographed by John Carey, says Moyles has quickly become an audience favorite with its rhythmic blend of footwork and vibrant movement patterns. Also new are updated lighting and projections but perhaps the biggest change comes in the show’s cast of performers says Moyles.


A scene from Riverdance: Anna Livia. Photo by Rob McDougall © Riverdance.


A scene from Riverdance. Photo by Jack Hartin © Riverdance.

“This is an entirely different cast and to me, having performed in the show for 18 years, this is the best cast of dancers we have ever had,” he says. “Their commitment to the art form, discipline and dedication bring a new energy and a totally new experience to the audience. To me, this is the best version of the show we have ever had.”

Riverdance’s 20th Anniversary World Tour will be performed:

Tuesday,  Feb. 13 at 7:30 PM
Wednesday, Feb. 14 at 7:30 PM

Thursday, Feb. 15 at 7:30 PM

Friday, Feb. 16 at 7:30 PM
Saturday, Feb. 17 at 1:30 PM & 7:30 PM
Sunday, Feb. 18 at 1:00 PM & 6:30 PM

Playhouse Square’s KeyBank State Theatre, 1519 Euclid Ave., downtown Cleveland. Tickets are $10.00 – 75.00 and available at, by phone at 216.241.6000 or in person at the Playhouse Square ticket office. Groups of 15 or more, please call Group Services at 216-640-8600. For more information on the production visit  

Steve Sucato is a former dancer turned arts writer/critic. He is Chairman Emeritus of the Dance Critics Association and Associate Editor of


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