Category Archives: Dance International

BalletMet’s Orrante Takes Final Bow in a Program Brimming with Memorable Moments


BalletMet dancers in Edwaard’s Liang's

BalletMet dancers in Edwaard’s Liang’s “The Art of War.” Photo by Jennifer Zmuda.

BalletMet – American Masters
Ohio Theatre
Columbus, Ohio
May 2 & 3, 2015

Reviewed by Steve Sucato

In his first full season as artistic director of Ohio’s BalletMet Columbus, Edwaard Liang orchestrated a landmark collaboration with Opera Columbus and the Columbus Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in the wildly successful production Twisted, and treated audiences to 11 world premieres from choreographers such as Val Caniparoli, Ma Cong and Gustavo Ramirez Sansano. In the process, he transformed the 26-member troupe from a good contemporary ballet company into a great one.

That evolution was apparent this past May at Columbus’ Ohio Theatre, where Liang assembled a stylistically diverse and engaging program entitled American Masters to close the company’s 37th season. The bill featured world premieres by Liang himself, who was born in Taiwan but raised in California, and Canadians James Kudelka and David Nixon, along with the company premiere of the Jerome Robbins masterwork Fancy Free. The “American” in the program’s title refers not only to Robbins, but also to the American composers featured — Michael Torke, Aaron Copland, Caroline Shaw and Leonard Bernstein.

BalletMet dancers in Edwaard’s Liang's

BalletMet dancers in Edwaard’s Liang’s “The Art of War.” Photo by Jennifer Zmuda.

The program opened with a bang with Liang’s The Art of War, set to a driving score by Torke. In a nod to Jirí Kylián’s Petite Mort, two dancers pulled a large billowy sheet of fabric from the front of the stage to the rear, obscuring the entrance of BalletMet’s dozen dancers. The magical reveal delighted the audience who let out a collective gasp.

A star-field backdrop twinkled as the dancers moved through Liang’s crisp contemporary choreography. A shirtless Adam Still, with a bodybuilder physique, set an aggressive tone, powering through a solo dense with bravura jumps and turns.

Local audiences have had a heavy dose of Liang’s ballets since his arrival in 2013, including his popular Wünderland, but The Art of War proved his finest yet. Liang cast the ballet with many of the company’s best dancers and as a group they shone in his sharp and sophisticated choreography, said to be inspired by the art of calligraphy. It was the ballet’s pas de deux, however, that really impressed. The first, danced by Adrienne Benz and Gabriel Gaffney Smith, was an exquisite procession of lifts. The most stunning featured a move where he pulled her by her feet between his legs into a tabletop position behind him at his waist. A second pas de deux was danced by Caitlin Valentine-Ellis and David Ward, who ripped through precision turns and lifts that balanced grace with movement attack.

BalletMet dancers Emily Gotschall and Jimmy Orrante in David Nixon's

BalletMet dancers Emily Gotschall and Jimmy Orrante in David Nixon’s “Thinking of You.” Photo by Jennifer Zmuda.

BalletMet dancers in David Nixon's

BalletMet dancers in David Nixon’s “Thinking of You.” Photo by Jennifer Zmuda.

Thinking of You by Nixon (a former BalletMet artistic director and current director of England’s Northern Ballet) was a loving tribute to retiring dancer Jimmy Orrante. The popular Orrante spent 19 years with BalletMet as a leading dancer and more recently as its de facto resident choreographer. For much of the neoclassical ballet, set to Copland’s Symphony No. 3, Orrante played the role of onlooker. He sat on the stage floor watching his fellow dancers, was held aloft by them in an iron-cross lift, and stood staring contemplatively down into his open palm as if seeing something there, perhaps images from his dance career.

At the end, he stared into his palm again, then, as he moved offstage, swept his arm away as if discarding something he no longer needed. When Orrante did dance, he was smooth and commanding, as in a breezy pas de deux with Emily Gotschall. Also of note were the adroit performances of fellow retiring dancers Courtney Muscroft and Jackson Prescott Sarver in a buoyant pas de deux.

BalletMet dancers in James Kudelka's “Real Life.” Photo by Jennifer Zmuda.

BalletMet dancers in James Kudelka’s “Real Life.” Photo by Jennifer Zmuda.

BalletMet dancers in James Kudelka's “Real Life.” Photo by Jennifer Zmuda.

BalletMet dancers in James Kudelka’s “Real Life.” Photo by Jennifer Zmuda.

The program’s second half opened with Kudelka’s Real Life. Like a Picasso cubist painting among Monets and Rembrandts, Real Life was an aesthetic jolt. Danced to Shaw’s 2013 Pulitzer Prize-winning Partita for 8 Voices, Kudelka’s choreography had the feel of a mechanized square dance. The eight dancers in unitards deftly promenaded through a tricky series of alternating handshake holds, snaking around one another in delicious patterns. The dancing not only fit Shaw’s layered avant-garde vocal music perfectly, but gave one the sense of glimpsing how the universe works in dance form. Like his The Man in Black, created for BalletMet in 2010, Kudelka developed a unique movement language based on familiar movement that he took to new and ingenious places.

BalletMet dancers in Jerome Robbins'

BalletMet dancers in Jerome Robbins’ “Fancy Free.” Photo by Jennifer Zmuda.

BalletMet dancers in Jerome Robbins'

BalletMet dancers in Jerome Robbins’ “Fancy Free.” Photo by Jennifer Zmuda.

Rounding out American Masters was the Columbus premiere of Robbins’ Fancy Free (1944). Set to an iconic Bernstein score, the classic Broadway-esque tale of three sailors on shore leave trying to impress three local dames is the perfect marriage of 1940s’ era chauvinistic humour with masterfully crafted choreography. Each of the two seven-member casts I saw brought their own personalities to the roles, especially the trio of sailors. The cast of Smith, Still and Ward had a jaunty skillfulness, while Martin Roosaare, Michael Sayre and Sarver displayed clever acting skills that gave their characters added depth. Fancy Free, like the rest of the program, was sheer delight.

This review first appeared in the 2015 Fall issue of Dance International magazine. Copyright Steve Sucato.

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Northeast Ohio Summer Dance in Review


Ballet Hispanico dancers in Eduardo Vilaro's "Asuka".

Ballet Hispanico dancers in Eduardo Vilaro’s “Asuka”. Photo by Dale Dong.

Reviewed by Steve Sucato

It’s a tale of two cities when it comes to summer dance in Northeast Ohio; two marquee, municipally run performance series, one in Akron and the other in Cleveland, count for the bulk of the region’s professional dance by local and nationally touring companies.

Billed as the oldest, free summer dance series in the United States, the Heinz Poll Summer Dance Festival in Akron was established in 1974 to honor the legacy of founding artistic director of now defunct Ohio Ballet, Heinz Poll. The family-friendly series held at four city parks and historical sites showcases dance to some 10,000 attendees each season. The 41st edition, which ran four consecutive weekends, opened with New York’s Ballet Hispanico at Goodyear Heights Metro Park.

Chairs and blankets stretched out far and wide in front of the portable stage as area residents of all ages settled in for an evening of dance under the stars, a scene repeated at all the festival’s venues. Ballet Hispanico artistic director Eduardo Vilaro’s Latin-infused contemporary Asuka (2011) kicked things off. Bursting with energy, the playful, hip-shaking piece for a dozen dancers celebrated the music of the late Cuban “Queen of Salsa” Celia Cruz. Next, Sombrerisimo (2013) was the first and best of two works by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa. Inspired by the surrealist paintings of Belgian artist René Magritte, the all-male cast of six — in untucked dress shirts, pants and black bowler hats — moved through well-crafted choreography full of leaps, jumps and dancer inter- weaving as they cleverly transferred hats from one to another.

Rounding out the program was a pas de deux from Tito on Timbales (1984), William Whitener’s tribute to percussionist Tito Puente, danced adroitly by Alexander Duval and Jessica Alejandra Wyatt, and Lopez Ochoa’s Mad’moiselle (2010), a wonderfully bizarre satire on the many images of “Maria” found in Latin culture, including West Side Story.

Neos Dance Theatre's Mary-Elizabeth Fenn and company in Penny Saunders' "Flight".  Photo by Dale Dong.

Neos Dance Theatre’s Mary-Elizabeth Fenn and company in Penny Saunders’ “Flight”. Photo by Dale Dong.

The second weekend featured Mansfield, Ohio-based Neos Dance Theatre, the rising regional company with national aspirations, which offered up three ballets, including festival standout, Penny Saunders’ Flight (2014).

Flight, set to an eclectic soundscape, opened on a group of dancers in uniform grey  tops and slacks moving in robotic unison to spooky music à la a Tim Burton film. The quirky dance work switched gears as Hank Williams Sr.’s Ramblin’ Man ushered in a trio of men in western-infused choreography that had them moseying through snaking movement patterns and arching lifts. In the last section, which emulated the work’s robotic beginnings, Mary-Elizabeth Fenn, moving like a dancer from a music box, stood atop the lone set piece, a wooden box, surrounded by dancers on their knees holding her in place by her ankles; Fenn’s beautifully danced movements evolved from calm and graceful to frantic.

The premiere of artistic director Bobby Wesner’s Slow Moving and Almost Stopped proved true to its title. Dancers spun one another in crouched, flat-footed circles that mesmerized like a figure skater’s effortless glide. Wesner’s nonchalant choreography, set to folksy music, had dancers giving into gravity’s pull and falling into one another’s arms while others engaged in tightly managed movement riffs. The program concluded with Wesner’s 2013 Spinning Plates.

In perhaps the most apropos pairing of dance and venue, Cleveland’s GroundWorks DanceTheater joined with ChamberFest Cleveland musicians to perform David Shimotakahara’s Ghost Opera (2014) at the historic Glendale Cemetery. Inspired by childhood memories of the shamanistic “ghost operas” found in Chinese peasant culture, Tan Dun’s 1994 composition Ghost Opera evoked a ceremonial feel of conjuring spirits and communing with the departed that Shimotakahara (GroundWorks’ artistic director) sought to capture in movement.

GroundWorks DanceTheater dancer Annika Sheaff in David Shimotakahara's "Ghost Opera". Photo by Dale Dong.

GroundWorks DanceTheater dancer Annika Sheaff in David Shimotakahara’s “Ghost Opera”. Photo by Dale Dong.

Water splashed, voices chanted and sang, and violins,  a cello  and  a Chinese  pipa  (a four-stringed lute) were played live, providing a haunting soundscape. Shimotakahara’s choreography ebbed and flowed between the dancers en masse huddling and cleaving to each other and duets and solos that spoke of earth, family and, oddly enough, the music of Bach and the writings of Shakespeare. An esoteric work compared to most summer dance fare, Ghost Opera was marvellously performed and well received.

GroundWorks’ double-bill program, which brought the living and the dead together in celebration of the 175th anniversary of the cemetery, began on a festive note with Lynne Taylor-Corbett’s Hindsight (2011), a tribute to the music of Akron native Chrissie Hynde and her band the Pretenders in a jazzy, Broadway-esque romp.

The series at Cleveland Heights’ Cain Park presented dance in two covered outdoor theatres. A ticketed series welcomed Cleveland-based Verb Ballets in four works that showcased the young dancers. Pamela Pribisco’s Tarantella (2005) provided an energetic boost to the classic dance staple. It was performed with spunk by Michael Hinton and last-minute injury substitution Megan Buckley. Buckley’s charm and effervescence captured the hearts of the audience, leading to cheering at the ballet’s end.

Photo courtesy of Verb Ballets.

Photo courtesy of Verb Ballets.

The program’s gem was the company premiere of former Cincinnati Ballet principal dancer Anthony Krutzkamp’s Similar (2012). Set to piano music by Chad Lawson and Brian Crain, the well-crafted contemporary ballet opened on three male-female couples engaged in angular, elongated unison choreography. Confident and polished, Verb’s dancers shone, especially Stephaen Hood and Lieneke Matte in a delicate pas de deux.

A few days later, Inlet Dance Theatre doled out a pleasing dose of artistic director Bill Wade’s message-driven, Pilobolus-style dance works, including his athletic, amusing duet A Close Shave (2006). The work, which involved the mirror image of a man shaving come to life, was danced with wit, precision and strength by Joshua Brown and Dominic Moore-Dunson. The jam-packed program of eight uplifting works also featured Wade’s signature body sculpture wonder, Ascension (2006).

Capping the performances was Philadelphia hip-hop troupe Illstyle & Peace Productions in Same Spirit Different Movement II: IMpossible IZZpossible & KINGZ. The positive spirit pro- gram featured 19-year-old spoken word artist Syreeta, whose hard-hitting poems spoke of small-town poverty and prejudice, along with a potent mix of deejaying, gospel music and magnificently performed old-school locking, popping, breaking, tap and house dancing. Company founder and dancer Brandon “Peace” Albright and dancer Reggie TapMan Myers captivated in the party atmosphere collection of dance.

This review first appeared in the 2014 winter issue of Dance International magazine. Copyright Steve Sucato.

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