Category Archives: Dance Reviews 2017

GroundWorks’ ‘Fall Concert Series’ Provided A Respite From Today’s Homogenized Contemporary Dance


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GroundWorks’ dancers in David Shimotakahara’s “Salt to Sea.” Photo by Mark Horning.

GroundWorks DanceTheater – Fall Concert Series
Playhouse Square – Allen Theatre
Cleveland, Ohio
October 13-14, 2017

Reviewed by Steve Sucato

It’s been 7-years since GroundWorks DanceTheater founding member Amy Miller left Northeast, Ohio for New York. Since then the Ravenna-native has joined with fellow Ohio-native and Case Western Reserve University alum Gina Gibney as associate artistic director of Gibney Dance. Over those 7-years Miller has also maintained a relationship with her former company as an artistic associate and choreographer.

For the world-premiere of Miller’s 12th creation for GroundWorks, “Vade Mecum” (Latin for “go with me”) that opened the company’s 2017 Fall Concert Series at Playhouse Square’s Allen Theatre on October 13,  Miller stylistically harkened back to GroundWorks’ early years.

Sharing at times similarities in movement aesthetic to GroundWorks’ artistic director David Shimotakahara, but with a flair for wonderfully distorting the image of the perfect dancer, Miller with “Vade Mecum” offered something refreshingly different from the seemingly endless procession of homogenized contemporary dance works seen today on stages across the planet including, to a lesser extent, from GroundWorks in recent years.

Danced to a lilting piano score by composer Peter Jones, musical director for the dance program at Mount Holyoke College, all five of GroundWorks’ dancers including new company member Taylor Johnson began the work by crawling on all fours. Miller choreography for “Vade Mecum” infused a mix of ballet and modern dance steps with movement echoing recent GroundWorks’ repertory pieces such as the bouncing boxer steps from Monica Bill Barnes’ “Tonight’s the night”.

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GroundWorks’ Gemma Freitas Bender in Amy Miller’s “Vade Mecum.” Photo by Mark Horning.

Said by Miller to be a work about “pushing against assumptions or ways that society encourages us to think about each other and our relationship to space and time,” the work had the dancers “going with” one another in satisfying movement phrases sprinkled with delightfully unexpected moments. As a unit, GroundWorks dancers were firing on all cylinders, with each given an opportunity to shine within Miller’s choreography. Johnson, in a solo filled with leg kicks and balancing body positions, showed she is a marvelous edition to the troupe.  And as good as Johnson and the others performers were in the work, company member Gemma Freitas Bender’s vibrant dancing and magnetic stage presence stole focus from everyone whenever she was onstage. She ranks among the very best dancers this region has to offer in a company that also ranks as such.

Next, Shimotakahara’s latest creation “Salt to Sea,” offered up his artistic response to the multitude of ills in the world. Set to an eclectic mix of music from a gospel choir to that of 2008 Pulitzer Prize-winning composer, and Bang on a Can co-founder David Lang, the work began with a melancholy and moving section whose shuffling group movement patterning was a bit reminiscent of  choreographer James Kudelka’s masterwork “The Man in Black.”

The work mirrored the ebb and flow of modern day life, going from times of suffering and despair to happier ones and back. A dramatic and thought-provoking work in its subtleties, it made the mental and emotional release of Shimotakahara’s “Brubeck” (2012) that came next to close the program, even sweeter.

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GroundWorks’ Felise Bagley & Tyler Ring in David Shimotakahara’s “Brubeck.” Photo by Mark Horning.

Set to a suite of jazz great Dave Brubeck songs including “Take Five,” “Pick Up Sticks,” and “Blue Rondo a la Turk”,” the work was a vibrant celebration of Brubeck’s music.

Infused with jazz dance movement a la Gene Kelly, Shimotakahara’s choreography sat well on the dancers and who transmitted a feel-good vibe to the audience that they soaked up eagerly. Lighthearted and as effervescent as Brubeck’s music, the well-crafted work was loaded with great dancing from each of GroundWorks’ performers and was a marvelous ending to a marvelous program.

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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4th Annual ‘The Benefit’ Worth Every Cent and More


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Dancers in Christian Broomhall’s “Bach Brandenburg Concerto No. 2.” Photo by Bullfrog Willard McGhee.

The Benefit
The Vern Riffe Center’s Jo Ann Davidson Theatre
Columbus, Ohio
May 21, 2017

Reviewed by Steve Sucato

When it comes to all-star dance benefits, few outside the nation’s major metropolises pack in as much talent and great dancing as Columbus, Ohio’s The Benefit. Curated by former BalletMet stars Jimmy Orrante and Attila Bongar, the annual event, now in its fourth year, benefits The Central Ohio Chapter of the National Hemophilia Foundation. It’s a charity close to Orrante’s heart as his son Isaac lives with the disease.

The expanded event on Sunday, May 21, 2017 was held for the first time at downtown Columbus’ newly renamed Jo Ann Davidson Theatre (formerly the Capitol Theatre) at the Vern Riffe Center and featured dancers and choreographers from Miami City Ballet, Cincinnati Ballet, Milwaukee Ballet, Rochester Ballet, BalletMet and Columbus Dance Theatre. In addition, Camarata, a multi-piece orchestra made up of musicians from the Columbus Symphony Orchestra and led by CSO principal cellist Luis Biava, played live accompanying many of the dance and music works on the program.

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Milwaukee Ballet’s Nicole Teague Howell and Patrick Howell in the second act pas de deux from Michael Pink’s “Swan Lake.” Photo by Bullfrog Willard McGhee.

Milwaukee Ballet stars and husband and wife Nicole Teague Howell and Patrick Howell in the second act pas de deux from Michael Pink’s Swan Lake opened the program. Dancing to Tchaikovsky’s music for the ballet, the pair as Odette and Prince Siegfried moved crisply and with lovely command in Pink’s neo-classical choreography that was more akin to a pas de deux from Romeo & Juliet than Swan Lake.

Baritone singer Robert Kerr then performed an animated rendition of the aria “Non più andrai” from Mozart’s opera The Marriage of Figaro. It was followed by “Regard,” the first of two ballets on the program by Orrante. Set to the second movement of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2, which was famously used by singer Eric Carmen for his 1975 hit “All by Myself,” Orrante’s pas de deux featured Miami City Ballet principal soloist Lauren Fadeley and BalletMet’s Jarrett Reimers in back and forth choreography full of elegance and grace.  Fadeley and Reimers moved with the ease of spirits floating weightlessly about the stage and in and out of marvelously-crafted lifts, turns, and carries.

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Miami City Ballet principal soloist Lauren Fadeley and BalletMet’s Jarrett Reimers in Jimmy Orrante’s “Regard.” Photo by Bullfrog Willard McGhee.

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Marcus Jarrell Willis in “A Caretakers Vow.” Photo by Bullfrog Willard McGhee.

Of the evening’s many magical moments, one of its most striking came courtesy of former Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater dancer Marcus Jarrell Willis’ solo “A Caretakers Vow” (Excerpt). Performed to recorded music by British soul singer-songwriter Laura Mvula, the solo, according to Willis, explores the uncertainty he felt about his future after leaving Ailey and how his friends encouraged and lifted him up. It began with Willis in spotlight on his knees and using a myriad of face, hand, arm, and body gestures in concert with Mvula’s song “Show Me Love” to convey his feelings and emotions. A tour-de-force of tightly contained brilliance, Willis’ dancing was fluid, dramatic and poignant.

Concluding the program’s first half was the 3-part “Voyager.”  The largest and most stylistically diverse of the on the program, it was inspired by music selections contained in NASA’s Golden Records included on the Voyager 1 and 2’s interstellar missions.  It began with Columbus’ COSI Science Center chief scientist Paul Sutter giving a brief overview of the Voyager missions and the Golden Records that led into the work’s first section; Orrante’s “Dark Was the Night Cold was the Ground” set to Blind Willie Johnson’s blues song of the same name performed live by North Carolina bluesman th’ Bullfrog Willard McGhee. In it, McGhee sat center stage on a stool as six female dancers surrounded him crisscrossing the stage in small waves of jumping, twisting and whirling movements.

More narration by Sutter then gave way to a thoughtful solo by kathak dancer/choreographer Mansee Singhi performed to “Jaat Kahan Ho” a traditional Indian song sung by Surshri Kesar Bai Kerkar, and “Bach Brandenburg Concerto No. 2,” a new ballet by former Columbus Dance Theatre dancer Christian Broomhall.

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(l-r) BalletMet’s Jessica Brown, Columbus Dance Theatre’s Kerri Riccardi and BalletMet’s Karen Wing in Christian Broomhall’s “Bach Brandenburg Concerto No. 2.” Photo by Bullfrog Willard McGhee.

Full of whimsy, Broomhall’s work was an ear-to-ear grin-inducing delight. Its eight dancers (5 men, 3 women) pranced and cavorted about in what felt like a contemporary dance jig. At times bird-like, the dancers flapped their arms and fluttered their hands as if to take flight and mimicked pecking at each other.  Broomhall, who impressed at 2016’s The Benefit with his ballet “She is,” once again showed why he is a choreographer to watch and one whose ballets need to be in the repertory of more professional dance troupes.

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Miami City Ballet principal soloist Lauren Fadeley and BalletMet’s Michael Sayre in Attila Bongar’s “63.” Photo by Bullfrog Willard McGhee.

The program’s second half opened with a stirring interpretation of Edvard Grieg’s “Holberg Suite” by Camarata. It was followed by Bongar’s mini-story ballet “63,” set to music by composer Alexander Scriabin. In it, Bongar sought to capture the emotions he perceived from seeing a photo of Jacqueline Kennedy and her daughter standing in front slain President John F. Kennedy coffin in 1963. The ballet showed mother, father and daughter figures facing a similar type of emotional distress. It was danced by. And while Scriabin’s dark music and dancers Fadeley, BalletMet’s Michael Sayre and BalletMet Dance Academy student Isabelle LaPierre’s emotional outpourings of tumult captured Bongar’s intent, the choreography lacked originality and the ballet on the whole came off as overly melodramatic.

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Dancers in Cincinnati Ballet soloist James Cunningham’s “Mordent.” Photo by Bullfrog Willard McGhee.

Next, Cincinnati Ballet soloist James Cunningham’s trio “Mordent” lifted the mood with a ballet that was chock-full of thrilling choreography and adroit dancing. Set to Beethoven’s Piano Trio in C minor, Op.1 No.3 and titled after the musical term meaning a melodic embellishment, the ballet’s trio of dancers from Cincinnati Ballet each sported an unusual costume embellishment. Corps de ballet dancer Taylor Carrasco wore one black glove and a blood red handprint on his shirt, apprentice dancer Michael Mengden wore one red glove and face paint, and senior soloist Melissa Gelfin was outfitted with two different colored pointe shoes and wore one white sock. Whatever the intended meaning of those embellishments, they further added to a ballet dense with visual marvels.

Following in quick succession were McGhee performing his gravely-great vaudeville tune “Bullfrog,” Rochester Ballet’s Ben Rabe showing of his leaping ability in the Cossack dance “Gopak,” choreographed by R. Zakharov and pianist Tyrone Boyle dazzling in his composition “Carousel in C Major”.

The first of two ballets to close out the 2-hour program was Kristopher Estes-Brown’s group ballet “The Sum of,” danced to music performed live by Columbus indie rock band The Wind and the Sea.  Estes-Brown’s choreography for it, while not particularly inventive, matched the drive of music and gave the ballet a rock-show feel.  Capping The Benefit in style was Bongar’s powerfully beautiful version of the pas de deux from the ballet Spartacus. Performed with passion by BalletMet’s Jessica Brown and Romel Frometa, the pas de deux epitomized the program’s high level of artistry on all counts.

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‘The Benefit’ organizers Jimmy Orrante and Attila Bongar. Photo by Bullfrog Willard McGhee.

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Columbus Symphony Orchestra’s Luis Biava conducts Camarata. Photo by Bullfrog Willard McGhee.

With its diversity in dance and music styles, types of choreographic works, entertaining and skilled performers as well as post-performance reception with the performers, The Benefit was a steal at $30 a ticket. Add to that the money raised going to worthy cause and you have a program that no dance lover in their right heart and mind should miss.

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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Cleveland Ballet’s Mixed Repertory Program Yields Mixed Results


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Nurlan Abougaliev and Lüna Sayag in Michel Fokine’s “Les Sylphides.” Photo by Mark Horning.

Cleveland Ballet – Les Sylphides
Ohio Theatre at Playhouse Square
Cleveland, Ohio
October 14, 2017
Reviewed by Steve Sucato

In their first mainstage performance since being named a resident company at Cleveland’s Playhouse Square center, Cleveland Ballet showed that the faith Playhouse Square put in the 3-year-old company and its potential wasn’t misplaced. The troupe of mostly young dancers acquitted themselves nicely in a varied program of ballets on October 14 at the Ohio Theatre including a beautiful performance of Michel Fokine’s 1909 ballet Les Sylphides that opened the program.

Wonderfully staged by former Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre dancer and native of Ufa, Russia, Aygul Abougalieva, the ballet had a classical Russian style to it.  Costumed in the white tutus with small fairy wings a la the ballet Giselle, Abougalieva’s staging, beyond deftly capturing the elegance of Fokine’s choreography with its picturesque tableaus, also managed to create unity between a corps of differently skilled dancers whose lines and formations impressed.

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Cleveland Ballet in Michel Fokine’s “Les Sylphides.” Photo by Mark Horning.

Danced to a live piano rendition of Frédéric Chopin’s music for the ballet by Cleveland Institute of Music’s Ralitsa Georgieva-Smith, Les Sylphides featured a cast of eighteen including dancers from Cleveland Ballet’s Youth Company and guest dancer and former principal with Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, Nurlan Abougaliev.  A veteran performer, Abougaliev showed the same leading man stature and elegance in his dancing that made him a standout PBT. Partnering with rising company star Lüna Sayag, Abougaliev and the French born dancer were magic in Fokine’s classical choreography. The bright-eyed Sayag was spellbinding, dancing with a combination of grace and control. And while Cleveland Ballet is still a long way from artistic director Gladisa Guadalupe’s vision of a world-class troupe, Sayag’s recent growth and her potential as an artist is a very promising step in that direction. Also of note in the ballet were the solid performances of dancers Lauren Stenroos in the “Waltz” and Jenna Steiner in the “Prelude” section.

Next came A Collage of Frank Sinatra Songs, the first of two world-premiere ballets by Guadalupe. Set to a medley of six Sinatra favorites, the ballet had some of the vibe of choreographer Twyla Tharp’s popular masterwork Nine Sinatra Songs, but with more of the nostalgic playfulness and sensibilities of a Fred Astaire musical.

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Cleveland Ballet in Gladisa Guadalupe’s “A Collage of Frank Sinatra Songs.” Photo by Mark Horning.

Sporting luxurious formalwear costumes that included several stunning full-length gowns, the ballet’s eleven dancers performed stereotypical, yet pleasing, Broadway-infused ballet choreography. The work began with Sayag and partner Victor Jarvis in a quaint pas de deux to Sinatra’s rendition of “Young at Heart” that set a lighthearted mood that would carry throughout the ballet. Other highlights included standout dancer Rainer Diaz-Martinez bounding through energetic leaps and pirouettes in a flirty vignette with a quartet of women, and a silky-smooth pas de deux to the song “The Way You Look Tonight” with Abougaliev partnering the statuesque Silken Kelly and the pair recalling a bit of the flair of a Astaire and Cyd Charisse number.

Rounding out the program was Guadalupe’s disappointing Concerto, a banal ballet set to Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Piano in D Minor” performed with skill live by Georgieva-Smith and Sophie Van Der Westhuizen.

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Cleveland Ballet in Gladisa Guadalupe’s “Concerto.” Photo by Mark Horning.

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Rainer Diaz-Martinez (L) and Victor Jarvis in Gladisa Guadalupe’s “Concerto.” Photo by Mark Horning.

Unlike the nostalgic feel of A Collage of Frank Sinatra Songs, Guadalupe’s mostly academic choreography for Concerto, while physically challenging for its dancers, felt like a retread of decades old ballets that have long since lost their mass appeal. The ballet’s lone saving grace was the palpable effort the troupe’s dancers put into performing it.

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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