Category Archives: Dance Reviews 2017

Leaving Neverland


9_WFarewell2_Courtesy of Paul Kolnick

A scene from Got The Shot Films Production “Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan.” Photo courtesy of Paul Kolnick.

Reviewed by Steve Sucato

A single file line of female corps de ballet dancers in silhouette shuffles across the back of the stage at Lincoln Center’s David H. Koch Theater. Accompanied by the haunting string music of composer Philip Glass and looking like some cliché of automaton factory workers, the line of dancers is suddenly juxtaposed by New York City Ballet’s Wendy Whelan lifted by partner Tyler Angle soaring across the stage like some goddess exalted.  The scene out of Jerome Robbins’ Glass Pieces played out like a metaphor for the charmed career Whelan, and few others have attained, basking in the spotlight of stardom for decades while the all but anonymous line of corps dancers trudge along in the background, for most, their careers never to see such heights.

But Linda Saffire and Adam Schlesinger’s 90-minute documentary Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan (2016) isn’t about the fickle nature of stardom nor so much about Whelan’s ascent to it, but rather what she feels is her impending descent from it and the loss of her identity. It’s a very personal, somewhat inner circle, glimpse into her coming to grips with aging, injury and what happens next.

Filmed beginning in 2013 when she was 46, the documentary takes us through her battle with a painful hip injury, her inner battles over her career and through her final performance with NYCB and the beginnings of a new chapter in her life.

Like any great athlete that has self-realized or been told that they have lost a step and subsequently see the finish line to their careers is in sight, early on in the film Whelan is knowingly rather fatalistic about her future.

“’If I don’t dance, I’d rather die’—I’ve actually said that,” recalls Whelan in the film. “I feel the ticking clock.”

Shattered and heartbroken at times in the film, Whelan’s penetrating and sometimes mournful expressions in the film, harken back to anguished images of runner Mary Decker after falling in the women’s 3,000m final at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, watching in tears as her dreams of Olympic gold ran away from her.

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A scene from Got The Shot Films Production “Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan.”

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A scene from Got The Shot Films Production “Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan.”

Born and raised in Louisville, Kentucky, Whelan’s early training at the Louisville Ballet Academy led her to New York and the School of American Ballet. In 1984, she was named an apprentice with NYCB and in 1986 she joined its corps de ballet. One of the first post-Balanchine stars of the company, Whelan went on to spend a record-setting 30-years at NYCB, 23 of them as a principal dancer.

Says current NYCB Ballet Master in Chief Peter Martins about his hiring of Whelan, “It’s not rocket science, when somebody pops up with that gift it’s very easy to identify, you just grab it.”

Unlike other dance documentaries about a single artist, Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan isn’t filled with film/video clips of her dance oeuvre that includes works by choreographers William Forsythe, Alexei Ratmansky, Twyla Tharp, Christopher Wheeldon her performing most every major Balanchine role. Instead the focus is on getting to know the affable waif during a most crucial intersection in her life ─ career reinvention or permanent retirement from the stage.

Cognizant of her gifts as a dancer and her place on the dance landscape, Whelan says in the film, “I had the world in my hands. I was getting every part under the sun…it was like gold streaming into my world.”

Having worked closely with Jerome Robbins twelve years, originated more roles at NYCB than any other dancer in its history, guested with the Kirov Ballet and The Royal Ballet’s, received numerous awards including the Dance Magazine Award (2007), the Jerome Robbins Award (2011) and a 2011 Bessie Award, Whelan is considered one of the modern era’s most important ballerinas.

It is perhaps that fear of falling from such great heights that seems to haunt Whelan most in the film ─ adulation and stardom are but holes in your parachute once they disappear.

Unusual in its approach to revealing Whelan as a person and an artist during a time of personal crisis, Saffire and Schlesinger’s documentary is a powerfully engaging, wonderfully choreographed and edited film that like any great dance work or film, speaks passionately to the human condition.

The documentary moves through scenes of Whelan reminiscing with the constant male dance partners she has had in her career (Jock Soto, Craig Hall, Tyler Angle), shows her discussing and rehearsing with choreographers’ Ratmansky and Wheeldon a new ballet for her final performance at NYCB, and details a few somewhat uncomfortable encounters with boss Martins.

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A scene from Got The Shot Films Production “Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan.” Photo courtesy of Paul Kolnick.

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A scene from Got The Shot Films Production “Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan.” Photo courtesy of Paul Kolnick.

Particularly engaging are scenes of Whelan discussing her hip surgery with Dr. Marc Philippon of Colorado’s Vail Valley Medical Center, who says to her “Ballerinas are probably God’s best athletes,” and operation room footage of  Whelan’s hip surgery, from prepping her to the first scalpel incision with Whelan awake.

The most thoughtful and riveting scenes of the film however are of Whelan’s final performance with NYCB on October 18, 2014. Saffire and Schlesinger masterfully intercut her backstage routine with Whelan dancing onstage for the final time. The soundtrack to these scenes bounces between a backstage hallway monitor and the performance hall with camera angles capturing Whelan’s movements from seemingly everywhere. Especially poignant are the silent, reflective and distant stares of Whelan feeling what that end is like; a different Wendy leaving Neverland knowing she has to grow up.

At films end, Whelan comes to realize that this is not the end for her and dance. That she can take her dancing, career, and stardom to new places and new heights, which we see she has already begun to do.

Abramorama presents a Got The Shot Films Production Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan, directed and produced by Adam Schlesinger and Linda Saffire, executive producer, Diana Dimenna, edited by Bob Eisenhardt, A.C.E., director of photography, Don Lenzer with original music composed by Philip Sheppard. Running time: 1h 30min, WW Dance, LLC © 2016. www.restlesscreaturefilm.com

Abramorama will release Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan in New York at the Elinor Bunin Theater and Film Forum today, May 24, 2017.

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Antaeus Dance Gifts Fans with One Last Gem in Joint Production with Travesty Dance Group


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Travesty Dance Group in “we all had flowers.” Photo by Dana Rogers Photography.

Cleveland Public Theatre 2017 DanceWorks Series
Antaeus Dance & Travesty Dance Group – Taking the Fall
Cleveland Public Theatre – James Levin Theatre
May 4-6, 2017

Reviewed by Steve Sucato

For area dance fans and the Northeast Ohio dance community the opening weekend of Cleveland Public Theatre’s DanceWorks series is always a cause for excitement. But tempering that excitement this past weekend was the knowledge that it would be the last time longtime fixtures on the DanceWorks series and in the local dance community, Joan Meggitt’s Antaeus Dance would be seen.  Founded in 2000, the company took its final bows in Taking the Fall, a joint production with like-minded movers Travesty Dance Group (TDG) at CPT’s James Levin Theatre.

Taking the Fall’s final showing this past Saturday, May 6, proved a showcase of the choreographic aesthetics of each of the company’s respective directors, Meggitt, and TDG’s Kimberly Karpanty, both faculty members in the School of Theatre and Dance at Kent State University.

The program, whose overarching theme “pays homage to those who keep us safe, demand our honesty and serve as models for integrity and right action,” says Karpanty, began with two works by her and performed by TDG.

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Travesty Dance Group in “we all had flowers.” Photo by Dana Rogers Photography.

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Travesty Dance Group in “we all had flowers.” Photo by Dana Rogers Photography.

In “we all had flowers” (2016), five women stood along a diagonal line with their hands shielding their faces.  Like a calculated game of peek-a-boo, the women took turns sliding one hand slowly down from over an eye and then back into place again. The dancers then one at a time engaged in little snippets of movement that took out from their place in line and back in again.

Set to an excerpt from Julia Wolfe’s 2015 Pulitzer Prize-winning oratorio for choir and chamber ensemble “Anthracite Fields,” the moody, post-modern-styled work, mixed spurts of little hops, kicks and runs with hand and arm gestures and body positioning that at times suggested the blooming of flowers.

Next came, Karpanty’s trio “irreverence” (2016) that stylistically could have been mistaken for another section of “we all had flowers.” Danced to music by Dutch classical pianist and composer Jeroen van Veen, the work, apart from a more aggressive tone, used variations on movements seen in “we all had flowers.” In it, a dancer again shielded her face with her hands, only this time with splayed fingers to reveal her intense stare underneath.

(c) Copyright Dana Rogers Photography

Shannon Sefcik and Ashley Lain in Kimberly Karpanty’s “irreverence.” Photo by Dana Rogers Photography.

Quiet gestures such as one dancer rapidly rubbing together the two middle fingers of one hand to draw another dancer’s attention were juxtaposed with several dancers’ loud slapping of hands on thighs. More a work revealing emotionality than any particular narrative, “irreverence,” ended powerfully with one dancer suddenly dropping to the floor in a heap as the other two turned their backs to her and to the audience.

The first of two works by Antaeus Dance, the premiere of Meggitt’s “UpShift” was a brief and lively solo created for longtime company member Heather Koniz Young as a parting gift to her.

Heather Young, UpShift, photo by Brad Petot

Antaeus Dance’s Heather Koniz Young in Joan Meggitt’s “UpShift.” Photo by Brad Petot.

Set to an original percussive score by Antaeus’ de facto resident composer, associate professor of music at Cleveland State University, Greg D’Alessio, Koniz Young was solid executing Meggitt’s stiff darting arm movements and Paul Taylor-like torso-twisting dance moves.  The upbeat solo was a tasty appetizer for Antaeus’ group work to come.

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A scene from “alter idem,” a dance film by Kimberly Karpanty (Director of Photography) and Joan Meggitt (Choreographer/Performer).

The Ohio premiere of Meggitt and Karpanty’s dance on film short, alter idem (second self) was another bite size morsel of goodness. Shot on location in rural Suffield, Ohio with music by D’Alessio played beautifully by violinist Sarah Blick, the 8-minute film featured Meggitt traversing an old wooden structure such as a barn or large chicken coop.  In the film we see her from many angles appearing and disappearing from sight, holding onto support posts, seated in a chair running through gestural hand movements and eerily staring off into the distance. In the film’s closing frames Meggitt is seen standing still, back to us, in a crop field as if she, and we, are looking down at her like an out-of-body experience.

After solo excerpts of Karpanty performed of her new work “Precipice,” the program concluded with its two finest offerings beginning with TDG’s “the tongue of the wise,” choreographed by Karpanty.

Set to music by Bang on a Can All-Stars along with excerpts from a sermon by Pastor Jim Cymbala of The Brooklyn Tabernacle recited live by Chuck Richie, the work pitted dancers Stephanie Harris and Tanya Mucci against one another as the embodiment of the wise man and the fool.

(c) Copyright Dana Rogers Photography

(L to R) Travesty Dance Group’s Tanya Mucci and Stephanie Harris in Kimberly Karpanty’s “the tongue of the wise.” Photo by Dana Rogers Photography.

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(L to R) Travesty Dance Group’s Stephanie Harris and Chuck Richie in Kimberly Karpanty’s “the tongue of the wise.” Photo by Dana Rogers Photography.

During the cleverly-crafted work Richie, moving as an actor among the dancers, spoke of the differences between the fool and the wise man’s reactions to uncomfortable situations as the two dancers gave visual imagery to what Richie was saying, often aggressively tussling with one another.

Ultimately, a chastising of how one person’s thoughts spoken with malice can hurt another, Richie offered up this bit of wisdom, “Endurance is what God gives you to get through situations. Patience is what God gives you to get through people.”

In the conversation as being Meggitt’s magnum opus, the final work on the program, “Mercy” (2016), encapsulated those qualities that have come to define her work for Antaeus Dance over the past 16-years. Wonderfully crafted with a mix of quiet dignity, grace, and beauty, “Mercy” revisited a recurring theme in Meggitt’s works, the interplay between the individual and the collective.

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Antaeus Dance in Joan Meggitt’s “Mercy.” Photo by Dana Rogers Photography.

(c) Copyright Dana Rogers Photography

Antaeus Dance’s Desmond L. Davis and Melissa Knestaut Ajayi in Joan Meggitt’s “Mercy.” Photo by Dana Rogers Photography.

(c) Copyright Dana Rogers Photography

(L to R) Antaeus Dance’s Melissa Knestaut Ajayi and Shannon Sefcik in Joan Meggitt’s “Mercy.” Photo by Dana Rogers Photography.

In it, Antaeus’ full complement of 6-dancers including Meggitt, moved through deliberate and heartfelt choreography that bubbled up feelings between the dancers (and audience) of caring, hopefulness, melancholy and longing. Dancing to another of D’Alessio’s original scores, the veteran unit of dancers never looked better in Meggitt’s signature movement language. They flowed through interactions with each other that were tender and full of purpose.  In a nod to several past Antaeus works, the diminutive Desmond L. Davis at one point was carried offstage cradled in the arms of fellow dancer Melissa Knestaut Ajayi.

In her last performance with the company she founded, Meggitt captivated with her usual precision and determination. Pausing at times during the work to look back reflectively at the other dancers, one got the sense she was also wishing them farewell and thanking them for the years they spent together as a troupe.

A fitting end to Taking the Fall, “Mercy,” a culmination of all the Antaeus works that came before it, shone as a final gem in Antaeus Dance’s legacy.

Cleveland Public Theatre’s 2017 DanceWorks series continues 7:00 p.m., every Thursday, Friday and Saturday, through June 3 at CPT’s newly renovated James Levin Theatre, 6415 Detroit Ave., Cleveland. Tickets are $12/Thursdays and $30/Friday & Saturday. For more information and tickets call (216) 631.2727 x501 or visit cptonline.org.

 

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Curiouser and curiouser: Grand Rapids Ballet’s “Alice” overcomes early flaws to delight


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Grand Rapids Ballet’s Cassidy Isaacson and Levi Teachout in “Alice in Wonderland.” Photos by Eric Bouwens.

Reviewed by Steve Sucato

For a long time, it’s been a common speculation that iconic novel “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” was the product of mind-altering drugs. The world premiere of Grand Rapids Ballet (GRB)’s production of “Alice in Wonderland” Friday night based on that tale by Lewis Carroll’s (the pseudonym for Charles Lutwidge Dodgson), feeds into that notion. The mind-blowing visual spectacle has the feel of a cross between 1960s psychedelia and Disney’s “Fantasia.” But where award-winning Argentinian visual artist Luis Grané’s colorful and cartoon-like costumes and scenic design was a highlight of the production, slow character development early on in the ballet proved problematic.

Known for his illustration work on such films as “The Matrix” (1999), “Ratatouille” (2007), “Hotel Transylvania” (2012) and “The Boxtrolls” (2014), Grané’s bold visual effects and projections acted as a moving scenic backdrop to the 90-minute multimedia production choreographed by Brian Enos. “Alice” was the first ever full-length story ballet Enos has choreographed. He was up to the challenge for the most part, employing a strategic blend of movement styles that helped illustrate each of the ballet’s characters. The artistic director of St. Louis’ The Big Muddy Dance Company, local audiences may remember Enos from his other ballet created on GRB, 2013’s Scottish-flavored “Nae Regrets.”

Family-friendly (although skewing more toward younger audiences), the ballet was set to a well thought out score of existing music by composers Alfred Schnittke, Dmitri Shostakovich, Sergei Prokofiev and others compiled by Brendan Hollins. Although not set in the usual Victorian era in favor of a more contemporary look, for the most part Enos followed Carroll’s universally known storyline.

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