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GroundWorks DanceTheater’s Program a Triumph for Company and Two Retiring Dancers


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GroundWorks DanceTheater’s Damien Highfield and Taylor Johnson in James Gregg’s “éveillé.” Photo by Mark Horning.

GroundWorks DanceTheater – 2018 Spring Concert Series
EJ Thomas Hall at University of Akron

Akron, Ohio
March 3, 2018

Reviewed by Steve Sucato

There can be no doubt that many of those who came to see  GroundWorks DanceTheater’s 2018 Spring Concert Series on Saturday, March 3 at Akron University’s EJ Thomas Hall, did so to see retiring company stalwarts Felise Bagley and Damien Highfield’s last performance with the company in Akron.  Not only did those assembled get to see the pair excel in all three works on the program, they also got to take in James Gregg’s “éveillé”, one of the best dance works the company has ever mounted and one of the best presented by anyone in the region in recent memory.

The world-premiere of Gregg’s semi-narrative dance work heavily-infused with urban-influenced (hip hop, break dance) dance movement, took its inspiration from Italian poet Giambattista Basile’s dark and perverse version of the Sleeping Beauty story entitled “The Sun, Moon and Talia,” included his 1634 collection of fairytales, the Pentamerone.  It tells of Talia, a great lord’s daughter who falls into a magical slumber as foretold by astrologers after a splinter of flax pierces her skin. The lord places her in one of his country estates where she is discovered after a time by a King who mistakenly thinks she is dead but is so enraptured by her beauty, that he has his way with her before returning to his castle. Talia then gives birth to twins she names Sun and Moon, waking her from her slumber. The King then discovers Talia is alive and he is the father of her children as does his wife the Evil Queen who hatches a plan to kill Talia and punish her adulterous husband by having him eat a meal made from the flesh of Sun and Moon.

While Gregg’s dance version loosely-based on Basile’s tale maintained the same characters (although Talia was renamed Beauty in his version), his altered storyline was far less gruesome. The Los Angeles-based choreographer’s genius with the work was in capturing the emotions surrounding the characters’ interactions rather than trying to present a concrete visualization of the Basile’s story.

Set to music by Ben Frost, Bach and others, “éveillé” (French for “awake”), began with Highfield as the King in spotlight standing atop a platform several feet above the stage that was part of an abstract, modular set. On this perch, Highfield lit into a series of gestural motions, moving his hands and arms back and forth as the work’s other four dancers filtered onto the stage below him. Then coming down to meet them, Highfield and dancer Taylor Johnson as Beauty engaged in a similarly animated and aggressively active duet that had them in partially hunched body postures and intently moving in and around each other.

Gregg’s hybrid movement language for the work that he says stems from the use of “fixed points” that the dancers launch themselves from, appears derived in part from his own personal experiences as a former dancer with Bodytraffic, Les Ballet Jazz de Montreal and most notably Victor Quijada’s RUBBERBANDance Group whose movement language employs similar upright torso, weight shifting and space carving motions. Gregg’s expansive and emotive choreography stretched the talents of GroundWorks’ dancers in ways unlike any other prior Groundwork’s piece. Each of the work’s five dancers which also included Gemma Freitas Bender as Sun, Tyler Ring as Moon and Bagley as the Evil Queen, delivered a plethora of delicious dance phrases that illustrated their characters’ motivations. Bagley as the Evil Queen was eerily cold and calculated.

The work’s most moving dancing came in a closing pas de deux performed by its stars, Highfield and Johnson. Emotionally powerful, the pair’s forceful and staccato dancing to music that matched, movingly captured the complicated feelings of love the two had for each other. And like the rest of the work, it left the audience noticeably affected and impressed by what they had just witnessed.

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GroundWorks DanceTheater’s Taylor Johnson, Tyler Ring, Gemma Freitas Bender and Damien Highfield In David Shimotakahara’s “Passenger.” Photo by Mark Horning.

Next came the world-premiere of GroundWorks artistic director David Shimotakahara’s “Passenger,” a 20-minute work danced primarily to five sections of American composer John Adams’ chamber work “John’s Book of Alleged Dances.”

Said to be a visual interpretation of the music, Shimotakahara’s choreography mirrored the moods and stylistic shifts in the music with his own shifts in movement style that blended a variety of dance styles.  While Gregg’s work surprised the audience with something bold and new for the company, “Passenger,” and Shimotakahara’s “Circadian” that followed, reminded fans of Groundworks of what drew them to them to the company in the first place.

“Passenger’s” sections had its five dancers engaging in various solos, duets and group dancing that moved from a jazzy hoedown feel to a Bagley and Highfield duet that included Latin ballroom-like moves, turns and butt wiggles.  Highlighting the piece was a compelling duet danced by Freitas Bender and Ring set to music by pianist and composer Dustin O’Halloran.

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GroundWorks DanceTheater’s Felise Bagley and Damien Highfield in David Shimotakahara’s “Circadian.” Photo by Mark Horning.

Capping the program and Bagley and Highfield’s nearly two decades-long careers with GroundWorks, was the reprise of “Circadian” (2000). Described by him as being built on “a gesture that becomes an extended reach” and “the force of attraction,” the 13-minute duet set to a dynamic original score by Gustavo Aguilar, proved a fitting send off to Bagley and Highfield whose innumerable talents, range, and stage presence were encapsulated in it.  Both dancers displayed a measure of refined dancing, polish and emotional intensity in the beloved duet that began with them dancing as isolated beings slowly and inexorably being drawn toward each other.  Once together they fell into intertwining partnering moves, lifts, holds and intermittently, knee-to-chest hops. One such hop startlingly had Bagley caught mid-jump by Highfield right on a musical punctuation in Aguilar’s music.

Perhaps no better send-off for Bagley and Highfield, GroundWorks’ 2018 Spring Concert Series was a triumph as was the performances of the pair in it. And although Bagley and Highfield will no longer be with the company, both dancers will remain a memorable and enduring part of GroundWorks’ legacy and that of dance in Northeast, Ohio.  Area audiences will have one more chance to see the pair dance with the company this Saturday, April 7 at Saint Ignatius High School’s Breen Center for the Performing Arts.

GroundWorks DanceTheater performs its 2018 Spring Concert Series, 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 groundworksdance.org 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 ExploreDance.com.

 

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


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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.

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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.

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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.”

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

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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.

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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 groundworksdance.org 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 ExploreDance.com.

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BalletMet’s New ‘Giselle,’ a Fresh Restaging of a Story Ballet Classic


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(Center) BalletMet’s Jessica Brown in “Giselle.” Photo by Jennifer Zmuda.


By Steve Sucato

With the kind of success artistic director Edwaard Liang has had in raising BalletMet’s stature in the dance world, there can be little doubt that other ballet organizations that have been in search of new leadership have come courting him. Luckily for Columbus-area audiences, Liang feels he’s found a home at BalletMet and in Columbus and recently signed a 5-year contract extension.

“Honestly, I got some phone calls, but I feel I have turned a corner personally here,” says Liang.  “I have a great quality of life in Columbus with my partner and I get to balance my career as an artistic director with my career as a choreographer.”

Liang also says while the company has made great strides towards achieving his vision for it, there is still more work to be done.  One area of that vision he has been systematically working on in the past 4-years, is replacing the company’s existing repertory of story ballet classics with brand new productions. Those have included a new production of Cinderella in 2015, Sleeping Beauty in 2016, and in 2017, bringing in his production of Romeo and Juliet originally created for Tulsa Ballet in 2012.  Now joining that list is the world-premiere of Liang’s new production of Giselle, February 9-17 at the Jo Ann Davidson Theatre in downtown Columbus’ Vern Riffe Center.

As with the other story ballet classics Liang has redone, for the most part this new Giselle will maintain its traditional roots. The romantic ballet in two acts set to music by Adolphe Adam, was first performed in Paris in 1841 and tells the story of young peasant girl Giselle who dies of a broken heart after discovering her lover Albrecht is betrothed to another. Afterwards she is summoned from her grave by a group of supernatural women known as “Wilis,” who all have also died of broken hearts and who take revenge on men by dancing them to death. They intend to do the same with Albrecht but Giselle’s eternal love for him eventually frees him from their grasp.

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BalletMet’s Karen Wing in “Giselle.” Photo by Jennifer Zmuda.

Perhaps the most famous ballet whose libretto came courtesy of a dance citric, Frenchman Théophile Gautier, the popular ballet is a staple in the repertoire of most every ballet company in the world. It was originally choreographed by Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot, although most present day versions of the ballet derive their choreography from the 19th and early 20th century revivals by Marius Petipa.

While Liang as choreographer is best known for his contemporary ballets, he says he chose not to bring that movement style into his new productions of classic story ballets. Instead, he has gone the path of reusing traditional choreography while adding new choreography and other elements to them to fit his vision for them.

“What I like about BalletMet is we run the gambit. Everything like [Ohad Naharin’s contemporary dance work] Minus 16 to something classical [like Sleeping Beauty],” says Liang. “I feel it is part of my job to have a stable of classic story ballet war horses to go along with our contemporary ballet works.”

So what is different about this Giselle production?

“Where we have gone differently is not so much in the storytelling, but I wanted to have more dancing for the men because the ballet traditionally is so female dominated and so hard for them,” says Liang.

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BalletMet’s Kristie Latham in “Giselle.” Photo by Jenifer Zmuda.

What will be noticeably different will be the ballet’s look.  While it takes place during the same time period of the story, the production’s new deconstructed and minimalist sets “give it a painterly look that is not at all traditional,” says Liang.  Add to that the ballet’s new puritan-like costumes, and you have a production that while is in many ways traditional, has a more modern feel to it.

Another more subtle change comes in the way Liang and BalletMet’s artistic staff are approaching coaching the dancers. “The fine tuning I’m doing is trying to have it so the dancers do less ‘ballet acting’ and more of what you would consider ‘theater acting’,” he says.

That will manifest itself most noticeably in the portrayals of the ballet’s lead characters such as Giselle.

“I want the staging to be clear and the same for each of the Giselle’s but there has to be some flexibility or else the dancers are not going to feel free enough to find themselves in the role,” says Liang. “That’s where I see a lot of Giselle [portrayals] become ‘shticky’; the choreography and the staging is so old world that, while beautiful, may not be for everyone.”

One of three dancers in three different casts to dance the leading role of Giselle along with Caitlin Valentine-Ellis (Feb. 9 & 17) and Grace-Anne Powers (Feb. 10 & 16), will be San Francisco-native and third-year company member, Carly Wheaton (Feb. 11 & 15). Performing her first leading role in a story ballet classic, Wheaton says of the character and her approach to playing her: “in act one Giselle is pure and innocent and has never really felt [romantic] love which devastates her when she gets her heartbroken by Albrecht.  In act two, that heartache is carried over but she becomes a solemn, ethereal being.”

The 24-year-old also says while the choreography for her character’s movements in say the ballet’s famous “Mad scene” is highly structured, she has the freedom in some ways to personalize her portrayal of Giselle.

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BalletMet’s Lisset Santander in “Giselle.” Photo by Jennifer Zmuda.

Dancing the role of Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis along with Lisset Santander (Feb. 10 & 16) and Jessica Brown (Feb. 11 & 15), will be BalletMet newcomer Madeline Skelly (Feb. 9 & 17). It’s a role she danced as a member of Houston Ballet.

“A lot of people see Myrtha as a man-hater and I get that because she does kill them,” says Skelly. “Revenge is a part of it, but she does see Giselle’s love for Albrecht and how she is standing up for him and trying to protect him.” That leads, she says, to a moment in the ballet where those feelings of love and forgiveness almost crack her tough façade, but she quickly suppresses those feelings.

Skelly says dancing the role of Myrtha is also physically challenging for her but not in the way most would think. While the rigor and pace of the role’s full-on dancing in the ballet’s second act is hard, Skelly says even more challenging is standing still in a ballet position known as B+ for long periods of time after she has been dancing. “It’s excruciatingly painful.”

The 25-year old Orlando-native in her first year with BalletMet joined the company in August with her husband and Columbus-native William Newton who trained at New Albany Ballet Company.  Newton is one of three dancers performing the lead role of Albrecht, February 10 & 16. Miguel Anaya (Feb. 9 & 17) and Romel Frometa (Feb. 11 & 15) will also perform the role in other casts.

While perhaps not scenically lavish compared to other Giselle productions because of budget constraints, having seen the company in rehearsals of it, the 2-hour ballet has got it where it counts — Great storytelling, world-class dancing and an updated look that make it worth reserving a ticket for.

BalletMet performs Giselle:

Friday, 2/9 8:00 pm
Saturday, 2/10 8:00 pm
Sunday, 2/11 2:00 pm
Thursday, 2/15 7:30 pm
Friday, 2/16 8:00 pm
Saturday, 2/17 8:00 pm

At the Jo Ann Davidson Theatre in the Vern Riffe Center, 77 S. High Street, Columbus. Tickets are $29-74 and are available at balletmet.org, ticketmaster.com or by calling 614.469.0939

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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