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Of Sideshows, Photo Memories and Atoms, GroundWorks Dance Theater’s ‘Summer Series’ Promises a Carnival of Visual Delights


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GroundWorks’ artistic director David Shimotakahara (rear) rehearsing with dancers Spencer Dennis (left) and Annie Morgan. Photo courtesy of GroundWorks Dance Theater.

By Steve Sucato

Childhood memories of Looney Tunes cartoons and circus sideshows provided the creative spark for GroundWorks DanceTheater artistic director/choreographer David Shimotakahara’s latest dance work, “Sud Buster’s Dream” that will make its premiere as part of the company’s new dance season-opening its 17th Summer Series program this weekend, July 19-21 at Cain Park’s Alma Theater in Cleveland Heights.

The 30-minute contemporary dance work is set to an early American jazz score of the music Shimotakahara says he has always been drawn to since hearing some of it as the backdrop to the cartoons he watched as a child.

“I was always thinking it would be fun to do a work with that kind of cartoon movement zaniness; like wear the dog gets stretched into a hot dog, a giraffe’s neck get twirled up like a pretzel stick or feet were dancing without a body,” says Shimotakahara.

Using those images and that style of music as a starting point, Shimotakahara says he also was inspired to use images of iconic sideshow acts – Sword swallowers, The Seal Boy, The Bearded Lady and The Siamese Twins  as influences for movement invention in the work for GroundWorks’ five dancers.

“Those popular acts represented what people felt was odd and unusual. Then, and now, we see oddities in ‘the other’ and fear being cast as such,” says Shimotakahara.

In a recent rehearsal of the work I sat in on, second –year company dancer Annie Morgan moved through a solo that twisted her fingers, arms and legs up in knots, almost immobilizing her.  Shimotakahara says with that imagery he was thinking back to images of  escape artists like Harry Houdini wriggling and twisting to  free themselves from ropes, chains or a straitjacket in their acts.

The work, featuring a large set piece of a stage curtain the dancers emerge from behind for various dances, lends a show within a show motif to the bizarrely entertaining piece.  Titled after one of the period songs used in the work by Tiny Parham and his Musicians,  “Sud Buster’s Dream,” Shimotakahara also draws parallels to The Roaring Twenties of the last century and the changes in culture, the great disparity of wealth and in opportunities available, to what is going on in the country today. “There were definitely winners and losers,” says Shimotakahara.

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GroundWorks’ Annie Morgan. Photo courtesy of GroundWorks Dance Theater.

Also premiering on the Summer Series program will be award-winning Chicago choreographer  Robyn Mineko Williams’ latest commissioned work for the company, “We Three”.  The 17-minute piece is performed to a suite of songs by Canadian music group Timber Timbre including their 2011 hit “Lonesome Hunter”.  Says Mineko Williams by phone from Michigan, “I like creating worlds that feel timeless. Each section [of the work] makes sense in the order it is presented, but maybe that’s not the real story’s order.”

Continuing a recurring pattern in her recent works of assembling a series of non-linear memories played out in vignettes by the dancers, for “We Three”,  the former dance with Hubbard Street Dance Chicago dancer says “To me all of characters and sections all belong in the same environment. There is a lot of reflection going on with the characters in the work. It could be reflections on relationships with others of a reflection of themselves. ”

Williams uses the analogy of leafing through a photo album where each of the  photos you look at comes to live for a few seconds. The viewer decides what story or relationship those in the photo have.  “I don’t know what the relationship is between the characters in work, but in my imagination they all existed in these photo album photos together,” says Williams.

From the relationship of human beings to the relative combining capacity of an atom, the remaining work on the program will be a reprise of GroundWorks’ artistic associate Amy Miller’s “Valence” (2009).

Created to an original sound score by composer and Dean of the Conservatory at Oberlin College and Conservatory, Peter Swendsen , “Valence” began as an exploration of how dance could become music and music could become dance,” says Miller. “The overall visual concept the 20-minute work uses circular running patterns not unlike electrons in every atom that throughout the work set up collisions of these orbits that manifest in the form of dancer duets, trios and group sections.  Each dancer ends up having a different ‘valence’ or capacity to connect with every other dancer.  I think the piece also reminds us of the power of connection to create great things in an often chaotic world.”

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GroundWorks’ artistic director David Shimotakahara (rear) rehearsing with new dancers Spencer Dennis (left) and Michael Arellano. Photo courtesy of GroundWorks Dance Theater.

New to GroundWorks this season are dancers Michael Arellano, a recent graduate of Western Michigan University and Phoenix, Arizona-native Spencer Dennis, who replace departing dancers Robert Rubama and Tyler Ring. Arellano and Dennis together with returning dancers Morgan, Alexis Britford and Nicole Hennington, they make up perhaps GroundWorks’ youngest company to date.

The Summer Series program will also be repeated in free performances at Akron’s Goodyear Metro Park, August 2 & 3 as part of The Heinz Poll Summer Dance Festival.

GroundWorks Dance Theater presents its Summer Series, 7 p.m., Friday, July 19 & Saturday, July 20 and 2 p.m., Sunday, July 21. Alma Theater, Cain Park, 14591 Superior Road, Cleveland Heights, Ohio.  Tickets are $25/advance, $28/day of show. For tickets and information visit: https://www.cainpark.com/281/GroundWorks-Dancetheater or call (216) 371-3000.

GroundWorks Dance Theater presents its Summer Series in Akron, 8:45 p.m., Friday, August 2 & Saturday, August 3 at Goodyear Metro Park, 2077 Newton St, Akron, Ohio. FREE admission. For more information visit http://akrondancefestival.org/.

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Squirt Guns, T.S. Eliot and Live Music are all part of Chamber Dance Project’s ‘New Works +’


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CDP dancers in Diane Coburn Bruning’s “Songs by Cole”. Photo by Eduardo Patino, NYC.

By Steve Sucato

Award-winning choreographer Diane Coburn Bruning’s Chamber Dance Project celebrates its sixth Washington season with New Works +, June 20-22 at D.C.’s Sidney Harmon Hall.

The summer-only, project-based company whose model is to bring together dancers when they are on layoff and pair them with musicians to create new work was founded in New York in 2000 and has continued its commitment to live music and dance performance in Washington since its 2014 debut season at The Kennedy Center.

An unabashed champion of live music in collaboration with dance, Coburn Bruning says “too often company directors hide behind the excuse that live music is expensive. Chamber music is a pretty versatile option. The history of the art form has been inextricably intertwined with live music. It has only been the last thirty to forty years that it has become expeditious to use recorded music.  There is nothing spontaneous about dancing to recorded music you have heard multiple times.”

Needless to say, all of the works on the program, including its two world-premieres, will feature live music of varying style. “We actually have more musicians on stage throughout the evening than dancers,” says Coburn Bruning. Those musicians have performed with the National Gallery Orchestra, the National Philharmonic Orchestra, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and “The President’s Own” United States Marine Chamber Orchestra among others.

As for those dancers, many of the cast of seven from BalletMet, Milwaukee Ballet and Washington Ballet are familiar faces to CDP audiences. New this season will be former Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre principal dancer Julia Erickson.

Says Erickson of her CDP experience thus far: “It is always a valuable experience to get to work with other seasoned dancers from different companies. We have diverse professional backgrounds, so we bring different bodies of experience to the table.”

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CDP dancers rehearsing Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s “Rondo Ma Non Troppo”. Photo by Tanya Green Photography.

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Francesca Dugarte and Julia Erickson rehearsing Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s “Rondo Ma Non Troppo”. Photo by Emmanuel Williams.

The first of the premiere works on the program comes from highly sought-after, award-winning Colombian-Belgian choreographer, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa. This year’s Jacob’s Pillow Dance Award-winner, Lopez Ochoa has created over 60 dance works on companies across the globe including New York City Ballet, Ballet Nacional de Cuba, Finnish National Ballet, English National Ballet, Les Grands Ballets Canadiens and San Francisco Ballet.

Her 12-minute quartet, “Rondo Ma Non Troppo” to the first movement of Franz Schubert’s “String Quartet No. 14 in D minor” (Death and the Maiden), is titled after a musical form with a recurring leading theme along with a tempo mark directing that a passage is to be played a certain way, but not too much so.

“Normally, I have the idea for a piece then I look for the music. Here I chose the music first,” says Lopez Ochoa.

Lopez Ochoa says she came into the creative process with CDP’s dancers knowing that she wanted to create a quartet and that she wanted it to start with a circle. “As I arrived to the studio, I saw these round tables I thought we could use one to make circular movement around and then get rid of it,” she says. “But I loved the table so much I kept it in the work.”

Ochoa says she then began researching table dances and their symbolism. Coming upon King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table legend and its group equality in decision making, Lopez Ochoa says, “Intuitively, I now wanted to make a very democratic ballet, not about two men and two women, but four people.”

A frequent user of props in her works, Lopez Ochoa says, “In the beginning a prop is very much an enemy. I tell the dancers that the prop is a very bad dancer and that they need to treat it as if it is their partner. You have to guide it and be very precise with it and then it becomes a very good dancer.”

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Davit Hovhannisyan and Luz San Miguel in Diane Coburn Bruning’s “Journey”. Photo by Eduardo Patino, NYC.

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CDP dancers in Diane Coburn Bruning’s “Songs by Cole”. Photo by Eduardo Patino, NYC.

The program will also include reprises of two Coburn Bruning repertory favorites. The heartfelt, 8-minute “Journey” (2003) is a pas de deux to Samuel Barber’s familiar “Adagio for Strings” that was originally created on former New York City Ballet star Peter Boal (now artistic director of Seattle’s Pacific Northwest Ballet) and dancer Lisa Tachick in memory of Coburn Bruning’s father.  While 2017’s “Songs by Cole” is a 25-minute crowd-pleaser for all seven dancers to seven songs by Cole Porter including “C’est Magnifique,” “You Got That Thing” and “Night and Day” played live by a jazz trio featuring vocalist Shacara Rogers.

Says Coburn Bruning of the ballet, “the difficulty in using such a famous song as “Night and Day” is how do you contend with such well-known, wonderful music?” Her solution for “Night and Day” was to make to make all about the costuming. “I wanted a dress with a long train and that emphasized the flow and sculpture of it and the woman in it.” In this case BalletMet’s Francesca Dugarte.  For her tongue-in-cheek interpretation of “Don’t Fence Me In,” Coburn Bruning created a cowboy dance take on Swan Lake’s “Dance of the Little Swans” complete with cowboy boots, hats and a squirt gun fight.

Opening New Works +’s second half and making its Washington debut, will be the duet from “Extremely Close” (2008), by former Hubbard Street Dance Chicago dancer and resident choreographer, Alejandro Cerrudo. The 7-minute piece danced to music by Philip Glass played live by pianist Sophia Kim Cook, begins in silence with white feathers slowly drifting from the rafters on to the stage floor and collecting like snow as the audience returns from intermission.

Says Coburn Bruning, “It’s the kind of work I look for. Something powerfully evocative that does not tell you how to think or tell you a story, but elicits something from each audience member that is unique to them.”

Also included on the program are two music only selections by CDP’s resident chamber orchestra; “Duo,” to Zoltán Kodály’s “Duo for Violin and Cello, op. 7: I. Allegro serioso, non troppo” and “Duel,” to Chris Rogerson’s “String Quartet No. 1: I. Duel”.

Rounding out the 95-minute program will be the premiere of “Prufrock,” co-conceived and directed by Coburn Bruning and theatre director Matt Torney.  Inspired by T.S. Eliot’s 1910 poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” the 13-minute avant-garde dance work for five dancers to a commissioned score by James Bigbee Garver (performed live on three computers), is a very different work for Coburn Bruning she says. “I wanted to create a piece where the audience had to assimilate it from different fragments presented on different parts of the stage.”

The work’s fifteen non-linear fragments appear as somewhat disjointed images from the poem but do not follow the progression of Eliot’s stream of consciousness composition delivered by narrator Torney. “It will be the most active engagement of the audience on the program,” says Coburn Bruning.

Chamber Dance Project performs New Works +, 7:30 p.m., Thursday, June 20, 8 p.m., Friday, June 21, and 2 p.m. & 8 p.m., June 22. Sidney Harmon Hall, 610 F Street NW, Washington, D.C. Tickets are $35-52 and $125-175 for June 20’s Opening Night Performance and Summer Solstice Party at the Hotel Monaco. To purchase tickets, call (202) 547-1122 or visit chamberdance.org. In addition, Chamber Dance Project’s Bring a Child for Free program offers a Saturday, June 22 matinee ticket for young people up to age 18 accompanied by a paying adult. An all-ages onstage workshop with company dancers follows the performance. Call (202) 547-1122 for more information and tickets.

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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Joint Bodiography and Graham 2 Program a Triumph


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Bodiography’s Bethany Schimonsky and Josef Hartman in Maria Caruso’s “Light By Love II”. Photo by Eric Rosé.

Bodiography and Graham 2 – Horizons
Byham Theater
Pittsburgh, PA
April 26-27, 2019

Reviewed by Steve Sucato

For the first-ever collaboration of its kind for both Pittsburgh-based Bodiography Contemporary Ballet and New York’s Graham 2, the joint program Horizons, on April 26 at Pittsburgh’s Byham Theater, offered up a unique look at what each company does best; the ballets of their respective company founders, Maria Caruso and Martha Graham.

Graham 2 dancer Androniki Vasili from Athens, Greece led off the mixed repertory program in Ted Shawn’s 1916 solo “Serenata Morsica”. Originally performed by Martha Graham, the solo, dubbed a sensual “serenade,” was in Shawn’s orientalist style of early American modern dance and evoked the feel of a harem girl performing for the ruler of some unknown tribe or land. Set to a lively piano score by Mario Tarenghi, the choreography was playful and alluring. Vasili was a delightful as the smiling, somewhat innocent seductress who spun, jumped and gyrated her hips about the stage.

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Graham 2 dancer Androniki Vasili in Ted Shawn’s 1916 solo “Serenata Morsica”. Photo by Eric Rosé.

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Bodiography in Martha Graham’s “Steps in the Street”. Photo by Eric Rosé.

Next, Bodiography’s dancers led by Caruso performed Graham’s “Steps in the Street,” an excerpt from her 1936 anti-fascism ballet Chronicle.

Staged by Graham 2 director Virginie Mecéné, the work began with Caruso and the rest of the all-female cast on a darkened stage stiffly stutter-step walking backwards in silence across the stage with one arm held to their chins and the other, tight to their waists. Costumed in black floor-length dresses, the look was of an eerie stylized funeral march.

When Wallingford Reigger’s military march-like music kicked in, the stage lights brightened to reveal Caruso in a clench-fisted and determined march across the stage followed by the rest of the cast who came back onstage and hopped repeatedly in place, legs flared to the side. The atmosphere evoked a frenetic military campaign played out in Graham’s signature movement style. Bodiography’s dancers were sharply focused in the powerful work’s jumps, marches and formations. They never looked better as a unit.

Caruso as the group’s general was rock solid in her technique and in relaying the turbulent emotions of Graham’s masterwork. The ballet was a milestone in Bodiography’s ongoing development as a company and an important piece in their repertory.

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Graham 2 dancer Aoi Soto in Martha Graham’s “Satyric Festival Song”. Photo by Eric Rosé.

Continuing the succession of Graham works in first half of the 90-minute program, Graham 2 dancer Aoi Soto in a bumble bee–striped floor-length dress began 1932’s solo work “Satyric Festival Song” with her back to the audience, jumping wildly side-to-side with a child’s excitement. Danced to a spritely flute score by Imre Weisshaus, Soto flitted about the stage like the American Indian Pueblo clowns that from which the solo was inspired by. Her mischievous demeanor and humorous facial expressions brought life to the quirky solo filled with wiggles, wriggles and the whipping of her long black hair in circles and side to side.

Comprised of leftover material from a 2018 commission for a full-length ballet themed around the 1980s, “Billboards” (2019), was the first of several new Caruso ballets performed by Bodiography on the program. That leftover material looked as if it could have come from any number of her past slinky, music video-esque contemporary ballets. Danced to lively electronic music by Kansas City’s Quixotic, the ballet for three women and two men had some interesting movement phrases and formations but along with them came some uncomfortable choreographic moments that appeared forced into the work. While the cast, especially soloist Nicole Jamison, performed “Billboards” solidly, owing to the ballet’s title, the dancing it advertised was unremarkable.

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Bodiography in Maria Caruso’s “Billboards”. Photo by Eric Rosé.

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Bodiography’s Kaylin Treese, Melissa Tyler, and Amanda Fisher in Maria Caruso’s “Mother’s Prism”. Photo by Eric Rosé.

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Bodiography’s Bethany Schimonsky and Josef Hartman in Maria Caruso’s “Light By Love II”. Photo by Eric Rosé.

After the tender “Mother’s Prism” (2019), another new Caruso ballet themed around the facets of motherhood, came perhaps the best ballet Caruso has created in her career and one of the finest this dance season, “Light By Love II” (2019). Originally created in 2015, the reconstructed duet was deftly and passionately performed by Bodiography’s Bethany Schimonsky and Josef Hartman.

An idyllic embodiment of two lovers becoming one, the sensual duet began with the pair lying on the stage floor, the petite Schimonsky draped over the taller Hartman in a slumber embrace. Slowly and delicately Hartman caressed Schimonsky shoulders and back with the fingers and palm of one hand while his other arm cradled her embrace.

Performed to zen string music by Garth Stevenson, the carefully crafted and subtle movements of the dancers in relation to one another had you believing in a Romeo and Juliet level love and appetite for one another. Spine tingling touches, breath-catching clenches and some of Carsuo’s finest partnered choreography, created a magic that one wishes could be bottled for future enjoyment. Both dancers showed a star quality beyond previously displayed with Schimonsky’s performance on pointe proving utterly mesmerizing. This masterful duet needs to be shown again and again.

After an intermission, special guest and former Martha Graham Dance Company star, Carrie Ellmore-Tallitsch performed the first of two Caruso works that brought her movement style to Graham’s dancers.

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Carrie Ellmore-Tallitsch in Maria Caruso’s “Roots to Earth”. Photo by Eric Rosé.

Set to music by Portland band East Forest, the 10-minute solo “Roots to Earth” (2019) reflected on Caruso and Ellmore-Tallitsch’s interest in nature. Slow to develop, the introspective solo never quite blossomed in its intent and watchable interest. For her part Ellmore-Tallitsch, still a lovely dancer, showed signs of performance rust and nervousness in Caruso’s sedate choreography.

Graham 2’s dancers then returned in an excerpt from Graham’s Canticle for Innocent Comedians entitled “Duet From A Dancer’s World” (1957). Set to music by Cameron McCosh, the”Moon” duet, performed by Vasili and dancer Harold Trent Butler, was again Graham at her Grahamiest in style. Both dancers were radiant in the choreography’s twists, bends and curves of the body. The partnering and posed positions were spot on and it would be easy to believe you could be watching future dancers of the main company perform.

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Graham 2 dancers Androniki Vasili and Harold Trent Butler in Martha Graham’s “Duet From A Dancer’s World”. Photo by Eric Rosé.

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Bodiography’s Derrick Izumi and Maria Caruso in Caruso’s “Vespers”. Photo by Eric Rosé.

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Graham 2 dancers Aoi Sato and Ty Graynor in Martha Graham’s “Conversation of Lovers”. Photo by Eric Rosé.

The marathon program of shorter works continued with two more Caruso works for Bodiography’s dancers; the uplifting group piece “Midnight Air” (2019) and the quiet “Vespers” (2019). Then Graham 2 dancers Ty Graynor and Soto took the stage to perform another of Graham’s works, 1981’s “Conversation of Lovers” from her ballet Acts of Light. Perhaps not indicative of the full ballet, the duet felt influenced by Graham’s Greek and other mythology-related ballets in style. It had the look of a god and goddess in a reserved lover’s dance played out in images found on ancient antiquities.  Both dancers acquitted themselves nicely in the duet.

After an older Caruso work from Bodiography’s repertory, 2015’s “Parabola,” Horizons concluded with the premiere of “Inside OUT (The Call of Passion)” that Caruso created on the four Graham 2 dancers on the program.

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Graham 2 dancers in Maria Caruso’s “Inside OUT (The Call of Passion)”. Photo by Eric Rosé.

Danced to a yearning score by English composer Clint Mansell, the work was derived from the personal experiences of the dancers that Caruso used to craft a contemporary dance work that was heartfelt and wonderfully danced. The dancers, although out of their stylistic element when it comes to the type of works they usually perform, looked at home in the choreography that had them dipping and darting through brief interpersonal connections with one another.  The movement mixed frenetic bursts of emotion revealed in rapid twists and turns of the head and body with slow, tender touches and gazes into one another’s eyes. In one such exchange, the two women paired off with the two men in a dance phrase that had the men briefly frozen in place while the women continued on, seeming to combatively challenge one another in a fitful exchange that saw Vasili take a swing at a ducking Soto as the two traded places to be paired off with different male partners as the work continued.

A marvelous closer to a historic evening of dance, Bodiography and Graham 2’s collaborative Horizons program was a triumph.

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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