Tag Archives: BalletMet

Gabriel Gaffney Smith Says Farewell to BalletMet for Careers in Visual Art and Music | Steve Sucato – Arts Air

Gabriel Gaffney Smith [front} with Martin Roosaare. Photo by Jennifer Zmuda. 

By Steve Sucato

In addition to cancelled shows, the coronavirus pandemic has disrupted final performances for many retiring dancers. Pointe is giving several retiring principals and soloists a chance to reflect on their careers and offer advice to the next generation.

For 35-year-old Gabriel Gaffney Smith, retiring from BalletMet is more about switching focus than a bona fide farewell to dance. A modern-day Renaissance man, Smith is also a choreographer, composer and visual artist. His road to being a dancer began at age 12 at New York’s Saugerties Ballet Center. He then attended Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School before becoming a member of the main company in 2005.

In 2008, he joined BalletMet, where he has not only danced but has had opportunities to choreograph and compose music for the company. He has also collaborated with musicians and choreographers, composing works created for The Washington Ballet, Kansas City Ballet, Cincinnati Ballet and Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre. As a visual artist, his woodcarvings have been shown at the Columbus Museum of Art and in galleries across the United States. (See samples of his artwork and music at GabrielGaffneySmith.com.) Smith, at home in Columbus, Ohio, with fiancée and fellow BalletMet dancer Carly Wheaton, reflected on his career and talked about why he’s shifting his attention toward his other artistic loves.

When did you decide that you wanted to make dance a career?

A game-changer for me was attending Miami City Ballet’s summer program as a young dancer. I was around amazing dancers at a high level that were training to be in ballet companies. There, I felt how incredible ballet was and how I could express myself in it.

What were some of the challenges you faced as a student?

There was a bit of bullying as a kid, but I never really let that bother me. For me the biggest challenge was starting a bit late, at 12, and trying to catch up. Those things were just fuel for my fire to prove I could make it.

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This article first appeared on PointeMagazine.com on June 9, 2020

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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Photo by Jennifer Zmuda.

By Steve Sucato

As humans we are taught there are no limits to our creativity. While in theory that may be true, ask any working choreographer and they will tell you that the realizations of their creative endeavors almost always come with limitations. Compromises due to current technology, the abilities of artists they are working with, and most often the monetary costs involved. Such is the case for Edwaard Liang’s new family-friendly production of ALICE, being performed by his Columbus, Ohio-based BalletMet, February 14-16 at the city’s Ohio Theatre.

As is common for mid-level ballet companies to save on production costs, Liang and BalletMet have purchased costumes and sets from another production instead of making their own originals. They come from Septime Webre’s popular Alice (in Wonderland) that Washington Ballet debuted in 2012. Montreal-based designer Liz Vandal, who has worked with Cirque du Soleil created the 530 fanciful costumes used and James Kronzer the ballet’s whimsical set elements. For Liang, in creating his new ballet, that meant he would be somewhat constrained by those very costume and set elements.

“While we don’t follow the same narrative [as Webre’s production] and we don’t have the same musical score,” says Liang, “The commonality is whatever characters he [Webre] decided to create for his production are only what we have available for ours.”

Apart from the sets and costumes, Liang’s new production, like Webre’s, will be a mash-up of characters and events from Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” (1865) and “Through the Looking-Glass” (1871) books. Additionally, Liang will incorporate story elements from former BalletMet artistic director Gerard Charles’ 2006 Alice in Wonderland production for the company. The 2-act ballet throughout will bounce between storylines and characters from the two books with more of an emphasis on book one. Liang also chose not to use some of the characters found in Webre’s production including the pig babies, humpty dumpty and others. One character he kept not found in many existing “Alice” ballets will be the Jabberwocky from Carroll’s “Through the Looking-Glass”.

The ballet is set to a compilation of music from English composers Edward Elgar and Gustav Holst arranged and edited by Oliver Peter Graber.  While Liang’s libretto for the ballet will be very familiar to audiences, he changes things up a bit in the tea party scene where he has added more characters and where he plants the seed of a possible romantic interest between the characters of the Mad Hatter and Alice.


Photo by Jennifer Zmuda.

“In Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” there isn’t any sort of crush or romance,” says Liang. “It’s all about madness and the wild absurdity of Wonderland.” Liang says he sees his version of Mad Hatter as sort of a Sisyphus character and the tea party scene his rolling a boulder up a hill only to have it to roll back down when it nears the top, repeating this for all eternity. In this recurring loop of a scene, he says “I wanted a hint of humanity when Alice and Hatter are close together in a dance and she touches him, waking him briefly from his madness,” says Liang.

Entrusted with conveying this heartfelt moment as Mad Hatter will be South Bend, Indiana-native Michael Sayre in his 7th season with BalletMet.  Sayre will perform the role for the February 14 & 15 evening performances.

“There is not a very heavy emphasis on a romance between Hatter and Alice in the Tea Party scene,” says Sayre. “But as it progresses it builds to a point where it is clear there is an unrequited love going on.”

Sayre will also factor into another of Liang’s changes for the ballet, a beefed up dance scene for the Cheshire Cat character that he will dance for the February 15 & 16 matinee performances.

“The Cheshire Cat dances with Alice for a bit and there is a substantial solo for him,” says Sayre.


Photo by Jennifer Zmuda.

Liang says he wanted to keep his new version as much of a dancing production as possible.  That can also be seen in the character of the White Rabbit who receives a lion’s share of dancing in it says 3rd year company member Jim Nowakowski. The Rochester, New York-native will dance the White Rabbit role for the February 14 & 15 evening performances.

“I am onstage a lot and have a variation full of bravura jumps and turns,” says Nowakowski.

In addition to the aforementioned dancers, the large cast for the 2-hour production will include BalletMet and BalletMet 2’s full complement of dancers along with trainees and students of the BalletMet Academy. Add in some puppets, dancers flying and special effects and BalletMet’s new ALICE should prove a highly entertaining start to a new year in dance.

BalletMet performs ALICE, 8 p.m., Friday, February 14; 2 p.m. & 8 p.m., Saturday, February 15 and 2 p.m., Sunday, February 16. Ohio Theatre, 39 E State St, Columbus, Ohio. Tickets $52-94. Visit balletmet.org for tickets and full casting.

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


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.”

Photo by Tanya Green Photography

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

Photo by Emmanuel Williams

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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