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


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.


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.


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.”


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


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.


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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CorningWorks’ ‘six a breast’ reveals how many women really feel

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(L-R) Beth Corning, Laurie Van Wieren and Sally Rousse in the closing section of CorningWorks’ “six a breast,” Samuel Beckett’s “Come and Go.” Photo by Foo Connor.

CorningWorks – six a breast
New Hazlett Theater
Pittsburgh, PA
September 6-10, 2017

Reviewed by Steve Sucato

Billed as a work about the absurdity of expectations placed on women by society, CorningWorks’ latest The Glue Factory Project (for performers over age 45), six a breast (2017), September 9 at Pittsburgh’s New Hazlett Theater, wasted no time in thoughtfully highlighting such absurdities. Whether it was the slow-motion, Butoh-like movement performed in silence by the work’s choreographer Beth Corning to indicate women’s cautiousness or perhaps slow advancement in society, or the jazzy shuffling and side-stepping moves of dancer Sally Rousse looking as if to heed the nursery rhyme warning of “stepping on a crack,” the work’s opening volley of metaphorical imagery made a strong statement that women go through a lot to navigate their way in the world. And when the work’s trio of women (including Laurie Van Wieren) in a grand exhale, spit out mouthfuls of water they had been holding in, it was also made clear this work was going to also have some fun highlighting these absurdities.

Delivered in a series of clever vignettes, six a breast took the road less preachy in getting audience members to think about and relate to how women (perhaps more generationally) have been treated and trained to feel about their place in society and their roles in relationships with men. Illustrating those themes, the two vignettes that followed played into women’s perceived roles. The first had Corning in caretaker mode anxious to have a spill cleaned up. And when her call of a “cleanup on aisle nine” yielded no response, she wiped it up herself.  The second parodied society’s not so subtle pressures on women to look a certain way and featured the ladies in a farcical skit set to Eddie Cantor’s song “Keep Young and Beautiful” from the 1933 movie musical Roman Scandals. The prophetic tune extols the virtue of women keeping young and beautiful if they want to be loved. In the vignette, Van Wieren hilariously went overboard in a gaudy make-up application, Rousse used the crumpled pages of fashion magazines to stuff her garments and enlarge certain areas of her anatomy, and Corning stretched tape across her face to try and pull back wrinkles, all to the delight of the audience.

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(L-R) Laurie Van Wieren and Sally Rousse in CorningWorks’ “six a breast.” Photo by Foo Connor.

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(L-R) Beth Corning and Sally Rousse in CorningWorks’ “six a breast.” Photo by Foo Connor.

Throughout six a breast, the veteran trio of women were a joy to watch. Modern dancers Corning and Van Wieren and ballerina Rousse who know each other from working in the Minneapolis dance community, each showcased their varied, but finely honed skills as performers and movers and together had wonderful on stage chemistry.

Perhaps the best example of the work’s humor came in a poke at domesticity where each of the women at different times in the work took a crack at folding bed sheets. Corning approached the task with the dramatic flair of a showbiz magic trick, Rousse playfully used her feminine seductiveness to lure a male audience member into doing it for her, and Van Wieren executed it with the funny but disastrous outcome of an “I Love Lucy” episode.

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Beth Corning in CorningWorks’ “six a breast.” Photo by Foo Connor.

Balancing the ridiculousness and humor of many of the vignettes, were poignant moments such as Rousse literally dropping egg shells on to the stage and walking on them with Corning following behind to sweep them up, and in other sections where the dancers used a smiles and laughter to mask feelings of melancholy and despair or bows and curtsies to show subservience. These types of moments are the glue that often hold together Corning’s dance-theater works and raise them to high art.  No one in the region does this better and with such consistency.  The most striking of these moments, and an inspired ending to six a breast, was the inclusion of Samuel Beckett’s 1965 “dramaticule” Come and Go. In it, the three women in stylish hats sat on a bench and engaged in a round-robin gossip session about each other consisting of only 130 carefully spoken and poisoning words.

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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Dancing Wheels Production to Celebrate Music Icon David Bowie


Dancing Wheels’ Demarco Sleeper and Sara Lawrence-Sucato in Dezaré Foster’s “Labyrinth: A Tribute”. Photos by Dale Dong and Design by G. Michael Bargas.

By Steve Sucato

Last summer when a freakish windstorm knocked out power at Cleveland Heights’ Cain Park, it also took with it Dancing Wheels’ scheduled world-premiere of “Labyrinth: A Tribute,” a dance work based on the 1986 film Labyrinth starring the David Bowie. While the cancellation was certainly unfortunate, it did provide the 36-year-old Cleveland-based physically integrated dance company with the opportunity to now create an entire evening themed around Bowie and his music. The Best of Bowie at Jacobs Pavilion at Nautica will not only feature several Bowie-scored dance works, but the production will be interspersed with facts, lesser known trivia and video footage about the late rock icon provided by local Bowie aficionado, CoolCleveland’s Thomas Mulready and be followed by a Bowie-themed post-performance party.

Acting as master of ceremonies for the evening, Mulready says he has had a lifelong interest in Bowie and his music that has weathered the many stylistic changes in Bowie’s music over the span of his career.

“Everything he would come up with was very different from the thing he did before so if you got hooked into the androgyny of Ziggy Stardust and then a few years later he’s doing ‘Young Americans’ and he is like a soul singer, people would turn off and he would get a whole new audience and lose the old one,” says Mulready. “I was there all along.”

Whether as musical alter egos the “Thin White Duke,” “Ziggy Stardust,” “Aladdin Sane” or “Major Tom,” David Robert Jones, a.k.a. David Bowie, is one of the most recognizable and revered figures in popular music history. With a string of hits and record sales of some 140 million over his 50-year career, Bowie was one of the world’s best-selling music artists. The multi-talented singer-songwriter, actor, painter, art collector and 1996 Rock Hall-inductee’s death of liver cancer at age 69 in 2016 sent shockwaves worldwide.

In celebration of Bowie’s legacy, The Best of Bowie will open with the premiere of Dancing Wheels’ rehearsal director Catherine Meredith’s “Pallas Athena.” Danced to Bowie’s “Pallas Athena (Don’t Stop Praying mix No 2)” off 1993’s Black Tie White Noise album, the work and the song’s title come from the Greek goddess, Athena, who is depicted in Athenian statues under the form of Pallas Athena. For Bowie, the song grew out of his interest in how man relates to God.

Says Meredith of the piece, “The impetus for the movement came from my years spent in NYC/London nightclubs. For many, the DJ and the club acted as a god and church/sanctuary where people were free to be who they were without judgment.” In it, Meredith says Dancing Wheels’ dozen dancers will represent the individual’s struggle to have their voice heard above the crowd.

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Dancing Wheels in Michael Uthoff’s “Straight Down the Middle”. Photo credit: Ellie Montenegro.

Next, Pittsburgh-based choreographer Beth Corning’s new work “These Are The Days,” reunites Meredith and Dancing Wheels founder/artistic director Mary Verdi-Fletcher with former company dancers Hoang (Mac) Dang, Libby Dang and Shannon Sterne. Corning, whose ongoing Glue Factory Project for dancers over forty has earned her critical acclaim nationally, brings that same sensibility in working with veteran dancers to this work. She describes it as a visceral, metaphoric reflection of her confusion, disbelief and uncertainty at the current social and political climates in U.S. and abroad. Set to a remastered version of Bowie’s “Space Oddity” along with music by Philip Glass, the work will be performed with the cast in wheelchairs.

“My choice to put all the dancers into [wheel]chairs was a conscious one,” says Corning. The [wheel]chair was not a replacement for movement, but rather a vehicle. The armchair liberal, the strange act of passively sitting while physically having to propel yourself in space in circles — an equalizer of sorts — as we pass each other, trying to connect, constantly moving, almost afraid to stop, to connect, to take responsibility, to relate to the moment.”

Students from the Dancing Wheels School will then take the stage in “Lightning,” a new work choreographed by school coordinator Emma Parker along with Brittany Kaplan and Gabriella Martinez. Danced to Bowie’s 1983 hit “Let’s Dance” and the Bowie/Queen collaboration “Under Pressure,” the lighthearted work will be a toe-tapping lead-in to the program’s final work, “Labyrinth: A Tribute.”

Choreographed by former Dancing Wheels’ star Dezaré Foster, the Northeast Ohio premiere of “Labyrinth: A Tribute” is a dance re-envisioning of Jim Henson’s cult classic film. Set to Bowie’s soundtrack for the film, the family-friendly story ballet, like the film, combines drama, humor and a host of quirky characters to tell the tale of young Sarah’s perilous journey to save — in this version — her sister Toby from the malevolent Goblin King.

“I watched this movie as a young child and David Bowie’s music stayed close to my heart,” says Foster. “I hope the combination of music, movement and story will invite you into this fantastical world where goblins are under your bed and just beyond the meadow is a maze full of mystery and magic.”

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Dancing Wheels. Photo by Dale Dong.

Following the production, audience members are invited to stick around for a post-performance party featuring Cleveland glam band Vanity Crash They’ll take the stage to play Bowie and glam rock tunes. There’ll also be dancing, desserts and drinks (cash bar), a silent auction and a dancer meet-and- greet. For those wanting the full VIP experience, Dancing Wheels is also offering a pre-show cocktail party beginning at 6:30 p.m. with hors d’oeuvres, open bar, silent auction and Best of Bowie bling. Funds raised from this event go to supporting Dancing Wheels’ outreach and educational programming and touring.

Dancing Wheels presents The Best of Bowie, 8 p.m., Saturday, June 10; Jacobs Pavilion at Nautica, 2014 Sycamore Street, Cleveland. General admission $40, Groups of 10 or more $30/each, VIP tickets $125. (216) 432-0306 or dancingwheels.org.

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.

This article was first published on CoolCleveland.com, June 3, 2017. Copyright Steve Sucato.


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