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BalletMet and Cincinnati Ballet Joint Production a Delectable Treat


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BalletMet dancers in Edwaard Liang’s “Age of Innocence.” Photo by Jennifer Zmuda.

BalletMet and Cincinnati Ballet – Inspired
Ohio Theatre
Columbus, OH
March 11-13, 2016

Reviewed by Steve Sucato

Extoling the latest joint production of BalletMet and Cincinnati Ballet is like lauding the pleasures of chocolate; everyone knows them. But for those who sadly missed Inspired, March 11-13 at Columbus’ Ohio Theatre, let me unwrap some of its velvety goodness for you.

Opening night’s performance on March 11 began with BalletMet performing artistic director Edwaard Liang’s signature ballet “Age of Innocence.” Set to music by Philip Glass and Thomas Newman, the ballet, originally created on Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet in 2008, was inspired by the late 18th century and early 19th century romantic fiction of English novelist Jane Austin.

The ballet for eight women and eight men had the pedigree of one created for an elite troupe like the Joffrey.  The understated, yet rich looking backdrop of crimson drapes along with costume designer Maria Pinto’s modern take on period formalwear (both courtesy of Joffrey Ballet), presented the viewer with a contemporary vision of a bygone era of formal balls, arranged marriages and women as second class citizens.

As if taking part in one such ball, BalletMet’s dancers streamed onto the stage, males to one side, females to the other, lined up across from and facing one another in preparation to dance. The men bowed and the women curtsied.

With “Age of Innocence” Liang captured the prim and proper demeanor of those depicted in Austin’s novels. The regimented group choreography had a geometric beauty and grace to it. Male and female rows of dancers crossed lines, came together to hold hands and then moved apart in an elegant courtship ritual. Dancers’ sweeping arms and scooped hands wrapped around their heads, bodies cocked to one side at odd angles and legs shot out into arabesques. As intricate as Liang’s group choreography was, the ballet shone brightest in several scrumptious pas de deuxs contained within it.

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BalletMet dancers in Edwaard Liang’s “Age of Innocence.” Photo by Peter Mueller.

The first, danced by Karen Wing and Michael Sayre, built in momentum like the music to which it was danced.  Dense with partnered lifts, Wing was wrapped around Sayre’s waist like a fanny pack and then dipped into a “Fish” pose.  The second, and the ballet’s finest, came in its penultimate 4th movement. Caitlin Valentine-Ellis and David Ward dazzled in a breathtaking display of grace, power and daring.  Valentine-Ellis appeared to float on air in Liang’s spellbinding choreography that produced a wow lift where she executed an arabesque penché at Ward’s side and was grabbed by her extended leg from behind Ward who pulled her upside down and over him as he bent forward to land seated on his now flattened back. The clever move elicited gasps from the delighted audience that resonated throughout the theater.

“Age of Innocence” drove home once again how fortunate Columbus dance audiences are to have a world-class choreographer leading BalletMet. The level of ballets and dancer talent Liang has assembled since his arrival in 2013 far exceeds the company’s mid-size budget.

Next it was Cincinnati Ballet’s turn to shine in choreographer Trey McIntyre’s brilliant and funny “Wild Sweet Love.” Originally created for Sacramento Ballet in 2007, “Wild Sweet Love” was a delightfully quirky and athletic work set to disparate music by The Zombies, Roberta Flack, Felix Mendelssohn and others, and featured principal dancer Sarah Hairston as a downtrodden woman unlucky in love. Looking like a depressed Mary Katherine Gallagher, the fictional Saturday Night Live character portrayed by comedienne Molly Shannon, Hairston wonderfully sulked around the stage creating sad, but endearingly humorous moments throughout the ballet.

Delivered as a series of adroitly danced vignettes that included multiple costume changes, “Wild Sweet Love” explored the range of emotions being in love and lacking love in your life can bring.

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Cincinnati Ballet’s Sarah Hairston in Trey McIntyre’s “Wild Sweet Love.” Photo by Peter Mueller.

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Cincinnati Ballet’s Sirui Liu and Romel Frometa in Trey McIntyre’s “Wild Sweet Love.” Photo by Peter Mueller.

Highlighting the ballet was the effervescent and spunky performances of corps de ballet dancer Jaqueline Damico and principal dancer Cervilio Miguel Amador in a duet danced to The Partridge Family’s 1974 hit “I Think I Love You.” All smiles, Damico and Amador blazed through playful choreography that had them darting about, twisting and turning in an infectious groove that the viewer couldn’t help but be swept up in.

Also of note was a trio in which an envious, somewhat vengeful Hairston looked on as soloist Sirui Liu and senior soloist Romel Frometa engaged in a bizarre pas de deux in which Liu took swings at Frometa with clenched fists in-between fondly embracing him.

After another depressingly funny solo by Hairston, who pulled her shirt over her face, the ballet concluded with the cast (including a few BalletMet 2 dancers as extras) coming together in a rollicking group dance to Queen’s 1976 anthem “Somebody to Love.”  In it, Hairston, encircled by the others was triumphantly lifted skyward like a cheerleader only to come back down to earth literally and figuratively disappearing into the middle of the crowd of dancers, her tutu having been pulled up over her face.

The stellar program ended with a joint performance of George Balanchine’s 1970 masterwork “Who Cares?.”

Set to seventeen Broadway musical songs by George Gershwin, orchestrated by Hershy Kay, including “Strike Up The Band!,” “‘S Wonderful” and “I Got Rhythm,” the high-stepping, high-energy neo-classical ballet was Balanchine at his Broadway-esque best.

The two companies meshed perfectly in it, and unlike their last collaboration in Balanchine’s “Symphony in C” in 2014, the much improved BalletMet was every bit the equal of Cincinnati Ballet in classical technique and artistry.

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BalletMet and Cincinnati Ballet in George Balanchine’s “Who Cares?” Photo by Jennifer Zmuda.

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BalletMet and Cincinnati Ballet in George Balanchine’s “Who Cares?” Photo by Jennifer Zmuda.

Standouts included BalletMet’s Grace-Anne Powers and Attila Bongar dashing back and forth across the stage to Gershwin’s “Oh, Lady Be Good!,” and Valentine-Ellis with Miguel Anaya performing flawlessly in an emotionally dramatic pas de deux to “The Man I Love.”  The pas, first performed by New York City Ballet stars Patricia McBride and Jacques d’Amboise, had the feel of an old Hollywood movie production number and proved a real gem.

Also of note was the performance of Anaya, as a debonair ladies’ man, in several other pas de deuxs with different partners including he and BalletMet’s Adrienne Benz twirling to “Embraceable You,” and with Jessica Brown in a leisurely game of tag to the song “Who Cares?.”

The carefree ballet was a fitting end to a deliciously decadent evening of dance teeming with tasty performances to satisfy any ballet lover’s sweet tooth.

 

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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Northeast Ohio Summer Dance in Review


Ballet Hispanico dancers in Eduardo Vilaro's "Asuka".

Ballet Hispanico dancers in Eduardo Vilaro’s “Asuka”. Photo by Dale Dong.

Reviewed by Steve Sucato

It’s a tale of two cities when it comes to summer dance in Northeast Ohio; two marquee, municipally run performance series, one in Akron and the other in Cleveland, count for the bulk of the region’s professional dance by local and nationally touring companies.

Billed as the oldest, free summer dance series in the United States, the Heinz Poll Summer Dance Festival in Akron was established in 1974 to honor the legacy of founding artistic director of now defunct Ohio Ballet, Heinz Poll. The family-friendly series held at four city parks and historical sites showcases dance to some 10,000 attendees each season. The 41st edition, which ran four consecutive weekends, opened with New York’s Ballet Hispanico at Goodyear Heights Metro Park.

Chairs and blankets stretched out far and wide in front of the portable stage as area residents of all ages settled in for an evening of dance under the stars, a scene repeated at all the festival’s venues. Ballet Hispanico artistic director Eduardo Vilaro’s Latin-infused contemporary Asuka (2011) kicked things off. Bursting with energy, the playful, hip-shaking piece for a dozen dancers celebrated the music of the late Cuban “Queen of Salsa” Celia Cruz. Next, Sombrerisimo (2013) was the first and best of two works by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa. Inspired by the surrealist paintings of Belgian artist René Magritte, the all-male cast of six — in untucked dress shirts, pants and black bowler hats — moved through well-crafted choreography full of leaps, jumps and dancer inter- weaving as they cleverly transferred hats from one to another.

Rounding out the program was a pas de deux from Tito on Timbales (1984), William Whitener’s tribute to percussionist Tito Puente, danced adroitly by Alexander Duval and Jessica Alejandra Wyatt, and Lopez Ochoa’s Mad’moiselle (2010), a wonderfully bizarre satire on the many images of “Maria” found in Latin culture, including West Side Story.

Neos Dance Theatre's Mary-Elizabeth Fenn and company in Penny Saunders' "Flight".  Photo by Dale Dong.

Neos Dance Theatre’s Mary-Elizabeth Fenn and company in Penny Saunders’ “Flight”. Photo by Dale Dong.

The second weekend featured Mansfield, Ohio-based Neos Dance Theatre, the rising regional company with national aspirations, which offered up three ballets, including festival standout, Penny Saunders’ Flight (2014).

Flight, set to an eclectic soundscape, opened on a group of dancers in uniform grey  tops and slacks moving in robotic unison to spooky music à la a Tim Burton film. The quirky dance work switched gears as Hank Williams Sr.’s Ramblin’ Man ushered in a trio of men in western-infused choreography that had them moseying through snaking movement patterns and arching lifts. In the last section, which emulated the work’s robotic beginnings, Mary-Elizabeth Fenn, moving like a dancer from a music box, stood atop the lone set piece, a wooden box, surrounded by dancers on their knees holding her in place by her ankles; Fenn’s beautifully danced movements evolved from calm and graceful to frantic.

The premiere of artistic director Bobby Wesner’s Slow Moving and Almost Stopped proved true to its title. Dancers spun one another in crouched, flat-footed circles that mesmerized like a figure skater’s effortless glide. Wesner’s nonchalant choreography, set to folksy music, had dancers giving into gravity’s pull and falling into one another’s arms while others engaged in tightly managed movement riffs. The program concluded with Wesner’s 2013 Spinning Plates.

In perhaps the most apropos pairing of dance and venue, Cleveland’s GroundWorks DanceTheater joined with ChamberFest Cleveland musicians to perform David Shimotakahara’s Ghost Opera (2014) at the historic Glendale Cemetery. Inspired by childhood memories of the shamanistic “ghost operas” found in Chinese peasant culture, Tan Dun’s 1994 composition Ghost Opera evoked a ceremonial feel of conjuring spirits and communing with the departed that Shimotakahara (GroundWorks’ artistic director) sought to capture in movement.

GroundWorks DanceTheater dancer Annika Sheaff in David Shimotakahara's "Ghost Opera". Photo by Dale Dong.

GroundWorks DanceTheater dancer Annika Sheaff in David Shimotakahara’s “Ghost Opera”. Photo by Dale Dong.

Water splashed, voices chanted and sang, and violins,  a cello  and  a Chinese  pipa  (a four-stringed lute) were played live, providing a haunting soundscape. Shimotakahara’s choreography ebbed and flowed between the dancers en masse huddling and cleaving to each other and duets and solos that spoke of earth, family and, oddly enough, the music of Bach and the writings of Shakespeare. An esoteric work compared to most summer dance fare, Ghost Opera was marvellously performed and well received.

GroundWorks’ double-bill program, which brought the living and the dead together in celebration of the 175th anniversary of the cemetery, began on a festive note with Lynne Taylor-Corbett’s Hindsight (2011), a tribute to the music of Akron native Chrissie Hynde and her band the Pretenders in a jazzy, Broadway-esque romp.

The series at Cleveland Heights’ Cain Park presented dance in two covered outdoor theatres. A ticketed series welcomed Cleveland-based Verb Ballets in four works that showcased the young dancers. Pamela Pribisco’s Tarantella (2005) provided an energetic boost to the classic dance staple. It was performed with spunk by Michael Hinton and last-minute injury substitution Megan Buckley. Buckley’s charm and effervescence captured the hearts of the audience, leading to cheering at the ballet’s end.

Photo courtesy of Verb Ballets.

Photo courtesy of Verb Ballets.

The program’s gem was the company premiere of former Cincinnati Ballet principal dancer Anthony Krutzkamp’s Similar (2012). Set to piano music by Chad Lawson and Brian Crain, the well-crafted contemporary ballet opened on three male-female couples engaged in angular, elongated unison choreography. Confident and polished, Verb’s dancers shone, especially Stephaen Hood and Lieneke Matte in a delicate pas de deux.

A few days later, Inlet Dance Theatre doled out a pleasing dose of artistic director Bill Wade’s message-driven, Pilobolus-style dance works, including his athletic, amusing duet A Close Shave (2006). The work, which involved the mirror image of a man shaving come to life, was danced with wit, precision and strength by Joshua Brown and Dominic Moore-Dunson. The jam-packed program of eight uplifting works also featured Wade’s signature body sculpture wonder, Ascension (2006).

Capping the performances was Philadelphia hip-hop troupe Illstyle & Peace Productions in Same Spirit Different Movement II: IMpossible IZZpossible & KINGZ. The positive spirit pro- gram featured 19-year-old spoken word artist Syreeta, whose hard-hitting poems spoke of small-town poverty and prejudice, along with a potent mix of deejaying, gospel music and magnificently performed old-school locking, popping, breaking, tap and house dancing. Company founder and dancer Brandon “Peace” Albright and dancer Reggie TapMan Myers captivated in the party atmosphere collection of dance.

This review first appeared in the 2014 winter issue of Dance International magazine. Copyright Steve Sucato.

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BalletMet Columbus and Cincinnati Ballet Collaborate on Stellar Program


George Balanchine's "Symphony in C". Photo by Jennifer Zmuda.

George Balanchine’s “Symphony in C”. Photo by Jennifer Zmuda.

BalletMet Columbus & Cincinnati Ballet – Symphony in C
Ohio Theatre – Columbus, Ohio
March 22, 2014

Reviewed by Steve Sucato

A historic collaboration between two of Ohio’s top ballet companies, BalletMet Columbus and Cincinnati Ballet in the program Symphony in C at Columbus’ Ohio Theatre was not only an audience-pleasing triumph, but was perhaps a harbinger of the quality programming fledgling artistic director Edwaard Liang has in store for BalletMet in the comings seasons.

It was a rare treat to witness the melding of two powerhouse ballet companies in one joint program; mixing both dancer talent and the choreographic talents of each company’s director.  Add to that a George Balanchine ballet classic and the program easily ranked among BalletMet’s finest in the past decade.

Symphony in C opened with Liang’s “Wünderland,” a contemporary ballet originally created for Washington Ballet in 2009 and set to the music of Philip Glass.  Danced by BalletMet’s dancers, “Wünderland” began with five of the company’s female dancers en pointe and in deep plié with arms rounded and outstretched looking like sculpted idols from some ancient civilization.

Edwaad Liang's “Wünderland”.  Photo by  Jennifer Zmuda.

Edwaad Liang’s “Wünderland”. Photo by Jennifer Zmuda.

Said by Liang to be inspired by a large snow globe he saw in Russia replicating a town in Siberia, “Wünderland” sought to abstractly capture the beauty and magic contained within that globe.

Glass’ sweeping music for the ballet set a dreamlike tone which was played out in several technically challenging, yet mesmerizing pas de deuxs, a men’s trio and a partnering sextet. Liang’s choreography utilized common choreographic movement found in contemporary ballets today with the dancer’s arms and legs stretched to elegant ends, and dancers arriving into place onstage via upright sliding and skidding movements.

Where the ballet shone most was in Liang’s unison group dances which had BalletMet’s dancers moving in and out of visually pleasing geometric patterns, and in an emotionally turbulent pas de deux in which dancer Carrie West leapt blindly into Gabriel Gaffney Smith’s arms then escaped his embrace, ducking under a further attempt by Smith to enfold her.  The pair’s passionate performance reached its climax as simulated snow fell from above, filling the air around the couple giving the scene the appearance of the inside of a snow globe after being softly shaken.

Cincinnati Ballet dancers in Victoria Morgan's "Bolero". Photo by Peter Mueller.

Cincinnati Ballet dancers in Victoria Morgan’s “Bolero”.
Photo by Peter Mueller.

Next Cincinnati Ballet artistic director Victoria Morgan added her own unique twist to Maurice Ravel’s iconic composition Bolero.  Her 2007 ballet of the same name for Cincinnati Ballet’s dancers (costumed in studio garb) and BalletMet Academy students (costumed in black formal ballet class uniform), was a play on the evolution of dancers into artists.  The ballet showed young dancers doing rudimentary ballet exercises at the barre, their progression in age and technical ability as older students replaced younger ones moving from the barre to “center” exercises and finally the students giving way to the end result, Cincinnati Ballet’s professionals.

The ballet also appeared to contain an underlying bullfighter theme with the students in black possibly representing young matadors whose eventual commanding presence and skill had to be honed over time, the professional dancers (costumed in red) the matador’s cape, their artism free from constraint, swept across the stage with eye-catching assuredness and flair, and the audience, the bull, drawn to the cape by Morgan’s wonderfully crafted neo-classical choreography highlighted by five sparkling lift-filled pas de deuxs.

The two companies then came together for the program’s final ballet, Balanchine’s masterwork “Symphony in C” (1947). It was the first time The George Balanchine Trust, owners of the ballet, had allowed two different companies to perform the ballet together.

George Balanchine's "Symphony in C". Photo by Jennifer Zmuda.

George Balanchine’s “Symphony in C”. Photo by Jennifer Zmuda.

It was here the two companies dancing as one, somewhat differentiated themselves in skill tackling Balanchine’s fast-paced, deceptively simple yet unforgiving choreography.  Cincinnati Ballet’s dancers, especially their principals and soloists, appeared the more confident and technically solid bunch.  This is not to say that BalletMet’s dancers did not do credit to the ballet, they did, and the integration of the two company’s dancers in it appeared relatively seamless.

Large groups of dancers in tights and tutus took the stage in waves of graceful bodies outpouring the richness that is Balanchine’s movement. Broken into four movements set to music by Georges Bizet, “Symphony in C” showcased lead couples in each that darted, leaped and turned with precision and vigor as the corps de ballet dancers that accompanied them formed elegant lines and patterns. Together the ballet’s dancers created several breathtaking moments. Of particular note were the performances of Cincinnati Ballet’s Janessa Touchet and partner Patric Palkens, Sarah Hairston and partner Zach Grubbs, as well as dancer James Gilmer. For BalletMet: dancers West and partner Andres Estevez along with Marissa Parmenter, Ashley Wegmann and Courtney Muscroft.

 

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