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Poetry, Tai Chi and Shakespeare: Beijing Dance Theater’s Cleveland Debut had Range



From “Farewell, Shadows”. Photo by Han Jiang.

Beijing Dance Theater
Playhouse Square – Ohio Theatre
Cleveland, Ohio
February 2, 2019

Reviewed by Steve Sucato

As the curtain rose this past Friday at Playhouse Square’s Ohio Theatre, it revealed a sculptural piece suspended low over the stage looking like a deconstructed top spinning round. That image was soon replaced by dancers clad in black shorts and tops who, as the sculpture was raised slowly into the rafters, filtered onto the bare stage and began a flurry of stylized contemporary dance choreography.  It was the first glimpse of Beijing Dance Theater making their Cleveland debut as the first Chinese troupe presented by DANCECleveland (in collaboration with Tri-C Performing Arts and Cleveland Public Library) in its 63-year history.  

Founded in 2008 by award-winning choreographer/artistic director WANG Yuanyuan, Beijing Dance Theater (BDT) is one of a scant few contemporary dance companies in China. The dozen-plus member troupe showed its stylistic range in a trio of varied repertory works by WANG presented February 2 beginning with “Farewell, Shadows,” an excerpt from her 2014 work Wild Grass.  

Set to music by Frenchman Kangding Ray, the work resembled a William Forsythe work such as “In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated” or that of choreographer Jiři Kylián (whom WANG says she admires) in its approach. BDT’s dancers marched emotionless on and off the stage taking turns occupying the audience’s gaze in various dancer configurations and performing sleek, sharp-angled choreography that twisted, turned and saw taught legs rocketing skyward.

Inspired by Lu Xin’s 100-year-old poem about control, WANG created the work as an abstract reflection on China’s current and past repressive social and political climates — the 20-minute piece was ripe with images of being controlled and controlling others in the dancers’ partnered movements.


From “Farewell, Shadows”. Photo by Han Jiang.

A solid opener overall, the only knocks on its performance were a lack crispness at times in the dancing and some of the partnering appeared a bit shaky. A standout however, in the work and throughout the program, was dancer HU Jing whose fluid movements and captivating stage presence commanded attention.

Next, tapping into her traditional Chinese folk dance background learned at the Beijing Dance Academy, WANG’s “Crossing” (2008) mixed traditional Chinese dance with that of sped up Tai Chi movement.  

Danced to an atmospheric score by WU Jun and LIU Bo, the 17-minute work began with a solo dancer rolling out a streamer along a corridor of light at the rear of the otherwise darkened stage. Soon other dancers joined in rolling out more streamers across the lengths of the floor to frame and bisect the stage space.

The quiet work showcased a swirling, elegant movement language that fit well on the cast of six men and four women both technically and seemingly spiritually. Costumed in loose-fitting grey pants and teal shirts, the dancers, in various groupings and configurations, appeared to swirl and melt into WANG’s choreography creating a mesmerizing visual display.

ZHAO Wuyue as Ophelia in WANG Yuanyuan’s “Hamlet”. Photo by Han Jiang.

While “Crossing” laid out a clear path of intent from start to finish, the program’s final work, a 37-minute excerpt from WANG’s Hamlet, felt disjointed. Joining Shakespeare’s tragic tale near its end and lacking the ballet’s dramatic sets because they wouldn’t fit the Ohio Theatre’s stage space, the surreal Hamlet excerpt lacked context on its own. Further hindered by WANG’s abstract approach to portraying the Prince’s inner struggle with good and evil over avenging his father’s death, the work’s beauty took a while to come into focus. Danced to music by German composer Dirk Haubrich, at the outset the excerpt appeared more like a scene from a dark version of the ballet Coppélia than Hamlet. Dancer ZHENG Jie as Prince Hamlet flitted about the stage moving the limbs of and repositioning the bodies of over half a dozen dancers representing characters in story that were symbolically or metaphorically made doll-like. Perhaps alluding to his character on the verge of madness, ZHENG imbued the Prince with an almost over-the-top theatricality in the repetitive scene which lasted long after its symbolic point had been made.  

Salvation for the excerpt followed however in the form of dancer ZHAO Wuyue as the radiant ghost of Hamlet’s doomed love interest Ophelia.  In a white dress and appearing before Prince Hamlet, ZHAO, while slowly and gracefully dancing about the stage, dropped a seemingly endless supply of confetti representative of minute flower petals from her hands as she danced. The scene had a Giselle-like quality to it with a frightened and perhaps guilt-ridden Prince Hamlet haunted by her presence.  ZHAO’s performance was spellbindingly beautiful and capped off a mostly successful debut for Beijing Dance Theater that brought the audience to its feet in appreciation.

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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Neos Dance Theatre’s ‘1940’s Nutcracker’ brings Nostalgia to a Beloved Holiday Tradition


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Anna Trumbo in Neos Dance Theatre’s “1940’s Nutcracker.” Photo courtesy of Neos Dance Theatre.

By Steve Sucato

As holiday traditions go, The Nutcracker ballet ranks among this country’s most well known. German author E.T.A. Hoffmann’s classic tale reworked by French writer Alexandre Dumas (The Three Musketeers) into the saccharine version we know about the fantastical adventure to faraway lands of young girl with her beloved Nutcracker doll come to life, is one that has entertained audiences and sparked the imagination of young children for decades.

Memorable characters such as uncle Drosselmeyer, the Mouse King, Sugar Plum Fairy and of course Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart…wait…what…Bogie and Bacall? That’s right, in Northeast Ohio’s Neos Dance Theatre’s 1940’s Nutcracker the Hollywood stars are just a few of the unusual characters to appear in this unique, regionally-flavored production.

Perhaps the most re-interpreted ballet story in history, there are hundreds of versions of The Nutcracker at all levels from dance school productions to million dollar-plus extravaganza’s to choose from each holiday season across the country.

For choreographer and  founding artistic director of Neos, Robert Wesner, the idea for a Nutcracker set in the 1940’s came from his having performed various versions of the ballet upwards of a thousand times in his dance career and feeling he could improve on it.

“For me, I always felt the first and second acts of the ballet [as they are done traditionally] lacked a through line,” says Wesner. “I wanted better storytelling and a fuller representation of the main character’s journey.”

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Neos Dance Theatre’s Kassandra Lee as Marie in the “1940’s Nutcracker.” Photo courtesy of Neos Dance Theatre.

Wesner says in thinking about his vision for a Nutcracker production he began to look at how we as a culture [in the U.S.] celebrate Christmas. “I feel as though our conceptions of the holiday are pretty rooted in old Christmas-themed movies from the 1940’s such as “Miracle on 34th Street” and “It’s a Wonderful Life,” says Wesner. “What really sealed the deal for me that this concept could work for a Nutcracker production was the time period was within arm’s reach of the memory of a lot of audience members.”

Currently there are three different versions of Neos’ 2-hour 1940’s Nutcracker specific to regions in northern Ohio. This year the company will perform two of them with a cast of upwards of fifty dancers. The first, at the Renaissance Theatre in Mansfield, Ohio December 8 & 9 is themed to Richland County circa the 1940s. The second, December 14-16 at Lorain County Community College’s Stocker Arts Center in Elyria is themed to Lorain County during that period.

While the dance elements for each version and Tchaikovsky’s iconic score for the ballet are basically the same in each, the video backdrops used in the ballet gleaned from historical photos and imagery specific to each region changes.

“The experience for an audience member to be able to look at their own history and see a bit of themselves in it is impactful,” says Wesner.

With this approach Neos’ 1940’s Nutcracker not only seeks to deliver the magic of the Nutcracker story to its younger audience members, but also a familiarity and sense of nostalgia for those members young at heart.

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Neos Dance Theatre dancers in “1940’s Nutcracker.” Photo courtesy of Neos Dance Theatre.

Neos’ Nutcracker maintains the ballet’s familiar structure in telling the dreamstate story of young Marie (Clara in other productions) adventures and budding romance.  Where it most differs from others is in its substitution of familiar characters from the original with those from the 1940’s. Johnny, Maries’ next door neighbor becomes the Nutcracker Prince, Bogie and Bacall take the place of the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier, Marie’s WWII soldier father becomes Drosselmeyer and Mae West and Rosie the Riveter make appearances in the place of other second act characters.

In a holiday landscape littered with cookie-cutter Nutcracker productions, Neos’ 1940’s Nutcracker is a wonderfully refreshing change for those seeking something different without giving up any of the charm and magic the Nutcracker story carries with it.

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Neos Dance Theatre dancers in “1940’s Nutcracker.” Photo courtesy of Neos Dance Theatre.

Neos Dance Theatre performs 1940’s Nutcracker:

8 p.m., Saturday, December 8 and 2 p.m., Sunday, December 9 at the Renaissance Theatre, 138 Park Avenue West, Mansfield, Ohio. Tickets are $15-50 (Veterans with valid IDs are eligible for two free tickets for either performance when reserved in advance at the Renaissance box office).  To purchase tickets or for more information visit neosdancetheatre.org, mansfieldtickets.com or call (419) 522-2726.

11 a.m., Friday, December 14 (Student Matinee), 7:30 p.m., Saturday, December 15 and 2 p.m., Sunday, December 16. Lorain County Community College’s Stocker Arts Center – Hoke Theatre, 1005 N Abbe Rd, Elyria, Ohio.  Tickets are $5-35. To purchase tickets or for more information visit neosdancetheatre.org, lorainccc/stocker.edu or call (440) 366-4040.

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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Ballet Hispánico’s All-Female Choreographers Program Struck All The Right Chords


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Ballet Hispánico in Tania Pérez-Salas’ “3. Catorce Dieciséis”. Photo by Paula Lobo.

Ballet Hispánico

Playhouse Square’s Ohio Theatre

Cleveland, OH

November 10-11, 2018

Reviewed by Steve Sucato

Co-presented by DANCECleveland and Cuyahoga Community College, Ballet Hispánico’s triple-bill of works by Hispanic female choreographers struck all the right chords Saturday, November 10 at Playhouse Square’s Ohio Theatre.

The New York-based company, last in Cleveland in 2009, showed its versatility and popular appeal beginning with Colombian-Belgian choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s “Sombrerísimo” (2013) performed for the first time by an all-female cast.

Set to a soundscape that included howling winds, creaking doors and dogs barking along with music by Italian folk group Banda Ionica, Ballet Hispánico’s sextet of women made the work, usually performed by an all-male cast, their own. In doing so however, they also made it a noticeably different work.

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René Magritte’s “Son of Man”.

Performed by Ballet Hispánico in nearby Akron at the 2014 Heinz Poll Summer Dance Festival with an all-male cast, the women Saturday night essentially danced the same choreography as the men but gone was the machismo and swagger that defined that original version. That was replaced by an alternate beauty and fierceness that the women brought to the piece.

Sporting bowler hats they flipped and tossed about throughout the work, the women were energized and technically clean in performing Ochoa’s somewhat acrobatic choreography.  Evoking surrealist imagery from Belgian artist René Magritte’s bowler hat paintings, Ochoa also infused a bit of humor into the work. In one scene, all of the women’s hats were piled high onto the head of one of the dancers who comically collapsed under their weight while another struggled mightily to drag her prostrate body off stage.

While “Sombrerísimo” felt like a different work than the original, the all-female version proved a gratifying opener to a program that celebrated women as dancers and choreographers.

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Ballet Hispánico in Michelle Manzanales’ “Con Brazos Abiertos”. Photo by Paula Lobo.

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Ballet Hispánico in Michelle Manzanales’ “Con Brazos Abiertos”. Photo by Paula Lobo.

Next, Michelle Manzanales’ “Con Brazos Abiertos” (2017) also used humor but this time to disguise pain.  The Mexican-American choreographer created an entertaining and poignant work about multi-cultural acceptance that was inspired in-part by New York poet Maria Billini-Padilla’s heartfelt poem Con Brazos Abiertos.

Danced to an eclectic mix of music from Julio Iglesias and a rendition of Radiohead’s “Creep” to recorded film dialogue, the work for over a dozen dancers followed a central female figure danced by Melissa Fernandez who, while a part of both Mexican and American cultures, felt like, or was made to feel like an outsider.

Delivered in alternating dance sections that showcased Mexican folkloric themes and contemporary dancing, all was not as it seemed in many of them. For instance, in a festive section with all the dancers donning sombreros, Manzanales had the dancers angle their heads as to appear if the hats were atop headless bodies.  This perhaps speaking to a feeling of being anonymous or perhaps playing into the stereotypical insult of members of an ethnic group all looking the same. It was a powerful statement. So too was an audio clip from 1980’s Cheech and Chong’s Next Movie of Cheech Marin singing “Mexican Americans love education so they go to night school and take Spanish and get a B”.  A self-deprecating bit of humor many in the audience laughed at, but the reference was also twinged with sadness as was Edward James Olmos recorded dialogue from the 1997 movie Selena saying, “We have to be more Mexican than Mexicans and more American than Americans.”

With “Con Brazos Abiertos,” Manzanales walked that fine line between audience-pleasing entertainment and social commentary brilliantly, delivering on both counts.

The program closed with Mexican choreographer Tania Pérez-Salas’ gem “3. Catorce Dieciséis” (2017).  A reference to “Pi” (the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter), the work, in the program notes, is said to reflect on the “circularity of movement through life.”

3. Catorce Dieciséis (c) Paula Lobo (3) (1000x666)

Ballet Hispánico in Tania Pérez-Salas’ “3. Catorce Dieciséis”. Photo by Paula Lobo.

Set to music by Vivaldi and other Baroque composers, “3. Catorce Dieciséis” opened on five men and two women in white dancing stylized contemporary dance movement to harpsichord music. With dark atmospheric lighting and an approach akin to a dance piece one might see by Dutch giants Nederlands Dans Theater, the work had a sophistication and quality to it quite unlike the others on the program.

The visually stunning work also contained more than a few surprises in it like a section where two women in long black dresses (one in front of the other) began a unison dance in which a hidden dancer behind each of them reached around women to instantly tear off their black dresses revealing a red one underneath. The gasp-worthy effect was one highlight in a work chock full of memorable moments including an angelic scene of a trio of women that appeared heaven sent.

Throughout, Pérez-Salas’ technically rich choreography big on line, had the dancers moving through a variety of turns, jumps and floor work that brought beauty and mystery to the piece that bordered on genius.

Next on DANCECleveland’s 63rd season is Beijing Dance Theater, Saturday, February 2 and Sunday, February 3 at Playhouse Square’s Ohio Theatre. For information and tickets visit dancecleveland.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.

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