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With ‘Worx’ Staycee Pearl dance project brings the Nostalgia and the Funk


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Staycee Pearl dance project (SPdp) dancers (L-R) Maree Remalia, Jessica Anne Marino and LaTrea Rembert. Photo by Kitoko Chargois.

By Steve Sucato

It will be a homecoming of sorts for Staycee Pearl dance project (SPdp) this Thursday, April 19 and Friday, April 20, when the 8-year-old company returns to East Liberty’s Kelly-Strayhorn Theater after a multiyear absence.

The site of many of the company’s most important premieres, their latest production Worx, looks back on three of them plus introduces the troupe’s latest work-in-progress, “Sol”.

Included in the hourlong repertory program will be a 10-minute excerpt from 2010’s “circlePOP”.  Set to a mash-up of music samples from Pharrell Williams, Jimi Hendrix, Beyoncé and others created by SPdp’s Co-executive Director/ Sound Designer Herman Pearl, the work, choreographed by Co-executive/Artistic Director Staycee Pearl  and performed by a trio of dancers, takes its inspiration from how popular culture influences our world. Updated for Worx, the excerpt contains new material reflective of current popular culture.

Inspired by the socio-political climate surrounding race and colorism as well as Blackness in relation to Post-Blackness,  a condensed version of the Pearl’s  2013 piece “…on being…” will also be performed. The term post-blackness was coined by Harlem museum curator Thelma Golden and conceptual artist Glenn Ligon in the 1990’s and describes the tossing off of one’s racial identifiers and with them the burden of having everything you do speak for your entire race.  And while exploring the notion of post-blackness is part of the work, it is “really about identity and examines self-identifiers such as gender and sexuality,” says Mrs. Pearl.

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Staycee Pearl dance project (SPdp) dancers (L-R) Maree Remalia, Jessica Anne Marino and LaTrea Rembert. Photo by Kitoko Chargois.

Danced to an original music collage that Mr. Pearl describes as “chopped up soul music abstracted,” Mrs. Pearl’s choreography for the work’s three dancers can also be characterized as being abstract.

Rounding out the program’s reprised works will be a 15-minute excerpt of the Pearl’s 2011 work “Octavia” for a trio of dancers. Inspired by MacArthur genius grant recipient Octavia E. Butler’s science fiction novels, the work shines a light on the real-world lessons contained within those literary works.

Set to another of Herman’s otherworldly curated soundscapes that contains samples from Jimi Hendrix’s song “1983” plus original music by cellist/composer Dave Eggar, the work, says Mrs. Pearl, is a conceptual representation of her work juxtaposed with her life.

Music as motivator is at the core of the program’s lone new work-in-progress, “Sol”.  Set to a collage of of lesser known soul music from the late 50s to mid 70s and sound distortions orchestrated together by Mr. Pearl that he compares to sounding like “a distressed cassette tape,” the 20-minute “Sol,” performed by a quartet of dancers, plays with ideas of how soul music evokes certain moods, says Mrs. Pearl.  “It can inspire a deeper connection to your inner self and the music you are hearing.”

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Staycee Pearl dance project (SPdp) dancers (L-R) Maree Remalia, Jessica Anne Marino and LaTrea Rembert. Photo by Kitoko Chargois.

Included in “Sol’s” mood-inspiring soundtrack are portions of the ballads “The Right To Love You” by The Mighty Hannibal and Betty Harris’ song “Nearer To You” as well as funkier tunes by Curtis Mayfield and others.

For those unfamiliar with Staycee Pearl dance project’s catalog of work or those interested in revisiting some of the troupe’s greatest hits, Worx is just the ticket.

Staycee Pearl dance project (SPdp) performs Worx, 8 p.m., Thursday, April 19 and Friday, April 20; Kelly-Strayhorn Theater, 5941 Penn Ave., Pittsburgh. Tickets: $10 students/seniors, $20 regular admission. http://www.pearlartsstudios.com/events/worx

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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For Pittsburgh Debut, LA’s BODYTRAFFIC Presents a Program of Distinct Choreographic Voices


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BODYTRAFFIC dancer. Photo by Rory Doyle

By Steve Sucato

Now a decade in, Los Angeles-based BODYTRAFFIC continues to make in-roads to becoming one of nation’s premiere contemporary dance companies.  While still not a household name even among dance aficionados, the company’s growing success has company co-founder/artistic director Tina Finkelman Berkett feeling a bit more added pressure because of that success.

“You wish for success, then success comes and everyone has this idea that it comes easy,” says Finkelman Berkett. “But it just keeps getting harder and harder because you have to keep living up to new demands and expectations.”

A full-time company dancer, BODYTRAFFIC’s head of development as well as its co-artistic director, Finkelman Berkett wears a lot of hats which she says these days can be a bit daunting but stimulating. “I think part of why I love our company so much because it continues to be challenging for me and I get to rise to those occasions. The ups and downs “are like this sick beautiful cycle.”

As part of the company’s current busy tour schedule, BODYTRAFFIC will make is Pittsburgh debut to close out the Pittsburgh Dance Council‘s 2017-18 season this Saturday, April 14 at Downtown’s Byham Theater. The company will present four repertory works beginning with Israeli choreographer Hofesh Shechter’s “Dust”(2015).

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BODYTRAFFIC in Hofesh Shechter’s “Dust”. Photo by Sharen Bradford.

Described as “a dark look at the power and commercialism that steer today’s society,” the 22-minute multimedia work set to a subliminal-message-infused score by Shechter says Finkelman Berkett “Is built on a number of concepts that have to do with cult-like behavior. You see us doing sometimes ritualistic movements and standing in formations that convey that we are being driven by a force that is greater than our own minds.”

In choosing choreographers to work with the company such as Shechter, Finkelman Berkett’s counterpart Lillian Rose Barbeito said in an article in Cleveland’s Plain Dealer, “We scour the world, looking for distinct voices.”

Some of those other distinct choreographic voices that have made works for the company include Andrea Miller, Barak Marshall, Gustavo Ramírez Sansano and Pittsburgh-native Kyle Abraham.

“Lillian and I really didn’t know each other when we started BODYTRAFFIC,” Finkelman Berkett. “We basically were two dancers that wanted to present a certain kind of work in LA [Los Angeles].  We joke now that it is unbelievable how lucky we are that all these years later we pretty much have always agreed on dancers and choreographers; we have such similar tastes.”

Where the two differ however is Finkelman Berkett, a former competition dancer in Long Island, grew-up “really liking the light, comedic stuff” where Barbeito likes to “push audiences more” says Finkelman Berkett. “There is a certain part of me that just loves to offer the audience something that they can really walk out smiling with.” Choreographer Richard Siegal’s “o2Joy” (2012) is one of those works.  The 17-minute lighthearted and playful work is an expression of exuberance set to an American jazz score featuring music by Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Oscar Peterson.  Describing it as bordering on being cheesy, Finkelman Berkett says one can’t deny how physically challenging and interesting “o2Joy” is.

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Richard Siegal’s “o2Joy”. Photo by Christopher Duggan.

Also on the program will be Joshua L. Peugh’s 15-minute “A Trick of the Light” (2015) inspired by the rare “green flash” phenomenon that occurs just before the sun disappears from view at sunset, and Victor Quijada’s 2014 work “Once Again Before You Go.”  (Side Note: Point Park’s Conservatory Dance Company will premiere Peugh’s new “Black Balloons,” April 19-22 at the University’s George Rowland White Performance Studio)

To teach BODYTRAFFIC’s dancers his very specific “RUBBERBAND Method” of moving which combines urban, contemporary and classical principles, Quijada came a month prior to creating the work. The resulting 20-minute piece set to original music by film composer Jasper Gahunia says Finkelman Berkett, is about a woman (danced by her) that is being pursued by several individuals and ends up connecting with one in a duet that ends the piece.

BODYTRAFFIC performs 8 p.m., Saturday, April 14 at the Byham Theater, 101 6th St., $10-60, (412) 456-6666 or trustarts.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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GroundWorks DanceTheater’s Program a Triumph for Company and Two Retiring Dancers


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GroundWorks DanceTheater’s Damien Highfield and Taylor Johnson in James Gregg’s “éveillé.” Photo by Mark Horning.

GroundWorks DanceTheater – 2018 Spring Concert Series
EJ Thomas Hall at University of Akron

Akron, Ohio
March 3, 2018

Reviewed by Steve Sucato

There can be no doubt that many of those who came to see  GroundWorks DanceTheater’s 2018 Spring Concert Series on Saturday, March 3 at Akron University’s EJ Thomas Hall, did so to see retiring company stalwarts Felise Bagley and Damien Highfield’s last performance with the company in Akron.  Not only did those assembled get to see the pair excel in all three works on the program, they also got to take in James Gregg’s “éveillé”, one of the best dance works the company has ever mounted and one of the best presented by anyone in the region in recent memory.

The world-premiere of Gregg’s semi-narrative dance work heavily-infused with urban-influenced (hip hop, break dance) dance movement, took its inspiration from Italian poet Giambattista Basile’s dark and perverse version of the Sleeping Beauty story entitled “The Sun, Moon and Talia,” included his 1634 collection of fairytales, the Pentamerone.  It tells of Talia, a great lord’s daughter who falls into a magical slumber as foretold by astrologers after a splinter of flax pierces her skin. The lord places her in one of his country estates where she is discovered after a time by a King who mistakenly thinks she is dead but is so enraptured by her beauty, that he has his way with her before returning to his castle. Talia then gives birth to twins she names Sun and Moon, waking her from her slumber. The King then discovers Talia is alive and he is the father of her children as does his wife the Evil Queen who hatches a plan to kill Talia and punish her adulterous husband by having him eat a meal made from the flesh of Sun and Moon.

While Gregg’s dance version loosely-based on Basile’s tale maintained the same characters (although Talia was renamed Beauty in his version), his altered storyline was far less gruesome. The Los Angeles-based choreographer’s genius with the work was in capturing the emotions surrounding the characters’ interactions rather than trying to present a concrete visualization of the Basile’s story.

Set to music by Ben Frost, Bach and others, “éveillé” (French for “awake”), began with Highfield as the King in spotlight standing atop a platform several feet above the stage that was part of an abstract, modular set. On this perch, Highfield lit into a series of gestural motions, moving his hands and arms back and forth as the work’s other four dancers filtered onto the stage below him. Then coming down to meet them, Highfield and dancer Taylor Johnson as Beauty engaged in a similarly animated and aggressively active duet that had them in partially hunched body postures and intently moving in and around each other.

Gregg’s hybrid movement language for the work that he says stems from the use of “fixed points” that the dancers launch themselves from, appears derived in part from his own personal experiences as a former dancer with Bodytraffic, Les Ballet Jazz de Montreal and most notably Victor Quijada’s RUBBERBANDance Group whose movement language employs similar upright torso, weight shifting and space carving motions. Gregg’s expansive and emotive choreography stretched the talents of GroundWorks’ dancers in ways unlike any other prior Groundwork’s piece. Each of the work’s five dancers which also included Gemma Freitas Bender as Sun, Tyler Ring as Moon and Bagley as the Evil Queen, delivered a plethora of delicious dance phrases that illustrated their characters’ motivations. Bagley as the Evil Queen was eerily cold and calculated.

The work’s most moving dancing came in a closing pas de deux performed by its stars, Highfield and Johnson. Emotionally powerful, the pair’s forceful and staccato dancing to music that matched, movingly captured the complicated feelings of love the two had for each other. And like the rest of the work, it left the audience noticeably affected and impressed by what they had just witnessed.

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GroundWorks DanceTheater’s Taylor Johnson, Tyler Ring, Gemma Freitas Bender and Damien Highfield In David Shimotakahara’s “Passenger.” Photo by Mark Horning.

Next came the world-premiere of GroundWorks artistic director David Shimotakahara’s “Passenger,” a 20-minute work danced primarily to five sections of American composer John Adams’ chamber work “John’s Book of Alleged Dances.”

Said to be a visual interpretation of the music, Shimotakahara’s choreography mirrored the moods and stylistic shifts in the music with his own shifts in movement style that blended a variety of dance styles.  While Gregg’s work surprised the audience with something bold and new for the company, “Passenger,” and Shimotakahara’s “Circadian” that followed, reminded fans of Groundworks of what drew them to them to the company in the first place.

“Passenger’s” sections had its five dancers engaging in various solos, duets and group dancing that moved from a jazzy hoedown feel to a Bagley and Highfield duet that included Latin ballroom-like moves, turns and butt wiggles.  Highlighting the piece was a compelling duet danced by Freitas Bender and Ring set to music by pianist and composer Dustin O’Halloran.

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GroundWorks DanceTheater’s Felise Bagley and Damien Highfield in David Shimotakahara’s “Circadian.” Photo by Mark Horning.

Capping the program and Bagley and Highfield’s nearly two decades-long careers with GroundWorks, was the reprise of “Circadian” (2000). Described by him as being built on “a gesture that becomes an extended reach” and “the force of attraction,” the 13-minute duet set to a dynamic original score by Gustavo Aguilar, proved a fitting send off to Bagley and Highfield whose innumerable talents, range, and stage presence were encapsulated in it.  Both dancers displayed a measure of refined dancing, polish and emotional intensity in the beloved duet that began with them dancing as isolated beings slowly and inexorably being drawn toward each other.  Once together they fell into intertwining partnering moves, lifts, holds and intermittently, knee-to-chest hops. One such hop startlingly had Bagley caught mid-jump by Highfield right on a musical punctuation in Aguilar’s music.

Perhaps no better send-off for Bagley and Highfield, GroundWorks’ 2018 Spring Concert Series was a triumph as was the performances of the pair in it. And although Bagley and Highfield will no longer be with the company, both dancers will remain a memorable and enduring part of GroundWorks’ legacy and that of dance in Northeast, Ohio.  Area audiences will have one more chance to see the pair dance with the company this Saturday, April 7 at Saint Ignatius High School’s Breen Center for the Performing Arts.

GroundWorks DanceTheater performs its 2018 Spring Concert Series, 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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