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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.”

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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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Cleveland Ballet’s Season-Opener Promises to be an Eye-Opener


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Cleveland Ballet’s Nashializ Gomez and Rainer Diaz in Gladisa Guadalupe’s “Provocativo.”

By Steve Sucato

To open its fourth season Cleveland Ballet will take audiences on a journey from a high-flying pirate adventure to a late night Argentinean café awash in the tango of love. The company’s Fall Collection, October 19 & 20 at Playhouse Square’s Ohio Theatre, will feature classical, neo-classical and contemporary ballet works including a world-premiere by artistic director Gladisa Guadalupe.

Since its founding in 2014, Cleveland Ballet has grown in size and dancer skill level every year. This season the company takes another leap forward by adding several high-caliber male dancers to its roster. They include Argentinean Luciano Perotto and Cubans Andy Sousa and Alfredo Rodriguez who, along with company veteran Rainer Diaz, may represent the finest male ballet dancer corps Cleveland has seen in over a decade. For the women, the recent departure of company star Luna Sayag is mitigated by the addition of Brooklyn-native Nicole Fedorov, who previously danced with Nevada Ballet, Moscow Classical Ballet and Les Grands Ballets Canadiens. She joins a strong female corps that includes company veterans Lauren Stenroos, Madison Campbell and Anna Dobbins. They, along with the rest of the company, will take to the stage first Guadalupe’s full-company ballet “Momentum.”

Set to Felix Mendelssohn’s “Piano Concerto No. 1 in G minor” performed live by pianist Ralitsa Georgieva Smith, the up-tempo ballet in three movements was inspired by Mendelssohn’s music says Guadalupe.  Seeing a recent rehearsal of the ballet, I found, like the music, the dancing came in vibrant back and forth runs. And while the choreography was fast paced, the dancing retained softness and grace to it.

Next, several of the aforementioned new company dancers will show off their considerable technical skills in excerpts from two ballet classics beginning with the bravura pas de trois from the ballet Le Corsaire (The Pirate) followed by the fiery Spanish pas de deux from Don Quixote.

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Cleveland Ballet’s Alfredo Rodriguez and Elena Cvetkovich in Gladisa Guadalupe’s “Provocativo.”

The program will then shift gears from classical ballet fireworks to late night seduction in the form of Guadalupe’s new 25-minute ballet “Provocativo.” Set in an Argentinean café where love and lust permeate the air and danced to the music of Astor Piazzolla performed live by a quintet of musicians including bandoneonist Julien Labro, bassist Dan Finn and Russian tenor Mikhail Urusov, the ballet seeks to capture the desirous attitude of tango without being a tango piece.

Inspired by her memories of being in such a café in Argentina while on tour as a young professional dancer, Guadalupe has populated this café with a cast of colorful characters including a wealthy socialite, an painter, a Casanova and woman dreaming of her lost lover. In watching Cleveland Ballet’s dancers in a rehearsal of the jazz and tango infused contemporary ballet work, I found it to be a playfully evocative and entertaining ballet.

For those still unfamiliar with the new Cleveland Ballet, the company’s Fall Collection program may just be the introduction needed to make you a fan of this company on the rise.

Cleveland Ballet performs Fall Collection, 8 p.m., Friday, October 19 and 1 p.m. & 7 p.m., Saturday, October 20; Playhouse Square’s Ohio Theatre, 1511 Euclid Avenue, Cleveland. Tickets are $25-79. Also available on October 21 is a Ballet & Brunch Package at $41 that includes a pre-show brunch at Playhouse Square’s RJF Presidents’ Club starting at 11 a.m. followed by the 1p.m. performance. For tickets, visit playhousesquare.org or call (800) 801-7407. More information at clevelandballet.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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