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‘Wild Sweet Love’ to usher in Sofranko-Era at Grand Rapids Ballet


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(L-R) Grand Rapids Ballet dancers Matthew Wenckowski, Isaac Aoki, Gretchen Steimle and StevenHouser rehearsing Penny Saunders’ “Ghost Light”. Photo by Jade Butler.

By Steve Sucato

For Grand Rapids Ballet’s season opening program, the first under new artistic director James Sofranko, the company will present Wild Sweet Love, October 19-21 at GRB’s ’ Peter Martin Wege Theatre. The diverse program including ballets by George Balanchine, Trey McIntyre, GRB resident choreographer Penny Saunders and a world premiere by Sofranko has audience-pleaser written all over it.

The production will also be the first opportunity for area audiences to see several new dancers Sofranko added to the company. They are former Nashville Ballet dancers Alexandra Meister-Upleger (Aurora, Ohio) and Nathan Young (Little Rock, Arkansas), Emily Reed (Monee, Illinois) formerly with Minnesota Ballet, Israel Garcia Chenge (Mexico), Nicholas Gray (Milwaukee, WI), William Shearstone (Atlanta, Georgia) and Cuban Josue Justiz a former dancer with National Ballet of Cuba.

Just a few months into the job, Sofranko says moving from being soloist with San Francisco Ballet for 18 seasons to now running a fulltime ballet company has been a bit of a shock to the system.  “There are a lot more demands on my time. You are needed in the studio, in meetings, in marketing discussions, dancers need to talk to you, choreographers need to talk to you, it’s a constant information overload,” says Sofranko. “You are the guy everyone wants to talk to so you have to be ‘on’ all the time.”

While balancing his time has been big challenge, Sofranko says he was surprised by the dancer in him still wanting to be in the studio to take class. “I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to just let that part of me go,” he says. “Being in the studio are the moments I cherish. The more I can be in there the better.”

Another hurdle Sofranko is facing that other former dancers turned artistic directors have also faced is coming to grips with not being one of the gang anymore. “You are the boss now and that is a different dynamic than being colleagues. That will definitely take some getting used to,” says Sofranko.

Also, like many new directors, Sofranko has had little time to do anything but prep for Wild Sweet Love since the dancers returned in September from their summer layoff. That includes creating his debut ballet for the company, “Ballade,” a 9-minute lighthearted classical piece to excerpts of Antonín Dvořák’s four “Romantic Pieces, Op. 75” for violin and piano (1887). In keeping with the love theme of the program, it features new dancers Meister-Upleger and Young along with Ednis Gomez and Gretchen Steimle as couples in more mature love relationships; one couple is awash in romance while the other has a more contentious relationship.

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Grand Rapids Ballet dancers Josue Justiz and Yuka Oba rehearsing George Balanchine’s “Allegro Brillante”. Photo by Jade Butler.

Prior to “Ballade,” the company premiere of Balanchine’s “Allegro Brillante” (1956) will open the program. The choreographer said of his vibrant and expressive ballet for 10 dancers, “It contains everything I know about the classical ballet in 13 minutes.” Danced to Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 3, Op. 75, Sofranko sees the ballet as good test for the company and a great way for him to better get to know the dancers.

After a short intermission, the program will continue with Saunders’ “Ghost Light” (2014). Originally created on Kansas City’s Owen/Cox Dance Group, the work for 4 dancers (1 woman, 3 men) costumed in formalwear follows the mischievous antics of a group of theater ghosts inspired by famous figures Maria Callas, Harry Houdini, Fred Astaire and Duke Ellington at play after the living have gone home.

Saunders is familiar to GRB audiences having choreographed several of the company’s more popular ballets during Patricia Barker’s tenure as director including last season’s The Happy Prince & Other Wilde Tales. “Ghost Light” taps into the theatrical superstition that every theater is haunted and that the light or lights left lit onstage meant to keep stage hands and performers from falling into the orchestra pit when the theater is dark, also provides theater ghosts a spotlight to perform in once again.

Danced to an eclectic music mix from composer Alexandre Desplat, Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh, David Hirschfelder, J. S. Bach and Traffic Quintet, the 18-minute work is a comedic romp tinged with a bit of melancholy.

Bravura classical dancing then follows in the bold, high flying pas de deux from the ballet Le Corsaire. Danced to music by Riccardo Drigo, the pas de deux made famous by Rudolf Nureyev will showcase company members Justiz and Meister-Upleger.

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Grand Rapids Ballet dancers Ednis Gomez and Yuka Oba rehearsing Trey McIntyre’s “Wild Sweet Love”. Photo by Jade Butler.

After another brief intermission the program will close with its title work, McIntyre’s “Wild Sweet Love” (2007). Originally created for Sacramento Ballet, “Wild Sweet Love” is a delightfully quirky and athletic work set to disparate music by Queen, Lou Reed, Roberta Flack, Felix Mendelssohn, The Zombies and others.  It explores the range of emotions being in love and lacking love in your life can bring. Played out in a series of dance vignettes that follow a central female character, the ballet is full of humor, heartache, and songs like The Partridge Family’s 1974 hit “I Think I Love You” that will leave you smiling.

Eager to begin this next chapter in his career and the next in GRB’s 46-year history, Sofranko says of Wild Sweet Love: “I am feeling good about the show. I am happy where we are at and how the dancers and the pieces look.”

Grand Rapids Ballet performs Wild Sweet Love, 7:30 p.m., Friday, October 19 & Saturday, October 20 and 2:00 p.m., Sunday, October 21. Peter Martin Wege Theatre, 341 Ellsworth SW, Grand Rapids. Tickets are $52 each. For tickets or more information visit grballet.com or call (616) 454-4771 x10.

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 Brings Successful New York Program That Includes New David Dorfman Work Home to Cleveland


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Dancing Wheels dancers in James Morrow’s “Neither Lost Nor Found.” Photo by Scott Shaw.

By Steve Sucato

After a successful New York debut of their program Past, Present and Future of Integrated Dance at Ailey Citigroup Theater in October, Cleveland’s Dancing Wheels brings a modified version of it to The Breen Center for the Performing Arts at Saint Ignatius High School on Saturday, November 4.

Hailed as “…remarkable …a company of first-rate trained dancers with and without disabilities” by New York dance critic Bonnie Rosenstock (click here to read the full review), the mixed repertory program of company favorites spanning Dancing Wheels’ 37 seasons will also feature the Cleveland premieres of choreographer James Morrow’s “Neither Lost Nor Found” and “Imagine, if you will …,” by Bessie Award-Winning choreographer David Dorfman. Also on the program will be a performance by students of The School of Dancing Wheels.

The company, which welcomed 6 new dancers this season, “has never been better and more jelled,” says Dancing Wheels rehearsal director/resident choreographer Catherine Meredith. “They did a fabulous job in New York.”

Putting the company’s newfound chemistry to the test was the creation of Morrow’s “Neither Lost Nor Found.” The urban-centric choreographer says he came to Dancing Wheels with a basic idea for the work and a choreographic sketch but didn’t know how it would pan out. “There was great communication between myself and the dancers… What I found extremely important was the reciprocity. We learned and evolved together.”

That choreographic sketch along with inspiration from Martin Niemoller’s iconic poem “First they came …” about the rise of Nazism, formed the basis of the work and its commentary on the current social and political landscape of the United States.

Says Morrow of the 10-minute group work: “[Niemoller’s] quote revolves around silence and the act of not speaking out when you identify injustice. As a white person navigating through this world, I have been silent when I shouldn’t have. I’ve been asleep and blinded by my own privilege…Dancing Wheels, the work they put out, the mission of the company, the performers, the community engagement they participate in, are all acts to combat silence. There is a political ‘stand’ or ‘sit’ in the representations within their performances, acts of rebellion or subversion to the hetero-normative, white supremacist, patriarchal society that many of us sleep through day in and day out. I want ‘Neither Lost Nor Found’ to evoke that will, that drive…and hopefully wake a few people ‘sleeping’ in the audience.”

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Dancing Wheels dancers in David Dorfman’s “Imagine, If you will…” Photo by Scott Shaw.

Like Morrow, Dorfman’s new work was inspired by the current social and political climate in the U.S. but filtering it through the lens of those with disabilities. A mainstay on the New York dance scene, Dorfman says a few things ran through his mind in creation process for the 17-minute “Imagine, if you will …”

“When working with folks of differing physical or emotional abilities or capacities, I often marvel at how much we as, more than not, ‘able bodied’ dancers take for granted and how much we as Americans take for granted,” says Dorfman. The group work, set to music by Liz de Lise, Omar Souleyman and Denver alternative country band Wovenhand, is an attempt says Dorfman, to let the audience “‘imagine,’ and plainly see the dancers’ greatness, courage and kindness.”

One of several repertory works to be reprised on the program will be Los Angeles choreographer Sarah Swenson’s 2015 work “Clamor.” Set to an original score by Swenson’s husband Alessandro Girasoli, the contemporary dance work reflects on disability rights and the 1990 Capital Crawl which helped propel the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Dedicated to the memory of activist Kenneth Irving Zola, the work, says Meredith, brings home through its “Politico” character, the realization that anyone at any time can become disabled.

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Dancing Wheels dancers in Daniel Job’s “Above” (1991). Photo by Scott Shaw.

Also on the program will be reprises of Daniel Job’s “Above” (1991), the first work Dancing Wheels’ founding artistic director Mary Verdi-Fletcher performed out of her wheelchair, and an excerpt from Donald McKayle’s 2012 work “Far East of the Blues” set to a suite of Duke Ellington music.

Rounding out the program’s offerings will be a work by Gabriella Martinez created on the students of The School of Dancing Wheels, and a reprise of Meredith’s “Pallas Athena” that premiered this past June as part of Dancing Wheels’ The Best of Bowie program.

Performed to David Bowie’s song “Pallas Athena (Don’t Stop Praying mix No 2)” off his 1993 album “Black Tie White Noise,” Meredith says of the dance work, “I drew upon my experiences in New York City and London nightclubs where people who may or may not identify as male or female, he or she, could come, be accepted, and not be ashamed of who they truly were. For many, the DJ and the club acted as a god and church/sanctuary.”

Dancing Wheels presents Past, Present and Future of Integrated Dance, 7:30 p.m., Saturday, November 4; The Breen Center for the Performing Arts at Saint Ignatius High School, 2008 W 30th Street, Cleveland. $20 general, $15 students/seniors. (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.

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Fine Texture


Kelsey Bartman (seated), Alan Obuzor and Brynn Vogel of Texture Contemporary Ballet. Photo by Katie Ging.

Kelsey Bartman (seated), Alan Obuzor and Brynn Vogel of Texture Contemporary Ballet. Photo by Katie Ging.

By Steve Sucato

You could say the title of Texture Contemporary Ballet’s latest program, Synergy, also names what has made the three-year-old troupe a success. The combined efforts of artistic director Alan Obuzor, associate artistic director Kelsey Bartman and an array of energetic dancers and choreographers have consistently produced programs whose total effect has exceeded the sum of their individual contributions.

This Sept. 26-28 program, mixing new and existing works, will also be the company’s first mainstage appearance at the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater. And as usual for Texture, it will be a jam-packed showcase, with nine ballets by five different choreographers.

Choreographed in 2010 for a Dancers Trust program, former Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre principal dancer Erin Halloran and Obuzor’s pas de deux “I Know,” with music by Fiona Apple, will be a company premiere. So will Bartman’s “Cognitive Closure,” a duet she created for herself and Obuzor for No Name Players’ SWAN Day, this past March. Set to music by Max Richter, the duet begins with a contemplative solo by Bartman; Obuzor interrupts and then begins influencing her inner world.

“Broken Swan,” recent Point Park University grad Oscar Carillo’s second work for Texture, is a take on Swan Lake‘s famous “Dance of the Little Swans.” The eight-minute quartet asks what would happen if the normally cheerful, bonded and in-unison cygnets were suddenly separated and in pain?

Alan Obuzor and Kelsey Bartman of Texture Contemporary Ballet, Sept. 26-28. Photo by Katie Ging.

Alan Obuzor and Kelsey Bartman of Texture Contemporary Ballet, Sept. 26-28. Photo by Katie Ging.

Company dancer Alexandra Tiso offers two ballets. “These Pips Are No Dead Hoofers” is a lighthearted and jazzy piece for six dancers, set to the music of Duke Ellington. The premiere of her fourth work for the company, “Efficacy,” finds its inspiration “in a person’s energy being affected by the energy of others,” says Tiso.

Bartman adds two more. “Writing on the Wall,” created this past July, is set to music by composer Bryan McMasters. And the premiere of “Une journée dans la vie,” a 12-minute ballet for the full company of 11, is set to music by Ravel. Bartman describes it as “something classical for our very classically trained dancers.”

Rounding things out is the premiere of Obuzor’s “Unchanging Change.” The 15-minute ballet in three sections, set to music by rapper Macklemore and composer Richter, and a poem by Andrea Gibson, explores individualism within a society.

Texture Contemporary Ballet performs Synergy 8 p.m. Fri., Sept. 26; 8 p.m. Sat., Sept. 27; and 3 p.m. Sun., Sept. 28. Kelly-Strayhorn Theater, 5941 Penn Ave., East Liberty. $20-25. 412-363-3000 or kelly-strayhorn.org.

This article originally appeared in Pittsburgh City Paper September 24, 2014. Copyright Steve Sucato.

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