Tag Archives: EJ Thomas Hall

Parsons Dance’s Program a Delightful Mix of Current and Classic Works [REVIEW]


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Parsons Dance. Photo by Travis Magee.

Parsons Dance
The University of Akron’s EJ Thomas Hall
Akron, Ohio
October 12, 2019

Reviewed by Steve Sucato

Few choreographers begin their careers with what would be their seminal work. David Parsons did just that with his 1982 work “Caught”.  On the greatest hits list of modern dance works of the 20th century, “Caught” was one of five works Parsons Dance performed Saturday night at The University of Akron’s EJ Thomas Hall.

Presented by The University of Akron’s Dance Department and DANCECleveland to open its 2019-20 mainstage season, the popular NYC-based company was last in Northeast, Ohio as part of DANCECleveland’s 2015 season.

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Parsons Dance in “Round My World”. Photo by Travis Magee.

Parsons Dance’s mixed repertory program capped a week-long residency at the University and led off with Parsons’ 2012 work “Round My World” to music by Canadian-born cellist and composer Zoë Keating.  Constructed on themes of roundedness and circularity, Parsons’ choreography for the zippy work took those themes and ran with them. The troupe’s 6 dancers engaged in a myriad of rounded arm and circular movements and jumps. The visual equivalent of an ear worm, Parson’s pleasant choreographic patterns lodged themselves in the viewer’s mind circling round and round.

Next came choreographer Trey McIntyre’s latest work set to a suite of songs from a popular music artist, “Eight Women” (2019). Danced to music by the late Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, the work for the company’s 8 dancers had a similar vibe to “Round My World” but with a funkier approach. In it, Parson’s dancers led by Henry Steele, interpreted the mood of such Franklin hits as “Spanish Harlem,” “I Say A Little Prayer” and “Natural Woman” via breezy, direction-shifting hops and turning steps that were soothing to watch.

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Parsons Dance in “Eight Women”. Photo by Travis Magee.

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Parsons Dance in “Microburst”. Photo courtesy of Parsons Dance.

A protégé of Paul Taylor, whose company he danced for many years, many of Parsons’ own works show influences of Taylor in their style. “Microburst” (2018) was not one of them. The somewhat unique dance work mixed elements of tap and modern dance to an original Indian tabla score by Avirodh Sharama.  Reflecting the work’s title, the sound effect of a storm ushered in the piece in darkness. Then the stage lights came up on a quartet of dancers whose microbursts of movement were tied to and punctuated notes in the illustrative drum music. Originally performed with a live tabla player onstage, Parsons added the placement of a small silver bell onstage as a stand-in for the missing musician that was rung once during the piece by dancer Zoey Anderson.

Substituting tap and modern dance movement and attitude for the traditional Indian dance choreography one might expect paired with the tabla score, the engaging work was a breath of fresh air in its appeal and in the charm it allowed dancers Anderson, Shawn Lesniak, Deidre Rogan and Joan Rodriguez to exhibit in their dancing.

Then, after a quick costume change by Anderson, the blonde-haired powerhouse from Utah performed “Caught”.

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Zoey Anderson in “Caught”. Photo courtesy of Parsons Dance.

Created by Parsons and company co-founder and lighting designer for all the works on the program Howell Binkley, the 6-minute solo to music by Robert Fripp used a strobe effect and a hundred or so jumps to give the illusion of Anderson flying about the stage not touching ground but for a few pauses to stand in spotlight in a military at ease pose center stage.  An audience favorite, the work has been performed over 2,500 times mostly by male company members. Anderson was spot on in her performance of the work garnering the stunned reactions and appreciative applause audiences generally give the work.

Rounding out the program was Parsons’ 1990 nod to Brazilian culture, “Nascimento” (Portuguese for “birth”). A frequent program closer, the work was inspired by and set to an original score by Brazilian singer/songwriter Milton Nascimento, Parsons’ 8 dancers skipped and bounded about the stage in joyous and playful choreography full of kicks, spins and lifts to an infectious beat that dared you to try and sit still.

Per usual Parsons Dance delivered a program of works with one goal — to entertain.  A rousing standing ovation at program’s end signaled mission accomplished.

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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Abraham Takes ‘A.I.M’ at Greatness with Akron Program


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A.I.M’s Connie Shiau, Claude Johnson and Catherine Ellis Kirk in Kyle Abraham’s “Drive”. Photo by Ian Douglas.

A.I.M
University of Akron’s E.J. Thomas Hall
Akron, Ohio
October 6, 2018

Reviewed by Steve Sucato

Having followed Kyle Abraham’s career since he was a teen in Pittsburgh, his talents and potential as a dancer and choreographer revealed themselves early on. Seemingly in short order, the dance world began taking notice of those talents lauding him with accolades and awards including being named one of Dance Magazine’s “25 to Watch” in 2009 and becoming the youngest recipient of a MacArthur “Genius” Grant 2013. And while Abraham’s individual career continues to skyrocket, the trajectory of his namesake New York-based company, Abraham.In.Motion (A.I.M), founded in 2006, has been on a more gradual incline.

For those unfamiliar with A.I.M and Abraham’s work, their Northeast, Ohio debut at the University of Akron’s E. J. Thomas Hall this past Saturday, October 6, showed rather emphatically that it the company is primed to run with dance’s big dogs.

Presented by DANCECleveland in collaboration with The University of Akron’s Dance Department, A.I.M’s mixed repertory program began with a company first, a dance work created on them by someone other than Abraham.

Choreographer Andrea Miller’s lush, atmospheric trio for women, “state” (2018) had the look and feel of a Beyoncé music video taken to even further artistic extremes.

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A.I.M’s Kayla Farrish, Catherine Ellis Kirk and Marcella Lewis in Andrea Miller’s “state”. Photo by Steven Schreiber.

On a stage barely lit by rear floor lights dancers Kayla Farrish, Catherine Ellis Kirk and Marcella Lewis in silhouette with their backs to the audience, shuffled side to side grooving to Pittsburgh-native Reggie Wilkins’ electronic chill vibe hip hop music.

Miller, the artistic director and vision behind New York’s Gallim Dance, is best known for her Israeli-style contemporary dance works. In working with the dancers on “state,” Miller acted more as a director/editor taking movement generated by them and assembling it into a brilliantly unexpected piece that wrapped around the dancers like a cozy sweater.

Performed on an earth-tone square of dance floor with the dancers costumed in muted colored tops and shorts with shiny gold painted patches on their knees and fingers, the contemporary dance work infused with African, hip hop, Israeli folk and other dance styles, looked ritualistic at times as well as exalting of the women. Parceled into sections reflecting various states of being both emotionally and attitudinally, the dancers moved mostly in unison throughout the work, rocking, bouncing and swaying in simple-looking yet slick choreography.

Where the work’s opening section had the trio of women appearing goddess-like, its second section with its sparse and somewhat ugly movement that had the dancers crab-walking and lying on the stage floor in fetal positions had a troubled feel to it.

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A.I.M’s Marcella Lewis in Andrea Miller’s “state”. Photo by Steven Schreiber.

The work then shifted moods several more times as it progressed with one section showing off the dancers in mini-solos before returning to its infectious opening groove to end the piece.

Keeping with the theme of states of being, Abraham’s latest solo for himself “INDY” (2018), at over 20-minutes is perhaps his longest to date. Like avant-garde jazz or the music of bands like the Pixies and Nirvana that abruptly switch from hard to soft passages in the same song, Abraham’s signature movement style moves abruptly from sinewy smooth, calm phrases to frenetic, hyper-speed riffs that have his arms circling and darting about, hips swiveling and torso twisting in the blink of an eye and back again. In “INDY,” Abraham came right out of the gate in that full-on frenzy mode, a flurry of hands and arms clearing the air and space around him as if cloud of hovering bees descended on him from above; the activity sending the fringed back of his all black costume into violent motion.

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Kyle Abraham in “INDY”. Photo by Steven Schreiber.

 

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Kyle Abraham in “INDY”. Photo by Steven Schreiber.

Set to an original score by Cleveland-native and Juilliard faculty member, Jerome Begin and in front of a target-like circular patterned backdrop, Abraham strutted and moved about the stage in various states of confidence.  From rounded shoulder, arm-swaying machismo to vogue-like prancing, the schizophrenic solo was a microcosm of Abraham’s signature movement style.  Toward the end of the solo, Abraham slowed the piece to a halt. As an audio recording of his college graduation ceremony played in the background, Abraham stripped off his costume and with it all of those states of confidence. The brief, vulnerable and revealing moment was a reminder of the fragile human beneath the stage façade. Donning his fringed shirt again, this time with the fringe in the front, Abraham returned to the virtuosic solo this time adding the silent screams and the pleading of someone whose confidence had been replaced by fear and doubt.

While “INDY” showed off Abraham’s major talents as a dancer, his new group work for the company, “Meditation: A Silent Prayer” (2018), revealed a choreographer at the top of his game in craft, theatricality, and having the pulse of the world he lives and works in.

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A.I.M’s Keerati Jinakunwiphat and Jeremy “Jae” Neal in Kyle Abraham’s ““Meditation: A Silent Prayer”. Photo by Steven Schreiber.

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A.I.M’s Jeremy “Jae” Neal and Marcella Lewis in Kyle Abraham’s ““Meditation: A Silent Prayer”. Photo by Steven Schreiber.

Danced to somber music by Craig Harris with haunting text and voiceover by Carrie Mae Weems, “Meditation: A Silent Prayer” was a heart-wrenching statement on black lives lost to police violence.

Performed in front of Titus Kaphar’s masterful yet eerie projected portraits of a trio of layered faces containing images of those being honored in the work, the blurred faces along with Weems’ stark roll call of their names, ages and familial titles including Cleveland’s own Tamir Rice, put into laser focus the injustice of those lives tragically cut short by police violence.

A gut check on our collective humanity, “Meditation: A Silent Prayer,” stands as one of Abraham’s finest works to date.

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Jeremy “Jae” Neal, Marcella Lewis, Matthew Baker, Keerati Jinkakunwiphat and Claude Johnson in Kyle Abraham’s “Drive”. Photo by Ian Douglas.

Switching gears, the final work on the program, Abraham’s “Drive” (2017) featured all eight of A.I.M’s dancers (sans Abraham) in an up-tempo tour de force that Abraham describes as an abstract statement on unity in the face of societal ills.

Set to pulsating electronic hip hop music by Theo Parrish and Mobb Deep, the work with its city traffic lighting effects, was an invigorating non-stop showcase for the dancers who performed it brilliantly and an apt closer for A.I.M’s stellar program.

Next on DANCECleveland’s 63rd season is Ballet Hispanico, Saturday, November 10 and Sunday, November 11 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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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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Filed under Dance Reviews 2018