Tag Archives: GroundWorks DanceTheater

BalletX Marked the Spot for Great Dance at ADF in CLE


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BalletX in Lil Buck’s “Express”. Photo courtesy of BalletX.

BalletX
Playhouse Square’s Ohio Theatre
Cleveland, Ohio
July 27, 2019

Reviewed by Steve Sucato

Philadelphia’s BalletX opened DANCECleveland’s 2019-2020 season this past Saturday as part of year three of the annual American Dance Festival in Cleveland. The contemporary ballet company founded in 2005 by former Pennsylvania Ballet dancers Christine Cox and Matthew Neenan, made its Cleveland debut at Playhouse Square’s Ohio Theatre in a program featuring three diverse works that by its end, brought the audience to its feet in appreciation.

Known as a breeding ground for new works by contemporary choreographic voices from around the globe, much has happened with BalletX since its last visit to Northeast Ohio back in 2013. Neenan has moved on from company leadership to concentrate fully on his burgeoning choreographic career and BalletX in 2018 opened its new Center for World Premiere Choreography, moving into a new 5,000 square foot studio and administrative home in Philadelphia.

What hadn’t changed since 2013, was the ability of the company and its 10 dancers (including former GroundWorks Dance Theater dancer Blake Krapels) from knocking an audience’s socks off with world class dancing in world class dance works.

The program opened with choreographer Nicolo Fonte’s latest ballet for the company “Steep Drop, Euphoric” (2019) set to music by Ezio Bosso and Ólafur Arnalds. The 25-minute piece began with the jolting screech of string instruments to usher in the first of many traveling dancer tableaus that would be integral to the look of the ballet beginning with dancer Chloe Perkes being lifted to stand atop the shoulders of several other dancers.

Fonte’s choreographic style for the ballet had BalletX’s full complement of dancers flowing from one smoothly formed tableau of dancers being lifted or melting into one another’s arms a la the works of choreographers Lar Lubovich and Doug Varone.  The lush movement was characterized by the dancers swaying and sinking into close-quartered interactions with each other, arms often suspended in air briefly. Fonte alternated the  pace of the ballet with quick bursts of movement by individual dancers mixed in with slower group dance phrases.

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BalletX in Nicolo Fonte’s “Steep Drop, Euphoric”. Photo courtesy of BalletX.

At one end of the rear of the stage, a long piece of what looked to be Marley dance floor (the slip-resistant surface the dancers perform on) hung from the rafters and was unrolled to the stage floor, suggesting a road to the heavens. The image jived with Fonte’s thoughts on the ballet contained in the program notes that read: “Perhaps the only places left unexplored are the canyons of your interior geography, the dark alleys of your consciousness – one of which might lead you to your road to bliss.”

That interior geography and potential road to bliss appeared to belong to Perkes’ character who throughout the ballet stepped in and out of dancing with the others to stand on the Marley road and gaze back at her fellow performers as if reflecting on her life.

In a later section of the ballet, dancers Andrea Yorita and Zachary Kapeluck launched into the first of two successive pas de deuxs. Yorita, a diminutive powerhouse, burst about the stage with spritely energy showing off her beautiful extension, turning ability, and footwork.  A second pas de deux immediately followed with dancers Skyler Lubin and Stanley Glover continuing the barrage of beautiful choreography that culminated in the dancers forming a quartet spiced with partnered lifts.  After a heartfelt solo danced by Perkes in spotlight moving along the Marley road, the ballet ended as it began with her standing atop several dancers’ shoulders reaching out. This time not toward the Marley road leading out on to the stage, but the one leading upward.

Next the company switched its stylistic gears in Charles “Lil Buck” Riley’s “Express” (2018), danced to jazz music by The Late Show with Stephen Colbert bandleader Jon Batiste.  Lil Buck, a dancer, actor and model from Memphis, Tennessee, burst onto the dance scene in a big way in the past few years in large part due to his “Memphis jookin” hip hop dance version of Michel Fokine’s ballet classic “The Dying Swan” that went viral.

For the 16-minute “Express,” the choreographer fused his mostly improvised jookin movement language with ballet and jazz movement to create a hybrid style that fit nicely on BalletX’s dancers.  Costumed in streetwear and sneakers for the men, pointe shoes for the women (at least to begin with), the work was overall a fun, flirty, and jazzy play on male/female relationship banter.

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Stanley Glover in Lil Buck’s “Express”. Photo courtesy of BalletX.

The work’s finest moment came in a solo by featured dancer Glover to Batiste’s melancholy dirge “Saint James Infirmary Blues.” The silky smooth Glover moved with the freedom of Lil Buck himself in the jookin-flavored solo.

By work’s end the women had swapped their point shoes for red Nike sneakers, and the entire cast of 10, especially dancer Cali Quan, let their funk flag fly in a frenetically fabulous finale to the Jon Batiste and Stay Human song “Express Yourself (Say Yes)” capped by Batiste asking the question, “What is Jazz?”

The program ended most satisfyingly with a reprise of Neenan’s signature ballet for the company, “The Last Glass”(2010) that the company performed in Akron in 2013.

Inspired by what Neenan referred to as “wild street-parade,” the 25-minute ballet all 10 dancers was set to suite of 8 tunes by American indie-rock band Beirut, and whose emotional lyrics Neenan took to heart in his choreography.

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BalletX in Matthew Neenan’s “The Last Glass”. Photo courtesy of BalletX.

I wrote of the ballet in 2013:  As if splashing through puddles of emotion that covered the stage, the dancers kicked up anger, joy and sadness, which then clung to them, giving their characters an underlying motivation and exposing their imperfections.

Masterfully-crafted in its dancer formations, group movements on and off the stage, and its transitions between dance phrases, Neenan wrapped a clever tapestry of contemporary ballet movement and beauty around several very relatable human stories contained within the ballet.  None so emotionally penetrating than that of characters portrayed by Perkes and Krapels in which Perkes seemed to be recalling the joys and heartache of being with Krapels, a lover she lost.  The haunting image of a heartbroken Perkes walking slowly across the stage, head in hand as the carnival of humanity carried on all around her, was one that could be universally felt.

It is perhaps fitting BalletX and DANCECleveland chose to repeat Neenan’s “The Last Glass,” as the ballet warrants repeated viewings to take in its full glory. One can only marvel at Neenan’s ability to conjure up such an exquisite creation.

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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Of Sideshows, Photo Memories and Atoms: GroundWorks Dance Theater’s ‘Summer Series’ Promises a Carnival of Visual Delights


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GroundWorks’ artistic director David Shimotakahara (rear) rehearsing with dancers Spencer Dennis (left) and Annie Morgan. Photo courtesy of GroundWorks Dance Theater.

By Steve Sucato

Childhood memories of Looney Tunes cartoons and circus sideshows provided the creative spark for GroundWorks DanceTheater artistic director/choreographer David Shimotakahara’s latest dance work, “Sud Buster’s Dream”. The animated work will make its premiere as part of GroundWorks’ season opening Summer Series program this weekend, July 19-21 at Cain Park’s Alma Theater in Cleveland Heights.

The 30-minute contemporary dance work is set to an early American jazz score, a type of music Shimotakahara says he has always been drawn to since hearing it as the backdrop to the cartoons he watched as a child.

“I was always thinking it would be fun to do a work with cartoon movement zaniness; like where the dog gets stretched into a hot dog, a giraffe’s neck gets twirled up like a pretzel stick or where feet dance without a body,” says Shimotakahara.

Using those images and that style of music as a starting point, Shimotakahara says he was also inspired by images from iconic sideshow acts such as sword swallowers, The Seal Boy, The Bearded Lady and The Siamese Twins as further influences for movement invention in the work.  

“Those popular acts represented what people felt was odd and unusual,” says Shimotakahara. “Then, and now, we see oddities in ‘the other’ and fear being cast as such.” 

In a recent rehearsal of the work I sat in on, second –year company dancer Annie Morgan moved through a solo that twisted her fingers, arms and legs up in knots, almost immobilizing her.  Shimotakahara says with that imagery he was thinking back to escape artists like Harry Houdini wriggling and twisting to free themselves from ropes, chains or a straitjacket in their acts. Morgan had a less challenging task to untwist herself.

The work features a large stage curtain set piece from which its five dancers emerge from to perform various dances. The set piece lends a “show within a show” motif to the bizarrely entertaining work. Titled after one of the period songs used in it by Tiny Parham and his Musicians, Shimotakahara also draws parallels to The Roaring Twenties period of the last century and to the changes in culture, the opportunities available to the populous and the great disparity of wealth, to what is going on in the country today. “There were definitely winners and losers,” says Shimotakahara.

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GroundWorks’ Annie Morgan. Photo courtesy of GroundWorks Dance Theater.

Also premiering on the 17th annual Summer Series program at Cain Park will be award-winning Chicago choreographer Robyn Mineko Williams’ latest commissioned work for the company, “We Three”.  The 17-minute piece is performed to a suite of songs by Canadian music group Timber Timbre including their 2011 hit “Lonesome Hunter”.  Says Mineko Williams by phone from Michigan, “I like creating worlds that feel timeless. Each section [of the work] makes sense in the order it is presented, but maybe that’s not the real story’s order.”

Continuing a recurring pattern present in her recent works of assembling a series of non-linear memories that are played out in vignettes by the dancers, Mineko Williams compares “We Three’s” viewing experience to leafing through a photo album where each of the photos you look at comes to life for a few seconds. The viewer then decides what story or relationship to attach to those in the photos.  “I don’t know what the relationship is between the characters in work,” says the former dance with Hubbard Street Dance Chicago dancer. “But in my imagination they all existed in these photos together. There is a lot of reflection going on with the characters in the work. It could be reflections on relationships with the other characters in the work or a reflection of themselves. ”

From the relationship of human beings to the relationship of the relative combining capacity of an atom, a reprise of GroundWorks artistic associate Amy Miller’s “Valence” (2009) rounds out the works on the program.

Created to an original sound score by composer Peter Swendsen, Dean of the Conservatory at Oberlin College and Conservatory, the 20-minute “Valence” began as an exploration of how dance could become music and music could become dance,” says Miller. “The overall visual concept work uses circular running patterns not unlike the electrons in every atom setting up collisions of these orbits that manifest in the form of dancer duets, trios and group sections.  Each dancer ends up having a different ‘valence’ or capacity to connect with every other dancer.  I think the piece also reminds us of the power of connection to create great things in an often chaotic world.”

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GroundWorks’ artistic director David Shimotakahara (rear) rehearsing with new dancers Spencer Dennis (left) and Michael Arellano. Photo courtesy of GroundWorks Dance Theater.

New to GroundWorks this season are dancers Michael Arellano, a recent graduate of Western Michigan University, and Phoenix, Arizona-native Spencer Dennis. The pair replace departing dancers Robert Rubama and Tyler Ring. Arellano and Dennis together with returning dancers Morgan, Alexis Britford and Nicole Hennington make up perhaps GroundWorks’ youngest company to date.

After this weekend’s performances at Cain Park, the Summer Series program will be repeated in free performances at Akron’s Goodyear Metro Park on August 2 & 3 as part of The Heinz Poll Summer Dance Festival.

GroundWorks Dance Theater presents its Summer Series, 7 p.m., Friday, July 19 & Saturday, July 20 and 2 p.m., Sunday, July 21. Alma Theater, Cain Park, 14591 Superior Road, Cleveland Heights, Ohio.  Tickets are $25/advance, $28/day of show. For tickets and information visit: https://www.cainpark.com/281/GroundWorks-Dancetheater or call (216) 371-3000.

GroundWorks Dance Theater presents its Summer Series in Akron, 8:45 p.m., Friday, August 2 & Saturday, August 3 at Goodyear Metro Park, 2077 Newton St, Akron, Ohio. FREE admission. For more information visit http://akrondancefestival.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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Akron’s ‘Lose Your Marbles’ Festival Returns with a Decidedly Different Approach


Neos Dance Theatre. Photo by Dale Dong.

By Steve Sucato

After taking a year off in 2018, Akron’s dance-centric Lose Your Marbles festival is back with a smaller, regionally focused event taking place Friday, March 1 at the Akron Civic Theatre.

Founded by Neos Dance Theatre artistic director Robert Wesner with the support of a three-festival, $100,000 John S. and James L. Knight Foundation grant, Lose Your Marbles (a reference to Akron’s history as a marble making center in the late 1800s), first go round in the summer of 2017 was an ambitious undertaking that featured a diverse group regional and national music and dance acts.

With the initial goal of presenting more experimental and avant-garde artists in traditional and alternative performance spaces a la the many “Fridge” festivals seen around the country, Wesner says although the pilot festival was a success in many ways, he and his fellow festival organizers felt more evaluation was needed to develop a sustainable path forward for the event.

“It was decided [for Lose Your Marbles II] to dial back the numbers of different groups and really focus on local artists so we could further develop relationships with existing dance audiences in the area and survey their interest in seeing other types of contemporary artists in future, says Wesner.”

This year’s scaled down festival is part of a strategy to get future festivals to a place where the initial goal of presenting tried and untried local, state and national artists in varying performance spaces around Akron can be realized.  

“The third year is going to be a continuation of what we have done in these first two festivals,” says Wesner. “This is a full on exploration of what Lose Your Marbles is and can be and the audience is in it with us.”  

Returning for Lose Your Marbles II are 2017 festival participants GroundWorks DanceTheater, Inlet Dance Theatre, Neos Dance Theatre and Verb Ballets.  Familiar to area dance goers, three out of the four troupes annually perform at the City of Akron’s Heinz Poll Summer Dance Festival.

GroundWorks DanceTheater. Photo courtesy of Lose Your Marbles.

GroundWorks DanceTheater will open the one-night-only event with company artistic director and former Ohio Ballet star David Shimotakahara’s “LUNA” (2012).  Set to an original score by Oberlin Conservatory of Music grad Peter Swendsen, the work, says Shimotakahara “explores the nature of desire and its deeply held and often conflicting motivations. These polarities developed into a series of physical relationships that reveal many facets in a cycle of experience. That cycle is like the moon, as unknown and primal as it is familiar.”

“LUNA’s” celestial motif will fit in nicely with Akron Civic Theatre’s Moorish castle decor complete with an atmospheric twinkling starlit sky and moving clouds ceiling display.  

Inlet Dance Theatre. Photo courtesy of Lose Your Marbles.

Next, highlighting the humanitarian crisis of over 60 million refugees fleeing war, famine, violence and persecution worldwide, Inlet Dance Theatre’s work “Sojourn” offers up a message of compassion, empathy and grace for those in desperate need. Choreographed by Inlet founder/artistic director Bill Wade in collaboration with the company’s dancers, the work in five-section is danced to music by Max Richter.


Neos Dance Theatre. Photo by Dale Dong.

Wesner’s Neos Dance Theatre then reprises choreographer Joseph Morrissey’s “Near Light” that premiered at last summer’s Heinz Poll Summer Dance Festival. Performed to music by composer Ólafur Arnalds, Wesner describes the ballet as being a dynamic and fairly aggressive work movement-wise with a lot of twists and turns in its partnering sequences.

Verb Ballets. Photo by Bill Naiman.

The roughly two hour program will close with Verb Ballets in choreographer Adam Hougland’s “K281” (2007). Originally created on Cincinnati Ballet, the 14-minute ballet gets its name from Mozart’s Piano Sonata No. 3 in B-flat major, K. 281 that it is danced to.  Staged by Jill Marlow Krutzkamp and original cast member, the ballet for three male-female couples is full of quirky contemporary dance movement. Each couple has their own distinct personality says Marlow; the first has a fun, free relationship, the second’s mood is somber and the third has a peculiar relationship where the woman moves like a rag doll.

Neos Dance Theatre with the support of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation presents Lose Your Marbles II, 8 p.m., Friday, March 1, Akron Civic Theatre, 182 South Main Street, Akron. Tickets are $23 for reserved seating, $18 general admission, and $5 for students with ID and available online at loseyourmarbles.org and at the door that evening.

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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