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With ‘MOVEMEDIA’ Grand Rapids Ballet pushes boundaries and audience expectations


Grand Rapids Ballet dancers in Sagi Gross' "One Charming Night."

Grand Rapids Ballet dancers in Sagi Gross’ “One Charming Night.”

Grand Rapids Ballet
MOVEMEDIA Program One
Peter Martin Wege Theatre
Grand Rapids, MI
March 13, 2015

Reviewed by Steve Sucato

For the first installment of Grand Rapids Ballet’s annual MOVEMEDIA series for the 2014-2015 dance season at their Peter Martin Wege Theatre, GRB artistic director Patricia Barker chose a mix of choreographers new to the contemporary dance series with one familiar to it and Grand Rapids Ballet audiences.

The boldest of the lot in terms of stretching both the dancers’ and audiences’ comfort level was newcomer Gross. The Israeli/Dutch choreographer and artistic director of Amsterdam-based Gross Dance Company had two works on the program beginning with the U.S. premiere of “One Charming Night” (2012). The work’s title taken from a passage in Henry Purcell’s opera The Fairy-Queen that reads: “One charming night gives more delight, than a hundred lucky days,” ironically was not about delight, but rather the emotionally charged feelings of those on either side of a military conflict.

Set to music by Purcell, Oum Kulthoum and Max Richter, the work began with eight dancers in street clothes moving as a unit briskly walking about the stage. The choreography was a mix of stylized pedestrian movement and gestures. It had its dancers jutting their heads forward like chickens, posturing like apes and hopping backwards all to a vibrant tune by late Egyptian singer Kulthoum.  Gross’ choreography was at once similar in movement quality to other contemporary Israeli choreographer’s works, but also managing to be unique in its organization and delivery.  Projected behind the dancers like a moon in the night sky, was a small circular projection of the infrared shelling of a military target that grew larger and more defined as the work progressed.

Soon dancer Cassidy Isaacson was singled out from the group.  She stood center stage looking nervous as the others circled her like predators.  Isaacson’s gaze followed them occasionally snapping her head round to keep track of all of them.  Gross’ simple yet highly effective choreography along with Isaacson’s demeanor and facial expressions created a palpable sense of danger. Isaacson was then joined by dancer Yuka Oba, both under the scrutiny of the others.  The quietly powerful and engaging work then shifted gears turning its attention outward at the audience with Oba now circling the stage intensely glaring out into the audience with an expression of indignation as electronic music a la England’s The Prodigy hastened her pace.

GRB’s dancers were capable and marvelous in Gross’ work which resonated a kind of understated brilliance that echoed long after the curtain fell on its final images of the circular projection grown to immense size showing the flashes of explosions accompanied by sounds of gunfire and chaos, the  dancers with their backs to the audience clustered staring at it. And as the cacophony of sound began to fade, Oba once again took to circling the stage piercing the audience with an accusing gaze.

Grand Rapids Ballet dancers Ednis Gomez and Yuka Oba in Sagi Gross’ “Strings.”

Whereas Gross’ “One Charming Night” dealt with emotions caused by global events, the world-premiere of Texas-based choreographer Gina Patterson’s “To the River” explored images of personal introspection. The somewhat surreal contemporary ballet for eight men and seven women set to music by singer-songwriter Peter Bradley Adams poured forth fleeting scenes of interpersonal relationships. Some of the ballet’s dancers fluctuated between being characters in the scenes and being scenery elements for them. In one section involving a pas de deux between Oba and dancer Isaac Aoki, the other dancers formed a hill of boulders upon which Oba stood staring out into an imaginary river contemplating her life.

Patterson’s choreography for the dancers was for the most part graceful and pretty within an atmosphere that oozed melancholy.  Another scene playing into that mood was that of Isaacson in a struggle with dancer Ednis Gomez.  As Gomez tried to corral Isaacson to him she pulled away and repeatedly dropped to the floor as they walked side-by-side he lifting her to have her fall again.

The ballet culminated in a ghostly final scene danced to Adams and Caitlin Canty’s haunting song “To the River” in which Aoki stood atop a hill of dancers gazing outward to a sad Oba as several female dancers lifted by their male partners into backward layouts spun in a circle like the pieces of a slow moving  mobile.

For the premiere of Gross’ second work on the program “Strings,” the choreographer said prior to its performance that he had as its inspiration the idea of a ballerina being electrocuted.  The duet danced by Oba and Gomez played into that imagery with Oba en pointe being held in place by Gomez and violently shaking one leg as she raised it and quickly lowered it back to its start point.  In between repeating that movement, she sharply snapped her head to one side and back and shot one arm into the air and down in a similarly sharp fashion.  Oba’s deadpan facial expression and arms and hands extended down in front of her mimicking her taut legs made her look robotic.  Gomez then got into the act shaking one hand violently as if also being electrocuted.  The pair then moved off their stationary start point and began producing rigid contemporary movement that had one or both of them crab walking, swooshing like a speed skater and bending into stretching exercises all to the music of Franz Schubert.  The brief and quirky duet ended with the emotionless Oba returning to her opening pose and coming down from pointe and abruptly marching off stage which sent chuckles through the audience.

The program closed with the world premiere of Andrew Bartee’s “People are disappointing thank you” set to music by Alva Noto, Peter Hansen and Nils Frahm.  In front of three flat panels, thirteen dancers all in white moved like malfunctioning “fembots” from the Austin Powers film series to a soundscape of noise dotted with dropouts as if listening to it through a moving fan.

Bartee’s choreography for the piece ran through various dancer groupings and was sharp and angular, sprinkled with repeating phrases such as a step, shimmy and stare. And like the bright lines and geometric shapes that began to crawl along the back panels populating them like a computer screensaver, the work became mesmerizing.

In the end, MOVEMEDIA Program One proved a most interesting and diverse program danced splendidly by GRB’s dancers; one that pushed the growth of the company and audience expectations of it.

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Grand Rapids Ballet’s ‘MOVEMEDIA I’ to feature new contemporary dance works by Sagi Gross, Gina Patterson and Andrew Bartee


Photo courtesy of Grand Rapids Ballet.

Photo courtesy of Grand Rapids Ballet.

By Steve Sucato

For the fourth year running, Grand Rapids Ballet’s cutting-edge repertory series MOVEMEDIA returns to GRB’s own Peter Martin Wege Theatre. The first of two programs in the series, MOVEMEDIA I runs March 13-15 and will feature four works that stem from their choreographer’s personal experiences but also speak to universal themes of conflict, disappointment and reflection.

The MOVEMEDIA series created by GRB artistic director Patricia Barker seeks to open the company’s audiences to the contemporary dance of today by offering select choreographers from around the globe the opportunity to create new work or expand/rework existing ones.  Past choreographers in the series have included Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, Olivier Wevers and Robyn Mineko Williams.

In recreating his 2009 work “One Charming Night,” Israeli/Dutch choreographer Sagi Gross, artistic director/choreographer of Amsterdam-based Gross Dance Company, says he developed a shorter 20-minute version of the work using nine dancers but that contains more dances. The first of two of his works on the program, “One Charming Night” explores Gross’ conflicted feelings over military actions in the Middle East as well as what he feels are “generalizations in overheated debates in the media” about that region.

Set to music by Henry Purcell, Oum Kulthoum and Max Richter, the work utilizes Gross’ own brand of articulated contemporary dance movement that blends a mix of dance styles with twitchy gestures and exaggerated pedestrian movement. The work also makes use of video projections created by Gross including a green moon that during the piece distorts and morphs into an exploding tank shell from a night shoot of a military ground offensive. That image ties into the work’s ironic title taken from the lyrics in Purcell’s opera “The Fairy-Queen” which reads “One charming night gives more delight, than a hundred lucky days.”

Choreographer Sagi Gross working with GRB dancer Connie Flachs. Photo courtesy of Grand Rapids Ballet.

Choreographer Sagi Gross working in-studio with GRB dancer Connie Flachs. Photo courtesy of Grand Rapids Ballet.

Gross, who began choreographing at age fifteen, says his path to becoming a choreographer began as far back as age three when listening to classical music with his mother and seeing moving images and colors in his head. The avant-garde choreographer in addition to creating works for his own company has worked with Israel’s Bat-Dor Dance and Dede Dance Companies and The Netherlands Opera House.

For the world-premiere of his second work on the MOVEMEDIA I program, “Strings,” Gross turned to an unfinished 2012 work that featured dancers from the English National Ballet.

“I had a vision of a ballerina getting electrified (electrocuted),”says Gross.

The 8-minute pas de deux set to music by Franz Schubert will be danced by GRB’s Yuka Oba and Ednis Gomez and plays with images of a ballerina in pointe shoes whose shaky movements go beyond what is expected.

Says Barker of Gross’ two works: “They are going to be bold and audiences will be both challenged and entertained.”

Joining Gross on the program will be award-winning choreographer Gina Patterson. The Texas-based choreographer has created over 80 original works in her career for companies such as Atlanta Ballet, Cincinnati Ballet, Nashville Ballet and Ballet Austin.  Her new work for GRB “To the River,” in collaboration with folk-pop Americana singer-songwriter Peter Bradley Adams is about letting go she says. “We (she and Adams) saw the piece as sort of a solitary expression,” says Patterson. “The river is a place to contemplate life’s questions.”

Choreographer GIna Patterson working in-studio with GRB dancers in studio on "To the River". Photo courtesy of Grand Rapids Ballet.

Choreographer GIna Patterson working in-studio with GRB dancers in studio on “To the River”. Photo courtesy of Grand Rapids Ballet.

The 15-minute work for eight men and six women continues Patterson’s affinity for creating dance works connected to and inspired by nature. “To the River” gets its name from a haunting 2013 tune written and sung by Adams and Caitlin Canty that is used as a jumping off point for the rest of the original music used and visual imagery contained within the work. A series of duets, quartets and overlapping of stories flow like a river throughout the piece, appearing and disappearing into silvery darkness.

Rounding out MOVEMEDIA I’s offerings will be Ballet BC (British Columbia) dancer/choreographer Andrew Bartee’s new work for GRB, “People are disappointing thank you.”  The 17-minute ballet for thirteen dancers in tennis shoes set to music by Peter Hansen, Alva Noto and Nils Frahm is about being “disappointed with people at all different levels,” says Bartee.

Grand Rapids audiences may remember the 24-year-old Washington-native’s ballet “Arms That Work” that GRB performed in 2013’s MOVEMEDIA.

Says Bartee, named one of Dance Magazine’s “25 to Watch” in 2015, “I love coming here (GRB), it is such an exciting environment in the studio and everyone works so hard and will literally try anything.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by all of the program’s choreographers and one that is sure to pay dividends to the program’s audiences.

Grand Rapids Ballet presents MOVEMEDIA I, 7:30 p.m. Friday, March 13, Saturday, March 14 and 2 p.m. Sunday, March 15. Peter Martin Wege Theatre, 341 Ellsworth Ave SW, Grand Rapids, Michigan. $12-25. (616) 454-4771 or grballet.com.

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Case Western Reserve University’s ‘Au Courant’ an Emotional Journey


Ensemble dancers in Shannon Sterne's "Inundation".  From L to R: Christina Coppel, Kristy Clement, Andrea Alvarez, Emma Steele, Karlie Budge and Abbey Hafer. Photo by Brad Petot.

Ensemble dancers in Shannon Sterne’s “Inundation”. From L to R: Christina Coppel, Kristy Clement, Andrea Alvarez, Emma Steele, Karlie Budge and Abbey Hafer. Photo by Brad Petot.

Case Western Reserve University Department of Dance – Au Courant
Mather Dance Center at CWRU

Cleveland, Ohio
November 1, 2013

Reviewed by Steve Sucato

Fervent emotion appeared to be the underlying theme of Case Western Reserve University’s Department of Dance Fall concert Au Courant (aware). The mixed repertory program performed by students, faculty and guest dancers at CWRU’s Mather Dance Center, explored a range of emotions in four diverse dance works including Mark Morris’ delightfully playful “Canonic 3/4 Studies”.

ZiYing Cui in Karen Potter's "Veiled Tears". Photo by Brad Petot.

ZiYing Cui in Karen Potter’s “Veiled Tears”. Photo by Brad Petot.

The program led off with dance department chair Karen Potter’s new work “Veiled Tears” set to music by composer Henry Purcell. It began with a woman’s shrilled moaning cries of woe and despair that pierced the darkness of the theater. The stage lights then slowly came up on guest artist Beth McGee (the one moaning) along with several other dancers veiled by portions of their long tulle skirts pulled up over their heads. In fits and starts the work’s eight performers then scurried about the stage as if lost and anguished.  Potter’s simplistic choreography for them ran through a variety of formations that appeared to merely shuffle the performers around to little end. Beyond a sense of foreboding by the dancers who at one point executed a succession of seemingly self-punishing, violent jumps in the air with arms rod-stiff at their sides and a few visually beautiful scenes of posed veiled dancers in deep knee lunges, arms raised as if buoyed by them, “Veiled Tears” did little to engage an audience. The program’s next work, Shannon Sterne’s “Inundation”, proved the opposite.

Set to an eclectic mix of music from French singer Coralie Clement to Canadian modern chamber music group Esmerine, Sterne’s large group work in five sections exuded the range of dark emotions associated with the breakup of a romantic relationship.

Shannon Sterne and Ryan Andrew Dick in Sterne's "Inundation". Photo by Brad Petot.

Shannon Sterne and Ryan Andrew Dick in Sterne’s “Inundation”. Photo by Brad Petot.

In the work’s opening section “Effusion”, Sterne and former Dancing Wheels company member Ryan Andrew Dick danced a duet to Clement’s music that pointed to a dissolving of said romantic relationship. On a stage filled with horizontal rows of wooden dining chairs, a troubled Sterne, costumed in a black dress, reached out desperately to her mostly unreceptive partner. The pair engaged in a back and forth dance filled with arching lifts and unrequited embraces on Dick’s part.  That section gave way to another entitled “Agitation”, in which an ensemble of eleven female dancers also in black dresses seemed to embody the varying levels of hurt and anger going on in Sterne’s character’s mind. Dancers Karlie Budge as an angry, pouty incarnation and Kristy Clement as a somber one, made the strongest impressions of the group.

The rest of the work saw a return of Sterne and Dick’s duet only more desperate and tumultuous, and the ensemble from “Agitation” again only this time climbing along a winding path chairs.

The nicely crafted and performed work’s finest moment however came in its final section “Submersion”, where Sterne’s character joined several of the emoticon-like ensemble dancers onstage. As the others acted out their various emotional motivations Sterne stood hauntingly still, staring out into the audience, sadness pooling in her eyes, beckoning humanity for comfort.

Dani Dowler and Karina Browne in Gary Galbraith's "Remote Encounters". Photo by Brad Petot.

Dani Dowler and Karina Browne in Gary Galbraith’s “Remote Encounters”. Photo by Brad Petot.

Reminiscent of the interactive digital media works by New York dance troupe Troika Ranch, Case dance department artistic director Gary Galbraith’s “Remote Encounters” (2012) was a duet that utilized video cameras in front of and behind a large video screen and partition that fed real-time images of dancers Karina Browne and Dani Dowler to that screen as they danced. The effect was to make it appear as if each dancer at various points in the work was being echoed in or even sucked into a digital realm a la the TRON movies.  The pair also took turns partially appearing from and disappearing behind the video screen in choreography that made them look as if they were caught between the digital and real worlds. While the work’s premise was an old one and the technology used was somewhat rudimentary in this day and age, “Remote Encounters”, and the two dancer’s performances in it were pleasing.

For Au Courant, the best really was saved for last.  Morris’ “Canonic 3/4 Studies” ─ which the Mark Morris Dance Group performed in Cleveland just this past March ─ was a thoroughly entertaining lark.  Set to a collection of piano waltz’s arranged by Harriet Cavalli and played beautifully by Karen Tooley, “Canonic 3/4 Studies” was a clever and humorous study in the manipulation of a dance phrase. Morris once likened his choreography for the work to the more creative variations on the song Row, Row, Row, Your Boat.  The deliciously constructed and musical piece was in part a tongue-in-cheek bashing of ballet’s somewhat rigid conventions. It had Case’s dancers on the floor, in the air, and marching around as if staring into the pages of an imaginary book. Perhaps the work’s most memorable moment was when dancer Richard Oaxaca in a trio with two female dancers circling him, gave each dancer a slight lift in the air as they passed in front of him coinciding with Tooley dinging a bell. The comedic bit continued for a time with one of the women reversing direction to add a delightful twist to section.  While Case’s student dancers lacked the technique and poise of say Morris’ troupe in the work, their performance was respectable.

Copyright Steve Sucato – 2013

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