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Neos Dance Theatre’s Robert Wesner Talks About His New Job, The Future Of Neos And The Company’s New Production, ‘Home for the Holidays, a Big Band Christmas’


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Neos Dance Theatre’s Brooke Wesner. Photo courtesy of Neos Dance Theatre.

By Steve Sucato

On October 31st Neos Dance Theatre co-founder/artistic director Robert Wesner and Mississippi’s Belhaven University announced that he will be joining the Belhaven University Dance Department as senior instructor of dance and resident choreographer beginning in the fall of 2020. As he and the company prepare for their latest production, Home for the Holidays, a Big Band Christmas, December 21 & 22 at Lorain County Community College’s Stocker Arts Center, I talked with Wesner about his impending move, what it means for him and his family, and what it spells for the future of one of Northeast Ohio’s most beloved dance companies.

How did your new position at Belhaven University come about?

I had done some work as a guest choreographer and Neos had performed there before. The college is now really investing in the dance program and they wanted to expand their faculty and recruitment efforts. They knew of me and my work and reached out to me to see if I would be interested in joining the faculty.

What convinced you to take the job and move across the country?

As a small artist organization you are always living on the edge in terms of funding. It’s just difficult looking into the future to plan for our basic needs and those of the organization. This job came out of nowhere, but I really felt like the right thing to do for my family’s future.

What does this mean for the future of Neos Dance Theatre?

I am not quite ready to announce our plans for 2020, but I will have summers off and foresee programming for Neos in Northeast Ohio during those summer months as well as mounting other projects that are in the works.

Neos will no longer be a full-time dance company?

It will revert to how it began as a project-based company where we hire dancers as we need them and will rehearse and present work in the summer months. It will be a bittersweet ending to see the dancers we have been working with for so long transition out of Neos and look for other opportunities. I have been talking with the dancers and other directors about job placement for them.

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Photo courtesy of Neos Dance Theatre.

Was there any thought of maintaining the company and organization as is and handing it over to another artistic director?

The board of directors and me knowing the intricacies of how I work and the infrastructure of the organization didn’t think that was viable. We are still a fairly young organization, only 7-years old, and we just didn’t have the time to institutionalize the organization for long-term sustainability.

You are giving your 1940s-themed The Nutcracker production a rest this holiday season in favor of a new holiday-themed show, tell me about it.

I have done collaborations with a couple big bands in the past but this is the first time we [Neos Dance Theatre] will be doing a holiday production with classic Christmas songs everybody recognizes such as “Sleigh Ride,” “Run Run Rudolph,” “White Christmas” and “Silver Bells,” plus some great Christmas songs that haven’t been so overplayed.

Who are your musical collaborators for this?

Acclaimed area singer Kelly Knowlton will join a band of high-caliber live musicians from the Cleveland Jazz Orchestra and elsewhere assembled by band leader Paul Martin.

Kelly Knowlton

Kelly Knowlton. Photo courtesy of Neos Dance Theatre.

Paul Martin

Paul Martin. Photo courtesy of Neos Dance Theatre.

I understand you and the company will be singing and tap dancing in this.

This production has that variety show feel and is a lot of fun. A couple of things that guided my decision making on what music we selected were how diverse of a range of movement genres I could choreograph in. We’re doing some classical ballet, some musical-theater style jazz, contemporary works, swing, tap dance and more. It has been really fun to artistically push the dancers.

It is also going to be a family-affair as well I hear.

All four of my daughters will be singing in it. I will be singing at least two songs and we will do one with the entire family in a sort Wesner/von Trapp number a la “The Sound of Music”.

While Wesner’s new post represents a big change for him and his family, he is keen to emphasize this is not the end of Neos Dance Theatre but a transition that will maintain its presence in Northeast Ohio at the minimum during the summer months. As for how that will look for the communities Neos has served in Akron, Ashland, Mansfield, Oberlin and beyond, and the future of the Neos Center for Dance as well as projects like the Akron-based dance-centric fringe festival Lose Your Marbles Wesner started in 2017, that remains to be seen.

Neos Dance Theatre presents Home for the Holidays, a Big Band Christmas, 7:30 p.m., Saturday, December 21 and 2 p.m., Sunday December 22 at Lorain County Community College’s Hoke Theatre of Stocker Arts Center, 1005 N. Abbe Road, Elyria. Tickets are $15-35. For Tickets and information call (440) 366-4040 or visit neosdancetheatre.org or lorainccc.edu/stocker.

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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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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