Tag Archives: Marcus Jarrell Willis

4th Annual ‘The Benefit’ Worth Every Cent and More


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Dancers in Christian Broomhall’s “Bach Brandenburg Concerto No. 2.” Photo by Bullfrog Willard McGhee.

The Benefit
The Vern Riffe Center’s Jo Ann Davidson Theatre
Columbus, Ohio
May 21, 2017

Reviewed by Steve Sucato

When it comes to all-star dance benefits, few outside the nation’s major metropolises pack in as much talent and great dancing as Columbus, Ohio’s The Benefit. Curated by former BalletMet stars Jimmy Orrante and Attila Bongar, the annual event, now in its fourth year, benefits The Central Ohio Chapter of the National Hemophilia Foundation. It’s a charity close to Orrante’s heart as his son Isaac lives with the disease.

The expanded event on Sunday, May 21, 2017 was held for the first time at downtown Columbus’ newly renamed Jo Ann Davidson Theatre (formerly the Capitol Theatre) at the Vern Riffe Center and featured dancers and choreographers from Miami City Ballet, Cincinnati Ballet, Milwaukee Ballet, Rochester Ballet, BalletMet and Columbus Dance Theatre. In addition, Camarata, a multi-piece orchestra made up of musicians from the Columbus Symphony Orchestra and led by CSO principal cellist Luis Biava, played live accompanying many of the dance and music works on the program.

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Milwaukee Ballet’s Nicole Teague Howell and Patrick Howell in the second act pas de deux from Michael Pink’s “Swan Lake.” Photo by Bullfrog Willard McGhee.

Milwaukee Ballet stars and husband and wife Nicole Teague Howell and Patrick Howell in the second act pas de deux from Michael Pink’s Swan Lake opened the program. Dancing to Tchaikovsky’s music for the ballet, the pair as Odette and Prince Siegfried moved crisply and with lovely command in Pink’s neo-classical choreography that was more akin to a pas de deux from Romeo & Juliet than Swan Lake.

Baritone singer Robert Kerr then performed an animated rendition of the aria “Non più andrai” from Mozart’s opera The Marriage of Figaro. It was followed by “Regard,” the first of two ballets on the program by Orrante. Set to the second movement of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2, which was famously used by singer Eric Carmen for his 1975 hit “All by Myself,” Orrante’s pas de deux featured Miami City Ballet principal soloist Lauren Fadeley and BalletMet’s Jarrett Reimers in back and forth choreography full of elegance and grace.  Fadeley and Reimers moved with the ease of spirits floating weightlessly about the stage and in and out of marvelously-crafted lifts, turns, and carries.

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Miami City Ballet principal soloist Lauren Fadeley and BalletMet’s Jarrett Reimers in Jimmy Orrante’s “Regard.” Photo by Bullfrog Willard McGhee.

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Marcus Jarrell Willis in “A Caretakers Vow.” Photo by Bullfrog Willard McGhee.

Of the evening’s many magical moments, one of its most striking came courtesy of former Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater dancer Marcus Jarrell Willis’ solo “A Caretakers Vow” (Excerpt). Performed to recorded music by British soul singer-songwriter Laura Mvula, the solo, according to Willis, explores the uncertainty he felt about his future after leaving Ailey and how his friends encouraged and lifted him up. It began with Willis in spotlight on his knees and using a myriad of face, hand, arm, and body gestures in concert with Mvula’s song “Show Me Love” to convey his feelings and emotions. A tour-de-force of tightly contained brilliance, Willis’ dancing was fluid, dramatic and poignant.

Concluding the program’s first half was the 3-part “Voyager.”  The largest and most stylistically diverse of the on the program, it was inspired by music selections contained in NASA’s Golden Records included on the Voyager 1 and 2’s interstellar missions.  It began with Columbus’ COSI Science Center chief scientist Paul Sutter giving a brief overview of the Voyager missions and the Golden Records that led into the work’s first section; Orrante’s “Dark Was the Night Cold was the Ground” set to Blind Willie Johnson’s blues song of the same name performed live by North Carolina bluesman th’ Bullfrog Willard McGhee. In it, McGhee sat center stage on a stool as six female dancers surrounded him crisscrossing the stage in small waves of jumping, twisting and whirling movements.

More narration by Sutter then gave way to a thoughtful solo by kathak dancer/choreographer Mansee Singhi performed to “Jaat Kahan Ho” a traditional Indian song sung by Surshri Kesar Bai Kerkar, and “Bach Brandenburg Concerto No. 2,” a new ballet by former Columbus Dance Theatre dancer Christian Broomhall.

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(l-r) BalletMet’s Jessica Brown, Columbus Dance Theatre’s Kerri Riccardi and BalletMet’s Karen Wing in Christian Broomhall’s “Bach Brandenburg Concerto No. 2.” Photo by Bullfrog Willard McGhee.

Full of whimsy, Broomhall’s work was an ear-to-ear grin-inducing delight. Its eight dancers (5 men, 3 women) pranced and cavorted about in what felt like a contemporary dance jig. At times bird-like, the dancers flapped their arms and fluttered their hands as if to take flight and mimicked pecking at each other.  Broomhall, who impressed at 2016’s The Benefit with his ballet “She is,” once again showed why he is a choreographer to watch and one whose ballets need to be in the repertory of more professional dance troupes.

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Miami City Ballet principal soloist Lauren Fadeley and BalletMet’s Michael Sayre in Attila Bongar’s “63.” Photo by Bullfrog Willard McGhee.

The program’s second half opened with a stirring interpretation of Edvard Grieg’s “Holberg Suite” by Camarata. It was followed by Bongar’s mini-story ballet “63,” set to music by composer Alexander Scriabin. In it, Bongar sought to capture the emotions he perceived from seeing a photo of Jacqueline Kennedy and her daughter standing in front slain President John F. Kennedy coffin in 1963. The ballet showed mother, father and daughter figures facing a similar type of emotional distress. It was danced by. And while Scriabin’s dark music and dancers Fadeley, BalletMet’s Michael Sayre and BalletMet Dance Academy student Isabelle LaPierre’s emotional outpourings of tumult captured Bongar’s intent, the choreography lacked originality and the ballet on the whole came off as overly melodramatic.

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Dancers in Cincinnati Ballet soloist James Cunningham’s “Mordent.” Photo by Bullfrog Willard McGhee.

Next, Cincinnati Ballet soloist James Cunningham’s trio “Mordent” lifted the mood with a ballet that was chock-full of thrilling choreography and adroit dancing. Set to Beethoven’s Piano Trio in C minor, Op.1 No.3 and titled after the musical term meaning a melodic embellishment, the ballet’s trio of dancers from Cincinnati Ballet each sported an unusual costume embellishment. Corps de ballet dancer Taylor Carrasco wore one black glove and a blood red handprint on his shirt, apprentice dancer Michael Mengden wore one red glove and face paint, and senior soloist Melissa Gelfin was outfitted with two different colored pointe shoes and wore one white sock. Whatever the intended meaning of those embellishments, they further added to a ballet dense with visual marvels.

Following in quick succession were McGhee performing his gravely-great vaudeville tune “Bullfrog,” Rochester Ballet’s Ben Rabe showing of his leaping ability in the Cossack dance “Gopak,” choreographed by R. Zakharov and pianist Tyrone Boyle dazzling in his composition “Carousel in C Major”.

The first of two ballets to close out the 2-hour program was Kristopher Estes-Brown’s group ballet “The Sum of,” danced to music performed live by Columbus indie rock band The Wind and the Sea.  Estes-Brown’s choreography for it, while not particularly inventive, matched the drive of music and gave the ballet a rock-show feel.  Capping The Benefit in style was Bongar’s powerfully beautiful version of the pas de deux from the ballet Spartacus. Performed with passion by BalletMet’s Jessica Brown and Romel Frometa, the pas de deux epitomized the program’s high level of artistry on all counts.

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‘The Benefit’ organizers Jimmy Orrante and Attila Bongar. Photo by Bullfrog Willard McGhee.

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Columbus Symphony Orchestra’s Luis Biava conducts Camarata. Photo by Bullfrog Willard McGhee.

With its diversity in dance and music styles, types of choreographic works, entertaining and skilled performers as well as post-performance reception with the performers, The Benefit was a steal at $30 a ticket. Add to that the money raised going to worthy cause and you have a program that no dance lover in their right heart and mind should miss.

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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Fourth Annual ‘The Benefit’ Offers Up World-Class Music and Dance to Aid Hemophilia Foundation


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Carolina Ballet’s Marcelo Martinez and Lara O’Brien in Robert Weiss’ “Meditation from Täis.” Photo by Ira Graham.

By Steve Sucato

As humans we pride ourselves in turning negatives into positives. Following the proverbial phrase “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade,” we make lakes of the stuff in an effort to ease suffering and find cures for the countless ills life throws at us. So when former BalletMet star Jimmy Orrante’s son Isaac was born with hemophilia ─ a condition in which the ability of the blood to clot is severely reduced ─ Orrante began formulating how he could use his art to help others make lemonade out the lemons life dealt them.

In 2013, he and fellow former BalletMet dancer Attila Bongar organized The Benefit (formerly Dancing for the Cure), a charity event that featured music and dance performances from top flight dancers and musicians from the Columbus area and across the United States.

“The first year we did The Benefit it was to fight cancer and benefitted Nationwide Children’s Hospital of Columbus,” says Orrante. “Me being a part of the hemophilia family and knowing the people in that community, it made more sense for us to link up with The Central Ohio Chapter of the National Hemophilia Foundation.”

Now in its fourth year the all-volunteer event ─ which annually raises over $25,000 for the Hemophilia Foundation ─ will be even bigger and better. The event, Sunday, May 21, will be held for the first time at The Riffe Center’s newly renamed Davidson Theatre (formerly Capitol Theatre) offering attendees a more theatrical experience.

One of the premiere dance events in the region, this year’s production features dancers and choreographers from Miami City Ballet, Cincinnati Ballet, Milwaukee Ballet, Rochester City Ballet, BalletMet, Columbus Dance Theatre and others, along with live music by Camarata (a multi-piece orchestra made up of musicians from the Columbus Symphony Orchestra and led by CSO principal cellist Luis Biava), Columbus ambient alternative band The Wind and the Sea, and North Carolina bluesman th’ Bullfrog Willard McGhee. In addition, following the performance there will be a meet and greet with the performers that includes food and a silent auction.

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From 2016’s ‘The Benefit’: BalletMet’s Adrienne Benz and Carolina Ballet’s Marcelo Martinez in Jimmy Orrante’s “Imperfections.” Photo by Ira Graham.

The 90-minute program will open with Milwaukee Ballet leading artists Patrick Howell and Nicole Teague-Howell in the Act 2 pas de deux from the ballet Swan Lake with choreography by Milwaukee Ballet artistic director Michael Pink. After a musical selection from baritone singer Robert Kerr, Miami City Ballet soloist Lauren Fadeley and BalletMet’s Jarrett Reimers will perform the first of two works by Orrante on the program; a brand new pas de deux danced to an excerpt from Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor. Says Orrante of the pas de deux, it will be a reaction to the music and to the relationship Fadeley and Reimers develop dancing together.

In “A Caretaker’s Vow” (Excerpt) a solo by dancer/choreographer Marcus Jarrell Willis, the former Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater dancer explores his uncertainty about his future after leaving Ailey and how his friends encouraged and lifted him up. Set to music by British soul singer-songwriter Laura Mvula, the solo, says Willis, “takes you into my innermost thoughts.”

Next, COSI Science Center chief scientist Paul Sutter narrates “Voyager,” a new work in three stylistically diverse movement sections by three different choreographers inspired by and titled after music selections contained in NASA’s  messages from earth Golden Record included on Voyager 1 and 2’s interstellar missions.

The work opens with Orrante’s second piece on the program, a contemporary ballet for 6-women set to Blind Willie Johnson’s song “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground” sung live by McGhee. “Voyager’s” second part is a new solo by kathak dancer/choreographer Mansee Singhi danced to “Jaat Kahan Ho,” a traditional Indian song sung by Surshri Kesar Bai Kerkar that Singhi says is “related to Lord Krishna’s tales.”

Concluding the work is a new ballet for 12-dancers by Columbus Dance Theatre’s Christian Broomhall set to Bach’s “Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 in F.”  Says Broomhall, my piece is “wholly inspired by the images and feelings that the music evoked within me. It’s very quirky and whimsical.”

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From 2016’s ‘The Benefit’: BalletMet’s Caitlin Valentine-Ellis atop dancers in Atilla Bongar’s “Forced March: Second Eclogue.” Photo by Ira Graham.

Following a performance of Edvard Grieg’s “Holberg Suite, Op. 40,” performed by Camarata, will be the first of two ballets by Bongar. Yet to be titled, the ballet, set to Alexander Scriabin’s “Fantasie in B minor, Op. 28,” is a trio for Fadeley, BalletMet’s Michael Sayre and BalletMet Dance Academy student Isabelle LaPierre. Says Bongar, the ballet takes inspiration from Jacqueline Kennedy and her emotional state after husband, President John F. Kennedy died. “I saw a touching image of her and her daughter standing in front of JFK’s coffin and wondered what was going on inside her beneath her composed manner,” says Bongar.

Cincinnati Ballet soloist James Cunningham returns to The Benefit with his new ballet “Mordent.” Set to an excerpt from Beethoven’s “Piano Trio in C minor, Op.1 No.3” played live, the neo-classical ballet for two men and one woman says Cunningham, “connects heavily to the musicality of the trio.”

After a piano solo by BalletMet music director Tyrone Boyle, the program’s second-to-last offering comes from choreographer Kristopher Estes-Brown. Danced to live music by The Wind and the Sea, the new contemporary ballet for 6-dancers entitled “Somewhere, Something,” says Estes-Brown, is about “distance, time and human connection.”

Rounding out the program will be Bongar’s pas de deux “Spartacus,” set to Aram Khachaturian’s music from the ballet of the same name and will be danced by BalletMet’s Jessica Brown and Romel Frometa.

One of the easiest and best choices in helping make a difference in the lives of those with hemophilia, their families, and to help find a cure, The Benefit, is a win-win for anyone who enjoys world-class arts entertainment and making lemonade out of life’s lemons.

The fourth annual The Benefit takes place 5 p.m., Sunday, May 21, The Riffe Center’s Jo Ann Davidson Theatre, 77 S. High Street, Columbus, OH. Tickets: Adult – $30, VIP Priority Seating – $55, Student/Child – $15. (614) 902-3965, (614) 469-0939 or https://www1.ticketmaster.com/event/0500527BD2F4CC36#efeat4212

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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