Tag Archives: Matthew Neenan

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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Fifth Annual ‘The Benefit’ Set To Wow Audiences Again With World-Class Music and Dance  


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From 2017’s ‘The Benefit’: Dancers in Cincinnati Ballet soloist James Cunningham’s “Mordent.” Photo by Bullfrog Willard McGhee.

By Steve Sucato

One of the region’s premiere arts events, The Benefit returns for the fifth year running on Sunday, May 20 at downtown Columbus’ Jo Ann Davidson Theatre at the Riffe Center. Produced and curated by former BalletMet dancers Jimmy Orrante and Attila Bongar, the talent-packed evening of dance and music benefits The Central Ohio Chapter of the National Hemophilia Foundation.

Joining The Benefit’s returning music groups Camarata (a multi-piece orchestra made up of musicians from the Columbus Symphony Orchestra led by CSO principal cellist Luis Biava) and Columbus ambient alternative band The Wind and the Sea playing live, will be dancers from BalletMet, Cincinnati Ballet, Dayton Ballet, Grand Rapids Ballet and Miami City Ballet.

The 90-minute program kicks off with Bongar’s “Concerto in A Minor,” titled after the music it is set to by Johann Sebastian Bach played live by Camarata. The work for 6 women is an homage to the movement style of father of American ballet, George Balanchine.  Says Bongar: “I’ve spent most my career dancing his [Balanchine’s] ballets or in his style. It shaped me as an artist and I have a huge appreciation of how he impacted American Ballet.”

Next, The Benefit regular Cincinnati Ballet soloist James Cunningham debuts his new ballet “Ristretto,” set to the 4th movement of Dmitri Shostakovich’s “Sonata for Cello and Piano in D minor IV Allegro,” also played live by Camarata. Named after the concentrated espresso drink, the 4-minute contemporary ballet for 4 dancers patterns its movements after another meaning for “ristretto” in Italian — restricted, says Cunningham.

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From 2017’s ‘The Benefit’: Dancers in Christian Broomhall’s “Bach Brandenburg Concerto No. 2.” Photo by Bullfrog Willard McGhee.

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From 2017’s ‘The Benefit’: 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.

Premiered by BalletMet in 2015, Canadian choreographer James Kudelka’s “Real Life has the feel of “a mechanized square dance,” I wrote in a review of work’s debut. Danced to Caroline Shaw’s 2013 Pulitzer Prize-winning Partita for 8 Voices, BalletMet dancers Caitlin Valentine-Ellis, Jessica Brown, Martin Roosaare and Peter Kurta will perform an excerpt of the unique dance work that will have them “promenading through a tricky series of alternating handshake holds and snaking around one another in delicious patterns.”

The Benefit first-timer, Russell Lepley’s 5-minute “The Things That I Knew,” is a contemporary dance work set to music by Joanna Newsom (performed live) whose concept says Lepley “is to transcribe the music directly to dancers’ bodies.”  A former dancer with Les Grand Ballet Canadians and co-founder of Columbus’ Flux + Flow Dance and Movement Center, Lepley’s piece for 6 dancers, he says “was created by generating detailed movements which oscillate between abstract shapes and the familiar lines of classical ballet to create a whimsical, refined movement vocabulary.”

After a choreographer Kristopher Estes-Brown’s pas de deux “Little Bird” for BalletMet dancers Jessica Brown and Michael Sayre, kathak dancer/choreographer Mansee Singhi will perform her 5-minute solo “Sangam-Confluence of Music and Dance.” Says Singhi, the dance is “a Tarana (a musical composition) in which words and syllables are based on Persian phonemes and “showcases rhythmic footwork on fast beats…music and singing.”

Closing the program’s first half will be BalletMet 2 dancer Allison Perhach and BalletMet company member Sean Rollofson in Balanchine’s iconic “Tchaikovsky Pas de deux.”

After an intermission, the jam-packed program’s second half will open with the musical interlude “Akhnaten” (Excerpt) by composer Philip Glass performed by Camarata, The Wind and The sea and baritone Robert Kerr.

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From 2017’s ‘The Benefit’: Miami City Ballet principal soloist Lauren Fadeley and BalletMet’s Michael Sayre in Attila Bongar’s “63.” Photo by Bullfrog Willard McGhee.

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From 2017’s ‘The Benefit’: Marcus Jarrell Willis in “A Caretakers Vow.” Photo by Bullfrog Willard McGhee.

Then, former Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater dancer Marcus Jarrell Willis will perform his 7 ½-minute contemporary modern solo “Beyond Reach.”  Danced to music by Richard Goode, the work, like last year’s “A Caretaker’s Vow,” encapsulates Willis’ emotional state during an important transition in his life/career; this time just after joining Ailey.

Like compatriot Bongar, Orrante’s new 5-minute ballet “Arc” is set to a composition by Bach that will be played live by Luis Biava (cello) and Suzanne Newcomb (piano). The neo-classical/contemporary ballet for 6 dancers takes its inspiration from Bach’s “Ave Maria,” which will be performed twice in succession.

Next, former Pennsylvania Ballet dancers and current Miami City Ballet principal soloists Lauren Fadeley and Alexander Peters will reprise choreographer Matthew Neenan’s “La Chasse”.  The pair premiered the pas de deux in 2014 as part of Pennsylvania Ballet’s program A 50th Finale: The Ultimate Celebration.

BalletMet company dancer Leiland Charles then makes his The Benefit choreographic debut with “Too Real,” set to music by, and played live by The Wind and The Sea. The 4 ½-minute contemporary dance work for 6 dancers says Charles, has “an otherworldly atmosphere to it.”

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From 2017’s ‘The Benefit’: 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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From 2017’s ‘The Benefit’: Columbus Symphony Orchestra’s Luis Biava conducts Camarata. Photo by Bullfrog Willard McGhee.

After another musical interlude featuring baritone Robert Kerr in Mozart’s “Hai già vinta la causa!” from The Marriage of Figaro, and Camarata performing Béla Bartók’s “Divertimento Molto Adagio No. II,” the program concludes with Gabor Toth’s interpretation of Jozsef Janek’s work “Train.” The 5-minute piece based in Hungarian folk dance uses the metaphor of a train to symbolize humanity’s journey through life. Says Toth: “Just like a train we all have a journey while we depart and arrive in different stages in our lives.”

Following the performance there will be a meet and greet with the performers that includes refreshments and a silent auction that is open to all ticket-holders.

Joan Wallick presents the fifth annual The Benefit, 5:30 p.m., Sunday, May 20, 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 or https://www1.ticketmaster.com/event/05005442FF8CAA11

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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‘The Benefit’ Triumphs with Choreographic Gems and Delectable Dancing


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BalletMet’s Adrienne Benz and Carolina Ballet’s Marcelo Martinez in Jimmy Orrante’s “Imperfections.” Photo by Ira Graham.

The Benefit
BalletMet Performance Space
Columbus, Ohio
May 22, 2016

Reviewed By Steve Sucato

There’s nothing like a noble cause to bring out the best in artists and artistry. That was certainly the case for the third annual The Benefit (formerly Dancing for the Cure) dance concert, May 22 at BalletMet’s Performance Space in Columbus, Ohio. Produced by former BalletMet star Jimmy Orrante and current company member Attila Bongar, The Benefit was a sold-out, jam-packed evening of music and dance whose proceeds went to supporting The Central Ohio Chapter of the National Hemophilia Foundation and Nationwide Children’s Hospital.

Donating their time and talents to the event were dancers from BalletMet, Carolina Ballet, Cincinnati Ballet, Rochester City Ballet and elsewhere performing classical and contemporary ballet works from George Balanchine, Marius Petipa, BalletX’s Matthew Neenan, Carolina Ballet artistic director Robert Weiss and more.  Joining the dancers onstage were Camarata, a 23-member orchestra made up of musicians from the Columbus Symphony Orchestra led by principal cellist Luis Biava.

Easily amongst the very best dance productions in Columbus this year, The Benefit kicked off with the “Diamonds” pas de deux from Balanchine’s ballet Jewels (1967), performed by husband and wife pair Lauren Fadeley, currently a soloist with Miami City Ballet, and Francis Veyette, a former principal dancer with Pennsylvania Ballet.

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Miami City Ballet’s Lauren Fadeley and Francis Veyette in the “Diamonds” pas de deux from George Balanchine’s Jewels. Photo by Ira Graham.

Wowing the audience from the get go, the couple demonstrated skillful technique and an inviting stage presence that wonderfully aligned with Balanchine’s quintessential neo-classical choreography. Danced to music by Tchaikovsky thoughtfully performed by Camarata, Veyette was a steady and sturdy partner to the elegant and graceful Fadeley. The inspiring pas de deux acted as a harbinger for the wonderfully performed musical interludes, other choreographic gems and great dancing to follow.

After an adroit performance of Rachmaninoff’s “Prelude Op. 32 No. 12 in G sharp minor” by pianist Tyrone Boyle, five dancers (three women, two men) performed Cincinnati Ballet soloist James Cunningham’s “Meandering Heartbeat.” A talented young choreographer who has crafted well-received ballets for Cincinnati Ballet, this perhaps was not one of his best efforts.  Set to original music played live by Columbus ambient alternative band The Wind and the Sea along with Camarata, the contemporary “sock” ballet had the dancers darting about the stage in a mish-mash of arabesques, turns, rolls on the floor, and choppy partnering riffs that included dancer Margo Aknin stepping on partner Jarrett Reimers’ stomach to travel over him. Cunningham had some decent ideas and there were scant moments when those ideas were realized, but overall the ballet floundered.

Following an excerpt from the ballet Giselle performed tenderly by BalletMet’s Jessica Brown and Carolina Ballet’s Richard Krusch, and the sharply performed solo “Beat and Taal,” by kathak dancer/choreographer Mansee Singhi, the first of two new works by Orrante, “Imperfections,” took the stage. Danced by BalletMet’s Adrienne Benz and Carolina Ballet’s Marcelo Martinez to music by Josh Kramer, this was Orrante at his choreographic best. The superbly-crafted and danced pas de deux presented itself in waves of undulating and swirling unison dancing that was spellbinding. Equally ravishing partnered lifts sent Benz spinning skyward, her body open to the momentum and expressing fleeting moments of fragile beauty that followed one after another.  The dancers twisted, turned and gave into gravity, falling backwards only to catch themselves and then melt into another trance-inducing entwinement such as Benz, in a deep lunge supported by Martinez, stepping backwards across the stage as the tinkling of piano keys in Kramer’s music carried the dancers and the audience along in its melodic current to drift and dream.

The program’s first half closed with Bongar’s “Forced March: Second Eclogue.” Inspired by the poetry of Hungarian Miklós Radnóti who died in the holocaust and set to composer Charles Ives’ “The Unanswered Question,” Bongar’s ballet was haunting, thanks in large part to Ives’ music played with heartfelt emotion by Camarata.

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

A cluster of five men in overcoats encircled and hid BalletMet’s Caitlin Valentine-Ellis from sight. Then spinning themselves outward they revealed her and became the objects she played off of, crashing into them, jumping on them, and cleaving to them. The men then spread out arms and legs opened wide, faces upward as if trees caught in a breeze that rocked them side-to-side as they basked in sunlight. Valentine-Ellis’ character appeared trapped in this melancholy world, surrounded by these men and somehow a part of them, her will no longer her own.

The program’s second half began with another musical interlude performed by Camarata that lead to Weiss’ soothing pas de deux “Meditation from Täis,” danced to music of the same name by Jules Massenet. Like Fadeley and Veyette in the program’s opening pas de deux, the dancing of Carolina Ballet principal dancers Lara O’Brien and Martinez was heavenly. Weiss’ neo-classical choreography had the pair delicately twirling like a wind sculpture with O’Brien enfolded in Martinez’s arms. The highly satisfying pas de deux earned hearty applause from the appreciative audience.

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

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(L-R) Jarrett Reimers, Michael Sayre, Ben Rabe and Jimmy Cunningham in Christian Broomhall’s “She is.” Photo by Ira Graham.

Switching gears, Columbus Dance Theatre’s Christian Broomhall’s ballet “She is,” interjected a bit of levity into the program. Another talented new choreographer, Broomhall’s contemporary dance work for four men and four women set to a suite of music sung by Billy Holiday was deliciously charming and clever. Dancing to Holiday’s rendition of the song “All of Me,” the work’s four male dancers engaged in quirky, gesture-laden choreography that had them marching about in unison choreography, dropping to the stage floor to move like inchworms, gyrating their hips and wildly waving their arms in the air, and walking on their knees, hearts aflutter toward imagined girlfriends. BalletMet’s Karen Wing and Michael Sayre then paired up in an endearing, touchy-feely duet to Holiday singing “Until The Real Thing Comes Along.” Next, it was the ladies’ turn as the work’s four women continued Broomhall’s regimented movement patterns dancing to “I’ll Be Seeing You.” The wistful dance was another example of Broomhall’s inventiveness and innate ability to make sophisticated movement choices in his choreography. The work left you wanting more.

Another Fadeley/Veyette pas de deux followed. In the vein of Broomhall’s playfully descriptive contemporary choreography, Neenan’s “11:11” (Excerpt), generously tapped into the couple’s affections for each other delightful choreography that had the pair rocking back and forth in a lullaby of warm feelings and artful dancing.

After another piano solo by Boyle playing Mendelssohn, former Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater dancer Marcus Jarrell Willis performed his powerful solo “Distance Between,” set to Debussy’s “Claire de Lune.” Willis began seated in a chair, staring across the stage at another empty chair. He then rose and began inching his way toward that chair and what it seemed to represent to him, gradually adding pace to his movements until skittering to halt in front of it. Sitting in the chair, Willis then lit into a succession of rapid arm, hands and upper torso movements a la Donald Byrd’s “White Man Sleep” (2002). Willis’ conflicted and poignant solo proved touching.

The Benefit concluded with Orrante’s “For Fun” a rollicking group ballet in the mold of Balanchine’s Western Symphony (1954) sans the costuming. Set to Don Gillis’ expansive Symphony No. 5 ½, the ballet, like the music, conjured the spirit of a hoedown scene from cowboy movie musical, only Orrante swapped the knee-slapping yeehaw’s and high stepping waltzes for refined and pretty ballet steps.

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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