Tag Archives: Penny Saunders

‘Wild Sweet Love’ to usher in Sofranko-Era at Grand Rapids Ballet


untitled-7914

(L-R) Grand Rapids Ballet dancers Matthew Wenckowski, Isaac Aoki, Gretchen Steimle and StevenHouser rehearsing Penny Saunders’ “Ghost Light”. Photo by Jade Butler.

By Steve Sucato

For Grand Rapids Ballet’s season opening program, the first under new artistic director James Sofranko, the company will present Wild Sweet Love, October 19-21 at GRB’s ’ Peter Martin Wege Theatre. The diverse program including ballets by George Balanchine, Trey McIntyre, GRB resident choreographer Penny Saunders and a world premiere by Sofranko has audience-pleaser written all over it.

The production will also be the first opportunity for area audiences to see several new dancers Sofranko added to the company. They are former Nashville Ballet dancers Alexandra Meister-Upleger (Aurora, Ohio) and Nathan Young (Little Rock, Arkansas), Emily Reed (Monee, Illinois) formerly with Minnesota Ballet, Israel Garcia Chenge (Mexico), Nicholas Gray (Milwaukee, WI), William Shearstone (Atlanta, Georgia) and Cuban Josue Justiz a former dancer with National Ballet of Cuba.

Just a few months into the job, Sofranko says moving from being soloist with San Francisco Ballet for 18 seasons to now running a fulltime ballet company has been a bit of a shock to the system.  “There are a lot more demands on my time. You are needed in the studio, in meetings, in marketing discussions, dancers need to talk to you, choreographers need to talk to you, it’s a constant information overload,” says Sofranko. “You are the guy everyone wants to talk to so you have to be ‘on’ all the time.”

While balancing his time has been big challenge, Sofranko says he was surprised by the dancer in him still wanting to be in the studio to take class. “I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to just let that part of me go,” he says. “Being in the studio are the moments I cherish. The more I can be in there the better.”

Another hurdle Sofranko is facing that other former dancers turned artistic directors have also faced is coming to grips with not being one of the gang anymore. “You are the boss now and that is a different dynamic than being colleagues. That will definitely take some getting used to,” says Sofranko.

Also, like many new directors, Sofranko has had little time to do anything but prep for Wild Sweet Love since the dancers returned in September from their summer layoff. That includes creating his debut ballet for the company, “Ballade,” a 9-minute lighthearted classical piece to excerpts of Antonín Dvořák’s four “Romantic Pieces, Op. 75” for violin and piano (1887). In keeping with the love theme of the program, it features new dancers Meister-Upleger and Young along with Ednis Gomez and Gretchen Steimle as couples in more mature love relationships; one couple is awash in romance while the other has a more contentious relationship.

Butler-7484

Grand Rapids Ballet dancers Josue Justiz and Yuka Oba rehearsing George Balanchine’s “Allegro Brillante”. Photo by Jade Butler.

Prior to “Ballade,” the company premiere of Balanchine’s “Allegro Brillante” (1956) will open the program. The choreographer said of his vibrant and expressive ballet for 10 dancers, “It contains everything I know about the classical ballet in 13 minutes.” Danced to Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 3, Op. 75, Sofranko sees the ballet as good test for the company and a great way for him to better get to know the dancers.

After a short intermission, the program will continue with Saunders’ “Ghost Light” (2014). Originally created on Kansas City’s Owen/Cox Dance Group, the work for 4 dancers (1 woman, 3 men) costumed in formalwear follows the mischievous antics of a group of theater ghosts inspired by famous figures Maria Callas, Harry Houdini, Fred Astaire and Duke Ellington at play after the living have gone home.

Saunders is familiar to GRB audiences having choreographed several of the company’s more popular ballets during Patricia Barker’s tenure as director including last season’s The Happy Prince & Other Wilde Tales. “Ghost Light” taps into the theatrical superstition that every theater is haunted and that the light or lights left lit onstage meant to keep stage hands and performers from falling into the orchestra pit when the theater is dark, also provides theater ghosts a spotlight to perform in once again.

Danced to an eclectic music mix from composer Alexandre Desplat, Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh, David Hirschfelder, J. S. Bach and Traffic Quintet, the 18-minute work is a comedic romp tinged with a bit of melancholy.

Bravura classical dancing then follows in the bold, high flying pas de deux from the ballet Le Corsaire. Danced to music by Riccardo Drigo, the pas de deux made famous by Rudolf Nureyev will showcase company members Justiz and Meister-Upleger.

butler-8186

Grand Rapids Ballet dancers Ednis Gomez and Yuka Oba rehearsing Trey McIntyre’s “Wild Sweet Love”. Photo by Jade Butler.

After another brief intermission the program will close with its title work, McIntyre’s “Wild Sweet Love” (2007). Originally created for Sacramento Ballet, “Wild Sweet Love” is a delightfully quirky and athletic work set to disparate music by Queen, Lou Reed, Roberta Flack, Felix Mendelssohn, The Zombies and others.  It explores the range of emotions being in love and lacking love in your life can bring. Played out in a series of dance vignettes that follow a central female character, the ballet is full of humor, heartache, and songs like The Partridge Family’s 1974 hit “I Think I Love You” that will leave you smiling.

Eager to begin this next chapter in his career and the next in GRB’s 46-year history, Sofranko says of Wild Sweet Love: “I am feeling good about the show. I am happy where we are at and how the dancers and the pieces look.”

Grand Rapids Ballet performs Wild Sweet Love, 7:30 p.m., Friday, October 19 & Saturday, October 20 and 2:00 p.m., Sunday, October 21. Peter Martin Wege Theatre, 341 Ellsworth SW, Grand Rapids. Tickets are $52 each. For tickets or more information visit grballet.com or call (616) 454-4771 x10.

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Airings

Grand Rapids Ballet’s Innovative ‘MOVEMEDIA’ Series Delights Yet Again


17191269_10154962276136597_1318178048448506147_n

Grand Rapids Ballet’s Steven Houser and Yuka Oba in Penny Saunders’ “In Frame.” Photo by Eric Bouwens.

Reviewed by Steve Sucato

Perhaps the best and most revealing showcase of Grand Rapids Ballet’s dancers’ talent and versatility, the company’s annual MOVEMEDIA contemporary dance series added yet another successful chapter March 10-12 at the company’s Peter Martin Wege Theatre in Grand Rapids.

In this latest iteration, MOVEMEDIA: World Premieres, artistic director Patricia Barker called on two of the series’ most celebrated choreographers, former Hubbard Street Dance Chicago dancers Robyn Mineko Williams and Penny Saunders as well as MOVEMEDIA first-timers Robert Dekkers and Vanessa Thiessen to create new works.

Opening the performance on March 11 was Dekkers and Thiessen’s ballet “Dear Light Along the Way to Nothingness.” Titled after a line from James Merrill’s poem Log, the ballet for 21 dancers was set to Caroline Shaw’s unconventional 2013 Pulitzer Prize-winning composition, “Partita for Eight Voices.” The 26-minute ballet had an intriguingly bizarre sci-fi feel to it driven home by costume designer Christian Squires’ scaly sea creature meets Medieval-period garb.  The dancers in the ballet vacillated from YouTube “mannequin challenge” stillness as a collective, to individual dancers or pairs of dancers, tossing off hyper-convulsive fits of movement.

17202895_10154962429766597_8953429348633024448_n

Grand Rapids Ballet in Robert Dekkers & Vanessa Thiessen “Dear Light Along the Way to Nothingness.” Photo by Eric Bouwens.

17200951_10154962276696597_5963166559295150753_n

Grand Rapids Ballet in Robert Dekkers and Vanessa Thiessen “Dear Light Along the Way to Nothingness.” Photo by Eric Bouwens.

17201197_10154962283526597_5680210161696083233_n

Grand Rapids Ballet’s Grace Haskins in Robert Dekkers and Vanessa Thiessen “Dear Light Along the Way to Nothingness.” Photo by Eric Bouwens.

A bit more show than go, Dekkers and Thiessen’s choreography for the ballet appeared to rely more on quirkiness over substantive dancing. That being said, the piece at times took over your interest like whatever force caused dancers to suddenly shake violently or twitch a leg uncontrollably and then dissipate. There was something to these characters/creatures and to this fantastical world, however intangible it was to discern. Standout performers included: Grace Haskins, Cassidy Isaacson, Nicholas Schultz, Matthew Wenckowski and Caroline Wiley who each danced with a level of energy, commitment and fervor that accounted for much of the ballet’s appeal.

Next, Williams’ “Gleam,” set to music by Chopin and others recalled the dreamlike atmosphere of her 2013 work for the company “One Take.”  A contemporary ballet for three male/female couples seemingly at different stages of the same romantic relationship, “Gleam” showcased Williams’ preferred choreographic movement style in which the dancers moved as if poured onto the stage; merging together, then apart, like flowing streams of liquid.

On a dimly lit stage to the sounds of rain, company trainee Adriana Wagenveld and partner Nicholas Schultz began a push-pull pas de deux along a band of white light. One dancer’s touch of a limb the other into motion as they gazed intently at one another conjuring up a sense of the beginning, “feeling out” stage of a romantic relationship. Soon Wagenveld and Schultz were replaced by dancers Cassidy Isaacson and company rising star Matthew Wenckowski in a more aggressive take on Williams’ sophisticated choreography perhaps suggesting the occasional turmoil that often comes in a relationship. The dramatic work concluded with a longer transition to a third couple as dancer Isaac Aoki’s entrance onstage overlapped Wenckowski’s exit. The two men danced to a scratchy recording of late 19th century Italian superstar tenor Enrico Caruso singing “Mi Par D’udir Ancora” from Georges Bizet’s opera I Pescatori Di Perle. Then veteran company star Yuka Oba joined Aoki onstage as composer Michael Galasso’s haunting “Angkor Wat Theme Finale” from the 2001 film In the Mood for Love began.  The pair was perhaps representative of a mature relationship, one that has lasted a lifetime. The dancers gave in fully to Williams’ heartfelt choreography that at work’s end left Oba standing alone struck by the apparent loss of Aoki.

17203120_10154962274896597_7703670086738395388_n

Grand Rapids Ballet’s Cassidy Isaacson and Matthew Wenckowski in Robyn Mineko Williams’ “Glean.” Photo by Eric Bouwens.

17201358_10154962428411597_4688595925931037981_n

Grand Rapids Ballet’s Yuka Oba and Isaac Aoki in Robyn Mineko Williams’ “Glean.” Photo by Eric Bouwens.

With “Gleam,” Williams created a surreal, dreamlike world of memory where characters appeared only in close-up and around them, like our own distant recollections, lay darkness and the fuzzy edges of details all but forgotten.

Having seen Williams’ works on other dance companies, it is clear she gets the best out of GRB’s dancers and vice versa. The same holds true for Saunders who produced another gem in “In Frame” to close the program.

Set to Max Richter’s reworked version of Antonio Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons” and using projected images of ink and watercolor paintings by artist (and Hubbard Street Dance Chicago dancer) Alice Klock, Saunders, along with lighting designer Matthew Taylor and digital designers Sam Begich and Michael Auer, created a the look and feel to the work of an interactive art gallery where the artwork, as well as those viewing it, were alive with motion.

17218624_10154962427456597_4319065931305233535_o

Grand Rapids Ballet dancers in Penny Saunders’ “In Frame.” Photo by Eric Bouwens.

17191269_10154962278766597_7458466199513078613_n

Grand Rapids Ballet’s Caroline Wiley in Penny Saunders’ “In Frame.” Photo by Eric Bouwens.

Said by Saunders to be about “the universal realities of love, life and death, creation and destruction, to the beauty and vulnerability of the creative process,” the work blended contemplative moments of reflection with rapid-fire bursts of movement. Those coupled with the aforementioned atmospheric lighting and projections, cultivated a look and mood to the work that proved mesmerizing. Nowhere was this more pronounced than in a quiet solo by Wiley in the work’s “Autumn” section. Crouched in a deep knee bend over a floor projection of one of Klock’s paintings, Wiley appeared to gather to her unseen elements from her surroundings and ball them up with her hands. A second year company member, Wiley, like Wenckowski, impressed throughout the program.

17191138_10154962280801597_7306164546311766350_n

Grand Rapids Ballet’s Caroline Wiley in Penny Saunders’ “In Frame.” Photo by Eric Bouwens.

Grand Rapids Ballet will next present the world-premiere of Brian Enos’ Alice in Wonderland with designs world-renowned visual artist Luis Grané. April 28-30 & May 5-7, 2017 at GRB’s Peter Martin Wege Theatre, 341 Ellsworth SW, downtown Grand Rapids, MI. Tickets are $44 and can be purchased by calling (616) 454–4771 ext. 10 or at grballet.com.

Copyright Steve Sucato – 2017. 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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Dance Reviews 2017

From Pre-Columbian Statues to a Purple Velvet Sofa and Great Dancing, ‘Best of’ Program had the Goods


-f02021cdf7589759

Grand Rapids Ballet dancers in Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s “Memorias Del Dorado.” Photo by Chris Clark.

Grand Rapids Ballet – Best of MOVEMEDIA
Peter Martin Wege Theatre
Grand Rapids, MI
March 19, 2016

Reviewed by Steve Sucato

To celebrate the fifth season of Grand Rapids Ballet’s successful MOVEMEDIA dance series – a showcase of new works from contemporary choreographers from around the world – artistic director Patricia Barker put together a best of program that included some of the series’ most popular works.

Opening the jam-packed program was an excerpt from sought-after choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s “Memorias Del Dorado” (2014).

A crack of thunder and the sound of a woman’s whispered voice ushered in a scene where nine female dancers stood posed like pre-Columbian statues. A lone male dancer moved about them marveling at their beauty as they came to life in front of him and engaged in unison choreography. Built into that choreography was a leaning move a la Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal” music video where the dancers tilted to the side at an extreme angle while their feet remained stationary.

Injected with movements and poses reminiscent of ancient drawings and sculpture, “Memorias Del Dorado” had a wonderful primitive feel carried into the 21st century by Lopez Ochoa. Solid performances were given by the entire cast including dancer Ednis Gomez and mighty-mite Julia Turner, who in a section with eight males dancers, was tossed about like a piece of found treasure for all to see.

-6a8f2e859dbe2360

Grand Rapids Ballet dancer Laura McQueen Schultz in Robyn Mineko Williams’ “One Take.” Photo by Chris Clark.

Next, the company reprised former Hubbard Street Dance Chicago dancer Robin Mineko Williams’ touching “One Take” (2014). The cinematic contemporary dance work like that of an old family movie played back scenes recalling one man’s cherished memories of love and times gone by. Playing on the notion of our lives as being a one take movie, Williams created a world where dancer Nicholas Schutz and Steven Houser as his younger self, drifted between dreamlike vignettes of encounters with an effervescent 1920’s flapper portrayed by Cassidy Isaacson and with his apparent soulmate portrayed by Laura McQueen Schultz.

Full of charm, wit and poignancy, “One Take” is a gem in GRB’s ever-growing repertory that is worth seeing time and again especially its spellbinding closing duet danced brilliantly the two Schultz’s to Claude Debussy’s moving “Clair de Lune.”

A marathon in itself with several false endings, Kirk Peterson’s finale for his 2013 ballet, “Amazed in Burning Dreams,” was a real barnburner. The group ballet for 14-dancers which closed the program’s first act was danced to music by Philip Glass and was awash in fast, precision footwork, sharp turns and a whole lot of energy.

An excerpt from Olivier Wevers’ “The Sofa” (2012) then opened the program’s second act. Danced by Mr. Schultz and Yuka Oba, the wonderfully-crafted duet featured a purple velvet sofa as its focal point.  As if a symbol of the pair’s complicated relationship, the dancers struggled to sit together on it. The two perched, leaned and lay on it and pushed about in a tension-filled tango of sorts. The duet’s genius coming in the carefully cultivated realization that Oba’s character cared more about the sofa than Schultz’s character.

Another duet, Thom Dancy’s “You’ve Gotta Be Kidding Me!” (2013) followed. Set to music by Beethoven, the humorous duet featured the short-in-stature Atilla Mosolygo and the much taller Darrell Haggard in a zany battle of wills.  In it, retired company star Mosolygo, who is now artistic director of GRB’s Junior Company, deliciously portrayed a mischievous soul trying everything to get noticed by Haggard. Mosolygo made faces at, climbed on, atop and hung from Haggard trying to get a rise and reaction from him. Nothing worked, even slap to his behind. Finally Mosolygo’s character fell before Haggard grabbing hold of his legs and audibly sobbing which elicited a sympathetic reaction from him. The clever duet was a joy to watch with both dancers displaying perfect comedic timing and restraint.

The lone new work on the program, “Joe & Ida,” came from choreographer Penny Saunders who previously created “base ∞” for MOVEMEDIA 2015. As with many of Saunders’ works “Joe & Ida” was danced to an eclectic soundtrack including music from composers Thomas Ades and Michael Nyman as well as former The Moldy Peaches singer/songwriter Kimya Dawson.

Six dancers (3 men, 3 women) essentially portrayed one romantic pairing in a series of engaging trios and duets that expressed a range of emotion. Saunders’ inventive contemporary movement sat well on the dancers including new arrival Matthew Wenckowski who impressed along with dancers Isaac Aoki and Caroline Wiley.

317336_638731569474305_1051754773_n

Grand Rapids Ballet’s Steven Houser, Cassidy Isaacson and Mark Dave Naquin in Brian Enos’ “Nae Regrets.” Photo by Chris Clark.

Best of MOVEMEDIA concluded with Brian Enos’ “Nae Regrets” (2013). A Scottish-flavored travelogue set to updated traditional Scottish songs arranged by Martyn Bennett, the work was a series of vignettes that, like Williams’ “One Take,” reflected on one man’s (a kilt-wearing Thomas Seiff) exploits. Playful and spirited, the work had many delightful moments including Isaacson, like a leprechaun in hip-hugger pants, teasing a group of drunken men, and the statuesque Morgan Frasier acting as a siren luring men into misbehaving.

Not only a creative incubator for choreographers and a well-spring of new challenges for GRB’s dancers, MOVEMEDIA and the repertory generated from it, has helped build a reputation at home and nationally that Grand Rapids Ballet is now a place where exciting new works are taking place. For a regional company with bigger aspirations there can be no better calling card.

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Dance Reviews 2016