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Cuba’s Malpaso Dance Company Returns to Cleveland with Program of Quiet Brilliance


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Malpaso Dance Company in Ohad Naharin’s “Tabula Rasa”. Photo by Nir Arieli.

Malpaso Dance Company
Playhouse Square’s Allen Theatre
Cleveland, Ohio
August 10, 2019

Reviewed by Steve Sucato

With previous performances in Cleveland in 2016 and 2017, Malpaso Dance Company’s return this past Saturday to Playhouse Square and the Allen Theatre felt like seeing a dear friend again.

Presented by DANCECleveland in collaboration with American Dance Festival to close out the third annual American Dance Festival in Cleveland, the Cuban contemporary dance company this time offered up a triple bill of quiet yet emotionally riveting dance works.  

Their evening program began with choreographer Sonya Tayeh’s 2017 commissioned work, “Face The Torrent”.  Choreographed in part during a creative residency provided by DANCECleveland, the work , said Tayeh in a Facebook live interview, was inspired by her recent concerns over “the state of the world” and an urge to “unify, rally and gather.”

Best known for her choreography for Broadway’s Moulin Rouge! The Musical and her Emmy Award-nominated work on TV’s So You Think You Can Dance, Tayeh brought some of that same rich emotional content that made her a darling of SYTYCD fans to “Face The Torrent”.

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Malpaso Dance Company in Sonya Tayeh’s “Face the Torrent”. Photo by Rose Eichenbaum.

Danced to music by cellist/composer Colette Alexander with folk duo The Bengsons, the 20-minute piece for 8 dancers began with the cast in a horizontal line across the back of the stage moving in a slow cautious walk forward evoking a feeling of impending doom in their demeanor, one that Tayeh says she incorporated into the work after having intense dreams of a huge body of water coming at her.  

Led by dancer Abel Rojo who appeared particularly struck by whatever dark forces were descending on the dancers, Rojo often broke from the dancers’ unison walks in lines across the stage to sink into pained cowering with his arms shielding his face and head.

The dancers’ straight line walking then gave way to embracing and intertwining movement with the cast pairing off in male/female couples as Alexander’s haunting cello music became invaded by distorted whispers of a female voice saying “I wonder how to cope with this?” Tayeh’s velvety partnered movement in this section was the picture of beauty and melancholy and Malpaso’s dancers radiated both. Stark, dramatic and carefully-crafted, “Face The Torrent” left a lasting impression.

Next was company dancer Beatriz Garcia’s debut work for Malpaso, “Being (Ser)” (2018). The 12-minute trio set music by Italian composer Ezio Bosso was danced by Garcia, Dunia Acosta and Armando Gomez.

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(L-R) Malpaso Dance Company’s Armando Gomez, Dunia Acosta and Beatriz Garcia in Beatriz Garcia’s “Being (Ser)”. Photo by Nir Arieli.

Costumed in all white and dancing in socks, the trio of performers spent the first part of the work repeatedly traversing the stage in idiosyncratic solo movement phrases that entered from one side of the stage and exited the other.  Those solo riffs then turned into duets and a trio as the work progressed. Garcia’s contemporary dance choreography favored movement that bent and twisted the dancers’ shoulders and torsos, and like “Face The Torrent”, had the trio bunching and intertwining their bodies in close-quartered movement phrases. The work was a fine effort for the promising choreographer that fit right in with the style and quality of the works in the company’s diverse repertory. One hopes to see more from Garcia as choreographer for the company in addition to her adroit dancing.

The program then closed with another thoughtful and atmospheric work, Ohad Naharin’s “Tabula Rasa”, set to music of the same name by composer Arvo Pärt.

Created on nearby Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre in 1986 (and who inexplicably haven’t performed it in over 20 years), the over 30-year-old, 30-minute modern dance piece whose title means “clean slate”, felt like a newly-minted work on Malpaso’s 10 dancers who appeared to own the former Batsheva Dance Company director’s “gaga” movement language as if it were a part of their upbringing.

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Malpaso Dance Company in Ohad Naharin’s “Tabula Rasa”. Photo by Nir Arieli.

Naharin’s simply structured unison movement phrases for the work full of leans and sways was an adept counterpoint to Pärt’s passionate string music that tore at one’s soul with a desperate longing.  And while Naharin’s clever choreography did not parallel the music’s aching, the choreographer did incorporate into it a few heartbreaking moments. One such scene had the dancers pairing off with one dancer charging into the other’s arms in desperate embraces. Ms. Acosta made such a charge only to have her male partner turn his back on her at the last moment causing her to crash to the floor stunned and dejected.

“Tabula Rasa” is prime example of Naharin’s early genius as a choreographer. A precursor to his often performed masterwork “Minus 16” (1999), it is itself masterful and was a fitting closer to Malpaso’s program that wowed the Allen Theatre audience with its emotion and exquisite music and thoughtful dancing. A standing ovation was given from the appreciative audience signaling a hope that Malpaso will continue to make Cleveland a regular stop on future U.S. tours.

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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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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Integrated First: Dancing Wheels’ Program to Highlight Works by Choreographers with Disabilities


Meredith Aleigha Wells and Celina Speck of The Dancing Wheels Company in Od.yssey choreographed by Marc Brew. Photo credit Robert Howard.

Meredith Aleigha Wells and Celina Speck of The Dancing Wheels Company in “Od:yssey” choreographed by Marc Brew. Photo credit Robert Howard.

By Steve Sucato

Quite possibly the first dance production of its kind in the United States, Cleveland’s Dancing Wheels, America’s oldest physically integrated dance company (dancers with and without disabilities), will present Reverse.Reboot.Reveal! featuring a trio of commissioned works by a trio of choreographers with disabilities.

The program, Friday, June 14 at Playhouse Square’s Allen Theatre will also coincide with the national Dance/USA Conference being held in Cleveland for the first time.  Says Dancing Wheels founder/artistic director Mary Verdi-Fletcher of the unique production: “Few artists with disabilities have had the opportunity to hone their skills as choreographers. We want to help change that and expand the public’s vision of the artistry of those with disabilities.”

The first of two works on the 2-hour program by choreographers working from wheelchairs, the premiere of award-winning Australian choreographer Marc Brew’s “Od:yssey” explores ideas of restriction.

Brew, the best known of three commissioned choreographers, is the artistic director of Oakland’s AXIS Dance Company. A former ballet dancer and choreographic protégé of resident choreographer of England’s Royal Ballet, Wayne McGregor, Brew says the 16-minute “Od:yssey” represents a journey that starts at its end and works its way backwards. Danced to music by Iceland’s Ólafur Arnalds, the contemporary dance piece also explores a variety of relationships and interactions between the dancers.

A cast of 8 will take on Brew’s challenging choreography he says was born out of improvisation exercises in getting to know the strengths of Dancing Wheels’ dancers. “I always try in my work to get the best out of every dancer,” says Brew.

Next, the premiere of Laurel Lawson’s “the tenderness of things lost and found” had as its creative jumping off point in the dark Russian fairytale of Baba Yaga, a witch who flies around in a mortar, wields a pestle, and dwells in a forest hut standing atop chicken legs.

“I was not setting out to make narrative ballet,” says Lawson. “It’s more abstract and more about mood and relationships.”

A dancer/choreographer with Atlanta’s Full Radius Dance and disabled artists’ collective Kinetic Light, as well as a member of the USA Women’s Olympic Sled Hockey team, Lawson says of her process, “I tend toward making works that are athletic and about connections and emotional truths.”

In a recent rehearsal of the 15-minute piece for 10 dancers set to music by Prokofiev, Zoe Keating, Emmylou Harris and Norwegian folk band Byrdi, I found the work to be sculptural, dramatic and brooding.

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Justin Collin and Florent Devlesaver in “Fly”. Photo by Lou Breton/M6

In contrast, “Fly” (2012), performed by guest dancers Justin Collin and Florent Devlesaver from Belgium will be an inspirational affair. Choreographed by Collin, the 7-minute duet appeared on the French TV show La France a un incroyable talent (France Has Incredible Talent) in 2017.

Danced to music by Ludovico Einaudi and Ólafur Arnalds, the work, says Collin, was inspired by Devlesaver. “He gives 100% to his passion.  Our friendship was born through dance, and we wanted to share it on the stage.”

The pair met seven years ago and have been performing all over the globe as a duo for the past five. Says Collin, Fly and their other collaborations reflect “The desire to defend the accessibility of dance for all…and to be seen as two dancers, and not as one ‘valid’ person and one person in a wheelchair.”

After an intermission, Reverse.Reboot.Reveal’s second half will lead off with a 16-minute excerpt of Antoine Hunter’s “Giggling Flame and Roaring Waves” (2016); the third work by a choreographer with a disability (deafness).

Hunter, the founder and  director of San Francisco’s Urban Jazz Dance Company and the Bay Area Deaf International Dance Festival, says his piece danced to jazz music by Roy Hargrove and Miles Davis, was inspired by those around him and his upbringing in the Bay area. The work for 10 dancers incorporates into its movement language elements of sign language and afro jazz.

In staging the work on Dancing Wheels’ dancers who do not sign, Hunter took the approach of voicing some instructions and writing others. Says Hunter, “they [the dancers] have to learn my body language and I have to learn theirs. It’s a spiritual thing for us to connect as artists.”

Matt Bowman and Tanya Ewell of The Dancing Wheels Company in Od.yssey choreographed by Marc Brew. Photo credit Robert Howard.

Matt Bowman and Tanya Ewell of The Dancing Wheels Company in Od:yssey choreographed by Marc Brew. Photo credit Robert Howard.

Next, members of the School of Dancing Wheels Performance Ensemble will dance “Goodmorning” to music of the same name by William Fitzsimmons. The 3-minute piece choreographed by school administrator Deborah Reilly and the dancers “highlights the beautiful ability of movement to provide a voice for all.”

Then after a brief presentation by Dancing Wheels board member John Voso, Jr. and Broadway legend and friend of the company Ben Vereen, the program will close with the premiere of company resident choreographer and rehearsal director Catherine Meredith’s “Five by Nina”. The 20-minute work for a cast of 11 to a suite of songs sung by the late Nina Simone says Meredith, reflects on Simone’s life as a singer and civil rights activist as well as her fluid sexuality and turbulent relationship with her second husband.

Immediately following the production the audience is invited to a champagne and dessert reception in the lobby to meet the artists.

The Dancing Wheels Company presents Reverse.Reboot.Reveal!, 8 p.m., Friday, June 14. Playhouse Square’s Allen Theatre, 1407 Euclid Ave., Cleveland. Tickets are $40/General Admission, $35/groups of 10 or more, $30/DanceUSA Members and Conference Attendees (use the code DanceUSA) and can be purchased online at playhousesquare.org or by calling the Playhouse Square Box Office at 216-640-8600.  In addition, $125 VIP tickets are available and include pre-performance hors d’oeuvres, cocktails, silent auction, prime seating for the concert and the post-performance champagne and dessert reception. For VIP tickets visit dancingwheels.org/reverserebootreveal.

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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