Tag Archives: Robert Wesner

Verb Ballets Wades into the Uncertain Waters of Performing under Pandemic

Verb Ballets rehearsing Kate Webb’s “Still Moving”. Photo by Kate Webb.

By Steve Sucato

Verb Ballets‘ in-studio performance of The Cleveland Havana Ballet Project Return Celebration on March 13 was the last in-person performance I attended and one of the very last given in Northeast Ohio before pretty much the entire dance world shutdown operations because of the COVID-19 global pandemic.

Now more than 3-months later Verb along with the rest of the state of Ohio has begun to cautiously dip their toes into the uncertain waters of an eventual return to perceived normalcy.  The dancers have returned to the studio under enhanced precautionary measures to take class and to work on the first not-from-home created program, Fresh Inventions 2020. The in-studio performance will be livestreamed Friday, June 26 at 7 p.m.

Like almost all dance organizations large and small, the negative financial ramifications of the pandemic have been keenly felt, says Verb’s producing artistic director, Dr. Margaret Carlson.

“Our earned income revenue stream is almost nothing now and we have come to the realization that our normal ways of doing business is not possible,” says Carlson. “We do the most performing in the summer months and almost all of what was scheduled has all been cancelled.”

That says Carlson, has meant she and the staff and dancers have had to do a lot of brainstorming about creating and adopting new, less viably sustaining business model approaches that they hope will be temporary.

One such outcome of that revised thinking is the resurrecting of the dancer choreography led program Fresh Inventions 2020 that was shelved when Cleveland Public Theatre’s DanceWorks 2020 it was part of was cancelled this past April.

The original theme of the program says Carlson, was to be a collection of repertory works centered on social justice.  While some of the prior ideas for dance works have carried over to the upcoming program, Carlson says she dropped the theme caveat because of the pandemic upending the ability to bring some of those ideas to fruition and the desire, especially now, to open the program up to more spirit-lifting dance pieces.  

All of those works however have come with their own set of new constraints because of the COVID-19 virus. Verbs dancers are required to wear masks while they dance, cannot touch one another unless they cohabitate and have to maintain social distancing guidelines when possible and wash their hands often along with everything touched in the studio.  That has meant the five choreographers with works on the program have had to become additionally creative in their approaches to their dance works.

Along with all of Verb’s new approaches to dancing and performing, has also come a need for investment in new technologies and equipment to make those things happen.  “Technology always means money for services and equipment and we are barely floating now,” says Carlson. The company is making an initial investment in just what is needed to make the livestream happen with an eye in future on adding multiple camera angles to their livestream shoots and theater lighting in their studio/performance space. For now the company is counting on the dancing and dance works to engage, uplift and entertain the virtual audience who clicks in on June 26.

Here is a rundown of what’s on tap:

The program’s lone guest choreographer, Robert Wesner’s 13 minute piece for 6-dancers, “WRAP” was begun back in March and is the Neos Dance Theatre director’s experimentation with choreographing ballet movement to rap music.

Bronx-native and 13-year company member Lieneke Matte’s latest work for Verb, “With A Little Help,” she says is her longest at 11 minutes. The varied-movement-styled piece for 14-dancers, set to music Charles Gounod, George Gershwin and Joe Cocker says Matte, takes its inspiration from the idea that one person can make a difference in the lives of others. “Sometimes we just need someone there to remind us to find joy in the little things,” says Matte.

“Tumultuous Rest” is what Antonio Morillo is calling his third work for the company. The 7 minute contemporary dance piece for 9-women he says is an abstract reflection on his past 3 months of solitude due to the pandemic.  The piece is danced to music by composers Ezio Bosso, Ólafur Arnalds, Nils Frahm and others.

The newest dancer with a work on the program, Miami-native and second year company apprentice Hunter Hoffman’s “The Deafening Words Unspoken” [Tentative title] is a 4 ½ minute work-in-progress duet set to Akron rock duo The Black Keys’ song “Little Black Submarines”.  Says Hoffman of it, “I chose to create more of a ‘canvas’ for the audience to place their own interpretation on…something about the lyrics [of the song] gave me a feeling of a missing connection between these people and I chose to explore that by giving the audience an eye into what was going on in their heads and how our imaginations can run wild when we think of all the things we want to say to someone but can’t for whatever reason.”

Rounding out the program’s offerings will be 5-year company member Kate Webb’s 7 minute piece for 13-dancers, “Still Moving”.  Danced to a reading of a Rabindranath Tagore poem (from which the piece gets its inspiration) and music by Philip Glass, Webb describes the work’s movement language as “neo-fosse with escapist undertones” and it as being “a reflection on all of the parts of being human that still churn internally despite any constraints placed upon us.”  

Verb Ballets presents a livestream virtual showing of Fresh Inventions 2020 on the Zoom platform at 7 p.m., Friday, June 26. Tickets by donation (minimum $10 each) and information at https://verbballets.org/fresh-inventions-showing/

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

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’

Big Band Neos Brooke

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.

Robert Wesner 1

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.



Leave a comment

Filed under Airings

Akron’s ‘Lose Your Marbles’ Festival Returns with a Decidedly Different Approach

Neos Dance Theatre. Photo by Dale Dong.

By Steve Sucato

After taking a year off in 2018, Akron’s dance-centric Lose Your Marbles festival is back with a smaller, regionally focused event taking place Friday, March 1 at the Akron Civic Theatre.

Founded by Neos Dance Theatre artistic director Robert Wesner with the support of a three-festival, $100,000 John S. and James L. Knight Foundation grant, Lose Your Marbles (a reference to Akron’s history as a marble making center in the late 1800s), first go round in the summer of 2017 was an ambitious undertaking that featured a diverse group regional and national music and dance acts.

With the initial goal of presenting more experimental and avant-garde artists in traditional and alternative performance spaces a la the many “Fridge” festivals seen around the country, Wesner says although the pilot festival was a success in many ways, he and his fellow festival organizers felt more evaluation was needed to develop a sustainable path forward for the event.

“It was decided [for Lose Your Marbles II] to dial back the numbers of different groups and really focus on local artists so we could further develop relationships with existing dance audiences in the area and survey their interest in seeing other types of contemporary artists in future, says Wesner.”

This year’s scaled down festival is part of a strategy to get future festivals to a place where the initial goal of presenting tried and untried local, state and national artists in varying performance spaces around Akron can be realized.  

“The third year is going to be a continuation of what we have done in these first two festivals,” says Wesner. “This is a full on exploration of what Lose Your Marbles is and can be and the audience is in it with us.”  

Returning for Lose Your Marbles II are 2017 festival participants GroundWorks DanceTheater, Inlet Dance Theatre, Neos Dance Theatre and Verb Ballets.  Familiar to area dance goers, three out of the four troupes annually perform at the City of Akron’s Heinz Poll Summer Dance Festival.

GroundWorks DanceTheater. Photo courtesy of Lose Your Marbles.

GroundWorks DanceTheater will open the one-night-only event with company artistic director and former Ohio Ballet star David Shimotakahara’s “LUNA” (2012).  Set to an original score by Oberlin Conservatory of Music grad Peter Swendsen, the work, says Shimotakahara “explores the nature of desire and its deeply held and often conflicting motivations. These polarities developed into a series of physical relationships that reveal many facets in a cycle of experience. That cycle is like the moon, as unknown and primal as it is familiar.”

“LUNA’s” celestial motif will fit in nicely with Akron Civic Theatre’s Moorish castle decor complete with an atmospheric twinkling starlit sky and moving clouds ceiling display.  

Inlet Dance Theatre. Photo courtesy of Lose Your Marbles.

Next, highlighting the humanitarian crisis of over 60 million refugees fleeing war, famine, violence and persecution worldwide, Inlet Dance Theatre’s work “Sojourn” offers up a message of compassion, empathy and grace for those in desperate need. Choreographed by Inlet founder/artistic director Bill Wade in collaboration with the company’s dancers, the work in five-section is danced to music by Max Richter.

Neos Dance Theatre. Photo by Dale Dong.

Wesner’s Neos Dance Theatre then reprises choreographer Joseph Morrissey’s “Near Light” that premiered at last summer’s Heinz Poll Summer Dance Festival. Performed to music by composer Ólafur Arnalds, Wesner describes the ballet as being a dynamic and fairly aggressive work movement-wise with a lot of twists and turns in its partnering sequences.

Verb Ballets. Photo by Bill Naiman.

The roughly two hour program will close with Verb Ballets in choreographer Adam Hougland’s “K281” (2007). Originally created on Cincinnati Ballet, the 14-minute ballet gets its name from Mozart’s Piano Sonata No. 3 in B-flat major, K. 281 that it is danced to.  Staged by Jill Marlow Krutzkamp and original cast member, the ballet for three male-female couples is full of quirky contemporary dance movement. Each couple has their own distinct personality says Marlow; the first has a fun, free relationship, the second’s mood is somber and the third has a peculiar relationship where the woman moves like a rag doll.

Neos Dance Theatre with the support of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation presents Lose Your Marbles II, 8 p.m., Friday, March 1, Akron Civic Theatre, 182 South Main Street, Akron. Tickets are $23 for reserved seating, $18 general admission, and $5 for students with ID and available online at loseyourmarbles.org and at the door that evening.

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