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


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(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.

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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.

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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.

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New work by Rosie Hererra highlights GroundWorks DanceTheater’s richly satisfying Winter Series program


GroundWorks DanceTheater dancers in Rosie Hererra’s  “House Broken”.

GroundWorks DanceTheater dancers in Rosie Hererra’s “House Broken”.

GroundWorks DanceTheater
Breen Center for the Performing Arts
Cleveland, Ohio
February 28, 2014

Reviewed by Steve Sucato

Winter may have had Northeast Ohio in its icy grip, but Miami-based choreographer Rosie Hererra’s world premiere work “House Broken” did its best to warm things up at Cleveland’s Breen Center for the Performing Arts with a laugh-out-loud dark comedy filled with sight gags and prop humor and tinged with the heartache of broken dreams and unfulfilled lives. It was one of three works on GroundWorks DanceTheater’s highly entertaining Winter Series program. The diverse program began however with choreographer Amy Miller’s joyful 2008 work for the company, “For the Life of Me”.  Set to music by Ingrid Michaelson, Amy Borkowsky, Giorgio Conte with a recorded story reading by Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler, the work for five dancers had a youthful, playful vibe a la the opening of an episode of TV’s Friends. Miller’s contemporary choreography in the opening section had the dancers leaning into, lifting, and ducking under one another.

In the work’s second section Miller juxtaposed the dancer’s carefree movements ─ contacting each other via leg taps and knee bumps ─ with Tyler recounting a story of feeling invisible as a child in a sweets shop, helpless to act on his desire for a piece of coffee cake.  A third section found the dancers frolicking along an imaginary tightrope further illustrating an underlying theme in the work of growing up and walking a line between acting like an adult and letting your inner child rule.  The inventive work concluded with an amusing vignette in which the dances engaged in a children’s schoolyard game while answering machine messages played of an overprotective mother and those whom she had contacted in search of her adult daughter.

“Luna” by David Shimotakahara.  Photo by Mark Horning.

“Luna” by David Shimotakahara. Photo by Mark Horning.

Next, GroundWorks artistic director David Shimotakahara’s “Luna” (2013) set a more impersonal tone. Danced to Oberlin Conservatory of Music’s Peter Swendsen’s new music soundtrack laden with machine-like whirs and hisses along with distant background voices, the dark and stylized work felt cold and the dancers in it, detached. Despite its impersonal approach, Shimotakahara’s choreography for “Luna” was a finely crafted exercise in circular patterns that had its dancers circling arms and moving in and around a moon-like circle projected on the stage. The dancers methodically rose and fell with changes in Swendsen’s music, dancing with ordered precision and intense purpose.

GroundWorks DanceTheater dancers in Rosie Hererra’s  “House Broken”.

GroundWorks DanceTheater dancers in Rosie Hererra’s “House Broken”.

The aforementioned “House Broken” closed GroundWorks’ richly satisfying program on a lighter note. In it, dancer Damien Highfield aboard a working treadmill portrayed a modern man hectically juggling work and suburban home life.  Fed a string of props by the other dancers in the piece including baby dolls, a stroller and a cell phone, Highfield humorously tried to keep pace with all of life’s demands on him. With “House Broken”, set to a mix of popular tunes by Tom Jones, The Turtles, Pete Seeger and Roberta Flack, Hererra created an introspective  microcosm of suburban life where outward appearances of fun loving women and men and dutiful fathers and mothers concealed lonely, unhappy and unfulfilled lives.  Hererra’s quirky cast of lawn mowing husbands and hair whipping housewives made a lasting impression as did the performances of Groundworks’ dancers as them especially dancer Annika Sheaff who shone in episodes of uncontrolled crying, dog barking and as a figurative blade of grass in a green bodysuit mowed down like the dreams of so many of the characters in the work.

GroundWorks DanceTheater will perform its Winter Series program, 7:30 p.m., Saturday, March 29, 2014. Akron-Summit County Public Library Main Branch Auditorium, 60 S. High Street, Akron, Ohio. $10-25. 216-751-0088 or www.groundworksdance.org

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GroundWorks DanceTheater to Premiere new Rosie Herrera Work


“Luna” by David Shimotakahara.  Photo by Mark Horning.

“Luna” by David Shimotakahara. Photo by Mark Horning

By Steve Sucato

In its 15th season Cleveland’s GroundWorks DanceTheater continues to make its mark as a quality dance troupe with its finger on the pulse of cutting-edge American contemporary dance. The five-member troupe’s latest program at Cleveland’s Breen Center for Performing Arts continues its string of new works by up-and-coming choreographers with a world premiere by Miami-based choreographer Rosie Herrera.

Herrera’s new work entitled “House Broken,” is a departure of sorts from some of the more recent works the company has commissioned in that it has a more whimsical approach. Like dance icon Paul Taylor, GroundWorks artistic director David Shimotakahara says he creates or commissions new works to add to the company’s repertory based on a perceived need.  So if the company has added several more serious new works, he will look to add something lighter.

“You curate your repertory over time,” says Shimotakahara. “To me it’s about extending the range of works in an intentional way.”

Shimotakahara says he also looks at adding new works that will stretch his dancer’s capabilities as artists. In a work-in-progress showing of “House Broken” this past November, Herrera’s prop-laden dance-theater piece (contains adult content) looked to do just that.

Set to an eclectic mix of music from Tom Jones, The Turtles, Pete Seeger and Roberta Flack along with sound effects of lawn mowing, “House Broken” is a somewhat dark humored satire of stereotypical suburban life.

“Luna” by David Shimotakahara.  Photo by Mark Horning

“Luna” by David Shimotakahara. Photo by Mark Horning

“Her work takes off from the use dramatic prompts,” says Shimotakahara. “She then pushes and pushes those beyond the obvious to get to the essence of a character or characterization.”

It’s an approach the 2013 Princess Grace Award recipient has honed in works for her own company, Rosie Herrera Dance Theatre, such as the acclaimed “Various Stages of Drowning: A Cabaret” and “Dining Alone”.

Also on the program will be a reprise of Shimotakahara’s 2013 work “Luna”, set to music by composer Peter Swendsen, an associate professor of computer music and digital arts at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. The work, says Shimotakahara, came out of a movement exercise that led to circular patterns and the “physical exploration of two sets of polarities: lost and found, give and take and how those opposite points constantly overlap and affect the recurring cycles in our lives.”

Rounding out the Winter Series program will be Gibney Dance associate artistic director Amy Miller’s 2008 work “For the Life of Me”. Set to music by Ingrid Michaelson, Amy Borkowsky, Steven Tyler and Giorgio Conte, the work earned Miller a 2012 Cleveland Arts Prize nomination. The playful work full of twirls, jumps, lifts and spins expresses the inner child in all of us.

GroundWorks DanceTheater presents its Winter Series program, 7:30 p.m., Friday, February 28 & Saturday, March 1, 2014 at The Breen Center for Performing Arts, 2008 West 30th Street, Cleveland, Ohio. Tickets are $25.00/preferred seating, $20/general and $10.00/students; (216) 751-0088 or http://groundworksdance.org

“House Broken” was commissioned with the generous support of Chuck and Charlotte Fowler to the GroundWorks NewWorks Fund.

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