Tag Archives: Tan Dun

GroundWorks’ Otherworldly Program Worth Visiting


GroundWorks’ dancers Damien Highfield and Feslise Bagley in David Shimotakahara’s “Ghost Opera.” Photo by Dale Dong.

GroundWorks  DanceTheater – Spring Program
E.J. Thomas Hall at The University of Akron
Akron, OH
March 4, 2016

Reviewed by Steve Sucato

The sound of fierce winds whistled accompanied by the whir of a large fan as it came to life gaving texture to the image of dancer Felise Bagley, held aloft by two others, her long black hair being blown back she appeared to float like a gull caught in an updraft. The evocative image was the first salvo in a slew of several quiet, surreal moments in the world-premiere of New York choreographer Loni Landon’s “Falling Awake,” performed by Cleveland’s GroundWorks DanceTheater, Friday, March 4 at The University of Akron’s E.J. Thomas Hall.

That opening image of floating on air came from what Landon called “anxiety-filled” dreams after Hurricane Sandy. And as in her dreams, the image, in one form or another, reoccurred throughout the 30-minute work.

Danced to a sound collage that included environmental sounds and music by Zoe Keating, Nils Frahm and others, the work, for five dancers had a dream-like feel to it.  Lighting designer Dennis Duggan added to that feel by casting a shadowy veil over the stage that gave the work a slight cinematic feel. Perhaps a bit too understated, Duggan’s lighting could have been ramped up adding more lighting effects to augment shifts in the work’s dramatic mood .

Directed through the point of view of dancer Michael Marquez, Landon’s abstract choreography for the piece, she says, was meant to feel like “a continuous stream of consciousness.” But as in many dreams, that stream felt muddled in its direction and meaning. What we were left with was a meandering drift of dancers engaged in somewhat visually appealing movement.

Unfortunately, like other young choreographers, Landon’s choreography at times was plagued with overused contemporary dance devises such as performers touching and nudging one another to initiate motion, or seeming to wield Jedi powers to push and pull another’s body with a hand motion.  Where Landon shined was in the pacing of the work and the use of stillness in her choreography resulting in some breathtakingly beautiful moments.

“Falling Awake” had its dancers bent, tilted, twisted, swooping and swaying in a succession of solos, duets, trios and group choreography that often doubled back on itself repeating images, steps and movement phrases.

Expressive and musical with moments of dissonance and quiet splendor, “Falling Awake,” was a work with more promise than what it delivered. GroundWorks’ dancers however, performed it with precision and grace.


From 2014, GroundWorks’ Annika Sheaff in David Shimotakahara’s “Ghost Opera.” Photo by Dale Dong.


GroundWorks’ Felise Bagley in David Shimotakahara’s “Ghost Opera.”

The program’s second half featured the reprise of GroundWorks artistic director David Shimotakahara’s “Ghost Opera” ( 2014).

Inspired by and danced to Chinese composer Tan Dun’s score of the same name, performed live by a string quintet of Cleveland Institute of Music graduates, “Ghost Opera” was truly a marriage of musician and dancer. The score, which blended classical contemporary and traditional Chinese music, featured the sounds of water being splashed, instrument bows being pulled over metal plates, and the rustling of paper. The wildly expressive composition with its multiple layers, at times evoked a sense of  being in contact with ancestral spirits and at other times, a sense of quiet mysticism.

As GroundWorks’ moved about the stage, so did the musicians who played standard string instruments, a Chinese Pipa (a four-stringed lute), banged stones together and in a Tourettes-like manner, vocalized ghostly utterances and shrills.

Shimotakahara’s abstract choreography for the piece was a solid mix of contemporary ballet and modern dance choreography that paired well with Dun’s music and a theme of ancestral spirits being called to convene with the living. The movement was contemplative, ritualistic at times, and fit the mood of the work. Like Landon’s imagery of a person hovering in air, Shimotakahara had a similar reference contained within a quirky solo by dancer Annika Sheaff where she lay across a wooden liquor crate with the word “spirits” on it like superwoman in flight.

Again, GroundWorks’ dancers were splendid, as were the accomplished musicians in the cast.

In the end GroundWorks’ Spring Program, like waking from a vivid dream, left one with many feelings, impressions and images worth remembering along with some that are best forgotten.

GroundWorks DanceTheaters’ Spring Program will repeat 7:30 p.m., Friday, March 18 and Saturday, March 19, 2016 at St. Ignatius High School’s Breen Center for Performing Arts, 2008 West 30th Street, Cleveland, Ohio. Tickets are $25.00/preferred, $20.00/general and $10.00/child & student; (216) 751-0088 or groundworksdance.org.

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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GroundWorks’ ‘Spring Program’ Inspired by Dreams and Spirits


From 2014, GroundWorks’ Felise Bagley and Damien Highfield in David Shimotakahara’s “Ghost Opera.” Photo by Dale Dong.

By Steve Sucato

All of us at one time or another have had a dream so vivid or bizarre that it stuck with us after we woke from it. Strong feelings, emotions and images that felt so real as to become a part of our memory. Such was the case for New York City-based choreographer Loni Landon, who sparked by a recurring image she held on to from several chaotic and anxiety-filled dreams she had after Hurricane Sandy, created a new dance work for GroundWorks DanceTheater. The company will premiere the yet-to-be-titled 30-minute contemporary dance work this weekend, March 4 & 5 at The University of Akron’s E.J. Thomas Hall. The program will then repeat March 18 & 19 in Cleveland at St. Ignatius High School’s Breen Center for Performing Arts.

“The piece is like a rolling dream ─ a fluid, abstract stream of consciousness,” says Landon by phone from New York.  She also sees the work like as being like a surreal movie organized into scenes. “One scene is a trio, another, a duet, all with different tones,” she says. The piece takes shape around a single character’s point of view. That character, danced by GroundWork’s Michael Marquez, is part of a non-linear storyline Landon likens to a David Lynch movie.

The work is also scored like a movie soundtrack with an eclectic mix of classical, contemporary classical and pop music.


Choreographer Loni Landon. Photo by Mallory Lynn.

A Juilliard graduate who danced with Aszure Barton and Artists, Ballet Theater Munich, and The Metropolitan Opera before becoming an award-winning freelance choreographer, Landon has created works for Keigwin + Company, BODYTRAFFIC, Hubbard Street II, BalletX, Ballet Austin, Seattle’s Whim W’Him, and her own company, Loni Landon Dance Projects.

“I work in a very collaborative way,” says Landon. “I kept pushing them [GroundWork’s dancers] to have more input while we were working together.”

One of those dancers being pushed was Landon’s classmate at Juilliard, Annika Sheaff who turned her on to the company who she describes as unique. “The dancers are all very different from each other – different styles, personalities, experiences, training – I’ve never met such a diverse group before,” says Landon.

The work’s creation process of was a quick one. Landon had just two weeks to put together the bones of the work whose choreography is derived from a single movement phrase that is manipulated, picked apart and strung together.  “The work is more theatrical than I tend to go,” says Landon. “We are using a set and props.”


From 2014, GroundWorks’ Annika Sheaff in David Shimotakahara’s “Ghost Opera.” Photo by Dale Dong.

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GroundWorks dancers in a recent rehearsal of David Shimotakahara’s “Ghost Opera.” Photo courtesy of GroundWorks DanceTheater.

Where Landon’s work stems from a dream image, the reprise of GroundWorks artistic director David Shimotakahara’s Ghost Opera takes its inspiration Chinese composer Tan Dun’s score of the same name that delves into spirits and the supernatural found in shamanistic “ghost operas” popular in Chinese peasant culture. Says Dun: the composition uses “very ancient theatrical methods to approach a modern idea, linking the different kinds of territory across media and across lives, and across decades, and let all those souls talk to each other.”

The score, which features the sounds of water, stones, metal, paper the Chinese Pipa (a four-stringed lute) will be played live Cleveland Institute of Music graduates Solomon Liang (Violin 1), Andrea Belding (Violin 2), Aaron Mossburg (Viola), Erica Snowden (Cello) and Yihan Chen (Pipa).

Shimotakahara’s Ghost Opera originally premiered during GroundWorks’ 2014 season. In a review of the work performed at Akron’s Glendale Cemetery I wrote for Canada’s Dance International magazine, I said “Shimotakahara’s choreography ebbed and flowed between the dancers en masse huddling and cleaving to each other and duets and solos that spoke of earth, family and, oddly enough, the music of Bach and the writings of Shakespeare.”

No doubt the work will have a different feel on the stage at E.J. Thomas Hall but promises to be no less powerful and haunting.

GroundWorks DanceTheater presents its Spring Series program, 7:30 p.m., Friday, March 4 and Saturday, March 5, 2016 at The University of Akron’s E.J. Thomas Hall, 198 Hill St, Akron, OH. Tickets are $25.00/general and $10.00/child & student. (330) 253-2488, uaevents.com or groundworksdance.org.

The Spring Series program will repeat 7:30 p.m., Friday, March 18 and Saturday, March 19, 2016 at St. Ignatius High School’s Breen Center for Performing Arts, 2008 West 30th Street, Cleveland, Ohio. Tickets are $25.00/preferred, $20.00/general and $10.00/child & student; (216) 751-0088 or groundworksdance.org.

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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Northeast Ohio Summer Dance in Review

Ballet Hispanico dancers in Eduardo Vilaro's "Asuka".

Ballet Hispanico dancers in Eduardo Vilaro’s “Asuka”. Photo by Dale Dong.

Reviewed by Steve Sucato

It’s a tale of two cities when it comes to summer dance in Northeast Ohio; two marquee, municipally run performance series, one in Akron and the other in Cleveland, count for the bulk of the region’s professional dance by local and nationally touring companies.

Billed as the oldest, free summer dance series in the United States, the Heinz Poll Summer Dance Festival in Akron was established in 1974 to honor the legacy of founding artistic director of now defunct Ohio Ballet, Heinz Poll. The family-friendly series held at four city parks and historical sites showcases dance to some 10,000 attendees each season. The 41st edition, which ran four consecutive weekends, opened with New York’s Ballet Hispanico at Goodyear Heights Metro Park.

Chairs and blankets stretched out far and wide in front of the portable stage as area residents of all ages settled in for an evening of dance under the stars, a scene repeated at all the festival’s venues. Ballet Hispanico artistic director Eduardo Vilaro’s Latin-infused contemporary Asuka (2011) kicked things off. Bursting with energy, the playful, hip-shaking piece for a dozen dancers celebrated the music of the late Cuban “Queen of Salsa” Celia Cruz. Next, Sombrerisimo (2013) was the first and best of two works by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa. Inspired by the surrealist paintings of Belgian artist René Magritte, the all-male cast of six — in untucked dress shirts, pants and black bowler hats — moved through well-crafted choreography full of leaps, jumps and dancer inter- weaving as they cleverly transferred hats from one to another.

Rounding out the program was a pas de deux from Tito on Timbales (1984), William Whitener’s tribute to percussionist Tito Puente, danced adroitly by Alexander Duval and Jessica Alejandra Wyatt, and Lopez Ochoa’s Mad’moiselle (2010), a wonderfully bizarre satire on the many images of “Maria” found in Latin culture, including West Side Story.

Neos Dance Theatre's Mary-Elizabeth Fenn and company in Penny Saunders' "Flight".  Photo by Dale Dong.

Neos Dance Theatre’s Mary-Elizabeth Fenn and company in Penny Saunders’ “Flight”. Photo by Dale Dong.

The second weekend featured Mansfield, Ohio-based Neos Dance Theatre, the rising regional company with national aspirations, which offered up three ballets, including festival standout, Penny Saunders’ Flight (2014).

Flight, set to an eclectic soundscape, opened on a group of dancers in uniform grey  tops and slacks moving in robotic unison to spooky music à la a Tim Burton film. The quirky dance work switched gears as Hank Williams Sr.’s Ramblin’ Man ushered in a trio of men in western-infused choreography that had them moseying through snaking movement patterns and arching lifts. In the last section, which emulated the work’s robotic beginnings, Mary-Elizabeth Fenn, moving like a dancer from a music box, stood atop the lone set piece, a wooden box, surrounded by dancers on their knees holding her in place by her ankles; Fenn’s beautifully danced movements evolved from calm and graceful to frantic.

The premiere of artistic director Bobby Wesner’s Slow Moving and Almost Stopped proved true to its title. Dancers spun one another in crouched, flat-footed circles that mesmerized like a figure skater’s effortless glide. Wesner’s nonchalant choreography, set to folksy music, had dancers giving into gravity’s pull and falling into one another’s arms while others engaged in tightly managed movement riffs. The program concluded with Wesner’s 2013 Spinning Plates.

In perhaps the most apropos pairing of dance and venue, Cleveland’s GroundWorks DanceTheater joined with ChamberFest Cleveland musicians to perform David Shimotakahara’s Ghost Opera (2014) at the historic Glendale Cemetery. Inspired by childhood memories of the shamanistic “ghost operas” found in Chinese peasant culture, Tan Dun’s 1994 composition Ghost Opera evoked a ceremonial feel of conjuring spirits and communing with the departed that Shimotakahara (GroundWorks’ artistic director) sought to capture in movement.

GroundWorks DanceTheater dancer Annika Sheaff in David Shimotakahara's "Ghost Opera". Photo by Dale Dong.

GroundWorks DanceTheater dancer Annika Sheaff in David Shimotakahara’s “Ghost Opera”. Photo by Dale Dong.

Water splashed, voices chanted and sang, and violins,  a cello  and  a Chinese  pipa  (a four-stringed lute) were played live, providing a haunting soundscape. Shimotakahara’s choreography ebbed and flowed between the dancers en masse huddling and cleaving to each other and duets and solos that spoke of earth, family and, oddly enough, the music of Bach and the writings of Shakespeare. An esoteric work compared to most summer dance fare, Ghost Opera was marvellously performed and well received.

GroundWorks’ double-bill program, which brought the living and the dead together in celebration of the 175th anniversary of the cemetery, began on a festive note with Lynne Taylor-Corbett’s Hindsight (2011), a tribute to the music of Akron native Chrissie Hynde and her band the Pretenders in a jazzy, Broadway-esque romp.

The series at Cleveland Heights’ Cain Park presented dance in two covered outdoor theatres. A ticketed series welcomed Cleveland-based Verb Ballets in four works that showcased the young dancers. Pamela Pribisco’s Tarantella (2005) provided an energetic boost to the classic dance staple. It was performed with spunk by Michael Hinton and last-minute injury substitution Megan Buckley. Buckley’s charm and effervescence captured the hearts of the audience, leading to cheering at the ballet’s end.

Photo courtesy of Verb Ballets.

Photo courtesy of Verb Ballets.

The program’s gem was the company premiere of former Cincinnati Ballet principal dancer Anthony Krutzkamp’s Similar (2012). Set to piano music by Chad Lawson and Brian Crain, the well-crafted contemporary ballet opened on three male-female couples engaged in angular, elongated unison choreography. Confident and polished, Verb’s dancers shone, especially Stephaen Hood and Lieneke Matte in a delicate pas de deux.

A few days later, Inlet Dance Theatre doled out a pleasing dose of artistic director Bill Wade’s message-driven, Pilobolus-style dance works, including his athletic, amusing duet A Close Shave (2006). The work, which involved the mirror image of a man shaving come to life, was danced with wit, precision and strength by Joshua Brown and Dominic Moore-Dunson. The jam-packed program of eight uplifting works also featured Wade’s signature body sculpture wonder, Ascension (2006).

Capping the performances was Philadelphia hip-hop troupe Illstyle & Peace Productions in Same Spirit Different Movement II: IMpossible IZZpossible & KINGZ. The positive spirit pro- gram featured 19-year-old spoken word artist Syreeta, whose hard-hitting poems spoke of small-town poverty and prejudice, along with a potent mix of deejaying, gospel music and magnificently performed old-school locking, popping, breaking, tap and house dancing. Company founder and dancer Brandon “Peace” Albright and dancer Reggie TapMan Myers captivated in the party atmosphere collection of dance.

This review first appeared in the 2014 winter issue of Dance International magazine. Copyright Steve Sucato.

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Filed under Dance International, Dance Reviews 2014