Tag Archives: University of Akron

Abraham Takes ‘A.I.M’ at Greatness with Akron Program


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A.I.M’s Connie Shiau, Claude Johnson and Catherine Ellis Kirk in Kyle Abraham’s “Drive”. Photo by Ian Douglas.

A.I.M
University of Akron’s E.J. Thomas Hall
Akron, Ohio
October 6, 2018

Reviewed by Steve Sucato

Having followed Kyle Abraham’s career since he was a teen in Pittsburgh, his talents and potential as a dancer and choreographer revealed themselves early on. Seemingly in short order, the dance world began taking notice of those talents lauding him with accolades and awards including being named one of Dance Magazine’s “25 to Watch” in 2009 and becoming the youngest recipient of a MacArthur “Genius” Grant 2013. And while Abraham’s individual career continues to skyrocket, the trajectory of his namesake New York-based company, Abraham.In.Motion (A.I.M), founded in 2006, has been on a more gradual incline.

For those unfamiliar with A.I.M and Abraham’s work, their Northeast, Ohio debut at the University of Akron’s E. J. Thomas Hall this past Saturday, October 6, showed rather emphatically that it the company is primed to run with dance’s big dogs.

Presented by DANCECleveland in collaboration with The University of Akron’s Dance Department, A.I.M’s mixed repertory program began with a company first, a dance work created on them by someone other than Abraham.

Choreographer Andrea Miller’s lush, atmospheric trio for women, “state” (2018) had the look and feel of a Beyoncé music video taken to even further artistic extremes.

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A.I.M’s Kayla Farrish, Catherine Ellis Kirk and Marcella Lewis in Andrea Miller’s “state”. Photo by Steven Schreiber.

On a stage barely lit by rear floor lights dancers Kayla Farrish, Catherine Ellis Kirk and Marcella Lewis in silhouette with their backs to the audience, shuffled side to side grooving to Pittsburgh-native Reggie Wilkins’ electronic chill vibe hip hop music.

Miller, the artistic director and vision behind New York’s Gallim Dance, is best known for her Israeli-style contemporary dance works. In working with the dancers on “state,” Miller acted more as a director/editor taking movement generated by them and assembling it into a brilliantly unexpected piece that wrapped around the dancers like a cozy sweater.

Performed on an earth-tone square of dance floor with the dancers costumed in muted colored tops and shorts with shiny gold painted patches on their knees and fingers, the contemporary dance work infused with African, hip hop, Israeli folk and other dance styles, looked ritualistic at times as well as exalting of the women. Parceled into sections reflecting various states of being both emotionally and attitudinally, the dancers moved mostly in unison throughout the work, rocking, bouncing and swaying in simple-looking yet slick choreography.

Where the work’s opening section had the trio of women appearing goddess-like, its second section with its sparse and somewhat ugly movement that had the dancers crab-walking and lying on the stage floor in fetal positions had a troubled feel to it.

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A.I.M’s Marcella Lewis in Andrea Miller’s “state”. Photo by Steven Schreiber.

The work then shifted moods several more times as it progressed with one section showing off the dancers in mini-solos before returning to its infectious opening groove to end the piece.

Keeping with the theme of states of being, Abraham’s latest solo for himself “INDY” (2018), at over 20-minutes is perhaps his longest to date. Like avant-garde jazz or the music of bands like the Pixies and Nirvana that abruptly switch from hard to soft passages in the same song, Abraham’s signature movement style moves abruptly from sinewy smooth, calm phrases to frenetic, hyper-speed riffs that have his arms circling and darting about, hips swiveling and torso twisting in the blink of an eye and back again. In “INDY,” Abraham came right out of the gate in that full-on frenzy mode, a flurry of hands and arms clearing the air and space around him as if cloud of hovering bees descended on him from above; the activity sending the fringed back of his all black costume into violent motion.

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Kyle Abraham in “INDY”. Photo by Steven Schreiber.

 

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Kyle Abraham in “INDY”. Photo by Steven Schreiber.

Set to an original score by Cleveland-native and Juilliard faculty member, Jerome Begin and in front of a target-like circular patterned backdrop, Abraham strutted and moved about the stage in various states of confidence.  From rounded shoulder, arm-swaying machismo to vogue-like prancing, the schizophrenic solo was a microcosm of Abraham’s signature movement style.  Toward the end of the solo, Abraham slowed the piece to a halt. As an audio recording of his college graduation ceremony played in the background, Abraham stripped off his costume and with it all of those states of confidence. The brief, vulnerable and revealing moment was a reminder of the fragile human beneath the stage façade. Donning his fringed shirt again, this time with the fringe in the front, Abraham returned to the virtuosic solo this time adding the silent screams and the pleading of someone whose confidence had been replaced by fear and doubt.

While “INDY” showed off Abraham’s major talents as a dancer, his new group work for the company, “Meditation: A Silent Prayer” (2018), revealed a choreographer at the top of his game in craft, theatricality, and having the pulse of the world he lives and works in.

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A.I.M’s Keerati Jinakunwiphat and Jeremy “Jae” Neal in Kyle Abraham’s ““Meditation: A Silent Prayer”. Photo by Steven Schreiber.

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A.I.M’s Jeremy “Jae” Neal and Marcella Lewis in Kyle Abraham’s ““Meditation: A Silent Prayer”. Photo by Steven Schreiber.

Danced to somber music by Craig Harris with haunting text and voiceover by Carrie Mae Weems, “Meditation: A Silent Prayer” was a heart-wrenching statement on black lives lost to police violence.

Performed in front of Titus Kaphar’s masterful yet eerie projected portraits of a trio of layered faces containing images of those being honored in the work, the blurred faces along with Weems’ stark roll call of their names, ages and familial titles including Cleveland’s own Tamir Rice, put into laser focus the injustice of those lives tragically cut short by police violence.

A gut check on our collective humanity, “Meditation: A Silent Prayer,” stands as one of Abraham’s finest works to date.

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Jeremy “Jae” Neal, Marcella Lewis, Matthew Baker, Keerati Jinkakunwiphat and Claude Johnson in Kyle Abraham’s “Drive”. Photo by Ian Douglas.

Switching gears, the final work on the program, Abraham’s “Drive” (2017) featured all eight of A.I.M’s dancers (sans Abraham) in an up-tempo tour de force that Abraham describes as an abstract statement on unity in the face of societal ills.

Set to pulsating electronic hip hop music by Theo Parrish and Mobb Deep, the work with its city traffic lighting effects, was an invigorating non-stop showcase for the dancers who performed it brilliantly and an apt closer for A.I.M’s stellar program.

Next on DANCECleveland’s 63rd season is Ballet Hispanico, Saturday, November 10 and Sunday, November 11 at Playhouse Square’s Ohio Theatre. For information and tickets visit dancecleveland.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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Envy, Betrayal and Murder: Neos Dance Theatre’s New ‘Snow White’ Ballet Traveled a Dark Road to reach its Happily Ever After


Jennifer Safonovs as Snow White in Neos Dance Theatre's "Snow White and the Magic Mirror: A Grimm Tale".  Photo by Bryce Millikin.

Jennifer Safonovs as Snow White in Neos Dance Theatre’s
“Snow White and the Magic Mirror: A Grimm Tale”. Photo by Bryce Millikin.

Neos Dance Theatre
Snow White and the Magic Mirror: A Grimm Tale
 E.J. Thomas Hall at The University of Akron
Akron, Ohio
April 19, 2014

Reviewed by Steve Sucato

As he did with Neos Dance Theatre’s 2013 production of Count…The Legend of Dracula, artistic director/choreographer Bobby Wesner turned to the original source for in coming up with the storyline for his new ballet Snow White and the Magic Mirror: A Grimm Tale. The source being the Grimm Brothers’ original tale “Little Snow White”; a dark tale of envy, betrayal and murder than the Disney version of Snow White most of us are familiar with.  Wesner’s dark, yet family-friendly ballet was a more contemporary version of either the Disney or Grimm Brothers’ storyline and took poetic license with the original storyline in several areas; most noticeably replacing the familiar dwarf characters with woodland fairies.

The ambitious production presented by Neos Dance Theatre, The University of Akron’s Dance Program, Dance Institute and School of Music along with the Kulas Concert Series at UA’s E.J. Thomas Hall, was set to an eclectic soundscape that included music by Tchaikovsky, Barber and Fritz Kreisler along with live performances by pianist Megan Denman, violinist Allison Lint, sopranos Josephine Suwanpoh and Vandi Terrill, and The University of Akron Steel Drum Band.

The two-act ballet, in line with most The Nutcracker productions on the kid-friendly scale, began with a quick recap of Snow White’s life from birth to young adulthood played out in a series of “snapshots” glimpsed in between horizontally moving set pieces that covered and revealed dancers posed in small tableaus depicting images of Snow White’s mother (Mary-Elizabeth Fenn) and father (Bobby Wesner) with her as an infant, Snow White as a young child (Arowyn Wesner) with only her father indicting the death of her mother, the introduction of Snow White’s stepmother (Brooke Wesner) and the death of her father. While the motif was effective in recapping and moving along the storyline and Jennifer Safonovs as Snow White was endearing, more needed to be done to develop empathy for her character.  Reactions to her parents’ deaths and her estrangement with her stepmother seemed glossed over.

As in the Grimm’s tale, Snow White’s stepmother became exceedingly jealous of her popularity with the local townsfolk and with her increasing beauty. Calling upon her magic mirror to declare “who in this land is the fairest of all?”, the stepmother of course finds out that it is Snow White and plots to have a local huntsman (Ethan Michael Lee) take her into the woods and murder her.

The ballet’s “magic mirror” was a marvelous film projection effect by the Emmy Award-winning Andy Gardner that lit up the stage and added to the ballet’s above average production value.

Brooke Wesner as the wicked stepmother in Neos Dance Theatre's "Snow White and the Magic Mirror: A Grimm Tale".  Photo by Bryce Millikin.

Brooke Wesner as the wicked stepmother in Neos Dance Theatre’s
“Snow White and the Magic Mirror: A Grimm Tale”. Photo by Bryce Millikin.

With a deadly combination of beauty and malevolence and costumed like singer Stevie Nicks circa 1977, Brooke Wesner all but stole the show as the wicked stepmother. Her superb dancing and acting, especially in a scene in which she takes to task the huntsman for not killing Snow White, made for a most sinister and memorable portrayal.

Highlighting the rest of Act I was a nicely performed solo by “Snow White’s Love” danced by Alec Guthrie.  Sporting a cowboy hat and an ease to his movement, Guthrie danced Wesner’s Western-infused choreography a la Agnes de Mille’s ballet Rodeo. Also of note were a tender pas de deux between Guthrie and Safonovs plus several dreamlike scenes that followed after Snow White was poisoned by hair comb given to her by her stepmother. The scenes were brighter compared to the rest of the ballet with cute woodland creatures, sprightly fairies and a Caribbean-flavored performance by the Akron Steel Drum Band.  The ballet’s finest dancing came in one in which a corps of “Woodland Fairies” costumed in white and looking like Russian tsarinas, performed a classical ballet dance in the mold of The Nutcracker’s “Snow Scene”.

Less successful in Act I were the attempts to disguise the stepmother’s identity in order to poison Snow White. That further reinforced a characterization of Snow White as a gullible young woman easily taken in, and easy distracted by shiny baubles including the bright red poisoned apple she bit into that was given to her by her stepmother to close first act.

Act II found the townsfolk and Snow White’s Love mourning Snow White’s apparent death.  A fateful kiss from her love awoke Snow White and the couple was wed.  In one final act of ill will, the wicked stepmother crashed the wedding celebrations but got her comeuppance in truly vindictive fashion by being forced to don a pair of red hot iron shoes (represented by pointe shoes) and dance herself to death. The ballet concluded with celebratory dances and a happily-ever-after vibe.

A marvelous production overall, Snow White and the Magic Mirror: A Grimm Tale could have been less dark in its approach and stage lighting.  Taking a page from the Disney playbook and lightening things up with a few more scenes like the one using the Akron Steel Drum Band, would have made for a more satisfying experience.  Wesner’s choreography was solid and the cast’s performances were respectable.

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BalletX opens DANCECleveland season with engaging program


BalletX dancers Allison Walsh and William Cannon. Photo by Alexander Iziliaev.

BalletX dancers Allison Walsh and William Cannon. Photo by Alexander Iziliaev.

By Steve Sucato
Special to The Plain Dealer 

DANCECleveland hit a home run with its season opener of BalletX Saturday night at the University of Akron’s E.J. Thomas Hall. The contemporary ballet troupe from Philadelphia, in its Northeast Ohio debut, presented a memorable mixed repertory program of three engaging ballets performed adroitly by its versatile dancers.

To read the full review click here

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