Rachel Rish, Sara Lawrence & Hoang Ngoc Dang in Helen Keller: A Tribute to her Teacher. Photo: Dale Dong
November 18, 2006
Cuyahoga Community College (Eastern Campus) – Cleveland, Ohio
Reviewed by Steve Sucato
For the final production in its 25th anniversary season Cleveland’s Dancing Wheels chose to pay tribute to two American icons that have come to symbolize the ongoing struggles and triumphs of those with disabilities. The dance company that pioneered integrated dance (wheel chair and stand up dancers) a quarter century ago, presented three works including the world premiere of Christopher Fleming’s ballet Helen Keller: A Tribute to her Teacher.
The program opened with an excerpt of choreographer David Rousseve’s Walking on Clouds. Known for his works of social conscious, Walking on Clouds was a powerful work that hit hard notions of prejudice and discrimination and called for equality in social thinking. Using narratives of personal accounts of several of DW’s dancers including Jenita McGowen, whose mixed ethnicity and light skin, she says, allows her to be a spy going unnoticed in private conversations of members of one race about another, and Dancing Wheels artistic director Mary Verdi-Fletcher who recounted a personal act of civil disobedience that led to legislation in Cleveland making all the city buses wheel chair accessible. While Rousseve’s work when performed by DW in its entirety has a clear beginning, middle, and end, the excerpt gave one the sense of being dropped in the middle of a conversation. DW’s corps of dancers at times struggled with the work, which appeared loose in its performance especially in a section where the dancers, out of sync with one another, repetitively chanted a phrase about wanting to be recognized for who they are as people.
After a brief sign language interpretation demonstration, the program’s second work, A Wing/A Prayer by choreographer Mark Tomasic, sent three wheelers aggressively racing across the stage to the upbeat music of Afro Celt Sound System. The work pushed the wheelers in daring pops and rocking of their chairs along with precision turns and group formations. A clear standout in the work, dancer Charlotte Heppner zipped about with ferocity and abandon giving life to the type of work DW would do well to offer more of to its audiences.
The program concluded with Helen Keller: A Tribute to her Teacher, a ballet that was as much endearing as it was riddled with problems. Fleming’s ballet straddled the fence between a work for children and one for adults, never satisfying completely the needs of either. The work began with DW’s corps of seven dancers seated on the floor slumped over and serving as a backdrop to the poetic arm movements of Verdi-Fletcher as Helen Keller performing a somber and reflective solo. The dancers came to life one by one as dancer Sara Lawrence as Keller’s teacher Anne Sullivan entered the stage and passed by each of them.
Slow to develop the ballet began to take shape in a duet danced by Lawrence and Rachel Rish as a young Helen Keller in which Fleming’s choreography encapsulated the early years of Sullivan and Keller’s volatile relationship.
The ballet’s larger problems came in the form of two rather lengthy and verbose recorded speeches that — outside of the program notes — were non-attributed and seemed out of place. Fleming’s use of these speeches came off as tedious filler in a ballet rather lean on actual dancing and story components.
Despite its structural problems, Helen Keller: A Tribute to her Teacher had some bright moments. They included: wonderful performances by Lawrence and Rish including a poignant trio danced with dancer Hoang Ngoc Dang underlying the sacrifices Sullivan made in her personal life for Keller and a lighthearted collage of period dances reflecting Keller’s years on the vaudeville stage.
For more information on Dancing Wheels visit www.dancingwheels.org