February 11, 2011
Reviewed by Steve Sucato
In its ninth season Cleveland, Ohio-based Verb Ballets has evolved from primarily a modern dance company to one embracing a number of different dance styles; albeit with varying success.
Such was the case in their latest program which featured four stylistically diverse dance works.
The sold-out performance hit its high note right away in choreographers Danial Shapiro and Joanie Smith’s masterpiece To Have and To Hold (1989) set to music by New York composer Scott Killian.
Three long benches staggered diagonally from the front of the stage back served as platforms for a unique interaction between six dancers. Like William Forsythe’s 2000 work One Flat Thing Reproduced in which dancers move around and under rows of metal tables, Shapiro and Smith’s choreography for To Have and To Hold had Verb Ballets’ dancers using its benches in a similar fashion creating a number of unique visual patterns. The dancers – costumed in all white – sat, slid, reclined on, rolled over and pushed off the benches into acrobatic poses.
Intertwined in the precisely timed movement phrases was a storyline of human relationships and emotion displayed in the dancer’s embracing and comforting one another and forming heart-string tugging tableau’s. Verb’s dancers were spot-on brilliant in their performance of the work.
In pioneering dancemaker Alwin Nikolais’ classic modern dance work Noumenon Mobilus (1953), dancers Kara Madden, Katie Gnagy and Brian Murphy encased in their own stretch-fabric bags stood on benches while bending twisting and contorting their bodies into amoeba-like shapes. Set to an early electronic music score by Nikolais, at times the trio of dancers with their faces pressed into their fabric cocoons, conjured up images of space aliens. Watching the dancers morph into various shapes, one could imagine the novel effect the work might have had on audiences more than a half century ago, but whatever “wow” factor it formerly possessed, that has now been replaced with only mild audience curiosity and a nostalgic appreciation of Nikolais’ vision.
Next the company performed the world premiere of newly appointed Artist-in-Residence Terence Greene’s Breath (2011).
Greene, a former dancer with Dayton Contemporary Dance Company, created for Verb a lively dance work in three sections set music by Antonio Brown, Dougaje and Marcus Wyatt that mixed Horton-style modern dance with a heavy dose of traditional African dance technique.
While proven to be versatile dancers in the past, Verb’s cast of eight dancers along with two student dancers from the Cleveland School of the Arts, looked, for the most part, like fish out of water when it came to the grounded movement language of African dance. Their movements were tense and unassured. One notable exception was the smooth and confident dancing of Greene who also appeared in the work.
Structurally Breath had issues. The work lacked cohesion between its three sections and virtually any semblance of transition between them.
In spite of its issues, the work had potential. Greene created several engaging sections that if fine tuned and performed by dancers more comfortable with African dance, Breath could find new life.
The program closed with choreographer and Philadanco company member Tommie-Waheed Evans’ Ambiguous Drives.
One of the ambiguities suggested in the title of the work could be whether Evans meant for the work to be an homage to some of Philadanco’s best-known dance works or not. Either way, the piece came off like a highlight reel of very familiar movement phrases taken from Philadanco’s repertory.
Instead of being off-putting though, Evans’ assemblage of these phrases mixed with his own choreography turned out to be a winner. Unlike in Breath, Verb’s dancers shone in Ambiguous Drives especially dancer Katy Gnagy who was riveting throughout. The work was a fitting end to a diverse program that had more ups than downs.
Copyright Steve Sucato