AIRINGS: Mini Reviews of Conservatory Dance Company’s ‘The Jazz Nutcracker’, ‘A Son is Given: An Urban Ballet’ and Columbus Dance Theatre’s ‘Cleopatra’

By Steve Sucato

Conservatory Dance Company – The Jazz Nutcracker
Pittsburgh Playhouse
Pittsburgh, PA
December 9, 2012

Perhaps no ballet in history has seen more different incarnations than The Nutcracker. From traditional productions after Marius Petipa’s 1892 original to those far from traditional like Maurice Bejart’s pseudo-sexual 2000 production and Mark Morris’ The Hard Nut and everywhere in between, each holiday season brings with it a variety of Nutcracker productions. Premiered in 1983, Doug Benz’s The Jazz Nutcracker performed by Point Park University’s student Conservatory Dance Company was of the non-traditional variety. Set to music by Duke Ellington and Tchaikovsky, arranged by Joe Campus (after Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn) and played live by The Benny Benack Band, the 2-act production set in 1951 opened on a Christmas Eve party at the home of the Richardson family. Swank friends of the Richardson’s from the vaudeville circuit dressed in suits, cocktail dresses and furs arrived at the party depositing presents before lighting into animated conversation and vintage Broadway-style jazz dancing. The kid-less production centered around a coming-of-age Clara Richardson (Nicole Jones) who receives the gift of a wooden Nutcracker from her professional hypnotist uncle Leonard Drosselmeyer (Benjamin J. Belhumeur). Drosselmeyer casts a spell over Clara and the two set off on a delightfully peculiar dreamlike adventure where they encounter a man walking an invisible dog, a troupe of Christmas gnomes, and where Clara’s Nutcracker is transformed into a life-size but still very wooden military cadet (John O’Neill). The trio then visit a surreal cabaret where a la The Wizard of Oz, guests from the Christmas Eve party resurface now changed to recreate their vaudeville acts for Clara’s amusement. Highlighting the cabaret’s entertainment was an arousing solo by dancer Sarah Dames as the sexy “Linda”, “The Peanut Brittle Brigade” featuring a quartet of clowning French waiters and dancer Nick Fearon in the lively “Hong Kong Charlie: The Magical Chinaman”. Unlike the bevy of kid-centric Nutcracker productions out there, Benz’s The Jazz Nutcracker, while still family-friendly, had a decidedly more adult approach mixing in adult situations and humor and hinted at a darker, stalker-like relationship between Clara and Drosselmeyer. With wonderful choreography and staging by Benz, laudable performances by Jones as the wide-eyed Clara and the rest of CDC’s dancers as well as The Benny Benack Band, The Jazz Nutcracker was a unique and wholly entertaining twist on the familiar Nutcracker story.

A Son is Given: An Urban Ballet
Presented by New Community Bible Fellowship
Hanna Theatre at PlayhouseSquare
Cleveland, OH
December 23, 2012

Photo by Larry Coleman
Photo by Larry Coleman

Triple threat Myron Davis wrote, directed and composed the music for this updated version of the story of the birth of Jesus. Created in 2007, Davis revamped the holiday production for its 2012 run adding additional dancers and upping the production value. A stark, modern day urban setting served as the backdrop to the dancetheater work where Mary (Sierra Woods) and Joseph (Julian Gilberto Mendez) were two neighborhood teens who fell in love amidst gang violence and the oppressive regime of neighborhood butcher turned mobster “Big H”, portrayed  convincingly by actor Joseph Primes. Set to Davis’ brilliant score, A Son is Given was an entertaining and unwaveringly hopeful work. Choreographed by Kenya Woods and Dianne McIntyre, the production effectively moved through scenes detailing Mary and Joseph’s courtship, battles with doubt over Mary’s immaculate conception and various encounters with angels, both the guardian variety and those much darker, all leading to Jesus’ birth. Woods and McIntyre’s workmanlike choreography featured a mix of styles from hip hop and modern to salsa and jazz and was highlighted by several nicely constructed and danced group sections in the scenes “Zacharias and Elizabeth”, “Joseph’s Distress” along the solo in “Mary’s Joy”. The blending of play and ballet, actors and dancers was wonderfully seamless. Kudos to all of A Son is Given’s performers especially the trio of Chris Moore, Niles Rivers and Anwar Shahid as the real estate developer “wise men” and dancers Woods, Mendez, Kevin Marr, Anthony “Nino” Smith, Kristy Clement, Percy Foster and Frank Polk.

Columbus Dance Theatre – Cleopatra
Lincoln Theatre
Columbus, OH
January 19, 2013

Gavin McNally and Amelia Larkin as Octavius Caesar and Octavia in Columbus Dance Theatre's "Cleopatra". Photo by Wes Kroninger.
Gavin McNally and Amelia Larkin as Octavius Caesar and Octavia in Columbus Dance Theatre’s “Cleopatra”. Photo by Wes Kroninger.

Essentially a vehicle for Columbus Dance Theatre artistic director Tim Veach and wife Christina Kirk to show off their acting chops, the world premiere of Veach’s “choreo-play” Cleopatra combined an excerpted version of the Shakespeare’s play Antony and Cleopatra along with a supporting cast of dancers. In it, Kirk as a mature and feisty Cleopatra along with her dancing alter ego Jamie Kotrba schemed, connived and cajoled to win and maintain the affections of Veach and his dancing alter ego Seth Wilson, as the self-absorbed ladies’ man Antony and to a lesser extent Octavius Caesar danced by Gavin McNally. Accompanied by Columbus’ fabulous Carpe Diem String Quartet, Cleopatra was an ambitious project which fared better as a play than a dance work. Veach and Kirk did solid community theater work as Cleopatra’s two lead characters. Kirk was animated and forceful in her delivery which only sometimes seemed a bit over the top and Veach held his own as the cocky Antony. Unfortunately, CDT’s dancers, along with guest dancers from Towson University, were little more than window dressing in the work. The far too few actual dance sections Veach included in the work served to invigorate it. More were needed to balance the piece which at times felt bogged down by soliloquy after soliloquy. Of note were dancers Kotrba, McNally, Amelia Larkin as the alluring Octavia and Mae Chesney and Stephanie Crea as Cleopatra’s handmaidens. CDT has some fine dancers and Cleopatra could really have benefited from better use of them.

Copyright Steve Sucato

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