Verb Ballets – Tribute to Heinz Poll
Akron Civic Theatre
February 19, 2016
Reviewed by Steve Sucato
It’s been a nearly a decade since the passing of Northeast Ohio dance icon Heinz Poll and the closing of the company he co-founded, Akron-based Ohio Ballet. Poll loomed large on the area dance scene, bringing national recognition to it and leaving behind a lasting legacy contained within those he taught, his former dancers, and his over sixty ballets created for Ohio Ballet.
In honor of the 90th anniversary of Poll’s birth, Cleveland-based Verb Ballets presented a Tribute to Heinz Poll, February 19, 2016 at Ohio’s historic Akron Civic Theatre. The program featured four of Poll’s most cherished ballets including the first ballet he created for Chamber Ballet (later re-named Ohio Ballet), 1968’s “Elegiac Song.”
The program kicked off with Soaring, a 13-minute documentary about Poll and the Ohio Ballet featuring interviews with the German choreographer, commentary by New York Times dance critic Jennifer Dunning and archival footage of Poll and the Ohio Ballet. It was followed by “Elegiac Song,” restaged for Verb by former Ohio Ballet dancer and current director of Akron’s Heinz Poll Summer Dance Festival, Jane Startzman.
On a darkened stage, a narrow shaft of light spread horizontally across the rear stage scrim diminishing in intensity with length. In front of it Verb’s Megan Buckley and six other female dancers costumed in long skirts and black capes moved through solemn choreography. A distraught-looking Buckley seemed to be being ignored by the others who traveled in tandem in and out of deep pliés across the stage.
Set to melancholy music by Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich, the ballet, said Poll in his 2008 autobiography A Time to Dance, is about “women who are left alone in time of war.” It was the first of two ballets on the program inspired by Poll’s memories of wartime Germany.
The beautifully-crafted, somber ballet was also inspired by the dark and disturbing wartime images of German artist Käthe Kollwitz (1867–1945). And as the program notes indicated, Poll’s movement vocabulary and look for the ballet was noticeably “indebted to Martha Graham.” As such, the piece had a different feel to it than the other ballets on the program; more in the modern dance mold of Graham’s 1930 solo “Lamentation.”
Brinkley was captivating as a grieving war “widow” searching for solace from the others and in her memories of her beloved danced by Nick Rose (replacing an injured Omar Humphrey). The ballet’s corps of women made up of Verb company members and dancers from the community also performed solidly.
Of the select nineteen ballets which Poll bequeathed to live on past him, “Elegiac Song” is one of his very best.
In contrast, Poll’s “Duet” (1979) that followed, was a dull, stiff exercise in neo-classical technique. Danced to live Bach organ music by former Ohio Ballet music director David Fisher, the duet, although skillfully presented by Verb’s Lieneke Matte and Michael Hinton, had the appeal of a funeral dirge.
Next, the second ballet inspired by Poll’s personal experiences with oppression and war, 1982’s “Songs Without Words,” dealt with the run-up to the Holocaust in Germany.
Set to Felix Mendelssohn’s piano score of the same name played expertly live by Fisher, the ballet smartly balanced the sense of fear, panic and horror Poll witnessed in the lives of Jews of all classes at the hands of the Nazis with their everyday lives before they were upended.
A pair of young lovers danced by Matte and former Ohio Ballet dancer Brian Murphy expressed their feelings for one another and looked to a future together, a quartet of youth reveled in what it was like to be young and carefree, a love triangle perhaps between two affluent sisters in love with the same man played out, and a street tough danced by last minute replacement for Humphrey, Neos Dance Theatre’s Ethan Michael Lee, was willfully defiant till the end.
The heartbreaking and beautifully-crafted ballet was danced with care and conviction by the entire cast, especially Kate Webb, Christina Lindhout and Stephaen Hood who made real the emotional and tension-filled love triangle.
The ballet ended with the striking image of all the dancers, having been herded and huddled together, collapsing to the ground, signaling their tragic demise.
Verb’s tribute program concluded with Poll’s most popular and most performed ballet, “Bolero” (1996).
The group ballet set to Maurice Ravel’s masterwork of the same name, paralleled the music’s progression building off dancer Lindhout’s opening solo and adding dancers and dramatic choreography to a repeating movement phrase. The women costumed in long black dresses with the men shirtless in long black skirts, moved through unison choreography in which they circled their wrists, pointed fingers and ran through sequences of hand and arm movements that at times resembled that of classical Indian dance.
As Ravel’s music grew more intense, Poll’s choreography followed. And no matter how many times one may have seen the ballet, it was nearly impossible not to get caught up in its building excitement.
The latter stages of the ballet brought out a Spanish flair with the dancers removing a layer of their costumes and turning it into a toreador’s cape which they swirled around with verve.
If any of Poll’s signature ballets are deserving of the label “masterpiece,” “Bolero” certainly qualifies. Perhaps not the best rendition of it I have seen (it’s hard to surpass the memory of former Ohio Ballet star and the work’s rights holder Xochitl Tejeda de Cerda performing the lead role), nonetheless Lindhout and company were very respectable in it.
Faithful to Poll’s originals, Verb Ballet’s Tribute to Heinz Poll was a mostly engaging and satisfyingly entertaining evening of dance. Equally important, the program was a refresher of Poll’s genius and a reminder of his importance to the dance world, especially in Northeast, Ohio ─ something that should not be forgotten.
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.