By Steve Sucato
Writing about the three choreographers on GroundWorks DanceTheater’s 2016 Fall Dance Series is familiar ground for me. I’ve known and published articles and reviews about dancer/choreographer Beth Corning and GroundWorks’ artistic director David Shimotakahara and their works for well over a decade. The other, former Hubbard Street Dance Chicago company member Robyn Mineko Williams, for just a handful of years including profiling her for Dance Magazine’s prestigious 2015 “25 to Watch” issue. All are gifted and experienced professionals with diverse artistic voices and approaches to creating dance works. So to include works by each on one program offers the potential for pure magic.
I first saw Beth Corning’s “At Once There Was a House” when GroundWorks debuted it in 2004. Since then I have been witness to several iterations of it in Pittsburgh by Corning’s former company Dance Alloy Theater and her current project-based company, CorningWorks. The 30-minute dance-theater piece is a one whose bones essentially remain the same each iteration, but whose skin changes with each new cast of performers.
“It’s a piece you don’t reset,” says Corning. “You have to rebuild the entire piece based on completely different characters. Audiences who have seen the work before may recall a particular section, but it will be done very differently.”
“At Once There Was a House” poses the question: What ever happened to Dick and Jane? Those idealized elementary school educational icons used to teach children in the U.S. to read from the 1930’s through the 1970’s.
Set to a collage of music from classical to Tom Waits, the dark, often poignant, and sometimes humorous work, looks in on a group of current day Dicks and Janes whose lives barely resemble those of the idyllic storybook characters.
In adapting the critically-acclaimed work to GroundWorks’ current cast of five – including Felise Bagley who was an original cast member – Corning uses material derived in part from each of the dancer’s personal lives.
“It’s fun that way,” she says. “You don’t act this piece. It has to be real.”
Whereas Corning and dancers bring new life to older work, the world premiere of Shimotakahara’s “Chromatic” has him boldly going where he hasn’t gone before in terms of movement language.
Set to a suite of music by American composer Conlon Nancarrow (1912 –1997), the 20-minute work for the full company, says Shimotakahara, “is a response to his (Nancarrow’s) idiosyncratic sounding music more than anything else.”
Nancarrow, who is best remembered for his studies for player piano that are un-performable by humans, says Shimotakahara, layers various styles of music in his compositions to create an intriguing disconnect. “Chromatic,” he says, explores parallel ideas found in the music to develop a physical disconnect in the way the dancers move.
“I like this idea of things being a little off,” says Shimotakahara.
The result is a new movement vocabulary for Shimotakahara where elements from social dances like tango and others occupy the dancers’ lower bodies while a completely different movement vocabulary simultaneously occupies the dancers’ upper bodies.
The recipient of a 2013 Princess Grace Foundation Choreographic Fellowship and several other awards, Mineko Williams is a sought after contemporary dance choreographer. I first saw her work on Grand Rapids Ballet in 2014 and was impressed by her compositional clarity and her way of infusing fragility and heartfelt emotion into her choreography. For the world premiere of her “Part Way,” created for GroundWorks, Mineko Williams does more of the same but in a different way.
“A lot of how I approach a new works has to do with the dancers I am working with at the time,” says Mineko Williams. “Those individuals, their chemistry, and the way they work together drive the creation for me.”
The 15-minute, non-narrative dance work is stylistically more in the vein of those she has created for Hubbard Street and Visceral Dance Chicago. In a rehearsal of it I watched this past July, the choreography was detailed and gestural. The dancers twisted, turned and leaned into each other for support.
Says Mineko Williams, the work is in part inspired by the idea of perseverance and moving forward.
“To move on sometimes you need to access the help of your friends and family and the experiences you have had in the past,” says Mineko Williams.
In support that idea she says the dancers sometimes act as mirrors or echoes of the past.
“Part Way” is set to Sergei Rachmaninoff’s sorrowful “Trio (piano, violin and cello) Elégiaque No. 1 in G Minor.” Like Shimotakahara with regard to movement language, Mineko Williams says the choice of music is something new for her.
“I haven’t used an emotional, classical work like this before,” says Mineko Williams. “There is something cyclical about it. There are a lot of emotions…deep guttural feelings contained within the music.”
Emblematic of the notion of perseverance, GroundWorks, now in its 18th season, continues to forge ahead as one of the region’s best and most forward-thinking dance troupes. This program is in keeping all those qualities.
GroundWorks DanceTheater performs its 2016 Fall Dance Series, 7:30 p.m., Friday, October 14 & Saturday, October 15 at the Allen Theatre at Playhouse Square, 1407 Euclid Ave., Cleveland. Reserved Seating $20-25, Children under 18 and students $10 (Use Promo Code 1STU), CSU Students with a Valid ID FREE. For tickets: (216) 241-6000, groundworksdance.org or playhousesquare.org.
The 2016 Fall Dance Series repeats 7:30 p.m., Friday, November 18 & Saturday, November 19 at the Akron-Summit County Public Library, 60 S High St, Akron. Reserved Seating $20-25, Children under 18 and students $10, University of Akron Students FREE with valid ID (available night of show only). For tickets: (216) 751-0088 or groundworksdance.org.