By Steve Sucato
Who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. The old dog of sorts being Northeast, Ohio’s GroundWorks Dance Theater, now in its 17th season who, in its upcoming summer series programs at Cain Park, July 14-16, and as part of the Heinz Poll Summer Dance Festival, August 4-5 at Akron’s Goodyear Heights Metro Park, will present a world-premiere dance work unlike any trick the company has performed.
One of three works on the program that includes reprises of NYC-based choreographer Kate Weare’s 2013 work for the company “Inamorata,” and GroundWorks’ artistic director David Shimotakahara’s “Chromatic” (2016), is choreographer Monica Bill Barnes’ “Tonight’s the night,” a new work created on the company that represents a seismic stylistic shift compared to the troupe’s usual more flowy repertory.
Barnes sees the new work as a continuation of the type of dance pieces she loves to create and that she has been known for over the past couple decades, works that “celebrate individuality, humor, and the innate theatricality of everyday life.”
A Berkeley, California-native, Barnes received her B.A. in Philosophy from the University of California at San Diego before moving to NYC in 1995 where she formed Monica Bill Barnes & Company two years later. Barnes was lesser known outside the big apple dance scene, where she is now one of the queens of its “new” old guard, that is until she teamed up with lanky, spectacled radio host, Ira Glass of National Public Radio’s popular series This American Life for Three Acts, Two Dancers and One Radio Host in 2013. Since then her career and visibility outside NYC has taken off, touring the show with Glass and longtime collaborator/dance partner Anna Bass, to sold-out houses in over 60 U.S. cities and garnering rave reviews.
The 15-minute “Tonight’s the night,” set to an eclectic mix of recorded music from Louis Prima and Bach’s The Goldberg Variations to an aria from Puccini’s Turandot and Modern English’s new wave classic “I Melt with You,” has the energy of a supercharged cross-training workout video come to life. In it, Barnes using her signature “in your face” movement style, creates a sports culture-infused, team-building exercise-like barrage of high-energy choreography for adrenaline-fueled characters whose non-stop antics will leave audiences not only breathless, but perhaps a bit intimated.
Says Barnes: “I think with everything I make I am interested in creating a relationship with the audience ─ for them to invest in the experience more than just admiring the dancers. That manifests itself in some ridiculously obvious theatrical tricks of the trade like asking the dancers to [enthusiastically] clap then stop. There is some real involvement that feels pretty basic but on a larger scale I am trying to find different ways for the audience to relate and engage with the performer.”
Barnes sees her sports metaphor-themed choreography for the work as part of her constant search for common gestures or physical situations that real people who aren’t trained dancers can relate to. She says the borrowing of sports imagery in this work is part of that.
For GroundWorks’ five dancers including brand new company members Tyler Ring, a native of Muncie, Indiana who recently performed with Thodos Dance Chicago, and Buffalo-native Gemma Freitas Bender, a former dancer with Montreal’s BJM Danse (the two replace Michael Marquez and Lauren Garson who left the company at the end of last season), the work is a killer. In a recent rehearsal of it I took in, GroundWorks dancers, while seemingly pushed to their physical limits, appeared to embrace Barnes challenging choreography with the similar zeal Bass and Barnes put into their own performances, aggressively moving about like genial brawlers and punctuating each transition between dance phrases with a snap of the body.
“I think these five performers are doing a wonderful job at being relatable which is not something we necessarily trained to work for as professional dancers,” says Barnes.
Bender, who will make her GroundWorks debut at Cain Park, says of working with Barnes for the second time (the first was as a student at Juilliard), that “there is a reason for everything she does and I admire that. She talks a lot about professional comedians and their [masterful] timing and tying it to the choreography and musicality of the work and our performances in it.”
Bender will also perform in the program’s other two works. Of Weare’s work “Inamorata” (meaning “a woman in love” in Latin), Bender says, “It is so beautiful. After watching it the first time I was so elated at getting to dance in it. [Performing it] I think about faith and those things we as humans hold onto to stay strong.”
Like Barnes’ work, “Inamorata” is set to variety of music ranging from tango and folk music to a Bach cello suite. Weare previously described the work as being “a survey of love from many different vantage points, and more from a feminine perspective than a masculine one.”
Rounding out the program will be Shimotakahara’s “Chromatic,” a 20-minute piece set to a suite player piano roll-inspired music by American composer Conlon Nancarrow (1912 –1997). The work says Shimotakahara explores parallel ideas found in the music to develop a physical disconnect in the way the dancers move.
Coming from a larger company like BJM Danse with more dancers and who tours frequently all over the world, Bender, at this point in her newly-married life, says she likes the intimacy and family atmosphere of GroundWorks. Being able to come home after work and see her husband Will, who is a violist and recent masters’ graduate of the Cleveland Institute of Music is also a big draw. “I love the work and the people [at GroundWorks],” says Bender. “I feel very grateful.”
GroundWorks DanceTheater performs its 2017 Summer Series dance program, 7 p.m., Friday, July 14 & Saturday, July 15 and 2 p.m., Sunday, July 16. Cain Park’s Alma Theater, 14591 Superior Rd., Cleveland Heights. $25 Advance, $28 Day of show. groundworksdance.org/tickets, cainpark.com or (216) 371-3000.
The program repeats as part of the Heinz Poll Summer Dance Festival at dusk (8:45 p.m.), Friday, August 4 and Saturday, August 5. Goodyear Heights Metro Park, 2077 Newton St., Akron. Admission is Free. More information at groundworksdance.org.
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.