GroundWorks’ ‘Fall Concert Series’ Provided A Respite From Today’s Homogenized Contemporary Dance

GroundWorks’ dancers in David Shimotakahara’s “Salt to Sea.” Photo by Mark Horning.

GroundWorks DanceTheater – Fall Concert Series
Playhouse Square – Allen Theatre
Cleveland, Ohio
October 13-14, 2017

Reviewed by Steve Sucato

It’s been 7-years since GroundWorks DanceTheater founding member Amy Miller left Northeast, Ohio for New York. Since then the Ravenna-native has joined with fellow Ohio-native and Case Western Reserve University alum Gina Gibney as associate artistic director of Gibney Dance. Over those 7-years Miller has also maintained a relationship with her former company as an artistic associate and choreographer.

For the world-premiere of Miller’s 12th creation for GroundWorks, “Vade Mecum” (Latin for “go with me”) that opened the company’s 2017 Fall Concert Series at Playhouse Square’s Allen Theatre on October 13,  Miller stylistically harkened back to GroundWorks’ early years.

Sharing at times similarities in movement aesthetic to GroundWorks’ artistic director David Shimotakahara, but with a flair for wonderfully distorting the image of the perfect dancer, Miller with “Vade Mecum” offered something refreshingly different from the seemingly endless procession of homogenized contemporary dance works seen today on stages across the planet including, to a lesser extent, from GroundWorks in recent years.

Danced to a lilting piano score by composer Peter Jones, musical director for the dance program at Mount Holyoke College, all five of GroundWorks’ dancers including new company member Taylor Johnson began the work by crawling on all fours. Miller choreography for “Vade Mecum” infused a mix of ballet and modern dance steps with movement echoing recent GroundWorks’ repertory pieces such as the bouncing boxer steps from Monica Bill Barnes’ “Tonight’s the night”.

GroundWorks’ Gemma Freitas Bender in Amy Miller’s “Vade Mecum.” Photo by Mark Horning.

Said by Miller to be a work about “pushing against assumptions or ways that society encourages us to think about each other and our relationship to space and time,” the work had the dancers “going with” one another in satisfying movement phrases sprinkled with delightfully unexpected moments. As a unit, GroundWorks dancers were firing on all cylinders, with each given an opportunity to shine within Miller’s choreography. Johnson, in a solo filled with leg kicks and balancing body positions, showed she is a marvelous edition to the troupe.  And as good as Johnson and the others performers were in the work, company member Gemma Freitas Bender’s vibrant dancing and magnetic stage presence stole focus from everyone whenever she was onstage. She ranks among the very best dancers this region has to offer in a company that also ranks as such.

Next, Shimotakahara’s latest creation “Salt to Sea,” offered up his artistic response to the multitude of ills in the world. Set to an eclectic mix of music from a gospel choir to that of 2008 Pulitzer Prize-winning composer, and Bang on a Can co-founder David Lang, the work began with a melancholy and moving section whose shuffling group movement patterning was a bit reminiscent of  choreographer James Kudelka’s masterwork “The Man in Black.”

The work mirrored the ebb and flow of modern day life, going from times of suffering and despair to happier ones and back. A dramatic and thought-provoking work in its subtleties, it made the mental and emotional release of Shimotakahara’s “Brubeck” (2012) that came next to close the program, even sweeter.

GroundWorks’ Felise Bagley & Tyler Ring in David Shimotakahara’s “Brubeck.” Photo by Mark Horning.

Set to a suite of jazz great Dave Brubeck songs including “Take Five,” “Pick Up Sticks,” and “Blue Rondo a la Turk”,” the work was a vibrant celebration of Brubeck’s music.

Infused with jazz dance movement a la Gene Kelly, Shimotakahara’s choreography sat well on the dancers and who transmitted a feel-good vibe to the audience that they soaked up eagerly. Lighthearted and as effervescent as Brubeck’s music, the well-crafted work was loaded with great dancing from each of GroundWorks’ performers and was a marvelous ending to a marvelous program.

Steve Sucato is a former dancer turned arts writer/critic. He is Chairman Emeritus of the Dance Critics Association and Associate Editor of

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