By Steve Sucato
Like a favorite character on a long running television series or movie franchise, when they are no longer a part of our lives we feel a sense of loss. For dance fans, that same feeling can come when a favorite performer moves on to other pursuits.
For followers of Cleveland’s GroundWorks DanceTheater, such will be the case as two of its longtime company favorites, Felise Bagley and Damien Highfield will take their final bow with the 19-year-old contemporary dance troupe after the conclusion of its 2018 Spring Concert Series, Saturday, March 3 at Akron University’s EJ Thomas Hall and Saturday, April 7 at Cleveland’s Saint Ignatius High School’s Breen Center for the Performing Arts.
Hailing from the South Shore of Long Island, Felise Bagley says she doesn’t recall a time when she didn’t know she was going to be a dancer. “I started dancing before she could remember,” she says. “There are photos of me dancing in cute outfits at a young age that I don’t remember having taken place.”
Bagley was further spurred on by her artistic family, her father an artist, and mother, who studied ballet with a Russian woman in Queens, would take her to see the New York City Ballet and other dance and arts events as a child. Her early dance training began with Willa Damien, a former soloist with Maurice Béjart’s Ballet of the 20th Century. She then went on to study at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s school before dancing professionally with Philadanco, Joffrey II and Ohio Ballet en route to GroundWorks.
In addition to dance, Bagley growing up also competed in gymnastics and diving throughout her high school years and took horseback riding, piano and flute lessons as well as drawing lessons at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology.
Known for her work ethic, dedication to her craft and impeccable facility, Bagley, to many, is one of those dance artists that seemingly could dance forever. Asked in an interview surrounding her receiving the 2015 Mid-career Cleveland Arts Prize in theatre & dance about her longevity as a performer, she replied: “I always feel brand new after one of our performances… why would I stop?”
So why is she stopping?
She’s not, she says, just moving on from GroundWorks.
“Seventeen years is way beyond anyone’s expectations to stay in one place as a dancer,” says Bagley. “Most dancers don’t even have careers that last that long. It feels like the right time to make a move. I feel really accomplished and fulfilled with my time at GroundWorks but I also have this yearning to experience other things.”
Like 40-year-old New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, Bagley at 46 is an anomaly. While she is still among the best dancers in the region, most of her contemporaries have long since retired from dance company life.
Bagley says she has left the door open to dance and choreograph as opportunities arise, but for now her attention has shifted to Gyrotonics, where she is a certified instructor at Inspiral Motion in Shaker Heights.
In addition to the fond memories of the people, places and performances she has had as a member of GroundWorks, Bagley says some of her favorite moments have been in the creative process working with GroundWorks artistic director/choreographer David Shimotakahara and a slew of guest choreographers including Robert Moses, Beth Corning, Lynn Taylor Corbett, David Parker and “well most everyone,” she says. “I have really tried to take what the choreographers have created and make it come alive in my own way.”
Also making his final appearances as a member of GroundWorks is Columbus-native, Highfield who began his dance journey at age 5 as a way to help him deal with his Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and to address his fascination with disco and John Travolta. He trained at Columbus’ BalletMet along with his two brothers and two sisters but was the only one who went on to pursue a career in dance.
Highfield says he got his first taste of performing in 1980 in BalletMet’s The Nutcracker production and never looked back. “Once you get onstage it’s addictive like a drug,” says Highfield of that first experience.
As a teen in addition to dancing with BalletMet’s the short-lived JazzMet, he took viola lessons, played soccer and was involved in theater and choir.
Highfield received a BFA in Dance from Butler University and went on to dance professionally with Atlanta Ballet and Ohio Ballet for 7-years before joining GroundWorks fulltime in 2007. Highfield had been guesting with Shimotakahara and GroundWorks since 1999.
Now 44 and having gone through a broken foot, torn meniscus and several bulged discs over his 25+ year professional dance career, Highfield says his body told him it was time to retire. So when the opportunity to purchase Akron’s Stage Center dancewear/shoe store came his way recently, he says he couldn’t pass it up.
“I look back on my career and I did everything I wanted to do and am very happy,” says Highfield. But as with Bagley, don’t look for him to completely stop dancing. He also plans to choreograph and guest dance when opportunities arise.
Highfield says his rewards from being a member of GroundWorks came in the comradely he shared with his fellow company members over the years.
“There were only five us so the dancers were the company and the company were the dancers,” he says. “We did everything, danced, choreographed and did outreach. And when a new dancer joined the company, we learned their style they learned ours. We grew together as a family. That is what I truly enjoyed and will miss the most.”
Of the works he has done as a member of GroundWorks, Highfield says many were memorable including those of choreographers Ronen Koresh, Kate Weare, Amy Miller and Gina Gibney. Recent works of Shimotakahara’s such as “House of Sparrows” and “Boom Boom” also rank high on his list. It is Shimotakahara’s early works however, he says he found most rewarding including “Sweet,” “Opening Seating,” and the very first work he collaborated on for the company, 2000’s “Circadian.” He and Bagley will reprise the duet in the Spring Concert Series. It will serve to bookend his career he says.
One of Shimotakahara’s most enduring dance works, “Circadian,” says Shimotakahara “was built on a gesture that becomes an extended reach. We also worked on ideas of things accumulating over time and of things being pulled together and apart. It’s about the force of attraction.”
Originally set to flute and harp music says Highfield, the 13-minute duet’s dynamic replacement score by longtime GroundWorks collaborator Gustavo Aguilar is a large part of its character and appeal with audiences.
“I think it lands emotionally,” says Shimotakahara of the work. “I like the tension created between the work’s formality and its emotional core.”
The first of two world-premieres on the program, choreographer James Gregg’s “éveillé” (awake) was inspired by Italian poet Giambattista Basile’s version of the Sleeping Beauty story entitled “The Sun, Moon and Talia,” taken from his 1634 collection of fairytales, the Pentamerone.
Not your Disney take on Sleeping Beauty, rather Basile’s tale involves necrophilia, rape, adultery, cannibalism and attempted murder. Don’t worry you won’t be seeing all of that on stage in Gregg’s interpretation. What you will see is a break dance and contemporary dance version loosely based on Basile’s story that captures the complex emotions involved with each of its characters who experience lust, love, betrayal and tragedy.
Set to music by Ben Frost from the 2011 Australian erotic drama film “Sleeping Beauty,” “éveillé” tells of Talia (renamed Beauty in this version), danced by Taylor Johnson who is a great lord’s daughter and who falls into a magical slumber as foretold by astrologers after a splinter of flax pierces her skin. She is then discovered after a period of time by a King, portrayed by Highfield, alone in an abandon house. Mistakenly thinking she was dead but still enraptured by her beauty, the King makes love to her. Beauty then gives birth to twins, a boy (Tyler Ring) and girl (Gemma Freitas Bender) that she names Sun and Moon. The King then finds out Beauty is alive and he is the father of her children, so too does his wife the Evil Queen (Bagley) who hatches a plan to kill Beauty and get even with her adulterous husband by having him eat a meal made from the flesh of his and Beauty’s dead children.
A recipient of a 2015 Princess Grace Choreography Fellowship Award, Gregg, a former dancer with Bodytraffic, Les Ballet Jazz de Montreal, Rubberband Dance Group and River North Dance Company, has created choreographic works for Danceworks Chicago, Ballet X, Northwest Dance Project and Whim W’Him. This is his first creation for GroundWorks.
Of “éveillé,” Gregg said in a blog interview for GroundWorks, “My works are like a puzzle piece. I love creating movement from the inside out and exploring different paths through which the body can move.”
Rounding out the program will be the premiere of Shimotakahara’s “Passenger,” a work that takes its cue from 5-sections of American composer John Adams’ chamber work “John’s Book of Alleged Dances.”
Shimotakahara says of Adams’ score: “I heard so many possibilities in the music almost from the first time I listened to it. It goes through so many references with regard to styles, genres and cultural idioms in the music. It’s almost like he is taking us on a magic carpet ride.”
That varied approach to the music also influenced Shimotakahara’s approach to the work’s choreography which he says uses several differing dance styles. Also a part of the 20-minute work for all five of GroundWorks dancers, is the idea that while all of us are may be together on this journey called life, ultimately we travel alone. That idea he says is best expressed in a duet within the work danced by Freitas Bender and Ring that is set to music by pianist and composer Dustin O’Halloran.
For Shimotakahara and GroundWorks, the departure of Bagley and Highfield is, as they say, the end of an era. A microcosm of the company’s evolution contained in their bodies, minds and performances, the pair’s departure will forever change the company as did their arrival as dancers almost two decades ago. As now the lone remaining artistic link to GroundWorks beginnings, Shimotakahara waxed poetic:
“I just have nothing but gratitude and respect of the both of them. To think back to where the company started and what the company was built on, we have stayed true to the initial idea [of new works that challenge the range of its artists] of the company and we have evolved together. The fact that they have committed to that for such a long time is special. The new artists that are going to come into the company are going to change it. I am prepared to allow that to happen. I not going to expect them to come in and dance like Felise and Damien. I know that I am not going to create the same type of work I would have continuing to work with them. That is the nature of what we have been doing all along with GroundWorks. Dancers come and go and the work does shifts. I think that is a good thing, a healthy thing.”
GroundWorks DanceTheater performs its 2018 Spring Concert Series, 7:30 p.m., Saturday, March 3 at Akron University’s EJ Thomas Hall, 198 Hill St., Akron and 7: 30 p.m., Saturday, April 7 at Saint Ignatius High School’s Breen Center for the Performing Arts, 2008 W. 30th St., Cleveland. Tickets are $10-30. For more information and tickets visit groundworksdance.org or call (216) 751-0088.
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.