By Steve Sucato
With the retirement of longtime company members Felise Bagley and Damien Highfield plus the departure of dancer Taylor Johnson and the addition of three new dancers, Cleveland-based contemporary dance troupe GroundWorks DanceTheater is essentially a brand new company. And after their upcoming Summer Series performances at Cain Park, July 20-22 and at Glendale Cemetery in Akron, August 3 & 4 as part of Heinz Poll Summer Dance Festival, star dancer Gemma Freitas Bender will also be departing the company leaving only Tyler Ring as the lone returning dancer from last season.
For followers of the 5-member tiny troupe with the big reputation for quality work, many of the faces may be new entering the company’s 20th Anniversary season, but the guiding force behind it founder and resident choreographer David Shimotakahara remains the same.
“I’m loving this new group,” says Shimotakahara. “Their spirit and energy is right on. They are very generous, curious and it feels right.”
New to the company this season are Columbus-native Alexis Britford who trained at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts’ high school classical ballet program and at Wright State University before dancing professionally with Dayton Contemporary Dance Company, Robert Rubama, a recent graduate of George Mason University who hails from Virginia Beach, Virginia and is the founder of his own project-based dance troupe Terre Dance Collective, and Birmingham, Alabama-native Annie Morgan a recent graduate of Pittsburgh’s Point Park University. While at Point Park, Morgan was the recipient of the Loti Falk Scholarship and was highlighted by Pittsburgh City Paper as one of eight local standout performances in 2017 for her mesmerizing performance in Adam Hougland’s “Cold Virtues”.
The new look troupe will perform two new works as part of their 2018 Summer Series program at Cain Park and in Akron.
Half of that program will be comprised of a reprise of Shimotakahara and GroundWorks’ latest collaboration with ChamberFest Cleveland featured in ChamberFest’s June 30 concert at the Maltz Performing Arts Center entitled Dawn of a Revolution. The two groups previously collaborated in 2015 on Tan Dun’s Ghost Opera (see video below). The theme of Dawn of a Revolution says Shimotakahara was organizing a program around the progression of ideas in the chamber music canon throughout time. ChamberFest’s Frank and Diana Cohen assembled several touchstone musical moments in that canon and connected them via solo piano sections from György Ligeti’s “Musica Ricercata” that was used in director Stanley Kubrick’s final film the 1999 erotic drama, ”Eyes Wide Shut”.
“It intrigued me that the spine of the work would be these solo piano moments,” says Shimotakahara.
In “al-one,” which is a play on words meaning “all” and “one” at the same time, Shimotakahara created movement for all five of GroundWorks’ dancers to seven of the eleven compositions included in the piece. Those stylistically diverse compositions include works by Beethoven, Ravel, Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera, and Arvo Pärt’s melancholy work “Spiegel im Speigel”.
Shimotakahara says his choreography for “al-one,” began with ideas related to the moment of inspiration and creation for an artist. “That spark, is a revolutionary thing in my thinking,” he says; “A moment of change when something shifts in one’s perceptions and in the possibility of what can be.” Expanding on that idea, the 50-minute abstract dance work then delves into the processes of creation from trial and error to how information and ideas are passed along to inspire new creative ideas.
Attending the June 30 premiere of the work, I found Shimotakahara’s choreography to be dialed back and more reserved than usual. It was as if Shimotakahara was purposefully giving over the spotlight to ChamberFest’s musicians and the music. His back and forth choreography for the dancers, which had an ease and simple beauty to it, was delivered in small chunks and in various dancer configurations from solos to all five dancers performing as a group.
Audiences at Cain Park and in Akron will see and hear a different group of ChamberFest musicians perform the work live than had premiered it. One of those musicians will be dancer Freitas Bender’s husband William Bender who was recently appointed assistant principal violist with the Philharmonia Orchestra in London led by music director Esa-Pekka Salonen.
Says the soon-to-be-departing Freitas Bender, a Buffalo-native: “It has been a wonderful blessing coming to Cleveland to be with my husband, and finding my way into Groundworks. David [Shimotakahara] provides his dancers with such a consistent work environment and a plethora of opportunities to work with well-known choreographers. I feel I have been enriched by the experience and will really miss the people and the community.”
The other half of GroundWorks Summer Series program will be Nashville-Based choreographer Banning Bouldin’s commissioned work for the company, “Chronos”.
A 2002 graduate of Juilliard, Bouldin formerly danced with Lar Lubovitch Dance Company, Sweden’s Cullberg Ballet, Aszure Barton and Artists and Portland’s Rumpus Room Dance. As a choreographer, she has created works for Nashville Ballet, Visceral Dance Chicago, Seattle’s Whim W’Him and her own contemporary dance company, New Dialect.
Stylistically on the other end of the dance spectrum to Shimotakahara’s “al-one,” Bouldin’s “Chronos” will follow somewhat in the choreographic footsteps of her previous catalog of highly physical dance-theater works. Although she calls “Chronos” the most “concert dance” piece she has made in a long time, it will also challenge GroundWorks’ dancers’ physicality.
Inspired by the sudden death of a close family member as well as perhaps her own recent health issues, Bouldin says she has been thinking a lot lately about time and how we relate to it.
“We recognize the most meaningful moments in our lives through hindsight,” says Bouldin. “The pressure of keeping up with the clock can also cause us to miss meaningful moments as they are passing.”
Set to a varied soundscape including selections from Andrew Bird’s nature field recordings, “Echo Locations” and music by German composer Nils Frahm, the 25-minute work says Bouldin evolved into a non-narrative piece using a dance vocabulary illustrative of those themes of time and loss.
Of Banning working with GroundWorks Shimotakahara says: “It was quite astonishing to see somebody be able to articulate their ideas and the physicality of those ideas so clearly. It was also great for the new company to work in such an intensive way creating a positive bonding experience.”
GroundWorks DanceTheater performs its 2018 Summer Series dance program, 7 p.m., Friday, July 20 & Saturday, July 21 and 2 p.m., Sunday, July 22. Cain Park’s Alma Theater, 14591 Superior Rd., Cleveland Heights, Ohio. $25 Advance, $28 Day of show. groundworksdance.org/tickets, cainpark.com or (216) 371-3000. Post- Show Receptions: Free Beer Friday – Following Friday’s performance, free beer, wine and soft drinks will be offered. Dessert Reception Saturday – Following Saturday’s performance, a dessert reception featuring sweet treats will be offered. Ice Cream Sunday – Following Sunday’s performance, Mitchell’s Ice Cream will be offered.
The program repeats as part of the Heinz Poll Summer Dance Festival at dusk (8:45 p.m.), Friday, August 3 and Saturday, August 4. Glendale Cemetery, 150 Glendale Ave, Akron, Ohio. 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.