By Steve Sucato
The novelty of an all-female choreographer dance program shouldn’t be a thing for many reasons, not the least being the disproportionately greater number of females in dance than males. That it still is, is nonetheless a commendable early step along the journey when the need to tout giving opportunities to female choreographers will be rendered unnecessary and artistic directors programming female choreographers’ works will be as an unconscious a move as muscle memory is to any dancer.
Joining other dance company’s recent efforts in highlighting female choreographers’ works is Cleveland’s own Verb Ballets. Their latest production 4X4: Four Works by Female Choreographers, Saturday, February 8 at Saint Ignatius High School’s Breen Center for the Performing Arts is a program solely of works by female choreographers. The mixed repertory evening will feature reprises of ballets by former Cleveland Ballet dancer Kay Eichman and Verb dancer Kate Webb, along with a classic pas de deux by ballet icon Agrippina Vaganova and the company premiere of Chicago-based choreographer Stephanie Martinez’s “Wandering On” (2017).
The newest of the choreographers featured, Webb’s “Stellar Syncopations” (2019) is set to an improvisational jazz score by Akron musician, Pat Pace entitled “Excursions” that was originally created for Heinz Poll’s 1982 ballet of the same name. Webb describes Pace’s composition as challenging to choreograph dance steps to because of its unusual counts but fitting for her ambitious idea of a ballet visualizing the life-cycle of a star.
“I grew up loving science and wanted to be an astronomer after my dance career,” says Webb. While that may or may not happen, Webb says she enjoyed researching and creating the 30-minute abstract ballet.
Where Webb’s ballet takes its inspiration from the cosmos, a reworked version of Martinez’s “Wandering On” takes its inspiration from the spiritual and metaphysical aspects of the human life-cycle. The 12-minute contemporary dance work derives its concept from the Sanskrit word Samsara that translates as wandering through the constant cycle, or circuitous changes, of life. Martinez says it was her yoga teacher husband who introduced her to the term and the concept behind it.
In the work for 4 men and 7 women set to music by composers Ezio Bosso, Max Richter and others, Martinez creates interweaving worlds leading toward enlightenment.
“I wanted to physicalize getting to another realm,” says Martinez. “You are where you want to be in the end and there is freedom.”
In creating choreography for her works Martinez says she first thinks about movement for herself emanating from the inside out. “I let something happen that informs my arm to move, I don’t move my arm first per se,” says Martinez. “I also think about structure and texture. I go through many cycles to get to what it turns into.”
In a rehearsal of “Wandering On” at Verb Ballets’ Shaker Heights studios, Martinez pushed the dancers to find grit in their performances. In coaching Verb’s Emily Dietz in a solo from the work, Martinez told her to “just break all the rules” and to “go out and kick it.”
Where Martinez encouraged Verb’s dancers to let go the preciousness of ballet in her work, Eichman’s “Mendelssohn Italian Symphony” (2019) has them fully embracing it and much more. The neo-classical ballet in 3 sections for 4 couples is set to, and is in response to, the first, second and fourth movements of the Mendelssohn’s “Symphony No. 4 in A Major, Op. 90” (Italian Symphony). Premiered last February, the ballet (the first for Eichman on a professional company) bubbled with enthusiasm in its debut despite some dancer missteps. It should prove even better in its second go round.
Completing the program will be a legendary pas de deux by one of the biggest names in classical ballet, Agrippina Vaganova. Vaganova perfected the teaching methods of Russia’s Imperial Ballet into one of the world’s leading ballet techniques that bears her name. In 1935 she choreographed the showpiece “Diana y Acteon Pas de Deux”. Restaged by Cuba’s Laura Alonzo and performed by Verb’s Lieneke Matte and Benjamin Sheppard, the 8-minute pas de deux will be full of ballet fireworks.
Verb Ballets performs 4X4: Four Works by Female Choreographers, 8 p.m., Saturday, February 8 at Saint Ignatius High School’s Breen Center for the Performing Arts, 2008 W. 30th St., Cleveland. Tickets are $10-35 (Student ticket discount is available). Tickets can be purchased through Eventbrite at verbballets.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.