‘Inside’ the Class of GroundWorks’ Outdoor Dance Film Screenings [REVIEW – Arts Air]

(L-R) GroundWorks DanceTheater dancers Annie Morgan, Kirsten Coco and Nicole Hennington in “Inside”. Photo by Kuo-Heng Huang.

GroundWorks DanceTheater
Drive In Dance Film Screenings
Dunham Tavern Museum Parking Lot
Cleveland, Ohio
October 31, 2020

Reviewed by Steve Sucato

Part of GroundWorks DanceTheater’s nextSPACE Fall 2020 programming, the company presented a screening of two dance films October 31 at Dunham Tavern Museum’s parking lot in Cleveland.

Facing a giant inflatable screen provided by Free Akron Outdoor Movies, a select number of audience vehicles were lined up drive-in movie style for global pandemic-inspired event.

First up was videographer Brian Brennfleck’s dance film capturing GroundWorks’ August 15, 2020 pop-up drive-in performance of artistic director David Shimotakahara’s “Jigsaw” in the parking lot of Cleveland’s historic Agora Theater & Ballroom.

(L-R) GroundWorks DanceTheater dancers Annie Morgan and Nicole Hennington in “Jigsaw”. Photo by Mark Horning.

Brennfleck’s film rather than a record of “Jigsaw” as a dance work, was more a capturing of the pop-up drive-in event itself. Using a hand-held camera, Brennfleck moved primarily along the circle of vehicles that surrounded dancers Nicole Hennington and Annie Morgan performing the contemporary dance work set to music by Steve Reich and Mats Berstrom. While the film included a good amount of footage of the two dancers’ performances, having seen the work inspired by the idea behind a jigsaw puzzle in August, the flow of it and the nuance of the dancers’ movements and interactions got lost in the scope of the film. Close-ups of the dancers bodies, some cutting off parts of them, distant shots of the dancers from around cars and from ground level and long, repetitive and somewhat dizzying camera shots that circled the perimeter of the venue space, had one feeling like they were watching Hennington and Morgan dance through the eyes of a stalker in a suspense thriller.  

As a record of “Jigsaw” as dance, the film missed the mark. As an art film of GroundWorks’ August 15 event, it had its moments especially in matching the rhythm of the work’s music. Overall, however, it came off as rather run-of-the-mill.

GroundWorks then presented a special Halloween surprise of a screening of late singer Michael Jackson’s longform music video for his 1982 smash hit “Thriller”.  As countless others have done since its release, Hennington and Morgan having learned Jackson and Michael Peters’ iconic choreography emerged from the darkness onto small platform stages on either side of the movie screen at the appropriate time to join in the video’s famous dance section. The pair costumed in characteristic Jackson red jackets were brilliant in performing with the video’s cast of zombie dancers.  

Capping the evening was the world premiere of choreographer Antonio Brown and videographer Kuo-Heng Huang’s “Inside,” a made for film dance work reflecting our collective malaise at being cooped up indoors during this global pandemic.

Shot mostly inside what looked to be an abandoned office/warehouse space, the film set to an eclectic score arranged by Brown, had the feel of a dystopian world a la the Russian city of Chernobyl, abandon and caught in time.

GroundWorks DanceTheater dancers in “Inside”. Photo by Kuo-Heng Huang.

Joining Hennington and Morgan in the film for their first performance as new members of GroundWorks were NYU Tisch School of the Arts alum Kirsten Coco, recent Juilliard graduate John Hewitt, and Jacob Nahor, a former dancer with New Dances Chicago.

The film opened on two dancers behind the semi-transparent curtains of an empty office space dancing apart and that spun and bent the dancers to the ground. Soon they are joined by the other three dancers in the dark and moody atmosphere of the lifeless building. Costumed in street clothes with fingerless black gloves and wearing sneakers, the dancers surged and retreated in Brown’s contemporary dance movement that appeared tailored for GroundWorks’ preferred aesthetic.

Switching locations to a room in the building that looked like a padded cell, the mood of the music and the work momentarily began to lighten up. Morgan then begins the first of several monologues by the dancers quietly spoken into the camera. Hers is a fantasy about moving to Amsterdam, switching careers, and going off the grid as if in a witness protection program.

GroundWorks DanceTheater’s Kirsten Coco in “Inside”. Photo by Kuo-Heng Huang.

When the dancers enter a room with various chairs hung from the ceiling as a sculpture, the work’s surreal motif is complete.

“Inside,” fits nicely in with the current wave of dance works/films inspired by the global pandemic. Its imagery of seemingly normal people caught up in a nightmarish scenario of emotional states was impactful as were the performances of GroundWorks’ dancers.

With the creative/quality bar set higher than ever for dance films because of their recent widespread use, Brown and Huang’s film, made on a modest budget, rose to the challenge and vaulted to the top of the list of recent dance films to come out of Northeast, Ohio.  

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.