‘Fall For DANCECleveland’ Virtual Dance Film Series Hits Entertainment Bullseye [REVIEW]

Ballet Hispánico in “CARMEN.maquia”. Photo courtesy of Ballet Hispánico.

Reviewed by Steve Sucato

For DANCECleveland’s second virtual dance film series, Fall For DANCECleveland (October 10 -November 18), the 64-year-old dance-only presenting organization culled together five previously recorded dance films of works by three dance companies familiar to their audiences and one new to them. And as with their other pay-to-view virtual dance film series this summer, Fall For DANCECleveland came with bonus features including interviews with company artistic directors, master classes and a virtual playbill.

First up, in celebration of October’s Hispanic Cultural Month, the series opened with a 2013 Lincoln Center recording of Ballet Hispánico in Gustavo Ramírez Sansano’s “CARMEN.maquia”. A contemporary dance version of Prosper Mérimée’s 1845 novella Carmen made famous by Georges Bizet’s opera, the 2-act production was set to various pieces of music by Bizet. It featured a minimalist black and white set and costume design inspired by artist Pablo Picasso’s illustrations for the 1948-49 and 1964 reissues of Mérimée’s novella.

Premiered in Chicago in 2012 by now-defunct Luna Negra Dance Theater, the work’s title comes from Picasso’s description of the Spanish temptress as being like an untamable bull and a play on “Tauromaquia,” the Spanish word for bullfighting.

Act 1 began with army corporal Don Jose (Christopher Bloom) in an emotionally conflicted solo where he twisted and turned in place and pawed at his chest trying get at a pain he could not quell. A trio of female cigar factory workers in white then began a series of fast-moving, seductive, and teasing dance steps coupled with an aggressive marauder attitude. Sansano’s choreography for those scenes, and the rest of the ballet, came from a place of communicative intent using a seemingly no rules dance language that felt influenced by much, but still quite unique. A language where a familiar gesture was blown up into 100 articulated dance moves that piled layer upon layer of meaning and intent into a situation and into the feelings of the characters involved in it.

For the most part the ballet followed the familiar Carmen tale of lust, jealousy, heartache and betrayal. Kimberly Van Woesik was radiant as the manipulative lead character of Carmen. With long jet-black hair and full of vim and vigor, her Carmen was like a stick of lit dynamite wrapped in soft skin and desirable curves that regularly blew up the hearts and egos of the male characters she encountered.

Ballet Hispánico in “CARMEN.maquia”. Photo courtesy of Ballet Hispánico.

Sansano did a marvelous job throughout the production of relating the push and pull of the volatile relationships between Carmen and Don Jose, Escamillo, the bullfighter (Mario Ismael Espinoza) and Carmen, and of Don Jose and his girlfriend Micaela (Melissa Fernandez).  In act 2 all of these relationships came to a head culminating in a final pas de deux between Carmen and an insanely jealous Don Jose who sought to force her to love him and reject all others. Their struggle ended with the pair locked in a deadly embrace where Carmen’s life ended with black ink representing her blood spreading across her costume and onto his. And like in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Bloom as Don Jose, racked with guilt, stared at the ink stains on his hands to seeming shout “Out, damned spot”.

CONTRA-TIEMPO – “Agua Furiosa” (Oct. 17-21)

Also saluting October’s Hispanic Cultural Month, Los Angeles-based CONTRA-TIEMPO made its DANCECleveland debut (if only virtually) in Ana Maria Alvarez’s “Agua Furiosa” (2016). The 75-minute dance theater work inspired by Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Oya, the Afro-Cuban deity of wind and storms, was in keeping with the company’s focus on activism as it related a powerful statement on race relations in this country.

Set to music by d. Sabela grimes and Pyeng Threadgill, the work began with Threadgill roaming a darkened stage in song as the work’s dancers writhed on the stage floor around her. Her singing told of Caliban from The Tempest and more intensifying in its urgency and volume until it climaxed in blood curdling screams accompanied by flashes of stage lightning and then ended in her sobbing as the 8 dancers on the floor gathered round her.  

CONTRA-TIEMPO in “Agua Furiosa”. Photo by Kathleen Schenck.

The piece played itself out like a dance version of a stream of consciousness moving from vignette to vignette that were filled with storytelling, poetry and metaphor. Vignettes where the dancers were primal in nature and fought over water, where they played a lively game of musical chairs seated on large white buckets and the eventual winner cheated, and in a number of telling dance sequences that employed a mix of Afro-Latin social dance, Catherine Dunham modern dance technique, hip hop and improvisation.

At its heart, “Agua Furiosa” sought to relate ongoing divisions over race to that of a wind that constantly blows through society, storming and calming in an endless cycle of destruction and healing. And through it all Threadgill came and went in her elevated costuming to deliver in song the themes and messages of the work. Her performance highlighted the work whose choreography could be at times a bit cliché. Overall, however, CONTRA-TIEMPO’s dancers’ performances and the work’s thoughtful messaging won over.

BODYTRAFFIC – “SNAP” and “A Trick of the Light” (Nov. 7-11)

For the program’s other Los Angeles-based dance troupe, BODYTRAFFIC, the film series organizers chose recordings of two shorter repertory works rather than one evening length piece. The first, choreographer Micaela Taylor’s “SNAP”(2019), was inspired, says the program notes, by “the ethnically diverse, yet isolating crowds of Los Angeles. It urges audiences to ‘snap out of’ the social pressures to conform and to connect with their individuality as well as with people around them.”

BODYTRAFFIC in “SNAP”. Photo courtesy of BODYTRAFFIC.

The 20-minute piece danced to original music and sound by SCHOCKE, was like Japanese anime in dance form. The work’s seven performers, all apparently stricken with jitters, were in constant motion marching, shimmying, turning and rolling onto the stage floor. Animated facial expressions coupled with hip hop, modern and contemporary dance movement snapped into place in highly stylized choreography. Some dancers engaged in cartoonish lip-synched conversations to muddled voices and high pitched sounds, others to a song about losing one’s mind in which two male dancers with contracted chests moved about the stage like comedian Martin Short’s character Ed Grimley, and a trio of women danced in silence to choreography a la Merce Cunningham meets RUBBERBANDance Group’s Victor Quijada.  

“SNAP” is a work that could have been easily created in response to 2020’s topsy-turvey pandemic world. Where conditions are ripe for a snapping of wills and minds. Humorous, well-crafted and keenly danced, “SNAP” was a wonderful reflection on our current world that continues to defy sense.

BODYTRAFFIC’s other film, Joshua L. Peugh’s “A Trick of the Light,” was another comedic dance work this time set at a 1950’s high school dance. The 15-minute piece to an array of music from French songstress to Nelson Riddle, opened with three male/female couples slow dancing to an old-timey ballad. As the piece zoomed in on these GREASE, the musical types, we find that they were moving in a bizarre waltz with one another. In one couple, the guy stuck his fingers in his female partner’s mouth and proceeded to pull her around the dance floor. Another had a girl seated on the floor in her prom dress sniffing her bare feet, and one other found two men engaged in a zany duet of face touching using both their hands and feet.

BODYTRAFFIC in “A Trick of the Light”. Photo by Bill Herbert.

A dance work with broad accessibility and humor, “A Trick of the Light’s” most memorable moment came when several couples with women straddling their male partner’s shoulders, sprinkled fake snow from above onto another couple who were locked in a lover’s gaze as they slow danced together.  

David Dorfman Dance – “Aroundtown” (Nov. 14-18)

Recorded in 2017 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) in New York, David Dorfman’s “Aroundtown” explored themes of love and relationships. Interlaced with spoken text, singing, artwork projections and video, the 55-minute dance theater piece leaned heaviest on its theater elements to drive home its messaging.

Danced to live original music composed and performed by Dorfman, Sam Crawford, Zeb Gould, Jeff Hudgins and Liz de Lise, “Aroundtown” dug its heels into the many facets of love and how we as humans crave it, mold our lives around it, and are at times devastated by it. The post-modern dance work’s cast of 3 men and 3 women, along with brief appearances by Dorfman and wife Lisa Race, moved through physically athletic choreography that had them flipping over and bouncing off one another, engaged in slow motion fist fights and at times quietly hugging, holding hands and kissing.

David Dorfman Dance in “Aroundtown”. Photo by Julieta Cervantes.

Dense with the complicated emotions of its characters and a fair amount of humor, “Aroundtown” had its performers and the audience on a emotional roller coaster throughout. One of its the most striking scenes came in the form of a monologue by dancer Jasmine Hearn in which she pretended to pick out someone in the audience to complement them on how her clothing matched theirs. Her smiling demeanor then turned on a dime as she quietly stated “I hate you” to whomever she was talking to and then repeated that multiple times each time more forcefully and loudly. The jarring and poignant scene ended with her calming as her body trembled and she began to softly sing “Sometimes I don’t know how fragile I am”.

Another memorable vignette involved dancer Kendra Portier shouting “here comes love” and then running an jumping into the arms of the other dancers to be lifted overhead. And like a giggling child delighted by this action, she shouted “again” and repeated her leap several times over.

Perhaps the work’s most uncomfortable and moving scene came toward its end when Simon Thomas-Train was carried about the stage by the other dancers and flipped about as he delivered a wordplay monologue based on the word “around”. “I want to go around town,” he said. “I want you around.” Then as if recalling a painful breakup, his wordplay began to devolve into phrases of anger and hurt with him finally and desperately shouting “I don’t want you around”.

A dance work that had a lot to say in its own quirky way, “Aroundtown” was a fitting conclusion to a stylistically diverse Fall dance film series that hit the mark on entertainment value.

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.