Verb Ballets: ‘Carnival Macabre’, ‘Building Bridges Together’ [REVIEWS]

Verb Ballets’ Daniel Cho and Julie Russel in Carnival Macabre. Photo by Kolman Rosenberg.

Reviewed by Steve Sucato

Carnival Macabre
Verb Ballets with Neil Zaza
Virtual Performance
October 30, 2020


Created as a stand-in for Verb Ballets and guitarist Neil Zaza’s popular One Dark Night…, A Rock Symphony of the Macabre (2019), Carnival Macabre (2020) was a made for the internet short film seeking to capture the spirit of One Dark Night’s Halloween rock symphony live show.

The October 30 pay-to-view virtual program began with on-camera interviews with Zaza and Verb choreographer/dancer Antonio Morillo offering insight into the production and how COVID-19 safety measures were put into place in its filming that included the dancers and Zaza wearing masks and being socially distanced from one another.

Tame in terms of fright factor by today’s standards, Carnival Macabre began with Zaza and Verbs’ dancers costumed as various ghoulish characters (including some from well-known story ballets) in a cemetery — Zaza wailing away on his guitar and the dancers moving about the headstones as well as a giant upright coffin with a large “Z” emblazoned on it. Later in the film, the dancers would use that coffin as a portal to another performance space.

(L-R) Verb Ballets’ Daniel Cho, Robert Carter and Julie Russel in Carnival Macabre. Photo by Kolman Rosenberg.
Neil Zaza in Carnival Macabre. Photo by Kolman Rosenberg.

Feeling like a long-running music video for Zaza’s Trans-Siberian Orchestra-like expansive rock music taken from his album One Dark Night, the film strung together dance references to classic story ballets along with clips from F. W. Murnau’s 1922 silent German Expressionist horror film, Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror.

Morillo’s choreography for the ballet was mostly on the serviceable side with a few flowery ballet moments. It shined most in the fifth-year company member’s rendition of the “Dance of the Knights” (Capulets) from the ballet Romeo and Juliet. Also included because of guest cast member Robert Carter of Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo fame, was a less humorous staging of “the Trocks’” parody of Mikhail Fokine’s The Dying Swan (originally The Swan). A lively, musically fun program overall, Carnival Macabre did not take itself too seriously nor did it rise to a level of high art. Rather, in a year hell bent on crushing spirits, it offered up a small reprise from the pain.  

Building Bridges Together
Verb Ballets and BlueWater Chamber Orchestra
Virtual Performance
November 21, 2020

Verb Ballets’ Benjamin Shepard and Kelly Korfhage in Heinz Poll’s “Adagio for Two Dancers”. Photo by Kolman Rosenberg.

A joint performance between Verb Ballets and Cleveland’s BlueWater Chamber Orchestra, Building Bridges Together featured three works (2 dance, 1 music only) set to string compositions.

The seed for the two arts organizations coming together was planted a couple summer’s ago when Verb artistic director Dr. Margaret Carlson and associate artistic director Richard Dickinson met with BlueWater artistic director/conductor Daniel Meyer at Lakeside Chautauqua. Fast forward to pandemic plagued 2020 and that idea to collaborate came to fruition in the form of a joint 45-minute pay-to-view virtual program.

The program began with the two groups coming together on Heinz Poll’s “Adagio for Two Dancers” (1973), a sumptuous pas de deux that has shown up in several of Verb’s performances over the past several seasons. Danced with feeling once again by Kelly Korfhage and Benjamin Shepard, the body melding piece with intricate partnering and difficult lifts, took on a different look this time round. Edited together with shots of the orchestra sharing the screen, the dancers’ bodies at times were cut off or pushed off to the side presenting, I feel, a less impactful rendition of the pas de deux. Conversely, seeing and hearing BlueWater’s heartfelt playing of the ballet’s score by Italian Baroque composer Tomoso Albinoni proved a bonus.

Next, the orchestra was on its own performing Austrian composer Anton Webern’s 1905 string quartet, “Langsamer Satz” (slow movement). The 10-minute lyrical piece is said to have been inspired by a hike Webern took with his soon-to-be wife Wilhelmine Mörtl. Once again BlueWater’s musicians acquitted themselves nicely in the meandering work with a well-balanced and tempered performance.

The program closed with a reprise of former Verb dancer Michael (Hinton) Escovedo’s “Broken Bridges” (2016). Another work on the program with a connection to former Ohio Ballet founder Heinz Poll, the ballet was set to Dmitri Shostakovich’s “Chamber Symphony in C minor Op. 110A,” the same music Poll used in his 1968 ballet “Elegiac Song”.

The ballet for 8 dancers was a tribute to Escovedo’s late grandmother Bridgett who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease and the caregiver relationship she and Escovedo’s mother Shawna Hinton had with her late in life.

Escovedo’s choreography for the ballet wonderfully captured the emotional turmoil that plagued his grandmother, portrayed by dancer Kate Webb, who was losing her grip on who she was and lashed out in anger and desperation at those around her. Even in a COVID-19 mask that covered the expression from her mouth, Webb radiated through piercing eyes the frantic and pained expressions that Bridgett must have felt in a tour de force performance that cut to the heart. Add to that steady performances by the rest of cast and that of BlueWater Chamber Orchestra, and Building Bridges Together made for a splendid collaboration this reviewer hopes will be repeated in the future.

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.