Verb Ballets gives all in Jam-packed ‘Going Solo’

Verb Ballets dancers in “Sometimes Always”. Photo by Jackie Sajewski.

Verb Ballets
Going Solo
Digital Stage Production
February 26, 2021

Reviewed by Steve Sucato

Popular catch phrase, “make it work,” used by fashion guru Tim Gunn of Television’s Project Runway was often uttered to motivate the show’s designer contestants to overcome obstacles in the creation of their works. Verb Ballet’s has seemingly also adopted that mantra in overcoming the obstacles presented to the company by the current global pandemic in producing programming.

Led by producing artistic director Dr. Margaret Carlson and associate artistic director Richard Dickinson the company has, on a shoestring budget, reinvented itself as a digital stage dance company. The company has since the pandemic began in early 2020, produced a series of compelling digital dance programs that have both enriched and challenged their dancers, while delighting virtual audiences with an eclectic mix of ballets.

Their latest digital stage production, Going Solo premiered on February 26 and was filmed at their Shaker Heights, Ohio studio/performance space. The program was a jam-packed hourlong collection of classic ballet, folk and modern dance works and included another world premiere ballet by Dickinson.

Leading off the program were solo variations from Marius Petipa’s 1847 ballet Paquita, staged by Verb guest artist Robert Carter of Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo.

Dancing to music for the ballet by Ludwig Minkus, Elizabeth Schaeffer performed the energetic “Variation I” on a darkened stage on pointe in a white tutu and face mask. The uber classical choreography had her running across the stage in petite jumps and posing in front attitude on relevé (a rise to the toes from the flat foot). While Schaeffer’s technique appeared a bit forceful and unsettled, she danced the solo with spirit and purpose.

Kelly Korfhage in Paquita. Photo by Kolman Rosenberg.

Next, Kelly Korfhage began “Variation II” with back and forth movements across the stage that ended in leg-lifting poses in attitude. Her dancing was imbued with confidence and elegance as was Lienke Matte’s “Variation III” that followed. The petite Matte displayed smooth technique in her solo characterized by tour jeté jumps and difficult spins.

After a rushed looking “Variation IV” by dancer Julie Russell who seemed to cut every dance position and pose short to keep pace with the music, dancer Kate Webb overcame her own bobbles in “Variation V”, a The Nutcracker, “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy-like” solo dense with tight footwork and turns on pointe. 

Emily Dietz concluded the solos in “Variation VI” that called on her balancing skills on pointe in travelling leg lift poses and in turns and pirouettes. Dietz’s steady dancing finished in a flutter of fast footwork.

Switching stylistic gears, the premiere of Dickinson’s “Sometimes Always” came next. The contemporary ballet for a quartet of men in three sections to Samuel Barber’s String Quartet in B minor, Op. 11, says Dickinson, “is about being strong and vulnerable at the same time.”

The ballet began with the dancers, costumed in white pants, short sleeve tops, masks, and ballet shoes, running center from all corners of the stage to form a pinwheel. The men grasped each other’s forearms with one hand and lunged outward from the center, their free arms shooting straight out with fingers splayed.  The men then ran on and off the stage and into small jumps and turns. Their movement was smooth and pleasing.

Verb Ballets dancers in “Sometimes Always”. Photo by Jackie Sajewski.

Dickinson, during this past pandemic year has found a creative “sweet spot” in his choreography that has yielded some of his most consistent and well-crafted work to date.  With “Sometimes Always”, elegance, power and grace came in the form of movement with a do-si-do quality or that of being puppet-like in its reflection of the melancholy contained in Barber’s music for the ballet.

A middle-section duet to Barber’s famed Adagio for Strings, Op. 11, saw dancers Benjamin Shepard and Antonio Morillo unite in unison choreography with partnered lifts that felt purposefully uncontrolled. The men spun 360 degrees in place in what at times felt like oversimplified, chaotic movement that had an emotional connection between the two men as its end game. The duet finished with Shepard’s character rejecting a disheartened Morillo. 

The nicely danced ballet concluded with the men coming together to dance with Shepard and Morillo’s characters still at emotional odds with one another.

Next came Dances for Isadora (Five Evocations of Isadora Duncan), a classic modern dance work that the Jose Limon Dance Company debuted at the Cleveland Museum of Art in 1971. Choreographed by Jose Limon, the work was an homage to Isadora Duncan’s life and career.  Danced to a piano score by Frederic Chopin, five of Verb’s female dancers gave new life and reverence to the work that was a highlight of the program.

Lienke Matte in Dances for Isadora. Photo by Kolman Rosenberg.

Its opening section “Primavera” (Spring) was danced by a barefoot Matte in a light green, flowing knee-length dress. Moving in signature Duncan movement style, Matte’s long hair flowed in runs and swooping motions about the stage, her arms constantly reaching for the heavens. Matte brought an abundance of feeling to her delicate and nuanced performance that reached out from the view screen and into one’s soul. I cannot imagine a dancer performing that solo better.

Dancer Emani Drake in a red, flowing top and leotard came next in “Maenad”. A follower of Greek god Dionysus said to be mad or demented, the solo tapped into the frenzied and aggressive dances of Greek mythology associated with the Maenads.   

Keeping with the Greek mythology theme, Dietz in the solo “Niobe” (the daughter of Tantalus) portrayed the prototypical bereaved mother. Taking inspiration from Duncan’s 1915 work Nocturne,that stemmed from her own motherhood and loss, Dietz, in a floor-length crimson and purple dress slowly moved through gestural choreography that saw her scooping up an unseen child from the ground and cradling it in her arms.

Emily Dietz in Dances for Isadora. Photo by Kolman Rosenberg.
Noe Iwamatsu in Dances for Isadora. Photo by Jackie Sajewski.

“La Patrie”, perhaps a reference to Duncan’s string of political dances, featured a defiant Noe Iwamatsu whipping around a bolt of red fabric like a cape before Webb rounded out the work in “Scarf Dance”. The solo utilized Duncan’s solar plexus originated movement language in referencing her collection of scarf dances such as 1907’s “Orientale”.  It also served as a sad reminder of Duncan’s untimely death in 1927 at age fifty when the long scarf she was wearing became entangled in the wheel of the car she was riding in. Webb’s tribal-like performance that included flamenco-esque foot stomping in silence was a powerful conclusion to a marvelous dance work.

After a respectable performance of the male slave Ali’s solo from the ballet Le Corsaire by guest dancer Sikhumbuzo Hlahleni, Going Solo concluded with two lively group folk dances, “Jota” and “Ukrainian Dance” both staged by Inna Stabrova.