Digital Stage Production
May 14, 2021
Reviewed by Steve Sucato
For the latest program in Verb Ballet’s 2020-21 virtual dance season, the company offered up a trio of works including two world-premieres that were created on the company.
Filmed at Verb’s Shaker Heights, Ohio studio/performance space with Verb’s dancers masked up per usual adhering to COVID-19 safety protocols, the digital stage production opened with choreographer Stephanie Martinez’s world premiere work, “World of Another”. Danced to an eclectic music soundtrack from Antonio Vivaldi to Austin, Texas pop-soul group All Skate, the full-company contemporary dance piece, like many created in the last year and a half, was pandemic-inspired.
Costumed in street clothes and socks, Verb’s dancers marched onto the stage in two lines engaging in sharp-angled arm movements as they went. The dancers pointed fingers out into the space around them and shrugged shoulders in a sort of unison conga line. Breaking from the group, dancer Emily Dietz noticed lying on the stage floor a blue suit jacket she picked up and tried on several different ways – first with one arm in one sleeve, then backwards and finally properly. While this was happening, the others marched on picking up a female dancer from their ranks and lifting her facing up over their heads.
Symbolic of whatever the viewer would like to read into it, the jacket would be a thread that ran throughout the work with several dancers in the cast wearing it. After Dietz dancer Emani Drake donned it for a frenetic solo, and then after being passed to several more dancers, it ended up in the hands of international cultural exchange artist Sikhumbuzo Hlahleni who expressed uneasiness, if not fear, of being in procession of it. He slowly wrapped it around his head and buried his face in the crumpled garment before exiting the stage to be replaced by a trio of women moving through knife sharp gestural movement.
Martinez’s choreography throughout, like a game of tag, ran here and there on the stage revealing several defined moods to the work.
After Hlahleni returned to the stage, this time wearing the blue jacket, he sat onstage quietly watching a soft pas de deux performed by Benjamin Shepard and Kelly Korfhage. A strong sense of isolation in the scene was the most relatable of the work’s underlying pandemic themes.
Of the many styles of dance Verb’s dancers are asked to perform as a company, Martinez’s perhaps suits them the best. They performed her engaging choreography wonderfully, especially Hlahleni and Lieneke Matte and “World of Another” proved pure gold for the company.
Next, came choreographer Christopher L. Huggins’ 2010 dance work “Love is…”. Inspired by, and danced to music by Michael Galasso, Matte and dancer Antonio Morillo in 1940s costuming opened the piece in a slow-developing lovers pas de deux, bending and stretching into arabesques and arching torsos. At one pointe Matte is lifted straight upside down by Morillo and looking as if she is walking on the ceiling.
Huggins’ beautiful modern dance choreography revealed a bond between the dancers’ two characters that was deep and caring. The pair lifted one another figuratively and literally with the petite Matte carrying Morillo, who towers over her, in her arms across the stage.
The second part of the work was danced to French café music with a quartet of well-to-do society women, also in 1940s garb, prancing about to be noticed. Then came the trio of dancer Kate Webb being courted by dancers Hlahleni and Hunter Hoffman. Webb playfully sat on the two men’s interlocked arms like on a swing and was rocked back and forth. Webb’s flirty character dodged the men’s romantic advances throughout the comedic scene ducking out from between them at scene’s end causing the men to embrace each other instead of her.
After a passionate solo by Emani Drake, the work’s fourteen dancers came together for a final group dance that ended with them horizontally lined up and shouting through their masks declarations of love; some angrily, some in frustration. Matte in the center of it all, sank slowly to the stage floor as if exhausted and/or heartbroken and closed eyes to the world around her.
Contemporary Creations concluded with the world premiere of Chinese choreographer Liu Mo’s “Luck and Fortune”. Yet another full company group work, it was danced to an atmospheric soundscape from composers Víkingur Ólafsson, Jóhann Jóhannsson and Max Richter. Also, a pandemic-inspired work, Mo themed his piece around the disruption of plans in all of our lives caused by it.
It began with Verbs dancers onstage in obtuse groupings staring at, or seemingly through, one another and off into the distance. Costumed in crimson and black and dancing in socks, the dancers suddenly began paring off and unleashing a tirade of emotional outbursts at each other. Some of the couples engaged in confrontation and combativeness, while others bounced and gyrated about with joy. The short-lived outbursts ended with the couples hugging one another.
While somewhat interesting in its visual landscape, “Luck and Fortune” lacked the choreographic sophistication of the program’s two prior works. Emotional situations were laid before us in their most obvious incarnations and the dancing appeared simplistic.
The work’s finest moments came first in a lovely pas de deux performed by Korfhage and Morillo replete with partnered lifts and turns, and then at work’s end with a sudden change of mood and scenery when the camera pulled back its view to reveal daylight pouring onto the stage as the view moved outdoors, breaking the illusion of Mo’s onstage world to show stage lights and other equipment and jolting us back to reality.
Verb Ballets returns to live performance in Director’s Choice, 7 p.m., Saturday, June 26 at The Breen Center for the Performing Arts at St. Ignatius High School, 2008 West 30th Street, Cleveland. The program will reprise Martinez’s “World of Another” along with performances of Heinz Poll ballets “Bolero” and “Triptych”. A virtual encore of the program will be available via Verb’s streaming services from June 27- July 3. Tickets for the June 26 in-theater performance are $25-30 and $25 for the virtual encore. For tickets and information visit verbballets.org.