Lone Group Work Highlights Simmons Dance’s Solos Program [REVIEW]

(l-r) Emily Jaikaran, Brady Sanders, JoAnna Dehler and Shana Simmons in “Comin’ Home Baby”. Photo courtesy of Shana Simmons Dance.

Shana Simmons Dance
Spring for Solos
Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre Stage at Flagstaff Hill
Schenley Park, Pittsburgh PA
May 20, 2021

Reviewed by Steve Sucato

A part of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s inaugural Open Air series at Schenley Park’s Flagstaff Hill stage, Shana Simmons Dance offered up the 50-minute program Spring for Solos.

The collection of mostly solo works from the company’s repertory began with artistic director/choreographer Shana Simmons performing her 2019 solo “Untitled”.  An inspiration for the company’s longer work, Living Landscapes, Simmons in the program notes says she “aimed to visualize herself within a specific environment in the hopes of translating that environment to the viewing audience.”

Performed to Yo-Yo Ma & The Silk Road Ensemble’s “Summer in the High Grassland”, Simmons walked slowly onstage to the Asian influenced music and began a series of smooth twisting and swerving modern dance movement. Like a calligrapher, the veteran performer imprinted the air around her with the artistic strokes of her dancing that was spellbindingly calm and lovely.

Shana Simmons in “Untitled”. Photo courtesy of Shana Simmons Dance.
Emily Jaikaran in “STOP”. Photo courtesy of Shana Simmons Dance.

Next, dancer Emily Jaikaran performed Simmons’s 2016 solo “STOP”. Danced to So Percussion’s apt tune “It Is Time: 1. Metronome”, Jaikaran swung her arms back and forth and stepped in time with the syncopated click of the music. With a similar flavor to the movement style of “Untitled”, the younger Jaikaran’s performance however, lacked the impact of Simmons.

The program’s lone group work, the premiere of “Comin’ Home Baby” to the Herbie Mann tune of the same name, was the delight of the program. Five dancers in black men’s suits, ties and bare feet danced to Mann’s jazzy music in modern dance choreography imbued with jazz dance notes.  The feelgood piece infused with humor, had the dancers strut walking, shrugging shoulders and genuinely appearing to be having fun in Simmons’s playfully infectious unison choreography.

As an audience member it was hard not to bop along with the music and get sucked into the work’s “Pink Panther-like” cool jazz vibe. A wonderful summer festival piece, “Comin’ Home Baby” left plenty of smiling audience faces in its wake.

Shanna Simmons Dance in “Comin’ Home Baby”. Photo courtesy of Shana Simmons Dance.
Jamie Erin Murphy in PASSENGER solo. Photo courtesy of Shana Simmons Dance.

The mood then turned somber as Jamie Erin Murphy reprised a solo excerpt from PASSENGER, the company’s 2014 environmental production about the extinction of the passenger pigeon.

Danced to recording of Anna Moffo singing Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Vocalise, Op. 34, No. 14”, the solo had a bit of a Mikhail Fokine’s “The Dying Swan” mood to it. Murphy twisted about and rolled to the stage floor all-the-while projecting heartfelt emotion out into the audience. Despite the solo being a touch repetitive and Murphy at times seeming to lack control in her dancing, the solo, its music, and Murphy’s overall performance in it, reflected the gravity and sadness of its subject matter.

Spring for Solos closed with dancer Brady Sanders in Simmons’s “Bits…Pieces…” (2011). The solo, performed to Carnegie Mellon University grad Andrew Griffin’s String Quartet Number 1, “Metropolis in the Fall” Mvt 2, featured a drop cloth spread onto the stage and lined with loose dirt. While four of his fellow dancers held the corners of the drop cloth to keep it in place and the dirt on it, Sanders in men’s dress clothes, rolled in the dirt, bending his body up and down looking like in a gymnastic floor exercise routine without the tumbling. As if being pushed, pulled, and beat down by some unseen force, Sanders nicely delivered on the solo’s inherent struggle and anguish.  

An entertaining sampler of Simmons’s choreography and the company’s work, Spring for Solos was an enlightening calling card for those not yet familiar with Shana Simmons Dance’s oeuvre.

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.   

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