Saturday, June 04, 2005

Nature Moves (Verb Ballets)

Verb Ballets and Natural History Museum in perfect sync

How important is it for a performing art company to have a dynamic and creative artistic director and executive director. One only has to look as far as Cleveland’s Verb Ballets to find out. It’s only taken a couple of years for Executive Director Dr. Margaret Carlson and Artistic Director Hernando Cortez to transform the little recognized Repertory Project into an audience-centered, community-responsive, dynamic entity.

The excitement the company generates was again demonstrated at ‘NATURE MOVES!’ a program presented in collaboration with the Cleveland Museum of Natural History in the museum’s attractive Murch Auditorium. This is a follow-up to the company’s sold out Playhouse Square performance earlier this year, and Cleveland Public Theatre’s capacity presentations.

It was exciting to see that the audience of over 300 who attended the opening night of ‘NATURE MOVES!’ was composed of multi-age and multi-ethnic groups. In contrast to many of the arts companies who are hurting for audiences since their base is made up of mature arts patrons who, unfortunately are dying off and not being replaced, Verb has been able to attract young people through creative advertising, partnering and thoughtful programming.

The segments of the program were chosen to fit the museum setting. “The Man and the Echo,” choreographed by Cortez to the beautiful “Holdberg Suite” by Edvard Grieg is a contemporary lyric ballet inspired by the words of William Butler Yeats. His poem explains how humans need their intellect and sight to grow before they “sink at last into the night.” Clothed in flowing costumes created by Edward Sylvia, the company danced in shadows created by the effective lighting design of Trad Burn. The company, many of them dancing barefoot, flowed through the piece with precise discipline. The highlight was Mark Tomasic’s leaping free fall into the arms of the other dancers, as he floated as an “Echo: into the night.”

“Jia Gu Sui Xiang: Inscriptions on Oracle Bones from the Shang Dynasty,” which featured a solo performance by Huang Dou Dou, was self-choreographed. Danced to music played by Tibetan monks on ancient temple bronze bells from 500 BC, the piece can best be summarized by the phrase “Oh, my God!,” uttered by a woman sitting behind me as Dou Dou performed a series of movements which extended the body beyond its normal limits. Barechested, and adorned with a tall slender feathered head dress, the dancer totally mesmerized the audience which rose to its feet enmasse and screamed their appreciation at the end of the number. This was a virtuoso performance!

The Feathered Dinosaur exhibit is presently on display at the museum. As you enter the gallery a large animated version of an ostrich confronts you. It was appropriate, therefore, that the programming include some reference to that exhibit. Cortez picked the gem, “Awassa Astrige/Ostrich.” The short but effective piece showcased solo dancer G. D. Harris, whose feathered costume, and ostrich-like moves gave a clear image of the elegance of what many consider to be a strange bird best known for putting his head in the sand when danger approaches.

Every company needs its “special” piece, one that elicits an immediate reaction from the audience. Verb has theirs. It’s entitled “The Envelope.” As described in the program notes, this is “A farcical and hysterical romp where the dancers are pitted against a renegade piece of stationery.” Dressed in dark glasses and black, body covering loose fitting costumes, the selection centers on passing an envelope from dancer to dancer as the company hops, tickles each other, jumps, grabs, twists, shimmies and does incredible body bends. Originally choreographed by David Parsons, Verb has made it its own through a restaging by Katarzyna Skarpetowska. It was a perfect piece to balance the more serious nature of the rest of the program.

“Nero’s Fiddle,” in its world premiere, was choreographed by Hernando Cortez to “Speed,” the music of Matthew Hindson. It featured Huang Dou Dou. The dancer had requested that he be given the chance to do a contemporary western piece rather than his usual Chinese routines. Though the dancer was wonderful, the piece did not have the depth needed to show off his extraordinary talents. Since he is often called the young Mikhail Barishnikov, it would have been exciting to see him totally let loose with the turns and monumental leaps that he is so well known for.

The program concluded with the Cortez-choreographed “Planet Soup.” This is a dancer and audience exhausting experience which incorporates African ritual, Filipino folk and Irish reel dancing, Wayang Golek puppets from Indonesia, Indian traditional movements and pole jumping. The cross-cultural fusion, with contemporary dance dynamics, is high energy. The dancers, clothed at first in sarongs and then in loin cloths, showed great understanding of the need to vary their dance styles and body movements to fit the music and the choreography. Highlights included a strong gymnastics segment danced by Bobby Wesner, Glynn Owens and Jason Ignacio. Ignacio ignited the audience with his blindfolded pole dance. The piece ended with an emotionally charged segment in which the dancers, using large white square pieces of cloth, performed what might be called the Chinese ribbon dance meets marching band flag twirling.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Verb Ballets did it again with its wonderful performances in ‘NATURE MOVES.’ It is so exciting to be able to look forward to every performance of this wonderful group.