Neos, ASO, and Hip Hop

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Photos courtesy of Dale Dong

Outside E. J. Thomas Hall on Saint Patrick’s Day a light snow was falling and inside the theater some in the audience wore green. For the first half of the program the Akron Symphony Orchestra played danceable music without dancing but we were there primarily to see Neos Dance Theatre perform 3 new works so let’s start with that.

For Suite from Karelia by Jean Sibelius, the 11 Neos dancers appeared in simple, red costumes, short pleated ballet skirts for the women and short trunks for the men. In the first movement, Intermezzo, they began with a somewhat academic center floor combination with light, swirling arm movements which quickly developed into contrasting aerial movements with a strong accent into the floor reflecting the thumping, folk-based music. Sweeping entrances and exits divided the ensemble into groups of 4 women, 4 other women, and 3 men.

In the second movement, Ballade, slower music provided occasion for partnering; sometimes 3 men partnered one woman; very low, slow lifts and drags progressed to higher lifts and then resolved with low lifts, giving this movement its own shape. In the third movement, Alla Marcia, supported by the stirring music, the movement ramped up to climactic grand allegro movements and finale.

Sibelius originally composed this music for a series of patriotic tableaux vivants but Neos’ Bobby Wesner has choreographed an abstract dance, a music visualization that helps us to better appreciate this music as music. Far from being a throw-away pièce d’occasion, it merits a place in the Neos repertoire and even the individual movements might stand on their own as concert pieces.

For bright and raucous Urban Sprawl, composer Clint Needham’s ode to suburban life, the Neos dancers appeared among the orchestra in brightly colored unitards (credited to Inda Blanch-Geib, who often does costumes for Neos) and danced to the front of the stage. They shaped their bodies into curved, abstract shapes, an apt metaphor for the music, until DJ Funk Shway (AKA Byron Eulinberg of Cleveland) and ArtSpark Team TNT appeared. Three hip hop specialists, uncredited, danced a brief introduction, then the large contingent of young and enthusiastic hip hoppers performed ensemble and solo dances. The audience clapped along with the short but enthusiastically received segment until ASO and Neos resumed Urban Sprawl.

As in her other dances for Neos, Creole Cinderella and Nothing In Particular, choreographer Mary-Elizabeth Fenn shows in this treatment of Urban Sprawl an ability to smoothly coordinate complex production elements. By bringing the young dancers of ArtSpark Team TNT into a collaboration with Neos and ASO, Fenn has brought disparate segments of the arts community in contact with each other. But an even more ambitious project is in the works. Neos press materials tell us that what we saw at E. J. Thomas was only an excerpt of dance r. evolution, which will, on April 22, include live-stream video projections, a video documentary about hip hoppers from Oberlin College, and vignettes showing how various urban artists create, including graffiti artists, a tattoo artist, and others. That’s a lot to smoothly coordinate!

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Even if you’re not particularly into music, you’ve often heard Romanian Rhapsody no. 1, op. 11 in A major by Georges Enesco. The music is so well known that you could practically hum along as it plays on ( YouTube. And it would have been the easiest thing in the world for choreographer Wesner to have set folky footwork to the national melodies in varied tempos. Perhaps costume the dancers as middle European peasants with the women in long skirts?

But that’s not what happened. First the costumes. Think of Fred Astaire in his tux and tails, but for Romanian Rhapsody the Neos dancers – women and men both — wore tailcoats over black unitards. And what tailcoats, tailored for comic effect with oversized lapels, pale colored lining, and a big yellow cloth flower on the left lapel! Wesner takes the costume credit for this dance but leaves us to speculate what was off the rack and what was constructed. Might the tailcoats be off the rack? From the Harpo Marx Menswear Emporium?

The dancing in Romanian Rhapsody lived up to the comic costumes. Grandiose partnering effects were undercut by slapstick; phrases featuring rapid interplay between partners, coat tails flying, resolved with backwards somersaults; as the music rose to a big climax the dancing appeared truly unhinged and yet the dancers preserved unison.

Prolonged applause followed the fast and funny finale. For Elsa, Romanian Rhapsody was too messy but Vic was grateful to Neos for playing against expectations.

For the first half of the program Akron Symphony Orchestra filled the stage to perform danceable music without dancers, music that we found well-chosen and well played.

We’d be hard put to name any orchestral work more appropriate to Saint Patrick’s Day than the first piece on the program, Leroy Anderson’s Irish Suite, orchestral arrangements of 3 traditional melodies familiar to Americans since the 19th century, The Irish Washerwoman, The Last Rose of Summer, and The Girl I Left Behind Me.

The lyrics of The Last Rose of Summer meditate on death and loss and the melody, whether sung or played on violin, is calculated to wring tears from the hardest of hearts. Credit ASO violinist Aubrey Murphy for tasteful treatment of this standard.

Last Rose is slow and sad but in The Girl I left Behind Me, a jaunty, up tempo tune conceals lachrymose lyrics that we looked up later.

Whene’er I turn to view the place The tears fall down and blind me When I think on the charming grace Of her I left behind me.—

 Leave it to the Irish to break your heart.

The next piece on the program was Manuel de Falla’s ballet, The Three-Cornered Hat, but first a digression.

Commissioned by Sergei Diaghilev, Three-Cornered Hat premiered in 1919 with the kind of super-star production team that western European audiences had come to expect of the Ballet Russe and its off-shoots. Music by Manuel de Falla. Sets by Pablo Picasso. The choreography by Léonide Massine was based on Spanish dance as befits de Falla’s score, which was based on Andalusian folk songs. Like most of the Ballet Russe repertoire, it’s seldom performed today although Paris Opera Ballet occasionally revives it. You can see a short YouTube clip ( HERE. Or find the complete POB production – Picasso’s sets and Massine’s choreography and all — on a DVD titled ( Picasso and Dance.

Three Cornered Hat is, we hear, such a difficult piece to conduct that de Falla himself declined Diaghilev’s invitation to conduct the premiere. So, ASO Conductor Christopher Wilkins and his musicians might well be proud of how well they perform it, hand clapping, mezzo-soprano and all. But we suspect that the super titles that did their very best to explain every turn in the plot constituted over-kill. As Ballet Russe alumnus George Balanchine himself once said, “How much story you want?”

The Akron Symphony Orchestra and Neos Dance Theatre performed with ArtSpark Team TNT at 8pm Friday 3/17/2017 at E. J. Thomas Hall in Akron, OH. Learn more about Akron Symphony Orchestra at

We call your special attention to an upcoming performance of the complete dance.r.evolution along with a world premiere and Neos repertoire at 7:30pm Saturday 4/22/2017 at Goodyear Theater, 1201 East Market Street Akron, OH, 44305. See our complete preview ( HERE. Tickets $10 – $35 ( HERE. Learn more about Neos Dance Theatre at

Elsa Johnson and Victor Lucas

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