Dancers who sing and speak are nothing new. Think of Broadway musicals with triple threat performers singing, dancing, and acting. And postmodern dance proclaimed that “talking is dancing” in the 1960s. But it’s still something of a surprise when concert dancers break the wall of silence.
Speech and song both figured prominently in 3 dances that Verb Ballets showed recently at Ballet UpClose, their informal studio showings of new, sometimes incomplete pieces.
In January of 2017 choreographer Dianne McIntyre traveled to Cuba as part of Cleveland Foundation’s Creative Fusion: Cuba Edition. With the help of translators she interviewed 3 Cubans in Havana and Matazanas, carefully choosing people who were teens or young adults in 1959 when the regime changed. Then she edited the interviews and structured them in a dance, Cuba: Lives Unfolded. “Let me tell you this, let me tell you that,” say the dancers at the beginning of each character’s presentation.
Cuba: Lives Unfolded begins with the 12 Verb dancers speaking Spanish in unison. Nathanael Santiago quickly emerges from the chorus to tell his character’s life story in Spanish and English while he dances with the other Verb dancers. His character’s parents, Sephardic Jews with Turkish ancestors, immigrated to Cuba from Poland. When he was born in the 1930’s his first language was Yiddish. “During the capitalism period” he worked in a tourist center, he explains amidst group dancing to recorded music, but when he mentions “January, 1959,” the beginning of the Castro regime, the recorded music and the dancing abruptly stop and the dancers all freeze. Then his favorite Nat King Cole recording plays as he goes on to explain that when the university reopened later in 1959 he began studying to become an electrical engineer, a career he pursued until he retired in 2010.
“Let me tell you this, let me tell you that.”
For the next character, Verb dancer Kate Webb speaks while trainee Alexandria Lattimore provides the dancing. Her character is the director of an African / Cuban museum in Havana (Casa de Africa?) that explores the contributions of African culture — especially Santeria — to Cuba. Each of the Orishas – messenger gods or saints – has a characteristic rhythm and dance for which the Verb dancers provide a brief primer, stamping and clapping.
Is there other dancing and music at the museo? Oh, si! Other dancers lead a group danzon, a mambo, and a cha-cha. “My children and I find our strength through the music and the dance,” she concludes.
“Let me tell you this, let me tell you that.”
The third character is voiced by Megan Buckley and danced by Lieneke Matte. “We were poor and worked very hard; I dream to become a nurse,” says Buckley as Matte dances the fulfillment of her dream. The music is a recording of Cuban jazz featuring an aspirational trumpet. “Now we are retired and live a life of contentment with family and friends,” she concludes.
In just under 30 minutes, Cuba: Lives Unfolded presented a People’s History of Cuba and a positive picture of educational opportunity and retirement security in Castro’s Cuba. We can well imagine the scornful response that our anti-Castro Cuban-American friend would have to this dance but we were caught up in the individuals’ stories and happy to learn more about the complexity and diversity of Cuba’s people.
McIntyre often asks a lot of her dancers. In Cuba: Lives Unfolded she breaks some new ground by requiring them to recite long passages in Spanish even though Santiago is the only actual Spanish-speaker in the group. Does she ask too much? More about this later.
When we walked into Verb’s studio for Ballet UpClose we saw a very diverse audience including old people, many of them in wheelchairs, and many people of color. They were, we learned, the families of people that choreographer Dianne McIntyre had interviewed for Dancing Memories: Lost & Found, which featured the stories of eleven residents of Eliza Bryant Village (on Wade Park Avenue on the east side) and Eliza Jennings Health Campus (near the corner of West 107th Street and Detroit).
In Dancing Memories: Lost and Found the dancers again represent people who have told their stories to McIntyre. And again each person becomes a character whose story is set off by a chorus of “Let me tell you this, let me tell you that.”
One of these stories begins with Antonio Morillo softly singing a Scottish song while Buckley and Santiago dance a pas de deux. Matte enters and tells her character’s story in a Scottish accent, how she immigrated to the USA from Scotland. “Eventually I became a nurse. I worked at Deaconess Hospital for 30 years.”
As the Scottish-American nurse and others tell their stories, many touch on common themes – marriages that went bad or lasted a lifetime, children, World War II, work, wealth or poverty, belief in God and hopes for an afterlife. As the Verb dancers speak, dance, and sing these stories the audience often laughs in good-natured recognition. They know each other well and have heard these stories before but they walked and wheeled themselves onto a bus in order to hear them again at Verb’s studios.
How to attract an audience? One answer would seem to be, retell their stories.
As in Cuba: Lives Unfolded (and Just Yesterday [http://coolcleveland.com/2010/09/review-distance-rehearsals-with-web-cam-skype/], a piece that McIntyre set on GroundWorks Dance Theater in 2010) Dancing Memories: Lost and Found asks a lot from the dancers, much of it outside what we had previously considered their professional skill set. Speaking, acting, singing, foreign languages and accents might seem like too much to ask of dancers but it somehow works out, at least in McIntyre’s pieces. To our surprise, the dancers we’ve talked with are all fine with it and we’re reminded of Sally Banes’ observation that, since the 1980’s, the “omnicompetent” dancer has been considered a necessary complement to postmodern multimedia events.
In the program note for his new dance for Verb, Surge. Capacity. Force., choreographer Tommie-Waheed Evans wrote about “the increasing complexity of national security, including the physical and psychological borders we create, protect, and cross in its name,” but speaking off-the-cuff just before the Ballet UpClose performance, he spoke of the other side of the coin — refugees, military invasion, homelessness, and “what it’s like to be without a home”.
The musical score / sound track for Surge. Capacity. Force. begins with This Land is Your Land, a song Woody Guthrie wrote in 1940 as an answer to the complacency and jingoism of Irving Berlin’s God Bless America. 1940 was also the year that Guthrie recorded Dust Bowl Ballads for Victor Records, an album of songs describing the extreme hardships that he and many others experienced as refugees from the great dust bowl of the 1930’s. The musical score / sound track of Surge. Capacity. Force. also includes recorded percussion and, at the very end, a sound clip.
The recorded sound track is punctuated with cries from the dancers who take on the role of refugees and would-be immigrants. “Why won’t you take me?” “We’re human beings!” At the very end we hear the sound clip, apparently a refugee crying out in despair.
The dancing in Surge. Capacity. Force. is organized around a recurrent pattern of individuals breaking out of groups, an assignment the Verb dancers threw themselves in to with fierce commitment. Timed with the sound track, those breaks were very effective at aligning our sympathies with the homeless and the excluded.
As effective as Surge. Capacity. Force. was, Evans freely admitted in a Q & A after the performance that the actual dancing that we saw at Ballet UpClose was largely improvisation, that all those group vamps and passionate breaks need to be cleaned up and / or choreographed, a task that he and the Verb dancers will presumably address themselves to. Equally important is the problem of amplifying the dancers’ voices so that they can be heard in the large, outdoor venues where Verb will be performing this summer. So, we look at Surge. Capacity. Force. as a bases-loaded situation, poised to make a powerful statement but in need of further development.
And where can our readers see Cuba: Lives Unfolded and Dancing Memories: Lost and Found? Unfortunately, the 5/19/2017 Ballet UpClose at the Verb studio was the final performance. Nor are we aware of any video of those dances available to the public.
Happily, readers have three opportunities to see Verb perform Surge. Capacity. Force. this summer, all of them free and open to the public, no tickets required. In addition, we’re told that Verb will be performing another of Evans’ works for Verb, Dark Matter, (http://coolcleveland.com/2013/08/review-verb-rocks-cain-park-new-dancers-bring-it/) throughout the 2017 – 2018 season.
Verb Ballets performed an unfinished version of Surge. Capacity. Force. by Tommie-Waheed Evans at Ballet UpClose on Friday 6/30/2017.
8:45PM July 28-29, 2017 at Firestone Park, 1480 Girard St, Akron, Ohio 44301 as part of the Heinz Poll Summer Dance Festival (http://akrondancefestival.org/).
8:30PM August 12, 2017 at Lincoln Park, W. 14th and Starkweather, Cleveland, OH 44113 as part of Tremont Arts in August (http://tremontwest.org/index/arts-in-august).
8:00PM August 19, 2017 at Cain Park 1823 Lee Rd, Cleveland Heights, OH 44118. (CainPark.com)