Like all the local dance companies, GroundWorks DanceTheatre is subject to continuous turnover of dancers. People leave to dance somewhere else, to go to school, or to teach and we watch the new dancers in both old and new repertoire while we remember the departed. Amy Miller, though, maintains a continued presence with GroundWorks, still holding down the title of Artistic Associate and still choreographing for the company even though she moved to New York City in 2010. She also holds, we confess, a special place in our regard, as a dancer, a person, and, in time, as a choreographer.
We first started watching Miller when she danced with Heinz Poll’s Ohio Ballet. Like all the members of that unusual dance company, she was expected to be proficient in modern dance as well as ballet but Miller was more than proficient. Hard-working and earnest as well as talented and accomplished, she was a dancer capable of an unusual depth of expression. In addition, she projected a certain sweetness in personal interactions; everybody is super nice to dance critics but with Miller we suspected that she was kind and caring toward everyone. Positive emotion also plays a role in Miller’s choreography.
Before a recent concert we read Miller’s program note for her latest dance for GroundWorks, Vade Mecum. The note mentions “aspects of our interwoven relationships to ourselves [and] gratitude toward each other for knowledge shared, exchanged, and co-created.” If this had been a corporate mission statement we’d have simply rolled our eyes, but Miller consistently emanates that kind of positivity and generally delivers the goods in her choreography.
And so it is with Vade Mecum, set to 9 of Peter Jones’ short compositions for solo piano, most from his album Skeletons. In Miller’s hands, perfectly ordinary materials of modern dance seem to illustrate the positivity of the program note, as in the first dance, a kind of introduction in which the 5 dancers perform unison movement, movement canons, and hand-to-hand reciprocal assists.
The 2nd dance in Vade Mecum, a solo performed by Taylor Johnson to Chant, introduces a fast / slow strategy that Miller uses throughout. Instead of dancing at an even tempo throughout a musical phrase, Miller typically has her dancers perform for half the phrase in fast forward and the remainder in slow motion. It’s more interesting to watch than all fast or all slow. Also in this dance and throughout Vade Mecum we often see other dancers enter, briefly join a dance in progress, and then exit – perhaps an embodiment of “knowledge shared, exchanged, and co-created.”
We found it noteworthy that the first solo in this dance and in the concert is performed by the newest company member, Johnson. Perhaps it’s a matter of necessity – 3 of the 5 GroundWorks dancers are in their first season – but throughout this concert the new dancers are given a lot to do and they do not disappoint.
The 3rd dance is a duet between Gemma Freitas Bender and Tyler Ring, the other 2 first season company members, to Angles, with its quick, staccato bursts followed by silences. The skilled partnering we noted in the pair’s duet in Chromatic (https://clevelandconcertdance.com/2017/07/31/groundworks-cain-park/) is again in evidence. Toward the end of the music – Angles is only 74 seconds long – Johnson joins and leaves before Felise Bagley and Damien Highfield join and the dance ends with the 4 — Freitas Bender, Ring, Bagley, and Highfield — holding a balance together, their hands on each other’s shoulders, a motif repeated throughout Vade Mecum that is perhaps intended to embody “our interwoven relationships.”
The 4th dance is a solo for Freitas Bender set to Dance, a fast 6/8. This is perhaps a good time to notice that in this current incarnation, the company’s 3 women are all roughly the same height and dark-haired; Johnson and Freitas Bender can be especially difficult to tell apart; and even if you try to pick a favorite to focus on, all 3 are very good at everything and Miller’s choreography has a way of passing the focus around so that the viewer has little choice but to watch them all.
The 5th dance to Hymn includes some very nice partnering, with 2 couples executing lifts in which the women are lifted over the men’s shoulders in something resembling a slow motion back walkover. Miller started out as a gymnast and acrobatic moves like walkovers often appeared in her dancing; you can take the girl out of gymnastics but you can’t take the gymnastics out of the girl.
Big Land, music for the 6th dance, seems to suggest the western landscapes of Aaron Copland or Ennio Morricone, and tall, together Ring is just the man to fill that space. For this solo, Miller seems to have asked Ring, “Can you do this?” as when he jumps up and executes many small, precise movements of his trunk. Yes, he can! “Well, can you do this?” she seems to say, giving him a rapid-fire finale, a burst of movements high and low. Yes, he can, finishing nicely as the music ends. Miller seems to have liked the result so much that she had him repeat the final phrase in the silence.
And so it goes. Vade Mecum fills 25 or 30 minutes with beautiful, entertaining dancing that embodies positivity.
Executive Artistic Director David Shimotakahara’s new dance, Salt to Sea, begins with the dancers bunched together in silhouette. As the lights come up there’s unison movement of the closely spaced quintet and then a very beautiful passage in which crescendos of movement and music coincide. “I’m sorry,” sings the music. Is this The Speakers from Sarah Kirkland Snider’s album Unremembered? (https://sarahkirklandsnider.bandcamp.com/track/the-speakers) “I’m sorry,” and all exit except for Johnson walking alone in the near darkness.
Even without Shimotakahara’s program note — which explains that Salt to Sea is “about loss and losing one’s way [and] refugees of the soul,” – it’s immediately apparent that he’s coming from a darker place than Miller’s Vade Mecum. But the interesting, beautiful dancing of Salt to Sea ends on a hopeful note when, to hymn-like accompaniment, we watch a baptism — or perhaps a trust-fall — and all the dancers exit except Freitas Bender and Highfield who walk upstage together as the light fades. As the program note says, “life is hard, there is darkness, yet we have each other.”
We’ve written about the third and final dance in the program, Brubeck, before. (http://coolcleveland.com/2013/03/review-groundworks-breen-weares-wares/) Set to 7 cuts from Dave Brubeck albums – mostly Time Out – this exuberant music visualization reminds us that Shimotakahara and his dancers can do jazz dancing as well as ballet and modern.
We’d been concerned as we drove to see GroundWorks on Friday. Would the library have an adequate concert venue? As it happened, the auditorium had a no-nonsense, lecture hall ambience but the seats were comfortable, sight lines were good, and the stage had the technical facilities that Lighting Designer Dennis Dugan needed to work his magic on our delighted eyes.
Follow this link (https://artsair.wordpress.com/2017/08/03/groundworks-versatile-performer-annika-sheaff-bids-adieu-interview/) to an excellent article about recently departed GroundWorks dancer Annika Sheaff, now Assistant Professor of Dance at Baldwin Wallace University.
GroundWorks DanceTheatre performed at the Akron-Summit County Public Library on Friday & Saturday, October 27 & 28, 2017.
Next for GroundWorks DanceTheatre, Saturday March 3, 2018 @ E J Thomas Hall, 198 Hill Street, Akron, OH 44325. For tickets, $30 General, $10 Students and Children under 18, Free to UA Students w valid ID, go to http://www.uakron.edu/ej/events/#!view/event/date/20180303/event_id/6967 or phone 330-972-7570.
GroundWorks will also perform Saturday April 7, 2018 @ Breen Center for the Performing Arts at St. Ignatius High School, 2008 W 30th St, Cleveland, OH 44113. Phone the box office at 216-961-2560.
Elsa Johnson and Victor Lucas