Cleveland’s Ian Horvath: Out There


Last Saturday we went to see Dance Legacy, Verb Ballets’ celebration of the life and work of Ian Horvath, co-founder of the original Cleveland Ballet and AIDS activist.

It’s probably no exaggeration to say that Horvath is largely forgotten today in his own home town. How many remember the early days of the AIDS crisis when a positive diagnosis was a death sentence, and stigma and denial were the watchwords? And how many Clevelanders are even aware of the ballet company that variously flourished and struggled here from the mid 1970’s until the year 2000?

We watched and wrote about that early Cleveland Ballet, took classes at the school, and socialized with some with the dancers. Earlier still, in 1972 before the company actually got started, we also took classes from Horvath and Dennis Nahat soon after they purchased Ballet Russe, Ruth Pryor’s ballet school in the sub-basement of the Masonic Temple at E 36th street & Euclid Ave. That tiny studio had its drawbacks and we remember hearing Horvath list them to his father one evening after classes. “Another thing about this studio, people can’t learn to run in here,” he said, demonstrating by doing a stage run diagonally across the studio. His dad, Ernie Sr., listened and quietly nodded assent. Vic just chalked it up as another example of Horvath’s forthrightness, criticizing his own studio right in front of his students.

Horvath said what he thought about many things. What artistic directors he believed in (Robert Joffrey); the relative merits of studying dance inside and outside university dance programs (outside); the best way to perform a ballet step (“It’s muscular.”) We were occasionally stung but we never pushed back, partly because Horvath expressed himself in a succinct and credible manner.

That forthrightness hit a high water mark in 1988 when the ( Cleveland Magazine article came out. In it Horvath had publicly acknowledged that he had AIDS at a time when homophobia still ran rampant and many tried to keep their HIV positive status a secret. And we were struck that Horvath had, true to form, represented himself in Cleveland Magazine with such candor. As Nahat said to us soon after the article came out, “He’s out there.”

Saturday’s program began with film clips of No Dominion: The Ian Horvath Story, a documentary work in progress by Nel Shelby and Margaret Mullin. (A trailer is available ( online.) Mullin first became aware of Horvath when she saw a Verb Ballets performance of Laura’s Women, his first choreographic work. One thing led to another and Mullin found herself working on the documentary, drawing on a tiny trove of materials that Horvath had left behind.

Front to back: Lieneke Matte, Christine Lindhout, and Kelly Korfhage in Laura’s Women; photo credit Kolman Rosenberg

Back in 1974 when Laura’s Women premiered, it seemed that everyone was trying and mostly failing to find a successful fusion of pop, rock, or folk music with dance that commented on significant issues like poverty and loneliness. We confess that we did not at first see Laura’s Women as a successful piece, but Verb’s producing artistic director, Margaret Carlson, performed in the premiere of Laura’s Women and, true to her commitment to preserving worthy choreographic art, she kept staging revivals. Gradually the light came on for us. In Saturday’s performance, dancers Kelly Korfhage, Christina Lindhout, and Lieneke Matte provided particularly rich interpretations of their Laura’s Women roles.

No Dominion takes its title from the villanelle poem by Dylan Thomas, And Death Shall Have No Dominion, whose first stanza ends

… though lovers be lost love shall not;
And death shall have no dominion.

In this, his last choreographic work, Horvath seems to remember and savor the sensual pleasures of his life even as he acknowledge his fear of what is to come.

Brandon Leffler and DeMarcus Suggs in No Dominion; photo credit Bill Naiman

A video of No Dominion made at Ballet Pacific Northwest, which includes dancers from all of the companies that Horvath had affiliations with, can be seen ( HERE.

The final dance of Saturday’s program, Mendelssohn Italian Symphony choreographed by Kay Eichman (from whom we also used to take class), presented a bright and shining contrast to the somber mood of the rest of the concert. Eichman has used classical dance vocabulary to create a well-constructed music visualization for the Verb dancers. Kelly Korfhage and Michael Escovedo get ample opportunity to shine, especially in the final movement, but unison group passages show that all nine of the Verb dancers have achieved a high standard.

Left to Right: Christina Lindhout, Ben Shepard, Kelly Korfhage, Michael Escovedo, Kate Webb: photo credit Barb Cerrito

Verb Ballets performed Dance Legacy: celebrating the life and work of Ian Horvath on Saturday, February 9, 2019 at the Breen Center for the Performing Arts.

Elsa Johnson and Victor Lucas

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