Since at least 2013 we’ve been watching and writing about Fresh Inventions, Verb Ballets’ showcase for their dancers’ own choreography. This year, things have evolved from bare bones studio showings of works in progress to include more finished – sometimes even polished – works.
When the lights came up on the first dance in the program, Michael Escovedo’s The Leaving Song, we saw 8 of the Verb dancers costumed in a pleasing hodgepodge of black and white patterns. Striped shirts. Patterned pants. Had we come upon a troupe of mimes? The music by Chris Garneau was tinkling, mechanical-sounding keyboards, often in waltz time. In one of the early dances, 4 of the women waltzed around Christina Lindhout while Garneau sang that “my teacher died when I was only nine.” During the next song Lieneke Matte held an umbrella overhead for balance as she danced on an imaginary tight rope. “Drink up,” sang Garneau as Lindhout and Daniel Cho danced together; as the song continued the other 6 dancers eventually came on stage and waltzed around the tragic couple. The lyrics were sad but the tinkling keyboards and the stylized movement vocabulary created detachment and made for an elegant and poignant piece.
When the lights come up on the next dance, Antonio Morillo’s Mortal Empathy Variations, we see Ben Shepard in what could be a farmer’s work clothes and Kelly Korfhage in a little slip of a dress. The costumes combined with the music, George Gershwin’s gorgeous blues lullaby, Prelude No. 2, immediately make us think not of jazz age frivolity but rural poverty during the Great Depression and Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Walker Evans’ and James Agee’s beautiful mess of a book. But perhaps we thought too much, for nothing in the dance clicked with our expectations. We need to see this dance again with an open mind.
The next dance, three lullabies for you and I, was choreographed by Daniel Cho in collaboration with the dancers. It begins with the 8 dancers moving in silence, alternating modern dance contractions with pressing their palms overhead. A Bach cello suite provides accompaniment for what becomes a round robin of duets: dancers A and B dance together until A exits and C enters to dance with B; then C dances with D, D dances with E, and so on. The cello suite ends while Lindhout is dancing but she continues in silence, alternating contractions and pressing palms overhead as in the beginning. Then a Chopin piano etude provides accompaniment for a duet for Matte and Korfhage and we recognize the committed ardor of the dancing. Yes, there are skips from time to time but they are ardent skips. When the Chopin ends, Matte is left alone (an irregularity in the round robin) but she dances on in silence until another Bach cello suite begins and she is joined onstage by Morillo, who, as we saw it, intentionally broke the round robin chain by striking out with violence before joining the ensemble in a semi-circle to watch Shepard and Emily Dietz dance a final duet until the cello suite ends and the ensemble dances on in silence as in the beginning. Committed. Ardent. Inexorable. This dance made a strong impression.
We did a double-take when we looked at the program note for the next dance, Unheard choreographed by Kate Webb, for the musical selections formed a most unlikely triptych. The piece began with Scott Joplin’s Solace, a gently rolling carriage tour through a genteel landscape. Followed by an excerpt from Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, the head-banging, foot-stomping section. (Huh?) Followed by Gershwin’s Piano Prelude No. 3, a very fast piece — sometimes marked “Agitato” — that starts out in a light-hearted way but develops into a kind of back-and-forth between E-flat minor and E-flat major chords. Then we watched the dance.
The lights come up on 3 of the women standing upstage, behind 3 of the men. The women wear pointe shoes and white gloves; the men wear tuxedo shirts and white gloves. One at a time, the men perform air tours and the women clap in a way that reminds us of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s ironic clap back at our president’s State of the Union address. Their irony notwithstanding, the women are subordinated to the men in every way, hauled around like manikins.
But when the Stravinsky plays, everything changes. The lights go to red and the women march around en pointe, dominating the stage. The men attempt a counter revolution in which partnering equals containment but the women continue to dominate.
The beginning of the Gershwin ushers in something of a reprise of the old order, but the back-and-forth between major and minor chords makes for an – ahem – spirited dance dialogue. Did Elsa feel that Unheard made an important statement? Yes!
Fresh Inventions concerts typically end with a piece by an established choreographer, in this case Verb’s Associate Artistic Director Richard Dickinson, known for his powers as rehearsal director. In his Paganini Rhapsody he and the dancers take on Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini, a formidable challenge. Before Saturday’s Fresh Inventions, we’d never thought of Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody as something you could choreograph to. The 24 variations with their decorations, inversions, and changes of key and tempo were too dazzling and dizzying, we thought. It’s nothing dancers would want to try to keep straight in their minds.
Imagine our surprise when we read later that back in the 1930s choreographer Michel Fokine had approached Rachmaninoff to propose a collaboration and the composer responded with a detailed scenario based on his Rhapsody: a violinist becomes a virtuoso through a deal with the devil but suffers heart break when he fails to win the love of a beautiful woman.
We don’t see an overarching dramatic narrative in Dickinson’s choreography but we’re very impressed that he’s choreographed all or nearly all of the 24 variations in a way that embodies both the rhythms and the emotional color of the music.
At the beginning, the lights come up on 3 of the Verb men bare chested in tights and 3 of the Verb women in pointe shoes and short tunic skirts. There’s inventive partnering and the section ends with a duet between Korfhage and Webb. When the music slows we see the 3 couples return for unison partnering and sustained lifts. In a solo, Cho gamely embodies one of Rachmaninoff’s many grandiose passages followed by a duet by Morillo and Shepard.
Up to now the choreography for Paganini Rhapsody has, like the music, limited itself to variations on a theme, but in the next section Lindhout, hitherto unseen in this dance, enters in a very different costume, a long dance dress. Surrounded by the ensemble, she enters into a pas de deux with Morillo, they are separated, and the ensemble carries her undulating aloft before placing her supine at Morillo’s side like some formal portrait of a husband and wife on their marriage bed or in their crypt.
We believe that this was where the 18th variation, Rachmaninoff’s tender love theme came in. It may sound dry and technical to describe what happens next – some assisted pirouettes – but the partnering draws our attention to the tenderness of the physical contact between the dancers and the melancholy fact that Morillo is left alone on stage until Cho and 2 of the women return to lead him off. This is a strangely affecting dance passage that lives up to the emotional import of the music.
For the 19th variation, the infamously fast and difficult “diabolic pizzicato,” Korfhage and Webb show off their speedy footwork in unison as Matte dances an equally speedy counterpoint. We stopped scribbling notes in the dark at this point and soon afterwards this complex and sophisticated piece tied up its loose ends and came to a conclusion.
Fresh Inventions always reminds us of looking at artists’ portfolios but this year in particular the pages turned too quickly. We reminded ourselves to take a good look, for we’re unlikely to see these dances again.
We watched Verb Ballets’ Fresh Inventions Program on Saturday 5/18/2019 at Cleveland Public Theatre. Watch this space for more reviews of CPT’s DanceWorks series, which runs thru June 15. Learn more about upcoming DanceWorks shows at cptonline.org/.
Learn more about Verb Ballets including upcoming performances at verbballets.org/.
Elsa Johnson and Victor Lucas