Inlet @ CPT Dances New and Old

For the second week of Cleveland Public Theatre’s DanceWorks, we went to see Inlet Dance Theatre. Let us tell you first about the premieres, Becoming and Sketches Before a Storm.

Becoming encases the 3 dancers (Joshua Brown, Dominic Moore-Dunson, and Kevin Parker) in sheets of a stretchy, rubbery fabric. Depending on how the dancers move, the fabric can present an abstract shape with a smooth surface or the dancers’ faces and other body parts can be revealed through the fabric in great detail– either way, a striking effect. Martha Graham’s Lamentation provides an early primer on this kind of dance but the space age materials used in Becoming expand the possibilities considerably. Throughout Becoming, the vivid and striking music of composer Johann Johannsson provide the perfect soundtrack.

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Becoming, photo courtesy Inlet Dance Theatre

Becoming is not an unqualified success in every way. The program note mentions American sculptor Frederick Hart whose figurative art many Clevelanders are familiar with through Contessa Gallery. We expected to see the dancers’ figures emerge through the fabric like Hart’s bas reliefs but Becoming realized that possibility only occasionally. And the program note’s meditation on how “every human being is a work in progress” does not particularly resonate with the dance. Nevertheless, Becoming takes what could easily be a throwaway gimmick and sustains a thoughtful composition for 18 minutes.

The other premiere on the program sports a mouthful of a title, Sketches Before a Storm: Ariel and Caliban, pre colonization (a prototype). The program note explains that this is an early study for Caliban Ascendant, a ballet with music by Ty Emerson and a very different take on Shakespeare’s Tempest. Please understand dear reader that we’re lukewarm to the idea of story ballets and suspect that dances that hope to convey morally laden concepts like “colonization” and “cultural appropriation” mostly fail. That said, we must admit that this 6 minute prototype did create an atmosphere that could be compatible with such a tale.

Projections of Elizabethan calligraphy referencing Shakespeare and The Tempest announced the subject of Sketches Before a Storm even without the program note and Trad Burns, who was Lighting Designer for the whole show, out did himself with lighting that somehow evoked a new day in a new land. The two couples — Moore-Dunson with Katie Wilber and Parker with Emily Stonecipher – projected ease and pleasure as they performed the Pilobolus-style choreography, qualities that could reference life in the Americas before the Conquest. The premiere of Caliban Ascendant is planned for June of 2020.

Becoming and Sketches Before a Storm were preceded by 6 dances from Inlet’s repertoire. Just as Becoming refers to Hart’s sculptures and Sketches Before a Storm refers to The Tempest, the other 6 dances in Inlet’s DanceWorks program were also ekphrastic, that is, inspired by works of art from other mediums.

B’roke (pronounced “buh-roke”) includes ballet skills and so it would ordinarily present challenges to a company like Inlet, which spends its class time not on ballet but on Erick Hawkins floor work and Pilobolus-style partnering. But In the cast we saw Saturday night, two of the 4 dancers in B’roke – Katarina Akers and Sabrina Lindhout, listed among Inlet’s Protégés and Trainees — have a lot of ballet training.

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B’roke, photo by Shane Wynn

Turning movements in B’roke were performed with mixed success. One of choreographer Wade’s favorite steps, a fouette with both legs in attitude, got underperformed repeatedly in B’roke. Strange, because Wade has successfully taught that step to many dancers over the years. It appeared to us that at least one of the performers was dancing in actual bare feet which made for some sticky turns at the beginning of B’roke. But later in the dance a series of soutenu turns went very well and the chaines turns with arms overhead — en haut — were genuinely dazzling. Well camouflaged socks can be difficult to detect from the audience and they make a huge difference when it comes to turning.

In so many ways, And Still I Rise is an excellent dance. The poem by Maya Angelou and the music, Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, provide a setting in which dancer / choreographer Moore-Dunson repeatedly falls and rises again, a simple but effective metaphor for triumph over adversity. The poem, which uses hyperbole to create humor which creates distance, helps to keep this dance from sliding into unintentional self-parody. Nevertheless, overexposure could detract from what’s now a very effective dance.

Semiotic Variations begins with the 7 dancers striking various poses in silhouette and progresses through voguing to a more dynamic, spatially complex dance. The program note explains that the dance was inspired by the unhealthy messages in Calvin Klein’s notorious “heroin chic” ads. Unpacking and sending up advertising is a worthy project that keeps us turning every page of every issue of Adbusters. But the premise of Semiotic Variations, which imitates advertising in order to comment on it, also reminds us of the art of Los Angeles’ Edward Ruscha, whom critics decry for his “advertising art advertising itself as art that hates advertising.” We are impressed that Inlet can successfully imitate even the super glossy advertising art of Calvin Klein advertisements, but what comment can they make on that advertising?

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Semiotic Variations, photo by Shane Wynn

Ascension is an Inlet dance we’ve seen many times, but it’s not carved in stone. For Saturday’s performance at CPT, Ascension was still 3 couples dancing to a score by Ryan Lott but Wade and the dancers had altered the choreography considerably. The Ascension we remember was built around 3 of the dancers carrying their partners on their shoulders as they stood up and lowered back down to a crouching position, a difficult feat that provided an apt illustration of the idea that “we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us.” In the new Ascension, the 3 couples begin by posing in partnered supports; we especially noticed company veterans Joshua Brown and Elizabeth Pollert down stage center in bright light, supporting each other in a series of inverted postures. Poses soon evolved into spins in various partnering shapes and the program note emphasizes the benefits of “relationships built on trust.” The new Ascension is less dramatic than the old one but, with 3 couples spinning at once, more dynamic to watch.

Up to now we haven’t mentioned costumes. In B’roke the costumes by Kristin Wade, Stacy Chech, and Bill Wade are unitards covered with colorful patterns reminiscent of the postmodern baroque Frank Stella painting projected on the backdrop at the beginning of the dance. And in Sketches Before a Storm the costumes by Bill Wade and Wilber are leotards and tights are in various shades of brown with patterns that suggest laces in leather jerkins. Subtle but effective.

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Joshua Brown in Offaxis, photo by Shane Wynn

But for Offaxis the costume by Bill and Kristin Wade is anything but subtle, reflecting the character’s status as “strange” and an “outlier.” Fuzzy red eyebrows and fuzzy red projections from between his shoulder blades and over the crown of his head certainly make dancer Brown look every bit the outlier and the dance gives us a moment of stillness to take all this strangeness in before he begins rolling down to the ground and back up, continuously riding gravity’s roller coaster. Slightly scary rather than comic, at one point he lets out a harsh “Hah!” Male or female, we outliers need our space.

In imPAIRed, Moore-Dunson and Stonecipher wore blindfolds, acting out Inlet’s residencies at Cleveland Sight Center in 2003 and 2004. We’ve always seen this dance as too slow and careful. Why can’t the dancers peek past the blindfolds occasionally? But one of our friends at Saturday’s performance named it as his favorite piece of the evening, leading us to consider looking for the caring and trust that the blindfolds build into imPAIRed.

We watched Inlet Dance Theatre on Saturday 3/25/2019 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/.

To learn more about Inlet Dance Theatre including upcoming performances go to inletdance.org/ and click on calendar.

Elsa Johnson and Victor Lucas

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