Verb Live and In Person

On Saturday night we drove to the Cleveland’s West Side to watch Verb Ballets. It was our first live dance concert in over a year. Things appeared to be getting back to normal but it is a new normal.

Dr. Margaret Carlson, Verb’s Producing Artistic Director, gave a curtain speech that referenced some of the changes and hinted at the stresses of the past year. First, she explained how Verb has cultivated “an entire audience outside of Cleveland who come from 26 states and 5 countries.” A virtual audience.

Then she went on to say, “What I really want to do is thank you from the bottom of my heart. It was a year ago today that we attempted our first live, virtual performance – and you bought tickets – that was the most important thing. And then we kept doing our shows, we tried to improve each time, and you kept buying tickets, and so we kept doing the shows. Not only did you give, but you kept giving. Some of you in this audience tonight gave 4 or 5 times during the course of the year. We would not be here tonight if you hadn’t bought those tickets and made those donations so thank you from the bottom of my heart. Tonight the applause are for you and the bows are yours.”

The first piece on the program, Heinz Poll’s Triptych (1988) set to Felix Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in D minor, gave our eyes and minds more pleasant matters to contemplate. The curtains opened to reveal four couples dancing exuberantly in a circle; the women wore long Romantic tutus and the men’s loose-fitting shirts glowed gold in the lights. Like most choreographers dealing with a concerto, Poll lets the corps de ballet, the 4 couples, dance when the orchestra plays; when the piano enters with rhapsodic solos, the corps fades into the background as soloist Emily Dietz dances.

The concerto form puts intense focus on the solo pianist and solo dancer alike. “His touch was exquisitely delicate, his fingers sang as they rippled over the keyboard,” enthused a British critic over Mendelssohn’s playing. So too do we focus on Dietz’ pointe shoes rippling over the stage as she performs her solos with aplomb.

In the first movement the corps de ballet occasionally dances in unison but choreographer Poll also takes advantage of the many repeats in the music to alternate between different groups within the corps: the 4 men dance one phrase, then the 4 women dance the repeat; or, 2 couples dance a phrase and then the other 2 couples dance the repeat. That strategy is pleasing to the eyes as well as being much easier on the dancers.

The first movement ends with all 4 of the women in the corps with their legs stretched (almost) straight up and down in six o’clock penchée!!!! Four exclamation points!

In the second movement, Kelly Korfhage and Benjamin Shepard perform a pas de deux. The emotional content of the music with its many sustained notes is reflected in several Romantic Ballet partnering conventions. As she bends backward he rests his head against her breast. He presses his cheek to the backs of her hands. She rests her cheek on his head. In Heinz Poll’s first Akron concert in 1968, his ballet Rossiniana was full of raucous jokes at the expense of ballet conventions, but twenty years later in Triptych he’s used Romantic Ballet conventions without a trace of irony. And props to Korfhage and Shepard who portray the emotion without making it look saccharine.

In the third movement, the relationship between music and dancers becomes more dynamic. The corps de ballet dances to short interludes from the pianist. Dietz, Korfhage and Shepard all enter to dance until the entire ensemble is on stage at once, dancing in unison to the orchestral finale. The dancers execute a sudden choreographed bow, the stage goes dark, and the socially distanced audience applauds vociferously, belying their numbers. This may not be the first performance of Triptych that we’ve ever seen but given Verb’s depth – its many women strong on pointe and its accomplished men — it may well be the best.

Next on the program, the premiere of World of Another choreographed by Stephanie Martinez to music by Vivaldi, All Skate, and Sheep Balls. The commissioned dance begins with everyone in an antic march onto the stage to Vivaldi. No time for this unison to become boring, though, for Martinez constantly pulls engaging inventions from her grab bag of dance steps and styles, solos, duets and trios. Holding everything together is a mysterious blue coat which each of four dancers wears in turn as they perform short solos. The fourth dancer, Sikhumbuzo Hiahleni, strikes a sharp contrast to the other three dancers by putting on the coat and dancing an introspective solo that hardly moves.

What does the coat stand for? What does the title refer to? Martinez gives us nary a clue, all the better to keep us watching and wondering.

In World of Another all 14 of Verb’s dancers – from company members right down to the junior trainee — get a chance to shine in the many small ensemble dances. We were particularly taken by two pieces involving partnering. In one, a trio, Hunter Hoffman and Demetrius Lee variously levered Kate Webb aloft as she displayed a consistent sculptural presence. In another dance, a duet, Emily Dietz and Hiahleni contended over the blue coat as Dietz spun to the floor, draped over his shoulder, and wrapped around his body.

Commissioned dances don’t always turn out well but judging by the applause and the reactions of people we talked with after the concert, World of Another was success, both in itself and as a foil to the other 2 dances on the program.

The final piece on Saturday’s concert was Bolero (1996), Poll’s treatment of Maurice Ravel’s study in crescendo. Choreographed soon after Ohio Ballet returned from India, Bolero seems to borrow something from everything between India’s Kathak dancing and Spanish bullfight.

In a videotaped introduction Xochitl Tejeda de Cerda, who danced the central role in the premiere, explained what it’s like to dance Bolero.

“Especially for the character in the center, Heinz used to say, ‘You’re the motor that keeps that movement going.’ You’re in constant circling motion from the beginning to the end. At the end it gets even more furious and you have to keep going even though you truly don’t know what’s front, what’s back, what’s up, what’s down because everything is dark. So, you pray a lot, hope for the best, and plant your feet on the ground and you have to completely stop, hopefully facing the audience. And that is a challenge.”

Challenges of the choreography and Tejeda de Cerda’s self-deprecating humor notwithstanding, we’ve never seen a mishap in any performance of Bolero. In Saturday’s performance, Antonio Morillo danced the central role. As in previous performances, we were impressed by the way Poll’s choreography controls the growing intensity, never straining to develop upon what came before. To watch Bolero in live performance is to participate in a powerful ritual.

Verb Ballets performed Directors’ Choice at Breen Center for the Performing Arts on Saturday, June 26, 2021.

Elsa Johnson and Victor Lucas

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