On Saturday evening we took the short walk from our house to Evans Amphitheater in Cain Park to watch GroundWorks Dance Theater. Three dances on the program, all totally new to us. Three of the 5 dancers in the company, new to us. And, after many months of watching nothing but virtual performances during the pandemic, the prospect of live and in-person performance seemed brand spanking new. Yes, we were excited.
The first piece on the program was Axis, choreographed by Adam Barruch and set to original music and sound design by Roarke Menzies. In it Barruch “explores alchemical processes” and so continues to mine what is for him a rich vein of choreographic inspiration based on magick and the occult. By 2016 when he premiered Hex on GroundWorks (DANCE REVIEW: GroundWorks DanceTheater at Cain Park by Elsa Johnson & Victor Lucas | CoolCleveland), Barruch and his company, NYC-based Anatomiae Occultii, had already produced several dances on that subject.
As much as we liked Hex, we feel that Axis is a more sophisticated dance. Hex is explicit and literal as it acts out its central conceit, that magic is real. But Axis is implicit and subtle. In the midst of seamless and organic flow, recurrent movement motifs interrupt to provide punctuation. For instance, a single dancer – a different one each time – breaks into tremors and the other dancers pause to watch. Or, one or more dancers suddenly pose with an arm extended. Most noticeably, at times four of the dancers form a circle around the fifth dancer, the cue for a passage of unison movement, the only unison movement in Axis.
The four dancers surrounding the fifth is apparently a reference to earth, air, fire, and water, the four elements of alchemy, and the elusive fifth element, aether. A subtle reference to alchemy, perhaps, but Barruch seems to trust his audience to read the program note while he trusts his choreography, developed in collaboration with the GroundWorks dancers, to cast a spell.
The next dance on the program, Sud Buster’s Dream, strikes a much lighter note. Choreographer David Shimotakahara has gathered 9 recordings from the 1920’s, music he describes as “full of volatile energy and a wonderful zaniness and humor.” Referencing the American Sideshow, the 5 dancers emerge from a little curtained proscenium in solos, duets, and trios. Costumes by Charlene Gross are period-appropriate and possessed of a zany energy all their own. Tall Channce Williams wears a dapper vest and pants with bold vertical black and white stripes. Jacob Nahor looks ready for a bicycle excursion in knickers. The dance steps themselves are modern dance inventions with little or no reference to social dances of the 1920s. But bits of costuming and stage business make many explicit references to entertainment of the period. In Palm Leaf Rag, Nicole Hennington wears sleeves and stockings that make her into a convincing tattooed lady, a sideshow attraction that would barely be noticed today. In Panama, Nahor dances until Runako Campbell pulls him off stage with a crooked stick. In Brown Bottom Bess, Annie Morgan and Williams pass 2 derby hats back and forth, a vaudeville gimmick that Bob Fosse later resurrected. There’s an art slot danced to Tchaikovsky. Shadow pictures on a white scrim. Sud Buster’s Dream is a catalogue of sideshow and vaudeville conventions.
As the house lights go down for Antonio Brown’s Inside, we see the 5 dancers in belted jumpsuits. Jake Nahor moves first with multiple turns and a short solo.
Brown’s program note says that Inside examines the extended confinement in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and we saw some references to that in the dancing although, to our eyes, Inside stood out for its kinesthetic excitement, its dazzling, intricate movement interacting with pulsating music.
Like Axis and Sud Buster’s Dream, Inside mostly consists of a fluid mix of solos, duets and trios giving each of these very accomplished contemporary dancers a chance to shine.
Antonio Brown is one of several local dance artists who have made good in the wider world. After graduating from Cleveland School of the Arts and The Juilliard School, he danced for a over a decade with the prestigious Bill T. Jones / Arnie Zane Company, then with others including Camille A. Brown & Dancers, Sidra Bell Dance New York and The Dash Ensemble. His company, Antonio Brown Dance, is based in New York City.
GroundWorks Dance Theater performed at the Evans Amphitheater in Cain Park on July 23 & 24, 2021.
You can still catch GroundWorks Dance Theater free and outdoors this summer as part of the Heinz Poll Summer Dance Festival. It’s at 8:45 pm Friday 8/6 and Saturday 8/7/2021 at Firestone Park in between North and South Firestone Blvd in Akron. Go to AkronDanceFestival.org for more information.
Elsa Johnson and Victor Lucas