GroundWorks Dance Theater doesn’t merely explore the way dancers move. It also considers how choreographers think and feel about the world.

The Cleveland modern-dance company is looking at its art from three distinctive perspectives this weekend at Trinity Cathedral. The program includes the Cleveland premieres of Jill Sigman’s “Split Stitch” and Amy Miller and David Shimotakahara’s “DnA” and a revival of Dianne McIntyre’s “Just Yesterday.”

At Friday’s opening, the entire company was onstage only in McIntyre’s lovely burst of nostalgia, whose narratives are drawn from the lives of the GroundWorks dancers who gave the premiere last season. They reminisce about themselves, their parents and their grandparents, sing Olu Dara’s folk- and jazz-inflected tunes and frolic or huddle in communal warmth.

McIntyre’s generosity can be discerned at every moment. As the tale of the internment in a Canadian “relocation center” of artistic director Shimotakahara’s Japanese-born grandparents is told, he dances a solo of yearning pain. Damien Highfield writhes in youthful anguish during a remembrance of his rite of passage at a Columbus slaughterhouse.

The overriding sensation is one of compassionate sharing. Anecdotes about mushrooms, mothers and motorcycles rub shoulders with jubilant square dancing and sequences featuring the work’s superb guitarists, Phillip Smith and Dan Wilson.

The performance Friday found the GroundWorks ensemble in giddy and elastic form. In addition to Shimotakahara and Highfield, the close-knit group comprised Felise Bagley, Sarah Perrett and two new members, Katie Wells and Todd VanSlambrouck.

Wells was a lyrical presence in the role previously performed by artistic associate Amy Miller, a founding member who is leaving the company for New York. To mark the occasion, Miller and Shimotakahara created “DnA,” a duet of fierce devotion and fond regret set to songs by Mark Hollis and Marc Mellits.

As the dancers race about the stage, bumping bodies but mostly avoiding contact, it’s clear they’re trying to put off the inevitable. Their movements are jerky and poetic, full of contradictions, but they eventually lock arms, curl limbs and gaze into one another’s eyes. The piece achieves its goal of revealing the mutual respect these marvelous artists long have maintained.

Stigman reveals a totally different kind of dance aesthetic in “Split Stitch,” whose title suggests anxieties encountered in everyday life. Four dancers in futuristic white attire rush violently at one another, collapse, cluster and stare blankly at the audience.

As Bagley begins performing ballet exercises and softly repeats the phrase “lovely, gently,” the others lift bodies convulsively from the floor while Highfield counts loudly. The final tableau of Bagley and her shadow is a striking depiction of societal isolation.

Stigman’s explosive and ethereal movement language makes “Split Stitch” a compelling study of human behavior and possibility. The dancers, including Miller and Perrett, were intense champions of the work’s multi-faceted challenges.

Story and photo by Donald Rosenberg
The Plain Dealer
November 13, 2010