When Akron Symphony Orchestra (a Knight Arts grantee), approached GroundWorks DanceTheater (also a Knight Arts grantee), things started clicking.

ASO wanted to perform Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” while adding a visual element to its aural connection through dance. Maestro Christopher Wilkins met up with David Shimotakahara, artistic director of GroundWorks, and asked him to choreograph the story behind the music.

Christopher Wilkins. Photo courtesy of the Akron Symphony Orchestra
It was perfect for GroundWorks and its outreach program. To make it a community event, Shimotakahara said in an interview, his outreach coordinator Mark Otloski, and a bassoonist from ASO, went searching for 15 students and three community dancers to join the five GroundWorks dancers.

In total, they visited eight different organizations, auditioned about a hundred young dancers, and started working to get them ready for the upcoming performance.

Shimotakahara noted that these young dancers will really dance in the production, and not simply be the dance equivalent of operatic spear-carriers.

For the dance itself, Shimotakahara departs, he said, from the original libretto. It just “didn’t feel right,” he commented. The “sacrifice” element was “too much a victim thing.” Instead he wanted to create the lead role in a way that the lead character, called “The Other” in his version and danced by Noelle Cotler, would “self-select” and make a choice for the wider group.

The polarity (a favorite structural mechanism for Shimotakahara) is the “tension between individual will

[the freedom to choose] and collective will.”

David Shimotakahara, artistic director, GroundWorks DanceTheater. Photo from www.vimeo.com
There will be program notes so that any audience members who know the original story won’t be thrown off by the changes made in the storyline.

Maestro Wilkins, Shimotakahara said, trusted his creative urges and energy. He even visited a rehearsal and was pleased with what he saw.

I was lucky enough to sit in on a two-hour rehearsal of a female trio featuring the gifted Felise Bagley, Noelle Cotler and Annika Sheaff.

It’s amazing how much drama there is in a bar of music when Shimotakahara takes it apart and applies the visual vocabulary of dance to it. He told the dancers to move as if they are “reaching without seeing” – that is, trying to get somewhere without really knowing where they are going. He wanted them to show “longing,” as though being drawn to something.

The way the choreographer works is a incredibly intellectual process about how to reveal continuous emotion. The music serves as an undergirding element, supporting and adding nuance to the twisting and jutting human bodies.

As Shimotakahara created, Felise Bagley acted as a kind of stage director; she figured out how the three dancers could interact and not run into each other. At other times, it was a matter of featuring the emotional content that the choreographer was seeking. Her experience as a professional dancer was invaluable to the process.

GroundWorks DanceTheater and Akron Symphony Orchestra will perform “The Rite of Spring” at 8 p.m. on Saturday, April 13 at the E.J. Thomas Performing Arts Hall, 198 Hill St., Akron; 330-972-7570; www.ejthomashall.com. Tickets are $22-52.

By Roger Durbin

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