So, what’s new with GroundWorks DanceTheater? You name it. A new residency at Cleveland State University. A new dancer. A new work.

All of these elements played key roles in the Cleveland company’s debut – another milestone – Friday at the Allen Theatre in PlayhouseSquare. It’s no wonder the dancers were in such invigorating form.

GroundWorks appears in such diverse locations, including churches, parks, art galleries and an ice house, that it can be something a jolt to see the company on a bona fide proscenium stage.

Yet the dancers looked completely at home at the Allen, which has superb sightlines and ample space for the company to explore an array of movement languages. The five dancers certainly had the opportunity to do so on this occasion.

The night’s premiere was Doug Elkins’ “A Hummingbird at the High Line,” a bright and wistful paean to the vicissitudes of love on a stroll (or jog) through the Manhattan park that inhabits a former elevated railway.

As Cleveland audiences learned from Elkins’ “Fraulein Maria,” the take-off of “The Sound of Music” that his company has performed at the Hanna Theatre, the choreographer brings individual flair, humor and poignancy to the dance stage.

In the new piece for GroundWorks, Elkins employs his familiar, quirky vocabulary – fidgety arms, hip-hop moves, cheeky interactions – to convey the joy and heartache of romantic relationships. The six sections are set to an eclectic mix of pop tunes (from the Rat Pack and Frankie Valli), Handel aria and, most affectingly, the French-Canadian song “Dis, quand reviendras tu.”

Throughout the work, Elkins exults in randy suggestion and visceral virtuosity. The two men are playful and competitive, the three women no less so but more adventurous.

Felise Bagley and Nicole Cotler perform a duet of sizzling intensity. In another, Gary Lenington and Annika Sheaff, a fine addition to the company, respond to Handel’s “Love sounds th’ alarm” with contortions and looks of confusion.

As Elkins makes clear in the final section, set to the poignant “Dis, quand reviendras tu,” love may conquer all, but it also leaves many questions unanswered. The GroundWorks dancers brought expressive character and physical command to the work’s banquet of ideas.

To open the night, Bagley, Cotler, Lenington and Damien Highfield performed artistic associate Amy Miller’s “Allow,” a high-energy series of disquieting solo and ensemble sequences set to chugging synthesized percussion. The atmosphere is cool and busy, with the activity only settling into repose toward the end.

Two contrasting works by artistic director David Shimotakahara filled out the program. The lustrous “Circadian,” named for “the rhythms associated with the earth’s rotation affecting our behavior and biology,” places a couple (the precise and eloquent Bagley and Highfield) in austere and impassioned encounters, including sudden stops and heavy breathing. The work’s beauty emanates partly from Gustavo Aquilar’s rich electronic string score and Dennis Dugan’s subtle lighting.

Shimotakahara is in another mood altogether in “Lights Up,” his snazzy and often daffy tribute to jazz improvisation. The musicians – the terrific Howie Smith (saxophone and electronic instruments), Bill Ransom (percussion) and Dan Wilson (guitar) – are onstage to interact with the dancers, who compete for attention.

It’s an explosion of solo and ensemble imagination, with lights that not only come up but also go off suddenly, dancers who exit in frustration and a pervading exuberance that is pure GroundWorks.

By Donald Rosenberg
The Plain Dealer
October 27, 2012

Photo by Gus Chan
The Plain Dealer