What: The Cleveland company performs works by artistic director David Shimotakahara, artistic associate Amy Miller and Alex Ketley.
Where: Cain Park’s Alma Theater, Lee and Superior rds., Cleveland Heights.
Tickets: $21 and $23. Call 216-371-3000.

To sing the blues is one thing. To dance them is another. And what a smorgasbord of novel and affecting movement GroundWorks Dancetheater makes of the blues in artistic director David Shimotakahara’s new work, “Boom Boom.”

The piece, part of the Cleveland company’s program this weekend at Cain Park’s Alma Theater, is a celebration of the singular American music often associated with feelings sad and explosive (hence, “Boom Boom,” the title of the John Lee Hooker tune that opens the work). Shimotakahara explores the genre through nine songs by major blues musicians that run the gamut from high-spirited and whimsical to erotic and jubilant.

The troupe’s six dancers, dressed in casual attire, are busy in myriad combinations, both as an ensemble and in coupled situations. They perform in front of a wall painted – perhaps obviously? – blue.

Make no assumptions. The vertical aspects of “Boom Boom” no doubt would delight Fred Astaire, who danced on every conceivable surface – even the ceiling, thanks to trick photography – in the film “Royal Wedding.” Shimotakahara can’t pull that wonder off in the theater, though in Aretha Franklin’s “Today I Sing the Blues,” he does manage to find seductive ways for Kelly Brunk literally to drive Felice Bagley up the wall.

All of the dancers make darting use of Michael Roesch’s blue set piece as they venture through Shimotakahara’s buoyant, sinuous and arresting choreography. By the time “Hound Dog” winds up the creation (along with the original 1952 recording by Mae “Big Mama” Thornton), the vivacious cast is scaling and staring at the wall as they bark and howl. Yes, the blues can be euphoric, too, especially given such brilliant artistry.

The program, seen Saturday, opened with Amy Miller’s “Allow” and Alex Ketley’s “For You…”, both from previous GroundWorks engagements. Miller sets four dancers on a cavalcade of thrusting, frenzied patterns, with moments of repose for relief. Alex Christie’s otherworldly electronic score provides the impetus for the bracing physical activity, which Bagley, Brunk, Sarah Perrett and Damien Highfield treated with exceptional strength, speed and grace.

Ketley’s work is a probing study of troubled relationships, though with glimmers of hope in the end. Three couples, led by Miller and Brunk, convey the joys and challenges of amorous interplay in movement both rapturous and spasmodic. Gentle hugs and caresses suggest that all is not lost, even when darkness hovers.

As Minimalist and folk-inspired music by Bon Iver and Philip Jeck fills the atmosphere, the dancers face and surmount whatever frustrations they may be experiencing. Miller and Brunk come full circle, returning to the fleeting image of tenderness with which “For You…” begins.

The cast – also featuring Bagley, Perrett, Highfield and Shimotakahara – gave the piece a performance of mesmerizing intensity. GroundWorks is starting its 11th season at characteristic fever pitch.

By Donald Rosenberg
The Plain Dealer
June 29, 2009

Photo by Bill Kennedy