At the Heinz Poll Dance Festival and elsewhere, GroundWorks DanceTheater can always be counted on for performances that are a mix of the intelligent, whimsical, entertaining and personal.
Saturday evening was no exception as the troupe performed three extended, diverse works at Glendale Cemetery. The most entertaining part of the program was the spirited My Hummingbird at the High Line, created last fall for the company by guest choreographer Doug Elkins.
Watching Elkins set the dance on the five-person company last year at the University of Akron’s Guzzetta Hall was fascinating, as he showed them wrestling videos and worked with them on ways to counteract force from another dancer’s body contact.
The quirky, ever-unpredictable Elkins is well known for blending ballet and modern dance with hip-hop and martial arts. Knowing that some of High Line’s movement is rooted in martial arts, it’s a refreshing surprise to hear the music the final dance has been set to: a vivacious blend of pop favorites by the Rat Pack and Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons mixed with choral music by Handel as well as a French-Canadian tune.
Elkins’ dance explores the ever-shifting dynamics of love, symbolized by the blur of a hummingbird’s wings. The title refers to couples moving along the High Line park in Manhattan, which was created on a former elevated railway.
The dance, which made its Akron premiere at the Main Library in November, is full of humor and delightful energy. It starts with playful opposition between Damien Highfield and Gary Lenington as they push each other a bit and execute one-armed handstands.
The whole dance has a look of ease and charm, morphing into a duet of humorous give and take between Noelle Cotler and Highfield, he covering her eyes with his sleeves, she standing on his foot and even grabbing the hair on the top of his head as he crouches below her, twisting around as if he’s in pain. The cute Cotler, often wearing an impish smile, is quite slippery in this couple’s floor work, a master at freeing herself from Highfield.
For more unexpected whimsy, Lenington and Annika Sheaff’s duet to the music of Haydn features undulating breakdancing moves. And a duet full of close body contact between Felise Bagley and Cotler is so intimate, I practically felt like a voyeur as an audience member.
Artistic Associate Amy Miller’s Way Leads to Way made its world premiere last weekend, set to crunchy-sounding electronic music punctuated by chimes. Miller, a former GroundWorks dancer now based in New York, said her dance was inspired by a tightly wound clock that stores and releases kinetic energy.
In order to fully digest this dance, I wished I could watch it more than once. The piece is dominated by moody lighting and some slow-motion moves, including Cotler’s great show of strength and control as Highfield supports her and she rotates on one foot in what looked like an incredibly slow martial arts move with her other leg.
In contrast, Sheaff creates explosions of energy as she leaps up awkwardly onto Highfield’s trunk with her legs akimbo, finally wrapping her legs around him.
GroundWorks’ third dance last weekend was the lyrical Before with After by artistic director David Shimotakahara, a modern dance dominated by fluid, balletic lines and set to the piano music of Bach. The 12-section dance flows seamlessly with varying pairings, solos and groupings of dancers, including floor work for all five where the troupe looks like they’re pedaling bicycles.
In a humorous duet moment, Sheaff tries twice to jerk Cotler’s leg up from the ground, and seems to be surprised it’s cemented there. Shimotakahara also offers contrast between the close contact and lifts in a duet between Lenington and Cotler, and the disconnect seen in Highfield and Sheaff’s earlier duet.
In the latter, the dancers begin crouching sideways toward each other with their heads down, not looking at each other and making no bodily contact. Highfield finally touches her shoulder but they make no eye contact until near the end of the duet, when they hold hands. By now, the audience wants a real human connection, and the payoff comes when Sheaff finally wraps her arms around Highfield with feeling.