Saturday, August 11th, 2012 9:45 AM
Say it isn't so, Doug Elkins. You've announced that "Fraulein Maria," your loving goofball of a dance work that sends up "The Sound of Music," is on the last leg of a "So Long, Farewell Tour." Is this a ploy to keep the piece in perpetual circulation? Perhaps putting your brainstorm on the shelf for a while will enhance its delights and make it even more magnetic down the road.
Judging more › by the audience that chuckled and roared through "Fraulein Maria" Friday at the Hanna Theatre in PlayhouseSquare, Elkins' creation is one of the favorite dance things to come to town since it first played the venue in 2009.
And why not? The New York choreographer takes the familiar soundtrack of the movie version of Rodgers and Hammerstein's sentimental hit and tweaks the narratives to the point of affectionate and whimsical irreverence. In little more than an hour, Elkins employs a banquet of dance styles, including hip-hop, and gender-bending ideas to catapult the story of Maria and her adventures in nanny-hood.
Before the curtain rises, the antic master of ceremonies, Michael Preston (director of the production with Barbara Karger), takes center stage to instruct the audience in singing "Do-Re-Mi" and welcoming Rodgers (on tape) to chat about the movie. Then we're off to the Alps, depicted by dancers stretching long swaths of fabric and Preston adding tiny trees, and the arrival of three Marias – count 'em – including one who will never bear children.
Elkins treats each song as a mini-drama filled with traditional and contemporary details. The costumes resemble what you know from the movie, but the moves and people inside them hail from an era that favors the kinetic and the quirky.
It's impossible not to smile as the nuns (women and man alike) try to solve a problem like "Maria" with all sorts of impish inflections and wave-like gestures. Elkins proves to be the most musical, and inventive, of choreographers as he creates a distinct dance motive for each note in "Do-Re-Mi," a whirlwind of an ensemble piece that takes the dexterous and buoyant dancers to the edge of exhaustion.
Although most of "Fraulein Maria" functions as a mirthful parody, there are moments when hints of darkness descend. As Preston and Elkins, dressed as a nerdy guy with a hat, try to share a park bench during "Edelweiss," their inability to co-exist suggests ominous political forces at play.
But the atmosphere largely is upbeat, funky and surprising. In "Sixteen Going on Seventeen," the eldest Von Trapp daughter, Liesl, is portrayed by a lanky guy who plants a whopping kiss on the lips of a diminutive Rolf. A hooded Elkins shows up in b-boy attire to offer a breakdance variation on "Climb Every Mountain" that brings down the house.
So do the dancers of Doug Elkins and Friends, as the New York company is known. They manage their quicksilver and acrobatic duties with gleeful personality, earning every accolade they deserve during bows to "So Long, Farewell." Let's hope this cheeky confection surfaces again in years to come.
RELATED COMPANY: Fraulein Maria from Doug Elkins and Friends
Sunday, March 11th, 2012 10:00 AM
Some dance companies make an impression by trying to leap past the footlights and into the audience's lap. Others are content to share their art with more poise and subtlety.
Ballet Memphis is among the latter. In its Cleveland debut Saturday at the Ohio Theatre under the auspices of DanceCleveland, the company revealed that refinement, detail and unity are paramount. The dancers are beautifully trained and expressive, equal to all of more › the tasks set before them.
The repertoire Saturday gave the company ample opportunity to convey both extroverted and introspective ideas within compact frameworks. Each piece made its points directly, providing a clear sense of structure and intention, minus material that might extend the narrative beyond its natural boundaries.
Steven McMahon, the company's choreographic associate, explores joy in "Being Here With Other People," which is set to the third movement from Beethoven's Violin Concerto. Although this transcendent music needs no visual component to work its magic, McMahon's response to Beethoven is a genial frolic, with buoyant unison patterns, head and hip twists and playful waving that keep the action light and lively.
Matters are much darker in Julia Adam's poetic "Curtain of Green," a setting of a Eudora Whelty short story about a woman dealing with loss. Danced to piano etudes by Philip Glass, the piece focuses on memory and anguish, with the woman (Crystal Brothers) recalling her lost love (McMahon) in agonized gestures.
As the woman tries to resuscitate him, an African-American boy (Kendall G. Britt Jr.) appears to add mystery and drama to the tale. Adam finds a fine line between violence and compassion as the woman substitutes a caress for a slap. The dancers gave the piece a sweeping and touching performance.
Brothers was back as another troubled woman in Jane Comfort's "S'epanouir," whose title (French for "to blossom") refers to the protagonist's journey from calamity to emotional health. Kirk Whalum's score thrusts the scenario forward from blues to gospel, allowing the deeply communicative Brothers to interact with her vibrant colleagues with increasing hope and elation.
The company comes into full contact with its Southern heritage in Trey McIntyre's "In Dreams," set to six songs performed by Roy Orbison (who also speaks in one clip). Five dancers convey the songs' passionate sentiments in configurations of romantic and athletic design.
McIntyre's choreography is an ideal fit for the Ballet Memphis dancers, who abounded in personality, yet were always mindful of their place as team players.
The night's only work that eschewed elegance for virtuosity was an addition to the program, Robert Battle's "Takademe," a solo based on an Indian dance and performed to Sheila Chandra's dazzling bit of vocal chattering, "Speaking in Tongues."
Battle, new artistic director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre (which performs at PlayhouseSquare in May), mirrors the rhythmic eruptions in Chandra's creation with whiplashing arms, taffy-like bends and convulsive leaps. Britt gave the piece a performance of coiled and elastic brilliance.
RELATED COMPANY: Ballet Memphis
Friday, March 9th, 2012 6:00 AM
A whole lot of Memphians are converging on PlayhouseSquare this weekend. While the Palace Theatre continues to play host to the Broadway musical "Memphis," the Ohio Theatre a few doors to the west is about to welcome Ballet Memphis.
Huh? A ballet company from the city that gave the world Elvis, Jerry Lee, Roy, Otis, Isaac and B.B.? (Do you really need last names?) It turns out -- forgive the ballet more › pun -- that Memphis has been home to Dorothy Gunther Pugh's admired troupe for 25 years.
"We do things our own way, thank you very much," says Pugh, the company's founding artistic director.
"It's interesting that such a small city, and what in some ways is a depressed region financially and in other ways, would actually have so much creative spirit. It's kind of friendly to start-ups with an interesting idea."
Along with soul, rock, blues and other styles that long have flourished in Memphis, the city has opened its arms to Ballet Memphis' refined and vibrant artistry. Part of the reason is the feisty, vivacious Pugh, who recognized from the start that her company would have to reach out to a diverse community.
"I just knew with a European-based art form we could quickly dance ourselves into meaninglessness and irrelevance if we didn't find ways to appeal to as many people as possible," she says.
With Pugh at the helm, Ballet Memphis has never lived in a classical-ballet vacuum. Along with iconic dance works, including story ballets, its repertoire bulges with contemporary pieces inspired by the musical and literary culture of its hometown and region.
Many of these creations are part of the company's Memphis Project, which reflects Southern sensibilities in works set to music by local legends (such as Trey McIntyre's "In Dreams," danced to songs by Roy Orbison) or based on celebrated stories (Julia Adam's "Curtain of Green," a treatment of Eudora Welty's "A Curtain of Green").
The company will perform both pieces this weekend during its Cleveland debut, which also includes Jane Comfort's "S'epaniour," Robert Battle's "Takademe" and Steven McMahon's "Being Here with Other People."
Pugh says audiences around the country are eager to discern the Southern touch in Ballet Memphis' offerings.
"They want our viewpoint from where they are and what they see as our historicity," she says.
Identity entwined with its region
McMahon, a Scottish dancer and choreographer who joined the company in 2004 after studies at the Ailey School in New York, is still trying to figure out how Ballet Memphis' identity is so entwined with its region.
"I'm not from the South," he says. "I'm not even American. I discussed with my mother what it means to be Scottish. I haven't really arrived at an answer because I'm not sure there is one.
"But there's something about the South that's very nesting. People want to make a home here. Talking about the company, we're a family. A lot of us have been here eight years plus."
For Memphis Ballet, choreographic associate McMahon has created everything from "Cinderella" to a full-length version of "The Wizard of Oz" danced to music by some of his favorite British composers (Britten, Holst, Vaughan Williams).
He chose the last movement of Beethoven's Violin Concerto for "Being Here With Other People" (the title is drawn from "On Beauty" by British writer Zadie Smith), which he created in 2009 to accommodate the season's theme, "Joyful Noise."
"It was quite a lofty decision to do that," says McMahon of the Beethoven. "It's big music, and you're having to compete with something that's kind of already perfect. That piece has eight dancers. It's very athletic, and they're jumping around and it's cute and quirky and different from other things I make."
Building stories from feelings
Pugh, a fourth-generation Memphian who majored in English in college, says she seeks out choreographers who -- big breath -- "are not afraid of the written word and will really parse it and live with it and find actual nuggets and what the solid-gold themes are and can build a story."
The company has presented "Romeo and Juliet" and "A Midsummer Night's Dream," for example, but not in massive productions. The Memphis versions are tailored for the troupe's 18 dancers.
One choreographer who shows up often in Memphis is Julia Adam, the company's artistic associate. She was a member of National Ballet of Canada and San Francisco Ballet before she devoted herself to the creative realm.
Several years ago, Pugh handed the Canadian choreographer Welty's short story about loss and told her to make a dance. The result, "Curtain of Green," is set to piano music by Philip Glass.
"This one is deeply emotional, but there's not a lot of story," says Adam. "It's mostly feeling. How do you talk about a grieving woman who lost a husband and went catatonic, in a sense. How do you relay that in a physical way?
"I haven't really grieved hugely in my life. I still have my parents. But I know that obsessive thing where you can't let go or move on."
Adam is among the choreographers Pugh has engaged for an upcoming River Project focusing on the Mississippi. McMahon's section (about Memphis) and Adam's piece (New Orleans) will be previewed next month during an anniversary gala.
"I'm trying to find some authenticity, being a Canadian girl," Adam says. "Ottawa is 40 percent French, so I might go back to colonial New Orleans and tie in old French-Canadian music. It has to resonate with me. I can't just make it up."
Pugh had no idea she would make a ballet company when she returned to Memphis after dancing in Nashville to start a performing arts group for children. It grew into a civic company and, at the urging of donors, soon became the professional Ballet Memphis.
"I said, 'Oh, well, I'll give it a try,' " says Pugh. "I can't say it hasn't been fun. I meet the greatest people. I've gotten permission to do some works by people who are big shots, but when it doesn't work out with the budget I say, 'Sorry, I can't afford you at that price.' "
Ballet Memphis, which has a budget of $3.3 million, is holding its own "by being cautious but maintaining quality," Pugh says.
As part of this effort, she'll head to the West Coast this week to hold auditions (with Adam giving master classes), even though the company has no openings at the moment. Pugh regrets not being able to travel to Cleveland with her dancers.
"I won't see the rock and roll museum," she says. "To think we could have had that museum. Of course, we think we deserved it."
RELATED COMPANY: Ballet Memphis
Sunday, February 26th, 2012 12:00 PM
Ballet Memphis will present FREE Master Classes!
Professional, pre-professional, middle and high school dancers are encouraged to attend.
Friday, March 9th
Ohio Dance Theatre
39 South Main Street #241
Oberlin, OH 44074
Please RSVP to Denise Gula at firstname.lastname@example.org
For Middle School and High School Students
Thursday, March 8th
1375 Euclid Avenue
Cleveland, Ohio 44115
Please RSVP to Sarah Hricko at email@example.com
ABOUT THE COMPANY: Ballet Memphis is now in its 25th anniversary season and is recognized for its close ties more › to the region's rich musical and literary heritage through dance, production and training, including its lauded Memphis Project works. Ballet Memphis has staff and facilities of the highest caliber, and partners with artists from around the globe for collaborative and original works. The Ford Foundation lauded Ballet Memphis as a "national treasure." The company has received grants and high praise from other foundations and national media alike, including the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the National Dance Project, the New York Times, The Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, The Huffington Post, Fast Company, Dance magazine, Pointe magazine and others. It has performed to excellent reviews at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., at the Joyce Theater and the Sylvia and Danny Kaye Playhouse in New York City, at Houston's Dance Salad, at the Festival des Arts de Saint-Saveur (Canada), Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival in Massachusetts, among others.
Don't miss Ballet Memphis in their Cleveland debut!
Saturday, March 10 at 8pm
Sunday, March 11 at 3pm
Ohio Theatre at PlayhouseSquare
Visit www.dancecleveland.org for full repertory and additional information.
Tuesday, February 21st, 2012 10:00 PM
On my recent trip to Minnesota, you might recall, I stopped in for a Saint Paul City Ballet performance and lamented Cleveland's lack of ballet. I was overlooking, it seems, Dance Cleveland's presentations bringing the acclaimed Ballet Memphis to Cleveland for two performances on Saturday, March 10th (8p) and Sunday, March 11th (3p) in PlayhouseSquare's Ohio Theater
While Cleveland hasn't had a company in residence since San Jose Cleveland Ballet more › dropped Cleveland in a dozen years ago -- preceding my arrival in Cleveland -- Dance Cleveland is promising that "If Northeast Ohio still had a classical ballet company in residence, it might look and feel like Ballet Memphis"
The company, now in its 25th year, is headed by Memphis native Dorthy Gunther Pugh has been said to serve as a cultural ambassador for that city's unique cultural heritage.
During their brief stay in Cleveland, the troupe will be presenting a bit of that heritage with a nod to another famous Tennessean: Roy Orbison's voice and six of his most popular songs provides the musical backdrop for Trey McIntyre's "sometimes dark, always passionate" In Dreams, described by the New York Times simply as "Exceptional".
Choreographed by Jane Comfort with music by Memphis saxophonist Kirk Whalum, S'epanouir comes to an end "with a hand-clapping gospel celebration". Though the piece "tells the story of a woman in the depths of an emotional crisis" aided in a transformation by community it is said that the piece has a more joyful quality than is typical for that choreographer's works.
Featuring the rondo finale from the rondo finale Beethoven's Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D Major, Op. 61 dancer-choreographer Steven McMahnon's Being Here With Other People is said to be an expression of gratitude for the "'home-away from home' atmosphere that Steven McMahnon finds in Memphis"
Rounding out the announced program, Curtain of Green by Juila Adam is inspired by Eudora Welty's story of the same time and is an "abstract retelling of lost love, fear, and madness" revolving around a widow who obsessively tends to a tangled garden and whose rage nearly boils over.
I'm certainly looking forward to the unique expression of ideas that only dance offers.
Ticket prices range from $30-$45 and can be purchased at playhousesquare.org, via phone at 866-546-1353, or to avoid fees in person at the PlayhouseSquare Box Office on Euclid Avenue.
RELATED COMPANY: Ballet Memphis