Friday, May 15th, 2015 12:00 PM
AKRON, Ohio – Akron and Northeast Ohio generally are about to leap to national prominence as a hotbed for dance.
Fast-tracking a plan to turn the region into a generator of new work, the Miami-based John S. and James L. Knight Foundation has given $5 million to establish a national center for choreography at the University of Akron.
The grant, several times larger than expected, moves the project forward rapidly – at more › last reporting, planners were conducting a feasibility study – and sets up Northeast Ohio as only the second area in the nation dedicated to dance creation.
"This is stunning news in the dance world," said project member Pamela Young, executive director of DanceCleveland, recalling that she lost her breath when she heard it. "The whole thing has been a little magical."
Like its predecessor, the Maggie Allesee National Center for Choreography at Florida State University in Tallahassee, the dance center coming to Akron will not be a physical space so much as a network of facilities and resources.
Choreographers and dance companies, many of whom struggle for studio time, will apply for access and then be granted space in which to create and perform in the school's well-stocked Center for Dance and Theatre. The artists also will paid for their time, and be positioned to seek inspiration and do research all over Northeast Ohio.
"In a lot of ways, the center will be like a matchmaker," said Young, pointing to a recent test of the idea with Camille A. Brown & Dancers. "The whole region can be an incubator. We have all the right stuff. It's all right here."
Two choreographers already have been selected to inaugurate the new center, Young said.
Carrie Hanson, Chicago-based director of The Seldoms, will be the first, in July, and John Jasperse, artistic director of a troupe in New York, will be in residence next April. The former, Young said, plans to do research at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, while the latter will avail himself of videographers at the University of Akron.
Whether or not these artists complete anything while here -- and what becomes of that work -- remains to be seen. Still, the very presence of cutting-edge artists living and working on campus in Akron and the ideas the choreographers will carry away should prove to be worthy ends in themselves, said Neil Sapienza, associate dean of fine arts and humanities at the university.
"[W]e look forward to having many prominent choreographers in our studios, on our campus, on a regular basis, year after year. For our students, having that national presence is just enormous."
The greatest impact, though, is likely to be on the public, on the region as a whole. Some works conceived here, for instance, are bound to appear later on a DanceCleveland program. Others will yield insight on the creative process and thereby serve to advance understanding of the art.
Northeast Ohio, meanwhile, will only step further into the spotlight. Like the best of dance partners, the new center will elevate and hold up the region as a destination for creative souls.
"I think this puts Northeast Ohio squarely in the high beams of national attention for dance," Young said. "The whole system of dance in Northeast Ohio will be the better for it."
The Plain Dealer, Zachary Lewis
Friday, May 15th, 2015 12:00 PM
The University of Akron is dancing for joy.
The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation on Thursday announced $5 million in funding for the school and the nonprofit DANCECleveland to launch the National Center for Choreography on the Akron campus. It will be only the second center of its kind in the country.
"We want to increase the amount of experiential learning our students receive - whether it's in the sciences more › or the arts," UA President Scott Scarborough said. "[The dance program] has a historical legacy, and we want to build on the strength that comes with that history. When people say 'The University of Akron,' you think of polymers and engineers, We want to be known for our art programs as well."
The center will provide national choreographers and dance companies with access to seven dance studios and the E.J. Thomas Performing Arts Hall so they can create new work. It also will help UA by using Guzzetta Hall, which was refurbished and expanded in part to house the Ohio Ballet. (The ballet company ceased operations, however, before the addition opened.) The university also expects students to benefit from professional artists being on campus.
"We want the students to have hands-on experience before they go out into their fields," Scarborough said. "This is an investment in learning, and it's important the students can learn in person as opposed to a textbook. But they also can rub shoulders with people already in the field. It gives them contacts to help get jobs later and which is integral to all of our programs."
The dance activities are expected to begin immediately, although the groups still must hire an executive director and appoint a five-member board of directors to oversee the center.
The idea follows a blue-ribbon panel that examined the future of dance and a feasibility study funded by Knight and the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. The Maggie Allesee National Center for Choreography, housed at Florida State University, is the only other national choreography center in the nation at a major research institution.
"Dance makers are very underrepresented when it comes to resources," DANCECleveland Executive Director Pamela Young said. "This is a game-changer that will be felt locally, regionally and nationally."
Young said the center is important for choreographers because, more often than not, they do not get to see the dances onstage with the accompanying sets and costumes until a few hours before the show - making the job vastly more difficult if something goes wrong or doesn't look correct.
"With the new center, dance makers can get a look at the full performance throughout the process," Young said. "They will have access to the studios in Guzzetta Hall and access to E.J. Thomas [Hall], this gap will be filled.
Alberto Ibarguen, president of the Miami-based Knight Foundation, also attended the event.
"Vision, talent, ability, will and tenacity will help pull this off," Ibarguen said. "This will not be for the faint of heart, and it's all being made possible because of the combination of desire, facilities and community support."
UA and DANCECleveland, which have partnered on dance performances and projects since 2006, have agreed to an 11-page memorandum of understanding to create the center. Knight has pledged $5 million to support it once the center is established. The groups are still finalizing the agreement.
The memorandum notes that the Knight Foundation has the option to name the center after its organization. If it decides not to, the parties may seek to sell naming rights.
Scarborough said that the $5 million is to be spread out evenly over the course of five years, therefore the foundation would be bearing most of the costs associated with the center during that time.
UA, however, is responsible for dance studio space, office space for the center staff, access to costume and scenery, access to E.J. Thomas and support from the theater production crew.
It also says the center will conduct its own fundraising.
DANCECleveland is one of eight stand-alone, dance-only presenters in the country. It has presented performances by more than 200 dance companies, conducted more than 1,000 workshops and master classes, and produced seven commissioned works.
Katie Nix and Rick Armon , The Akron Beacon Journal
Monday, April 27th, 2015 12:00 PM
CLEVELAND, Ohio -- Following in the footsteps of other ballet stars like Mikhail Baryshnikov that made late-career transitions from ballet to contemporary dance styles, former New York City Ballet star Wendy Whelan, seeing the writing on the wall after 30-years with NYCB, launched her Wendy Whelan New Works Initiative.
What has been remarkable about Whelan's transition more so than most, is rather than easing into the change, she cliff-dived into it. more › In short order, even before her official retirement from NYCB last October, she began crash courses with four different dancer/choreographers in four movement languages foreign to the way her body was used to moving to create "Restless Creature," the first production in her New Works Initiative.
The hourlong program co-presented by DANCECleveland and Playhouse Square at the Ohio Theatre Saturday night more than lived up to its pre-show hype giving the assembled audience a sumptuous dance memory to cherish for some time.
The critically-acclaimed suite of four duets danced by Whelan and her four male dancer/choreographer partners began with Hubbard Street Dance Chicago resident choreographer/dancer Alejandro Cerrudo's "Ego Et Tu" (2013).
Danced to music by Max Richter, Olafur Arnalds and others, Cerrudo entered the stage first pouring forth contemporary dance movement in a solo that had his outstretched limbs leading his body into swooping dips and rises, careening turns and liquidly smooth sways. Whelan then joined him dancing with similar fluidity.
While not quite as silky smooth as Cerrudo, the waif-like and powerful Whelan's carriage seemed to have shed a fair amount of its ballet rigidity since "Restless Creature" premiered in 2013. Both dancers were magical. Their partnering was elegant and effortless in Cerrudo's divine choreography that even gave a nod to Balanchine's iconic "Serenade," a ballet Whelan must have danced countless times.
Choreographer Joshua Beamish's "Conditional Sentences" (2015) was perhaps the least stretch for Whelan in terms of movement language. The courtly duet was infused with ballet steps and poses along with some tricky off-count starts and stops. But while Beamish and Whelan performed the call and response choreography expertly, they seemed to lack onstage chemistry and the work seemed to drag out and repeat itself.
Kyle Abraham's "The Serpent and The Smoke" (2013) proved the evening's most dramatic and resplendent work. Set to music by Hauschka and Hildur Guanadottir, the piece began with Abraham, aflutter like a whirling dervish, launching himself into a sequence of rapid turns and arm movements.
As a dancer, Abraham has a most distinctive way of moving that blends modern, contemporary and hip hop styles into seemingly steroid fueled movement riffs counterbalanced by tender moments of graceful serenity. Whelan bought into Abraham's movement language wholeheartedly in her performance, circling him at the outset as if stalking him as he looked on captivated by her wispy movement around him. The two, simpatico in their dancing brilliance, exuded strength, sensuality and rare beauty in the riveting duet.
The program concluded with the Brian Brooks gem "First Fall." To a score by Philip Glass, Brooks and Whelan melted into each other's arms moving up and down across the stage like on a rapidly moving stream. Brooks' modern dance choreography a la choreographer Doug Varone, was exceedingly pleasant to watch as were the two dancers in it.
In its latter stages, the pair engaged in a repeated sequence where Whelan fell trusting backwards onto a crouched Brooks' back and then he slowly rose up carrying Whelan with him. The effect, and the work, was spellbinding.
With the diverse and immensely gratifying "Restless Creature," Whelan showed she hasn't lost any of her star quality. She and her partners danced brilliantly. Most impressive and promising for her future after ballet though was her deft choices of partners and the works they created for her.
Steve Sucato, Cleveland.com
RELATED COMPANY: Wendy Whelan- Restless Creature
Tuesday, April 21st, 2015 12:00 PM
Toward the end of her 30-year tenure with the New York City Ballet, Wendy Whelan confronted the obvious: At age 47, she saw younger stars in the company flourishing and felt like she was aging, losing her creativity and seeing her repertoire of having choreographers set new dances on her dwindling.
"Being a mid-40 ballerina in a ballet company known for its very speedy and athletic choreography such as Balanchine, it's more › very rare for them to keep giving you new work," she said.
Whelan, well known for her sinewy physique and strikingly modern style as a ballerina, knew that most ballerinas retired by age 40. She had started with the NYCB as an apprentice at age 17 in 1984 and quickly become a member of the corps, then a soloist and finally a principal dancer in 1991.
The ballerina, who retired from the NYCB in October, knew she still had a lot to say through dance but wanted to strike out in vastly different directions. In 2013, she premiered her program Restless Creature, a suite of duets that she commissioned from four of America's top contemporary male choreographers - Kyle Abraham, Josh Beamish, Brian Brooks and Alejandro Cerrudo.
The key was to collaborate with choreographers who were still dancing, so they could perform their own duets with her in Restless Creature. The show made its world premiere at Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival in Becket, Mass., in August 2013, followed by a tour that began in March 2014. The most recent leg of the tour, which comes to the Ohio Theater at PlayhouseSquare through DanceCleveland April 25, began in January and has played to packed houses throughout the country.
Whelan has originated roles in ballets by everyone from William Forsythe to Twyla Tharp to Christopher Wheeldon. But for Restless Creature, she wanted to dance with choreographers who were as different from her as possible.
Her decision to leave NYCB was precipitated by hip surgery in 2013.
"It was quite a bit more serious than I imagined it would be,'' she said by phone in late March from New York. "I was about .3 millimeters away from needing a hip replacement. It was ridiculous. It was like hanging by a thread."
Whelan knew if she tried to push through and perform as she used to, her career would be over. She decided she wanted to be in charge of her dance career and work with people whom she liked as both choreographers and people.
She had run into Abraham and Brooks before, and saw Cerrudo perform with Hubbard Street Dance Chicago at a Dancers Respond to AIDS event in New York.
"I was just drawn to them by sharing the same bill with them on certain programs,'' she said.
She remembers seeing Abraham performing bare-chested in a long, romantic tutu to crazy music from a boom box, and being blown away by his solo at Fall for Dance at City Center in New York. His style was very urban, "hip-hoppy" and riveting.
"It's cool as s---. He's just fierce,'' Whelan said. "I was just really drawn and really curious about trying to find what he had, just a taste of it, in my own body."
Abraham, a 2013 MacArthur Fellow, was labeled in 2011 by OUT Magazine as the "best and brightest creative talent to emerge in New York City in the age of Obama."
Whelan also was drawn to Brooks' architectural style, which features repetitive movement and studies of weight and gravity. He has been hailed as a "choreographic genius" by Dance Enthusiast and was the recipient of the New York City Center Fellowship in 2012-13.
"His work is somewhat masculine in a way, which I thought was very cool and very New York,'' Whelan said of Brooks, whom she described as the most free-form modern choreographer of the four. "I was always floating around and being ethereal and I needed to find the ground" in her dance.
She met Beamish, the youngest of the group, at a contemporary dance class: "I'd never seen someone so articulate and able to sort of break down their bodies and their joints'' the way he does, Whelan said.
Cerrudo, resident choreographer at Hubbard Street since 2009, is very tall and lanky. He had worked with ballerinas before but his choreography is not ballet-based. Whelan's producer recommended she work with him.
"He just seemed a different kind of animal than the others,'' Whelan said.
The dancer, who has been described as a chameleon in Restless Creature as she adapts her body to each choreographer's style, said she didn't want to carry herself like a ballerina. She did not want to be predictable or even recognizable.
"I absolutely love it; it's a thrill,'' she said of the program. "I'm finding a really new, authentic side of myself that I hadn't really tapped into before in that way."
For more information on Whelan or Restless Creature, see www.wendywhelan.org.
Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kerry Clawson, The Akron Beacon Journal
RELATED COMPANY: Wendy Whelan- Restless Creature
Tuesday, April 21st, 2015 12:00 PM
CLEVELAND, Ohio - Any other dancer would have retired, gone into teaching.
Not Wendy Whelan. Sidelined by age and injury, the former star of New York City Ballet chose rather to transform than throw in the towel, to submit herself to cutting-edge dance makers and emerge a new kind of performer.
The product of that experience, "Restless Creature," is coming to Playhouse Square. In one hour, with four choreographers, Whelan Saturday will more › relive her metamorphosis and prove to the world that she, like many older ballerinas, still has a great deal to give.
"It's one evolution after another," said Whelan, by phone from New York. "We're making something that's very intimate, and we're letting you watch it. It's an unraveling of the stage, the choreography, and the dancer herself."
Ageism, to put it plainly, is alive and well in dance. Especially in ballet. After serving two decades and gaining global renown as a principal at NYCB, Whelan said many began to view her as naturally on the way down or out.
Then, in 2012, as if to prove them right, came an another injury, a potentially career-ending fall on her hip. Even as she recovered and continued dancing, Whelan began to wonder whether ballet was still her proper sphere.
"The power of both things at the same time forced me to rethink what I wanted to do," Whelan said. "It was kind of a good thing, even as it was painful and confusing. It was liberating."
Just how liberating, DanceCleveland patrons are about to discover. After resolving to branch out and stepping down from NYCB, Whelan did the extraordinary: She gave herself over to four choreographers, allowing each to create a duet with her employing whatever dance language they wished.
While her body regained strength and mobility, her partners - Kyle Abraham, Joshua Beamish, Brian Brooks and Alejandro Cerrudo - challenged her to use it in new ways. Put together in a series, the pieces reflect not only the chemistry of four unique pairs but also her solo journey from a straitlaced world to a place with few boundaries.
"It was a very big bite to take off and chew," Whelan recalled. "They didn't want me to hold my body like a ballet dancer. They had to kind of break me into that and trust that I could get there. I found a new side of myself."
The challenges didn't stop there. Once "Restless Creature" was at last ready for the road in spring 2014, the nagging effects of injury obligated Whelan to postpone a U.S. tour several months.
These days, too, even as she's in full swing and developing a new project, she's still encountering and overcoming the original obstacle: the quiet belief that her career should be ending rather than entering new phases.
"There's a lot of surprise that I'm still doing this," Whelan said. "Some people say you shouldn't do this professionally after a certain age. But I don't think you can put those kinds of limits on people."
The Plain Dealer, Zachary Lewis
RELATED COMPANY: Wendy Whelan- Restless Creature