Friday, March 16, 2018

"Director's Cut: Musical Masters"

Cincinnati Ballet, Aronoff Center, Cincinnati. March 15-18, 2018

Sirui Liu (L) and Samantha Griffin are seen in an especially memorable scene in choreographer Garrett Smith’s “Façades.” The work is part of Cincinnati Ballet’s “Director’s Cut: Musical Masters” series March 15-18 at the Aronoff Center. Photo: Peter Mueller.

Review by David Lyman

“Façades” was supposed to be the other work on Cincinnati Ballet’s “Director’s Cut: Musical Masters” program at the Aronoff Center. You know, the one by the lesser-known choreographer, the necessary third work on a mixed-rep program that would have been too short without it.

And while it’s true that choreographer Garrett Smith is not as well-known as Jerome Robbins or George Balanchine – the other choreographers – “Façades” turned out to be the evening’s surprise hit.

That’s not to diminish the impact of Robbins’ “Fancy Free” or Balanchine’s “Rubies.” They occupy hallowed spots in the pantheon of American ballet. But “Façades,” with its stunning visual presentation and deliciously eccentric movement, had a freshness and a vivaciousness that the two much-studied (and much older) works couldn’t match.

For the record, “Fancy Free” premiered in 1944, while “Rubies” first appeared in 1967 as the second movement of Balanchine’s full-length ”Jewels.” “Façades” is just three years old.

Let’s look at those older ballets first. When it premiered, “Fancy Free” was an anomaly. It was the debut work of a young American choreographer. And the music was a jaunty, jazzy piece by equally young composer /conductor Leonard Bernstein. And for a nation three years into a world war, the robust and wholesomeness of the 100 percent American storyline could hardly be matched.

As the curtain opens, three young American sailors are beginning a long-awaited shore leave in Manhattan. Robbins’ choreography is filled with all manner of physical hijinks and cocky bravado. These are,  he seems to be telling us, all-American men, filled with optimism and an enviable youthfulness. They wander into a small mid-Century Modern bar – thank you, designer Oliver Smith – for a beer, but are quickly distracted when a stylish young woman wanders past.

The interplay is playful and, for the most part, quite innocent, at least in its original 1944 context. At times, though, it teeters on the edge of discomfort when viewed through the modern-day, #MeToo prism. But the performers save it from that fate. Cervilio Miguel Amador, James Cunningham and Edward Gonzalez Kay are agreeable presences on the stage, more playful than threatening.

Christina LaForgia Morse, along with (from L) Cervilio Miguel Amador, James Cunningham and Edward Gonzalez Kay in a scene from Jerome Robbins’ “Fancy Free.” Photo: Peter Mueller.

And the young woman, Christina LaForgia Morse, later joined by Melissa Gelfin, is self-assured and has an air of self-reliance. We sense that both women will manage just fine, thank you.

I may be reading too much into all of this, but I think it is the two women who give us permission to enjoy the ballet. Both Morse and Gelfin bring substantial acting chops to their formidable dancing prowess. They are, at turns, flirtatious, sociable and resolute that this lively encounter will be nothing more than a quick beer and a little dancing in the pub. Kathleen Dahlhoff appears at the very end of the ballet. Saucy and playful, her appearance promises that the sailors’ pursuit will continue well after the curtain falls.

It’s wonderful to see “Rubies” again. The last time Cincinnati Ballet performed it was in 2003, as part of a joint production of the full-length “Jewels” with BalletMet Columbus.

“Rubies” is, to my eye, a curious piece, an amalgam of several different styles that we don’t normally associate with Balanchine. On the one hand, it is filled with the interweaving patterns that are a Balanchine hallmark. But it is also sprinkled with pedestrian movement, as the men trot and prance and cavort.

And at times the stop-action angularity of Balanchine’s choreography for principal dancer Sirui Liu seems to beg her to channel a young Martha Graham. She succeeds marvelously, incidentally, in a role that is at times severe and at others downright majestic. Principal dancers Chisako Oga and Rodrigo Almarales are also featured in a series of short duets that are frisky, impish and, at times even teasing.

Principal dancer Sirui Liu is seen here performing in the “Rubies” movement of George Balanchine’s “Jewels” with other members of the Cincinnati Ballet. The work is being performed as part of the company’s “Director’s Cut: Musical Masters” series March 15-18 at the Aronoff Center. Photo: Peter Mueller.

And then there is "Façades."

Choreographically, it’s a visually arresting piece, made all the more striking by Travis Halsey’s costumes. They run the gamut from 17th-century frippery to elegant tutus – some black, others red or white – and long wispy white wraps that make the men who wear them look as if they’ve just come from posing for an Impressionist painting.

Watching Smith’s choreography is like studying the inner workings of an elaborate clock. Pieces move every which way. Just when you focus on one thing, something more fascinating unfolds on the other side of the stage. It’s a glorious confusion of movement. But it’s confusion that has order.

Moments later, a towering picture frame drops from above and two dancers – Liu and Samantha Griffin – do a mesmerizing mirror-image dance. It’s the sort of thing that some choreographers might play for laughs. Or to show the dancers’ discipline. But because Liu and Griffin are such compelling performers, this is nearly hypnotic.

In another movement, the women in the corps de ballet collapse to the floor. They roll onto their backs and all we see is a sea of slightly crunched tutus with disembodied legs extending upward. It’s bizarre. And when their feet begin to turn in and out and writhe in most ungainly ways, you’re not even certain you’re looking at feet any more. Maybe they’re the necks of swans. Or serpents. Or some unknown plant life rippling in the currents of the ocean floor.

Besides the wonderfully elegant Liu, “Façades” also provides a showcase for David Morse and Christian Griggs-Drane, as well as Almarales and Taylor Carrasco as a pair of delightfully foppish characters.

Of special note is Griffin, who has very quickly become one of the company’s must-see dancers. At one moment, she is a ferocious countenance, sharp and edgy. The next, she looks impossibly fragile, a towering presence caught in a swirl of unpredictable choreography. It’s hard not to watch her.

Accompanying all of this are Maestro Carmon DeLeone, the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and soloist Michael Chertock – he plays both piano and harpsichord in the course of the evening. It’s almost as if they are giving us a crash course in western music.

There are more than a few bumps in Stravinsky’s “Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra,” which accompanies “Rubies.” But the ensemble gives Bernstein’s “Fancy Free” a rugged and robust performance. And the Vivaldi “Concerto for Harpsichord and Chamber Orchestra” that accompanies much of “Façades” is crisp, incisive and filled with every bit as much character as Smith’s choreography.

“Director’s Cut: Musical Masters” will be repeated at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Saturday and 6:30 p.m. Sunday.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Louisville Ballet's $1 Million Gift

It was just a year ago that Louisville Ballet announced former Australian Ballet principal Robert Curran would become the Kentucky company's new artistic director.

Now comes the word that he has secured a $1 million gift for the company from an anonymous donor, believed to be the largest single gift in the company's 63-year history.

Here is a post about the donation by Sydney-based arts blogger Deborah Jones:

Robert Curran attracts $US1 million gift for Louisville Ballet

IN his first year as artistic director of Louisville Ballet, in the US state of Kentucky, former Australian Ballet principal dancer Robert Curran has attracted a donation of $US1 million to the company. It is believed to be the largest gift received from an individual donor in the company’s 63-year history, says Louisville Ballet director of marketing Natalie Harris. The donor, who is based in New York, wishes to remain anonymous.
Robert Curran. Photo: Quentin Jones
Robert Curran. Photo: Quentin Jones
Here's a link where you can read the rest of the article - - and a 2014 story by Louisville NPR affiliate WFPL when Curran was appointed to the Louisville position -

Friday, April 17, 2015

Xavier University's "Spring Awakening"

Disheartening, shattering, sometimes agonizing to watch, provocative as hell – Xavier University’s “Spring Awakening” is all that and more. What’s most wonderful about it is the youthfulness of the cast.

More often than not, you’ll see this show with a cast of actors who are edging their way toward 30. That's not middle-aged, by any means. But remember, this is a show that is about teen-agers. Wendla, the leading female character, is supposed to be 14.

This cast is all older than that, of course. But they are young enough for their exuberance to be convincing. These are characters who are as filled with optimism and wonder for the world as they are with darkness and a sense of hopelessness. They're not certifiable, though. They’re just young. They haven’t learned how to navigate the complexities of the world yet.

In his curtain speech, it was obvious that director Stephen Skiles – also head of Xavier’s young theater program – is thrilled with his production. And rightly so, beginning with his casting of the three major roles; Maya Farhat as Wendla, Tyler Kuhlman as Melchior and Griff Bludworth as Moritz.

Farhat is the epitome of modesty and youthful passion, singing with extraordinary restraint and control rather than trying to overpower us with vocal pyrotechnics. It’s so, so much more compelling. Wendla is supremely naïve. But Farhat doesn’t play down to her character. There’s no question that we’re watching a twentysomething woman in the role. But Farhat does it with such reticence and humility that we never, ever doubt her.

Maya Farhat and Tyler Kuhlman.

Kuhlman, though a notch less effective as a singer, gives Melchior that wonderful mix of idealism and self-righteous that makes us adore him even as we occasionally smirk at his innocence. You love and admire how much he wants to change the world, even as you know he’s unlikely to achieve many of those dreams of his. If this character teeters too much in one direction or the other, Melchior can be insufferable. Kuhlman maintains the balance perfectly.

And Bludworth’s Moritz? You just want to reach out and hug the kid. There’s not a bad bone in Moritz. In fact, he’s quite sweet. But he's lost. He’s spent a lifetime being humiliated, first by his parents, then by his teachers and classmates. Small wonder that Moritz has come to believe them. Bludworth shows us how powerful those years of little murders can be.

There are other performances I found myself drawn to, as well; Ryan O’Toole’s Georg, who verges on a 19th century punk rocker and Molly Hiltz, convincingly playing every one of the characters demanded of the “adult female” role. There’s Megan Hostetler’s Ilse, too, whose vain attempt to save Moritz is crushing to watch. And Aaron Krick and Elizabeth Rancourt, who were alternatingly uplifting and tragic.

Griff Bludworth as Moritz.

There are a few bumps along the way. The balance of music and singing is sometimes off, though on the whole, you can hear these singers quite well. And there are a couple of roles that would be served well by more skillful actors.

But this is a handsome and affecting show, from Kathleen Hotmer’s simple period costumes to Alana Yurczyk’s spare set with just enough of a hint of the power of the past. And Dee Anne Bryll’s choreography is particularly successful. There’s lots and lots of movement in this show. But Bryll tightly reins it in so that it becomes a theatrical element, not a showstopper. Alice Trent’s lighting is quite effective, too, though it has a distracting way of spilling out onto the theater walls.

What is most impressive, though, is that Xavier did this at all. This is a show that unabashedly takes on the oppressiveness of 19th Century religion. Characters challenge parental and academic authority. They challenge God. The play charges headfirst into controversial and complicated issues and refuses to back away from them. And the result is a gripping piece of theater. And – sorry for stereotyping – it’s not what you expect to see on the stage at a Catholic university.

Good for Stephen Skiles for selecting it. And good for the Xavier University for supporting him, the staff and the students in that decision. It speaks well of XU and of the department itself. I'm looking forward to see more from them as this department grows.

You've got two more changes to see this show: 7:30 p.m. Friday & Saturday, April 18 19.

Tickets are $17, $12 for students and are available by calling 513-745-3939 or online at

Monday, March 16, 2015

Serials 2: Thunderdome, Episode 4

OK, we're getting near the end of "Serials 2: Thunderdome," a theater journey that has been as entertaining as it has been frustrating. In case you haven't experienced Know Theatre's experiment in episodic theater, here's how it has worked.

Back on Feb. 2, we got to see five 15-minute plays. At the end of the evening, we - the audience - voted on which three we wanted to keep. The two shows with the fewest number of votes were booted out and replaced two weeks later by two new shows. It has continued that way ever since.

Episode 4 unfolded Monday night.

Once again, "Andy's House of [BLANK]," written (and composed) by Trey Tatum and Paul Strickland and directed by Bridget Leak has been my audience favorite. Obviously, others have liked it, too, as it has been in the running since the very first week.

It has been a standout from the beginning. It was polished, well-rehearsed and clearly conceived, qualities that most of the other shows lacked. In fact, it's safe to say that this show has single-handedly raised the bar for the entire series. (Photo of Trey Tatum by Christine Wands.)

"Andy's" is a wonderfully curious tale that toys around with time, love, longing and the emotional prisons we build for ourselves. Sounds grim, I know. But it's funny, in a wry and smart sort of way.

Tatum and Strickland provide the music, whaling away at an old upright piano like a pair of grizzled honky-tonk regulars who pay off their bar bills by knocking off a few songs every night. And when they stand up and actually talk to the crowd, it's more like they're storming the stage. Their performances are frenetic, fire-and-brimstone sort of things. Personally, I think they're fabulous.

There is a story, about a lonely guy - Andy, played by Chris Richardson - who runs an oddball curiosity shop and his relationship with Sadie (Erika Kate McDonald), the unrequited love of his life. Sadie wanders in at 3 p.m. every day, drops off an electronic contraption that belonged to her dad, then heads off to a party where everyone is killed by a fire.

Then she re-appears the next day at 3. And the next day. And the next.

It's bizarre, of course. But it's melancholy, too, and thoughtful and endlessly interesting.

It got my vote.

So did a new entry called "A Rolling Stone Gathers No Loss," written by Alexx Rouse and Robert Macke and directed by Nate Netzley.

Rarely has such an eccentric show looked so comfortable in its skin.

Andy Simpson plays Albert, an over-sized kid who, despite his naivete, seems wise beyond his years. Of course, there's the possibility that he's not a kid at all. Maybe he's just a slow-witted and childish adult. After a minute or two, I stopped concerning myself about what he is because I didn't really care. I just couldn't stop watching his performance. None of that appalling hey-look-at-me-I'm-a-kid stuff. Just a wonderful candor.

His mother Jocelyn is played by Nate Doninger. Jocelyn is nervous, controlling when she needs to be and almost certainly in an altered state of mind. The fact that there's a man wearing a lousy wig playing the role means . . . well, again, who knows? (Photo of Andy Simpson, L, and Nate Doninger by Christine Wands.)

Does Andy know his mom is a man? Or is Jocelyn a man? Maybe this is just a drag role? Or something else. I didn't spend too much time fretting about it, because I didn't really care. The script is engaging and - unlike a couple of others - only as long as it needs to be.

It got my vote, too.

My third vote went to "So In Tents," by John E. Bromels and directed by Rebecca Bromels. It was a new entry a couple of weeks back and was so well-received that it was the first show able to bump out one the series' original productions.

This week's episode is every bit as good.

Unlike the other shows, which exist in their own little worlds, "So In Tents" takes place in Cincinnati and is a thinly veiled depiction of the annual camp-outs in front of the Fairview German Language School in Clifton.

The play is deliciously absurd, as is the real-life camp-out it mocks. There's a constant barrage of class warfare, micro-aggressions and bureaucratic nonsense. In real life, all of this would be irritating as hell, but in the Bromels' theatrical version, the parody is nonstop and delightfully sharp-edged.

The folks in line include Miranda McGee as the pushy wife of a city council member, Mike Sherman as a nice guy who doesn't quite know how to deal with these lunatics, Tatiana Godfrey as a sharp-witted grandmother who refuses to be intimidated and Dave Powell as the self-appointed leader of the line.

Lauren Showen makes a brief appearance as a no-nonsense assistant principal, while WVXU-FM news director Maryanne Zeleznik makes a memorable guest appearance as - what else? - a radio news reporter.

The evening also included Ben Dudley's "Cinderblock" and a new entry by Kevin Crowley, titled "So This Couple . . . "

The Know will announce the three top vote-getters Tuesday at noon. We'll see the next - and final - chapters of those shows as part of the "Serials 2" finale on March 30. On Wednesday of this week, people who have attended "Serials 2" will have a chance to bring back two shows that have were bounced out earlier.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Theater, Not Dance

It’s miserable out there.

When I returned from seeing the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater at the Aronoff, I logged onto the computer and saw a Facebook post by Michael Shooner. It’s about the Clifton Players/Untethered Theater  production of “August: Osage County.”

“Finest ensemble you will see this season,” he wrote. “Do whatever it takes to see this show. Wow!”

I completely agree.

I was there opening night, but for reasons too complicated to explain, I didn’t have occasion to review the show.

But it’s been two weeks since I saw the show and I can’t get it out of my mind. And now, thanks to an inadvertent nudge from Michael, I will write a little bit.

“August: Osage County” is a deadly serious play. And it’s long – well over three hours the night I saw it. And yes, the chairs in the Clifton Performance Theater are still not the most comfortable. (They’re not the worst, either.)

But none of that stuff makes a difference. This is a production, as Michael said, with a fabulous ensemble of actors. Seriously. If Cincinnati theater had an all-star team, you’d find a whole bunch of these people on the roster.

In alphabetical order, the cast includes Bob Allen, Carol Brammer, Carter Bratton, Kevin Crowley, Christine Dye, Mindy Heithaus, Buz Davis (who also directs), Dale Hodges, MaryKate Moran, Nathan Neorr, Leah Strasser, Sarah White and Reggie Willis.

A big, big cast and there’s not a weak link in it.

In case you don’t know the play, which won the 2008 Pulitzer, here’s a quick summary.

It takes place in a dismal little town located in the middle of an Osage Reservation on the outskirts of Tulsa, Oklahoma. It revolves around what is surely the most dysfunctional extended family you’ve ever seen on the stage.

A few decades back, Beverly Weston (Davis) was regarded as a poet with promise. But since then, his life has been one of teaching halfheartedly while drinking wholeheartedly. His wife Violet (Hodges) is dying of cancer. But it’s anyone’s guess whether the disease or her multiple drug addictions will kill her first.

When Beverly disappears, the entire family returns to the family homestead. And for the next three hours, they exact all manner of verbal cruelty on one another.

It is shocking and horrifying and fascinating and . . . well, you wish it didn’t seem so real. But it does, quite brilliantly. And since the Clifton Performance Theatre is soooooo tiny – 60 people is an overflow crowd – all of this harshness is right in your face.

It’s excruciating. And you can’t take your eyes off it. (Continued below.)

There’s much more I probably should say here. Like how intriguing it is to see Crowley and Strasser play characters that are so different from what we have seen them do recently. She’s quiet and subdued. He’s withdrawn and easily intimidated. Or how very creepy Neorr is in his scenes with White. You’re so horrified by him that you want to leap up and grab the guy and thrash him.

Or how Brammer and Allen both have scenes so shattering and emotionally overpowering that you will surely count them among the best things you see this year. Same with Hodges. She may seem a fragile presence, but she has no problem summoning up the vitriol to torture every character around her. And just when you think she can’t be any more heartless, she is.

Or how very heartbreaking Bratton and Moran are. And how precarious a character Heithaus can create. Or how comforting it is when Reggie Willis steps onto the stage. Or how unfeeling Dye’s character can be as she teeters on the edge.

They’re all so good. And much of that is thanks to Davis, who contains playwright Tracy Letts’ imploding world and then ever-so-carefully unleashes moments of its mayhem.

“August: Osage County” runs through March 14. At least a couple of those performances are already sold out. But since the weather is unspeakably crappy at the moment, there’s hope that there may be a few seats left.

So take Michael Shooner’s much more succinctly stated advice and go see this show. It really is something quite extraordinary.

For more info, call 513-861-7469;

Friday, October 10, 2014

Misty Copeland Meets APM's Marketplace

Misty Copeland is everywhere these days.

Seriously, it seems that every time you turn around, the American Ballet Theatre soloist is being interviewed on TV or in some magazine or newspaper. She has a hefty endorsement deal with Under Armour. She’s a spokesperson for the Boys and Girls Clubs of America and has done ads and commercials for everyone from Diet Dr. Pepper to Blackberry.

Now she can carve a new notch into that belt of hers: panelist on Marketplace, American Public Media’s internationally syndicated radio show about all things business-related. (Here in Greater Cincinnati, the show is heard four times every weekday on WVXU, 91.7 FM.)

Next Thursday – October 16 – host Kai Ryssdal and much of Marketplace’s Los Angeles-based on-air team will present a one-night-only stage production in New York City to celebrate the show’s 25th anniversary.

As part of the show, they’ve convened a celebrity panel to discuss creativity and innovation. Front and center, of course, will be Copeland, along with actor Hank Azaria, author/screenwriter Delia Ephron and Kickstarter co-founder and CEO Yancey Strickler.

For those with even the slightest interest in dance history, the show’s venue – Kaufmann Concert Hall in the 92nd Street Y – is one of the most significant in the history of American dance. The Y's Harkness Dance Center opened in 1935 with a performance that featured Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman and Hanya Holm.

In the course of the next 40 years, Y concerts featured a who’s who of American dance; Pearl Primus, Ted Shawn, Jerome Robbins, Talley Beatty and dozens of others. It hosted the premieres of Alvin Ailey’s Revelations, Anna Sokolow’s Rooms, Donald McKayle’s Rainbow ‘Round My Shoulder and Jose Limon’s Moor’s Pavane, as well as a 1954 performance by Robert Joffrey’s then-new ballet company, George Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein's Dance Caravan, a rare east coast performance by Lester Horton’s California-based company and the 1952 debut of Pearl Lang’s dance group.

Misty Copeland will be in far better company than she may be aware of.

If you happen to be in New York next week, tickets are $30-$75 and available at 212-415-5500 or

Photo: Misty Copeland as Gamzatti in La Bayadere, by Rosalie O'Connor.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Sarah Hairston

It was just about a year ago when one of America’s greatest-ever ballerinas, Cynthia Gregory, came to coach Cincinnati Ballet’s leading dancers in preparation for the company's  co-production of Swan Lake with BalletMet Columbus.

Photographer Jennifer Denham, who regularly photographs studio rehearsals for the company, stopped by one day to catch the action.

This remarkable photo of principal dancer Sarah Hairston with senior soloist Romel Frometa was taken during that rehearsal. Clearly, the pair were already well on their way to the memorable performances they would give in the leading roles of Odette/Odile and Siegfried.