GroundWorks DanceTheater to present two world premieres at E.J. Thomas Performing Arts Hall

Arts / Article

Artistic forces came together, in some cases for the first time, as GroundWorks DanceTheater (a Knight Arts grantee) rehearsed for its upcoming concert at Akron’s E.J. Thomas Performing Arts Hall this weekend.

Composer Steven Snowden was on hand to hear string chamber ensemble Aeolus Quartet perform the 40-minute work he wrote for GroundWorks’ “House of Sparrows.” The composition explores themes of the Civil War as part of a commemoration of the sesquicentennial of that conflict, and this was the first time Snowden would hear the work performed live.

Scenic designer Nic Petry (of Dancing Camera out of New York City) was also meeting his artistic companions for the first time.

It’s not as though they hadn’t been working together, for they had – through Skype conversations, tons of emails and other phone and written communications – to explore and develop the ideas that GroundWorks Founder and Artistic Director David Shimotakahara was trying to get at in his choreography.

The rehearsal that I attended was the first (and second, as they did another run through) attempt at bringing it all together. As the observer, it seemed seamless and wonderfully exciting.

Shimotakahara’s take on the major American catastrophic war is not about battle scenes, politics or slavery. Instead, he was inspired by letters and photographs (from caches housed in the U.S. Library of Congress collections) as a means to illustrate the upheaval of domestic life during that time. In a sit-down interview, Shimotakahara commented that it is really the only time that this nation faced citizens being displaced, in some cases as refugees, and who lost their homes and an entire way of life.

To get at the subject, Shimotakahara created a “family portrait” section where the dance focused on a house and family. Through dancers Felise Bagley, Damien Highfield, Annika Sheaff and Noelle Cotler, he then tells four separate tales, which, he says, show different reactions and versions from people who experienced the same event.

“House of Sparrows” begins with music – plaintive, airy and eerie. Cast against the background is a vintage image of a large, open-ward war hospital. A dancer (Cotler) enters almost shrouded in her own long dress. She stumbles in an overwhelmed way. This section is followed by the family portrait section, then the individual, and strongly done solo pieces. It ends with a solo from Bagley. At the end, the music is again sad, melancholic, disoriented in a way, yet has an underlying peacefulness. The character begins to shed the trappings of the past and begins to build a bridge to the future. The music fades in an image of loss and reconciliation.

GroundWorks DanceTheater. Photo courtesy of GroundWorks DanceTheater

Snowden’s music works perfectly for the different sections. In fact, the musicians are on stage and become part of the action. Without giving too much away, the images have been manipulated by Petry so that movement and texture within the images underlines the dramatic feelings being danced out.

The work sounds dark – and it is. Yet it has its light moments, told through rambunctious dance and lively fiddle playing in parts. The work lasts 40 minutes and will appear last during GroundWorks’ dance concert.

GroundWorks has always made important dance. “House of Sparrows” takes the company to a different level, and that probably has to do with its collaboration with some outstanding artists, as well as having live onstage music. “House of Sparrows” is one to see.

There are two other works on the bill: Robert Moses’ “The Rub” and “Current Frame” by GroundWorks Founding Member Amy Miller.

Shimotakahara commented that the Moses title (which was commissioned by GroundWorks) has as its source the notion of “there’s the rub” on one hand and soothing, healing rub on the other. Moses, Shimotakahara added, is working with the interplay and contradictions of those two ideas. The work is set on four dancers and lasts 21 minutes.

Miller’s “Current Frame” is a reprise of a work that premiered in Akron during the 2012 Heinz Poll Summer Dance Festival. It is a duet performed with live solo violin, played by Nicholas Tavani of Aeolus Quartet. The work, Shimotakahara commented, explores the dramatic interplay between the formal structures of Baroque composer Franz Biber’s “Passacaglia” and the emotional undercurrent found in response to those themes and cadences.

GroundWorks DanceTheater will be presenting its dance concert at 7:30 p.m. on March 5-6 at the E.J. Thomas Performing Arts Hall, 198 Hill St., Akron; 330-972-7570; Tickets are $25 ($10 for students).