September 14, 2016

Monday morning was beautiful, cloudless and sunny, and I was off early from my home in OTR to the nearby Cincinnati Ballet Center on Central Parkway to say hi to Cincinnati Ballet Artistic Director Victoria Morgan. Her celebratory 20th season opens Friday with a mixed rep performance called Director’s Cut. It features seven works: “all-time favorite pieces, world renowned choreographers and two world premieres.”


ABOVE: Cincinnati Ballet’s Victoria Morgan

As a young Cincinnati Ballet dancer with the “original” precursor company fifty years ago, I take a special interest in following the ongoing saga of this mid-size ballet company based in my home town.

Morgan’s accomplishments are many, not least among them staying in Cincinnati for twenty years. Adding the title of CEO to her resume, she’s achieved budgetary stability for Cincinnati Ballet, which is key. She’s become a champion for women choreographers. Her dancers come from all around the world. She continues to choreograph her own work. And over the years, her taste, leavened by the enthusiasms of her audience, has coalesced. She cherishes the classic, but obviously loves contemporary styles. A lot!

When I arrive, I get on the tiny elevator and ascend to the conference room. Looking happy and excited at the top of production week, Victoria joins me, and we chat for about fifteen minutes.

I love the new shot of you in a designer jacket and tutu (the photo has been widely distributed, CF #ballerinaboss). You are labeled a”Ballerina Boss,” who is “redefining first position.” 

Morgan (laughs): I got all these emails and phone calls about “Ballerina Boss.” I think it somehow got out there and people on the East and West coast are going – oh, wow, really cool!

You know, I’ve known you through the years, and I always think one of your defining characteristics is your sense of humor. You’ve got a great, enthusiastic laugh.

Morgan: Personally, I love to laugh. I am the biggest sucker for a good joke, a stupid joke. But I feel like I am way too serious in my real life. That’s how it feels to me. But thank you for saying that!

Putting together my new Patriotic Pas (a world-premiere duet set to Morton Gould’s rousing American Salute) . . . it’s 90 percent funny goofing around things that happened in the studio.

Last week, I watched a rehearsal with Melissa Gelfin and Rodrigo Almarales. Patriotic reminds me of George Balanchine’s famous Stars and Stripes. It’s got precision and dash. It has tricky combos. It’s speedy. It’s flirtatious. It’s all-American. And it’s also got joie de vivre.  


Morgan: Patriotic Pas is very Balanchinian. I mean, it is my background. It’s tricky. It’s really hard.

Yes, you packed it in there!

Morgan: I know. It is just packed. I really wanted something . . . because, the rest of the program, is, you know, contemporary and thoughtful.


ABOVE: Zack Grubbs and Sarah Hairston rehearsing Raymonda, which will be their final onstage appearance before retiring.

And Raymonda and Black Swan (also on the bill) have that classical thing, but not that pyrotechnic fireworks kind of stuff. And I felt that we just really needed that. It’s short. Kind of knock-your-socks-off.

And there is baton work?

Morgan: Yes, Melissa does a fantastic job of it. I can’t believe she’s that good at it, actually. She’s like throwing it up, switching hands, catching it – then it’s like under the leg and around. She’s awesome.

We also have Justin Peck’s Capricious Maneuvers, to Lukas Foss’ Capriccio. Another really tough piece. It’s fast-paced. Fast moving. Sort of like Balanchine. People call Peck’s work contemporary. They can think it’s contemporary because of the speed and the quick changes, and the look and the pace of it. But it requires top technique to execute.

Today Peck is a major, major choreographer and my personal hero, one of my top ever in my life so far.

I’m also crazy about Ma Cong’s world premiere. You saw his work last year?

Yes, in New Works last year. 

Morgan: It’s so fluid. I feel like when I’m watching him, I don’t even know where his bones are. And he gets that out of our dancers.

I watched a rehearsal on the dancers last week, too. His moves make a language for me, and then the choreography opens up. I like it a lot. 

Morgan: I love following the lines of movement, and trying to catch it and then you feel so clever. And it’s not an intellectual exercise, although that part of fascinating and requires some concentration. It’s just so organically fulfilling. It ties together in ways that connect limbs and necks and shoulders and legs and torsos in unusual ways.

It’s not like ‘this is so awkward,’  but it’s like “oh my god, it’s so new and original and satisfying. And it feels inevitable. Yet how can it feel inevitable when it’s so inventive?


ABOVE: Associate Artistic Director Johanna Bernstein Wilt coaches James Gilmer in the Cincinnati Ballet studio

How do you manage your personal time with the demands of your job, Victoria? I’ve heard you watch every single MainStage performance. 

Morgan: Yes. I watch. Every single one. I mean, there’s some Nutcrackers I miss sometimes, because I feel it’s also my job to be out in the community. That’s a big party time. So, I might miss a Nut or two But I see every single show.

I kind of made a deal with my hubby that I try not be out more than three nights a week. But it’s a little bit schizophrenic. When I am out in the community, I am hoping to make links and connections and tell more people about what we are doing with the company. I’m really proud of what we are doing.

And, my favorite thing is planning seasons and being creative. Linking it to our community, finding new collaborations. I’m lucky to do something I love to do.

To relax, I read. I started meditating. I listen to meditation music. And I try to work out. I’ve made an effort, using my great fits of discipline to get myself to actually work out! I have to be physically ready to lead a company, especially a dance company.

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January 24, 2016


The celebrated Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company revisits seminal works

– by Kathy Valin, reprinted from Cincinnati CityBeat 1/20/16

Eight members of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company appear this weekend in Body Against Body at The Aronoff Center. The company was founded in 1982 by Jones and his partner Zane, who died in 1988. Cincinnati audiences will see three illuminating pieces that return to company roots: Duet X 2 and Shared Distance, both small, intimate works from 1982 performed in silence; and Continuous Replay, an early solo concept from Zane most recently revised as a full company piece in 1994, set to “Music for Octet” composed and assembled by Jerome Begin after Beethoven string quartets.

Jones soldiered on after Zane’s death. Today their company is one of the most acclaimed in the dance-theater world – it has performed in some 200 cities in 40 countries on every continent. His major honors include a MacArthur (“Genius”) Award, the Kennedy Center Honors and two Tony Awards for Best Choreography.

Jones was born in Florida to itinerant farm workers, and raised in New York State. Though he starred as a high school track athlete, he soon discovered dance. He met Zane in college. The two young men made an unlikely pair.

Born in the Bronx, Zane was small, lithe and Italian-Jewish, with an interest in photography and martial arts. Jones was tall, black and powerfully built, adept at movement but also fluent in the conceptual and choreographic realms. Their early duets exploited their physical differences.

“They were also inspired by avant-gardism,” says associate artistic director Janet Wong. “They thought they were being ‘bad asses’. They were doing very intimate work. Subject matter tended to civil rights, identity politics, and counterculture movements. The two were also pioneers in the use of contact improvisation, a weight sharing technique, to generate movement.”

Reviving these early pieces in programs the company calls Body Against Body, she says, is a way that audiences and current company members can meet and know Zane. And though the works take on new life through the diverse dancers in the company today, they remain conceptually and physically rigorous, and some of the most significant examples of the postmodern aesthetic, which counts everyday movement as a valid art form.

Jenna Reigel and Talli Jackson recently talked with me about their roles in the Cincinnati production. Reigel dances two roles originated by Zane. Jackson performs in all three works, twice in roles originated by Jones.

Both appear in “Shared Distance,” a duet originally danced by Jones and Zane.
After Zane’s death, a petite firecracker of a woman named Julie West took on his role, according to Reigel, who dances that role this weekend. “In the spirit and nature of the duets Bill and Arnie were making, there was task-based material, but the dance was also an exploration of the dynamic of their personalities,” she says. “Bill talked a lot with me about this. For me, it was about being smaller but spunkier, with attitude. Sort of like ‘Anything you can do, I can. If you’re gonna lift me, I’m gonna lift you.’”

Jackson, who at 6’ 2” is a full foot taller than Reigel, says there is a wonderful spectrum between athletic moves in the piece and movements of real subtlety and tenderness, all held together within a very clean formal structure and a beautiful, spare post-modern sensibility.

They each find the absence of music to be liberating. “Rhythm and musicality and dynamics are recalled and understood or found between the two dancers each time it is performed,” says Reigel. “There is freedom on any given night how long the piece might be.”

Jackson thinks music has a tremendously powerful presence in space. “With silence, there can be a vast emptiness somewhat parallel to a blank page,” he says. “It can be scary. But, at the same time, it’s easier to focus on internal rhythms and musicality. It allows us to sing our own songs with our own bodies, to listen to our partner. It starts to be about ‘what rhythm are we going to play tonight,’ and a subtle difference in my partner can add spice or sensual sparkle.”

Continuous Replay, the evening closer, has been called a locomotive of a piece. “It’s based on an accumulation of forty-five phrases by Arnie,” says Wong, “choreographed in the gym where they rehearsed. Arnie was a karate master, attuned to sharp, precise motions. He eventually made that dance into a solo.”

After Zane’s death, with a performance date set but with no company piece because of a family emergency for a dancer, Jones made the solo into a full company piece. The lead role is called “the clock.” It’s the dancer who leads the accumulation of phrases.

“As more and more dancers enter the stage, they put on more and more of their costumes as the phrases accumulate,” says Wong. “We’d always only had a feisty, precise male dancer to Arnie’s part as ‘clock,’ but about five years ago we thought Jenna would be good. She has that kind of mind.”

“Bill and Arnie had an interest in film and this idea of 24 frames per second. So they often choreographed with still shapes making a series – having movements arise from transitioning from one shape to another,” says Reigel. “And, as “clock,” basically, I set the pace for everything that happens around the phrase collection. I’m very honored to be the first female to dance the role.”

Wong says she and Jones are proud of the early works the company performs today. “I think the ones we revive have survived the test of time,” she says. “I think they have a formal, honest athleticism, and for me they still stand up well.”

She says every time there’s a revival, Bill makes some changes. “He’s grown. Things change.

“When we revive we also ask ‘how do we let go of gender?’ We freed it up because the dancers are making some sort of connection to reflect a sort of shorthand Bill and Arnie had. It’s not just formal structuralism we are repeating, it’s about their life, their connection.”


August 30, 2015


Everett Company: Heart-Wrenching Stories, Powerful Movement, Redemptive Imagery


reprinted from Cincinnati CityBeat  

Providence, R.I.-based Everett Company (formerly Everett Dance Theatre) wants to know how America has transformed the “land of the free” into a country with one of the highest incarceration rates in the world, and what that means for those trapped in the system.
This small, unique company brings its most recent work, The Freedom Project — a multi-media examination of the human tragedy of mass incarceration and the remarkable resilience of the human spirit — to the Aronoff Center Nov. 6 and 7. The performance opens Contemporary Dance Theater’s 2015-2016 season.The cast features dancer/performer Grace Bevilacqua, spoken-word poet Christopher Johnson, parkour expert James Monteiro, Hip Hop choreographer/dancer Sokeo Ros, creator/performer Ari Brisbon and Everett co-director and The Freedom Project director Aaron Jungels, a longtime choreographer and dancer. “Everett picks complicated subjects and then makes the most delightfully insightful work about it,” says CDT Artistic Director Jefferson James, who has invited the company to perform in Cincinnati multiple times over the years. “They’ve dealt with social issues by examining subjects like science, how the brain works, immigration, man’s amazing ability to imagine and explore and now with man’s inhumanity to man in The Freedom Project.” “I’ve always been interested in the variety that exists in contemporary dance — the pure movement work, the narrative dances, the totally abstract work and the dances that comment on the society, both good and bad, in which we live,” James continues. “A season with only one type of contemporary dance would be a mistake, I think.”
The subject is timely. In July, President Obama toured a federal prison and afterward spoke of the damage our criminal justice system has done to Americans — especially men of color — and consequently to their families and communities. “If you are a low-level drug dealer, or you violate your parole, you owe some debt to society,” Obama said at the NAACP’s 106th Annual National Convention.
“You have to be held accountable and make amends. But you don’t owe 20 years. You don’t owe a life sentence.”

When asked how the 80-minute collage of videotaped interviews, movement and music that Jungels directed came together, he explains that The Freedom Project was researched for two years. The narrative arc of the performance is derived from interviews from both experts on the process of the criminal justice system and from the diverse, low-income Providence neighborhood in which Everett is based, where life-long entanglements with the criminal justice system are endemic. Since 1990, the company has offered classes and programs for free to those who can’t afford to pay, and company members now include these former students, some of whom have toured with the company for more than 10 years. Many of their vivid stories and those of others who have worked with Everett through the years are threaded through The Freedom Project

James Monteiro shares the experience of growing up as a problem child without his father, who was incarcerated. But the story is about overcoming the odds, as his father eventually comes back into the community as a leader trying to help kids. As Monteiro talks, he makes his way around piles of cinder blocks that serve as a stage set, with parkour — the urban training movement based on military obstacle courses that takes strength and agility — echoing the obstacle course of his life. “I’m sure you have heard of the prison pipeline,” Jungels says. He talks about a 12-year-old who is already in trouble with the police. His mother is on drugs, his father is not around, he doesn’t have a family structure and he’s very poor. “All of these things come to bear on decisions he’s making,” Jungels says. “In our research on the subject, he’ll say, ‘I’m not a bad kid, it’s just the way my life is. I can’t see anything different.’ ”Jungels points out that many are disadvantaged from the beginning. “They are not given opportunities, [but] simply ushered down the path. It seems as a society we don’t want to pay money up front, but afterward we are happy to incarcerate. And until recently, it hasn’t been questioned.”
Christopher Johnson’s history (some of which is recounted during The Freedom Project) includes incarceration and harrowing tales of gangs and shootings in Newark, N.J. — aka Brick City — named after the style of building construction, but also for a violent culture known for large amounts of crack cocaine. Today, he is an internationally known poetry slam champion who teaches workshops to young people. When he first met Jungels, Johnson had been coming to perform his work at open mic nights at the Everett space in Providence for years. He’d taught a class for a youth prison on how to pass standardized testing using spoken-word poetry, and after showing Jungels his work, he was invited to contribute to The Freedom Project
“The way the performance is set up now, everything is woven together,” Johnson says. “It’s like if you are watching a movie and you’re trying to figure out five characters, when the only thing they have in common is that they visit the same café every morning.”In the final redemptive scene of the show, another actor reads one of Johnson’s poems. He remembers seeing it in rehearsal for the first time. “Usually I’m super-critical,” he says.But, this time, seeing it as an audience would, he was amazed by how well The Freedom Project had come together. “It was magical. This performance is a storybook. You are actually seeing a storybook. I’ve never done something so beautiful before.” ©


July 29, 2015


Photo credit: Jim Sofranko
Dancers: Meridith Benson & Martin Roosaare in Giselle

Upcoming season marks 10th anniversary of de la Dance Arts in Cincinnati

– by Kathy Valin

reprinted from Cincinnati CityBeat

Aside from those who become marketable marquee stars, it’s not all that common for dancers to find a sustainable living in their art form. Or long-term romance. Or family. It’s a hard-knock life, being a dancer.

But, through talent, hard work and astute planning, former Cincinnati Ballet and Joffrey Ballet of Chicago principal Meridith Benson, and former Cincinnati Ballet dancer and artistic director of Ballet Theater of Chicago, Mario de la Nuez, have made a dream come true.

When the couple first met as dancers during Cincinnati Ballet’s 1988-89 season, they probably had no idea that in a few years they would be married. So far, that’s lasted 21 years and produced four children, all of whom share their love of dance. After a stint together in Chicago, they’ve found a home base in Cincinnati, as co-directors of a thriving Columbia Tusculum area studio/school, de la Dance Arts (celebrating a ten year anniversary this season), and a small professional company de la Dance Company, incorporated three years after the school.

Benson, who began her professional career as a ballet prodigy at eleven, danced as a highly regarded principal with multiple companies, and toured internationally, adding nearly all of the classical repertory to her resume. She still performs with de la Dance Company, notably as an exquisite Sugar Plum Fairy, and in the lead role of the 1841 Romantic classic Giselle. De la Nuez, a native of Havana, Cuba, who grew up in New York City, has credits in musical theater, jazz, modern, and classical ballet; plus film credits as a dancer and choreographer.

Originally, the couple planned to establish a small company that stayed “true to the classic roots of dance,” but they started with de la Dance Arts. “We’ve been lucky,” says de la Nuez. “Today we are doing very well, we are even able to use some of our students in our productions.”

The 2015-16 de la Dance Company season begins November 27 at the Aronoff Center’s 437-seat Jarson-Kaplan Theater with The Nutcracker Jazzed Up! for two consecutive weekends. It’s become a trademark of de la Dance Company to perform two-weekend runs, and they do it probably more than any other local company.

The production, an original take on The Nutcracker, incorporates jazz arrangements of the Tchaikovsky score by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. “It was a surprise sell-out in 2007, when it premiered,” says de la Nuez, who afterwards hatched the idea of extended runs, which have been profitable in building audiences and increasing box office.

“It was risky, but we decided on two weekends. Why give people the chance to see you only one time? You’ll almost become irrelevant if you don’t have more shows,” says de la Nuez.

Giselle is slotted for two weekends in April, also at the Jarson-Kaplan. Also at the Jarson-Kaplan, are Dance Cincinnati Youth Competition in February; DanceCincinnati2016, Cincinnati’s largest annual dance showcase, in March; and, in July, two weekends of Dance Under the Stars, a popular, fully-fledged performance staged at Oakley Playground, with new works from de la Nuez, renowned Jose Limon veteran Andre Megerdichian, resident choreographer Alexandra Brannon, and Shane Ohmer, whose credits include Pacific Northwest Ballet and The Bad Boys of Dance.

“Doing a dance school is hard,” says de la Nuez. “Having a company is hard. Raising money, it’s a whole other thing. Planning for future is taxing [increasing the company size and touring are in the works]. So is having four young kids still going to school.”

Benson and de la Nuez had their kids late. “Lots of our friends didn’t get married in order to pursue careers, or they got married and went a different way. We got both!” he says.

“We never pushed our kids,” says de la Nuez. “We were always in the studio, and all of a sudden they are all dancing. Sometimes it’s a struggle, but it’s an amazing thing.”

“How do I do it all?” Benson says. “Sometimes I think not very well. We are always on the go. We don’t get much rest. The kids have all adjusted to our lifestyle so much that they think this is how everyone is.”

“If I try to chill at home, they are all rambunctiously dancing around, begging to go to the studio! Fortunately (and unfortunately) they all acquired Mario’s and my energy, passion and loudness.

“They are happy kids. What holds us together is love.”



May 9, 2015


I’VE GOT MORE TO WRITE ABOUT THIS SHOW, which included three short ballets, but for the time being (since I’m packing to leave town) here’s some copy I found from when I reviewed the closer, Trey McIntyre’s delightful “Chasing Squirrel,” for the Cincinnati Enquirer in October of 2004. It all still applies!

I’ve just put in last night’s wonderful dancers instead of the former cast (though Janessa Touchet and Zack Grubbs were dancing in 2004).

“A giant dose of momentum, paired with sexy couplings, propelled ‘Chasing Squirrel.’ Courtney Connor Jones, Sarah Hairston, Sirui Liu, Abigail Morwood and Janessa Touchet, with giant teased hair and short skirts, were leggy Latin ladies on pointe who left their eager macho suitors, Cervilio Miguel Amador, Jake Casey, Samuel Jones, James Gilmer and Zack Grubbs trembling in their wake. A dance hall scene let the shirtless men in red zoot suits and white fedoras and suspenders bound off each other to impress the girls, who showed plenty of attitude.”

A special shout-out goes to the very funny Zack Grubbs, who is left holding his hat strategically (so to speak) in the opening moments. Also of note was that the 2004 show featured the company debut of Amador with partner Adiarys Almeida in the showpiece pas de deux from “Don Quixote.”

Obviously, should you have tickets or can still get them, “Chasing Squirrel” is gonna cheer you up tremendously. And, if you get a glass of bubbly in the lobby before the show, as I did, maybe you’ll get a strawberry, raspberry AND a maraschino cherry. Thanks to the Aronoff barkeep for the tasty addition and to Cincinnati Ballet for a special treat!


March 19, 2015



– by Kathy Valin

Cincinnati Ballet’s most recent production, the frothy Alice (in Wonderland) boasted the largest paid attendance in the company’s history of subscription series productions.

This weekend, Artistic Director Victoria Morgan contrasts another potential blockbuster, Adam Hougland’s full-length Mozart’s Requiem. It’s set to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s powerful Requiem Mass in D Minor, composed just before (and some say completed after) his death. The passionate and theatrical ballet for 18 dancers is matched with a serious theme—the exploration of mortality.

Mozart’s Requiem, world-premiered by Cincinnati Ballet in 2010, has never been performed by any other company. Critic David Lyman called it dazzling and modernistic, saying the company was “all the richer for it.” Once again, the Cincinnati Ballet Orchestra (featuring the Xavier University Concert Choir), conducted by Cincinnati Ballet music director Carmon DeLeone, is set to enrich the thrilling aural, theatrical and operatic dynamic of the production.

Hougland, a young choreographer first bought to Cincinnati Ballet by Morgan in 2002, was appointed resident choreographer in 2009. He has already choreographed extensively to significant music from composers like Beethoven, Stravinsky and even rocker Peter Frampton.

Two weeks ago, I caught up with a few of those working hard to make the onstage magic happen again—choreographer Hougland; repetiteur and former company soloist Dawn Kelly; and corps de ballet dancer Jimmy Cunningham. Though most companies use video assists and written notes to restage ballets, it’s the personal touch that brings the essential nuance to a work.

As we sat on the floor of an empty studio, I took notes as the three graciously chatted with me—and managed to eat during what was their daily lunch break.

Hougland talks about his ballet’s creation. “The Requiem felt like a story to me. So the ballet is about that story—about loss, about grieving, about cycles—about life. It’s about that unanswerable question, ‘What happens when we die?’”

“For me,” said Hougland, “it’s like the whole thing comes back in minutes after five or six years, once you put the music on. And I think, well, what’s the beginning of this phrase, and as soon as I get the first movement I’ve got it again. I think it’s all kind of connected in your subconscious. It’s stored deep down. But as soon as you access that file, it’s like the whole thing comes back.”

He explains that when he first choreographs, he comes into the studio with the dancers bringing no specific movements. He will have tried not to listen to the music too much, because he doesn’t want to get bored with it.

“I want to discover it in the room with the dancers. I want things to feel ‘right.’ Generally, I like things to feel connected and organic, you know? I think that’s why it is easier to remember, sometimes. Sometimes I do a change-up, it sort of switches very quickly—the force is interrupted, but that’s for dramatic emphasis. So, it’s easier if it doesn’t feel awkward, but if it does it’s for a reason.”

Kelly agrees. When she began reviewing the piece to help teach it (only a handful of the cast has performed the ballet before), she found that seeing just one step led her to the next step.

She describes a point she coached in the ballet where the dancers enter with suitcases (which they later abandon, much as the ballet suggests we all must abandon earthly weight at life’s end). “At first, it felt to me like everybody was just walking because I told them to walk. I had to explain that they needed to enter as if something was drawing them, as if there was a purpose. They were going somewhere. Their movement quality needed to find the inside motivation.”

Cunningham agrees that the dancers need to bring a reason to their movement. “Sometimes you learn a dance or ballet. They’ll tell you what step to do and on what count, and where to do it. But then—you are like ‘well how do I do it?’”

“That’s so important,” he says. “Because, ‘why do I do this arabesque?’ or ‘why do I run all the way to stage left?’ There has to be a reason. For everything you do. And that’s another way dancers remember all the steps.

“Because each step has a meaning. And a purpose. And a feeling about it. If you are feeling those things in a sequence, in that sequence, you know exactly what to do.”

# # #


February 19, 2015


Above image by Mandie Reiber

Performance and Time Arts (PTA), a project of Contemporary Dance Theater, is the longest-running performance art showcase in the city, but until this weekend it has never been host to a single production. “One Way Road on a Two Way Street,” an original multi-act examination by an all-female cast of unrequited love and its ramifications, debuts Friday and Saturday, February 20 & 21, 2015, at the College Hill Town Hall. Producer, flugelist (yes, someone who plays the flugelhorn), dancer and choreographer Shakira Rae Adams reveals that the theme is derived from personal experience. “A certain woman has sparked this creation—someone very close to my heart.”

Acts include spoken word, dance, live and recorded music, visual media and theater. A post-performance reception offers pastry treats from Oliver’s Desserts.

Adams, born in Findlay, Ohio, is an outgoing personality with a contagious smile who describes herself as an “outside-the-box nerd.” Her life so far has included pre-med and nursing studies, work as a doula (a person trained to assist in childbirth), and a trip to West Africa, from which she brought back the African dance techniques she uses to teach her own choreography. Oh, and she also designed and teaches a class on the dissection of the human body for kids 5-14.

“I found dance through jazz dance, and it’s help me keep my sanity,” Adams says. “I think music and science and dance all go together. Anyhow, it’s worked for me. I hope ‘One Way Road on a Two Way Street’ inspires people to be more honest and open with their emotions, not to be locked down like the society we live in.”


February 12, 2015

– by Kathy Valin

reprinted from Cincinnati CityBeat


Cincinnati Ballet’s extravagant production of Washington Ballet artistic director Septime Webre’s Alice (in Wonderland) hits the Aronoff stage again this weekend, two years after the Cincinnati premiere, with live music from the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Cincinnati Ballet Music Director Carmon DeLeone.

Artistic Associate Johanna Bernstein Wilt, and dancers Janessa Touchet and Cervilio Miguel Amador, who reprise their roles as Alice (the girl who goes through the keyhole and down the rabbit hole into Wonderland) and the White Rabbit (who takes her there), recently discussed their part in bringing this new-style spectacle ballet to Cincinnati audiences.

Wilt has supervised every detail. She emphasizes that Alice is a full-blown production with fanciful sets, Flying by Foy and colorful costumes with impressive detail designed by Liz Vandal, most noted for her work with Cirque de Soleil. For instance, up close, the fabric of Alice’s costume is embellished over and over with the word “Alice.”

Webre drew his scenario from Lewis Carroll’s classic 19th century books “Alice in Wonderland” and “Though the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There,” and it packs in all the familiar characters—including the Queen of Hearts, Cheshire Cat and Mad Hatter. The cast is huge, with children from the ballet’s academy as baby flamingos, piglets and hedgehogs.

“You know, it looks like it’s a such blast to dance in,” says Wilt. “And it is a blast. But the thing about Septime’s choreography is that he always makes it look easy and fun. It’s just jammed full of choreography. But it’s really solid, heavy technique.”

She says the company is now in its third-plus week of rehearsals. Some of the leads learned their variations on the very first day, but since then they’ve continued to rehearse. “Every single day,” says Wilt, “because it’s just that difficult.”

Wilt says that the character of the always-late White Rabbit is central to the ballet. “He’s Alice’s sidekick, and he is the one character that is with her through the whole story, from when she first goes through the keyhole to her slaying the evil Queen of Hearts’ Jabberwock, after which all the characters collapse like a house of cards and Alice wakes up from her dream back at home.”

It’s not a surprise that Touchet and Amador are cast in the lead roles of the ballet. With her delicious mix of delicacy and fierceness and his bravura technique Touchet and Amador have become a go-to partnership for Cincinnati Ballet since 2004, when they first danced together.

Touchet and Amador in Cincinnati Ballet's 2013 New Works series

Touchet and Amador in Cincinnati Ballet’s 2013 New Works series

“In our approach to dancing, we often think alike in our approach to honoring the movement qualities or listening to music,” says Amador. “We feel the same thing, so it’s easier for us to connect.”

It’s not natural, he says. It comes with years of working together. “It’s a little of me, a little bit of her, a back and forth.”

Touchet loves dancing with Amador. “I feel like people see that. It’s always reinforced when we go on guestings (dancer slang for lead appearances with other companies) where people are not only amazed at what we can do, but that we actually look at each other and enjoy each other.”

Both Touchet and Amador agree that their roles in Alice (in Wonderland) are challenging, but with a payback. “There is a lot of crazy partnering,” says Amador, “not always easy to make clean and classical.”

Touchet agrees. “It reminds me of Victoria Morgan’s choreography. She’ll come into rehearsal and say ‘this is what I’m thinking,’—Cervi and I just look at each other. Then we’ll really try to go there and do something so out of the box, something you’d never think would work. But it does.”

Both also agree that the amalgamation of visual inputs make the ballet special. “I feel it’s more like a play, or a musical,” says Touchet. “Or almost like a movie,” adds Amador. “But still ballet.”

I ask Amador if he thinks all the extras are diluting the ballet aspect of today’s productions like Alice and Peter Pan (another production with strong scenic and visual additions that’s become a Cincinnati Ballet box office staple).

“I think if you are using stories like Alice and Peter Pan, it works,” he says. “But if you were to try and take Giselle and make it Broadway, maybe not.

“The world keeps evolving. We can still respect the groundwork, and the classical. We can still do them and enjoy them, but we also have to keep moving forward.”

# # #


February 5, 2015


reprinted from CityBeat

– by Kathy Valin

It’s a sunny, cold January afternoon when I pull up outside the stone façade of a grand old building on Gilbert Avenue for an interview with Missy Lay Zimmer and Andrew Hubbard. Spread across the loft-like top floor is Planet Dance, the progressive dance studio founded by the two. It’s also home to the duo’s prolific and highly lauded dance company, Exhale Dance Tribe.


This weekend, fourteen Tribe dancers (along with Hubbard, who will solo) perform at the Aronoff’s Jarson-Kaplan Theater in a mixed bill revisiting a selection of characteristic vignettes from the past ten years of evening-length productions. Zimmer and Hubbard met while performing in “Cats” on Broadway, and their dancers are expert at a trademark style, combining life-affirming theatricality with virtuosic physicality and a potent sensuality.


After climbing several flights of stairs, I sit down to talk in a cozy carpeted alcove anchored by a sofa and roll top desk that serves as their office. For the moment, it’s just Missy, since Andrew has been caught in traffic snarled from an interstate ramp collapse.


“This weekend we’re celebrating our ten years of being in Cincinnati, carving our niche with the unique voice of jazz dance and contemporary dance,” she says. “There’s no through line, we’re just bringing back old talent and old works from the past. We took a survey from some of our most regular patrons and we came up with a program that is gonna be out of the park.


“The name ‘Tribe’ comes originally from the idea that I wanted everybody to bring their own unique gift to the whole. I felt from the start that we would produce something beautiful.”


Zimmer and Hubbard have slotted intermittent onstage appearances during the three-act celebration. “We’ll talk about the history of a piece, or the inspiration for a using a particular song,” says Zimmer.


“There’s ‘Waiting for Sleep,’ a pas de deux by Liz Schmidt for Jacob Thoman [in his final appearance with Exhale before heading off, most likely to Juilliard] and Maggie Westerfield [currently a student in Dance at New York University]. It’s powerful and emotional, about Schmidt’s grandfather, who had Alzheimer’s.


“’Fix,’ by Erin Downey, is a pas de trois that ponders the ramifications of a relationship gone sour. We’re delighted to have Cincinnati Ballet’s James Gilmer guesting in this one. We met him when we choreographed for the ballet’s Kaplan New Works Series.


“Then, Andy and I are bringing back ‘Angelica,’ about life’s fragility, kind of apropos of my father’s recent passing. Also ‘Voodoo,’ celebrating the music of Tori Amos, and female empowerment.”


Those who attended the popular Dead Can Dance Halloween installations at The Emery and Memorial Hall will no doubt be happy (or scared) to see the return of sad clowns and an unsettling duet for Siamese twins from “Carnival.”


Another repeat is “Ravaged Bridegroom,” a salute to the fortitude of women living in abusive relationships. “It was a huge favorite with audiences,” says Zimmer. “Also, it’s the piece that has led to our amazing ongoing connection with Okareka Dance Company. They are kind of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater of New Zealand.”


She explains that co-directors Taane Mete and Taiaroa Royal happened to be in Cincinnati for a Livestrong Foundation fundraiser when they saw “Ravaged Bridegroom.” Impressed and moved, they invited Zimmer and Hubbard to visit New Zealand a year ago where they taught and set a similar piece for the Auckland-based company.


Fittingly, “Mother and Child,” and “SELFISH,” two works choreographed by Mete and Royal in Cincinnati, are slated to close the concert this weekend


There’s more. With the assistance of a native American shaman, Okareka and Exhale plan a collaborative effort centered on the myth of Eagle, says Zimmer, who has Cherokee Indian roots. “In a sense, I feel that Okareka has come into our lives to re-inspire our spirituality, to kind of ground us. In their dances, they treat legends from the Maori culture. They felt a connection with the Tribe from our choreography.”


Meanwhile, Hubbard has walked into the room, having finally extricated himself from traffic detours.


“Exactly,” he adds. “We want to carve a deeper connection to our work. Instead of choreographing only snippets, we are craving work with more meaning. Doing a retrospective has let us see how we’ve grown.


“We’re ready to take the time to make a brilliant, perfect, shiny piece . . .” he raises his hands helplessly and smiles broadly as if in explanation “. . . of something.”



January 19, 2015



Coming off a successful fall touring season, with performances in Chicago and Roanoke, Virginia, the eight modern dancers of MamLuft&Co. Dance take the Aronoff stage this weekend for the company’s first-ever mixed repertory concert. On the bill are short-form adaptations of imaginative full-length favorites from the last three seasons.

Subject matter ranges from a “dance-for-camera” film created in five different sites; the concept of getting lost in order to be found; an expression of love and loss between characters inspired by a Cincinnati Art Museum exhibit of Expressionist prints from WWI; and the power struggle between two rising leaders after an apocalyptic event.

It’s a milestone event, for sure. Director and choreographer Jeanne Mam-Luft is a multi-disciplinarian whose talents spill beyond boundaries—she’s also a designer, photographer and letterpress printer who “dabbles” in lighting, video and sound. In 2007 she brought her focus to Cincinnati, with the idea of creating a sustainable modern dance company—one that would support modern dance artists on more than a project-by-project basis while bringing modern dance to the community. Today, the company has become known for its intrepid technique and thoughtful choreography in works both accessible in their parallels to real life scenarios yet challenging in their abstract nature. There’s a special nod to today’s visual culture.

When I talked with her in late December, Mam-Luft was excited about the upcoming repertory evening. “It’s a different kind of year for us. [Mam-Luft works closely with company choreographer Susan Honer and her dancers, and often speaks in the third person about them.]

“Our format in the past has been on creating original evening-length works. We’ve put out a new work every year, what we call a main stage event at the Aronoff’s Jarson-Kaplan Theater.”

Typically, each year MamLuft&Co. has also collaborated with another arts organization in another original work. The company has also done many outreach activities and smaller performances. Mam-Luft believes that this weekend’s program of four works from the past three seasons will be illuminating in revealing the company’s unique style.

“I didn’t realize it for a long time, and tried to compare it to more well-known choreographers. But, we haven’t met other groups that look like us.

“We use a lot of improvisation in our creation, a lay person might think our moves aren’t choreographed. We are in the middle. We love the technique of contact improvisation. We love gravity! We are original, visceral, physical—we want to be organic, strong, agile. We are there to say something—to create a world.”

She acknowledges the formative effect of considering audience reaction during a work’s creation. Though she’s always believed in art for art’s sake, she’s also a practical director, who is willing to bend to make her work comprehensible. “Since it became one of our goals to enlist community support, we needed to have the community able to make sense of our work,” she explains. “When modern dance began so many years ago, in the 20s and 30s, it began as a revolution against the very classicist ideas of ballet. The idea of being modernist was a pulling away from, a paring down, of being more for the people—more egalitarian but at the same time being more austere.

“And, modern dance makers tended to pull away from narrative because they felt that dance could speak for itself, and that movement could be beautiful in its own right.”

When Mam-Luft realized that some of her own company’s early dances were so abstract, that they weren’t always making sense to audiences, she started to have an interest in “story.”

But she’s quick to point out that “It’s not like ballet, however, and we don’t use mime. We move our bodies; we choreograph what we are feeling. We do try not to situation ourselves in stories known to a few elite, such as ‘Giselle.’ How many people outside of ballet really know that story?

“We think that seeing us is an adventure to our audiences. They come to see what our characters are experiencing in real time. Hopefully we are pulling them into our world.

“There’s a lot to watch. I like to hope people will see very big things, and very small things, the range of how a dancer can be very technical but very human at the same time. Our mission has become to bring more modern dance to more people.”