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.”

Carmon DeLeone’s “Peter Pan” Score Soars

November 6, 2014

text reprinted from Cincinnati CityBeat 11/5/14

James Gilmer as Captain Hook

Above: James Gilmer rehearsing his role as Captain Hook in Cincinnati Ballet’s Peter Pan

– by Kathy Valin

Celebrating his forty-sixth anniversary as music director for Cincinnati Ballet under every artistic director since 1968, Carmon DeLeone, has a lot to be proud of. The company is well known for its frequent performances to live music, under the Maestro’s baton. However, this weekend is extra special, when DeLeone conducts his own original score for the full-length Peter Pan.

“Although this is the third time we’ll be performing this ballet in Cincinnati,” says DeLeone. “it is the very first time that the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra will play my music.”

Take That, Hook

Above: “Take that, Hook!” James Gilmer and Cervilio Amador joust during a Peter Pan rehearsal

DeLeone is excited. “Not only because of the skill and world class ability of the players in the CSO,” he said last weekend in his tidy office just off studio A at the Ballet Center. “But because we are able to have many more musicians than usual. In fact, this may well be the largest orchestra (some 65 players) that’s ever played the piece.

“So, for me, I’ll be surrounded by the lush sounds of my own music. That’s gonna be a thrill, I’m sure. I’m gonna have a lot of goosebumps.”

DeLeone’s presence on the podium is a familiar one to ballet fans. His conducting style has been called supple, natural, and athletically elegant, and even though during the performance, most of the audience can glimpse only the top of his curly, grey-haired head, he’s a popular fellow. After the entire cast has taken their final bow, he’ll take the stage with them. He frequently gets the loudest accolade of the evening.

In the early 90’s, DeLeone conceived the score. “I felt I was gonna have two summers to work on it. Kind of leisurely – I planned the first to compose the music and the second to do orchestrations.”

Unfortunately, the financing did not come through in a timely way, and DeLeone had to crowd all that activity into one summer. “Between Memorial Day and Labor Day of 1994, I stayed up every night. I started working about midnight after David Letterman was off the air, until the dawn rose, about seven in the morning, and got it done.

“However, I wasn’t able to finish all the orchestration myself, so I had lots of good help from my friend, the conductor, composer and arranger Steve Reineke, who was right with me in the whole process. The other member of the music team was the late, wonderful arranger and copyist Joe Price, who did a lot of work for the Cincinnati Pops and the CSO as well.”

Lost Boys Battle Pirates

Above: Lost Boys battle Pirates

“We always knew that the flying sections would be tricky, and a sort of faux-flying gear was set up, I think it was outdoors, to test it out,” he remembers. “That was quite exciting, it was the first time I sort of heard the music and saw people fly. A few months later it was on stage (with choreography by Peter Anastos) and that was also quite an event.”

One moment in the ballet that never fails to get out-loud laughs from the audience is when Captain Hook, dances with the Crocodile. “Well, that’s one of the silliest moments in the whole ballet,” says DeLeone. “So for that I decided to borrow an old Russian song everybody knows as ‘Dark Eyes.’ I turned it into a tango. I also quote some Richard Strauss. I knew that the interaction between a crocodile and a pirate with a hook was gonna be silly, anyway, so I just made the music kind of silly as well.

What makes music silly? “You know,” he says, “Over the years, I’ve seen comedy either too far over the top or too subtle, and you can’t make it out. You can use funny musical quotes or a funny combination of instruments. Luckily, choreographer Peter Anastos, who was one of the founders of the comic travesti company “Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo” kind of had humor in his bones. It’s true – drama is easy, and comedy is hard.”

And how did he create the wonderful music during which Peter Pan, Wendy, John and Michael fly? “It’s another one of those ‘I don’t knows.’ You face a blank page and try to dream of what flying might sound like, soaring lines. My music features sort of octave skips for the violins to play.

“I feel that as a musical project, Peter Pan has worked out well. My wife and other people believe that it is their favorite. I’m not gonna argue with that. It may be my best work.”


October 29, 2014



reprinted from Cincinnati CityBeat

– by Kathy Valin

“I was born and raised in northern Israel,” says ZviDance’s founder Zvi Gotheiner, whose modern dance company, presented by Contemporary Dance Theater, appears this weekend for the second time in Cincinnati, this time in ZviDance/Dabke. The 2012 work for four couples, which premiered to strong reviews from prominent critics, draws from the rich dance and music traditions of the Levant.

“Dabke is [essentially] a line dance,” Zvi (everyone seems to call him Zvi) explained two weeks ago by phone, from New York City, where he has lived, danced and choreographed since 1988.

He first learned to do the energetic community dance on a kibbutz, one of the traditional Israeli settlements organized under collectivist principles, where he was brought up. “It’s done mainly in a circle, holding hands or shoulders. The group is performing simple patterns of steps, while the dance leaders are doing improvisation, with fancy footwork. Traditionally it’s done by men.”

Nobody knows where the original dance came from. “Scholars say it arrived through the Turks, through centuries, but it is different. It reminds you a bit of Greek or Irish dancing,” says Zvi. Today it’s common all over the broader Middle Eastern world, and often performed at weddings.

Zvi says that being brought up on a kibbutz seemed nothing special at the time. “We had no idea we were living differently,” he says. “We were raised separate from our parents. We had dormitories. Kids my age lived together.

“We were all provided with as much as we wanted, nothing was forced on us, we lived very close to nature and we celebrated the holidays with culture and folk dancing.

“I remember I could not wait for Friday nights, when we usually danced for hours. Later I saw my first dance concert, with Batsheva Dance Company, and I knew I had to dance. I never looked back.”

Much later, the choreographer first thought of making his own version of Dabke in Stockholm, when he and his partner were taken to a restaurant. “In no time, my partner and the Lebanese owner of the restaurant became friendly, and started dancing dabke between the tables.”

The idea was intriguing. “I was seeing my own network of culture, Israeli, blended with Lebanese culture – and in Stockholm,” he remembers.

But Zvi/Dance’s Dabke is no attempt to meticulously recreate the folk dance, according to Zvi, who feels deeply connected to American modern and contemporary dance. “My sensibility is Israeli,” he says. “I connect my work to that tormented country – whether I want it or not, it is always there.”

Company member Todd Allen also spoke with me by phone about helping create the work. “Zvi invited me and another dancer to spend time in upstate New York with him for three weeks. We worked from a collection of YouTube videos he had collected. Some were quite intricate and fascinating. It might take us three rehearsal days to learn them.”

According to Allen, it took the cast a long time to not look like “dancers from New York.” “It was not how we normally move – it was in the way your foot hits the floor, the way your knees bend, the way your hips move.”

After the dancers learned the steps, Zvi suggested that they turn them into their own movement phrase, in the style of Hip Hop or Modern, for instance, from which he crafted Dabke.

“This piece is overtly connected to the Middle East,” says Zvi. “I wanted to do a piece that put a light on the wonderful culture, specifically coming from Israel. Most of the Middle East narrative is seen through the prism of terrorism. I hope Dabke will generate a discussion that will bring people closer. In the end, we are all doing similar things.”

When Zvi first thought of the dance it was during the so-called “Arab Spring.” He’s not sure if the celebratory roots of the dance survive that euphoria. “In a way, the dance was inspired by fun, but other issues came into play. One dancer had Muslim women friends, struggling with equality, and that seeped into the piece.

“It’s up to the viewer to decide. The piece is getting darker as things change. It’s not necessarily a happy point. In a way, it reflects grim reality.”

“I don’t know if there is a linear narrative,” says Allen. “To me, Dabke feels contemporary. It’s not in the past, or a specific place. There are hints of female oppression and female independence in a male dominated society.”

# # #


October 3, 2014




– by Kathy Valin

reprinted from October 1, 2014 CityBeat

The years-long path that brought five boys studying at a the Ramana Maharishi Academy for the Blind Academy in Bangladore, India to the University of Cincinnati this Saturday in a free performance (reservations required) is an amazing one. From such humble beginnings, the group, today called Articulate Ability, is a veteran of over 1500 performances worldwide. Along with two sighted dancers, they perform a panorama of Indian dance styles in “Tamasoma Jyotir Gamaya . . . from Darkness to Light.”

After being attracted by rhythm and melody, the five first performed folk dance during an annual school day celebration in Bangladore. Last week, I spoke with their guru, teacher and choreographer Mysore Nagaraj, by phone.

Nagaraj, himself an established dancer, described how he first met the boys well over ten years ago. “They were euphoric and happy after their first experience, and the school hired a teacher who taught them the basics of the classical dance form and readied them with a few acts.

“But after graduating from school, they felt lost. They sought me out, and my colleague and I took them under our wing.”

Soon, Nagaraj felt the performers were capable of holding an audience as fully professional dance artists, and their touring career became a reality.

Sri Mirle, a research scientist for Procter and Gamble, and also a mentor to the U.C. student group Association for India’s Development since 2002, first encountered the group during a trip to India. He immediately wanted to support them by booking them to appear in one of AID’s cross-cultural programs in Cincinnati, which have been happening since 2002.

“It’s something that resonates with our idea of sustainable development – not giving them fish, but teaching them to fish. It was the idea of teaching them to be regular dancers, in a visual art form like dance. I think it’s inspiring for everyone – you don’t have to know much about Indian dance.”

Nagaraj remembers that when he began working with the young men, there was no methodology to follow.

“However, if you are passionate about doing something it is never a pain. Both the blind and ourselves as teachers put in lots of energy and time. It was not a smooth path. It demanded courage, perseverance and a belief in a deep-rooted dream to accomplish what some people think of as impossible – to have the public accept them first as artists, and then as people with disabilities.”

Classical Indian dance is an ancient form, with eight or so different forms recognized today. It is rooted in nuanced use of expression. For instance, there can be hundreds of hand gestures. To perform it takes years of dedicated learning, like classical ballet. The Articulate Ability dancers are expert in Bharathnatyam, the classical dance of south India, but they also perform Kathak, from North Indian and folk, ritual, spiritual and tribal dances.

“Teaching the complex grammar of Barathnatyam took nearly two years,” says Nagaraj. The main method used was tactile perception, much like teaching Braille. Each detail of movement was transmitted in this manner.

“Once having mastered the various nuances of the form, it was then a smooth journey to induct them in compositions that demanded of them the ability to move across the stage in geometrically precise movement in space that they could not see. They challenged themselves to emote the lyrical compositions with expressions they have never seen. But when the dance unfolded across the stage, our dreams were fulfilled.”

Each of the blind dancers’ stories has a tragic aspect. For instance, one, born with perfect sight, got an infection from dust and was neglected by his family. Another became visually impaired from complications of typhoid. “It was the pulsating rhythms of Indian percussion instruments, the melody in the song and musical instruments, and the moral that the lyrics conveyed in combination with freedom of movement that led them to embrace dance,” says Nagaraj. “The soulful feeling when people with disabilities are motivated by their dance abilities is unfathomable.”

In fact, the group’s name, “Tamasoma Jyotir Gamaya,” reflects the ancient spiritual traditions that still persist in Indian dance, says Mirle. “The expression, ‘from darkness to light,’ can also expand to mean ‘lead me from untruth to truth,’ or even ‘lead me from death to immortality.’”

“It’s almost a benediction, or a prayer – to let ourselves become more deeply cognizant of our place in the cosmos. These dancers, though they are blind, bring an inner vision of that.”


September 21, 2014

Derrek Burbridge

Just had to add this snap of super-talented choreographer and dancer Derrek Burbridge with his family after Saturday’s Kaplan New Works Series at the Aronoff’s Jarson-Kaplan Theater. His “Above the Box” drew thunderous applause both times I saw it. Congratulations, Derrek!


September 10, 2014


Amy Seiwert and Cincinnati Ballet dancers

Often when I watch dance, especially in creative rehearsals, I feel that my world has been refreshed. I mean that in the sense that one refreshes a page on the Internet. My connection has been updated. I am current in this world!


The give and take, the visceral shaping of movement in time that takes place between choreographer and dancer(s) is a grounding experience. It teaches me to take one thing at a time, to know my physical capacities in this increasingly virtual world of today.


So when I had the chance to watch Heather Britt and Amy Seiwert in rehearsal, and talk with them about their choreography, I jumped at the chance.



Two snaps above of Heather Britt and Cincinnati Ballet dancers

The two join three other choreographers whose brand new work can be seen this weekend and next during Cincinnati Ballet’s “The Kaplan New Works Series” production, which has moved this year from the Mickey Jarson Kaplan Performance Space at the Ballet Center to the larger 347 seat Jarson-Kaplan Theater (at downtown’s Aronoff Center). Tickets and details can be found at




Seiwert is based in San Francisco where she directs her own company, Imagery. For me, the way her dancers connect in time and space call to mind an exquisite, inevitable etching of time.


VALINKAT: Hi, Amy. Good to see you. Do you have a name for your newest piece?


AMY SEIWERT: Right now, it is called “Back To.” [reader note: I’ve also seen “Yesterday and Tomorrow” in ballet updates.] It’s set to the recorded music of Gillian Welch and her partner David Rawlings. It’s “bluegrassy” – Appalachian-inspired.


Their songs sound as if they might have been written in the 20’s or 30’s. So – these songs are current, but sound like they might have been written long ago. The lyrics and instruments especially highlight the essence of the solo that is the center of the piece. We are shifting – the world has changed so much throughout all humanity. But even with this entire shift, the emotions are the same.


How many dancers are you using?


Seven. There is a group of five for the opening and closing, and then the duet. Sarah Hairston and Zack Grubbs are one cast, Janessa Touchet and Cervilio Miguel Amador the other.


Ballet and you?

Everything I do is based in classical ballet technique, so even the weirdest turned-in moment still derives from the training of knowing where your femur is, and your pelvic girdle, and your hip for instance. So I’ll tell my dancers, sometimes we’re gonna take everything you learned about position and rotate and invert it.


As music for your dances, you’ve been working a lot with songs with lyrics lately, right? [among other songs she’s used are those of Leonard Cohen]


I have been lately, but I like to keep the range wide. For instance, when I leave Cincinnati, I’m going to Kansas City, and the piece will be much more classical. And on point.


So, I do like to do words, but I usually don’t make it literal, I don’t tell my dancers “this is what the song is about – and if they say jump we’re gonna do a lift.” For me, it’s really trying to find the essence of what that lyric is saying and take it out there.


As I’ve been watching rehearsals, I see so much graceful weight transfer, especially in duos. Can you talk about that?


I do like doing a duet that is about connection!


I really don’t let them separate that often. I like to watch a line of energy – if the gentleman does something to a lady she’s gonna catch that energy or pass it, or then it’s gonna go up here (she gestures). I kind of feel like there is a little gyroscope between the two of them, and the energy passes between them.


When I was in school at School for Creating and Performing Arts half a lifetime ago, I took music theory. We had to analyze Bach chorales. You know, “if it goes this way, then it’s going to resolve this way,” . . . it all has a mathematical sort of way about it.


Though I hope I’m choreographing it in a way that will be interesting and unique to people, really, it’s following a through-line. I think, if that person is reaching and the torso goes that way, then a fouette? Or a kick as high as it will go. And past that point will it turn around and come into something else?


Where do you draw the line between what comes out in your work between you and your dancers? How much is yours? How much is theirs? When they can’t execute your ideas, then what?


The degree of how collaboratively I work? It’s a pretty wide range but [my choreography] is always collaborative.


I might tell a dancer to do something. But the way they do it is gonna show me what comes next. And whether they even say “this feels good” or it doesn’t, you [as a choreographer] are gonna see which way their body wants to roll.


I don’t really make up that much before I come in. I’ll have images, and they’ll usually be very abstract. I’m not gonna sit there [in rehearsal] and say “OK, we’re gonna to do this, and this, and this . . .”


Because then you will come in [the next day] and it just looks wrong. It will look like they are putting on a shirt that doesn’t fit right.


When you are with them [dancers] you need to find out what you are [in your choreography] with them. Really, it’s gotta be created together. I don’t try to comment about what the dancers are. It’s not gonna look the same on everybody. That would be so boring.


You’ve worked with Cincinnati Ballet enough that you know many of the dancers here now. Can you talk about that?


One thing that I love is that I’ve got this duet with two different couples. And they look different doing it. And that’s great. I wouldn’t want them to be carbon copies of each other. Each couple is doing the same steps. They are doing things the same way, in ways that I like. But it’s colored, it’s shaded. So, it’s the same, but in very different ways.




Britt, founder of local phenomenon DanceFix, brings visceral, emotionally powerful energy to the stage in dances that call to mind forces of nature. She is choreographing her sixth work for Cincinnati Ballet.


VALINKAT: Hi Heather! I’ve been watching you choreograph for a few days now. I’m interested in what you have to say about how you see the interface between you and the dancers you are working with.


Obviously, you as choreographer have something in your mind. Part of your job is to bring your ideas out of your mind, into your body so you can teach it to them, right?


Yes, that process of transmitting ideas is very key.


Sometimes – I mean, more often than not – I have these ideas that I can’t execute. So that’s always interesting!


But, in the process of having to try to execute the idea that I have, I’ll get a new thought extension. So, a new idea is often revealed through that process.


So sometimes, it’s easy – right away I know “this movement moves exactly to the left.”


Today I saw you working with Sarah Hairston and the rest of the cast. She was lifted high above everyone, and you tried so many different ways to move her to the ground.


That’s right. And a lot of times, I’ll think I want a lift like this [she gestures] and it turns out for it to work the dancer has to have no arms. It could be just physically impossible.




But, in my head, Sarah should be able to just float around the stage! As though we have a harness, you know what I mean [she laughs].


We must have tried twenty different ways to get to that point.


What are you calling this one?


“Floating Forward. I wanted to create a community in this dance. Gabriel Gaffney Smith has composed for six voices from Vocal Arts Ensemble, who will perform live.


It’s a little bit smaller community of dancers than I’ve used previously – but I’ve created it specifically to fit the space at that new theater, I didn’t want to overpower the space in the Jarson-Kaplan Theater [which, though there are more audience seats, is actually smaller for the dancers].


This particular process has been a big collaborative effort with the dancers. A lot of effort. We really had to put all our strengths in place to create this piece. I had to use their knowledge – there are big lifts, we really had to bring everything to the table. And that is what is interesting, because it’s also what the piece is about.


I didn’t specifically plan the piece to revolve around Sarah Hairston, but the music started to unfold. I thought I’d tell the story, inspired by the uplifting music, of one person who is supported by others.


How is your sixth piece for Cincinnati Ballet different?


For one thing, it’s interesting that in the first year, I danced every moment, and showed them how I wanted it to look. I’ve had a few injuries, but it’s incredible how they can execute it like I want it to look. I love these dancers.