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Grand Rapids Ballet’s 'Virtual Program II: An Evening with Penny Saunders' Shows the Beginnings of a Programming Way Forward

by Steve Sucato
June 15, 2020
Steve Sucato is a former dancer turned arts writer/critic. He is Chairman Emeritus of the Dance Critics Association and Associate Editor of ExploreDance.com.
Welcome to dance’s new reality. The COVID-19 global pandemic has spawned many changes in our lives including how dance is being created, shown, viewed and now reviewed. It is in some ways as if the familiar dance-on-film genre had suddenly become the performance medium of choice for dancers and dancemakers to create and stage works and audiences to view it.

For the many dance organizations forced to divert their creative paths from ones leading to a physical theater space to now one in “the cloud,” the transition has been slow and somewhat rudimentary in outcome compared to their established dance-on-film counterparts. Nonetheless, for all those starved for a return to art in their lives, a virtual performance is better than no performance and one that is open to a myriad of possibilities for performers and audiences alike.

I have reviewed on a few occasions in the past live simulcasts of a dance productions and many dance films. Grand Rapids Ballet’s Virtual Program II: An Evening with Penny Saunders however, represents my first foray in reviewing dance made specifically for a virtual stage.

The hour and forty minute program streamed over GRB's Vimeo channel for a donation to the company, began with salutations by GRB artistic director James Sofranko and introductions to each of the four works shown by Penny Saunders, GRB's resident choreographer.

The lone new work on the program, “Amiss,” was also the first the company has produced since the pandemic cancelled the remainder of their 2019-2020 season in late March. Set to a soundscape arranged by Saunders that included music by New York composer Michael Wall, the work began with, and was interlaced throughout with, a voiceover cacophony of dancers and others in the GRB family, describing their lives, fears and frustrations because of COVID-19. The most striking of them to cut through was that of a child dance student trying to understand why the world had suddenly changed and seeking reassurance that it was okay to feel sad about it. Those voices at the outset then gave way to Wall’s cover of Mazzy Star’s 1993 hit song “Fade Into You” as visually we saw dancer Isaac Aoki mimicking playing a piano on keys made out of black tape affixed to a white table. The dancing then began in earnest inside the all-too-familiar online visual format of Zoom squares. Dancers at home (or outdoors) captured themselves on webcams of varying quality moving in electronic unison to simple contemporary dance choreography by Saunders with her occupying one Zoom square watching them perform.

Predominately a landscape of bare white walls and rooms without furniture, the look was stark and the mood gray, like our lives appear to be now devoid of those things we feel enrich us. The feeling of things being amiss and the missing of things integral to our lives permeated the piece and the dancers’ performances of it.

Sensitized as an audience to expect a lot more visually from premade filmed productions than most live performances, “Amiss” was at a distinct disadvantage from the outset in holding audience members' attention. The use of spare visual effects only left us wanting more.

“Amiss’” shiner moments came in those that explored more personal relationships between the dancers such as a mildly humorous duet between GRB dancer roommates Nigel Tau and Matthew Wenckowski. The pair danced indoors and out in an entangled, somewhat wrestled duet to voiceovers of them talking about their cooped-up lives together with their cat Louie. Sanders’ choreography here was engaging as were the video angles shown of it.

Of the pure dancing contained in the work, the scenes of dancers Adriana Wagenveld, Gretchen Steimle and Yuka Oba-Muschiana out in Michigan’s greenery came closest to the dance-on-film experience that I feel dance companies and artists (short of live simulcast programs) must embrace further to give audiences an entertaining and meaningful virtual presentation worth a deserving price of admission.

Saunders calls “Amiss” a love letter to Grand Rapids Ballet. To those who volunteered to be a part of it, that love appeared to be felt. With video editing from Quinton Wharton, the work was a hopeful beginning to what GRB and other companies can create in a time that demands newfound creativity in dance.

The remainder of the program consisted of past recordings of works-in-the-theater by Saunders from GRB’s repertory. Primarily shot as archival records, these performances were not in most cases intended for public consumption. That being said, they offered up a nice sampling of Saunders' work and of GRB’s dancers’ talent.

First up was the duet “Again” (2020) from this past season. It was danced by company newcomers James Cunningham, a former soloist with Cincinnati Ballet, and Sarah Marley, a former dancer with Smuin Ballet to more music by Wall. The touching piece about a performer's final onstage moment, the work offered up a window into former Hubbard Street Dance Chicago dancer Saunders' choreographic style - dense with beauty, nuance and grace that Cunningham and Marley thoughtfully conveyed.

Next, “Testimony” (2019) was a response to the divisive Supreme Court confirmation hearings of Clarence Thomas and Brett Kavanaugh and the unjust treatment of women who came forward to testify in them. Danced to music by Nico Mulhy, Atticus Ross and Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor along with archival audio recordings from news accounts of those confirmation hearings, the group work for 18-dancers carried with it an ominous tone. The work gave a slight nod to Kurt Jooss’ The Green Table (1932) with dancers Wenckowski and Oba-Muschiana combatively circling a table not in a dance of death as in Jooss’ ballet, but in a dance of the death of credibility for the women who testify. Full of eye-catching dancer patterns and unison movement, “Testimony” solidly brought home its thought-provoking message.

The last of Saunders’ works on the program and one of her best known, 2014’s “Ghost Light” was set to music by Bach, Alexandre Desplait, Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh and others. The clever, humorous and at times melancholy work, took its inspiration from the superstition surrounding the stage light or ghost light left on when the theater is dark to prevent people falling off the stage and, it is said, defend against the possibly deadly mayhem caused by the ghosts of past performers. In the work, Steimle, Aoki, Wenckowski and Steven Houser channel the spirits of past performers Maria Callas, Harry Houdini, Fred Astaire and Duke Ellington who get up to a bit mischief but also, especially Steimle as Callas, appear to lament the loss of their former stage careers.

GRB’s Virtual Program II closed as its inaugural virtual program had with a “Choreographers and Cocktails” question and answer session via Zoom hosted by Sofranko in which Saunders from Salt Lake City, and Wharton from Hawaii, answered questions about the program's works and their careers while sipping libations.

For the online audience in attendance, Virtual Program II: An Evening with Penny Saunders was in some ways an even fuller production than would be had in the theater given its added behind-the-scenes commentary delving into each work and the closing Q & A that had the feel of being privy to a cast party conversation. And while the dance-going experience was different and may take some getting used to, it was rich in its own right.
Grand Rapids Ballet's women in Penny Saunders' 'Testimony'.

Grand Rapids Ballet's women in Penny Saunders' "Testimony".

Photo © & courtesy of Jade Butler

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