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Verb Ballets Wades into the Uncertain Waters of Performing under Pandemic

by Steve Sucato
June 21, 2020
Cleveland, OH
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.
Verb Ballets in-studio performance of The Cleveland Havana Ballet Project Return Celebration on March 13 was the last in-person performance I attended and one of the very last given in Northeast Ohio before pretty much the entire dance world shutdown operations because of the COVID-19 global pandemic. Now more than 3-months later Verb along with the rest of the state of Ohio has begun to cautiously dip their toes into the uncertain waters of an eventual return to perceived normalcy. The dancers have returned to the studio under enhanced precautionary measures to take class and to work on the first not-from-home created program, Fresh Inventions 2020. The in-studio performance will be livestreamed Friday, June 26 at 7 p.m.

Like almost all dance organizations large and small, the negative financial ramifications of the pandemic have been keenly felt, says Verb’s producing artistic director, Dr. Margaret Carlson.

“Our earned income revenue stream is almost nothing now and we have come to the realization that our normal ways of doing business is not possible,” says Carlson. “We do the most performing in the summer months and almost all of what was scheduled has all been cancelled.”

That says Carlson, has meant she and the staff and dancers have had to do a lot of brainstorming about creating and adopting new, less viably sustaining business model approaches that they hope will be temporary.

One such outcome of that revised thinking is the resurrecting of the dancer choreography led program Fresh Inventions 2020 that was shelved when Cleveland Public Theatre’s DanceWorks 2020 it was part of was cancelled this past April.

The original theme of the program says Carlson, was to be a collection of repertory works centered on social justice. While some of the prior ideas for dance works have carried over to the upcoming program, Carlson says she dropped the theme caveat because of the pandemic upending the ability to bring some of those ideas to fruition and the desire, especially now, to open the program up to more spirit-lifting dance pieces.

All of those works however have come with their own set of new constraints because of the COVID-19 virus. Verbs dancers are required to wear masks while they dance, cannot touch one another unless they cohabitate and have to maintain social distancing guidelines when possible and wash their hands often along with everything touched in the studio. That has meant the five choreographers with works on the program have had to become additionally creative in their approaches to their dance works.

Along with all of Verb’s new approaches to dancing and performing, has also come a need for investment in new technologies and equipment to make those things happen.

“Technology always means money for services and equipment and we are barely floating now,” says Carlson. The company is making an initial investment in just what is needed to make the livestream happen with an eye in future on adding multiple camera angles to their livestream shoots and theater lighting in their studio/performance space. For now the company is counting on the dancing and dance works to engage, uplift and entertain the virtual audience who clicks in on June 26.

Here is a rundown of what’s on tap:

The program’s lone guest choreographer, Robert Wesner’s 13 minute piece for 6-dancers, “WRAP” was begun back in March and is the Neos Dance Theatre director’s experimentation with choreographing ballet movement to rap music.

Bronx-native and 13-year company member Lieneke Matte’s latest work for Verb, “With A Little Help,” she says is her longest at 11 minutes. The varied-movement-styled piece for 14-dancers, set to music Charles Gounod, George Gershwin and Joe Cocker says Matte, takes its inspiration from the idea that one person can make a difference in the lives of others. “Sometimes we just need someone there to remind us to find joy in the little things,” says Matte.

"Tumultuous Rest” is what Antonio Morillo is calling his third work for the company. The 7 minute contemporary dance piece for 9-women he says is an abstract reflection on his past 3 months of solitude due to the pandemic.  The piece is danced to music by composers Ezio Bosso, Ólafur Arnalds, Nils Frahm and others.

The newest dancer with a work on the program, Miami-native and second year company apprentice Hunter Hoffman’s “The Deafening Words Unspoken” [Tentative title] is a 4 ½ minute work-in-progress duet set to Akron rock duo The Black Keys’ song “Little Black Submarines”. Says Hoffman of it, “I chose to create more of a ‘canvas’ for the audience to place their own interpretation on…something about the lyrics [of the song] gave me a feeling of a missing connection between these people and I chose to explore that by giving the audience an eye into what was going on in their heads and how our imaginations can run wild when we think of all the things we want to say to someone but can’t for whatever reason.”

Rounding out the program’s offerings will be 5-year company member Kate Webb’s 7 minute piece for 13-dancers, "Still Moving".  Danced to a reading of a Rabindranath Tagore poem (from which the piece gets its inspiration) and music by Philip Glass, Webb describes the work’s movement language as “neo-fosse with escapist undertones” and it as being “a reflection on all of the parts of being human that still churn internally despite any constraints placed upon us.”

Verb Ballets presents a livestream virtual showing of Fresh Inventions 2020 on the Zoom platform at 7 p.m., Friday, June 26. Tickets by donation (minimum $10 each) and information at verbballets.org/fresh-inventions-showing.
Verb Ballets rehearsing Kate Webb's 'Still Moving'.

Verb Ballets rehearsing Kate Webb's "Still Moving".

Photo © & courtesy of Kate Webb

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