RICHMOND BALLET 2021/22

STUDIO ONE: SEPTEMBER

RICHMOND BALLET 2021/22

STUDIO ONE, SEPTEMBER

A Dance Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: The Richmond Ballet, Canal Street Studios, 407 East Canal Street, RVA 23219

Performances: September 14 – 24, live. September 23 – October 3, virtual.

Ticket Prices: In-Person Tickets start at $25; Virtual Tickets are $25.

Info: (804) 344-0906, etix.com, or richmondballet.com.

All audience members, regardless of vaccination status, are required to wear a mask covering both the nose and mouth at all times while in the Richmond Ballet building. Visit richmondballet.com/covid to view the company’s updated health and safety protocols.

REPERTORY:

Three Preludes

Choreography by Ben Stevenson, O.B.E.

Staged by Dawn Scannell

Music by Sergei Rachmaninoff          

            Ten Preludes for piano, Op. 23, No. 1 and Thirteen Preludes for piano, Op. 32, Nos. 9 & 10

Lighting Design by William Banks

Pianist: Dr. Douglas-Jayd Burn

            World Premiere September 1969, Harkness Youth Dancers, NYC

            Richmond Ballet premiere May 10, 2000, Jepson Theatre, RVA

Pas de Deux from Vestiges

Choreography by Colin Connor

Music by Michael Nyman, The Garden is Becoming a Robe Room

Costume Design by Charles Schoonmaker

Lighting Design by Stacie Johnson

World Premiere May 10, 2000, Richmond Ballet Studio Theatre

Glare (World Premiere)

Choreography by Ma Cong

Music by Michael Nyman and David McAlmont from The Glare album

In Rai Don Giovanni; Secrets, Accusations and Charges; Going to America;

In Laos; The Glare

Costume Design by Monica Guerra

Lighting Design by Trad A. Burns

HOUSEKEEPING

Okay, first the housekeeping, as they say. During 2020/21, the Richmond Ballet delivered five productions, for a total of 96 shows, during a pandemic. With the help of their own medical task force, they returned to in-person classes with virtual options, limited the number of people in the building, and required everyone in the building to mask up. For performances, seating was limited from a maximum of about 250 to 50-75, and both audience and performers wore masks. In addition, the choreographers and dancers modified the choreography to increase the space between dancers, and only dancers who were married to each other or lived in the same household were allowed to partner. Programs ran about an hour, eliminating the necessity of having an intermission, and the popular Ballet Barre was closed to cut down on people mingling in public spaces. And it worked. There were no reported cases of COVID-19 transmission at the Richmond Ballet. Not only did the company weather the storm, in the words of company Artistic Director Stoner Winslett, “We are thriving.”

Emboldened by their pandemic success, the 2021/22 season opened up with no restrictions on seating. However, the audience must remain masked, and for the first Studio One series of performances, there is still no intermission or bar service. The dancers and staff are 100% fully vaccinated, and the masks have come off.

STUDIO ONE: OPENING NIGHT

Opening night at the Richmond Ballet’s Studio Series is a star-studded affair. The elite Choreographer’s Club members pay extra (more than double the standard subscription price) to show their support. In exchange, they get a post-performance Q&A with the guest choreographers and members of the cast and design team, followed by a reception where they get to mingle with the company. While the receptions are on hold until it is deemed safe, the Q&A is still allowed. The first program of the 2021/22 Studio One series opened Tuesday, September 14, with a stunning trio of works and a warm in-person welcome for Ma Cong. Cong, who premiered a new work, was installed as the company’s Associate Artistic Director in June of 2020 and has spent the last year working with the company via Zoom.

The evening opened with “Three Preludes,” choreographed by Ben Stevenson. It featured Izabella Tokev and Joe Seaton, one of nine new dancers. The sweet and innocent duet takes place in a ballet studio and, in fact, mirrors the structure of a ballet class. It begins at the barre, moves to the center floor, ends up traveling across the stage in sweeping phrases with Dr. Douglas-Jayd Burn at the piano playing the romantic Rachmaninoff preludes. The intimate lighting made me feel like a voyeur peeking in on a private moment between two lovers.

In the first section, they explore mirroring and opposition as if learning one another’s bodies. Seaton’s arm and Tokev’s leg mimic the same movement on opposite sides of the barre. Once they move to the center, the barre is removed, and Tokev allows her partner to replace it. Finally, they make a grand entrance for a pas de deux set to a brighter tempo that supports more daring lifts and encourages Tokev to run, spin, and jump into Seaton’s awaiting arms. It was almost as if the two dancers were trying to cram all the closeness we missed for the past 18 months into this one short ballet. Some of the partnering required awkward positioning, and a few times, I saw what might have been a misstep, but everything worked out in the end.

Next came the pas de deux from Colin Connor’s “Vestiges.” There are no classic, straight lines in this powerful duet performed by Sarah Joan Smith and Jack Miller. They are both in their first season with Richmond Ballet (although Smith did dance with RBII before joining Kansas City Ballet in 2016). When Smith ran out at the beginning, dressed in an earth-toned crop top and flared shorts, she reminded me of the Puck character in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Back arched, knees turned in, with Stacie Johnson’s lighting creating a fiery glow, and Michael Nyman’s score creating high drama with lots of emphasis on strings, it would have been easy for Smith to dominate this duet. But instead, it was a beautifully balanced collaboration powered by dynamic, spiraling interactions. Whereas the opening duet seemed to explore tender, growing love, this one was more about fiery passion.

The program closed with the premiere of Cong’s “Glare,” a work he said he had been holding in his pocket for four years, waiting for the right moment. “2021/22 is the right moment.” “Glare” was inspired by “The Glare,” an album with music by Michael Nyman (yes, the same Michael Nyman as in Connor’s work) and lyrics by David McAlmont. “The key point,” said Cong, “is to watch the music and listen to the dance.” “Glare,” speaks to recent events in history, all across the globe, but its ultimate message, in keeping with the Richmond Ballet’s mission, is uplifting.

At the beginning of the work, one dancer walks out casually and pulls the light switch of a hanging lamp. Various lights populate each section of the work, creating “the glare.” The ballet is performed by six dancers dressed in diverse patterns connected by a warm color palette. The men all wore shorts, but Monica Guerra mixed up the patterns, layers, and textures, giving each dancer an individual look and personality.

Just as the costumes were varied, Cong also varied the movement styles, blending ballet with folk dance, jazz, and hip hop movement in a beautiful jumble of organized chaos. The work is set to five songs from “The Glare” album. “In Roi Don Giovanni” is about sexually charged world leaders, while “Secrets, Accusations and Charges” seems to be about corruption and power. One of my favorite sections was “Going to America,” which features the entire cast mixing it up on stage to a song that is actually about Somalian pirates! “I’m going to America as a prisoner, as a number,” the vocalist croons. But one gets the idea that going to America escorted by the FBI and Navy Seals is preferable to the alternatives.

Couples slow dance in “In Laos” to lyrics that speak of drug mules and drug trafficking. The title song, “The Glare,” is a song about reality television. This final section has the dancers clustered downstage center staring into a light that emanates from somewhere over the audience, bringing the spectators into the midst of the action and reminding us that if we just sit quietly and observe, we are part of the problem.

It was great to be back in the theater, even with restrictions, but most of all, it was a pleasure to be in the theater watching this perfect program. Studio One set a high bar (or barre?) for the rest of the season.

NOTE: Virtual tickets are $25. For patrons who would prefer to watch from the comfort of home, the Richmond Ballet offers virtual access to Studio One. On Monday, September 27th, virtual ticket buyers will receive an email with information on how to access the performance recording, which will be available to stream through Sunday, October 3rd, 11:59 pm. Tickets can be purchased online at etix.com or by phone at (804) 344-0906 x224. Only one virtual ticket is required per household. The deadline to purchase virtual tickets is noon Friday, October 1st. Finally, please note that the Richmond Ballet may be unable to stream this program in its entirety due to music rights restrictions.

Photos by Sarah Ferguson/Richmond Ballet

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I LOVE YOU, YOU’RE PERFECT, NOW CHANGE

A Modern Romantic Musical Comedy: “Everything you have ever secretly thought about dating, romance, marriage, lovers, husbands, wives and in-laws, but were afraid to admit.”

At: The Swift Creek Mill Theatre, 17401 Jefferson Davis Highway, Chesterfield, VA 23834

Performances: September 11 – October 23, 2021

Ticket Prices: $44-$49

Info: (804) 748-5203 or https://www.swiftcreekmill.com

I LOVE YOU, YOU’RE PERFECT, NOW CHANGE is musical comedy balm for the over-whelmed pandemic soul. After a year and a half of pandemic restrictions, and one year after bailing out of the worst flood in the building’s history (https://www.chesterfieldobserver.com/articles/historic-flooding-leaves-swift-creek-mill-theatre-under-water/), The Swift Creek Mill Theatre has reopened its doors to a live audience. This delightful romantic musical comedy was originally scheduled to open in 2020, but the work was put on hold due to the pandemic.

Opening at full capacity, with no social distancing between seats, a fully masked staff welcomed a fully masked audience that had access to digital programs. Love them or hate them, digital programs are here to stay. Opening night featured a pre-show reception with a light buffet instead of a full dinner, but going forward, dinner will be served prior to the show (with plated table-side service instead of a buffet line), and the bar is open.

But enough about housekeeping. Let’s talk about the show; after all, that’s why you came here. It appeared that dynamic quartet of actors – Rachel Marrs, Nicole Morris-Anastasi, Ian Page, and Luke Shares – found just as much enjoyment in their multiple roles as we did. Tom Width first directed this show in 2006, and it has since been updated. Sprinkled throughout the vignettes are references to Google and Netflix, Tinder dating profiles, and the Jennie Craig weight management system. There are local references to Joe’s Inn and the VMFA as well.

I LOVE YOU, YOU’RE PERFECT, NOW CHANGE was written as a series of vignettes, each of which could stand alone, but which, taken all together, follow a more or less chronological timeline of relationships from dating to marriage, concluding with a charming encounter by an elderly couple. The scenes are familiar, relatable, and consistently amusing. Oh, and the actors’ voices are perfect for their roles, whether singing or speaking.

Among my favorites: Morris-Anastasi and Page were hilarious as two awkward people who turned out to be made for each other in “A Stud and a Babe.” Then there was Schares and Marrs at the movies, where he tried to maintain a tough, macho attitude only to be drawn into all the feelings in “Tear Jerk.”

My initial question about whether a scenic element represented a fireplace or a headboard was answered in “And Now It’s Sexy Time,” a scene that explored the wisdom of employing a lawyer to negotiate a couple’s intimacy requirements. “When a Man Texts a Woman: A Picture of His” tackled one of the more contemporary sticky issues with a balance of humor and insight, while “Scared Straight” was assuredly the most outrageous scene. Here, a singles group facilitator took a small gathering to prison to receive relationship advice from a serial killer played by Schares. Schares’ prosthetic teeth slipped out at one point, and he deftly replaced them, earning a laugh without missing a beat.

There was a scene with a family of doting parents composed of two dads and a vignette about driving with the family that included ingenious choreography for four rolling office chairs. Marrs and Schares brought warmth and tenderness to the final scene, “Funerals are for Dating.” It was delightful to watch Marrs’ character shed her stodgy church-lady demeanor and spontaneously dance with her flirtatious partner. And I must mention Marrs’ expressive face throughout. She has an excellent command of physical comedy – at times reminding me of Lucille Ball.

With a total of twenty scenes spread over two acts, there truly is something for everyone. I LOVE YOU, YOU’RE PERFECT, NOW CHANGEis a wonderful welcome back to SCM. If you need a relaxed, enjoyable evening of theater, with good, solid performances and lots of laughs, you can’t go wrong here. In his Director’s Notes, Tom Width refers to “the shock of recognition” principle that allows us to take comfort in knowing that you’re not the only one who has thought or gone through this – whatever “this” is for you.

 I LOVE YOU, YOU’RE PERFECT, NOW CHANGE is timeless and inclusive. The authors apparently made provision for including local and updated references.

While not the familiar, sing-along type, the lyrics are straightforward, and you can understand every word. It helps that the music, played by an unseen four-piece orchestra, is upbeat and supports the song lyrics, spoken dialogue, and action. Joe Doran’s lighting is subtle yet effective, and Maura Lynch Cravey has fun with the costumes. Her ugly bridesmaid’s dress may have reached a new pinnacle of hideousness. I wouldn’t change a thing about I LOVE YOU, YOU’RE PERFECT, NOW CHANGE!

Cast:

Rachel Marrs

Nicole Morris-Anastasi

Ian Page

Luke Schares

Production Team:

Book and Lyrics by Joe DiPietro

Music by Jimmy Roberts

Directed by Tom Width

Costume Design by Maura Lynch Cravey

Lighting Design by Joe Doran

Scenic Design by Tom Width

Technical Direction by Liz Allmon

​​

Orchestra:

Conductor/Keyboard: Shellie Johnson

Reeds: Sheri Oyan

Drums: James Oyan

Guitar/Bass: Greg DeBruyn

Run Time:

150 minutes

Performance schedule:

Thu, Fri, Sat @8:00PM Sept 11, 17, 18, 24, 25, 30

Sun, Wed @2:30PM Sept 19, 29

Thu, Fri, Sat @8:00PM Oct 1, 2, 7, 8, 14, 15, 16, 21, 22, 23

Sun, Wed @2:30PM Oct 6, 17

Tickets:

$49

$44 for seniors, students, military, and first responders.

Rush – $25 Theatre Only tickets and $15 Student Theatre Only tickets, based on availability one hour prior to any show.

Photos: Robyn O’Neill

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THE ZOMBIE LIFE

Zombies never second guess. Zombies have no regrets. Are you ready to be converted?

At: The Firehouse Theatre, 1609 West Broad Street, RVA 23220

Performances: August 18-29, 2021. August 18-20, previews. August 21 Premiere. Limited seating due to COVID. All audience members must be fully vaccinated and wear masks inside The Firehouse. Remaining tickets sold out online as of Friday, October 26, but call the Box Office to check if seats have opened up.

Ticket Prices: $33

Info: (804) 355-2001 or firehousetheatre.org

The premise of Chris Gavaler’s new play, The Zombie Life, is that life is better as a Zombie. Zombies do not feel guilt, shame, or emotional pain. They have no responsibilities, don’t have to plan for the future, and have no regrets about the past. So, we find ourselves in the audience as Gavaler’s unnamed* Therapist (Ken Moretti) begins a self-help seminar, the purpose of which is to hear Zombies share their experiences and, hopefully, be convinced to join their ranks. *[The Therapist is unnamed on the program, but elsewhere identified as Dr. Steve Brandeis.]

One Woman (Shalandis Wheeler Smith) comes to the seminar weighed down by the demands of life and her over-stuffed tote bag. She interrupts the Therapist and decides to commit to becoming a Zombie even before the demonstration begins. For the rest of the play, which runs an hour and fifteen minutes with no intermission, the Woman learns the ropes of The Zombie Life as her four mentors demonstrate for the audience.

“Being dead is so much easier, so much safer.”

The Therapist uses objects recycled from their past lives and other found objects to trigger memories of the futility of searching for the meaning of life: a pair of doctors involved in Zombie research, a creepy mortician, a mindless soldier, a couple of cannibals, a group of confederate sympathizers, a sex worker, and the mother of a stillborn baby are among the object examples of human pain, suffering, and foibles. But try as he might, the Therapist has a hard time controlling his little band of Zombies, played with varying degrees of creepiness, conviction, and overacting by Marjie Southerland, Jacqueline Jones, PJ Freebourn, and Keaton Hillman.

“Uncertainty. That’s your soul trying to get your attention.”

I was never sure if the creepy asides and overacting was intentional. I have seen and thoroughly enjoyed all six of these actors in many productions over the years, and I know that they are all capable of giving stellar performances. But Chris Gavaler’s script just didn’t reach stellar levels. The script is scattered and awkward and not even a highly professional cast, or earnest direction by Gavaler’s sister, Joan Gavaler, or interesting movement sequences by Dan Plehal could bring a sense of cohesiveness and focus to this production.

The Zombie Life is different, for sure, and there are more than a few moments of humor. It is thought-provoking, and incorporates relevant social, philosophical, and spiritual issues. It just doesn’t work in its present form. Tickets for the remaining performances are sold out, but if you dare or care to see it for yourself, do call The Firehouse Box Office (804) 355-2001 as a few of the limited and socially distanced seats may open up at the last minute.

Production Team:

Written by Chris Gavaler

Directed by Joan Gavaler

Movement Director – Dan Plehal

Production Designer – Todd Labelle

Costume Designer – Annette Hairfield

Prop Designer – AC Wilson

Crew – Emma Avelis & Scott Shepardson

Stage Manager – Grace Brown

Cast:

Therapist – Ken Moretti

Woman – Shalandis Wheeler Smith

Zombie #1 – Marjie Southerland

Zombie #2 – Jacqueline Jones

Zombie #3 – PJ Freebourn

Zombie #4 – Keaton Hillman

​​

Performance schedule:

Wed Aug 18 7:30pm (preview)

Thu Aug 19 7:30pm (preview)

Fri Aug 20 7:30pm (preview)

Sat Aug 21 7:30pm

Thu Aug 26 7:30pm

Fri Aug 27 7:30pm

Sat Aug 28 7:30pm

Sun Aug 29 3pm

Tickets:

$33

Photos: Bill Sigafoos

BLACK COWBOYS & COWGIRLS

Who Knew History Could Be This Much Fun?

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: Heritage Gardens, 900 E. Broadway, Hopewell, VA 23860, August 7 & 8; Battersea Park, 1289 Upper Appomattox St., Petersburg, VA 23803, August 14 & 15; Children’s Home (Chesterfield), 6900 Hickory Rd., Petersburg, VA 23803, August 21 & 22.

Performances: August 7-22, Saturdays & Sundays, at 4:00 PM. All performances outdoors; bring your own chair. Tickets: $10 in advance only.

Info: theheritageensemble.org

As a young adult in Brooklyn, I used to listen to a black DJ who frequently used the term “edutainment.”[i] Whatever the source, that seems to be just the right word to describe Margarette Joyner’s production of BLACK COWBOYS & COWGIRLS. A perfect vehicle for children, most of those in attendance at Battersea Park[ii] in Petersburg on Sunday afternoon were adults. Tellingly, we enjoyed ourselves as much as the little one who sat front and center.

BLACK COWBOYS & COWGIRLS follows much the same formula as Joyner’s What They Did For Us: Black Women Who Paved the Way, presented at Richmond Triangle Players Robert B. Moss Theatre in February and March of this year. But after I fought and won a battle with the mosquitos and came to a livable compromise with the heat and humidity, I found this wild west historical romp to be one of Joyner’s most enjoyable productions to date. The formula is roughly a series of monologues, performed by a lively cast, many of whom have experience as historical interpreters at Colonial Williamsburg. In this casual outdoor setting, the wild west theme, with the actors walking around in cowboy boots with six-shooters strapped to their thighs while greeting the audience by tipping their hats and drawling “howdy, ma’am,” was just what was needed to draw the audience into this rowdy tale.

First up was Clara Brown. Born into slavery right here in the Commonwealth of Virginia, Clara Brown became Colorado’s first black settler and a pioneering entrepreneur and philanthropist. Then there was Willie Kennard, a sharp-shooting cowboy and arms instructor for the military who became a town marshal in Yankee Hills, Colorado, where he defeated the town bully. Moving on to more familiar names, we also heard from Nat Love aka Deadwood Dick, who recorded many of his exploits in an autobiography, and Mary Fields, perhaps better known as Stagecoach Mary, the first African-American woman driver for the US Postal Service, as well as Bill Pickett, the cowboy and rodeo superstar credited with inventing the rodeo event known as “bull dogging.” This dangerous feat involves the cowboy dropping from his horse onto a steer then wrestling said steer to the ground by its horns. According to legend, Pickett added the sensational flourish of biting the bull’s lip after twisting his head. (Yes, it sounds cruel and gruesome, but this is a theater review, and I am simply reporting historical facts, so no comments, please.)

All these stories were told with great flourishes, lots of “oohs” and “aahhs” and exaggerated body language. The actors performed on and around the front porch of the historic Battersea estate, with the audience seated on folding chairs (“new-fangled contraptions”) or blankets on the grassy lawn. Much as I dislike mosquitos, this setting greatly enhanced the experience for me. The only thing that might possibly have made it better would have been seeing and smelling a plume of smoke rising from the kitchen and someone handing me a plate of BBQ, baked beans, and cornbread with a mason jar of sarsaparilla (root beer would suffice).

Kudos to the versatile and enthusiastic cast. (I haven’t matched names with roles, as there was no printed program, and I don’t want to make any mistakes. But it is an ensemble, so equal kudos to all. Well, okay, a little extra to Dorothy Dee-D Miller for her swagger – and her beard, but don’t tell the others) As of this writing, there are two more opportunities remaining to see BLACK COWBOYS & COWGIRLS or this run. I hope it becomes a regular part of the Heritage Ensemble’s rotating repertoire. Yeehaw, ya’ll. Now git (out there and see the show).

BLACK COWBOYS & COWGIRLS

Written & Directed by Margarette Joyner

Produced by the Black Seed Grant

CAST (in alphabetical order):

Ray Bullock

Zakiyyah Jackson

Dorothy Dee-D Miller

Jeremy Morris

Chris Showalter

Shalandis Wheeler Smith

Michelle M. Washington

Willie Wright


[i] The term has been credited to The Walt Disney Company, but some sources trace it back to Benjamin Franklin (Poor Richard’s Almanac).

[ii] Built in 1768 as the country estate of John Banister, Petersburg’s first mayor, Battersea is a Virginia Historic Landmark listed in the National Register of Historic Places. It is “one of the finest surviving examples of Palladian architecture in America.” batterseafound.org

THE BOTTOM SHOW: A “New” Play by William Shakespeare (Mostly)

THE BOTTOM SHOW: or ‘The Merry Conceited Humours of Bottom the Weaver

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: Agecroft Hall, 4305 Sulgrave Road, RVA 23221

Performances: Fridays, July 9 – August 13, 2021

Ticket Prices: $33 ($28 for Seniors and Groups 10+, $23 for RVA On Stage, $20 for Students)

Info: (804) 340-0115 or quilltheatre.org

The Bottom Show: A New Play by William Shakespeare (Mostly), directed by Quill Theatre’s artistic director James Ricks, comes with a WARNING: “This show is devoid of anything vaguely intellectual, serious or romantic. Contains low-brow humor and semi-popular music.” Perhaps the best way to describe The Bottom Show to anyone who hasn’t seen it is that it is Shakespeare for those who think Shakespeare is too high-brow or too difficult to understand – as well as for those who don’t. In other words, it’s for everybody!

Populated, with but one exception, by the same cast who carry the roles of Twelfth Night Thursdays, Saturdays, and Sundays, The Bottom Show – named for a character from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, it is a comic adaptation of that play – runs on Fridays in tandem with Twelfth Night. And if physical humor was evident in Twelfth Night, it is the very foundation of The Bottom Show – so much so that each cast member deserves a large bag of Epsom salts, a jar of tiger balm, and a painkiller of choice for each week of the run.

The premise of The Bottom Show is that a group of amateur thespians – “mechanicals” or tradesmen by day – set to work to put on a show for the entertainment of Theseus, the Duke of Athens, and his lovely lady, Hippolyta. But, of course, their plans run afoul of a group of fairies who are involved in some soap opera style drama of their own. Toss in snippets of popular and vaguely familiar rock and pop songs and sprinkle liberally with references to the plague that shall not be named, spread out some lawn chairs and break out the snacks and you have the makings of a perfect summer night’s entertainment. Musical highlights included Levi Meerovich playing an accordion and singing Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” and a moment of four-part harmony on “Life Could Be a Dream” that somehow managed a seamless segue into The Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way.”

Kurt Benjamin Smith works hard – and quite successfully – at portraying Bottom as a terrible yet pretentious actor while Erica Hughes provides a wonderful counterbalance as a voice of reason keeping this rowdy band under control. Michael Blackwood is pretty much a straight arrow as Theseus, but lets loose his inner drag queen as Titania, the queen of the fairies, in one of the breakout musical sequences of the show. Lucretia Marie plays Oberon, the king of the fairies whose desire to exact revenge on the stubborn Titania sets in motion much of the havoc and hijinks of both A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Bottom Show and later appears as Hippolyta – the latter in a white pantsuit that gives a nod to recent political events that shall also remain unnamed.

The amateur thespians’ show includes lengthy prologues designed to ease the fears of the “ladies” – at one point drawing a disdainful sidebar from Penny Quince. There is a delightfully annoying portrayal of the moon (I think that was Michelle Greensmith, but it’s hard to keep everyone and their shenanigans straight) and a scene with “The Wall” (Foster Solomon) that teases out alternate meanings of the word “bottom.” And, of course, one can never overlook Puck – Emily Berry leapt and flipped about the stage with supernatural energy. The entire evening, running about 90 minutes without an intermission, is magical.

The Bottom Show

By William Shakespeare

Cast

Bottom – Kurt Benjamin Smith

Penny Quince – Erica Hughes

Flute – Mitchell Ashe

Snug – Levi Meerovich

Snout – Foster Solomon

Starveling – Michelle Greensmith

Titania/Theseus – Michael Blackwood

Antonio – Lucretia Marie

Oberon/Hippolyta – Lucretia Marie

Puck/Philostrate – Emily Berry

Musician – Lennon Hu

Direction & Design

Director:  James Ricks

Assistant Director: Cole Metz

Stage Manager: Nata Moriconi

Technical Director: Ryan Delbridge

Lighting Design: BJ Wilkinson

Costume Design: Cora Delbridge

Music Direction: Levi Meerovich

Choreography: Nicole Morris-Anastasi

Sound Mixing: Todd Schall-Vess

Additional Dialogue: James Ricks, Bo Wilson, Bradley Carter

Assistant Stage Manager: Lane Woodward

Assistant Stage Manager: Hope Jewell

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.

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Photo Credits: Dave Parrish Photography & Quill Theatre Facebook page

TWELFTH NIGHT: Shakespeare on the Back Lawn

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: Agecroft Hall, 4305 Sulgrave Road, RVA 23221

Performances: July 8 – August 14, 2021

Ticket Prices: $33 ($28 for Seniors, $23 for RVA On Stage, $20 for Students)

Info: (804) 340-0115 or quilltheatre.org

For their first show at Agecroft Hall after “the plague that shall remain nameless” the Quill Theatre chose Shakespeare’s zany romantic comedy, Twelfth Night. The play takes its name from the Twelfth Night as it was created as holiday entertainment marking the Epiphany, or the end of the Christmas season. In addition to the shipwreck, unrequited love, deception, revenge, mistaken identities, cross-dressing, androgyny, and numerous other elements that Shakespeare wrote into the plot, Quill Theatre updated the play with colorful and whimsical costuming (e.g., Feste’s flower child ensemble, Malvolio’s bell bottoms and yellow stockings) and a sound score that featured 1960s pop hits (think the Beatles, the Monkees, and Elvis).

Meerovich, who plays the fool Feste as well as serves as musical director, opens the show with a lively serenade that sets the tone for the evening and Lucretia Marie who plays the minor but nonetheless important role of the sea captain, Antonio, who saves the shipwrecked Sebastian, reads the evening’s announcements. Before you know it, the play has begun, with some major characters popping up from amidst the audience from time to time. The show runs about 2.5 hours, with one intermission, but director Jan Powell established an easy, organic pace that complemented the casual layout, with the audience spread out over the back lawn under a clear sky, accentuated by a lovely sunset, a pastoral setting, and welcome breezes from the nearby river – as well as the occasional passing train.

For those who need a refresher – or an introduction – Twelfth Night recounts the tale of noble-born twins Viola and Sebastian who are shipwrecked off the coast of Illyria, a region of the Balkan Peninsula. The twins are separated, each thinking the other has drowned. Sebastian is rescued by Antonio, a sea captain, and the two remain peripheral for much of the play while Viola, after being saved by an unnamed rescuer, disguises herself as a boy, takes the name Cesario, and becomes a servant to Duke Orsino, who is in love with the fair Olivia, who is mourning her deceased brother. To complicate matters, Viola/Cesario falls in love with Orsino, and Olivia falls in love with Cesario who has come to plead the case of Orsino. While all this is going on, Olivia’s maid Maria, Olivia’s rowdy uncle Toby and his friend Sir Andrew conspire to convince Olivia’s household steward Malvolio that Olivia is in love with him. Feste, a court jester and roving musician, weaves between all the characters, collecting tips and keeping the audience entertained with musical divertissements.

Emily Berry and Mitchell Ashe played the shipwrecked twins, each believing the other had drowned until the final scene. Dressed identically, with Berry disguised as a boy, both become involved in relationships that bend and blend gender boundaries. Berry’s character is in a triangle with Olivia and Orsino while Ashe’s character inadvertently risks breaking the bonds of trust established with the sea captain who helped him at great personal risk. Both ultimately end up in conventional male-female couplings. Berry has a lot more stage time than Ashe, increasing the audience’s anticipation of their ultimate reunion – which drew cheers on Thursday night.

Michael Blackwood and Lucretia Marie, as the benefactors of the twins, provided solid dramatic counterpoint to the constant hilarity delivered by Cole Metz, Levi Meerovich, Foster Solomon, and Kurt Benjamin Smith, much of which was instigated by Erica Hughes’ character. Thanks to their unrelenting and often physical humor, it was easy to keep up with the flow of the action even when the sound system failed us. Sometimes, it seems depending on where the actors were standing, words and lines got lost, and for awhile there was a bit of static coming from some of the speakers. But this was a new configuration for the Richmond Shakespeare Festival, and I trust that these issues will be worked out during the run of the show.

A modest set (no credit given on the PDF version of the digital program I have) consisting of a simple wooden fence with a few green vines and some lovely rainbow colored lighting by BJ Wilkerson provided atmosphere without overwhelming the backdrop – Agecroft Hall, a Tudor mansion that, we were reminded, stood in England while Shakespeare was still alive. The audience saw scattered across the spacious lawn on lawn chairs and blankets, in clusters as close to others as you chose to be. I don’t recall seeing any masks, but you could certainly wear one if you want to. All in all, Twelfth Night delivered a delightful night of theater, and its utter nonsense provided a welcome sense of normalcy.

Twelfth Night

By William Shakespeare

Cast

Viola – Emily Berry

Olivia – Michelle Greensmith

Orsino – Michael Blackwood

Malvolio – Cole Metz

Feste – Levi Meerovich

Toby Belch – Foster Solomon

Andrew Aguecheek – Kurt Benjamin Smith

Maria – Erica Hughes

Sebastian – Mitchell Ashe

Antonio – Lucretia Marie

Direction & Design

Director:  Dr. Jan Powell

Assistant Director: Melissa Rayford

Stage Manager: Nata Moriconi

Technical Director: Ryan Delbridge

Lighting Design: BJ Wilkinson

Costume Design: Anna Bialkowski

Music Direction: Levi Meerovich

Sound Mixing: Todd Schall-Vess

Intimacy Director: Lucinda Piro

Assistant Stage Manager: Lane Woodward

Assistant Stage Manager: Hope Jewell

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.

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Photo Credits: Dave Parrish Photography & Quill Theatre Facebook page

 

ELLA AND HER FELLA FRANK:

A Match Made in Heaven

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: The November Theatre Arenstein Stage. 114 West Broad Street, RVA 23220

Performances: July 9 – September 12, 2021 (Preview July 8)

Ticket Prices: $58. Discounted group rates and rush tickets available.

Info: (804) 282-2620 or www.virginiarep.org

The theme for opening night was “Richmond theater is back!” The occasion was festive, with a classic Rolls Royce convertible parked in front of the November Theatre, a ribbon cutting, and after the show, a ceremonial darkening of the lights in honor of the late Randy Strawderman, who first conceived of this heavenly duo.

The word heavenly is not thrown around lightly, as the premise of this show – more a concert than a play or even a musical – is a reunion in heaven of these two real-life friends and musical collaborators. The result is a nostalgic concert of classics and favorites.

Highlights of the evening (not counting being out at a live theater event) included Desirée Roots’ skillful and confident demonstration of Fitzgerald’s signature scatting technique on Duke Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing) and Scott Wichmann’s nuanced and intimately articulated delivery of “One For My Baby and One More For the Road.” There was even a good-spirited vocal battle set off when Wichmann tried to sing Sinatra’s signature “New York, New York.” Roots threw every city or geographically related song she could think of at him before allowing him the pleasure of completing the song: “I Love Paris,” Girl From Ipanema,” “My Kind of Town (Chicago),” “Georgia on My Mind,” “Tale the A Train,” and more.

Roots is no stranger to the music of Ella Fitzgerald, having written and starred in a 2017 tribute, Ella at 100 (since renamed Forever Ella). Roots was both amusing and elegant, portraying “The First Lady of Song” in three elegant gowns – a blinding gold metallic number, a lime green satin ensemble, and an angelic white finale creation adorned with feathers and glitter – each with matching shoes and a color-coordinated handkerchief. Kudos to Sue Griffin and Keith Walker for the costume design. Wichmann was a natural choice for the popular singer nicknamed “Ol’ Blue Eyes.” Between the two of them, Fitzgerald and Sinatra earned 25 Grammy awards (13 for her and 11 for him), and sold somewhere in the vicinity of 200 million albums.

Seeing these two musical icons portrayed by two familiar theater stars would have been a treat at any time, but it was especially heart-warming as the inaugural show of the great re-opening. Too bad Friday night’s performance was marred by a wonky sound system. Both singer’s voices were under-amplified and at times distorted while singing, and much of their light banter was completely lost. (I understand this was not the case during the previous night’s Preview performance, and I hope it doesn’t affect any other shows.)

A live 7-piece orchestra was placed onstage – socially distanced – in a simple and elegant setting of white balloon-like globes that at times reflected different colored lights. The beautifully subtle lighting was designed by BJ Wilkinson. As at any good concert, the musicians got a chance to solo, and even the Overture (Count Basie’s “One O’Clock Jump) and the Encore (Harold Arlen’s “I’ve Got the World on a Strong”) drew enthusiastic applause. Larri Branch, the Music Director, was also the pianist – who had a single line, a long-drawn out “yep!” in response to questions like, “Are they (meaning us, the audience) real? There was even a bit of audience participation – some planned and some that I think was spontaneous.


Katrinah Carol Lewis’ direction was unobtrusive and organic – except when the two vocalists briefly paced around one another like caged cats. Their initial attempts to hug one another were hilariously rebuffed by an invisible force shield that prevented them from touching – another nod to COVID-19 conventions, yet highly unlikely to happen in heaven.

Written by Richmond-based playwright Bo Wilson and featuring nearly 30 songs, Ella and Her Fella Frank runs about 80 minutes, with no intermission. In accordance with Actors’ Equity Association COVID-19 Guidelines, face masks are required to be worn by all patrons while in the building and no food or drinks are being served at this time.

In honor of Randy Strawderman, who conceived of the original concept of this show, a moving tribute was held after the show, with Debra Wagoner singing from the balcony above the theater’s restored original entrance and a ceremonial darkening of the theater lights. A detailed tribute is available in the digital program – another COVID-19 theater convention that is likely to be around for awhile.

Ella and Her Fella Frank

by Bo Wilson

Based on an original concept by Randy Strawderman

Cast

Desirée Roots as Ella Fitzgerald

Scott Wichmann as Frank Sinatra

Direction & Design

Direction: Katrinah Carol Lewis

Scenic Design: Josafath Reynoso

Costume Design: Sue Griffin and Keith Walker

Lighting Design: BJ Wilkinson

Music Direction Larri Branch

Stage Management: Jocelyn A. Thompson

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.

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Photo Credits: Aaron Sutten

Find these books by Julinda on Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing: https://kdp.amazon.com/en_US/bookshelf

WALLED IN WITH WALDEN

a new play by Andrew Gall with material adapted from Henry David Thoreau’s Walden

At: The Firehouse Theatre, 1609 West Broad Street, RVA 23220

Performances: May 27-June 26, 2021, live and streamed. May 27-29, previews. June 3 Premiere. June 18-20 live & live stream.

Ticket Prices: In-Person Tickets: $33 in person & live stream

Info: (804) 355-2001 or firehousetheatre.org

What is more appropriate as we emerge from more than a year of pandemic restrictions than a play based on the experiences of a man in prison (Andrew Gall’s fictional Lester Franklin) reading a book about a man who spent two years living in isolation in the woods (the American transcendentalist writer Henry David Thoreau)? Andrew Gall’s new play, Walled In, is, indeed, a play on Thoreau’s Walden, and while Gall liberally utilizes Thoreau’s words, his character, a MAGA-hat wearing Republican corporate lawyer who is in jail “taking one for the team” and wondering what happened to his promised pardon is very much a man of the twenty-first century. White, privileged, on the far side of middle age, Franklin is an angry, foul-mouthed, entitled creature whose own wife and daughter seem eager to sanitize their hands of his particular brand of filth. Whew. If that seems wordy, it’s just a hint of what to expect when you see Walled In.

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. From the desperate city you go into the desperate country, and have to console yourself with the bravery of minks and muskrats. A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind. There is no play in them, for this comes after work. But it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things…” – Henry David Thoreau

The exact details of how Franklin landed in prison are not necessary. We first meet him having a hissy fit after being assigned to clean the prison toilets. It doesn’t take long for him to be assigned to a prison education program where his class is assigned to read and journal about Thoreau’s two-year social-spiritual experiment, Walden; or, Life in the Woods. Thoreau spent two years, two months, and two days living in a cabin he built near Walden Pond, a far shorter sentence than what our friend Franklin might expect.

Doug Blackburn plays the role of Franklin in this one-person play (although two other actors lend their voices as the unseen Instructor (Todd Labelle, who is also the Production Designer) and Hicks, a prisoner in an adjacent cell (Rudy Mitchell). I could say Blackburn is a strong presence, but the playwright doesn’t really give him any other option. Franklin is an angry man. He strings together lines of expletives as if he were training for an Olympic competition in obscenities. (The program includes the “WARNING: This play contains very strong language that some may find offensive.”) It comes as no surprise when Act One ends with Franklin collapsing on the floor after yet another round of screaming into the wall phone – a phone to which he apparently has unlimited access. But there are also beautiful if rare poetic interludes, as in the description of an old unwashed coat that smells of Old Spice and bonfires.

Act Two begins with Franklin lounging on his cot reading. Hicks, the closest thing he has to a friend, refers to him endearingly as Heart Attack, and the bean plant he had tossed into the toilet is inexplicably flourishing on his nightstand. Yes, Hicks says he replanted it, but how did he retrieve it from the toilet and get it onto Franklin’s nightstand? Hmm? I do not consider it a SPOILER to tell you that Franklin’s journey of self-discovery while reading Thoreau does not result in a magical transformation. It does not make him any more likable. In the end, he is not redeemed but instead released on house arrest after Hicks dies of COVID-19, which Franklin refers to as the “China virus.” The point is not the destination but the journey. There is a lot of kicking and screaming; the two hours (with an intermission at the 80-minute mark) must be exhausting for Blackburn. It certainly is not an easy ride for the audience. Still, it is timely and raw and for some, seeing the character Franklin, who represents so much of what we hate about politics and privilege, in prison and no longer able to call the shots, is smugly satisfying. In a recent interview with Jerry Williams on the “Curtain Call” podcast, Gall described Lester Franklin as “a sort of Ebenezer Scrooge,” yet I doubt Franklin achieved any real redemption. Lester Franklin is an awful person; Doug Blackburn is a wonderful actor (assuming he is nothing like Franklin).

Gall relocated to RVA from North Carolina during the pandemic, and this is his first offering as part of the local theater community. Gall wrote and directed Walled In. Blackburn has been seen previously in the Firehouse production of Wrong Chopped. The lights, projections, and sound score for Walled In are fabulous. Production Designer Todd Labelle and Composer/Sound Designer Mark Messing have created a simple set (a wall phone, a cell featuring a toilet, night table, and cot, and a single wooden school desk) that is beautifully enhanced with a soundscape featuring train whistles and bullfrogs, owls and whippoorwills and other sounds. Lights and projections effectively transform the bare walls into the woods surrounding Walden Pond, adding depth and dimension to an otherwise flat space.

Walled In is not the kind of play you leave smiling and telling everyone how much you liked it. It is a play that makes you angry. It makes you think. And you leave feeling that things have got to change. Redemption isn’t just for individuals; it’s for systems.

Production Team:

Written and directed by Andrew Gall

Performed by Doug Blackburn

Featuring the voices of Todd Labelle and Rudy Mitchell

Sound Designer – Mark Messing

Costume Designer – Colin Lowrey II

Production Designer – Todd Labelle

Assistant Director – Grace Brown

Production Associate – Claire Bronchick

Stage Manager – Kasey Britt

Performance Schedule:

Thu, May 27 @ 7:30pm / invited preview

Fri, May 28 @ 7:30pm / invited preview

Sat, May 29@ 7:30pm / invited preview

Thu, June 3 @ 7:30pm

Fri, June 4 @ 7:30pm

Sat, June 5 @ 7:30pm

Sun, June 6 @ 3:00pm

Thu, June 10 @ 7:30pm

Fri, June 11 @ 7:30pm

Sat, June 12 @ 7:30pm

Sun, June 13 @ 3:00pm

Thu, June 17 @ 7:30pm

Fri, June 18 @ 7:30pm (live + live stream)

Sat, June 19 @ 7:30pm (live + live stream)

Sun, June 20 @ 3:00pm (live + live stream)

Thu, June 24 @ 7:30pm

Fri, June 25 @ 7:30pm

Sat, June 26, 7:30pm

Tickets:

$33 live and live stream 

RICHMOND BALLET: STUDIO SERIES/MAY

BALLET CLOSES SEASON WITH GUEST CHOREOGRAPHER

A COVID-conscious Pandemic-appropriate Program

A Dance Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: The Richmond Ballet, Canal Street Studios, 407 East Canal Street, RVA 23219

Performances: May 11-23, 2021, live and streamed.

Ticket Prices: In-Person Tickets start at $25 [most performances sold out]; Virtual Tickets $20. [NOTE: On the evening of Sunday, May 23rd, virtual ticket buyers will receive an email with information on how to access the performance recording, which will be available to stream for one week. Virtual tickets for Studio Series: May must be purchased by 11:59 PM on Saturday, May 22nd.

(Please note that due to music rights restrictions, we may be unable to stream this program in its entirety.]

Info: (804) 344-0906, etix.com, or richmondballet.com. See the Richmond Ballet’s website for their COVID-19 precautions and more.

REPERTORY:

some kind of peace

Choreography by Levi Philip Marsman

Music by Ólafur Arnalds and Nils Frahm

Costume Design by Emily Morgan

Lighting Design by Christopher Devlin Hill

World Premiere: May 11, 2021, Richmond Ballet Studio Theatre, Richmond, Virginia

sweet bitter love

Choreography by Carmen de Lavallade

Music sung by Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway

Costume Design by Geoffrey Holder

Lighting Design by Chenault Spence

Costumes courtesy of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater

World Premiere: December 7, 2000, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, New York City Center, New York

Richmond Ballet Premiere: May 7, 2019, Richmond Ballet Studio Theatre, Richmond, Virginia

excerpts from who cares?

Choreography by George Balanchine

Music by George Gershwin Adapted and Orchestrated by Hershy Kay

Staging by Jerri Kumery

Costume Reconstruction by Tamara Cobus after Original Design by Karinska

Original Lighting Design by Richard Moore

World Premiere: February 5, 1970, New York City Ballet, New York State Theater, New York, New York

Richmond Ballet Premiere: November 14, 1986, Carpenter Center for the Performing Arts, Richmond, Virginia

            Concluding its ground-breaking pandemic season, The Richmond Ballet premiered a new work by its first and only guest choreographer of the year. Levi Philip Marsman, Artist-in-

Residence at the Boston Arts Academy, created Some Kind of Peace in response to the loneliness and isolation of 2020. It is a ballet about hope and connection, and the first two sections are fueled by a sense of anticipation and undergirded by the faint sound of a ticking clock. Much of the music comes from Ólafur Arnalds’ recent project of the same name, some kind of peace, and the rest was composed by Nils Frahm.

            The cast members all wear leotards in various shades of blue with darker blue sheer overlays. The women’s have slits that allow them to open partially before being shed entirely by the final section. I found the more awkward and less refined movement of the first half more interesting than the smoother, more lyrical phrases that evolved at the end. The social distance and quick stops of the ensemble in the “Personal Space” opening section and Khalyom Khojaev’s solo, “Panic,” which expresses the complexities of being home alone for an extended period of time, were directly influenced by the events of 2020.  One audience member summed up the work as being “impactful.”

Marsman’s work was followed by Carmen de Lavallade’s Sweet Bitter Love, conceived initially as a solo for the choreographer to a song by the same name sung by Roberta Flack. De Lavallade later added a song performed by Donny Hathaway, “For All We Know,” to incorporate the male perspective. This transformed the dance into a duet, and she then added and closed with a third song, also sung Flack, “Until It’s Time for You to Go.” Dramatically sustained movement and endless jazz hinges add visual interest to this tale of two lovers who were never meant to be. Cody Beaton and Trevor Davis met the challenge of this non-traditional duet. At times Beaton arched backward until she appeared to be folded in half, and the couple mastered movements initiated from a hip, an elbow, a wrist instead of from the core. But as visually striking as the movement vocabulary may be, the piece is tormentingly sad.

It was both a relief and somewhat jarring to move from two sober and introspective works to George Balanchine’s Who Cares? Balanchine choreographed this jazz ballet to 16 songs composed by George Gershwin between 1924 and 1931, and Richmond Ballet presented ten of them.  Bright and fun, the piece opened with the women dancing to “Somebody Loves Me,” followed by the men stepping up with “Bidin’ My Time.” There was a fun duet performed by Eri Nishihara and Ira White and some heel and toe action by Marty Davis before the ensemble finished up with “I’ve Got Rhythm.”

For the first time since returning to the stage last September, some of the dancers were allowed to take off their masks, thanks to vaccinations and the easing of some pandemic restrictions. Yes, it was wonderful to see some smiling faces, but I also felt what seemed like weariness or heaviness. Whether it was from the psychological impact of the first two dances or the physical strain of social distancing and dancing with masks for the past eight months, this program moved me, yet I left feeling oddly weighed down, connected yet concerned.

DOGTOWN PRESENTER’S SERIES: THE DANIEL NAGRIN CELEBRATION

Five Men, Six Dances:  A Concert of Solos by the Rebel of Modern Dance

A COVID-conscious Pandemic-appropriate Dance Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: Dogtown Dance Theatre, 109 W. 15th Street, RVA 23224

Performances: On Stage April 30 & May 1, 2021.  Streaming beginning May 7, 2021.

Ticket Prices: $20 General; $15 for Students (no tickets sold at the door as part of COVID-19 precautions).

Info: (804) 230-8780, dogtowndancetheatre.com or www.dogtown.vhx.tv. See the theater’s website for their COVID-19 precautions.

I love watching the look on my undergraduate dance history students’ faces when I show them videos of dancers I watched and loved when I was their age — more than four decades ago. One that usually gets their attention is a video of solo dance artist Daniel Nagrin performing his signature work, “Strange Hero.” Created in 1948, the work is a caricature of and homage to the American gangster.

“Strange Hero” was the opening work of the Daniel Nagrin Celebration Concert at Dogtown Dance Theatre last weekend. Matt Pardo, an assistant professor of dance at James Madison University, performed the piece, dressed in all black, minus the tight-fitting, broad-shouldered blazer Nagrin often wore when performing it. Pardo seemed less menacing than I remember, but at the same time seemed to exhibit more technical control than Nagrin – if that is even physically possible. The dangling cigarette (unlit), the hand that mimics a gun, the syncopated stabbing motions, and the juxtaposition of smooth, sharp, and elongated movement phrases may be employed in reconstructing a dated stereotype but the solo is as compelling now as 73 years ago. “Strange Hero,” is, like many of Nagrin’s solo works, a deeply reflective character study that explores the human condition, and much, perhaps all, of his work reflects a love of rhythm, jazz music, and jazz dance. “Strange Hero” features music by Stan Keaton and Pete Rugolo, while “Man of Action” has music by John McCoy and Count Basie.

“Man of Action,” another work created in 1948, was performed by Shane O’Hara.  A professor of dance at JMU, O’Hara has worked closely with the Daniel Nagrin Foundation and has an intimate knowledge of Nagrin’s work. Dressed in a shirt, tie, slacks, dress shoes, overcoat, and hat, O’Hara adeptly demonstrated the humor and drama of Nagrin’s artistic vision. The work mines the simple beauty of walking, running, leaping, and skipping, but suddenly the dancer is suspended in the air, and you’re not sure how he got there. There is even a delightful resurrection of that old trick where someone pretends to walk down invisible stairs.

On a side note, O’Hara brought the Virginia Repertory Dance Company, a pre-professional ensemble made up of select JMU dance majors, to Dogtown a little more than a year ago. They were the last live company to perform there before the big shutdown. How appropriate that O’Hara would be instrumental in Dogtown’s return to live performances.

Another of Nagrin’s popular dances, “Spanish Dance” (1948), a nod to Flamenco, was performed by Donald Laney, a faculty member in the Department of Theatre and Dance at Western Illinois University and dance instructor at WV Governor’s School for the Arts. Chest thrust forward, arms lifted, Laney embodied the controlled power of the Flamenco dancer, in a black tank top and bare feet. Laney was the last dancer to learn “Spanish Dance” from Nagrin, who died in 2008 at age 91 after half a century in dance.

The second half of the program included some works that were new to me. Paul Dennis, a graduate of the Juilliard School and a former member of the José Limón Dance Company, performed “Indeterminate Figure” (1957). One of Nagrin’s works from that decade dedicated to finding self, “Indeterminate Figure” is filled with ambiguity and juxtaposition. For starters, the dancer wears a pair of silky pajamas that resemble military fatigues, and the sound score is filled with a variety of sounds from rain to exploding bombs, from footsteps to the sounds of a beating heart. The soloist sometimes dances gracefully with an invisible partner, sometimes moves as if scrambling to safety from the effects of a crumbling foundation. Nagrin’s evolving signature style is evident in the dance’s gestures and the use of core strength that smoothly lifts the dancer from a kneeling position and seamlessly returns him, all without using his hands.

“Path” (1965), performed by local artist and member of the RVA Dance Collective Desmin Taylor, is a rare minimalist work. Performed without music, the soloist traverses a diagonal path carrying a long wooden pole or beam perhaps 10 feet in length.  Step, step, cou-de-pied­, pas de bourree, pause, repeat. Step, step, cou-de-pied­, pas de bourree, pause, repeat. “Path” is simple and mesmerizing – the kind of piece where you find yourself exhaling at the end, not realizing you had been holding your breath.

On an interesting side note, I came across a contract housed in the Library of Congress that is signed by Bill T. Jones, but not Nagrin, granting Jones performing rights to this solo. Mysteriously, two conditions of this contract state that “the dancer will never divulge the inner meaning(s) of Path as confidentially represented to him by the Choreographer to anyone,” and “the Dancer will never divulge his personal thinking as to the meaning(s) of Path to anyone.” I don’t know whether Nagrin ever signed this contract, but Jones has choreographed several works for the Daniel Nagrin Dance Theater.

The Celebration concert closed with “Wordgame: A Cartoon” (1968), also performed by O’Hara, with a sound design by Nagrin. Created from the full-evening work “Peloponnesian War,” about the conflict between Sparta and Athens, “Wordgame” was made as a commentary on the Vietnam War. Dressed in a shirt, tie, and light gray suit, the dancer tosses cash and moves with passive-aggressive disdain against a background peppered with unintelligible text, dramatic organ chords, and pinball noises. As with many of his solos, the interpretation is left open to the viewer, but social commentary was not unique to Nagrin. He was married to and collaborated with Helen Tamaris, who was also known for her American-themed solo works, many of which addressed social issues like racism and war.

What a wonderful opportunity, a unique marriage of history and artistry, all in one neat hour-long package. It was both interesting and fulfilling to see a variety of male dancers – black, white, different ages, different sizes – performing these iconic works.