Visual storyteller Gregory Hancock sets new season

By John Lyle Belden

First, a bit of unfinished business. After seeing the opening of Gregory Hancock Dance Theatre’s “Antony & Cleopatra” in June, I posted a quick review on the PWJW Facebook page but have yet to officially add a write-up here. Since, like many companies, GHDT can shine up an old gem and give it another whirl in a future season, this may be some useful commentary:

Like most of his work, this production has choreography and costumes by Gregory Glade Hancock. In addition, he insisted on music and songs by award-winning composer Cory Gabel, who also worked with him on 2018’s “The Casket Girls.”

Aside from being a dance showcase without spoken lines, this “Antony and Cleopatra” is quite different from the Shakespeare play in the story it tells. The narrative is pared down and freely adapted, with adventurous casting. It is set not in Roman-era Egypt, but a more modern time – the nightlife world of Club Isis. Gabel’s songs include (prerecorded) vocals, combining with power-pop and dance music for a feel reminiscent of “Movin’ Out,” with the song lyrics and movement weaving the plot to good effect.

The two men in the company, Adrian Dominguez and Thomas Mason, are the title characters respectively. Not just supporting characters (in both the role and lifting-the-women sense), this is quite a showcase for their talents, especially in a beautifully sensuous pas de deux.

Also incredible are Abigail Lessaris as Antony’s spurned wife Octavia, and Zoe Maish as Lamprius the Soothsayer, agent of Fate. As usual, there are first-rate performances from the whole company, including “G2”.

Even (especially?) with its toying with setting and gender, Hancock’s production is still a compelling fascinating story of forbidden desire and love, rash actions and tragic consequences. It may not be what actually took place in Roman Alexandria, but note the Bard wasn’t a historian, either.

The next performance of “Antony and Cleopatra”… is when Mr. Hancock and company feel like doing it.

To open the 2022-23 season, GHDT celebrates a quarter century of dance with the “25th Season Celebration,” Aug. 26-27 at The Tarkington in the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel. According to the press release, Hancock “link(s) together theatrical tales from throughout GHDT’s rich 25-year history and will tell the collective story through moving, poignant and memorable theater, thrilling movement, and beautiful music.” Sounds like fun.

This year’s remaining performances also have an air of the familiar. October 28-29, Hancock’s “There’s No Place Like Home” returns. This wonderful production, inspired by “The Wizard of Oz,” is based on young Hancock’s journey of discovery as the Boy from Kansas in a strange land, with dance drenched in the magic and culture of India. Performances will again be at the Tarkington; see our prior review for more info.

This is followed on December 2-3 with the holiday classic, “The Nutcracker.” Everyone has their Christmas traditions; if this is yours, get your seats at the Pike Performing Arts Center (6701 Zionsville Road, Indianapolis).

Celebrating the new this season is “New World Dances” on weekends of February 11-26, 2023, featuring work that Hancock created during the recent pandemic, presented at The Florence, GHDT’s new black box performance space, 329 Gradle Drive, Carmel.

This anniversary “season of reflection” also includes “Illumination,” April 7-8, with a spiritual theme, and “Director’s Choice,” June 9-10, which Hancock (naturally) picks, both at The Tarkington in Carmel.

For the information and tickets, see gregoryhancockdancetheatre.org.

GHDT: Ancient yet familiar story of power, plague, and redemption

By John Lyle Belden

I am the most casual fan of dance programs there is. I appreciate it in a general sense, but have not studied or participated intensively. Still, I continue to be amazed and delighted by the visual storytelling skills of Gregory Glade Hancock.

On April 7-9, a week before Passover, Gregory Hancock Dance Theatre presented its “Exodus,” a modern story in movement inspired by the ancient story of Moses. It premiered in 2019, with plans to perform again the next year, but our modern plagues pushed the date back to this month.

The themes include freedom from oppression, as well as sacrificial love. In consideration of this, as well as Hancock dedicating this – like much of his work – to the memory of his mother, he chose to have the central figure, the Chosen One, performed by a woman. Entrusted with this role is Olivia Payton, full of passion and sacred sense of duty. In place of the Biblical Pharoah, we have The Prosecutor; Thomas Mason struts the stage, projecting authority while at times struggling with it.

Other individual roles, as well as the Slaves and Plagues, are performed by Abigail Lessaris, Hannah Brown, Chloe Holzman, Zoe Maish, Josie Moody, Audrey Springer, and Rebecca Zigmond.

The Persecutor’s army of Oppressors are danced by Ellen Burks, Grace Burks, Taylor Colter, Adrian Dominguez, Zoe Hacker, Allie Hanning, Kloie Hargrove, Audrey Holloway, Molly Kinkade, Moriah Knuth, Kallie Leib, Grace Mazurek, Evangeline Meadows, Rachel Morrow, Leah Pitman, Maria Porter, Sophia Rice, Hillary Riley, Alexia Rumrill, Rachel VonDommelen, and Elissa Weisz.

The Chosen as a young prince was Leighton Metcalfe; other children were Fiadh Flynn, Poppy Lomax, Vincent Kitchen, Violet Kitchen, Elli Thacker, and Megan Webb.

Aside from the Academy of GHDT, the company included dancers from Anderson University; The Conservatory of Dance, Granger, Ind.; and Ballet Arts of Peru, Ind.

Choreography and Costumes were by Hancock, who also credits much of the look and feel to the show to Ryan Koharchik’s lighting and set design. Dance styles vary from boldly modern to living animations of hieroglyphics, exciting and always clear in their intent.

We are presented with the plight of the oppressed from the opening moments, confined by a curtain of chain-link fence. As slave children are rounded up, a desperate Mother (Lessaris) leaves her infant in a basket for the Persecutor’s Daughter (Brown) to find. In time this Child grows (Metcalfe, Payton), knowing privilege but feeling for those in shackles. A moment of compassion leads to violence, and exile. The Chosen encounters a sacred Burning Bush (an expertly flowing grouping of about a dozen dancers, pulsing with life like a landbound sea anemone) and she understands what she must do.

The Persecutor has no interest in freeing the Slaves. He is surrounded by an army, members uniformly unisex and masked, a familiar emblem on their hoodies showing they have the “power.”

The oppressed now appear as pale avenging angels, bringing forth plagues that speak to us in the audience: Desecration (pollution) of the Earth, Gun Violence, Racism, War, Poverty, Crime, Social Media (apathy), uncaring Government, and Selfishness. To drive the point home, like in the source book, finally the First Born are struck down.

In Act Two, we get parting of the Red Sea, the giving of Commandments, and the people’s disobedience. We also get a joyous reunion, saddened by the story coming full circle. As in the scriptural Exodus, we conclude with our formerly oppressed people in the wilderness, but bold and ready for whatever comes next.

The overall program is thrilling, stunning, and inspiring – the effective telling of an epic story without a single word. Let this be an encouragement to see whatever you can attend by GHDT (next up is an adaptation of “Antony and Cleopatra” in June) and insistence to experience “Exodus” the next time it is revived.

Performances are in downtown Carmel, get information and tickets at GregoryHancockDanceTheatre.org.

Enduring mystery subject of GHDT program

By John Lyle Belden

Gregory Glade Hancock excels at telling stories through dance, such as the unusual and fascinating case of “The Black Dahlia,” presented by Gregory Hancock Dance Theatre through Feb. 27. 

Though many facts and theories have surfaced over the decades, the brutal 1947 murder of aspiring actress Elizabeth Short in Hollywood remains unsolved. Hancock presents, in routines set to the music of the era, four possible scenarios, each with its own suspect.

To make the story clear, aiding the Film Noir atmosphere, dancers speak to introduce each act. We initially meet the Dahlia herself, Hannah Brown as Short. Next, we hear from the suspects: 

  • the Sister (Abigail Lessaris), whose work with and against Brown (to the song “Sisters”) creates much of the humor; 
  • the Reporter (Adrian Dominguez), which also features Zoe Maish as a jilted and jealous girlfriend (“Blues in the Night”); 
  • the Showgirl (Olivia Payton), in a set pulsing with Latin rhythms; and 
  • the Doctor (Thomas Mason), introduced by Chloe Holzman, one of the nurses (with Camden Lancaster) paid “Pennies from Heaven” to look the other way and clean up the mess. 

We also witness the graceful talents of Josie Moody, Zoe Hacker, Allie Hanning, Audrey Holloway, Audrey Springer, and Rebecca Zigmond.

The dancers participated in the creation of the show, with spoken words by Christine Thacker, and choreography and spot-on costuming by Hancock.

Who do you think committed the murder? As part of an ongoing capital campaign for improvements to the dance studio and performance space, audience members can vote for suspects with their dollars at boxes in the lobby.

This entertaining and easy to follow ballet noir has sold out all its initially scheduled dates through Feb. 27 at The Academy of GHDT, 329 Gradle Drive, Carmel. Contact GregoryHancockDanceTheatre.org or follow on Facebook for information and tickets for added performances.

Oz-inspired production a celebration of India

By Wendy Carson

With Gregory Hancock Dance Theatre’s “There’s No Place Like Home,” founder Gregory Glade Hancock has brought us his most personal show to date. He spins the tale of The Boy from Kansas (performed by Thomas Mason) and his journey of grief and self-discovery that leads him back to the inevitable conclusion that all you ever need is right in your own back yard. However, rather than traveling to Oz, he is transported to the even more magical land of India.

The show begins with the Boy visiting his mother’s grave. His sadness and loss is beautifully depicted and left tears in my eyes at its conclusion. He is then swept up in a tornado of grief that eventually lands him in this exotic place where Mother India herself (Abigail Lessaris) welcomes him. He is also treated to welcoming dances from various groups throughout the land.

He is encouraged to “Follow the Golden Path” Where he meets three deities (all played by Abigail Lessaris) who bestow upon him the gifts of Wisdom (like the Scarecrow’s brains); Compassion (the Tin Man’s heart); plus Strength and Courage (the Cowardly Lion’s nerve).

The journey is not without hazards, though. his Antagonist (Adrian Dominguez) portrays the Grief, Fear, Doubt and Cancer that he literally struggles with throughout his time here.

Even with this ever-present danger lurking, he still delights in all of the beauty and pageantry that India has to offer. Amongst the highlights of these experiences are his participation in Holi (the celebration of colors); a Bollywood film; performances from Kathak Dancers and Bhangra Dancers; as well as a ritual cleansing in the Ganges.

There is honestly no way for me to begin to describe the sheer beauty, emotion and celebration of this show. It made me laugh with delight and cry with sorrow but mostly it moved me to experience more of the history and culture of India, especially the wide variety of dance therein.

John adds: This was a truly wondrous performance; I left wanting to see it all again. Hancock, who has repeatedly traveled to India (inspiring this show), took great pains to capture the authentic spirit of the subcontinent. He collaborated with India-born artist Madhuchhanda Mandal to create a beautiful mural that was made into the stage backdrop, GHDT board member Anindita Sen to bring in dancers from the Nrityangan Kathak Academy, and Yusuf Khurram of Jiapur, India, to arrange rare genuine Kalbeliya costumes.

The dancers were outstanding throughout, especially Mason, and the graceful Lessaris who dances as naturally as others breathe. Also notable are Camden Lancaster and Dominguez in their portrayal of Krishna and Radha.

Performaces, at the Center for the Performing Arts in Carmel, were Oct. 28-30, but bookmark this review! Hancock will hopefully bring this marvel back in a future season. For upcoming GHDT events, including December’s “Nutcracker,” see gregoryhancockdancetheatre.org.

Gregory Hancock gives fairy tales a fun twist

By John Lyle Belden

An issue I sometimes have with dance is that I find it hard to follow exactly what is going on, what the dancers are trying to portray — there is no such problem with “Once Upon a Time,” by Gregory Hancock Dance Theatre.

The subject matter is as familiar as childhood — popular fairy tales. But Gregory Glade Hancock and his dancers have put their own spin (and leap, and…) on the stories to freshen the narrative. Like in the musical “Into the Woods,” they all seem to occupy the same fanciful space, including an Enchanted Forest, in which the dancers got to work their own choreography.

Red Riding Hood (Hannah Brown) starts the stories by making her delivery. It seems Grandma appreciates the goodies so much, she just wants to dance with Red, though she does look suspiciously furry. As it turns out, the Wolf (Olivia Payton) while big, isn’t so bad — despite harassing pigs — and mostly just wants to get belly-rubs from the Princesses. 

Narcoleptic Beauty (Chloe Holzman) — turns out it wasn’t just a cursed spinning-wheel — turns in the show’s best performance, especially when constantly dancing in and out of consciousness with the Handsome Prince (Thomas Mason). She puts in moments of gracefully collapsing throughout the show, to great comic effect. As for his Highness, being the only man in the company, he has to be everybody’s Prince, which does result in a chase scene or two. But the one he loves is himself, exemplified with his solo number with a hand-mirror — what a “selfie” was 500 years ago.

In other stories coming to life: 

  • Cinderella (Camden Lancaster) sweeps through, dreaming of future happiness, but the glass that is most important to her is in the spectacles on her face, not the shoes on her feet. The Fairy Godmother (Hannah Winkler) gives her frames worthy of Elton John. But Cindy’s desire to look good is greater than her myopia, with appropriately funny results.
  • Little Bo Peep (Josie Moody) has given up on sheep and herds the Three Little Pigs (Payton*, Winkler, and Jillian Hogan). 

(*Not only ironic — playing Pig and Wolf — but I could have sworn all three Pigs were with the Wolf when he huffed and puffed them. Talk about talent.)

  • Rapunzel (Zoe Maish) has the strongest weave in the kingdom, which others can’t resist messing with. 
  • Snow White (Anna Williamson) shakes off the apple’s effect and, with the Prince otherwise occupied, looks for love elsewhere. Seven young students don cap and beard as the Seven Dwarves (Annabelle Breeden, Ashton Curry, Violet Kitchen, Vincent Kitchen, Josephine Meadows, Isabella Webb, and Elli Thacker) — one of which also opens the show by playing the Boy in pajamas with the storybook of these twisted tales.
  • Pinocchio (Morgan Beane) is the Trickster character of the show. Having not learned his lessons yet, he gets his long nose into all manner of mischief throughout the evening.
  • As for the Witch (Abigail Lessaris), the apple isn’t the only curse that’s failing. Her powers have fizzled, and she dances desperately to rekindle them — but be careful what you wish for.

We are also enchanted by some fairies (Zoe Hacker, Alyssa Henderson, Evangeline Meadows, Megan Webb). The supporting cast (who also act as ushers) include Stephanie Blaufuss, Allie Hanning, Audrey Holloway, Molly Kinkade, Stella Kitchen, Sophia Rice, Taylor Smith, Audrey Springer, Ava Thomas, and Rebecca Zigmond. 

This is the Hancock company’s annual cabaret fundraiser, fitting nicely into the big black-box studio of the Academy of GHDT (329 Gradle Drive, Carmel, near the Center for the Performing Arts). The students don’t pressure you too much to give, though there is a clever “grow Rapunzel’s hair” board to track giving. There is also a free treat at every seat.

The talent and athleticism are amazing to watch, with graceful and easy-to-follow storytelling through movement. This show gives a chuckle to all ages, is an easy inspiration to youth — and reminds the casual viewer that there is more to dance than “The Nutcracker.”

It’s also very popular. The final performances Saturday and Sunday are sold out, but Friday, Feb. 21, has been added. Get tickets at ghdtonceuponatime.eventbrite.com. Get company information at www.gregoryhancockdancetheatre.org.

 

Phoenix hosts stunning tribute to artist’s life, GHDT’s ‘La Casa Azul’

By John Lyle Belden

“La Casa Azul” translates to “The Blue House,” the place where Mexican artist Frida Kahlo’s life both began and ended, the place she always called home, no matter where her celebrated and tragic life took her.

“La Casa Azul: The Musical” is a newly-revised production by Gregory Hancock Dance Theatre playing at the Phoenix Theatre in downtown Indianapolis. It combines dance and sung-through drama, much like a cross between a ballet and an opera with Latin-flavored music. The actors all embody various individuals and chorus parts, with the exceptions of Valerie Nuccio as Kahlo and JL Rey as her husband, muralist Diego Rivera – who vividly resemble their real-life counterparts – and Abigail Lessaris as La Muerte, the beautiful dancing embodiment of Death.

The whole these parts combine to is an exceptional theatrical experience: stunning, sad, humorous, thought-provoking and inspiring.

Nuccio holds our focus throughout, the hero of the story, winning our hearts despite no effort made to make us love her. Kahlo was brash and outspoken, an unapologetic Communist who hated America and its citizens’ condescending attitudes; still, above all she was a proud woman devoted to her homeland. But the stage also belongs to Lessaris, as Death is ever present. Never speaking a word, her movement and constant attendance speak volumes. At times, Kahlo can even sense her dancing near, occasionally even helping her to her feet to live another day – La Muerte is patient.

The ensemble includes Alyssa Lopez as Kahlo’s sister Christina; Johnathon Contreras as the boyfriend who was with her in a near-fatal accident; Bill Book as her father, who encouraged her to paint during her recovery; Onis Dean as various doctors who rarely give good news; and Dick Davis as Henry Ford (who Kahlo despised) and exiled Leon Trotsky (with whom she had an affair). Jessica Crum Hawkins, who played Kahlo in the 2015 premiere of “La Casa Azul,” portrays Trotsky’s wife.

Gregory Glade Hancock not only provided the choreography, but also the costume design, music and lyrics – with Kate Ayers. The songs flow as easily as the dancing, easing us through the plot. For clarity, a full synopsis is printed in the program. Stage direction is by Mexican artist Georgina Escobar.

The costumes are a vibrant tribute to Mexico and its culture, as well as the dapper decadence of New York in one scene. The set is adorned with a fractured portrait of Kahlo, a reminder of her many facets which only come together when we see her life completed.

For anyone with an interest in Frida Kahlo and her art, seeing this is almost a duty. Performances run through July 28 on the Russell main stage of the Phoenix, 705 N. Illinois St. See LaCasaAzulTheMusical.com for information and tickets.