"Guess Who's Coming To Dinner" Choreographed by: Ray Mercer
Dance performances in various outdoor venues during the summer months in Akron go back 42 years to when choreographer Heinz Poll took dancers from his professional dance company, the Ohio Ballet, and put on a free dance show in a plaza in downtown Akron.
Jane Startzman, who is festival director of the Heinz Poll Summer Dance Festival, remembers the event well. She danced in that very first performance. During a lunch interview with her, Startzman reminisced a bit about the development of summer dance in the city.
For that very first show, Startzman said that the ballet company borrowed wood through one of the crew members whose family owned a lumber yard. The dancers and crew built the stage, gave their performance, then tore the stage apart and returned the lumber.
Things changed quickly after that. David Lieberth, former deputy mayor of Akron, commented in a telephone interview that the city jumped in for the second year to help fund the summer performances by Ohio Ballet. Under city sponsorship, Startzman said, the ballet started performing in several parks around town. It even performed in nearby cities.
With the demise of the Ohio Ballet nine years ago, Jane Startzman and other dance leaders in the city got together and figured a way to continue the tradition with the help of the City of Akron. Their efforts produced the Heinz Poll Summer Dance Festival, now in its ninth year. The festival is sponsored in part, said David Lieberth, through a Knight Arts grant.
When her group first started the summer dance festival, Startzman commented, they decided to support local professional dance companies in order to help generate audiences for the remainder of the year. The first year included four local companies in performances.
Subsequently, Startzman said, they decided to have “outside” companies perform. The idea was to expose local audiences to dance groups from other areas of the country that they might not otherwise get a chance to see. One example is from a few years ago when the distinguished New York City-based Martha Graham Dance Company performed as part of the festival.
Startzman commented that local companies like to bring new work to the festival. This year, for example, Neos Dance Theatre and GroundWorks DanceTheater will both be bringing new works. Neos will perform two company premieres (Hernando Cortez’s “Chichester Psalms” and Neos Artistic Director Bobby Wesner’s “Searching for the Find”). It will also present a world premiere of a currently untitled work by Joseph Morrissey. Finally, it will perform a recent work that the company has done by Penny Saunders called “Berceuse.” Neos Dance Theatre is a recent Knight Arts grantee and will kick off the festival with performances on July 24-25 in Firestone Park.
Neos Dance Theatre. Photo courtesy of Neos Dance Theatre
GroundWorks DanceTheater, who has also received prior Knight Arts grants, will present an untitled work by choreographer Eric Handman. His piece will be seen for the first time by Akron audiences during performances July 31-August 1 in Glendale Cemetery. Additionally, GroundWorks DanceTheater will present artistic director David Shimotakahara’s “Boom Boom” (a work that is a lively celebration of blues music) and a dark comedy work by choreographer Rosie Hererra (a Knight Arts grantee from the Miami area) called “House Broken.”
GroundWorks DanceTheater. Photo courtesy of GroundWorks DanceTheater
Startzman said that Cleveland-based Verb Ballets (a group that is back after a two-year hiatus and will be performing August 7-8 in Hardesty Park in west Akron), will be bringing all new works. She commented that the pieces don’t even have names yet (for they, however many they may be, are in development). “We have to call them Dance #1 and Dance #2,” she jokingly added.
Verb Ballets. Photo via cptonline.org
It’s nice when a company creates new pieces to be seen by local audiences. It’s a good venue to test new works to see how audiences respond.
The non-local company for this year’s festival is the Philadelphia Dance Company, usually and most familiarly called PHILADANCO. Startzman said that, when seeking out a troupe from elsewhere in the country, she looks for groups that have a solid dance performance history and that have an artistic director who has received dance awards. Startzman sometimes also likes to look for companies that can bring different cultural experiences to the Akron area, as Ballet Hispanico did one year. This time she hoped to find an African American company. After discussions with both Alvin Ailey II and PHILADANCO, she chose PHILADANCO.
When discussing issues with outside companies, Startzman commented that there are several considerations. Some companies simply aren’t used to outdoor performances in a dance shell. Some, quite frankly, won’t perform if the temperature dips below a certain level or there is a chance of rain. As Startzman commented, “It is Ohio after all,” so the weather is very much a factor. Companies also must be willing to do some sort of outreach.
PHILADANCO. Photo via philadanco.org
PHILADANCO fit the bill on every count. The company has been around since 1970 and has appeared throughout the country and internationally. Artistic Director Joan Myers Brown, among other awards, in 2013 received the National Medal of Arts from President Barack Obama. The company’s aim, according to promotional material, is to build bridges across cultural divides. Further, to fulfill its commitment to empowering youth, PHILADANCO hosts many residency activities with schools and in various communities.
PHILADANCO is scheduled to perform two works: “Latched” by choreographer Christopher Huggins and Ray Mercer’s “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” “Latched” is reportedly about “latching onto another body, soul and spirit,” sometimes even when trying to get away from the other person. “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” uses a table as both prop and metaphor to get at a multitude of ideas – from dinnertime whispering about another person, through coveting someone’s possessions, and on to notions of tabling secrets and desires. For a look at the piece, see the YouTube version at top.
PHILADANCO will perform Friday-Saturday, August 14-15 as the final company in the dance festival in Goodyear Heights Metro Park.
For this year’s festival, the companies will each provide a master class on the Saturday of their weekend performances from 11 a.m.-12:30 p.m. in the Center for Dance and Theatre at The University of Akron. Advanced registration is required by contacting Startzman at [email protected]. Each class is limited to 30 students.
Aside from the master classes provided by each company, the Heinz Poll Summer Dance Festival also includes an interactive children’s program on stage at 7:45 p.m. before performances at 8:45 p.m. The program is led by the University of Akron Dance Institute.
The Heinz Poll Summer Dance Festival averages more than 10,000 audience members over the month of the festival, according to Startzman. Attendees come from a six-county area to see free performances by top quality professional dance companies. The festival is a great gift to the community.
The Heinz Poll Summer Dance Festival will kick off on July 24th and extend through August 15th. All performances are Friday and Saturday nights at 8:45 p.m. For more information, call 330-535-3179 or visit www.akrondancefestival.org. Admission is free.