August 2, 2008

Dance Program at Firestone Park Gets Enthusiastic Reception

By Elaine Guregian, The Akron Beacon Journal, Ohio

Aug. 2--A big crowd gathered at Akron's Firestone Park Friday night, and not only to see the Ballet Theatre of Ohio in the Heinz Poll Summer Dance Festival. The word must be out that the company's artistic director, Christine Meneer, has a talent for working with children. What looked like about 100 kids from the audience gathered onstage for Meneer's free preconcert event.

Meneer dressed the kids in red, white or blue T-shirts emblazoned with her company's name. Children received pompoms, too. Then Meneer got them moving, calling out directions for them to march in place, shake pompoms or bow to a cheering, clapping audience of family, friends and others.

"Who can kick their legs high?" Meneer would challenge the kids, responding their excited efforts with, "They love you!"

Ballet Theatre of Ohio was scheduled for two nights at Firestone Park, performing during the third weekend of the four-weekend festival. Akron sponsors the festival, which brings free performances to city parks.

Ballet Theatre of Ohio grew out of Meneer's preprofessional Children's Ballet Theatre, which has a large, loyal following for its annual Nutcracker at the Civic Theatre. Fourteen dancers performed on Friday, including several recent college graduates and three former Ohio Ballet dancers, as well as younger performers.

The company isn't at the professional level of Company C or Verb Ballets, which performed previous festival shows, but some good training was evident, and the briskly moving program engaged an enthusiastic audience.

The program had a little of everything. A classical pas de deux from Petipa's Don Quixote was danced by Eric Carvill and a sparkling Meghan Dietz, whose whipping turns (fouettes) thrilled the crowd. As a dancer who started out young with the Ohio Ballet (defunct since August 2006), Carvill always has been careful about his presentation. He has grown in his technique, which is quite polished, and he was an attentive, attractive partner to Dietz. I hope he will start allowing more personality to show.

The eagerness of personalities still forming was apparent throughout Friday's performance. The dancers worked hard to meet the technical demands, and the audience supported their good efforts.

Guest dancer Damien Highfield looked terrific in Carvill's recent I Had the Same Dream. . .set to music of Papdosio. A section where Highfield, alone, writhed as if shocks were passing through his body, was a wrong turn in the choreography, but elsewhere, the loose, relaxed vibe between Highfield and the three women in the piece (Andrea Blankstein, Megan Coleman and Katie Edmonds, all on pointe) was fun to watch.

Meneer's own red-costumed Rosso, an exuberant setting of selections from Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet score, set aside the tragic aspect of the story in favor of sweeping momentum.

Crowd-pleasing cheer came with the final piece, Richard Earley's Swingity, set to music of Count Basie and Benny Goodman. It follows in the general mood of Eight by Benny Goodman, which the late Heinz Poll created for his Ohio Ballet, though Earley's work is not as distinctive. Whether jitterbugging in polka-dot dresses and white socks or cutting the rug in a variety of other '40s-inspired costumes by Meneer, the dancers had the enthusiasm of teenagers in a dance marathon, happy to "Sing, Sing, Sing" all night.


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