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Verb Ballets at Breen–a fusion of Asian and Western choreography

Roy Berko

(Member, Dance Critics Association)

Cleveland has no professional ballet company, but there is an abundance of local modern and contemporary dance troupes.   One of these, Verb Ballets, which recently announced that it was becoming the resident dance company at the Breen Center on the campus of St. Ignatius High School, presented EXPLORE DISCOVER, an evening of original works, to an appreciative sold out house.

EXPLORE DISCOVER featured the creations of Taiwanese choreographer Chung-Fu Chang.  Chang, who performed with the Cloudgate Dance Theatre and Kaohsiung Contemporary Dance Company in his native land, was in residence with Verb this winter to work on his new company piece, as well as refine a piece he previously developed for Verb.

Last year, Chang choreographed THE LILY.  His latest work, BORROWING WINDS, is a fusion of Asian and Western concepts, centering on the wind.  He believes the breeze has “dynamics, path, speed, shape, and ultimately emotion,” which can come alive on stage through conceived choreography.   He views the stage, “as a canvas, a space to explore.”

Deeply immersed in a rich Taiwanese-Chinese cultural heritage, which “is poetic, ritualistic, theatrical and profoundly spiritual,” Chang is motivated to broaden his creative horizons by directly connecting his culture with Western dance traditions.

Watching Chang during a company rehearsal, it became obvious that he is well disciplined and expects the same from his dancers.  He does not believe in creating dances through the collaborative process, but, instead, pre-choreographs the numbers and then teaches the movements to the company.   It was obvious that he creates word pictures through body angles, hand movements, and structural placements.

During the rehearsal, the dancers were relaxed, yet very involved.  They were aware that the dance language Chang was using was different from that of  Western choreographers.  To proficiently perform  required building a relationship with Chang based on respect and trust.

Chang continually checked in with the performers, asking “okay” after he gave directions and made adjustments.  He seemed constantly aware that he needed to adapt the movements to the company as the dancers’ bodies were not necessarily trained to bend, pose, and move in the ways of his choreographic language.

It was obvious that the Asian tradition of “face” was in force.  The choreographer never yelled, bawled out, or castigated a dancer, but used courtesy in order for neither to lose respect.  The session ended with the company bowing to the choreographer.  He responded in kind.

Chang’s solo performance, PHEASANT’S WAITING, was a world premiere.  He indicated that it was a self-exploration for him as a dancer/choreographer.  As he indicated during an interview, he “can no longer move like he did as a twenty-year old and, therefore, had to start a new procedure, filled with self insecurities, thus slowing down the developmental process.”  Besides the dance, Chang, who is a noted artist, also designed the set, which consisted of slides of his contemporary paintings, and his costume.

PHEASANT’S WAITING is inspired by one of the poems from Shijing (The Classic of Poetry), one of the great literary works of ancient China, which is a collection of 305 poems and songs dating from the 10th to the 7th century.  Using feathers as appendages, Chang flowed with controlled movements to “reveal secrets, gain identity and find one’s own language.”

Next on the program was FOUR LAST SONGS, a ballet about loss and longing, also in its world premiere.  Choreographed by Richard Dickinson, to the music of Richard Strauss, the well received piece, with creative lighting designed by Trad Burns, was inspired by Herman Hesse and Joseph von Eichendorff’s soul-searching poetry.  The angst-filled dancers’ movements effectively conveyed Strauss’s haunting melodies.  A highlight was a Stephanie Krise and Brian Murphy duet in At Dusk.

THE LILY, using classic choreography, is based on a legend of Baleng of the Rukai Tribe, one of the native tribes of Taiwan, and set to music by David Darling and traditional music of the Rukai and Paiwan Tribes.  The well danced number was filled with traditional customs and rituals.  The dancers each performed with a lily held in their mouth.  Historically, the lily is noted as a sumbol of remembrance.

The program concluded with BORROWING WINDS.  Chang developed the choreography of the three segments, Cave Of The Winds, Kite, and Pleating Water, by selecting the music of Ondsekoza, a Japanese tiger drum group, and building images based on their sounds.

The piece probes into the dichotomy of the wind to be both an immense destructive power but also has the gentleness to calm one’s soul.  Using of flowing fabrics, weightless actions, and martial arts’ influenced movements, the dancers effectively changed moods, and created an investigation of the ever altering powers of the wind.  Visual illusions of the after effect of the wind, the confronting of the natural phenomena, the taking on of the various forms of and the ever presence of wind, are all represented.

Chang indicated that the inspiration for BORROWING WINDS came from his 2011 visit to Cleveland when he become aware of how windy it is here.

Besides Krise and Murray, the evening’s highlight performances were presented by Kara Madden, Leslie J. Miller, and Ryan DeAlexandro.

Capsule judgement: EXPLORE DISCOVER, Verb Ballet’s Winter, 2013 series, was highlighted by the exciting works of Chung-Fu Chang and Richard Dickinson.  It was a wonderful illumination of western and eastern modern and balletic dance.

For information about Verb Ballets go to: or call 216-397-3757.