For GroundWorks DanceTheater’s latest collaboration with the Akron Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director David Shimotakahara has dug into choreographing the mighty work Carmina burana.

The large-scale 1935-36 work, which celebrates fate and chance, will receive a rare, fully staged performance Saturday at E.J. Thomas Hall at the University of Akron, featuring nearly 200 musicians and dancers. They will include 24 adult and student dancers, the orchestra, Akron Symphony Chorus, Cleveland Orchestra Children’s Chorus and three vocal soloists.

German composer Carl Orff, who developed a dramatic concept called Theatrum Mundi in which music, movement and speech were inseparable, always intended Carmina burana to be fully staged with choreography and visual design. Even so, the work is most frequently heard as a cantata in concert halls (and its portentious O Fortuna in uncountable movies, ads and at sporting events).

The ASO production, which will also include sophisticated lighting and a projected set, gives Shimotakahara the opportunity to work with a blank slate. He has created dance to 25 movements of Carmina burana with his five company members, three guest dancers and 16 students from Ballet Excel Ohio and the Dance Institute.

“For dance, it’s a really well-known entity. But you don’t get many opportunities to do it or see it because it is such a big deal to put it on with orchestra and it’s big,” Shimotakahara said of Carmina burana. “I’m really excited for this opportunity.”

He remembers seeing Les Grands Ballets Canadien performing parts of the work when he was growing up in Montreal. There are many dance iterations of Carmina burana out there, but most companies perform the work to recorded music.

“We only get one performance at E.J.,” Shimotakahara said. “It’s really an event — a very beautiful one. I hope that the Akron community will just show up for it and really support [it] because it’s not going to happen again for a long time, probably.’’

His goal was to create a unique and fresh interpretation of the work’s themes of life, fate, death, love, happiness and fortune. The work opens and closes with the Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi chorus, which represents the terrible revolution of the Wheel of Fate. The same wheel that brings life’s joys and sensual pleasures also brings dishonor and mortality in Carmina burana, which was inspired by 24 medieval poems discovered in 1803 in the Bavarian Alps.

“It’s kind of a representation of life,” Shimotakahara said. “It passes us by in this amazing sort of panorama of life experience.”

Unavoidably, his choreography — a crossover between modern dance and ballet — reflects the circular nature of the Wheel of Fortune, a symbol of chance, fate and change. Shimotakahara’s challenge is to explore how we deal with the inevitability of change throughout life.

“I think that’s the crux of Carmina burana — it’s a statement about that,” said Shimotakahara, with soprano soloist Grace Kahl representing Fortune and baritone Brian Keith Johnson representing the everyday man who must go through the journey of fate and find hope again.

Rhythmic energy

Carmina burana is known for its primeval rhythmic energy, and that propulsive movement was going full force at a rehearsal Shimotakahara ran with the student dancers April 23.

Thirteen of the students were rehearsing in long, black reversible skirts with a dramatic red inside, costume pieces they will wear at both the beginning and the end. The skirts, designed by Janet Bolick and reminiscent of her costumes for Ohio Ballet’s Bolero, were being used as a creative prop.

The dancers held their skirts as they whipped through turns, ran, leapt, kneeled and executed head rolls in a series of dramatic circular patterns at a rehearsal April 23 at UA’s Guzzetta Hall. They rehearsed the well-known choral section Fortune plango vulnera, which includes the words “I lament the wounds that fortune deals.”

Logistical choices were just as important as artistic ones for this production: The orchestra will be upstage for the production, with the singers on scaffolding above the orchestra and the dancers performing downstage.

The dancers perform in more than 20 of the work’s 25 movements, with student dancers in half of them. Shimotakahara has integrated the students with the professional dancers but also features them in movements devoted just to them.

Movements featuring professional dancers will include In Taberna, a section representing the corporeal world that contains a hearty drinking song. The professionals also will use ropes that hang from the ceiling in this section in ways that allow them to work against gravity.

In another sensual section of In Taberna, Olim lacus colueram, GroundWorks’ Michael Marquez performs a solo representing the suffering of a roasted swan.

“He was this wild thing that is trapped. He’s bound, literally bound,” Shimotakahara said. “And he keeps trying to physically ascend and he keeps falling back to earth, so to speak, as a kind of metaphor for our disappointment” in life.

Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or Like her on Facebook at or follow her on Twitter @KerryClawsonABJ.