The first image that comes to mind for David Shimotakahara's dance "Sud Buster's Dream" is a small proscenium stage on a larger dance stage, dominated by a red curtain that dancers pop in and out of.
The quirky dance, which GroundWorks DanceTheater performed for its Akron premiere at the Heinz Poll Summer Dance Festival last weekend at Goodyear Heights Metro Park, is rooted in the zany world of the American side show.
The piece, set to early American jazz songs from the 1920s, was a mostly frolicsome blend of vaudeville and even circus styles. The troupe of five made sideshow characters come to life, including Spencer Dennis as an emcee in black-and-white, bold-striped pants and Nicole Hennington as a sort of strong girl, with her arms and legs covered in tattoos.
Jazz lover Shimotakahara has given us numerous works set to great jazz tunes over the years at the Akron festival, including old-time Delta blues music in "Boom, Boom" in 2009, a tribute to jazz great Dave Brubeck, called "Brubeck," in 2012 and "Chromatic," set to the music of jazz musician Conlon Nancarrow, reprised in 2017. His newest jazz-inspired dance featured music ranging from Fats Waller to Scott Joplin, and the sound had the cool timbre of old record recordings. The dance's title, "Sud Buster's Dream" comes from 1920s Chicago band leader Tiny Parham's work by the same name.
This fun-loving work includes women shadow dancing behind a white sheet as Michael Arellano does a contorted dance with his arms behind him, as if struggling to get out of an unusual, invisible straitjacket. Shimotakahara offers plenty of surprises throughout the dance, including Annie Morgan moving like she's fighting with her own arms, set to kazoo music in the tune "I've Got My Fingers Crossed."
In other moments, Dennis and Arellano walk on their hands, or dancers do a wacky straight-legged and -armed walk in tandem. At one point, Nicole Hennington, who may represent a clown, gives Arellano the crook to haul him off stage.
GroundWorks' performance also included the Akron premiere of Robyn Mineko Williams' "We Three." The work, which GroundWorks commissioned, focuses dancers on and around two wood chairs that face each other. The men wear sports coats and shorts, like some old-world school uniform, and the women are in solid-colored, cap-sleeve dresses that extend below the knee.
Chicago choreographer Mineko Williams has the five dancers interacting in numerous combinations, including a section where male dancers Dennis and Arellano get aggressive with each other in close partnering using a chair. In another moment, Morgan, who is in a partial straddle, is rocked back and forth by Dennis.
Rounding out GroundWorks' diverse program was "Valence" by former member Amy Miller, set to music composed by Peter Swendsen of Oberlin. The work, premiered at the Akron Icehouse in 2009, portrays all five highly interconnected dancers in a series of quick actions and reactions.
Swendsen's soundscape, with the sounds of subway noises and traffic, also features reverberating chimes recorded with a microphone inside a mixing bowl. Dennis Dugan's beautifully dark lighting captured the five dancers converging into a near-straight line perpendicular to the audience at the end, with each dancer wavering slightly from side to side.
Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her at @KerryClawsonABJ or www.facebook.com/kclawsonabj.