Neos Dance Theatre plans premiere of new work on May 16

By Kerry Clawson
Beacon Journal staff writer

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Cindy Wulff

Neos Dance Theatre is charging ahead with putting its $25,000 grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation to good use, beginning with commissioning a new dance for the Mansfield-based company by Penny Saunders, a former dancer and choreographer at Hubbard Street Dance Chicago.

Saunders, who is in a two-week residency at the University of Akron creating the new dance, is working with 11 Neos dancers as well as UA and Dance Institute dance students, who will be performing in the new work. Saunders will return as an artist in residence to UA in May to teach student classes and continue to put the pieces of the puzzle together for the new dance before its May 16 premiere at the University of Akron Paul A. Daum Theater.

A free sneak peek of the work in progress was performed on Thursday at UA.

Saunders is working on the dance in sections, then layering onto her work for a contemporary dance that includes some aspects of contemporary ballet and some sections of pointe work.

Saunders, who previously danced with Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet, Momix and Ballet Arizona, has done both classical and contemporary work. Neos Artistic Director Wesner and his wife, Brooke, danced with her early in their careers with Ballet Arizona.

“The work I’m seeing her develop on us is a really interesting blend of those different worlds,” Wesner said. “It’s almost in rough draft form. The dancers probably can’t really see what’s in her [Saunders’] head yet.”

He said the work will be a theatrical piece that will include once sections including students onstage with about 17 bodies, with different people moving fast and slow at the same time.

Saunders, in Akron with her 10-month-old son, Elias, said she has been staying awake nights working out how her various sketches will fit together for an overall picture.

“I’ve been playing with migration patterns,” she said of her theme. “Basically the word ‘flight’ keeps coming into my brain.”

That includes her fascination with birds migrating as well as other meanings of the word flight — including a sample of something, the feeling of flight when you’re falling in love, and even the connotation of something that’s flighty, or silly.

“There are a couple sections in there [that] aren’t necessarily sensical,” she said.

In other Neos news, the dance company will continue to use the Knight funding to create a smaller project in which a yet-to-be-named choreographer will restage a work on the dancers for the 2014-2015 season. The company also is using the funding to heighten its online presence through social media, an improved website and a blog to create more awareness about the company and its work. Much of the new technological work is being done by UA graduate Lindsay Mulhollen, who recently joined the staff.

Dennis School, vice president for the art at Knight Foundation, described Neos as an emerging force in Akron’s dance community.

“New works and an expanded online presence will broaden Neos’ audience, engage the greater Akron community and help them build relationships with choreographers working on a national level,” he said in a news release.

Area musicians in pit

Theatergoers who attend the national tour of The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, the newer musical version of the original opera, may be surprised to learn that 21 local musicians are performing in the pit with the tour’s percussionist, conductor and keyboard player/assistant conductor.

According to Don Santa-Emma, a contractor with PlayhouseSquare who hires the local musicians, hiring that many local musicians is rare: It’s the largest local group that has come on for a tour at PlayhouseSquare since South Pacific.

Hearing such a large, 23-piece orchestra for this show, which runs through Feb. 16 at the Palace Theatre, promises to be a treat. Among the 21 local musicians are eight with Akron or Summit County connections.

Representing the Akron Symphony Orchestra are French hornists Cindy Wulff and Ken Wadenpfuhl as well as violinist Susan Britton. Also performing are current University of Akron music professors Rock Wehrmann as synthesizer substitute, Jack Schantz on trumpet and Tim Powell on electric bass. Finally, recently retired UA professor Rich Shanklin is playing clarinet, alto sax and flute; and Roberto Iriarte, orchestra and jazz ensemble director for the Hudson school district, is playing bassoon as well as baritone and tenor sax.

“These people are called freelancers who are hired, and they live on their reputation,” Santa-Emma said. “I look at what the demands [of the score] are and my job is to put the right person in the right slot.”

Not all classical performers are versatile enough to play in a pit for a musical, he said. But Wulff, who lives in Medina and has played with the Akron Symphony Orchestra since 1999, is one of those musicians, he said.

Last week, Wulff said by phone that she was practicing the Porgy and Bess advance book she had received by mail two weeks before the show. She was able to get into the music even earlier than that with a pdf music file that the tour sent. The Cleveland pit orchestra came together for the first time Tuesday morning for the show’s opening that night.

Wulff, who last played the Porgy and Bess score for the Akron Symphony’s semistaged production of the folk opera in 2011, said the revised musical score is very similar.

“It doesn’t seem different. All the same melodies will be there,” she said. “I just love, love musical theater. It’s just fantastic.”

Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or

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