Local ballet enthusiast Jessica Wallis stumbled upon the hip New York ballet company Ballets with a Twist via Twitter, a fortuitous connection that led to her bringing the company to Cleveland to make its Northeast Ohio debut.
Wallis, a 2000 Cuyahoga Falls High School graduate and former dancer with Children’s Ballet Theatre (now Ballet Theatre of Ohio) is the founder of Ballet in Cleveland, a nonprofit committed to presenting professional classical ballet performances and events in Cleveland.
In May 2012, Wallis was researching what was happening in the dance world, brainstorming what company her fledgling organization could bring in for its inaugural presentation.
“It all started with a tweet,’’ said Wallis, who created a Twitter account for Ballet in Cleveland and soon had Ballets with a Twist following her.
That led to talks and an invitation from Ballets with a Twist for Wallis to come to New York to see their signature evening-length work, Cocktail Hour, a suite of dances celebrating the glamour of cocktail culture.
Wallis saw the company perform at XL Night Club, with Cyndi Lauper singing in a fundraiser for her True Colors Fund. Cocktail Hour, whose music was composed by Lauper’s friend Steve Gaboury, was inspired by well-known beverages ranging from the martini to the Manhattan. The ever-evolving work debuted in New York in 2009.
Ballets With a Twist will offer a one-time performance of Cocktail Hour at 8 tonight at PlayhouseSquare’s Ohio Theatre. The company fuses classical ballet with an irreverent pop sensibility, using a projection system rather than a traditional set and creating a nightclub vibe with modern lighting and fog.
Fourteen dances, full of humor, wit, glitz and drama will range from the burlesque-style Gimlet — where creator Marilyn Klaus says a soloist removes layers of her soul to Nancy Wilson’s You’ve Changed — to the White Russian, which pays homage to the Russian imperial court. The Martini becomes a James Bond-type dance, and the Manhattan is represented by a duet with a little dog on wheels being walked down Fifth Avenue.
In New York, audience members return to see the ever-morphing show over and over again, company founder Klaus said.
“I think this [company] really has what it takes to get people talking and saying ‘I want to go to that again,’ ” said Wallis, a Munroe Falls resident.
“There’s been a lot more ballet in pop culture of late and I want to capitalize on that,” said Wallis, 31. “It’s classical ballet with something different.”
Dancer Aengus Ortiz is featured dancer in Brandy Alexander, where he portrays the Macedonian warrior as the “Brandyettes” flank him wearing battle togas. Ortiz, who grew up a rodeo champion in Albuquerque, N.M., says he’s back leading the rodeo team, rallying the troops into battle with martial arts-based movement.
Ballets with a Twist has invited the Mighty Shaw High School Marching Cardinal Band to open the show with them for the Brandy Alexander number.
Klaus, described over the years as a hip ballet romantic, has created the new Bloody Mary dance just for Cleveland, complete with full costumes.
“Cocktail Hour is sort of a never-ending process,” she said.
Audience members can purchase real cocktails represented in the dances and will receive recipe booklets for mixing their own cocktails at home.
Wallis, formerly a full-time educator, has an undergraduate degree in early childhood education and a master’s in literacy from the University of Akron.
She now teaches courses at both Kent State University and UA, teaches dance at Cuyahoga Falls Dance Center, tutors and also runs the nonprofit she founded. Classical ballet has always been her passion.
In Cocktail Hour, each cocktail dance has its own style and mood. The performance, deemed a family-friendly show, will feature 10 local children dancing with the professionals in Clean Sweep and Mint Julep. In the latter, young ballerinas play prized ponies in a Kentucky Derby-themed dance, accompanied by Cleveland Institute of Music violinist Heidi Kim.
“It’s amazing how much classical ballet vocabulary has the feeling of beautiful horses,” Klaus said of her inspiration for Mint Julep.
Local child dancers in Clean Sweep — an interlude in which the “mess” onstage is swept up after the Scotch on the Rachmaninoff dance — include Emma Grass of Akron, who studies with Nan Klinger Excellence in Dance in Cuyahoga Falls, and Tessa Miracle of Uniontown, who dances with 8 Count Dance Studio in Akron. Both attend Miller South School for the Visual and Performing Arts.
According to Wallis, the company’s level of classical ballet artistry as well as its excellence in teaching children were impressive. The company of 12 dancers arrived Sunday for member Dorothea Garland to teach master classes to local youth dancers.
“They’re technicians. They’re dancers, they’re glamorous but they’ve got the technique behind it,” Wallis said of company members.
Klaus, who founded Ballets With a Twist in 1996, created her first cocktail dance — the Mai Tai — the same year.
The choreographer, who has an eclectic dance background, originally was inspired by her father, who won ballroom dance competitions in California as an amateur. She began studying with Busby Berkeley dancer Gladys Gartman and vaudeville star Mae Murray, moving on as a teen to the tradition of Isadora Duncan, who focused on natural movement and dance as a sacred art.
“I found ballet to be the most intriguing, the most compelling, but I wouldn’t give up my other influences for the world,” Klaus said.
Dancer Ortiz described Ballets With a Twist as an artist’s collective whose creative process is a laboratory experience. That may start with some music that makes Klaus laugh, which leads to the evolution of new movement. After Gaboury watches the dance, he returns with original music. The costume designer also is inspired in a process that Ortiz says is never forced.
The result, Ortiz said, is “basically blowing people’s minds.” As the Huffington Post said in its review, the company is “blasting the boundaries between high art and entertainment.’’
Cocktail Hour tickets cost $20-$40. VIP tickets for $100 include a pre-show cocktail reception, VIP seats and a champagne toast with the dancers after the show.
Call 216-241-6000 or see www.playhousesquare.org.
Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or firstname.lastname@example.org.