Constella's evolution

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Cincy Magazine April/ May 2016

Constella's Evolution

The Constella Festival brings together for one-of-a-kind performances.

By David Lyman

Violinist/impresario Tatiana Berman is committed to collaboration. But then, what artist doesn’t say that? Berman is different, though. Take a look through the lineup of her 2016 Constella Festival—it takes place in April—and you’ll see that collaboration among artists and arts groups is at the very heart of the 10-day festival, which runs April 15-24.

“But this year, I was thinking of some new arrangements of things,” says Berman. It’s not that she was looking to shed responsibilities. But as we spoke in late February, it was a wildly busy time for her. She was preparing for a pair of mid-March events—Not So Classical, they’re called—in St. Louis and Chicago. There’s another, as-yet-unnamed event at the end of March. And that’s on top of being a mother of three, including a six-month old baby.

“It’s true—I am quite busy,” she says, without a hint of irony.

One of those “new arrangements” she mentioned turns out to be handing over some of Constella’s dance-related responsibilities to Cincinnati Ballet soloist James Cunningham, a dancer-choreographer who has been involved with Constella since its beginnings in 2011.

He’s not part of Constella’s staff, though. He doesn’t even have a title. Nor is he an experienced producer. But the level of responsibility that Berman has invested in him is an indication of the high regard she has for him.

“I totally understand Jimmy,” says Berman. “And he understands me and what I want. I trust his judgment.”

She admires his dancing and his discipline. But more than that, she says she is drawn to intellectual rigor he brings to his work.

“When we talk about collaborating, when we discuss dance or music, he thinks very deeply about them,” says Berman. “I really appreciate that about him, because that’s how I like to work on things, too.”

She cites an example from earlier this year. She suggested that he consider creating a dance to a string trio by composer Gideon Klein. Klein was a Czech pianist who died in a Nazi concentration camp just days after completing the work. It’s a haunting piece of music, with an especially melancholy second movement.

“I listened to it a few times and tried to find something that I could connect with,” recalls Cunningham. “I admired it. And I understand what Tatiana saw in it. But the music just wasn’t speaking to me at all, so I asked if we could discuss some other possibilities.”

For some festival organizers, the very idea that a choreographer might reject a piece of music that had been selected for him would be enough to end the relationship. But as much as Berman hoped Cunningham would use the music, she respected his decision.

“There is so much good music in the world,” says Berman. “When I ask someone else to create something, I want to make sure they are passionate about that thing I am asking them to do. If they are not comfortable with the piece, I would not force it down their throats. That’s not a formula for a successful collaboration.”

Indeed, she notes that the festival has commissioned 16 new musical compositions during its five years.

“Sometimes…,” she pauses. She’s about to tread into delicate territory and doesn’t want to misspeak. “Sometimes you don’t get what you think you are going to get.”

She won’t name names. But in cases like this, where you have commissioned the work, you’re pretty much obligated to perform it. Berman didn’t want to put Cunningham in that sort of position. So the two of them agreed on a different piece of music, another string trio, this one by Ernö Dohnányi.

One portion of Constella’s dance program—it’s called Old World, Modern Expressions and takes place April 16—will feature dancers from Dayton Contemporary Dance Company and choreography by Crystal Michelle, the company’s associate artistic director.

Then comes Cunningham’s portion of the show. And in his first outing as coordinator, he has put together a formidable offering, including:

- Ancora (world premiere), music by Ludovico Einaudi, choreography by Cunningham. Danced by members of Cincinnati Ballet 2.

- Idlewild, a pas de deux with music by Julia Kent, created by Cincinnati Ballet resident choreographer Adam Hougland. Performed by members of Cincinnati Ballet 2.

- New Work, choreographed by Cincinnati Ballet company member Taylor Carrasco.

- New Work, a solo choreographed by Cincinnati Ballet member Jake Casey, performed by Abigail Morwood.

- New Work, music by Ernö Dohnányi, choreographed by Cunningham, performed by members of Cincinnati Ballet.

“I knew that doing this would involve a lot of extra work for me,” says Cunningham. “It’s a headache organizing the dancers and finding rehearsal spaces. Someone tells you that you can have a space for one hour when what you really need is three. So you take what you can get. It gets crazy.”

What Cunningham doesn’t say is that he’s not afraid of any of that. The very nature of his job as a professional dancer is that it’s demanding and challenging and leaves little room for error.

Besides, there is something more in this for Cunningham. And we’re not talking money or prestige.

“What I’m really after now is growing my voice as a choreographer,” says Cunningham. He was raised in Little Hocking, Ohio, a tiny, unincorporated community 10 miles west of Parkersburg, W.Va. on the banks of the Ohio River. With a 2015 population of just 251, it is not known as a center of dance.

Since coming here to study at the College-Conservatory of Music nearly a decade ago, he has been voracious in learning everything he can about dance. He’s created works for his colleagues at Cincinnati Ballet. And for Cincinnati Ballet’s Second Company. He’s done several pieces for Constella. And for students at CCM. He spent several weeks helping Hougland create a new work in Philadelphia last summer.

But he also knows how dancing is. There will come a day when he can’t will his knees or his shoulders to do everything he’d like them to. He’s not close to that yet. But when the time comes, he wants to be ready.

In the eight years he’s danced with Cincinnati Ballet, he’s seen dancers get injured. Or move into directionless retirements. He’s determined that won’t be him.

“My goal is to stay in the field,” says Cunningham. That might mean a university teaching job. Or being a ballet master with a professional company. Or perhaps even becoming an artistic director one day.

For now, though, he likes where he is and what he’s doing.

“I’m 27 and I’m healthy and I’m growing as an artist. That seems pretty good to me.”

Constella Dance: Old World, Modern Expressions takes place 7:30 p.m. April 16 in the Freedom Center’s Harriet Tubman Theater; 50 E. Freedom Way, Downtown. Tickets are $25 general admission, $10 for students. For tickets or information, call 513-549-7175 or go to constellafestival.org