Embracing Terpsichore – in Wheelchairs – with Mahler and Melillo

United StatesUnited States Mahler, Melillo, Tchaikovsky: Dancing Wheels Company, Bobby Wesener (choreographer), Canton Symphony Orchestra, Gerhardt Zimmermann (conductor), Umstattd Performing Arts Hall, Canton, Ohio, 21.11.2015 (TW)

Mahler: Adagietto, from Symphony No. 5 in C-Sharp Minor
Stephen Melillo: Symphony llll Lightfall (world premiere)
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 5 in E Minor

In classical mythology, Terpsichore, the daughter of Zeus and Mnemosyne is the Muse of Dance. On November 21, the Canton Symphony Orchestra found her poetic vivacity in a magnificent performance at Umstattd Hall.

Commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1989, the CSO partnered with Dancing Wheels Company & School for two of the works. Founded in 1980 by Mary Verdi-Fletcher, the first professional wheelchair dancer in the United States, Dancing Wheels integrates the talents of dancers with and without disabilities, and is considered one of the premier organizations of its type in the country.

In opening remarks, Maestro Gerhardt Zimmermann explained that the theme of the evening, “Walls of Glass,” was a metaphor for the societal obstacles and prejudices faced by the physically disabled. He assured us that we were “…in for a very emotional ride.”

Indeed, beginning with the Adagietto from Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 5, the orchestra was wholly gripping in its emotive power, as it was the entire evening. Strings sounded like velvet, threaded with brilliant shimmering from the harp. This most beautiful of wordless love songs, with sighs both joyous and bittersweet, made an arresting backdrop for the dancers, moving onstage in front of the orchestra.

Choreographed by Bobby Wesner, co-founder and artistic director of Neos Dance Theatre, his movements combine balletic formality and grace with a distinctly modern sensuality. The dancers in wheelchairs appeared to simultaneously float on air and glide magically along the stage with their non-wheelchair partners. Meanwhile, the upright dancers-in duets, trios, or quartets of breathtaking lifts and sinewy leaps-added to the poignant reminder that dance is as much about moving the human spirit as it is about unfettered feet.

In the world premiere of Symphony llll, Lightfall, by American composer Stephen Melillo, Wesner’s choreography made similar connections, with even more emotional impact. Commissioned by Zimmermann and scored for full orchestra, the work is in three movements, and in Melillo’s words, is dedicated to “Those who forever choose to look up and embrace the wonder-filled Universe and the Joy of Life.” From the brassy chaos and thunder of the first movement to the haunting lyricism of the second, and the triumphal optimism of the finale, Melillo blends classic Romanticism with contemporary techniques and cinematic sensibilities. And like Mahler, he shares a penchant for fusing the sublime with the banal, the ethereal with the mundane.

Melillo’s robust invocation of victory over adversity was an especially appropriate fit with the themes in the evening’s finale. In Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, with cathartic love and apotheosis so powerfully articulated, the CSO was at its electrifying best.

Interestingly though, for all of the orchestra’s compelling artistry, what lingers is the image of the dancers at the end of Lightfall. Standing at the foot of the stage, they mimed running their hands across a vast pane of glass, as if feeling their way toward an opening. They found it-a window on the fiery, indefatigable soul of Terpsichore.

Tom Wachunas

Leave a Comment