Over the Rhine, the bluesy, jazzy, folksy band headed by blonde chanteuse Karin Bergquist and real-life partner Linford Detweiler, named after Cincinnati’s historic Over-the-Rhine neighborhood where they once lived, this weekend will perform live with Cincinnati Ballet dancers in the closing series of the company’s 50th anniversary season.
Bergquist’s powerful, emotionally eloquent voice anchors soulful, sometimes heartbreaking songs that have a Midwestern resonance. Choreography for company dancers is by returning Cincinnati-based favorites Missy Lay Zimmer and Andrew Hubbard, esteemed ballerina-turned-neo-classic dancemaker Jodie Gates and Cincinnati Ballet’s prolific, modern-leaning resident choreographer Adam Hougland.
As in their previous 2011 appearance with the company, Over the Rhine will perform on an elevated platform behind the dancing action. In addition to vocals, guitar, piano and bass from Bergquist and Detweiler, their accompanying three-piece band (Jay Bellerose, Jennifer Condos and Eric Heywood) will add drums and percussion, bass, pedal steel and electric guitar and Dobro. Most of the songs to be performed are off the band’s latest double-album release, Meet Me At The Edge Of The World.
Such productions on the cutting edge of today’s ballet programming are becoming the norm for Cincinnati Ballet. For instance, at the end of last season, the company welcomed the live music of Grammy Award-winning guitarist Peter Frampton. It’s only natural to ask what productions like these augur for traditional and not-so-traditional ballet fans.
Under the direction of Cincinnati Ballet Artistic Director and CEO Victoria Morgan, the company also presents traditional ballets with family appeal, such as the ever popular The Nutcracker.
“I feel really connected to the big historical ballets like Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty,” Morgan says. “But I’d say over 50 percent of our annual season is pretty connected to contemporary ideas.
“It’s partially market-driven, because we want to attract those young people who are in their twenties, taking their date to a special evening where they get to watch people their own age in amazing physical feats.”
Morgan believes collaborations involving current music are taking ballet into the future in the same way that the “classics” reinvigorated the form in the late 1800s.
“I think artistic directors of ballet companies have realized that, though we are an art form that started in the mid-1600s, one of the reasons that we are still alive today is because we are morphing and reinventing and finding new relationships,” Morgan says.
Over the Rhine worked with the ballet three years ago for the performance Infamous Love Songs. Detweiler looks forward to collaborating again.
“It was really exciting to get our heads together with Cincinnati Ballet on the same stage in 2011,” he says. “This time we’ll take several days to rehearse with the dancers. They’ve already rehearsed for a few months with our CDs. We’ll show up with the full band before the performance. We’ll try to keep the tempo as close to the recording as possible. To me, the stage setup is almost like a flamenco style, with the band in back and the dancers in front of us. And then we perform — and everything just kind of becomes three dimensional.”
Detweiler has a history with dance. “I made my way through college accompanying ballet classes for the Canton Ballet in Ohio,” he says. “When I improvised … I just always loved the feeling, you know, of bodies in motion. It feels fresh and exciting. To be playing now for Cincinnati Ballet — it’s come full circle. We pretty much opened up our catalogue to the choreographers for them to basically work with the songs that made sense to them and totally just let them go with that mission. We let the choreographers lead the charge.”
Morgan says the diversity of the choreographic styles also adds to the mix of movement styles. “Missy and Andrew have been pretty active in our repertory,” she says. “They are probably the most, what I would call, isolationist, almost a balletic version of Hip Hop. It’s inventive: very sexy and very sensual.”
The couple actually introduced Morgan to one of their favorite bands — which turned out to be Over the Rhine — when they requested the music for the New Works series in 2007. “Andrew and I first heard [Over the Rhine] in New York City,” Zimmer says, “and we always say they helped us through some hard and challenging times, and also happy and wonderful times.”
Along with Zimmer and Hubbard, Morgan says Hougland and Gates round out the choreography with their unique backgrounds.
“Adam, because of his modern dance background with the styles of artists like Lar Lubovitch, has a style that is sweeping and full, bold and sort of organic,” she says.
“Jodie has a background that is classic ballet,” she continues, “but she performed for years with William Forsythe, so her work is more edgy and sharp, contrasting and angled.”
Cincinnati Ballet dancers Abigail Morwood, Jimmy Cunningham, Sirui Liu, Zack Grubbs and James Gilmer are also excited about dancing with Over the Rhine.
“As dancers, we actually feel the music on stage,” Morwood says. “When they are actually on stage, it’s 10 times more powerful.”
“I remember the last time we shared the stage,” Cunningham says. “It was like the music moved through us in a way that I never felt before.”
When asked about the difference in sound between musical accompaniment in the pit and onstage, Liu describes it as “louder and alive.”
Grubbs, a Cincinnati Ballet veteran, says, “Working with a live Rock band and performing with them on stage is as energizing as it is unforgettable. The electricity and buzz from the audience and on stage is almost palpable.”
Gilmer concurs: “The energy is just straight from the stage, it’s much more unified. It makes it more like a concert. It adds an incomparable energy to a performance.”
CINCINNATI BALLET & OVER THE RHINE LIVE is onstage Friday and Saturday at downtown’s Aronoff Center. Tickets and more info: cballet.org.