Over-the-Rhine’s Memorial Hall, the Tiffany-chandeliered, 1908 Beaux-Arts treasure teeming with handcrafted details in marble, wood and plaster, is tucked at Grant and Elm streets, next to Music Hall. The space is said to be haunted by the figure of a Civil War-era soldier who materializes in one of the steep balconies.
Whether or not that ghost will appear this Halloween season is uncertain. But what’s for sure is that on Friday, Missy Lay Zimmer and Andrew Hubbard’s mesmerizing nine-member Exhale Dance Tribe will be on hand for their second annual Dead Can Dance show, spotlighting the couple’s Modern-, Hip-Hop- and Jazz-inflected choreography. The evening-length experience is loosely based on the medieval allegory of a Danse Macabre or “Dance of Death.”
In the spirit of the season, audience members are invited to arrive dressed as their “worst nightmare” for refreshments starting at 7 p.m. before the 8:30 p.m. stage performance. They’ll experience the building’s historic flowing hallways, bas-relief plaster scrollwork and stenciled murals alongside the dancers in a pre-show installation.
Joining them will be popular 15-year veteran Cincinnati Ballet soloist Dawn Kelly, known for her stellar technique and dramatic flair. Kelly retired last season after a blazing final performance in Zimmer and Hubbard’s world premiere, “Anthology,” for Frampton & Cincinnati Ballet Live, only to rebound feet first into a new dance adventure with Exhale. She first met the two when they were choreographing and she was dancing in Cincinnati Ballet’s Kaplan New Works series. “I was just kind of floored by their creativity. We really seemed to meld,” Kelly says. “We have similar creative minds. Obviously, this is why I am here.”
For Friday’s performance, Kelly pairs up with Exhale member Jacob Thoman.
“I’ve never had a partner that I feel so connected to,” Thoman says of Kelly. “I think both of us really understand our bodies, as dancers, and so we can really focus, just knowing that we can trust the other person completely.”
Zimmer and Hubbard met and became off-stage partners while performing in CATS on Broadway.
They moved from New York City to Cincinnati (Zimmer’s hometown) more than 10 years ago. In 2005, they founded Exhale Dance Tribe and Planet Dance Cincinnati, a company and school respectively, based these days on a spacious floor of a stone-façade building on Gilbert Avenue near Eden Park. They have produced 30 shows and garnered armloads of awards (the two are Capezio A.C.E. award finalists and have been included in Dance Magazine’s “25 to Watch”) for Exhale choreography and student competitions. They’ve choreographed significantly for Cincinnati Ballet and other local productions, to rave reviews. Some 20 students and company members have moved on to dance in NYC dance companies and Broadway productions. And they’ve recently mustered a strong board of trustees and key donors for their nonprofit.
In a cozy office tucked into a corner of Planet Dance, Zimmer, with her signature curly red mop, and Hubbard, lanky in cut-offs and T-shirt, finish each other’s sentences as they eagerly talk about their newest Tribe member and their newest show.
“I think that because Dawn (Kelly) is already such an expressive, emotional, dramatic performer, she fits very well,” Hubbard says.
“Our work is like mini Broadway musicals, very theatrical, very scenic and physical — she just loves it, she thrives in that space.”
“I mean, she brings the work to life,” he continues. “She’s technically perfect! She’s put a little fire under our dancers, which I don’t mind. She and Jacob (Thoman) have paired up beautifully.”
During Friday’s show, dancers will be stationed in various parts of Memorial Hall, focusing mostly in the ballroom downstairs. Before the performance, one room of the venue will house refreshments, another will serve as an interactive space where the audience can watch or become part of this pre-show.
“So, really and truly, [it’s] a dance installation experience,” Zimmer says.
“We’d been talking about making something in this theater for years,” Hubbard adds. “It’s rich in history, like an old vaudeville theater.”
“But the space is very raw, basically, ‘lights up, lights down,’ and there is no backstage,” he continues. “The stage is a little small, so we will just use footlights. We are trying to let the theater also be a main character.”
“Some of the windows swing in and out,” Zimmer adds. “During the pre-show, we’re going to have dancers on each side of the glass doing mirror work with each other, as if they were reflections.
“And you know that Andrew and I are never gonna tell it to you straight,” she continues, laughing. “We’re not gonna spoon-feed our audience a plot, but basically the through-line is that death plays the fiddle and summons the dead to dance. It’s kind of like a ball, if you will. And then at dawn when the cock crows, it’s time to put all the dead back into their graves.”
For the character of Death, Zimmer and Hubbard have enlisted Willemien Patterson van Dartel of the local alternative theater group Performance Gallery.
“We’d seen her do some Cincinnati Fringe Festival work that was really compelling,” Zimmer says. “Andrew and I liked the idea of a collaboration.”
“And the idea of a Danse Macabre pretty much describes the style,” Hubbard says. “It’s become a popular legend. For instance, it has been the subject of an orchestration from the 1800s, a ballet commissioned in the 1900s and a book by Stephen King.”
Original Exhale member Ashley Klein explains the lure for dancers.
“I’ve been glued to Missy and Andrew’s side since the age of 15,” she says. “I like to refer to them as Mandrew, because they think like a well-oiled machine. The rehearsal process is always a blast. The choreography is amazing.”
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