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Dancing in the dark – in the park. That’s what the Heinz Poll Summer Dance Festival is. For four successive weekend evenings, area and far-flung professional dance companies perform on a temporary stage set up in Akron area metro parks and, in one case, a cemetery.

As festival director Jane Startzman commented, it is “a gift” to the city because there is no charge. Funding comes from outside sources, like the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

Attendees bring their own chairs, looking for all the world as though they are attending a local soccer or other sporting event, bring along a blanket, the kids, and a picnic, and let themselves become sated in some of the best arts performances that can be had.

The hardest part is probably for the dance companies, if they are not used to dancing outside – without irregular lighting, not a lot of wing space for entrances and exits, and nowhere really to spot for turns and the like. Somehow they do it, though, and do it amazingly well.

Named for the founder of the former Ohio Ballet and for the idea of presenting dance outside for all to see – Heinz Poll – the festival draws thousands of residents each to see dance, as Startzman said, “in their backyards.”

This year it all begins with Verb Ballets in Akron’s Hardesty Park on the weekend of July 26-27. Verb (a group with an increasing Akron performance presence) will present three works — Poll’s “Eight by Benny Goodman”, a fast-paced and very musically inspired dance performance, followed by former Ohio Ballet dancer and ballet master Richard Dickinson’s “Four Last Songs,” a stirring work based on Richard Strauss’ music, and ending with a newly created third piece, “Passing By,” done with his original music by Antonio Brown.

The highly successful GroundWorks DanceTheater, a Knight arts grantee, will perform in Glendale Cemetery on August 2-3 under the direction of artistic director David Shimotakahara (a protégé of Heinz Poll). The company will perform Shimotakahara’s “Before with After” to the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, a new and as yet unnamed piece by artistic associate Amy Miller, and end with a commissioned work by highly acclaimed choreographer Doug Elkins called “My Hummingbird at the High Line.”

GroundWorks DanceTheater. Photo by Dale Dong

GroundWorks DanceTheater. Photo by Dale Dong

The energetic Neos Dance Theatre will be at Firestone Park on August 9-10 with a variety of dance styles — Robert Wesner’s “Homage,” “Bondolo,” a work inspired by traveling tent religious revival shows, a Poll piece, “Summer Night,” and end with a world premiere by Wesner called “Spinning Plates.”

This year’s dance bombshell (last year it was the incredibly famous Martha Graham Dance Company) will be Vanaver Caravan Dancers and Musicians from New York. This group is described as bringing a “very different kind of dance” to area stages.

The work to be performed is a 17-part dance called “EarthBeat.” In it, the company will showcase a divergent range of dance that will take in Senegalese tribal dance, Flamenco, Appalachian clog dance, and Brazilian martial arts works.

Vanaver will appear last in the festival in Goodyear Heights Metro Park on August 16-17.

Vanaver Caravan, Chinese Ribbon Dancer: Isabella Cottingham. Photo by Lois Greenfield

Vanaver Caravan, Chinese Ribbon Dancer: Isabella Cottingham. Photo by Lois Greenfield

The Heinz Poll Summer Dance Festival will be on four successive weekends at 8:45 p.m. beginning July 26 and ending August 17. For information, call 330-535-3179 or visit www.akrondancefestival.org.  Admission is free.

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