Verb Ballets Honors Cleveland Ballet Co-founder Ernie Horvath

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Local dance legend Ernie Horvath was born in Lakewood, grew up in Maple Heights and cofounded of the Cleveland Ballet.

He died tragically at age 46 in 1990.

Now, more than 25 years after his death, a documentary is in the works to share his legacy with a new generation.

While his friends knew him as Ernie, he went by the stage name "Ian" throughout his career.  Horvath danced with the Joffrey Ballet and American Ballet Theater.  In 1976 Horvath and Dennis Nahat co-founded the Cleveland Ballet.

Dr. Margaret Carlson is the producing artistic director for Verb Ballets and one of Cleveland Ballet's first dancers. 

"When Ian and Dennis founded the company there was no professional ballet company in the region.  Eventually it reached the status of being the sixth largest ballet company in America," Carlson said.

By the time the company folded in 2000 it had 70 dancers.

Ernie Horvath and Dennis Nahat [courtesy: Nel Shelby Productions]

Verb Ballets stages a dance tribute to Horvath and screens selections from the documentary about his life later this month.

Margaret Mullin is from Tucson and currently dances with the Pacific Northwest Ballet.  She discovered Horvath's work long after his death.

Even though she never met him, Mullin was compelled to share his contributions to dance with a greater audience.

"I think there is something really unique about his ability to tell a story, I think in a refined, subtle way," Mullin said.

Margaret Mullin in "Laura's Women" [photo: Christopher Duggan]

Mullin's passion dancing in Horvath's piece, "Laura's Women," led her to research his life and career.

That research, combined with meeting his family, sparked Mullin to direct the documentary about Horvath's work onstage and off.

"As a dancer that dances with one the major American dance companies, and we're union we have a lot of benefits and a lot of amazing things we experience as dancers now that were not experienced by a few generations before by dancers.  A lot of that is due in part to the work of Ernie," Mullin said.

Ernie Horvath [courtesy: Nel Shelby Productions]

Carlson describes his choreography as a blend of "what was going on in the modern dance world at that time but having come from the ballet world (and also he had done some musical theater) and with that influence of things like Martha Graham, José Limón, he was very very interested in blending ballet and modern dance. At that time that was a new effort."

For the upcoming tribute, Carlson is staging "Laura's Women" with the Verb Ballets company.

It's one of Horvath's earliest pieces of choreography and inspired by the music of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Laura Nyro.

"They actually met and he decided he wanted to do a work inspired by her.  So he chose three of her songs.  It was three females each one representing one of those pieces of music," Carlson said.

Margaret Carlson in "Laura's Women" [courtesy: Verb Ballets]

Also for the concert, Verb Ballets is dancing Horvath's final piece of choreography - "No Dominion" - which Horvath created before his impending death.

Horvath was an early victim of the AIDS epidemic before medical science caught up with the virus.

"So once he received that diagnosis he decided that he would live his life to the fullest but within the framework of pursuing his vision.  He just had to speed up the timing of it," Carlson said.

Ernie Horvath [courtesy: Nel Shelby Productions]

"No Dominion" is about Horvath's battle with the AIDS virus and features a character in the dance that's representative of him.  It was a groundbreaking dance telling a love story between two men, with men partnering with men, which was rare at the time.  The dance also shares how the AIDS virus made him very weak and caused him physical pain.

"He actually deals with his own passing in the piece.  The character dies and to create a really beautiful work of dance while feeling all of that and also tackling the idea of your own death.  You know he felt it was coming, he knew it was coming and to put that into a beautiful piece of art is pretty extraordinary," Mullin said.

Margaret Mullin rehearsing "No Dominion" with Verb Ballets [photo: ideastream]

When a painter dies he or she leaves behind paintings.  But when a choreographer dies it's often a challenge to continue their dances without them.

"When we first set 'Laura's Women' they didn't even have VHS.  So there was nothing, no motion picture of the very first few years of the piece," Carlson said.

The upcoming concert and documentary are not just a celebration of Horvath's life, they're an opportunity to document his work as well.

Margaret Mullin and Dr. Margaret Carlson rehearsing "Laura's Women" [photo: Christopher Duggan]

"It's very difficult to keep, not only certain works alive but also to keep the clarity and keep the original intention is tremendously difficult.  So it's great to have the opportunity to breathe new work into Ernie's work and hopefully get a larger audience," Mullin said.

Carlson is taking advantage of the opportunity.

"This is probably the last time I'm going to set it.  I want to make sure that there is a record of it because the original VHS melted.  The one copy I did have of the original cast. I put it in one day and it was totally blank (laughs) It was, you know time erased it," Carlson said.

Dr. Margaret Carlson rehearsing "Laura's Women" with Verb Ballets [photo: ideastream]

For Mullin it's a major responsibility to share his work.

"This is someone's life.  I have been trusted with someone's legacy and that is something I do not take lightly at all," Mullin said.

Ernie Horvath [courtesy: Nel Shelby Productions]

"I'm just so excited that the show is happening in Cleveland.  I think it's a really exciting moment for the Cleveland arts community to get to re-experience the work of a man that had such a huge impact on them.  So I'm really honored to be a part of that," Mullin said.

The Verb Ballets concert - "Dance Legacy: Celebrating the Life of Ian Horvath" - is Saturday, February 9th at the Breen Center for the Performing Arts in Ohio City and Sunday, February 10th at the Akron-Summit County Public Library Auditorium. The documentary about Horvath’s life is expected in the fall of 2020.






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