Chagall inspires new choreography in Chicago

April 28, 2011
Lucia Mauro


Marc Chagall’s paintings, murals and stained-glass windows are full of lively swirling imagery. So it’s no surprising that his work might inspire dance.

For WBEZ, dance critic Lucia Mauro provides the details:
Chicagoans have close ties to prolific 20th century artist Marc Chagall through his stained class work, America Windows. These evocative panels, in circular strokes of multi-textured blues, were recently reinstalled at the Art Institute of Chicago. But it seems a pleasant coincidence that two local dance companies are highlighting works that recall the blissful whimsy of Chagall’s color-saturated palette.

Lin Shook, artistic director of Perceptual Motion, became enamored with the painter’s surreal glimpse at the City of Lights. His 1913 painting titled "Paris through the Window," catapulted the choreographer into a topsy-turvy universe of upside-down trains, a lone parachutist, a cat with a human face and window frames that explode with intense primary colors.

Perceptual Motion is a multigenerational modern dance company, whose members range in age from 23-91. In Shook’s new quartet, titled "Through the Window," 91-year-old ensemble member Inger Smith enters with two children and proceeds to watch four women dancers through a glass.

But instead of recreating Chagall’s fanciful canvas, Shook has her dancers embody its illogical spirit. Moreover, they take on the anxious and unpredictable sensibility of children in a playground. The performers are clad in circus-like costumes, the color of cherry red, midnight blue, emerald green and lemon yellow. They resemble the hues of the Twister game floor mat.

It’s a joyous, uninhibited excursion across the ever-active bodies and minds of children set to high-energy Kurdistan folk music. The dancers literally tumble onto the stage and morph into tightrope walkers. They cartwheel, do flips and somersaults and even form a “London Bridge” archway with their arms. They mirror Chagall’s talent for mixing up animals, landscapes and people in a celebratory collage of the imagination.

The next performance takes inspiration from the dream-like sensations Chagall’s work provokes. Chagall, a painter of Belarusian-Jewish heritage who lived in France, preserved the fond memories of his childhood village through paintings of fiddlers, livestock, birds and floating brides. They seem to drift by like the images passing across Dorothy’s window after the tornado hits Kansas in The Wizard of Oz. These fantastical juxtapositions naturally recall dream states. And that’s the impetus behind San Francisco-based choreographer Julia Adam.

"Night," her ballet being performed by the Joffrey dancers, takes its lush and fractured imagery from dreams. She subtly references the canvases of Chagall in movements that include lifts with broken balletic lines and capricious suspensions. A woman awakens and is carried aloft by a man representing the disembodied forces of dreams. She seems to float through space. The pair then embarks on dangerous see-saw lifts with split seconds of free fall to reflect a sensation of falling or being chased.       

Both Perceptual Motion and the Joffrey Ballet carry audiences through Marc Chagall’s fleeting and profoundly whimsical artistic vision.

Perceptual Motion performs "Through the Window" on Thursday and Friday evening at the Hamlin Park Fieldhouse Theater.

The Joffrey Ballet will be performing "Night" May 4-15 at The Auditorium Theatre in Chicago.

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