Dance for Life reinforces Chicago’s current dancing splendor

August 17, 2014
Hedy Weiss


This is not a review. Dance for Life is a benefit, and the artists who perform in it are there to give their all without judgment, and deserve nothing but gratitude. But Saturday night’s program at the Auditorium Theatre (which reached record attendance, with 2,000 tickets sold), was packed with such exceptional performances by a vast cross-section of Chicago companies and individual artists, that attention must be paid.

To get right to the point: This performance served as a confirmation of the astonishing level of the dancers now working in this city. It is mightily impressive.

Here are a few quick thoughts about all that was display in the order in which it unfolded:

± The opening number, “ready to fall,” choreographed by Harrison McEldowney and Jeremy Plummer, and set to the music of Emmy Rossum, was a fast-moving but lyrical aerial ballet in which excellent dancers from seven different companies joined forces — some in harnesses that enabled them to rotate and spin, and others still defying gravity though firmly planted on the ground. The complex timing and perfect synchrony of it all were impressive. And lynn ziehe’s simply cut but jewel-toned costumes added an air of elegance.

± The year-old Visceral Dance Chicago, a company of technically superb dancers, all with a distinctive individual beauty and a terrific sense of performance, suggested why the buzz about this troupe is more than justified. The ensemble — Caitlin Cucchiarra, Paige Fraser, Marissa Horton, Bianca Lozano Sanders, Tom Mattingly, Michael MacDonald, Kelsey Middleton, Aaron Rogers, Owen Scarlett, Cody Szarko and Karl Watson — move with the cohesion of a veteran troupe. And in artistic director/choreographer Nick Pupillo’s virtuosic piece, “Impetere,” set to an intriguing score by Apparat, Olafur Arnalds, Matmos and Pixel, they suggested a tribe of avatars with their sensuality, fearlessness and intensity. The subtly sexy costumes were by Maggie Dianovsky; the fine lighting by Brian Sidney Bembridge. Don’t miss becoming acquainted with Visceral Dance when it returns to the Harris Theater for Music and Dance this season.

± Ensemble Espanol Spanish Dance Theater (resident company at Northeastern Illinois University), in excerpts from Ron De Jesus’ recent debut work, “Mil Clavos” (“One Thousand Nails”): In his homage to the company’s founder and artistic director, Dame Libby Komaiko, De Jesus (a former member of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago and a longtime collaborator with Twyla Tharp), has whipped up a piece that not only showcases the flamenco technique that is this company’s specialty, but turned up the heat on the theatricality they invariably bring to the stage. Devised in three sections (the central section was deleted here for time reasons), it begins with a ferocious, supremely macho trio for male dancers, and then moves into a section that suggests an impassioned love triangle, with a female chorus and soloist further fanning the flames. The lighting by Nathan Tomlinson was stunning; the costumes, by De Jesus and Irma Suarez Ruiz, ravishing. All in all, a stunning performance of a fiery work — and right on the heels of the company’s heralded appearance at the renowned Jacob’s Pillow summer festival in Massachusetts, as well as some great funding news.

± River North Dance Chicago in excerpts from artistic director/choreographer Frank Chaves’ “Eva,” a series of pieces set to the song stylings of Eva Cassidy, who died all too young in 1996. Jessica Wolfrum and Ahmad Simmons brought hurricane force to “Stormy Monday,” an Apache-style duet. Lauren Kias and Hank Hunter were the achingly lyrical estranged lovers in “Autumn Leaves.” And a large ensemble gathered for a wonderfully spirit-raising “Wade in the Water,” a piece rarely reimagined because of its Alvin Ailey incarnation.

± The second half of the program began with a stellar performance of excerpts from resident choreographer Alejandro Cerrudo’s “One Thousand Pieces,” set to the music of Philip Glass and very loosely inspired by Marc Chagall’s cobalt blue stained glass mural at the Art Institute of Chicago. The seamlessness of the Hubbard Street dancers — whether in a duet or full ensemble — is a miracle to behold. Watching them in the long horizontal line that began this performance was hypnotic. Watching Anna Lopez move with her spare, feline confidence was a particular pleasure; the splendid Garrett Patrick Anderson was her precision-tuned partner. And this shortened version of the work may just be its most ideal form.

± The Joffrey Ballet provided the purely classical fireworks of the evening with Balanchine’s immensely difficult “Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux,” danced brilliantly by April Daly and Dylan Gutierrez. Daly is a real Balanchine girl — tall, long-limbed, perfectly proportioned, technically superb, musically confident, fearless. Her gyroscopic turns and precision phrasing were exquisite. Gutierrez is her ideally matched partner, and his fine ballet technique comes paired with such an easeful, subtly sassy contemporary vibe that it puts the fun into a showpiece like this one.

± Giordano Dance Chicago performed “Jolt,” its intensely caffeinated, zanily comic ode to our overly stirred-up modern lifestyle, choreographed by Autumn Eckman and conceptualized by Nan Giordano. The adrenaline was flowing at record levels and the audience gulped it down.

+ Randy Duncan’s finale, “Fly Again,” might just be the best work he has devised for this event over the years, with Cody Szarko’s solos beautiful and moving to watch, and the fluid ensemble right behind him.

± Watching Eddie Ocampo’s whimsically choreographed announcements of the Dance for Life raffle drawing was so playful and clever that I kept thinking: The under-performing Illinois Lottery promoters might take a cue from this presentation, make a real celebration of its own announcements and simultaneously start showcasing Chicago dancers and dance companies. Bet there would be much-improved results and lots of buzz.

± Scott Silberstein and HMS Media did a first-rate job on the evening’s introductory video sequences, and the opening montage of the many companies that have performed as part of Dance for Life over the years was a real stunner.