'Dance for Life' still makes a case for itself

August 12, 2014
The Chicago Tribune
Laura Molzahn

Content

Now that gay marriage is legal, at least in some states, and those with HIV can be treated, if not cured, HBO's recent adaptation of Larry Kramer's 1985 play "The Normal Heart" might seem a bit beside the point. Not so, says choreographer Harrison McEldowney, a 16-year veteran of the AIDS fundraiser "Dance for Life," marking its 23rd year with a performance Saturday at the Auditorium.

"You'd see younger people on Facebook saying, 'I watched "The Normal Heart," and I bawled and I sobbed,'" McEldowney says. "It was a reminder to me that they never understood what that experience was or went through it, the emotion around it. I was in New York at that time, and I lived through it."

Like Kramer's play as well as the AIDS Quilt, "Dance for Life" communicates the emotion of that time and "will always carry historic relevance," McEldowney adds. Regrettably, the annual showcase of top-flight Chicago companies still plays a practical role too. Though some battles have been won since the organization was founded in 1992 — the year AIDS became the leading cause of death among U.S. men age 25-44 — the war isn't over. Though new treatments continue to emerge, they can be complex, flawed and easily misunderstood.

    "A lot of groups that 'Dance for Life' benefits are very much about education," says McEldowney. "There's now an AIDS medication, Truvada, that some are calling the ' AIDS morning-after pill' —meaning that, if you feel you've been exposed, it kills the disease." He adds that, unfortunately, "People who are uneducated can misinterpret how it works and assume it's OK to have unprotected sex." In fact, the controversial drug cocktail — not an overnight fix but a 30-day regimen — has been questioned for its cost, safety and efficacy.

The "Dance for Life" beneficiaries are "big on education about safe sex and getting tested," says McEldowney, who's been told that the people coming into these organizations now for help are not men and women in their 30s and 40s but "young kids." He adds, "People are naive to think that kids are not already beginning to explore — that they don't need that kind of education to protect themselves from what we had to live through."

"Dance for Life" has long been an uplifting show. McEldowney's new opening number—"Ready to Fall," his fifth collaboration with aerial-dance specialist Jeremy Plummer — will be no exception. "We wanted something breathtaking and inspirational," he says, "something that would open everyone's eyes to a sense of wonder." Half of its 18 dancers will be in the air, half on the floor, dancing to songs by Emmy Rossum, whose line "I'm ready to fall" in the lovely "Slow Me Down" provided the dance's title.

"Falling took on so many meanings for me and Jeremy," says McEldowney. "For me, the hopeless romantic, it was: You're ready to fall into somebody's arms, you're in love. But Jeremy was like: ready to fall into the next phase of your life. It can be standing at the precipice of something, like death or a major life decision."

Some of the "Ready to Fall" performers are drawn from Plummer's dance/aerial group, C5 (named for the cervical vertebra he once shattered while cliff-diving), and the rest from troupes in this year's lineup, including year-old Visceral Dance Chicago, making its "Dance for Life" debut in artistic director Nick Pupillo's deft, speedy "Impetere."

Also on the bill: Ensemble Espanol Spanish Dance Theater in Ron De Jesus' recently created "Mil Clavos" ("One Thousand Nails"), River North Dance Chicago in excerpts from Frank Chaves' wonderful "Eva," Hubbard Street in excerpts from Alejandro Cerrudo's mega-hit "One Thousand Pieces," the Joffrey taking on George Balanchine's "Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux" and — in a totally different vein — Giordano Dance Chicago undergoing Autumn Eckman and Nan Giordano's "JOLT." Randy Duncan's world premiere, "Fly Again," closes the show.

Also worth noting

A.r.T.: Francisco Avina's one-man show, produced with High Concept Laboratories, is named after "Antiretroviral Therapy" and addresses the new paradigm for those living with HIV, now that drugs can at least keep the virus in check. Avina, a member of Lucky Plush, brings decades of dance experience to the table. 8 p.m. Aug. 29-30 and Sept. 5-6 at High Concept Labs, Mana Contemporary, 2233 S. Throop St., $18 at high-concept-laboratories.ticketleap.com

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'Dance for Life'

When: 8 p.m. Saturday

Where: Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress Parkway

Tickets: $25-$75 performance only; $250-$600 for the gala with premier seating; ticketmaster.com