The Great Indoors

August 28, 2010
Chicago Sun Times
Hedy Weiss

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The first thrilling, heart-stopping moment came with Thursday night's opening fanfare, as all the dancers from the six companies to be showcased in "Modern Masters" -- the formidable "indoor" program of this summer's multifaceted fourth annual Chicago Dancing Festival -- raced onto the stage to take their introductory bows. This has become a festival tradition. And the audience at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance -- packed with dance enthusiasts who knew they'd nabbed the hottest free ticket around (and who would probably attend many more dance concerts during the year were tickets more affordable) -- clearly reveled in it.

Things quickly settled down as the feast of dance began with the Joffrey Ballet's breathtaking performance of "Crossed," a work of sacred and profane beauty created this past spring by Jessica Lang, the immensely talented young choreographer and set designer.

Set to alternately soaring and meditative music by Handel, Desprez and Mozart -- with great, ever-shifting vertical and horizontal panels complementing the forceful patterning and changeable moods of the dance itself -- this is a work of heat and light and speed and solemnity. The dancing of the large ensemble was exquisite throughout, with particularly soulful performances by the young "priests" (Fabrice Calmels, Matthew Adamczyk, Raul Casosola, John Mark Giragosian, Tian Shuai, Michael Smith and Temur Suluashvili), by Valerie Robin and the utterly mesmerizing Joanne Wozniak in a female duet, and by April Daly and Jonathan Dummar in a romantic pairing. "Crossed" is a sublime addition to Joffrey's rep.

"Liturgy," Christopher Wheeldon's haunting, gorgeously angular but sculptural pas de deux for Wendy Whelan and Craig Hall -- the New York City Ballet stars who have forged a remarkable partnership that allows them to breathe as one -- came next. Set to soul-piercing music by Arvo Part, this subtle yet daringly intimate work, which emerges from a sort of semi-light, showcased the dancers' astonishing control, with a moment of something close to levitation now embedded in my memory.

Choreographer Paul Taylor's frenzied and ferocious work, "Last Look," set to a savage score by Donald York, captured the emotional upheaval of male-female relationships that appear to have crashed and burned. Relentless, despairing and brilliant, the piece is an unexpurgated emotional exorcism, at once angry, punishing and erotic. And the nine young performers of the Juilliard Dance ensemble (who seemed double that number thanks to Alex Katz's ingenious mirrored panel set), attacked this modern day "Rite of Spring" (or "Spring Awakening") as if there were no tomorrow. Riveting dance theater.

Pure rhythmic play and gestural humor were of the essence in Robert Battle's "Takademe," the irresistible solo set to the verbal hijinks and kathak Indian beat of vocalist Sheila Chandra, and danced with phenomenal wit and precision by Kanji Segawa (who just happens to be married to Jessica Lang).

Lar Lubovitch, a co-founder of the festival, brought his New York company here to dance "Coltrane's Favorite Things." Only rarely did the choreographer's lyrically jazzy approach to the music have anything innovative to say in response to Coltrane's hard-core bebop version of the popular Richard Rodgers melody. And aside from the brilliant, altogether cocky dancing of Jonathan E. Alsberry -- the sole black dancer in the ensemble who obviously "got" the music and knew exactly how to make it his own -- this piece seemed like a protracted exercise in filling time.

The program closed with the Mark Morris Dance Group performing Morris' "V," another large-scale and somewhat overly long work, but one filled with ebullient dancing (Morris can mix folk dance patterns and leonine lunges). It was buoyed immeasurably by the presence of five superb musicians playing Robert Schumann's "Quintet in E Flat for Piano and Strings."

NOTE: The festival moves outdoors to Millennium Park's Pritzker Pavilion at 7:30 tonight, with performances by the Joffrey, Britain's Royal Ballet, Ballet West, Alvin Ailey II and more.