Love is in the air and so is dance

February 11, 2011
Lucia Mauro


Valentine’s Day is just around the corner. So is spring. That means LOVE is in the air! That’s especially true for two local dance companies. River North Dance Chicago and The Joffrey Ballet are celebrating the loving season with romantic moves – from the tango to the waltz. River North Dance Chicago performs “Al Sur Del Sur” today through Sunday at the Harris Theater in Chicago.

The Joffrey Ballet kicks off its week and a half run of “The Merry Widow” Wednesday at the Auditorium Theatre. WBEZ dance critic Lucia Mauro got caught up in the sensual swirl:

It just doesn’t get more seductive than the tango. This intricate partnering dance that originated in the barrios of Buenos Aires truly embodies a vertical expression of a horizontal desire. Yet various tango spectacles that breeze through town tend to favor flashy moves, macho posturing and a chronological timeline of the dance’s history. Not so for River North Dance Chicago, a local troupe that masterfully combines ballet, jazz, contemporary and social dace.

For the company’s annual Valentine’s engagement at the Harris Theater, artistic director Frank Chaves commissioned a suite of tangos by Argentinean tango superstars Sabrina and Ruben Veliz. The six-part dance, titled Al Sur Del Sur, tells the story of five couples and their tender and tumultuous relationships. The choreographers use movement as a vehicle to express these conflicting emotions. So the piece, as a whole, has a more believable and authentic feel than mere displays of showy kicks and spins.

At its core, the tango is shaped like a spiral that requires partners to navigate the push and pull of attraction. In one part of Al Sur Del Sur, an unbridled romantic duet blends the dance’s characteristic slicing and dicing of the legs with more open lifts. This section segues into a tempestuous quartet. It brilliantly reveals sexual tension, jealousy and flirtatiousness through a sharp turn of the head, eyes locking in a freeze-frame flash of lust, aggressive dips, and a firm grabbing of a stiletto heel. There’s even a loving duet for two women, who dance barefoot, and seem to be consoling each other. The piece culminates in a seemingly improvised milonga, or tango club setting, where all these characters come to escape from their daily problems.

The Joffrey Ballet’s staging of The Merry Widow takes the waltz as its movement motif. But it’s no less steamy. This Chicago premiere is a full-length staging by British choreographer Ronald Hynd of the ballet version of Franz Lehar’s classic operetta. Originally created in 1975 for the Australian Ballet, The Merry Widow uses a lush and uncluttered musical adaptation of the Lehar score by John Lanchbery and Alan Abbott. The music’s melodic expressiveness and the dance’s conversational elegance clearly tell this beloved story set in a fictitious French principality at the turn of the century. There’s also a famous can-can dance sequence and lots of fancy hats, epaulets and tight waistcoats. Hanna, a poor-girl-turned-wealthy-heiress is unexpectedly reunited with the man who once rejected her: Count Danilo, now trying to save his country from bankruptcy.

Complications naturally ensue. In addition, a scandalous subplot involves a clerk named Camille who is having an affair with a feisty young woman, Valencienne, who is married to an old baron. In one of the ballet’s lustier scenes, Valencienne enters the busy Camille’s office and teases him by snatching away the various pieces of paper he’s reading. Unable to concentrate, Camille sweeps up his lover and drags her across his desk. The duet that follows vacillates between the coy and the uncontained as the woman trots like a horse while Camille kisses her hand, or resists his advances. In the end, the pair falls into each other’s arms with abandon…only to be observed by a hidden spy.

Both River North Dance Chicago and the Joffrey Ballet stoke the flames of passion through timeless stories and provocative movement. A perfect way to celebrate Valentine’s Day.