Nation’s top troupes seen by mayor, thousands at dancing festival

August 28, 2011
Chicago Sun-Times
Hedy Weiss


From the very start it has been the audience as much as the performances that has been the essence of the Chicago Dancing Festival.

Saturday’s fifth annual Celebration of Dance at Millennium Park’s Pritzker Pavilion only confirmed this fact, as Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who arrived onstage (in jeans and sport coat) for the briefest of introductions, looked out on what he estimated to be a gathering of 10,000 enthusiastic spectators, all of whom had gathered to watch six major U.S. dance companies perform in what is said to be the largest free dance concert in the country.

On an evening of weather so perfect you had to believe the gods of dance were in a particularly joyous frame of mind, that enormous crowd sat rapt for 2 1/2 nonstop hours of poetry in motion, including one memorably lovely little turn by a scene-stealing bird who briefly breezed across the stage on the wings of music by Bach.

The Bach (violin concertos both soaring and mournful) propelled “Esplanade,” Paul Taylor’s supremely lovely 1975 dance that draws on the most basic human movements — walks, runs, doubletakes, jumps, crawls, leaps, falls and gentle rocking — and turns them into a dance of glorious delight and deep emotion. Suggesting relationships alternately playful, teasing and affectionate, the work shifts in mood from a trusting circle of friends, to more intimate pairs, to genuine loneliness. The Taylor dancers, strong and unaffected, brought the evening to a warmly celebratory close.

Coming just before them was one of those essential classical fireworks showcases — Balanchine’s “Tchai­kov­sky Pas de Deux” ­— danced by New York City Ballet stars Tiler Peck and Gonzalo Garcia. But it came with a palpable difference. Both these dancers are absolutely brilliant technicians who also possess a gift for making that technique seem second nature. This was easily the most exuberant, confident, richly musical performance of this fiendishly difficult showpiece I’ve ever seen. Peck, a radiant, bold but wholly unforced dancer, made everything seem effortless, as was the chemistry between the two. The bravos were richly deserved.

The Martha Graham Dance Company performed “Diversion of Angels,” Graham’s 1948 piece about the various guises of love that is set to Norman Dello Joio’s intriguing score and involves three couples and a small chorus. With a few exceptions (notably Carrie Ellmore-Tallitsch and Xiaochuan Xie), the company seems to have lost some of the tight, edgy fire of Graham’s technique, particularly the use of the slow, sustained contraction and sudden release that give her dances such dramatic impact. Overall, the company looked a bit too lyrical and balletic.

The Joffrey Ballet was in excellent form, dancing Balanchine’s neoclassical “Stravinsky Violin Concerto.” Two very difficult, complex, starkly gestural and acrobatic central duets are key here, with a chorus fusing them into a larger fabric with sequences drawing on Russian folk moves. The duets were danced with particular brilliance by Valerie Robin and Fabrice Calmels (both strong, statuesque and independent), and Victoria Jaiani and Temur Suluashvili (a couple of extraordinary physical beauty and delicacy). Jaiani has long been a Joffrey treasure, but in recent performances Suluashvili has demonstrated a new and formidable technical polish and true nobility.

The program opened with an exuberant performance of Jiri Kylian’s demanding, high-momentum, mood-shifting “Sinfonietta,” danced by Salt Lake City’s Ballet West. Set to the music of Janacek. this is not one of Kylian’s most innovative and mysterious works, but it established the mood of pure dance for the night. (The woman in the two-tone gray costume, whose name I was unable to obtain, was outstanding.)

Also on the bill was Charles Moulton’s “Nine Person Precision Ball Passing,” the clever if relentless synchronized hand-dancing/juggling work performed three different times during the weeklong festival by River North Dance Chicago — a company that deserves to be seen in its far fuller glory. Maybe next year. Meanwhile, it was quite a night on every count.