Superb performances punctuate Chicago Dance Festival

August 24, 2011
Chicago Sun-Times
Hedy Weiss

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The Chicago Dancing Festival, which is expected to attract more than 20,000 people to its events by the time it culminates Aug. 27 with a big, free gala concert at the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park, got its official start Aug. 22 at a performance and benefit at the Museum of Contemporary Art.

By then the news was out: All the programs at the four festival venues (where tickets were free but had to be pre-reserved) were “sold out.” And in his enthusiastic introductory speech, Mayor Emanuel (even taking a quote about dance from the Gospel of Matthew), said he hoped to see the festival double in size and reach over the next four years. A very good beginning, indeed.

But it many ways the city’s grand late summer celebration of dance had already begun a couple of evenings earlier as Dance for Life, the annual fundraiser that celebrated its 20th anniversary this year, filled all of the 3,800 seats at the Auditorium Theatre for a hugely impressive program by Chicago dancers and dance companies. (the tickets there were far from free, and the event raised a record $350,000 for the fund that now supports not only HIV/AIDS service organizations, but the more broadly focused Dancers’ Fund.

And for the record, there was spectacular dancing on view at Dance for Life: A gorgeous performance by Hubbard Street Dance Chicago of sections from Alonzo King’s “Following the Subtle Current Upstream”; a knockout introduction to a new member of the Joffrey Ballet, Rory Hohenstein, who performed a fiendishly difficult jazzy solo by Lar Lubovitch to music by Dave Brubeck; and a terrifically theatrical world premiere, “Queenz,” by Harrison McEldowney. Set to the music of Farrokh Bulsara, aka Freddie Mercury of the rock band Queen, McEldowney’s piece brought together about 20 dancers from many different companies for a crazy sea shantylike work involving aerialists in a giant suspended fishing net. Also on the bill were Giordano Jazz Dance Chicago, River North Dance Chicago, and the recently formed Ron De Jesus Dance (in excerpts from “B-Suite,” a bravura, Apache-style floor-show-like romp featuring the sensational Kristine Bendul). A rousing new grand finale, “Stand by Me,” choreographed by Randy Duncan, brought the audience to its feet.

The Aug. 19 performance at the MCA was an homage to the art of the duet in many guises, with choreographer Lar Lubovitch, co-founder of the Chicago Dancing Festival, speaking eloquently about the extraordinary degree of communication, and the bond of trust and risk-taking involved in performing such work.

The Joffrey’s husband-and-wife team of Victoria Jaiani and Temur Suluashvili got things started with a pristinely beautiful performance of the “White Swan” pas de deux, followed by the sinewy and seductive dancing of Penny Saunders and Alejandro Cerrudo in a duet from King’s “Following the Subtle Current Upstream.” Then came the absolutely breathtaking Shaker Interior duet from “Snow on the Mesa,” created by theater director/choreographer/designer Robert Wilson. A gorgeously stylized male-female power game that suggested the Asian influence on Martha Graham’s work (with one of Wilson’s spare, trademark benches as the only set piece), it was danced to stunning effect by Xiaochuan Xie, an otherworldly beauty of riveting expressiveness, and Tadej Brdnik, both of the Graham company. (It will be repeated Aug. 24 at the 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. performances at the MCA, so get in line for returned tickets if you can.)

Brian Brooks’ marathonlike “Motor,” in which two men “jogged” in parallel to the music of Jonathan Pratt, was interesting to start but grew wearisome. Installation artist Walter Dundervill’s indulgent riff on “Swan Lake” (with Jennifer Kjos) was a mess of fabric, bondage and meaninglessness, despite a halfway watchable sequence of dress-draping.

The Aug. 20 program at the Harris Theatre, the “Moderns,” offered an intriguing look at a wide variety of work that (with a single exception) was created during the past five years. Complex structure was of the essence in each piece.

Opening the evening was Spanish choreographer Cayetano Soto’s “Uneven,” a wholly brilliant exploration of fiercely disciplined off-kilteredness — all stark angles, hairpin moves, lightning speed and ferociously difficult partnering. It was danced to riveting effect by the uniformly virtuosic Aspen Santa Fe Ballet. And while it arrived onstage just hours after the East Coast earthquake, and might have been seen as echoing that upheaval, what it really suggested as a daggerlike internalupendedness. The dancers, in sleek, simple, geometrically-patterned, black-and-white costumes, moved on a white tentlike set, with the superb onstage cellist, Kimberly Patterson, playing David Lang’s stringent, powerful score against a taped accompaniment.

The closing work, “Too Beaucoup,” Israeli choreographer Sharon Eyal’s 30-minute marathon — created earlier this year for Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, and danced better than ever by this company that can do anything and everything — suggested a different sort of disorientation. In their flesh-toned bodysuits and platinum wigs, the 15 dancers, moving to a mix of pop tunes, conjured a world in which a manic, mechanical, conforming drive easily ceded to something just a bit more recognizably human in its yearning. At once zombielike and eerily sexy (yet at the same time oddly sexless), they brought to mind everything from a Pac-Man army to an animated version of those great terra cotta warriors unearthed in China years ago.

The sheer rigor of both these pieces was astonishing, as it was, too, in one of the novelty works on the program — Charles Moulton’s “Nine Person Precision Ball Passing.” Originally created in 1980, it has been specially set on nine dancers from River North Dance Chicago for the festival. True to its title, this mind-boggling exercise in patterning, coordination and concentration is a work of synchronized hand-to-hand juggling (a sort of “living Rubik’s Cube” as the program described it), in which nine dancers — seated in threes on each of three levels — pass balls in complex, rhythmical sequences. The River North dancers were terrific, quietly counting and smiling throughout. But, as with the two previously described works, a sense of terror must grab hold before each performance. (The piece also will be part of Saturday night’s program.)

Serving as the second act appetizer Aug. 20 was “Worst Pies in London,” Addam Barruch’s insanely nutty physical comedy take on the classic Stephen Sondheim song from “Sweeney Todd.” Although Liz McCartney is giving Barruch a run for his money with her portrayal of Mrs. Lovett in the current Drury Lane Oakbrook production of the musical, this rail-thin, madcap fellow with a demented street urchin look pounds that dough (and his own slight frame) with zest.

Also on the program was the New York-based Doug Varone and Dancers in Varone’s “Lux,” set to the fluid, relentless music of Philip Glass. The dancers moved well, the light shifted, and the piece grew ever more tedious. Though a fan of Glass’ music, I am of the firm belief that choreographers should be banned from using his music for at least a decade, or until they have something fresh to say with it.

Happily, there is much, much more to come, and look for it here as the festival unfolds.

And remember: The big Aug. 27 finale in Millennium Park requires no advance preparation. It begins at 7:30 p.m., and even if you don’t find an ideal seat you can watch it all on one of the giant video screens.