The quest for language. The emerging shape of organic things. The rituals of war and mating. And the search for a higher power. Big themes, to be sure.
And each was explored in a wholly different way in Thodos Dance Chicago’s winter concert at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts on Saturday as the company presented a revival of its stirring dance-theater piece “A Light in the Dark: The Story of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan,” along with two world premieres and a remount of a work first seen in its “New Dances” program last summer.
“A Light in the Dark,” co-choreographed by Ann Reinking and Melissa Thodos, and set to the lyrical music of Bruce Wolosoff, covers much of the material familiar from the stage and film versions of “The Miracle Worker.” Helen Keller (the utterly transcendent Jessica Miller Tomlinson) is an obviously bright girl whocannot see, hear or speak, and is completely locked out of the world. She is released from that entrapment by the ferocious devotion and unyielding determination of her teacher, Anne Sullivan (portrayed with ferocity and heat by Alissa Tollefson).
Dance is an ideal medium for this story as it unfolds in 11 scenes and captures the transformation of a non-verbal wild child into a verbal, connected part of her family. A particularly winning moment comes when Sullivan demands civilized table manners, and the gradually “tamed” Keller makes a little show of folding her napkin. Helen’s exploration of her doll’s face, as well as Anne’s, and her own, is exquisite. And when we finally hear her first words, most notably “water,” it is thrilling.
The program’s second half opened with the aptly titled “Changes of Phase,” a collaboration between Thodos and Studio Gang Architects, the firm led by Chicago “starchitect” Jeanne Gang (whose team for this project included Claire Cahan, Juan de la Mora, Schuyler Smith, Mike Vallara and Juliane Wolf). Interpretations are sure to be many and varied here. For me, the piece — which begins with the dancers massed like protoplasm, all breathing in unison, and then gradually shows them differentiating themselves — feels like an exploration of the evolution of life from the sea.
Several large white plastic forms suggesting an octopus, a starfish, a seahorse and the surface of a coral reef, are manipulated. The dancers, propped on wheeled little boxes, later slide across the stage on their bellies like lizards. They then return to those plastic “shells” which gradually ascend on wires, as if the human creatures have shed their skins and become higher forms. All this sounds more intriguing than it actually appears on stage. The piece feels like an early workshop rather than a finished work, and needs far sleeker transitions and more interesting interaction with the forms.
Choreographed by Lucas Crandall, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago’s rehearsal director, “Tsuru” (Japanese for “crane,” a bird that mates for life) arrived fully polished, and was riveting in both concept and execution. Intensely ritualistic, it is an ensemble piece that homes in on two couples (sensational dancing by Diana Winfree and Joshua Manculich, and Tomlinson and Kyle Hadenfeldt), each with a different sort of erotic/combative intensity. Winfree suggests a warrior queen and Tomlinson something of a victim. Johnny Nevin’s original score, with its Japanese-influenced percussion, is thrilling. And, as evidenced throughout the program, Nathan Tomlinson is an absolute magician of lighting design, creating stunning effects and ideally sculpting bodies.
The program closed with “Panem Nostrum Quoditianum” (Latin for “Our Daily Bread”), choreographed by River North Dance Chicago’s Ahmad Simmons. This beautiful tangle of troubled, high-propelled “human angels” — set to music of the Texas Boys Choir, sections of Max Richter’s “recomposed” version of Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons,” and a voiceover of the Lord’s Prayer — is a beauty, with the level of the dancing (as it was throughout the concert) on an impressive level. The drive here is to reach heavenward, but the inspired “last word” was a great, collaborative exhalation.
NOTE: If all goes as planned with electrical repairs to the Harris Theater for Music and Dance, this program will be repeated downtown on March 8 and 9.