I will be running reviews of the three different programs that are part of this summer’s free Chicago Dancing Festival which began Wednesday night with a performance at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance that was (for the first time in the Festival’s history) simulcast in Millennium Park.
± “Classic and Creation” (Aug. 20 at the Harris Theater):
What better way to kick off a festival than with “Fancy Free,” the blithely comic story ballet created in 1944 by choreographer Jerome Robbins, set to a playfully jazzy score by composer Leonard Bernstein. Three sailors with very different personalities, but a generally punchy boys-will-be-boys spirit, arrive in Manhattan on shore leave. They head to a bar, and are quickly distracted by two very different girls, with a third one (seemingly less volatile, and a whole lot more willing) arriving late in the story.
Each sailor has a bravura solo designed to impress one or both girls, and Andrew Veyette, Daniel Ulbricht and Robert Fairchild (all stellar members of the New York City Ballet) were dazzling — one the clown, one the romantic, and the third, the roughest of the three, a guy with a flair for Latin dancing. Georgina Pazcoguin and Tiler Peck were the two women who occupied most of the men’s attention, with Teresa Reichlan as the leggy blonde siren who arrives late in the action. “Fancy Free” was the spark behind the Broadway musical “On the Town.”
The Joffrey Ballet was represented by way of a fiendishly difficult duet excerpted from Yuri Possokhov’s contemporary ballet, “The Bells,” set to music by Rachmaninoff (beautifully performed by pianist Mungunchimeg Buriad). Although this work often tries too hard to be both brash, and brashly modern, it marked the return to the stage of Victoria Jaiani (who is back in top form less than four months after giving birth to an apple-cheeked son), and her husband, Temur Suluashvili. These two are a stunning pair, and they carried off the duet’s complex, body-spiraling lifts with elan.
From the Martha Graham Dance Company came the performance of “Errand into the Maze” — one of Graham’s mythical-meets-psychological masterworks of the 1940s, set to a potent score by Gian Carlo Menotti. An extended, highly dramatic piece for a woman (and the periodically threatening presence of a man), it was danced with ferocity by tiny PeiJu Chien-Pott (as the woman who seems to be confronting her terrors, primarily sexual), and the Mintoaur (the powerfully built Abdiel Jacobsen). What many in the audience might have been unaware of is that Graham’s iconic self-designed costume (a white dress with a snaking, ropelike design in black twisting around it), and Isamu Noguchi’s iconic set (a sublime work of surrealistic sculpture) were just reconstructed courtesy of a grant from Festival supporter David Herro. Both had been ruined when Hurricane Sandy inundated the Graham company’s downtown Manhattan home, and this marked the first time the work was being seen again in its full glory.
The first of the Festival’s three commissions for this summer came in the form of “Counterpoint,” a beautiful, enigmatic, mood-altering work by choreographer Kyle Abraham, a MacArthur “genius” Fellowship Award winner. The dancers of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago — and they are a powerhouse ensemble on every level — invariably make everything they are given look splendid. They are a choreographer’s best friend. Here, in this winningly mysterious work that seems to be about both loneliness and friendship, Abraham deploys his ensemble of seven virtuosic dancers (Alice Klock, Emilie Leriche, Bryna Pascoe, Jacqueline Burnett, Alicia Delgadillo, Jesse Bechard and the wildly watchable David Shultz), in a series of solos, duets, trios and ensemble sections in which they often are partnered by light (Dan Scully is the designer) as much as by each other.
The movement of the sheer curtains that cover the back wall of the stage proved more distracting than illuminating. But the sheer, blockily cut shorts and tops in beige and black (by Reid Bartleme and Harriet Jung) are intriguing. The piece begins with an understated static soundscape (by Johan Johannsson), but then shifts to the music of a surging piano concerto by Brahms. A brief final section seemed to be set to electronically manipulated applause, suggesting this piece is about performance, too, but on first view this ending felt like an unnecessary addendum to an otherwise compelling work.
The program at the Harris closed with an ensemble of 14 dancers from The Juilliard School in Eliot Feld’s high-spirited, at moments emotionally moving “The Jig Is Up,” set to Irish and Scottish folk tunes played by The Bothy Band and John Cunningham. Neither “Riverdance” nor “Brigadoon,” it was an easily accessible (if overly long) work that served as a solid showcase for the school’s accomplished young artists. Cleo Person and Jeffery Duffy, along with Hope Dougherty and Gemma Freitas, were among the standouts.
One additional observation: While I love the traditional opening of these festival programs, in which all the dancers race onstage, and and take quick pre-show bows as their company names are called, the voice of the unseen host can be unctuous. It’s time for something fresher and more modern.
NOTE: Coming up Friday night at the Museum of Contemporary Art (the same program at 6 p.m. and 8 p.m.), will be a series of duets (including, among other pieces, repeats of “Errand into the Maze” and the duet from “The Bells”). Saturday’s grand finale features completely different works, one of the liveliest dance events of every summer, will be held on the stage of the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park. It is a guaranteed good time.
± “Dances for Two” (Aug. 22 at the Museum of Contemporary Art Theatre):
Watching dance on the spacious stage within the intimate confines of the Museum of Contemporary Art Theatre is a particular pleasure, and this program featuring five very different duets only underscored that fact.
Two of the works on display — “Errand into the Maze,” danced by two artists of the Martha Graham Company (PeiJu hien-Pott and Abdiel Jacobsen), and an excerpt from Yuri Possokhov’s “The Bells,” danced by principals of the Joffrey Ballet (Victoria Jaiani and temur Sulusashvili) — were repeats from the Harris Theater program, and they had a particularly strong impact here. The faces of these altogether gorgeous performers, and the intricacy of their moves, seemed ideally magnified here.
A newly commissioned duet by Ron De Jesus (a last minute replacement piece devised when one of the originally announced dancers for his commissioned work was sidelined with an injury), was instead set on two remarkable dancers — Autumn Eckman (of the Giordano Dance Chicago company) and Jamy Meek (formerly with Hubbard Street Dance Chicago). The anatomy of a push-pull relationship, it involved a high degree of difficulty, as well as complex psychological engagement, and was danced with riveting precision and intensity by these two exceptionally fine performers.
There was precision-tooled dancing in Pam Tanowitz’s “Passagen,” as well by way of Melissa Toogood and Maggie Cloud, though this cerebral work (set to a nerve-testing score by John Zorn, played live by violinist Pauline Kim Harris) was often hard-going. Drawing on a classical dance vocabulary, the choreography reflected the mix of classical structure and deconstruction in Zorn’s music. I admired the discipline of the artists, but ultimately it all felt too much like an intellectual exercise.
And then there were excerpts from “Belladonna, co-choreographed and performed by Adam Barruch and Chelsea Bonosky of Adam Barruch Dance. Inspired by “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” Nathaniel Hawthorne’s gothic tale of a man who falls in love with a beautiful woman with a poisonous nature, the duet is about the power of addiction, whether in the form of love or a drug (belladonna is a poisonous herb). The piece featured far too much flailing around, with Bonosky, dancing bare-breasted for much of it, with her long blonde hair serving as a teasing veil. The story is worth telling, but its development here seemed half-baked. Look at “Errand into the Maze” and you understand what dance storytelling can be.
± “Celebration of Dance” (Aug. 23 at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park):
Although a ferocious afternoon downpour clearly scared away what might have been a record-setting crowd for Saturday night’s grand finale of the eighth annual Chicago Dancing Festival in Millennium Park, the weather ultimately cooperated, and the audience turned out to be large and wildly enthusiastic.
The program — and there is a special art to mixing and matching the work of six different companies so that the overall content and dynamics of each performance plays off the others in surprising ways — was ideal.
The evening got off to a terrific start with “Cyclic Connections,” a buoyant, complex piece by Darrell Grand Moultrie (set to the infectious music of Rodrigo y Gabriela, the bravura Mexican acoustic guitar duo), commissioned specially for the 25 dancers in Chicago’s After School Matters program. The piece, which has all the polish and flash of a music video (and Moultrie has worked with Beyonce, as well as on Broadway) drew brilliantly on these teenage dancers’ individual and ensemble strengths. The polish and confidence of the performers was impressive and spirit-lifting.
Next up was the Joffrey Ballet in Twyla Tharp’s “Nine Sinatra Songs,” an ideal choice for this festival evening, as well as a winning showcase for the company’s wonderfully theatrical dancers dressed in chic costumes by Oscar de la Renta. The incomparable Sinatra stylings need no further commentary. But Tharp used them to create a series of character-driven duets, both romantic and anti-romantic, that drew on ballroom dancing as only bravura ballet-trained dancers could master.
Among the standouts were Joanna Wozniak and Lucas Segovia, hilarious as the inebriated pair in “One for My Baby (and One More for the Road”). They had the audience laughing out loud. Also wowing the audience were Anastacia Holden and Ogulcan Borova, sensational in a flamboyantly rough-and-tumble, Apache-style turn set to “That’s Life.”
Mahalia Ward and Graham Maverick were the youthful charmers in “Something Stupid”; Kara Zimmerman (freer than I’ve ever seen her), paired with the elegant Rory Hohenstein for a lovely version of “All the Way”; Amber Neumann and Derrick Agnoletti were the exuberantly zesty pair in the Latin-beat “Forget Domani”; Eric Lynette Edwards paired with Aaron Smyth for a sharp tango set to “Strangers int he Night”; and April Daly and Fabrice Calmels were the glamorous lovers in ”Softly as I Leave.” And all the couples reunite for a crazy-quilt finale set to “My Way.”
Something between an over-the-top Olympics event and a gargantuan lexicon of hip-hop and break dance came next. It was ‘Students of the Asphalt Jungle,” in which seven aerobically and acrobatically astonishing men from the Philadelphia-based Rennie Harris Pure Movement company had the audience stomping and cheering. In a mesmerizing display that at moments had the almost ritualistic power of streetwise Voodoo, the performers flipped, split, spun, vibrated, pinwheeled and otherwise displayed near superhuman feats. They left a pool of sweat on that stage that had to be mopped up before the arrival of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago.
Jiri Kylian’s “Falling Angels” (to a fabulous drum score by Steve Reich, played live by the outstanding Third Coast Percussion), turned out to be a fascinating complement to the Rennie Harris piece, as well as Graham’s “Errand into the Maze,” a work created four decades earlier. It featured seven of Hubbard Street’s own female super-athletes (Jacqueline Burnett, Alicia Delgadillo, Kellie Epperheimer, Alice Klock, Emilie Leriche, Ana Lopez, Bryna Pascoe and Jessica Tong) in a marathon of perpetual motion and ritualistic moves that suggest all aspects of the female experience, including pregnancy (wonderfully suggested by stomach-expanding tugs on their stretchy black leotards). This is a wondrous, hypnotic piece, and the Hubbard Street women perform it with stunning ferocity and wit.
For ballet pyrotechnics at their most flamboyant and challenging, the Festival presented the pas de deux from “Le Corsaire,” performed by Brooklyn Mack (the star of the Washington Ballet who thrilled Chicago audiences last summer with his Nijinsky-like leaps and barrel turns), and Ashley Ellis, a principal dancer with the Boston Ballet. Mack plays the slave hopelessly in love with a princess, but the story is not what concerns anyone here. This is a display of pure pyrotechnics (and there wasn’t much chemistry between the two dancers, although the partnering was perfection), and both dancers were superb. Mack, in golden pantaloons, soared with a remarkable mix of athletic power and lightness, and notably spot-on landings. Ellis, cool as a cucumber in her silvery tutu, was rock solid in every turn and arabesque.
The evening concluded with Eliot Feld’s “The Jig is Up,” danced by students from the Juilliard School, set to a score of Irish and Scottish tunes that sent the audience away in a high-flying mood.