It’s not often that you leave a performance surrounded by more than 2,000 people in a state of electric ecstasy quite as palpable as it was on Tuesday night in the lobby of the Auditorium Theatre. But that, more than anything, encapsulates the success story that is the Chicago Dancing Festival, which this week is celebrating its 10th anniversary as a remarkable, wide-ranging and (perhaps most crucially) totally free showcase of dance from Chicago and beyond.

The opening-night salvo was nothing short of sublime — from the traditional onstage gathering of all the dancers set to perform during the course of the evening, to the standing ovation for the final work on the program, “Episode 31,” Alexander Ekman’s wildly contemporary ritualistic explosion of the life force. The Ekman work was performed by the Joffrey Ballet with such freedom you might think it was being improvised, although it was meticulously choreographed and technically demanding in ways that went far beyond the realm of pointe shoes.

CHICAGO DANCING FESTIVAL
Highly recommended
When: Through Aug. 27
Where: Several venues
Tickets: Free, but check website for guidelines
Info:
www.chicagodancingfestival.com

The evening began with a classic: The Pennsylvania Ballet dancing “Concerto Barocco,” George Balanchine’s 1948 work that is as clear an homage to the art of pointe work as can be imagined. Set to Bach’s “Concerto in D Minor for Two Violins,” it also illustrates Balanchine’s maxim that “ballet is woman,” with two lead dancers (Lillian Di Piazza and Marria Cosentino) and a corps of eight women periodically accompanied by a single male (James Ihde). In many ways “Concerto” feels like an elaborate advanced ballet class, with all the synchrony and competition it can inspire. Fast-paced and demanding, with ever-shifting patterns that play on the musical patterns of the Bach score, it was strongly danced, but the rigor seemed to suppress a certain overall sense of joy.

For those who crave an element of theater in their dancing, nothing could be more magnificent than Martha Graham’s “Appalachian Spring,” her 1944 masterwork set to Aaron Copland’s glorious score and codified by Isamu Noguchi’s minimalist farmhouse set. Watching it performed by the Martha Graham Dance Company — now in its 90th anniversary season — was a glorious experience.

The Martha Graham Dance Company in Graham's "Appalachian Spring" at the Chicago Dancing Festival. (Photo: Cheryl Mann)

The Martha Graham Dance Company in Graham’s “Appalachian Spring” at the Chicago Dancing Festival. (Photo: Cheryl Mann)

With passion and wit in equal measure, Graham captured the buoyant, God-fearing spirit of the American pioneer through a collection of superbly limned characters: a spirited, dream-filled young Bride (in a remarkable performance by Charlotte Landreau); her serious Husbandman (fleetly danced by Lloyd Mayor); a more experienced Pioneering Woman (regal, stern-faced Konstantina Xintara); a charismatic Preacher (expertly etched by Lorenzo Pagano, a tall, lean dancer with the ideal ramrod-straight back for this role); and the Preacher’s groupie-like Followers (Laurel Dalley Smith, Anne O’Donnell, Anne Souder and Xin Ying, all excellent). Rarely have jumps been seen in so many variations, and capable of such eloquence.

Next up on this ideally programmed concert was “Who Cares?,” a very different sort of Balanchine ballet featuring six stellar dancers from the New York City Ballet. Capturing the choreographer’s more Broadway-influenced style, the piece is a series of technically bravura yet playfully seductive and jazzy solos and duets set to the music of George Gershwin. The dancers included the delicately beautiful and musical Sterling Hyltin; the gyroscopic Brittany Pollack, a master of blazing footwork; the flirtatious, long-limbed Teresa Reichlen; the handsomely commanding Amar Ramasar; Daniel Ulbricht, a firecracker romantic with a hint of Baryshnikov about him, and Ask La Cour.

Dancers from the New York City Ballet in George Balanchine's 'Who Cares?" at the Chicago Dancing Festival. (Photo: Cheryl Mann)

Dancers from the New York City Ballet in George Balanchine’s “Who Cares?” at the Chicago Dancing Festival. (Photo: Cheryl Mann)

Finally, there was “Episode 31,” prefaced by a hugely engaging video about the process of working on this piece that was driven by the funny, charming, entertaining comments of the Joffrey dancers themselves. It was an ideal warmup for this absurdist piece that is one part “Lord of the Flies,” one part soccer hooligan mash-up, one part prep school initiation rite, and one part youthful exorcism, and features everything from riffs on poetry and color, to brief verbal outbursts, to a flash of lip-synching, an enigmatic slow-motion walking man and a placard carrier whose sign reads “Beautiful.” I might have added a second placard: “Something Wild.” To be sure, the audience went wild for it all. And it served as just one more proof that the Joffrey (returning to the Auditorium Theatre, Oct. 13-23, with its stunningly modern production of “Romeo and Juliet”) can perform anything and everything.

Note: Thursday night’s festival program at the Harris Theatre for Music and Dance will feature Martha Graham’s “Diversion of Angels”; Aszure Barton + Artists’ “Awaa”; Dr. Rennie Harris’ “Students of the Asphalt Jungle”; Joffrey dancers April Daly and Fabrice Calmels in a pas de deux from Lar Lubovitch’s “Othello,” and Hubbard Street Dance Chicago in Crystal Pite’s Solo Echo. Saturday’s finale in Millennium Park will feature Randy Duncan’s “Depth of Light” (seen this past Saturday at the Dance for Life concert); a repeat of “Concerto Barocco”; Joffrey dancers Victoria Jaiani and Temur Suluashvili in a pas de deux from Christopher’s Wheeldon’s “After the Rain”; “Students of the Asphalt Jungle”; Royal Ballet dancers in a pas de deux from Kenneth MacMillan’s “Romeo and Juliet,” and Hubbard Street in William Forsythe’s “One Flat Thing.” I’d call that a must-see program.