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The Best of 2014: Dance Events

One of the most intriguing trends during Chicago’s 2014 dance season was a renewed focus on storytelling, with dance companies clearly beginning to reawaken to the power of narrative as an anchor for both performers and audiences.

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago’s hugely successful collaboration with The Second City, “The Art of Falling,” proved the point, and plans are now afoot to try to remount the show. Meanwhile, the Joffrey Ballet’s daring modernist version of “Romeo and Juliet,” its artfully reimagined take on “Swan Lake,” and its staging of the richly exotic “RAkU” (all enhanced by a superb use of projections), suggested that not only could the stories in the classical ballet repertoire blossom through new interpretations, but that new stories, too, could be spun using the classical vocabulary.

There were other notable surprises this season. Chief among them was the arrival of Visceral Dance Chicago, which burst onto the scene with such imaginative, highly polished performances at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance that it was difficult to believe this was a brand new company.

Here are some of the season’s highlights:

HUBBARD STREET DANCE CHICAGO: In addition to “The Art of Falling” (in which an excerpt from a work by choreographer Alejandro Cerrudo kept many non-dance aficionados wholly spellbound), the company’s spring program of works by Jiri Kylian, the European master, also was a knockout, especially “Sarabande,” for six men (set to electronic arrangements of Bach) and “Falling Angels,” for eight women, set to Steve Reich’s “Drumming.”

THE JOFFREY BALLET: Now celebrating its 20th anniversary as a Chicago company, the Joffrey is in fantastic shape. Its impressive, first-ever production of “Swan Lake” came in the form of Christopher Wheeldon’s inspired take on the story — a dreamy reality-meets-fantasy version inspired by Degas’ late 19th century paintings of the Paris Opera Ballet. The company’s wildly adventurous version of “Romeo and Juliet” brought Shakespeare’s story into 20th century Italy thanks to the wonderfully expressive contemporary choreography of Krzysztof Pastor and the use of richly cinematic black-and-white projections. And a short engagement of mixed rep included a stunning revival of “Prodigal Son,” Balanchine’s telling of the biblical story, plus the dazzling debut of Yuri Possokhov’s, “RAkU,” based on a true story from Japan.

VISCERAL DANCE CHICAGO: It’s always great to arrive at the theater with no idea of what to expect and to leave in a state of surprise and delight. And so it was when I caught artistic director Nick Pupillo’s contemporary company in its debut at the Harris Theater last spring. Right out of the starting gate it had it all: technically sleek, expressive dancers; compelling choreography by Pupillo and an ideally chosen array of others; and superb design elements. My first impression was confirmed with its return to the Harris this fall, where, as part of another mixed bill, the company performed the hugely engaging world premiere of Harrison McEldowney’s “Cool Love HD,” an almost magically assembled piece that spun off pre-show video interviews of audience members riffing on love, loss and the joy of dance.

THE TREY MCINTYRE PROJECT: Just before McIntyre disbanded his successful company he made a touring stop at the Harris Theater with “The Vinegar Works: Four Dances of Moral Instruction,” and he left the audience mourning the loss of the troupe. “The Vinegar Works” was eye-popping theater, with brilliant interpretations of the characters found in the bizarrely playful gothic illustrations and writings of Chicago-born Edward Gorey. The dancers were sensational. So were the wildly ingenious costumes and puppetry, and the live performance of the score — the music of Shostakovich.

PAUL TAYLOR DANCE COMPANY: This renowned New York-based troupe, led by its namesake (who is still choreographing at age 84), makes only the rarest visits to Chicago. The program was a superb reminder of the way Taylor can create characters and tell a story (often about the American spirit, good and bad) in the subtlest yet most affecting ways. “Black Tuesday” (from 2001) captured the high-spirited souls of the Great Depression of the 1930s, from vaudevillians to doughboys and showgirls, while “Sunset” (1983) suggested the camaraderie and intimations of mortality among soldiers heading off to war. I was left wondering why Taylor never choreographed a Broadway musical.

ALVIN AILEY AMERICAN DANCE THEATER: When Robert Battle became artistic director of the Ailey company in 2011, he said one of his chief goals was to expand the company’s rep to include the full array of international masterworks. He was true to his word, and in its spring visit to the Auditorium Theatre the company dazzled with its performance of Wayne McGregor’s fiendishly difficult “Chroma,” originally created for London’s Royal Ballet in 2006. A stunner.

LARRY YANDO IN “DANCE OF DEATH” AT WRITERS THEATRE: Larry Yando is one of Chicago’s finest and most tireless actors with a unique ability to capture his characters’ body language. His half-deranged, hallucinatory dance of life and death in this play by August Strindberg lasted no more than a minute. But it was a masterpiece.

THE BEST CHOREOGRAPHY FOR MUSICALS: On stages both large and small, this was a fabulous season for theatrical choreography. Among the best examples were: The national tour of “Newsies” (choreographed by Christopher Gattelli); “The Wild Party” at Bailiwick Chicago (by Brenda Didier); “On the Town” at Marriott Theatre (by Alex Sanchez); “Brigadoon” at the Goodman Theatre and “Mary Poppins” at The Paramount in Aurora (both by Rachel Rockwell); “The King and I” at the Marriott (by Tommy Rapley), and “Young Frankenstein” at Drury Lane (by Tammy Mader).

DANCE FOR LIFE: Though a one-night-only benefit program, this concert (featuring the Joffrey, Hubbard Street, Giordano Dance Chicago, River North Dance Chicago, Visceral Dance Chicago and the Ensemble Español Spanish Dance Theater), was a vivid reminder of the huge pool of dance talent that now animates this city.