Julia Rhoads is a choreographer with all the instincts of a born satirist.
If you were to draw a comic strip about her she would be in a rehearsal studio, dressed in sweats, surrounded by dancers. And the bubble above her head might read: “OK, let’s start with a jump, but, in line with our non-profit mission statement, I need you to invest that jump with all the outreach you can possibly muster.”
It’s not that Rhoads — whose 15-year-old company Lucky Plush Productions premiered her collaborative 85-minute, multimedia dance-theater work “Trip the Light Fantastic: The Making of SuperStrip” for one night only at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance on Thursday — is cynical.
But she is brainy and intensely self-aware. And as “SuperStrip” suggests through its mix of zany, often-deadpan humor and a certain ruefulness, there is a constant inner commentary working alongside her impulse to make dances.
Rhoads — whose company was among 14 Chicago arts organizations to receive a MacArthur Foundation Award for Creative and Effective Institutions last month — understands she is part of a crazy tilting-at-windmills profession. At the same time, she is keenly attuned to the world beyond the dance studio. So even if she can’t do much to change it (beyond assembling a purposefully diverse group of performers), she cannot ignore it.
And “SuperStrip” is nothing if not an encyclopedic look at everything from climate change and eco-consciousness, to the entrenched nature of hierarchical society, the feminist mindset and the power of the collective versus the individual. It also winningly slices through all the cliches of contemporary dance-making jargon and grant proposal language (in fact, her performers talk almost as much as they move).
The drolly understated Sojourner Wright serves as onstage media performer, focusing the video camera, communing with her laptop and recapping the various sequences of devised movement and discussions she has taped as the dance is “being made” before our eyes. Process is crucial to Rhoads.
Meanwhile, seven dancers don the tattered remnants of the washed-up comic-book superheros they once were and try to embark on a new mission as members of a think tank for do-gooders. As it happens, they appear to be ordinary dancers trying to tap the superheros within themselves in order to do battle with “a world where injustice prevails and the forces of evil are too complex for most well-intentioned heroes to deal with.”
The work, commissioned by the Harris Theater and the Pamela Crutchfield Dance Fund, is a tongue-in-cheek chronicle of how each segment in the piece is devised. We meet the seven characters and watch as their egos and personal motivations collide in what is far from a kumbaya environment.
There is Springster, who wants to fly again (an ideal name for Cuban-born Michel Rodruguez Cintra, who has the fleet moves of a gymnast, and is immense fun to watch), and Professor Visionne (Elizabeth Luse), who is trying to regain her exceptional sight, and The Big Liberjinski (Benjamin Wardell), part Liberace, part Nijinsky, who is more soloist than collectivist in temperament. There is Rapid Glitch (Daniel Gibson), the hipster who moves to his own beat; Mmm (Melinda Jean Myers), a recent mother convinced her breast milk can save the world from hunger; and Shadow (Marc Macaranas), who fancies himself the controlling force of the group. Gently chiding them all into some cohesion is Sparky Lightstep (the spot-on Meghann Wilkinson), who clearly is Rhoads’ comic alter ego.
The most priceless and revealing moment in the show is an experiment in hierarchy, as the dancers are asked to line themselves up in order of most to least powerful. The jockeying among men and women and those of different ethnic backgrounds, education levels and immigration status comes into play in the simplest, most telling, laughter-inducing ways.
Liviu Pasare’s winningly manipulated and real-time video and media projections — which have a sort of animated graphic novel effect — are seen on 10 square screens that serve as a movable backdrop. And there is original music by Michael Caskey, sound design by Mikhel Fiksel and lighting by Kevin Rechner.
“SuperStrip” would benefit from a more eye-popping final dance. But maybe in its current form it’s meant to be a reminder that these are humans, and the superhero dreams is just what gets them through the day.