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Reveling in the Dance for Life spotlight

Visceral Dance Chicago in Nick Pupillo's "Vital," performed at the 25th anniversary Dance for Life benefit at the Auditorium Theatre. (Photo: Cheryl Mann)

As one close observer of the 25-year-old phenomenon that is Dance for Life cannily observed on Saturday night, the brilliance of the dancing at this annual benefit thrives on a special balance between cooperation and competition.

After all, the concert – which this year played to a sold-out house of 2,400 at the Auditorium Theatre, and raised a mightily impressive $425,000 – is designed to help support the very dancers who are performing in the event that they become ill and need help with medical and other essential bills.

On the other hand, the evening also is a major showcase for Chicago’s top dance companies – a performance seen by an audience with a notable passion for dance and dancers, as well as by others who might be newly enticed by the work of one company or another they have not experienced before. So a great deal is at stake, and a sense that everyone wants to pull out all the stops.

And so they did for this 25th anniversary celebration that also bestowed much-deserved Dance for Life Impact Awards on philanthropists Fred Eychaner and Barbara Levy Kipper, and dance video masters Scott Silberstein, Matt Hoffman and HMS Media.

Opening the program in bravura style was Giordano Dance Chicago in Gus Giordano’s 1983 “Sing, Sing, Sing,” set to an instrumental recording of Louis Prima’s rousing song. This is a work of pure, high-style, Broadway-meets-jazz flash, with more than a few nods to Bob Fosse as 10 dancers, in tuxedos and white gloves, move with pants-on-fire energy through a series of complex, rapid-fire formations that climax with a great circle and the sound of snapping fingers. Rachael Berube, Devin Buchanan, Joshuah Blake Carter, Ashley Downs, Ryan Galloway, Zachary Heller, Adam Houston, Maeghan McHale, Natasha Overturff and Katie Rafferty were terrific, with Jacob Snodgrass’ red-hued lighting adding to the heat. Talk about a curtain-raiser. (The company returned in the second half of the program with Kiesha Lalama’s sensual “Alegria.”)

Offering a sensational example of contemporary dance was Visceral Dance Chicago, the three-year-old company under artistic director Nick Pupillo that invariably demonstrates its power and sophistication. Nick Pupillo’s “Vital,” which debuted earlier this year, is even more stunning in a second viewing. Set to a sublime percussion score played live by Peter Ferry (featuring music by Ferry and David Lang), the beauty of Pupillo’s various duets, and the remarkable patterning of the ensemble (most notably in a syncopated rhythmic sequence near the end of the work), are breathtaking. And the dancers (Hanna Brictson, Brandon Coleman, Giordan Cruz, Caitlin Cucchiara, Paige Fraser, Mario Gonzalez, Noelle Kayser, Renee Lee, Owen Scarlett and Nat Wilson) were impeccable.

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago came next, with an excerpt from Crystal Pite’s “Solo Echo.” As demonstrated in this work, with its snowy, existential undertones, there are no more fluidly seamless dancers on any stage than those in Hubbard Street (with featured dancers here including Jesse Bechard, Jacqueline Burnett, Jeffery Duffy, Kellie Epperheimer, Michael Gross, Emilie Leriche and Andrew Murdock). With unique twists on contact improvisation, Pite plays with the counterbalancing of weight, and the push-pull of even the smallest gestures, to create a richly detailed and often mysterious work driven by a lush score by Brahms. (As ever, Hubbard Street’s preference for overly dark, shadowy lighting, which can obscure both the line of the dancers’ bodies and their faces, can be frustrating.)

Chicago Dance Crash, a contemporary troupe with a punkish vibe and hip-hop sensibility, performed Jessica Deahr’s acrobatic, latter-day mean streets rumble piece, “Heard That.” And then, in a complete turnaround of mood and style, the Joffrey Ballet gave a pristine rendering of Gerald Arpino’s 1983 “Round of Angels,” set to the glorious Adagietto from Mahler’s “Fifth Symphony.”

This soaring, elegiac work by Arpino (the man who moved the Joffrey Ballet from New York to Chicago in 1995 and, in doing so, immeasurably altered this city’s dance scene), captures the essential spirit of Dance for Life, which was originally created to help support those with HIV/AIDS. At the center of Saturday’s performance was the beautiful Jeraldine Mendoza, who was expertly partnered by Fabrice Calmels, and continually lifted heavenward by attending angels danced by Derrick Agnoletti, Edson Barbosa, Stefan Goncalvez, Graham Maverick and Paulo Rodrigues. Exquisite.

“Purple Medley,” a tribute to Prince choreographed by Harrison McEldowney and Jeremy Plummer, closed the program’s first half. Featuring 15 dancers (independents and members of five different companies, sexily clad in sheer black body suits with thong-like bottoms), it contained a hodge-podge of elements ranging from 1980s-style music video vogueing to aerial work, plus a sequence for three dancers on wires who rappelled up and down the black brick wall at the back of the stage.

More stirring was Randy Duncan’s finale, “Depth of Light,” set to a multi-faceted score by Andy Mitran that contained everything from Latin-tinged percussive sequences to richly rhythmic African riffs, with vocals by Annie Mitran, Louise Dimiceli-Mitran and the composer himself. The 17 dancers (from six companies, as well as independents) blended ideally in this piece whose initial floor sequence of awakening was a thing of beauty that came full circle for the work’s ending.

Serving as hosts for the evening were Carisa Barreca and Tim Mason of The Second City, clearly trying to play on the success of “The Art of Falling,” the collaboration between the improv company and Hubbard Street. But with Barreca channeling Amy Schumer, the whole thing was more garden variety vulgar than funny.

Also on Saturday: Audience Architects, the leading service organization whose goal is to build dance audiences in Chicago, announced a new citywide initiative – the “Every Day Is a Dance” campaign – partially supported by the National Endowment for the Arts. The project will include the airing of a promotional video by HMS Media at this week’s Chicago Dancing Festival, as well as at various Fall concerts and on cable TV outlets. It also will introduce “Dance Around Town,” a sampler pack that offers ticket buyers up to a 58% discount when combining three different performances by any of seven companies performing between September and December of this year. For details, visit http://www.SeeChicagoDance.com.