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Chicago Dancing Festival triumphs at Millennium Park finale

The many dancers who performed as part of the 10th annual Chicago Dancing Festival in Millennium Park gathered for a bow on Saturday night. (Photo: Cheryl Mann)

One of the great pleasures of the Chicago Dancing Festival, which wrapped up its 10th anniversary celebration in high-flying style Saturday night at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park, is experiencing the interplay of many different companies and choreographers during the course of just a couple of hours, and being reminded of just how varied the languages of dance can be.

To be sure, there can be no more polar opposites of movement styles than the pas de deux from Christopher Wheeldon’s “After the Rain,” an exquisite work of contemporary ballet with an almost otherworldy lightness, and the altogether mind-blowing breakdance acrobatics of Dr. Rennie Harris’ “Students of the Asphalt Jungle.” And the comparisons are just as stark between the heart-stopping beauty of Kenneth MacMillan’s “Romeo and Juliet” pas de deux and the gonzo ferocity of William Forsythe’s “One Flat Thing, reproduced,” a work for (yes) 15 heavy-duty metal tables and dancers.

Yet the impulse to use the body – enhanced by the most grueling forms of training, and dedicated to a tightly wired expression of the life force – unites all of these “languages.” And watching how various works can play off each other when performed back-to-back triggers a unique sense of delight.

Many of the works on the final program were already seen as part of the weeklong festival performed on the stages of the Auditorium Theatre, the Harris Theater for Music and Dance and the Museum of Contemporary Art Theater. But there also were a couple of thrilling fresh additions by way of the brilliantly danced Wheeldon and MacMillan pas de deuxs. And the overall pacing of the evening could not have been more ideal.

Set to a hauntingly lovely score by the contemporary Estonian composer Arvo Part, the duet from Wheeldon’s “After the Rain” – performed to breathtaking effect (and a standing ovation) by the Joffrey Ballet’s Victoria Jaiani and Temur Suluashvili – is a masterful exploration of an intimate relationship that moves in something close to slow motion. Though rooted in classical technique it requires much floor work and acrobatic movement (Jaiani’s backbends alter the meaning of that move, and the pair’s lifts are close to flight). And Jaiani and Suluashvili – a real-life couple of surpassing beauty – executed it all with such perfect seamlessness that you could almost hear a pin drop in the huge, totally rapt Millennium Park audience. Wheeldon (who directed and choreographed the Broadway hit, “An American in Paris,” and is creating a re-imagined “Nutcracker” for the Joffrey Ballet to debut here in December) is a great modern romantic.

Victoria Jaiani and Temur Suluashvili performed a duet from Christopher Wheeldon’s “After the Rain” at the finale of the 10th annual Chicago Dancing Festival in Millennium Park. (Photo: Cheryl Mann)
Victoria Jaiani and Temur Suluashvili performed a duet from Christopher Wheeldon’s “After the Rain” at the finale of the 10th annual Chicago Dancing Festival in Millennium Park. (Photo: Cheryl Mann)

The “Romeo and Juliet” pas de deux, MacMillan’s gorgeously theatrical evocation of the rapture of first love, set to the music of Sergei Prokofiev, was danced by Marcelino Sambe and Francesca Hayward – two extraordinary guest artists from Britain’s Royal Ballet who share a palpable chemistry. Sambe (who should, by all rights, be world famous by now), is a Portuguese-born dancer whose gorgeous, easily gravity-defying technique is an ideal blend of grace, effortlessness and dramatic truth. He also happens to be a superb partner. Hayward’s quicksilver spirit and natural acting also is paired with impeccable, fluid technique, and her Juliet possessed a sweetness and fire that was the perfect match for her Romeo’s ardor. Glorious.

Marcelino Sambe and Francesca Hayward of Britain’s Royal Ballet in a pas de deux from Kenneth MacMillan’s “Romeo and Juliet.” (Photo: Cheryl Mann,)
Marcelino Sambe and Francesca Hayward of Britain’s Royal Ballet in a pas de deux from Kenneth MacMillan’s “Romeo and Juliet.” (Photo: Cheryl Mann,)

Saturday’s outdoor gala concert featured the two best works on the Festival’s earlier “Modern Men” concert – “Students of the Asphalt Jungle,” performed by an ensemble of eight Olympic-level African American males from the Rennie Harris Puremovement company of Philadelphia, and “Awaa,” performed by a trio of terrific dancers from the New York-based Aszure Barton + Artists company.

In “Asphalt Jungle,” eight knockout breakdancers in white sweat pants moved with whirling dervish-like speed through turbo-charged routines, finessing eye-popping multiple self-propelled back flips, elastic half-splits, gyroscopic head spins and more. The playfully competitive nature of the work was enhanced by the highly individual body type, hair style, age and specialty stunt of each dancer.

In the Trio excerpt from her work, “Awaa” (which translates roughly as “spirit”), Barton, who just happens to be a white, female, Canadian-bred choreographer, demonstrates that ethnic and cultural lines need not be rigidly matched when it comes to creating great art. Using a richly rhythmic score by Curtis MacDonald, Barton sends three bare-chested guys (Jonathan Emanuell Alsberry, William Briscoe and Oscar Ramos, all superb) into a tribal, sensual, hypnotic, perpetual motion, Afro-Cuban-like series of ritualistic moves that (especially in the wake of a brief final verbal riff on “Take me to the river”) becomes a sort of exorcism/baptism. As this piece demonstrates, one of Barton’s great gifts is for crafting work that perfectly fits her dancers’ personalities.

Members of the Rennie Harris Puremovement company in “Students of the Asphalt Jungle.” (Photo: Cheryl Mann)
Members of the Rennie Harris Puremovement company in “Students of the Asphalt Jungle.” (Photo: Cheryl Mann)

Also on the program was the Pennsylvania Ballet’s reprise of its performance of “Concerto Barocco,” Balanchine’s neo-classical piece set to the music of Bach. The company looked far more relaxed than it did earlier in the week at the Auditorium Theatre, as its three soloists (two women and one man), supported by an ensemble of eight women, wove the sinuous circles and other patterns in this fiendishly difficult showcase of balletic technique.

In a neat innovation this year, the finale from this summer’s Dance for Life concert – Randy Duncan’s “Depth of Light,” featuring an exuberant ensemble of 15 dancers drawn from many different Chicago companies – received a repeat performance. And Hubbard Street Dance Chicago brought the whole event to a close with William Forsythe’s “One Flat Thing, reproduced.”

The Forsythe work, with its maze-like ferocity, is best seen from above – either from a balcony seat perspective in an indoor theater, or on video (where it cane be seen shot from an overhead perch). It requires the kind of tremendous intensity and focus that the bravura Hubbard Street Dancers bring to everything they do. But by the end, this complex, war-like piece of brutal maneuvers feels like a whole lot of wasted effort and prompts a simple question: Why?

Before wrapping things up, a few words about the “Modern Men” program performed last Wednesday at the Museum of Contemporary Art Theater (an intimate venue whose large stage is ideal for dance). That hourlong concert turned out to be a fascinating study in the legacy of pioneering male choreographers, with Daniel Nagrin, Jose Limon, Merce Cunningham, Ted Shawn and Donald McKayle,each represented by a priceless bit of archival film, followed by live performances of work by their correlatives on the contemporary scene (with the brilliant Barton the sole woman among them). There was impeccable dancing throughout, including in “Concert,” by choreographer/dancer Joshua Beamish, whose gestural control over every isolated muscle in his body was used to create the portrait of a narcissist; in Brian Brooks’ duet from “Wilderness,” in which two men in black (Matthew Black and Brooks), shadowed each other; and Raushaun Mitchell + Silas Riener in their “Desire Liar (extended),” a work rooted in contact improv in which they explored heated physical attraction, emotional disconnection and the back-and-forth of a relationship.

The one unequivocal conclusion of this (crucially) free Festival is this: There is an enormous, enthusiastic audience for dance in this city, and the main thing holding it back is the price of tickets. A lottery for a certain number of free tickets to events at major venues throughout the season might be one way of holding on to this audience and eventually turning it into a paying public.

A performance of the trio from Aszure Barton’s “Awaa,” at the finale of the 10th annual Chicago Dancing Festival in Millennium Park. (Photo: Cheryl Mann)
A performance of the trio from Aszure Barton’s “Awaa,” at the finale of the 10th annual Chicago Dancing Festival in Millennium Park. (Photo: Cheryl Mann)