It was quite the news-intensive year for Chicago dance.
To begin with, the Joffrey Ballet, celebrating its 10th anniversary under Ashley Wheater’s artistic directorship, returned to New York for the first time in two decades, performing “Romeo and Juliet” at Lincoln Center. Then, just as it embarked on its initial collaboration with Lyric Opera of Chicago this past fall (a world premiere production of John Neumeier’s “Orphee et Eurydice”), it announced it was to become the resident company at Lyric beginning with the 2020-2021 season. Meanwhile, the company’s glorious production of Christopher Wheeldon’s “The Nutcracker” became the subject of a PBS documentary. The Joffrey also announced it was collaborating with the Australian Ballet on a new production of “Anna Karenina” premiering in Chicago in October 2018.
Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, celebrating its 40th anniversary, performed at New York’s City Center in October, and back home devoted a brilliant full program to the fascinating work of Canadian choreographer Crystal Pite.
Meanwhile, two of Chicago’s most dazzling percussive dance troupes — Ensemble Espanol Spanish Dance Theater and Trinity Irish Dance Company — are set to share a program (Jan. 12 and 13), at New York’s prestigious Joyce Theater, while Visceral Dance Chicago, just five years old and a force to reckon with, will be making its New York debut Jan. 18 at the Gerald Lynch Theater.
Both the level of choreography and the dancing in the many theaters now producing musicals in this city witnessed exponential growth. Following is a list of some of the best moments in dance of the 2017 season. Sadly, I could only catch a fraction of what was on view.
Joffrey Ballet in “Giselle”: The company has emphasized its flair for contemporary work in recent seasons, so its enchanting production of this quintessential classic ballet served as a lovely counterpoint, with the opening night pairing of Victoria Jaiani and Temur Suluashvili an absolutely exquisite demonstration of the romantic style.
Chicago Dance Crash in “Bricklayers of Oz”: Riffs on “The Wizard of Oz” are too numerous to count, but choreographer-dancer Jessica Deahr devised a wonderfully original, socially conscious, wholly captivating storyline for “Bricklayers,” and told it with brilliantly innovative hip-hop dance, music, costumes and lighting. The company could not have celebrated its 15th anniversary in a better way, and this production could easily enjoy a return run.
Visceral Dance Chicago in “The Dream”: Visceral’s dancers are superb movers who also possess an innately theatrical sensibility. This was evidenced everywhere in “The Dream,” a theatrical re-imagining of Dostoyevsky’s “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man” — a tale of love, loneliness, redemption and renewal choreographed by artistic director Nick Pupillo, and set to music ranging from Shostakovich to Radiohead. The onstage presence of the Chicago Philharmonic (led by Scott Speck), was fresh proof that live music changes everything when it comes to dance. The work, which received only a single performance at the Harris Theater of Music and Dance, unquestionably deserves to be remounted.
Auditorium Theatre gala: On Nov. 12 this landmark theater marked the 50th anniversary of its “re-opening” in 1967 with one of the all-around finest gala programs in memory. Two tour de force solo turns left exceptional impressions — ABT’s witty, high-flying Daniil Simkin, reminiscent of the young Baryshnikov, as a sassy boulevardier in Ben Van Cauwenberg’s “Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme,” and the volcanic Solomon Dumas of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in Robert Battle’s rhythmic wonder, “Takademe.”
Ensemble Espanol Spanish Dance Theater at North Shore Center for the Performing Arts and the Auditorium Theatre: This company may be rooted in flamenco, but as these two programs once again proved, its dancers possess an astonishing facility to move brilliantly in any style — from the buoyant, high-speed jumps of classical Spanish dance, to contemporary ritual, to performance art drama. Every performance by this ensemble is a precision-tooled theatrical dream.
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater at the Auditorium: Always a highlight of the Chicago season, the company left a particularly vivid impression with two pieces — Mario Bigonzetti’s stunning “Deep,” a look at women haunted and altered by lost love, set to the haunting vocals of Ibeyi, and a revelatory, highly charged interpretation of Swedish choreographer Johan Inger’s “Walking Mad,” set to Ravel’s “Bolero.”
And in the theater: This was a stellar season for tap dancing and other Broadway show styles with Drury Lane Theatre’s brilliantly re-envisioned take on “42nd Street” — featuring an eye-popping ensemble in Jared Grimes’ knockout choreography — generating one thrill after another. Cheers, too, for Marriott Theatre’s “Newsies” (choreographed by Alex Sanchez); Porchlight Music Theater’s “Billy Elliot” (co-choreographed by Brenda Didier and Craig V. Miller, with Lincoln Seymour as Billy); Griffin Theatre’s “Ragtime” (stunning work by choreographer William Carlos Angulo); the national tour of “Irving Berlin’s White Christmas” (choreographed by Randy Skinner), and Black Ensemble Theater’s “Black Pearl: A Tribute to Josephine Baker” (with the wonderfully leggy Aeriel Williams dancing up a storm by way of Rueben Echoles’ sensational choreography).