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Hedy Weiss’ best of Chicago’s 2016 dance scene

Victoria Jaiani leads the Joffrey Ballet in Christopher Wheeldon's newly imagined "The Nutcracker," at the Auditorium Theatre. (Photo: Cheryl Mann)

First, the sad news. After a 10-year run that was a highlight of the dance scene here each August, the free Chicago Dancing Festival announced it would be ceasing operation. Dance enthusiasts can only hope that some other presenter or institution will continue the festival, or reconfigure it, in the coming seasons.

Now, for the good news. Dance, which invariably leaves audiences awestruck by the discipline, strength, beauty and emotional power of its performers, continues to thrive in this city. Here’s a list of my top picks for 2016:

JOFFREY BALLET: The Joffrey reprised its electrifying production of Krzysztof Pastor’s ultra-modern, cinematic Romeo and Juliet,” set in 20th century Italy, and the great news is that it will bring the work to New York’s Lincoln Center (its first visit to New York in decades) in early spring. The other big news was the world premiere of choreographer Christopher Wheeldon’s “The Nutcracker,” a visually stunning re-imagining of the story in which the dreamy scenario is inspired by the construction of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

HUBBARD STREET DANCE CHICAGO: The magic of Hubbard Street — and it only has become more apparent these days — is the way this company of highly individualistic dancers is able to move like a single organism. Its Fall program was a case in point, with breathtaking performances of two works by Jiri Kylian that separately showcased the sensual brilliance of both the women  (in “Falling Angels”), and the men (in “Sarabande”) in the ensemble. Resident choreographer Alejandro Cerrudo’s world premiere work, “Niebla” (Spanish for “Fog”), set to music by Bach, Liszt and Schubert, was a masterful mix of dance and digital lighting technology, and choreographer Brian Brooks’ world premiere, “Terrain,” remains unforgettable for the way a long line of dancers unfurled sequentially as if bringing the genetic code to life.

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago in Alejandro Cerruda's "Niebla" ("Fog"). (Photo: Todd Rosenberg Photography)

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago in Alejandro Cerruda’s “Niebla” (“Fog”). (Photo: Todd Rosenberg Photography)

ENSEMBLE ESPANOL SPANISH DANCE THEATER:  Although referred to as a flamenco company, the brilliance of this highly polished, dramatically intense Chicago ensemble is its dazzling stylistic diversity. These dancers can whip off the lightest, most high-flying leaps and jumps in a work of Spanish classical dance as easily as they can power up for a ritualistic, ultra-modern ballet like Rojas and Rodriguez’s new ballet, “Iroku.” Newcomers at its Auditorium Theatre program became instant converts.

Chicago's Ensemble Espanol in "Iroko," a work by Angel Rojas and Carlos Rodriguez. (Photo: Courtesy of Ensemble Espanol)

Chicago’s Ensemble Espanol in “Iroko,” a work by Angel Rojas and Carlos Rodriguez. (Photo: Courtesy of Ensemble Espanol)

GIORDANO DANCE CHICAGO: This company has a special gift for jumping out of the box with the opening number on its program, and so it did this Fall with a knockout performance of Autumn Eckman’s “Yes, And…,” set to music by Barbatuques.  A ferocious explosion of rapid-fire, often acrobatic moves, it set the company dancing at the edge of aerobic endurance to the point where you had to wonder if they’d make it through the full program. And indeed they did. Sensational dancers.

VISCERAL DANCE CHICAGO: Regrettably, I missed the company’s Fall program at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance, but once again it left an indelible impression when, as part of Dance for Life this summer, it performed an excerpt from “Vital,” artistic director Nick Pupillo’s work set to a fierce percussion piece played live by the astonishing Peter Ferry. The company is a great asset to Chicago’s contemporary dance scene.

CHICAGO DANCING FESTIVAL: No one knew this would be the final year, and there was much to applaud, including a glorious performance of “Appalachian Spring,” a signature work of Americana by the Martha Graham Company; Dr. Rennie Harris’ bravura hip-hop extravaganza, “Students of the Asphalt Jungle”; the superbly danced male Trio from “Awaa,” performed by Aszure Barton + Artists’; Joffrey dancers Victoria Jaiani and Temur Suluashvili in a breathtaking pas de deux from Christopher Wheeldon ‘s “After the Rain,” and more.

The Martha Graham Dance Company in "Appalachian Spring." (Photo: Courtesy of the Chicago Dancing Festival)

The Martha Graham Dance Company in “Appalachian Spring.” (Photo: Courtesy of the Chicago Dancing Festival)

ALVIN AILEY AMERICAN DANCE THEATER: In its annual visit to the Auditorium Theatre, the company looked sensational as it performed  artistic director Robert Battle’s “Awakening,” set to a thrilling score by John Mackey and best described as “The Rite of Spring” meets a latter-day vision of End Days. Its 12 dancers, dressed in loose white pajama-like costumes arrived to the sound of wildly warped brass that suggests a herd of elephants run amok, and unquestionably there was a cataclysmic disturbance in the air as the dancers swirled frenziedly — gathering into a tight huddle at some moments, as if seeking a zone of collective safety, and then circling out like a flock of birds stunned by gunshots or a bomb. Also new to Chicago audiences was “Open Door,” Ronald K. Brown’s gorgeously fluid, sensual work with a Latin beat.

The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in Robert Battle's "Awakening." (Photo: Paul Kolnik)

The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in Robert Battle’s “Awakening.” (Photo: Paul Kolnik)

LIZT ALFONSO DANCE CUBA: Even if you didn’t walk into the Auditorium Theatre dancing, this wildly exuberant company, backed by fabulous onstage musicians, no doubt had you dancing on the way out, and ready to book a ticket to Havana. Nobody can move quite like these dancers.

CHICAGO TAP THEATER: Unique in its ability to tell stories through percussive dance, this company’s production of “Time Steps” was notably sophisticated as choreographer Mark Yonally collaborated with live musicians and Poetry Slam creator Marc Kelly Smith to spin a strange tale of adventure, time travel and mortality as a young woman (the wonderful Jennifer Pfaff Yonally) meets a multi-millionaire (danced by Mark Yonally), during a vacation in Barcelona.

In the theater:  William Carlos Angulo’s highly realistic, fist-to-fist choreography for the Paramount Theatre’s production of “West Side Story,” was an impressive switch from the Jerome Robbins original; Melissa Zaremba’s winningly manic and comic choreography captured 1950s office life in the Marriott Theatre’s production of “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying”; director-choreographer Matthew Crowle’s masterful tap dance and pratfall routines for the Drury Lane Theatre production of “Crazy for You,”  were superbly danced by Clyde Alves and the cast; and the fearless aerial acrobatics (and bravura singing) of the three Rhinemaidens was a highlight of the Lyric Opera of Chicago production of Das Rheingold.”