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Thodos Dance Chicago program runs the gamut of styles

Saturday night’s performance by Thodos Dance Chicago marked the first entry in the Auditorium Theatre’s 125th anniversary “Made in Chicago” dance series. It was impressive on many counts: The great variety of choreographic and musical styles on display; the technical and dramatic polish of the dancers; the sleek, sophisticated use of lighting and multi-media. It also is well worth noting that the audience for this contemporary dance company attracted enough people to nearly fill the Auditorium’s vast main floor orchestra section and beyond.

Opening the program was the 50-minute, one-act story ballet “The White City, Chicago’s Columbian Exposition of 1893,” that has become a signature piece for the company, and has been telecast on WTTW-TV.  Created by artistic director Melissa Thodos and Tony Award-winning choreographer Ann Reinking,  it is an homage to the 1893 World’s Fair, set to the music of Bruce Wolosoff and based on Erik Larson’s best-seller “Devil  in the White City.”

Unspooling in 13 scenes, the work is introduced by a brief video stylishly narrated by Chris Multhauf  who provides just enough background for those unfamiliar with the Exposition or the status of Chicago in the late 19th century period — a period in perfect synch with the opening of the Auditorium itself.

A mix of exhilaration, artistic struggle, political chaos and criminal creepiness, the work’s opening scene (reminiscent of “The Green Table” ballet), finds all the creative forces involved in the planning and design of the Exposition dancing around a vast table in the most heated discussion, and with all the egos involved at fever pitch. Saturday’s fiercely animated ensemble included John Cartwright, Tenley Dorrill, Marissa Dudenake, Abby Ellison, Kyle Hadenfeldt, Brandon Harneck, Brennen Renteria, Briana Robinson, Allisa Tollefson, Diana Winfree and Lauren Zimmerer. And they (along with Taylor Mitchell and Alice Bacani) went on to perform many different roles in this hugely impressive work whose only flaw might be the abruptness of its ending.

The program’s second act was an intriguing look at Chicago choreographic voices both past and present. It began with a reprise of the stunning”Tsuru” (the Japanese word for “Crane”), a year-old work by Lucas Crandall who has had a long association with Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, that is at once ritualistic, combative and erotic. Set to a thrilling percussive score by Johnny Nevin (performed by Japanese musicians), its two central duets were danced with ferocity by  the statuesque Winfree (in red) and John Cartwright, and Dorrill (in blood-stained white) and Kyle Hadenfeldt.

Next came a series of three works by Sybil Shearer (1912-2005), the modern dance legend who began her career in New York, but settled in Chicago in the mid 1940s, where she mentored many artists, including John Neumeier, now artistic director of the Hamburg Ballet.

These “revivals,” restaged and re-worked by Shearer protege Toby Nicholson (in collaboration with Thodos), came with a helpful introductory video by Chris Olden of Kai Harding, Inc. They are intriguing from a historical point of view, and clearly were a test for the Thodos dancers who had to find their way into Shearer’s spontaneous, free and breezy style that (as captured in archival footage courtesy of the Northbrook-based Morrison-Shearer Foundation) often appears improvised.

Shearer is very much a figure of the early period of modern dance — less theatrical than Martha Graham, but very musical. Her 1961 piece, “Time Longs for Eternity,” featured eight dancers who were bathed in beautiful blue light by designer Nathan Tomlinson. Set to an electronic score by James Cunningham, it had the sort of spare, geometric choreographic patterning of Merce Cunningham and frankly, it felt a bit dated.

Two brief excerpts from a 1956 suite called  “A Salute to Old Friends” followed. A solo dedicated to dance critic Walter Terry, and set to “St Louis Blues,” was winningly danced by Tollefson, who performed most of the work’s fleet, jazzy steps while seated on a stool. Another tribute, to Agnes De Mille, also wasvset to jazz (“Stompin’ for Mili,” composed by Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond). Here Shearer’s work was expanded into an ensemble piece and danced against film footage of Shearer herself, with the women wearing very 1950s-style skirts and blouses, echoing those worn by Shearer.

Closing the program was “Lullaby,” an intriguingly spiritual work by Brian Enos (a former dancer and choreographer for Hubbard Street), set to Gregorian chantlike music of The King Singers, the British a cappella ensemble,  remixed by Enos and Nevin. At its center, surrounded by an ensemble in black, was the statuesque Winfree, wearing a cream leotard> she demonstrated that sometimes standing absolutely still can have a power all its own.