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Visceral Dance Chicago catapults itself into the light fantastic

Visceral Dance Chicago's Brandon Coleman (from left), James Barrett and Noelle Kayser in Marguerite Donlon's "Ruff Celts," performed April 9 at the Harris Theatre for Music and Dance. (Photo: Cheryl Mann)

With its altogether radiant one-night-only “SpringThree” concert at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance this past Saturday, Visceral Dance Chicago demonstrated why, in just a few short years, it has managed to establish itself as one of this city’s premiere contemporary companies.

With a troupe of 10 formidable dancers – whose superb technique is paired with impressive emotional intensity – artistic director Nick Pupillo has been able to build an ever-expanding repertoire of work choreographed by himself and other formidable talents. And this time around he selected an ideal mix of works, with enough shifting moods, varied music and a balance between playfully narrative pieces and more abstract work, to keep the stage popping from first piece to last.

Visceral Dance Chicago in Nick Pupillo's "Vital," performed April 9 at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance. (Photo: Cheryl Mann)

Visceral Dance Chicago in Nick Pupillo’s “Vital,” performed April 9 at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance. (Photo: Lewis Kopp)

With the addition of live music for two of the five works on the program, plus an exceptionally beautiful use of lighting, stylish costumes and set design, this company has become a real contender. The only sad note here is that Visceral performs for just one night each Spring and Fall at the grand-scale Harris, so if you miss it, it’s a long wait before you can catch up.

Two world premieres graced the program – the fabulously zany “Ruff Celts” by Irish choreographer Marguerite Donlon, and the supremely elegant “Vital” by Pupillo.

Returning as a showcase for the company’s men was “Bate,” Brazilian choreographer Fernando Melo’s wonderfully surreal and comical look at the love-struck male of the species, with Pupillo’s sculptural “She Three” a sculptural trio for women, and “The Last Round.” The latter, created earlier this year, is a seductive, often balletic riff on the tango, with string players from the Chicago Philharmonic onstage in a superb rendering of the music of the Argentine-Jewish composer Osvaldo Golijov, and particularly beautiful dancing by Noelle Kayser and Karl Watson.

Visceral Dance Chicago in Marguerite Don;on's "Ruff Celts," at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance. (Photo: Cheryl Mann)

Visceral Dance Chicago in Marguerite Don;on’s “Ruff Celts,” at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance. (Photo: Cheryl Mann)

Marguerite Donlon (who has worked with major dance, theater and opera companies throughout Europe and beyond, as well as with Hubbard Street Dance Chicago), has given Visceral a tremendous gift with “Ruff Celts,” a work that should entice some savvy Broadway producer to snap her up to work on a big musical. She is a wizard with a fierce sense of humor and invention.

Set to an exuberantly rhythmic mix of Irish folk music, Gaelic speech and the contemporary electronica sounds of others (including her late husband, Claas Willeke) – with some spectacular silhouetted lighting by Nathan Tomlinson, and costumes by Donlon – the full-company work might best be described as “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” meets a latter-day “Brigadoon.” Puffs of smoke erupt like magic dusk as alternately strange and playful rituals are observed, and athletic men (in black kilts) compete and cavort with their equally feisty women. A bit of primal break-dance and a moonwalking riff blend easily with Celtic step-dancing, jigs and a line dance full of exotic head and arm isolations. James Barrett was the standout comic force here, with the always exquisite Caitlin Cucchiara and Adam McGaw in a notable pairing backed by the full company (including Brandon Coleman, Paige Fraser, Marissa Horton, Noelle Kayser, Kelsey Middleton, Owen Scarlett and Karl Watson).

The multi-talented Donlon also created an installation for Pupillo’s “Vital” in the form of a giant silvery tree composed of interlocking metal hangers. It served as a luminous visual counterpoint to the score by David Lang and the ingenious percussionist Peter Ferry (the latter in a bristling onstage performance that was a dance all its own).

Pupillo’s strong but lyrical work – full of the sort of bravura solo flashes and intricate partnering that are his trademarks – was thrillingly danced all around, with Fraser bursting through the sound in thrilling leaps.

Visceral Dance Chicago's Paige Fraser in choreographer Nick Pupillo's "Vital," at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance. (Photo: Cheryl Mann)

Visceral Dance Chicago’s Paige Fraser in choreographer Nick Pupillo’s “Vital,” at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance. (Photo: Cheryl Mann)

Saturday’s concert played to a notably full house, with Mayor Emanuel among the crowd. According to a reliable source, his daughter is a member of Viceral’s youthful Studio Company.

Visceral Dance Chicago in Nick Pupillo's "The Last Round," performed April 9 at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance. (Photo: ....)

Visceral Dance Chicago in Nick Pupillo’s “The Last Round,” performed April 9 at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance. (Photo: Cheryl Mann)