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River North Dance, Bad Boys of Dance use skills in very different ways

Superb technique is crucial in every art, but technique alone can be a very empty thing. Consider the very different approaches of two dance companies seen here this past weekend: River North Dance Chicago, just back from a multi-city tour in Germany and Switzerland (with plans for a visit to China coming up), and Rasta Thomas’ Bad Boys of Dance, the widely touring commercial troupe making its first visit here.

Both companies are devoted to appealing to a mainstream audience, and both delve freely into the pop music treasury. Yet their approaches and results are radically different. And it all comes down to the simple matter of whether you have a serious artistic soul or not. River North has a terrific understanding of how to mix art and accessibility, and though not elitist in any way, it is a class act from start to finish. On the other hand, while the Bad Boys (six men, no longer including Thomas, and one woman) are phenomenal, eye-popping technicians and acrobat-gymnasts, the company seems to have made a pact with the devil, putting brilliant skills in the service of cheap sensation.

The River North program (showcasing a handful of new dancers) included “Al Sur Del Sur” (“South of the South”), the steamy but nuanced work of Buenos Aires tango masters Sabrina and Ruben Veliz that explores different aspects of the dance – from a large group that might be gathered in a tango club, to a seductive couple (Melanie Manale-Hortin and Joshua Wark), to two angry, unfaithful couples (Hanna Brictson, Brandon Di Driscio, Michael Gross and Cassandra Porter), to a female duo (Lauren Lias and Hayley Meier). Terrific, as were Frank Chaves’ “Simply Miles, Simply Us,” a full company work that shrewdly captures the many different sound experiments of jazz master Miles Davis, and “Fixe,” Chaves’ beautiful, erotically charged duet, fiercely danced by Manale-Hortin and Wark.

The company’s first attempt at Daniel Ezralow’s “SUPER STRAIGHT is coming down,” a hard-driving evocation of urban angst and loneliess, proved a solid fit but could tap into a bit more of the sharp-edged energy shown in Sherry Zunker’s “Evolution of a Dream” (to music by Annie Lennox and Dave Allan Stewart).

And now for the Bad Boys, who performed two pieces – “Beautiful Day” and “Rock You” – by dancer-choreographer Adrienne Canterna-Thomas (Rasta’s wife). In the first, pure macho energy is generated by a group of guys in jeans and T-shirts who are interrupted by a girl (Canterna-Thomas, looking very much like a post-punk Barbie doll). She grabs the attention of one of the men (Shane Ohmer). And then love’s up and downs are captured in the bluntest, cheesiest choreography, with the dancing (giant mid-air splits, barrel turns and leaps) done largely in unison, and to the point of tedium. A scene in which the guys take out their testosterone on inflatable female nudes is funny for 30 seconds, but goes on and on. The only inspired scene finds the men in far more meditative, broken-hearted mode as they dance to Jacques Brel’s “Ne Me Quitte Pas.”

“Rock You” is a high-octane mosh pit ballet that showcases the special (and often extraordinary) tricks of all the dancers, including James Boyd, Ryan Carlson, Lee Gumbs, Brandt Martinz and Tim Oison. Full of fabulous break moves, gyroscopic turns, endless leg extensions and backflips, and set to the music of Queen, Prince and Michael Jackson, the dazzle was intense, but it ultimately felt like the Chippendales on speed.