If having a tough time choosing the high points of Chicago’s 2016 dance season is any indication of the growing strength of Chicago as a major center for dance in America, then 2016 was certainly a fruitful year. So many performances, from small, independent artists to the large, established companies, stay with me, including Thodos Dance Chicago’s “Sono’s Journey,” Ron De Jesus’s “Isis and Osiris,” and the Auditorium Theatre’s “Made In Chicago” performances of The Chicago Human Rhythm Project’s “Stomping Grounds,” and the stellar Giordano Dance Chicago. Ballet Chicago and The Joffrey Studio Company made striking contributions showcasing rosters of up-and-coming pre-professional dancers, and Cirqua Rivera, Lucky Plush, and The Seldoms continued their bold and commendable forays into multi-disciplinary work. Sadly, among the many triumphs, we bid a sad farewell to River North and lamented the conclusion of The Chicago Dancing Festival after ten wonderful years of world class dance free to the public.
Pushed to choose my absolute highlights for the year, I’ve singled out five events that stand out for the uniqueness of their contributions to and enriching influence on the Chicago dance community.
1. DANCE FOR LIFE (AUG. 20)
Dance For Life once again celebrated the vitality, solidarity, and humanity of the Chicago dance community with stunning performances from five different Chicago companies, ten contributing companies, and fourteen independent artists. This unique event stands as a shining monument to the power of art to unite a city behind a humanitarian cause by showcasing the rich creative life and talent that thrive here. Dance for Life has recently expanded as Chicago Dancers United, supporting dance community professionals dealing with HIV/AIDS and other critical health issues. Of special note, Giordano Dance Chicago transformed nostalgia for mid-century classic jazz into something fresh, explosive, and totally “now” with “Sing Sing Sing,” an effervescent toast to the legacy of its founding artistic director, Gus Giordano. The sound of bells illuminated the brittle geometry of Visceral Dance Chicago artistic director Nick Pupillo’s “Vital,” masterfully danced by this accomplished troupe. Breathtaking lifts brought whoops from the audience, as the dance built to its inspired ending, catching us off-guard in a daring group plunge. Hubbard Street’s reprise of last winter’s “Solo Echo” (2012) by Crystal Pite captivated all over again with the stop-action freeze-frames of runners arrested at the peak of urgency, fingers spread as if to say, “Wait!” Randy Duncan’s premiere, “Depth of Light,” brought the gala night to a rousing conclusion with an ensemble of dancers culled from six different companies, along with nine independent dance artists. Breath and breathing infused the piece with a sense of life’s essence.
2. MACARTHUR FELLOWS (SEPT. 16)
We could have been witnessing the birth of angels at the touch of their lips in Susan Marshall’s “Kiss” (1987), opening “An Evening of Dance With MacArthur Fellows” at the Harris Theater. Hubbard Street’s Jason Hortin and Jessica Tong, exquisite in Marshall’s poetry of weightlessness, were celestial bodies whose orbits intersected at that inevitable moment. An entire drama of relationship unfolded in a dance of weightlessness and gravity,
The concert underscored Chicago’s bounty as the beneficiary of private philanthropy that has delivered the gift of world-class dance to our doorstep, free and open to the public. Celebrating 35 years of grant making across the arts, sciences, and social agencies, the John T. and Catherine D. MacArthur Foundation, based in Chicago, sponsored an unprecedented retrospective of five MacArthur Choreography Fellows—from Merce Cunningham, (MacArthur Fellow, class of 1985)—to the most recent—Michelle Dorrance, (MacArthur Fellow, class of 2015). The program was testimony to the impact private philanthropy can have on artists’ ability to flourish at pivotal junctures in their careers, and on the lasting contribution of their work to the cultural fabric of civilization, Chicago’s in particular.
3. WHEELDON/JOFFREY NUTCRACKER (DEC. 10)
The Joffrey Ballet, under the inspired direction of Ashley Wheeter, took the bold step of setting aside Robert Joffrey’s decades-old and highly successful production of “The Nutcracker” and commissioning ballet enfant terrible Christopher Wheeldon to fashion a Nutcracker of distinctly Chicago flavor. It seemed like a big risk, both financially and artistically. To the credit of Wheeldon, Wheeter, and the entire Joffrey operation, the risk paid off in a production that was visually thrilling, theatrically exciting, and a real contribution to Chicago history. A dramatically energized Joffrey ensemble was at its theatrical best, with plenty of virtuoso dancing to dazzle the most dye-hard of Nutcracker dévotés.
4. HUBBARD STREET FALL SEASON (NOV. 17)
In a program of sublime dancing and riveting content, Alejandro Cerrudo’s “Niebla,” (Fog), stands out. Expanding on his exploration of presence and disappearance with laser projections that created pyramids and planes, Cerrudo used the shapes to define the dancers’ existence as they emerged from obscurity into light and vanished into darkness. Cerrudo’s choreography finds the drama of the the music in an exploration that pays attention to its ebb and flow, its tempos and phrasing, without adhering to its structure, and this is a marvelous achievement!
5. CHICAGO TAP THEATRE (JUNE 25)
Tap Dance and tragedy don’t usually find themselves in the same room, but Chicago Tap Theatre’s new tap drama, “Time Steps,” located the two at the tricky intersection of entertainment and serious theatre. If you had a chance to go back in time and re-live your most defining moment over again as often as you wished, what would you change? What could you change, and what would it cost you? Heady questions for a tap dance show. Under the choreographic helm of CTT artistic Director Mark Yonally, the company has never shied away from the incongruous, and in fact thrives on it. The production takes the challenge of mining the riches of a dance idiom historically associated with light-hearted entertainment, and of harnessing those riches in the service of serious storytelling in a theatrical context. Yonally’s tap choreography uniquely tackles the theatrical mandates of character development, relationship, dramatic intention, dialog, and plot in a unique contribution to the idiom.
Three Exceptional 2016 Dance Events on the “Storefront” Scene
By Lauren Warnecke
A Chicago Dancemakers Forum (CDF) Lab Artist Grant is a coveted prize for any choreographer, and CDF’s process-over-product mission has benefitted a growing number of performance artists in the past several years. 2015 Lab Artist Ginger Krebs was largely viewed as a performance artist until “Buffer Overrun,” which took a sharp turn to the right that is moving her work in a refreshingly dancey direction. I had the pleasure of multiple viewings throughout the work’s creative process, and again at its premiere at the Storefront Theater. “Buffer Overrun’s” success owes a lot to its cast (Sabrina Baranda, Elise Cowin and Joanna Furnans, with Krebs completing the quartet), but the structure of the thing is what was so fascinating. There are aspects of “Buffer Overrun” that are wholly, surprisingly conventional, but true to a Ginger Krebs work, those conventions were tilted and turned on their heads. Performed on a raked stage, the work was viewed from the side, instead of facing uphill, and four playground-style scooters advance slowly downhill as the dancers brake with their toes, posed like distinguished, disinterested ladies. The beginning is slow and methodical, challenging its audience’s patience as it builds gradually over more than an hour – like a contemporary “Song of the Wanderers” in gray and black tones. “Buffer Overrun’s” build – a quantitative maze of log rolls and circular walking patterns and a series of mesmerizing, brilliantly patterns gestures mined from the floor of a stock exchange – is more enchanting than its climax, but the February premiere still resonates nonetheless.
The 26th edition of Chicago Human Rhythm Project (CHRP)’s Rhythm World Festival ended how it always does: with a culminating event in July at the Museum of Contemporary Art called JUBA! This year, simplicity ruled in the evening’s first half with a series of back-to-back solos from hoofers Ayodele Casel, Nico Rubio, Maud Arnold and Cartier Williams. It was the second half, however, that really stuck out as some of the best dance this year. Choreographed by M.A.D.D. Rhythms’ Jumaane Taylor, “Supreme Love” is inspired by jazz legend John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme.” The long-form score takes tap to new places, invoking inspired improvisations from its performers that verge on the tap equivalent of speaking in tongues. “Supreme Love” is chafing and challenging, unbearable at moments, but its ability to muddy the rhythmic waters and come to a resolution each time is uniquely – supremely – satisfying. It’s worth mentioning that long-time CHRP and M.A.D.D. Rhythms performer Ian Berg is playing in the same space as Taylor; his “From the Top” premiered a month later at Stage 773 with several performers in common and a similar knack for balancing chaos with resolution. Berg’s work, for now, feels a bit more gratuitous than Taylor’s, but is worth seeing all the same.
Khecari transformed a north side Park District into an ethereal bed & breakfast for “The Retreat,” an intimate overnight performance testing the boundaries of the body and the mind. For the performers, the looming question was whether the body can produce movement without voluntary control, or whether it’s possible to achieve a truly embodied state. Invited to lounge, sleep, and dream, onlookers were excused from participating fully in this investigation, so the hard work of being an audience member at a contemporary dance show (I’m not being facetious) was stripped away from the experience. Our task was to separate from daily distractions, to relinquish our phones and submit to relaxation as a means of transformation. Guests (there were about ten of us that night) were taken care of in the usual way, with refreshments, writing supplies, a sleeping nest and plenty of fodder for reflection about dance, time, sensation, attention, and community.