at the Dance Center of Columbia College

October 23-November 2

By performing in Uptown, in the city’s preeminent modern-dance performance space, Ballet Chicago has undertaken its biggest gamble yet. Daring to show ballet up close and personal is a lot like daring to attend a costume gala in a G-string.

Strip away the elegance of a glamorous downtown theater, the distance and illusion created by a proscenium stage, and the power and resonance of a live orchestra, and you strip away much of the spectacle–and the entertainment value–of ballet. Yet the bare bones of classical theatrical dance–the character and caliber of the dancing, the qualities and structures of the choreography–stand out in especially sharp relief.

Dances like George Balanchine’s 1956 Allegro Brillante can stand such scrutiny. Its fascinating spatial complexity–the eight dancers and two soloists arrange themselves in four-spoked wheels, concentric kaleidoscopic circles, great diagonals, and other shifting, weaving patterns–is all the more obvious in a small performance space. The intimacy of the space shifts the viewer’s attention from the dancers’ line to the dance’s steps; balances and positions are no more legible, no more important, than the transitions between them. Allegro Brillante flashes by in an instant no matter where it’s performed; as the title suggests, the dance embodies the qualities of speed and brilliance. But because Ballet Chicago’s dancers are so close to us at the Dance Center, they emerge as very real, very human individuals; the changed theatrical context undercuts the magic of the dance.

For those who value ballet solely for its magic, its illusion, its spectacle, for those who see the classical tradition as sacrosanct, seeing Ballet Chicago dance in this small, bare, black theater is a travesty. For those who see the tradition as part of the fabric of contemporary culture, seeing Ballet Chicago like this is a revelation. The Dance Center forces dancers to reveal themselves–both technically and emotionally. Failures of technique, however few, are glaring here. (Though much improved, the men’s ensemble dancing is still not as finely honed as the women’s.) Dancers’ pleasure and absorption in the act of dancing are equally obvious, especially in Allegro Brillante and in resi- dent choreographer Gordon Peirce Schmidt’s Scenes From an Italian Songbook, accompanied by pianist Kimberly Schmidt, soprano Melissa Osmond, and baritone Richard Cohn.

Set to excerpts from Austrian composer Hugo Wolf’s 1986 Italian Songbook, Scenes is a rare example of a ballroom ballet without coquettishness or cliche. The eight dancers evoke the emotional excess of young adulthood: whether earnest, tortured, self-conscious, self-absorbed, hopeful, or despondent, distinct characters emerge from the nonliteral drama of dancers’ signature movement and gesture. Schmidt’s movement vocabulary is eclectic and expressive: slow, wildly off-axis supported turns; alternating movements of ballon and weightedness; legs arcing wide in turning leaps; pliant, arching backs. Gestures range from the subtle to the melodramatic–from the slight rotation of an extended wrist to a stagy bow to the onstage musicians. The movement embodies passion in many guises, sometimes tender, sometimes somber, sometimes even laughable.

The risk and spontaneity of live performance of both movement and music account for a great part of the pleasure of watching Scenes. Especially on repeated viewing, the dance changes as the music does. On opening night the performances of pianist Schmidt and singers Osmond and Cohn set a slightly quicker tempo for the dancers than last season or on Saturday night. In one section the musicians’ performance emphasized the parallel between the tension in the dance–between Kristie George’s quick, light steps and bright obliviousness and Samuel E. Bennett’s prone adoration–and the tension in the song between piano and voice. Three days later a slower tempo shifted attention to unvarnished emotion, to Bennett and the song. The first performance emphasized the sweeping scale of the turns in Jeff F. Herbig’s variation; the fourth emphasized his character’s somehow charming self-aggrandizement.

Artistic director Daniel Duell’s Verdi Divertimenti suffers sorely from the absence of live music. The relationship between the movement and the score is so very close–their accents and phrasing regularly coincide, and each instrumental entrance signals the beginning of another section or a reconfiguration, rearrangement, or repeat–that without the vagaries of live musical performance the dance is painfully predictable; only the last section of Verdi Divertimenti, a pas de deux occasionally performed alone as Pas Vivace, escapes leadenness.

The Sleep of Reason, Schmidt’s latest work, set to music by Ravel performed by violinist Arnold Roth and pianist Schmidt, is a dance of ambiguity and foreboding, utterly unlike any other dance in Ballet Chicago’s increasingly varied repertoire. The title suggests an allusion to Goya’s Los caprichos prints, a series filled with images of imps, fiends, and human depravity; but the dance suggests the demons and nightmares of relationships in our own time.

It begins as a queerly detached duet for Heidi Vierthaler and Robert Remington. Wearing dark, silky pajamas, the two are in nearly constant physical contact, but their eyes never meet. Their focus remains entirely withdrawn as they slide and slither against each other in gymnastic lifts and peculiar partnering; she climbs, sits, lies on him, as confident of his position and as aware of his existence as if he were her bed. Remington places Vierthaler on the floor, reaches out to restrain an errant foot, a rising buttock; he stares fixedly offstage. Manard Stewart, wearing pale tights and patterned dressing gown, enters, swoops and circles; he looms over them menacingly, with powerful jumps and bent limbs.

The movement vocabulary evokes distortion (both spiritual and physical), passivity, and manipulation. While the dance suggests that Vierthaler is its central consciousness–she is the only one who sees the others, and only for an instant even then–all three characters are simultaneously torturer and tortured. In The Sleep of Reason, desire is futile and painful; a lover is a trap, an enigma. What could frustrate and horrify Mephistopheles more than a Faust who will not recognize him? What could be more desolate than such a scene that ends as it began?

This weekend’s performances feature another Schmidt work, the lighthearted vaudeville ballet By Django, Balanchine’s Square Dance, and the Chicago premieres of David Parsons’s A Hairy Night on Bald Mountain and Duell’s Time Torque.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/David Loeb.