Dance R/Evolution

at the Athenaeum Theatre, through November 22

New Dances

at the Athenaeum Theatre, through November 26

If you expect an evening focused on dance classics to be more traditional than one focused on new dances, Dance Chicago has a surprise for you. “Dance R/Evolution,” featuring “remounted works from Chicago choreographers that shaped the dance scene…during the past century,” feels fresh and new while “New Dances” seems to have brought the traditionalists out in force. It’s no surprise that the cover photo on the “New Dances” program is of a dance performed in “R/Evolution”: that’s where the innovative work is on display.

“Dance R/Evolution” includes two pieces by modern-dance pioneer Doris Humphrey (reconstructed by Ernestine Stodelle) and one by Ruth St. Denis (reconstructed by Karoun Tootikian). St. Denis’s 1925 White Jade is mostly a curiosity, though it’s performed exceptionally well by Stephanie Clemens. But the Humphrey pieces–The Call/Breath of Fire from 1929 and Two Ecstatic Themes from 1931–crackle as though the flame had just been set. Both are danced by members of Momenta Performing Arts Company: the first features Cameron Jarrett in a desperate struggle, while in the second Sarita Smith Childs is triumphant. Both are brilliant dancers who convey well Humphrey’s seminal insistence on the right of the female body to exist without apology or concealment and to take up more space than the arms of a traditional ballet partner would allow. Considering the tide of works in “New Dances” seeking to revive ballet, with all its constraints, this remains a revolutionary and timely endeavor.

After the pieces by St. Denis and Humphrey there’s a gap of nearly 50 years before the next Chicago “classic,” suggesting the difficulty of surveying and capturing an ephemeral art form in a city that hasn’t always valued it. But “Dance R/Evolution” does illustrate a more important, and more positive, point: the Chicago dance renaissance is at least 15 years old, and maybe 25. If 25 years was enough time to move Steppenwolf from that storied basement in Highland Park, maybe it’s also enough time for the city to notice its wealth of fine dance makers, dancers, and dance companies. This program includes a wide selection of them, with 8 pieces of 12 successful.

The evening’s highlight is Chant (1998) by Melissa Thodos, an athletic and cerebral work that nonetheless displays both humor and passion. From its initial image–the lead couple are carried in from opposite wings on the backs of fellow dancers–the piece makes a beautiful statement about connections between individuals in the context of community. Close runners-up are Christina Ernst and Sam Watson’s 1987 Unbreakable, which conveys life’s fragility in marvelously literal terms as four dancers juggle a fishbowl, a mirror, a vase, and two glass batons, and Jon Lehrer’s 2001 Instinct, a duet for men in war paint that charmingly incorporates ape moves from the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. Signature pieces by well-established troupes–River North Chicago Dance Company’s The Man That Got Away (Sherry Zunker, 1991) and Jump Rhythm Jazz Project’s No Way Out (Billy Siegenfeld, 1996)–are well performed and hold up just fine.

The evening’s weakest piece is also its newest one: Joel Hall’s stagy, hackneyed Etude en Maison #418 (2002). Probably the term “classic” shouldn’t be applied to anything with packing peanuts still clinging to it. Randy Duncan’s contribution, Unarmed (1991), is likewise undistinguished, and the two contemporary works by Momenta argue strongly for the company’s concentrating on reconstruction efforts.

The “New Dances” program I saw (subsequent lineups are different) suggests that many choreographers are doing just that: working to reconstruct the assumptions and conventions of the era preceding modern dance. Ballet itself is represented, but more notable is the use of modern dance to do ballet’s work. The classical tradition is rich, and many of the pieces inflected by it here are strong. But it gives one pause to see mainstream dance reaching so vigorously for traditional verities.

In Meredith Rainey’s Through the Wake, set to music by Richard Strauss, Hubbard Street 2 manages to suggest the beauty of classical ballet without quite attaining it. The idiom doesn’t really translate to bare feet: without the display inherent in going on pointe, the form looks not transcendent but stilted and alien. Perhaps that’s Rainey’s view, and the sepia costumes are meant to suggest this is a faded tradition–but then why work in it? The dancing is first-rate, and for a while it’s intriguing to see how the performers compensate for the absence of balletic climaxes; but eventually lack of climax just means frustration.

Allison Beck of Melissa Thodos & Dancers scores another success for the company with L’Essence De, an innovative take on ballet that eliminates its restrictive gender roles. And Tyego Dance Project profitably returns to ballet conventions in August Tye’s Psychometry, an actual ballet in which four couples enact traditional mating rituals to music by Shostakovich. It’s a minor irony of this retrospective piece that it includes an homage to the most revolutionary ballet of all, Afternoon of a Faun, an homage repeated by choreographer Van Collins in his ritualistic, New Agey A*e*s*t*h*e*t*i*c. In this work the choreography is better than the dancing–the tumbling wood nymphs seemed truly at home only on the floor. Distraction, well choreographed by Katie Calandra and Angela Mollison, involves another gang of nymphs–here ably danced by Wheeling H.S. Orchesis. Like three of the evening’s other pieces, Distraction features a man being sacrificed and worshiped. Traditional religious imagery must be making a comeback as well.

Glass House Dance’s Ashes, choreographed by Tom Trimble in collaboration with Johannah Wininsky and Natalie Williams and performed by Trimble and Williams, is in a class by itself: he lies facedown on an elevated platform and partners her using only his torso and arms, keeping her airborne much of the time. Gimmicky as it sounds, the dance is erotic and tender and communicates the complementary pains of holding on and letting go. The final moment–Trimble sways his head and arms while a bell tolls–was the evening’s truest emotionally.

In Wonderful One, Sherry Moray’s ballet to pop music, Joffrey dancer Joanna Wozniak is skilled but fails to command the stage the way the Momenta dancers do in the Humphrey classics. That’s no fault of hers: ballerinas just don’t belong on their own the way modern dancers do. Christine Rich’s Parenthesis serves up modern dance in the form of a classically melodramatic and erotic pas de deux. Sarita Smith Childs and Paul Christiano give it all they’ve got, and watching the piece is like seeing The Way We Were–it’s formulaic but perfectly done.

Traditional Latin dancing also makes several appearances. Gustavo Ramirez Samsano’s Flabbergast (danced by Luna Negra Dance Theatre) comments on it, using cartoony mambo moves while mocking standard gender roles both in its text and in its avoidance of partnering. Meanwhile the brand-new A Spanish Feel, commissioned by Dance Chicago from Tommye Giacchino and Gregory Day, presents that tradition straight, no chaser. Under a mirror ball, two pairs of Hubbard Street 2 dancers re-create the world of competitive ballroom tango, itself a re-creation of vernacular tango; the result is a routine rather than a dance. Last on the program is the evening’s other commission–the bland In the Oasis, by Julia Rhoads for River North. Set to the ultimate Latin chestnut, Ravel’s Bolero, it’s pleasant enough but does nothing new with traditional dance.

Matthew Hollis completely reverses the program’s traditionalist tendencies with The Lil’ Bo Peep Show, performing solo while reciting rhymed doggerel. Hollis is as flexible and full of kinetic energy as a rubber ball, illustrating with his body his story about a man who worries all the time. The piece is like a sorbet between courses, offering a refreshing break.

It’s impossible to do justice to all 14 items on the program: including a dozen pieces in “Dance R/Evolution” was pushing it, and the volume here was over-the-top. Overbooking each evening is a chronic problem for Dance Chicago: one’s capacity for appreciation is worn out, and the evening starts to feel like a forced march. Please, please–less really is more. Let people sip at the reservoir of Chicago’s dance resources; don’t just open the floodgates and drown us.

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