at the Chicago Theatre


at the Auditorium Theatre

Boosters rarely create great art. Moreover, their efforts usually backfire. And unfortunately the new jazz dance Chicago!, choreographed by Joel Hall for the Chicago City Ballet, does our city a disservice, largely because it tries so hard to serve it. It’s well-intentioned and decent entertainment, but too light for the city of big shoulders.

Admittedly Hall was laboring under a few burdens, one an original score by Richard Adler. A Tony Award recipient (twice) and composer of the tune “You Gotta Have Heart,” among others, Adler must have been chosen for his potential popular appeal, but the music is sugary and derivative. To give Hall his due, he does occasionally play off its facility: the dancers attempt to get down and dirty, even when the music’s at its most upbeat.

But the dancers themselves represent a second obstacle. Ballet dancers–at least these ballet dancers–have a tightness, a grim control, that just doesn’t translate to jazz. If an arm moves out into space, it’s been placed there, not shot from the gut. And the dancers retain their balletic aloofness and arrogance–only one, Antonia Berasaluce, made any effective eye contact with the audience.

There was one segment (“G,” toward the end of the piece) in which Hall turned the dancers’ classical training to advantage: seven women, all in hats, mince en pointe in a small circle, just a fraction of the stage, swiveling their shoulders. They’re parodies of runway models, parodies of high-class whores. At the same time their inhuman attenuation, their wispy verticality, recall El Greco’s subjects–not writhing heavenward, however, but reaching like fleshed-out angels effortlessly toward the sky. Here lowborn jazz and highborn ballet meet, and each casts a light on the other.

But ultimately Chicago! has too much sugar coating to be very nourishing. Joseph Holmes Dance Theatre, which performed on the same weekend, offered a much more interesting and complex view of the city, and its premiere, Bittersweet Av, is a natural for comparison with Chicago! Inspired by life on Rush Street, Bittersweet takes a more manageable bite out of the Chicago experience: its narrower focus and the more natural funkiness of the dancers set it apart from the otherworldly vagueness and abstraction of the CCB piece.

Despite some cute tricks reminiscent of the crowd-pleasing Hubbard Street Dance Company (the strobe at the end, for example), Bittersweet offers some intelligent reflections on a rather shopworn subject, the singles scene. Choreographed by Randy Duncan, Joseph Holmes’s successor, it called to mind other of Duncan’s works on the program–and some of Holmes’s, too. Of its six segments, the three strongest–the second, third, and fourth–suggested an impressive emotional and technical range.

Part four is danced by two women, Ariane Dolan and Kim Gadlin, to a masochistic love ballad sung by a woman. Holmes, too, seemed to associate women with defeat and melancholy, as in his 1977 Tradewind (restaged here by Duncan): in that piece, a woman loses her bisexual (or latently homosexual) lover to a male competitor. In Bittersweet there’s no such explicit subtext, but the ballad makes plain how women suffer for men. Interestingly, however, Duncan’s dancers work against the slow drag of the music and the lyrics: their sorrow (or perhaps anxiety is a better word) is expressed in double-time, often curiously expansive gestures. Duncan’s solo (“Adrift”) in the concluding dance, Turning Tides, similarly undercuts the music: he seems tethered to a sorrow that brings his movements up short. He’s not allowed the luxury of a stretch, of a groan, but is forced to make more and more rapid, frenetic efforts to escape.

In part three of Bittersweet, four men (Keith Elliott, Darrian Ford, Byron Jones, and Kevin Ware) dance to some ominous-sounding gospel-rock, whose refrain is: “The Prince of Darkness has no power here.” The lyrics are less a statement of fact than a threat against potent forces; forces that, in the context of the singles scene, can well be imagined: disease, loneliness, and the nagging suggestion that sex is evil. The dance, performed to a heavy beat, is a kind of incantation, a kind of magic to ward off magic. Duncan uses his male dancers’ muscularity and power, as they rush in unison the corners of the stage, to suggest conflict, but with an unseen, if potent, force.

Part two of Bittersweet is a solo for Patrick Mullaney, who takes the sassy, humorous ball he’s handed and runs with it. Mullaney bumps and grinds and swivels his way all over the stage, to a rock refrain that’s repeated over and over: “I’m not that kinda man.” Of course, his every move shows he is that kinda man, but Mullaney gives what could have been a self-absorbed performance wit, piquancy, and exuberance (his gymnastic training may have helped).

What works in this solo is the contrast between the cool, aloof lyrics and the heat of the all-out choreography. And a similar combination is equally successful in Holmes’s 1984 Anything That Comes Out of My Mouth. The hot-cool contrast isn’t played for humor, however, but for sheer sizzle. On the backdrop are three gigantic triangles; the dance is choreographed for three dancers (Dolan, Ford, and Gadlin); and the dancers’ costumes, which obscure their sex, give them a triangular look. So immediately there’s something formal, even numerological, about the dance. Furthermore the metallic look of the triangles is repeated in the dancers’ costumes: they appear to have been machine-tooled, with surfaces like burnished stainless steel. But the dancing itself, though it starts out cool, ends up hot: flamboyant, even violent, and emotive. Prepared for another angst-ridden lament on our cold, technical modern world, I was reminded instead of how passion can be enhanced by restraint.

The two older pieces by Holmes, Tradewind and Oh Mary Don’t You Weep (1974), show a bent toward narrative, even a Graham-like sense of inner drama. Tradewind is probably most noteworthy for its open treatment of homosexuality. Somewhat melodramatic–all three dancers wear purple, and the stage is often spotlighted for a chiaroscuro effect–it is still moving as an evocation of jealousy that transcends the (somewhat accidental) matter of sexual preference. At the same time, Holmes has used the unusual love triangle to contrast male-female relations (lyrical but suffocatingly close–the woman often depends from the man) with male-male relations (brusque, even confrontational, but sometimes tender). Mary, performed to gospel music sung by Aretha Franklin, is less interesting: the stylized grieving gestures and the costumes suggest Alvin Ailey and his interest in the black heritage, but little more.

But at least the Joseph Holmes troupe tackles the issues of sexuality and race, some of the uncomfortable facts of urban life so studiously ignored in Chicago! And the final piece on the program, Duncan’s Turning Tides (1986), indicates some of the new directions JHDT might take. Duncan’s dancing in “Adrift” is almost unpleasantly idiosyncratic and arrhythmic, but it’s peculiarly modern: it twists your insides up and sets your teeth on edge. Fortunately the second (and concluding) section, “The Storm,” choreographed for the remainder of the company, offers some release–in fact, a huge release. To a heavy rock beat (once again) and to lyrics that repeatedly exhort us to “save the children!” the 12 dancers move in violent, almost earthshaking, unison.

The bulk of the program note on JHDT details the company’s investment in the Chance to Dance program, which it began in 1979 to bring the advantages of dance to disadvantaged youth. Clearly the refrain “save the children!” pays tribute to Holmes’s guidance (he died in 1986) and promises a similar future commitment. But more interesting than this particular social commitment is the fact of any commitment at all. We don’t normally associate jazz dance, that soulless expression of mere “good times,” with a statement of any kind, much less a moral statement. But in “The Storm” there was (as there had been earlier in the “Prince of Darkness” number) a sense of incantation–a sense that Duncan was using the primacy of his dance, its musicality, its rhythm, its irresistible beat, in a primitive and even magical way, to change the world. When dancers dance in unison, to a heavy beat, and even the audience feels it in its gut, there’s reason to believe the charm will be potent.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Loring Nelson-Curry.