Chicago’s Next Dance Festival

at the Dance Center of Columbia College, through February 3

By Terry Brennan

The dance world is changing here. Now that Hubbard Street is one of the most popular companies in the country and the Joffrey Ballet has moved here, Chicagoans seem to be wondering if this might become an important place for dance: audiences and presenters are interested in local choreographers and dancers. John Schmitz and Fred Solari enlisted the support of foundations to capitalize on this interest, launching their Dance Chicago series at the Athenaeum Theatre with a wide cross section of Chicago choreographers and companies.

But events like Chicago’s Next Dance Festival, now in its second year, are today’s version of older choreographers’ showcases like those at MoMing, which provided opportunities for mostly modern-dance choreographers to show their work–audiences were happy if the hit-to-miss ratio was even. Like these, the Next Dance festival, organized by Winifred Haun, showcases a second tier of choreographers and companies newer or smaller or farther from the mainstream than the artists in the Dance Chicago series (though there is some overlap: Christine Munch, Haun, and Mad Shak Dance Company, all on this program, also showed works at the earlier festival). Since companies like these are often training grounds, a festival like this illuminates the health of the local dance community. (The second weekend features five more artists in an entirely different program.)

The first weekend of this festival revealed that good dancers and choreographers abound; the new choreographers show talent at making movement that’s musical, and the more experienced choreographers show a canny sense of structure and are exploring new veins.

Music is not only the main inspiration for many of the new choreographers but the basis of their success, providing a strong structure. The movement in Regina Klenjoski’s Paired Down, set to the laconic funk and percolating rhythm of the Beastie Boys, comes in bursts–the sudden release of muscular tension so that the torso slumps over, or the unexpected extension of a leg, or rolling from the back to the front as if the dancer were about to do a push-up. These surprises kept the dance interesting from moment to moment. A percussive impetus is common in jazz dance, yet the style here is clearly modern, which makes the dance kin to the funky music, with its roots in the rhythms of jazz. The four excellent dancers–Margi Cole, Heather Hoffman, Klenjoski, and Laurel Moore–make each shape clean and master the speed and sudden changes of style the choreography requires.

The dancers in Jill Dema’s Capriccio (Rachel Ayers, Kari Cwik, Jennifer Lande, and Angelia Pfeifer) are also precise and exciting, with clean lines that show well in the shapes of the choreography. But the music, a modernist deconstruction of American folk tunes by the Turtle Island String Quartet, splices different themes together so rapidly that it seems choppy. The dance is similarly choppy, and suffers for it.

Mad Shak’s Molly Shanahan, who likes experiments, makes a dance to a drum solo on a trap set at the center of the stage. Goodfellow’s Easel features drummer Kevin O’Donnell in a meandering meter-free solo that communicates a constantly changing yet oddly suspended, never arriving stream of emotions. Shanahan’s movement–all curving arms and slow placement followed by full-bodied leaps–is great at first, but then its sameness grows tedious and it disappears down the same stream as the drum solo.

A more experienced choreographer like Frank Fishella puts the dance before the music. In his Desire Dance no. 7–Watching You Watching Me he uses several pieces of music–Elvis Costello, the Brodsky Quartet, Tito Puente, and a commisioned piece by Lloyd Brodnax King–to deepen the feeling in different sections. The simple story is that a lonely gay man steals another man’s man but then can’t handle his new lover. Fishella, who plays the lonely man, introduces him first in a slow march across the stage, his hands bound behind his back and a raincoat held by the collar in his mouth. Drawing a letter out of the coat pocket, Fishella dances with it as Costello sings what the letter says. Because the audience identifies with Fishella’s character, who’s given a humorous twist, when Fishella steals Wilfredo Rivera from Scott Putman we root for Fishella. All three men look sexy in their tight black shorts and shirts, but Rivera’s hauteur clearly makes him the object of desire. Besides the tingle of desire, the most affecting moments are the men’s leaps–the moments when these strong men, at the height of a leap, seem weightless. Fishella and King are still experimenting with the music, debating whether Tito Puente works well in the ending trio. But because Desire Dance no. 7 is more dramatic than musical, the dance has its own logic and doesn’t depend on the music to make emotional sense.

Young choreographers with talent; experienced choreographers with craft and ideas; lots of good dancers. These are the ingredients for great dancegoing in a few years.

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