Joseph Holmes

Chicago Dance Theatre

at the Shubert Theatre, May 17-21

During intermission I couldn’t help but notice an incredibly tall black guy standing in the corner of the lobby. He was surrounded by a gaggle of admiring grown-ups and kids who all seemed to want his autograph, or at least a pat on the head. What’s that basketball player doing here? I wondered. I inched closer. He was asking a little girl if she wanted to be a dancer when she grew up. That’s no basketball player, I said to myself. That’s the new choreographer.

I was right. Kevin Iega Jeff, the new artistic director of Joseph Holmes Chicago Dance Theatre, is the kind of guy who exudes charisma in theater lobbies and generates standing ovations in the theaters themselves. At its best, his choreography goes straight to the heart; at its worst, it’s slightly kitschy, in a musical theater way. Given his background, his knack for theater comes as no surprise. He debuted on Broadway at age 17 in The Wiz, then went on to create the dances for Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It and for an international tour of Porgy and Bess. At age 22 he formed Jubilation! Dance Company, which featured the same eclectic blend of jazz, modern, and ballet as the Joseph Holmes troupe. A dozen years later, he’s taken on this new post.

In many ways Jubilation! has now become Joseph Holmes. Five of the 11 dancers performed with Iega before moving here, and only one piece staged this season was choreographed by Holmes. Initially the new face on this old company was a bit disconcerting–like going back to school after graduation and finding that the building remains the same but all your friends and teachers have been replaced. But when an artistic director leaves the way Randy Duncan did almost two years ago, a company can either fold or move forward with a new director. Iega seems to be a perfect fit.

His open, generous spirit appears in everything from his lobby conversations to the program notes, but nowhere else does it sing the way it does in his choreography. His new story ballet, choreographed especially for his Chicago debut, is a monumental work rich in meaning, charm, and emotional power. In a Child’s Eye is a fairy tale about a young girl who visits an imaginary land where she encounters love, battles evil, and learns a fundamental truth. It embodies the most basic kind of human struggle, and succeeds at delivering its message because it absolutely enchants the audience. From the adorable potbellied four-year-old page to Elana D. Anderson in a heart-wrenching solo as the young protagonist, In a Child’s Eye holds the audience captive.

Much of this power is attributable to the dancers, who bring a good deal of passion and technical skill to each piece. Some seem to lack the maturity of past JHCDT performers–at times they move as if they were not yet comfortable with this highly developed technique. But what they lack in maturity they make up for in vitality. Led by Anderson’s fresh, innocent portrayal of the young girl, the company give their best performances in In a Child’s Eye.

Their range extends beyond the telling of fairy tales, however. Iega’s Gula Matari–Breaker of the Rock is a hip dance with funky, driving rhythms by Quincy Jones, and the company rises to the occasion, creating a wild, fantastic, somewhat sexual vision of what the core of the earth might look like should it be exposed. Desire, choreographed by Gary Abbott (who will join the company next season as co-artistic director), is so genuinely erotic that some audience members moaned out loud as the stage lights went down; the company performs it with simple conviction.

Like the old troupe, the new Joseph Holmes has a mission to empower people through positive art. But the dancers get a little too clean and happy in Junto, a spritely number set to New Age jazz by Pat Metheny. It might have been Metheny’s music that put me off, but the dancers’ big, bright smiles probably had something to do with it: they were just a little too “gee, ain’t this swell!” to be believable. On the other hand, when Iega explores potentially painful subjects he doesn’t get mired in angst (very refreshing, given the slew of preachy, heavy-handed concerts in this year’s Spring Festival of Dance). Even his Church of Nations–which asks the question “Should the houses in which we worship give consent to death and destruction in the name of God?”–stops short of all-out condemnation, instead exploring the human, emotional side of church leaders confronted with the possibility of war.

In each dance Iega the artist outshines Iega the philosopher. He not only has an innate sense of drama but pays impeccable attention to the details of movement–hands, feet, posture, facial expression–and each dance seems to offer something fresh and unexpected. It might be a heartfelt moment in Church of Nations or a dazzling series of turns and lifts in Junto, but always Iega gives you something to watch as well as understand. Joseph Holmes has got a good thing going.

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