CDF13 Sneak Peek: Alexander Ekman’s “Episode 31″

Choreographer Alexander Ekman. Photo by Urban Joren.

I stopped by to watch rehearsal earlier this month as the Joffrey Ballet gets ready for the Chicago premiere of Alexander Ekman‘s Episode 31 this week at the Chicago Dancing Festival (CDF). A CDF13 commission, the work was originally created for students at the Juilliard School in 2011 and incorporates a multi media/video element at the beginning of the piece. The young Swedish choreographer also had a commissioned work in last year’s festival. Giordano Dance Chicago performed his humorous relationship duet Two Becomes Three in CDF12 and will perform it again at CDF13.

On a sunny Friday afternoon, 28 Joffrey dancers headed out to film the into video and danced in the street, on the Brown line, across the Clark Street bridge, on the steps of the Vietnam Memorial Park under Wacker, under the “Bean” and in Crown Fountain. Clapping, stomping and yelling accompanied the choreography and caught a number of people off guard. A group of students gave the dancers an impromptu cheer to thank them and one woman waiting for her train said, “It’s better than the muggers on the Red Line”. Gotta love Chicagoans.

A few weeks later, back in the studio, the dancers prepped for a run-thru of Episode 31. The studio had random props (an empty lamp stand, tennis balls, a wooden box) and strips of marley strewn about the floor. I asked one dancer, “What’s this all about?” His reply, “Joffrey being Hubbard Street.” While it might not be in Hubbard’s rep, this piece is way more their style than what you normally see from the Joffrey. It’s outside their comfort zone. For some, I’d say way out. One girl stays in pointe shoes, randomly bourree-ing throughout the chaos. Most are in jazz shoes. One dancer comes out and does a quick, intense tap solo. Two men perform a loosely balletic, post-modern duet while a poem is read. The dancers drop suddenly to the floor and convulse like they are being electrocuted (frying bacon, anyone?), while a lone dancer slowly circles the stage, taking it all in.

Joffrey dancers in Crown Fountain at Millennium Park. Photo courtesy of The Joffrey Ballet.

Oh, and there is some coughing and sneezing. Yeah, not your typical Joffrey. Artistic Director Ashley Wheater is embracing the difference and think it will only enhance their artistry. “The way have to move in 31, the way they have to use their spine to instigate the movement…if they would take that into classical ballet, then ballet becomes that much more of an interesting, organic form as opposed to being two-dimensional and a little bit flat” he said. “It will be very fun to see how people respond to it.”

Episode 31 will also appear in Joffrey’s Winter program next February at the Auditorium Theatre.

The Joffrey Ballet performs Alexander Ekman’s “Episode 31″ at the Chicago Dancing Festival on Thursday, Aug. 22 at 7:30 pm at the Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress Pkwy. The performance is SOLD OUT, but any available stand-by tickets will be released at 7:15 pm.

For more information on the Chicago Dancing Festival, visit www.chicagodancingfestival.com.

 

2013 Chicago Dancing Festival

Chicago Dancing Festival at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion. Photo by Todd Rosenberg.

It’s almost that time of year again. In late August (20th-24th), the seventh annual Chicago Dancing Festival (CDF) hits Chicago stages for another year of fantastic FREE dance concerts. Once again, for the third year, I will be part of CDF’s blogger initiative covering the performances and providing dancer/choreographer interviews and behind-the-scenes rehearsal sneak peeks. Woot!

This year’s line up of performers is fantastic. Local companies Chicago Human Rhythm Project, Giordano Dance Chicago, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago and The Joffrey Ballet as well as NY-based companies Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Brian Brooks Moving Company, Camille A. Brown & Dancers and Lar Lubovitch Dance Company all return to the fest. CDF newcomers include Chicago’s Ensemble Español and Natya Dance Theatre and Philadelphia’s Philadanco, plus artists Brooklyn Mack of Washington Ballet and Tamako Miyazaki of Columbia Classical Ballet and Dortmund Ballet.

2013 Chicago Dancing Festival will also have two commissions: a new piece by Chi-town tappers Lane Alexander and Bril Barrett and the Chicago premiere of Alexander Ekman’s Episode 31 by Joffrey (this work will also appear on their Winter program in Feb 2014). Live music will accompany the Lubovitch company and Ensemble Español. Tuesday (Aug. 20) opens the festival with a celebration for the Harris Theater‘s 10th anniversary. Wednesday (Aug. 21) is the CDF gala performance and benefit at the Museum of Contemporary Art/MCA Stage. It’s the only event in which you need to purchase a ticket ($250). Thursday (Aug. 22) showcases Dancing in Chicago with an all-local show at the Auditorium Theatre. Friday is a free repeat of the gala performance, Solitaire – A Game of Dance, featuring all solo works. And, Saturday is the much-loved, highly-attended Celebration of Dance at the outdoor Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park.

All performances – except the gala – are free. Tickets for indoor events need to be reserved, but the outdoor Pritzker show is open to the public. The ticket release for the performances is staggered and there is a limit of two (2) tickets per order. Stay tuned for a post with the ticket release dates and performance times.

BONEdanse’s bully.punk.riot: Preview

BONEdansers Cheryl Cornacchione and Nicole Scatchell in "bully.punk.riot." Photo by Carl Wiedemann.

A lesson in moshing, a debate on electronic equipment, a lecture on moral hypocrisy, a futball duet, a cattle-like corral and a urinal test. You get all that and more in BONEdanse‘s bully.punk.riot + REBELLION  EVENT running for two weekends at the new Links Hall/Constellation starting tonight. The fearless Atalee Judy teams up with choreographers Melissa Ganser and Megan Klein for this intelligent, intense trifecta of turbulent tension encased in fervent, physical, female fierceness. Come prepared for a riotous rebellion and some damn fine dancing.

Judy saw Ganser’s and Klein’s work while they were studying at Columbia College and thought they spoke the same language, so she asked them to collaborate on a show. “They’re smart, really athletic and very thoughtful without over-thinking,” Judy said. “They’re very physical in a visceral kind of way. We bonded immediately. I didn’t want to just do a show by myself, so it excited me to bring them in.” A book she was reading – Herd: How to Change Mass Behavior by Harnessing Our True Nature by Mark Earls – provided the impetus for the show’s theme. Klein chose to explore violence in gangs and riots, Ganser wanted to address bullying, while Judy went to her knowledge of the punk scene and mosh pits. Those three takes became bully.punk.riot. “Why not make it really transparent? It’s charged, It’s powerful,” Judy said of the title.

The three main theme sections are broken up by what Judy calls “herding transitions” inspired by tests in the book. One of these transitions is the futball duet which tackles (ha!) the herding mentality in sporting events complete with referee hand signals and wrestling take-downs.  Judy, who also did all of the costuming and sound design, has the two dancers clad in all-white costumes with football pads on their hips. (See pic.) “I’ve always liked how football players looked in their white pants and I thought girls would look great in them too,” she said. “It’s so perfect. They make this clapping, crashing sound. It’s definitely a commentary on the herding trends in football and wrestling, but the switch is the fashion industry. These are haute couture, even vogue-y kind of female divas. The put their shoes on their hands and do boxing things to get into that competition feel.”

While those costumes take things to the extreme, another costuming choice tacks simple. In the bully section, Judy has the dancers in plain white underwear (which as a recovering ballerina, I found terrifying). “I thought of the white underwear because they have this vulnerability to them. I wanted to show vulnerability without being stupid, sexy, girly,” she said. “The perfect icon, for me, is when men strip down, ‘are you wearing boxers or briefs’? It’s that iconic, vulnerable place. Everybody takes a shit sitting down. It makes a level player out of all of us. Later on in the piece, we do put pants on. Everybody puts pants on one leg at a time. It just brings us all to this level playing field. Plus, I really like tighty whities. It’s the most comfortable cotton.”

The super-charged, emotionally energetic show also boasts some great music – if you like punk rock. Dead Kennedys, FEAR, The Young Gods and Trent Reznor (head of Nine Inch Nails) are just some of the rebellious music you’ll hear throughout the soundscape. “This is not just a dance trance monster,” said Judy. “There’s a lot of really great music and really awesome energy to feel and get into. It’s a group of really strong women doing great stuff. It’s been a great process.”

BONEdanse presents bully.punk.riot at Links Hall/Constellation, 3111 N. Western Ave., Thursday-Sunday, June 20-23 and June 27-30 at 7 pm. Tickets are $18-$20 and can be purchased here.

 

 

 

 

Preview: Striding Lion’s Dada Gert

Dancers Jeff Hancock and Annie Arnoult Beserra perform a "Sound Dance" inspired by Valeska Gert's variations on the Dada sound poem. Photo by Matthew Gregory Hollis.

A duo moves across the floor improvising with a chair and a serving tray. On the opposite side of the room is a trio similarly working with a tea kettle and cup. At the end of each phrase the first group looks center and says, “Danke” while the later turns to reply “Bitte”. This is repeated until the moving tea service lands on a set table, while a female singer begins to hum and play the accordion. Add in circus-esque black and white striped walls where vintage film clips play, poetry and a disjointed soundtrack that includes the dancers’ own soundscapes and Die Moritat von Mackie Messer (or Mack the Knife) and you have entered the surreal world of Expressionist/Dadaist art in pre-World War II Berlin. In particular, you’ve entered the world and work of dancer/film and cabaret artist/model and self-proclaimed artistic genius Valeska Gert, who is the inspiration for the upcoming performance of Striding Lion Performance Group‘s Dada Gert.

The group’s artistic director Annie Arnoult Beserra learned of Gert’s work (*short video below) while in grad school and has been intrigued ever since. “What drew me to her was her absolutely seamless integration of dance and theater,” Berserra said, “and she has a voracious, raw, aggressive energy.” Gert definitely pushed the boundaries of what was happening in her day by utilizing pieces of the Dada movement (although according to Beserra, she did not consider herself a Dadaist) and the influence of Bertolt Brecht to create her own unique artistic voice in the Weimar Era. Gert is perhaps an obscure choice to create an hour-length work about, but in this case – and with this cast that is fully committed – it works. The six dancers and one singer literally throw themselves into this crazy world of twitches, snorts, funny faces and lyric. Jeff Hancock (who also did the installation and costume design) leads the others in a puppet-like defense of Dada, while Beserra becomes Gert by perfecting and replicating the unusual faces and energy that made her famous in her day. One particularly impressive section has Beserra pulling these “faces” simulating normal/”Valeska”, “horrified”, “tough guy”, “bright idea” and “fat face” over and over with increasing speed while the singer and accordion play on.

I stopped by rehearsal yesterday, so I haven’t seen it run in the theater with production values, but from what I saw, this will be a uniquely entertaining, multi-media piece of historical dance theater.

Striding Lion Performance Group presents Dada Gert at the Hamlin Park Fieldhouse Theater, 3035 N. Hoyne, Thursday-Friday, May 23-24 and Thursday-Friday, May 30-31 at 7:30 pm. Tickets are $20 ($10 students and seniors) – half price rush tickets will also be available. Call 773.769.7540 or visit brownpapertickets.com/event/345021.

Dance Center Announces 40th Anniversary Season

Cloud Gate Dance Theatre dancer WANG Wei-ming in "Songs of the Wanderers". Photo by YU Hui-hung.

The Dance Center of Columbia College marks its 40th anniversary season with an exciting range of dance companies from around the world. Along with staple local and international modern companies, the season welcomes a number of hip hop and urban artists to the roster. Nods to the past, present and a look toward an interesting, if changing, future?

Notable touring company Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan returns to Chicago next March and will be co-presented with the Joffrey Ballet and the Auditorium Theatre. (*This performance will be at the Auditorium.) A French hip hop choreographer sets work on young dancers from Brazil for an explosive show by Compagnie Kafig performing in February 2014. Other traveling companies include multiple award-winning Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, Philadelphia-based choreographer Raphael Xavier, as well as New York-based Susan Marshall and Company. A co-commissioned by the Dance Center will feature a work about migration out of Africa through the “lens of Moses stories” by Reggie Wilson/Fist & Heel Performance Group.

Local troupes to hit the South Loop stage include Mordine & Company Dance Theater, Same Planet Different World and Peter Carpenter Performance Project (joint program), and Khecari and The Humans (joint program). Also look for Family Matinee performances throughout the season.

For more information on the 2013-2014 season, visit colum.edu/Dance_Center.

The Legacy Tour

MCDC dancers Rashaun Mitchell & Andrea Webber in "Antic Meet". Photo by Yi-Chun Wu.

This weekend, Merce Cunningham Dance Company (MCDC) comes to Chicago.  The two shows, co-presented by the Dance Center at Columbia College and the Harris Theater, mark the second to last stop on the company’s two-year Legacy Tour performing works from Cunningham’s 70-year career.  Bonnie Brooks, former chair and current faculty member (on sabbatical) at Columbia College’s Dance Department, has been traveling with the company and will be documenting the company’s experience for the Legacy Plan.  Her background and extensive knowledge of his work make her the perfect person for the job.  I spoke with Brooks via phone last week about the tour, his legacy and the upcoming performances.

How did you get involved with the Legacy Tour?

I have a long history with Merce and the company.  I first met Merce in the 1980s when I was working with the National Endowment for the Arts.  I’ve kept up with the company in various ways over the years.  When I came to Chicago and we began to present them, that sort of furthered the relationship and I started writing and lecturing on Merce’s work and they started inviting me to go to different engagements with them and do pre-performance talks, interview Merce, help out with various things.  After Merce died (2009) and they determined they were going to go on the Legacy Tour, they realized part of what they needed to do was document it, document the whole story of the Legacy Plan. They felt that because of my history with the company, my friendship with Merce and something of the distance that I had because I wasn’t immediately employed by the company, that I would be a good choice to do that.  So they invited me to join.

Is this directly related to why you took a sabbatical?  Did you take time off so you could be on the tour?

No.  Actually, that was another piece of the story that was one of those marvelous coincidences in life.  I made the decision in 2008 when I renewed my contract to chair the dept at the Dance Center, that was going to be my final three years as chair.  At that time Merce was still living and there was no influence at all between my decision and what has happened.  Since then, the college decided to give me a year-long sabbatical when I stepped down and that very neatly coincided with when the company wanted me to start traveling with them on a regular basis. It’s one of those wonderful accidents.

What exactly are you doing on the tour? 

It varies from engagement to engagement.  Sometimes they ask me to pre or post-performance talks or introduce open rehearsals, things like that.  Sometimes I’m just there to observe what’s happening.  I’ve taken pictures.  It really depends on what the presenter has asked, what residency activities have been put together.  One of the things that has happened as a result of me traveling with them, which I think was an intention on their part, it has given me a chance to get the perspective of many, many people on the Legacy Tour, the Legacy Plan, the kind of radical decision the company has made to close its doors…that’s given me a lot to work with in terms of what I’ll be writing after the tour.

Were you instrumental in getting them here?

Yes.  When I was chair of the department,  I was very actively involved with the program.  We had negotiated that they would come two years ago.  We negotiated it before Merce died that they would come and do events at our theater, previous to that we’d always presented them at the Harris Theater…and then Merce died.  They began to book the Legacy Tour and I said we have to bring them back one more time.  We were going to have them in November, but decided to have them in the second part of the tour, which is wonderful because they’re very near the end of the almost 40-city, two-year tour.

Now that it’s so close the end of the tour, are people getting more emotional? 

Yes.  It’s becoming much more real to everyone now that we’re close to the end.  I think the place that hit us the most vividly was in London.  We were in London about a month ago and the final night, I think everybody in the entire theater – in the audience and on stage – was in tears.  We realized this was the last appearance in a city that historically has been very hospitable to Merce’s work.  The audience was on its feet shouting “thank you!” It just really hit us that we wouldn’t be back again, at least not as the Merce Cunningham Dance Company.  The thing that’s been so profound about this is realizing that this is the final generation of dancers that Merce trained and chose himself.  These are the people, in my opinion, that are finishing his long, artistic project.  There’s such a poignancy and a beauty to that and I think in London we realized, we’re beyond seeing the work, this is now really the goodbyes.

Since you’re so familiar with his work, can you tell me about the pieces that are going to be presented here in Chicago?

Friday night, we’re doing a repertory evening…a piece called “Squaregame”, “Quartet”, which has five people in it, and then “Antic Meet”, which is a piece from 1958 that Merce made.  “Squaregame” is a very playful piece.  There are beautiful sections, but it’s almost like you’re on a playground with mischievous children in terms of the fun that occurs and there are big duffel bags on the stage that they throw around and hide behind.  It’s really a delightful piece.  Then you go to a completely different end of the spectrum with “Quartet”, which is kind of dark and moody.  There’s a male part in it that Merce danced originally and two other males and two females.  You’re watching the interaction between this group of dancers and this individual character.  It’s very lyrical, but in a very dark way, but it’s beautiful.  It’s easy, because of the complexities of Merce’s work, its easy to lose the fact that there is enormous beauty in it. And this is one of his more beautiful pieces, in my opinion.  The last piece on the rep is “Antic Meet”, sort of a spoof.  In it’s eight different sections.  There’s a central character.  It’s an anomaly in Merce’s body of work in some ways because there is some acting involved.  There are references to Vaudeville, to every day life, to tap, to ballet…there are fairly clear references to his period with Martha Graham.  

The second evening is one of my very favorites of Merce’s piece.  It’s called Roaratorio.  It’s an  hour-long work that was originally envisioned by John Cage.  Cage created a soundscape that was an homage to James Joyce and his final works…Finnigan’s Wake.  One of the things Cage did was go to Ireland and sample sounds from places that were referenced in Finnigan’s Wake.  So this was a rare occasion where the sound information pre-dated everything else.  John had hoped Merce would eventually make some kind of dance using the score.  For several years, Merce didn’t think that was possible. He has built in a number of what appear to be Irish jigs.  There are a lot of relational information in it, couples and groups relating to one another.  He described one as a group or family traveling from one place to another, which is what they do if you watch the full arc of the piece.  I think it’s the best example of Merce’s sheer love for dancing.  It ‘s a joy to watch from start to finish.

In your mind, what is it or was it about Merce and his work that made him such an icon?

I think that Merce represents and, in fact, literally is the single most turning point in 20th century modern dance.  Merce took a lot of the existing conventions that were handed to him in both the modern and ballet world…and because of the combination of existing things that he did, he stayed in modern dance, he stayed in a concert dance format, he put together an ensemble of dancers, he trained them and he worked with them consistently for many decades…those are all sort of conventions.  In terms of the content of the work itself, he just broke so many rules.  He advanced narratives, he separated the dance from the music, he choreographed in silence, he and John (Cage) created this whole new approach  to put dance, music and visual information together in a performance context.  He just did so much that was inconoclastic.  He turned the use of space on its head.  He created an egalitarian circumstance for dancers instead of a hierarchy of some kind where there were special people and less special people and the back up people.  The list goes on and on.  The bottom line is that Merce set a whole new direction of what was possible.  It was through him and the gateway of his work that the whole postmodern movement came through.  If there hadn’t been a Merce, I don’t know what postmoderism in dance would’ve been.  He opened a whole new direction for dance.

Merce Cunningham Dance Company – The Legacy Tour

November 18 & 19, Harris Theater, 205 E. Randolph, 312.334.7777

Tickets start at $25

 

Review: River North Revamps

River North Dance Chicago (RNDC) performed their fall engagement at the Harris Theater over the weekend with a rep of seven diverse dances.  The company opened with what has become its signature piece, Sherry Zunker’s Evolution of a Dream.  Strong and consistent, it was the perfect opener for the show.  If you’re familiar with RNDC, you noticed quite a few unfamiliar faces.  Four new company dancers took the stage on Friday night with another one out due to a broken foot.  Dream and the ball piece (Charles Moulton’s Nine Person Precision Ball Passing), which since they don’t move from the waste down borderlines on dance for me, were the cleanest pieces in the show.  A lovely trio in Al Sur Del Sur featuring Jessica Wolfrum, Tucker Knox and Ahmad Simmons and the ever-stunning Train solo by Hanna Brictson were other stand outs.  Spotty unison, stumbles, wobbles and a handful of missed lifts had me witnessing an extreme rarity:  RNDC had an off night.

I’ve been watching RNDC deliver strong, solid seemingly perfect performances for almost 15 years, so the small flubs took me by surprise.  This is no condemnation of their talents – they are multitude – but this wasn’t their best showing.  The much-anticipated company premiere of Daniel Ezralow’s SUPER STRAIGHT is coming down opened the second half of the show (the perfect spot for it).  For those of us in the audience that had seen the original, and there were many, just hearing the opening note and seeing the hanging bags with the dancers inside brought back a flood of memories.  Fair or not, the RNDC dancers were dancing with the ghosts of the original cast with them on the stage.  A dapper Michael Gross in his suit brought Ron De Jesús (who was in the audience) rolling across the stage.  Wolfrum in her black dress had Sandi Cooksey defying gravity, hovering inches above the floor.  Twenty two years after the premiere, these five dancers were bringing back a beloved (by many, especially me) piece and I wanted them to BRING IT!  On Friday, it seemed they brought a little and saved some for later.  Perhaps the excitement of seeing it for the very first time back in ’89 helped to create the illusion that vaulted the original cast to rock star status in the dance scene?  Maybe it was the difference between learning it fresh and resetting it?  It could any number of reasons that it didn’t hold the same sway with me this time.  I have no doubt that RNDC will continue to grow and evolve with this work, but this time out, it didn’t live up to the hype.  Especially my own.

 

Preview: River North Opens Fall Season

Jessica Wolfrum & Michael Gross in "Al Sur del Sur". Photo by Sandro.

This weekend at the Harris Theater, River North Dance Chicago (RNDC) opens it’s fall season. Just off a successful international tour (US, Korea, Germany, Switzerland), RNDC is warmed up, employing five new dancers and ready to take the stage with a mixed rep that is sure to dazzle. Signature group piece by Sherry Zunker, Evolution of a Dream (2009), is joined by last season hits Al Sur Del Sur choreographed by Sabrina and Rubin Veliz and Artistic Director Frank Chavez’s jazz tribute Simply Miles, Simply Us. Charles Moulton’s postmodern Nine Person Precision Ball Passing (1980), which the company performed over the summer during the Chicago Dancing Festival (and shall heretofore be known as “the ball piece”), makes it’s Harris stage debut. Add in an intense solo by Robert Battle from his work Train (2008) and the first duet Chavez every choreographed in 1994, Fixé, and you have the makings for a fantastic and entertaining evening of dance. But it is the company premiere of Daniel Ezralow’s SUPER STRAIGHT is coming down that is getting all the buzz – and rightly so.

Originally commissioned by Hubbard Street Dance Chicago (HSDC) founder Lou Conte in 1989, SUPER STRAIGHT was a cutting-edge, athletic, dynamic piece that helped change the trajectory of the company from a strong, stellar troupe with a jazz/Broadway-based rep to one of the pioneers of contemporary dance. Ezralow, an emerging choreographer at the time, took inspiration from a book of black and white photographs by Robert Longo titled Men in the Cities and set it to an original score by Dutch composer Thom Willems. What came out was a quirky, desperate, intriguing, hyper-physical, 15-minute dance that was like nothing the audience had seen before. Revolutionary seems trite, but it was. Five dancers dressed in black and white appear in what look like plastic garment bags hanging from the ceiling. That image, along with the darkly eerie, industrial score, set the mood for a wonderful and strange adventure. The original cast of Chavez, Sandi Cooksey, Ron De Jesús, Alberto Arias and Lynn Shepard brought a fierce energy to their talented technical skills and took the stage by storm. I saw it on tour that season and it blew me away! (It was one of the reasons I wanted to move to Chicago and why I’m a huge HSDC fan.) I am so completely STOKED that RNDC is reviving it this weekend. I spoke with Chavez by phone earlier this week about their upcoming program.

You’ve set quite an eclectic program…Miles, Balls, Tango…

This is our “Tour de Force” program (also the title of the Thursday night gala). To be able to go from an authentic Argentinian tango to “SUPER STRAIGHT” with a contemporary edge and then go to Miles Davis, as jazzy as you can get…it shows so many different facets of the company and that we can do all of those things really well.

Jessica Wolfrum in Ezralow's "SUPER STRAIGHT is coming down". Photo by Jenifer Girard.

I’m going to cut to the chase. I really want to focus on SUPER STRAIGHT because it is my favorite piece ever! I love it, I love it, I love it! I always wondered when/if Hubbard would bring it back.

(Laughing) We feel the same way. It’s my favorite Daniel Ezralow piece. Not just because I had the great opportunity to perform it, but I’ve been thinking about it for quite a while. I’m always concerned with something that was related to HSDC, that enough time has gone by…we’re careful with all that. We thought it was such a good fit and it’s such a good piece that it just made sense. As you say, it’s my favorite piece of Danny’s and it’s been sitting on a shelf for a long time. It’s so perfect for us. I honestly didn’t think I’d see HSDC do it again. It just isn’t them any more. I felt truly it was more appropriate for us these days, so I went for it.

Are there things he told you, that maybe the audience doesn’t know, that you get to pass down now that you’re resetting it?

As I did it, I brought Sandi and Berto in to help with rehearsal and some tidbits here and there. It was really based on a book of photographs by Robert Longo. The costumes, the look of the piece…everything came from this book. It was very interesting. He took a bunch of pictures of men and women in cityscapes. The idea behind it was that they were having things thrown at them and they were dodging. They were all sort of action/motion shots, but very quirky. They were pedestrians. There were a lot of images that ended up being translated off the page and into the piece. That was the initial jist of it. I’ve described it as sort of an urban meltdown. It’s like these people have been dropped down from some other space. The bags…do you remember? These big huge ice cubes that they melt out of. I remember Danny saying things like, “Your first step out of that bag is like you’re stepping on to black ice.” You can’t see it. You don’t know if it’s going to hold you. There’s so much uncertainty in the piece, which created a great deal of tension. There was a lot of tension in the creative process too. Danny likes to stir the pit a little bit. He does a lot of improv and then puts the piece together. That’s his process. He feeds off of whatever is happening. If somebody is pissed off and walking around a corner, he’ll use that in the piece. He really wanted to shock the audience. I remember this original composition, he wanted that first note to come in really strong and jolt the audience. You’d hear a collective “ah” – it scared them. It transcends you to another place and you’re not sure what’s going on. He said that it was very abstract for him. There was no real meaning behind it for him. There was no story behind it. He wanted to create this tense atmosphere that kept people on the edge of their seats and uncertain. It does that well. So many people wrote it was about AIDS, disease, a takeover, aliens…it had a million different interpretations of what it was. Danny likes to do that. He likes to leave it up to the audience, however they see it, whatever they’re feeling…that was a big part of it.

I definitely got an alien vibe and just kept wonder what was up with the bags?

He likes to make people question a lot. Are they aliens? Are they just arriving here? Were they quarantined? All these speculations came about where these bags came from and then they just float off the stage. These five people are just dropped off somewhere. They have no idea where they are. You can say they’re from a different planet. They don’t even know why they’re there, but they need to go explore. If they are to go on in any way, they need to get out of those bags and find out where they are. It’s a bit of a discovery. The silent section in the middle was very interesting. There are two musical cues in the musical section and other than that it was timing and breath and feeling each other, commanding and finding the silence and doing something with it and translating that into a very tense atmosphere. Again, the uncertainty is what creates this tension. Initially the piece wasn’t counted at all. We just followed each other. For dancers…everybody wants to know what they’re doing at every moment. That was a really interesting part about the piece. I think it keeps it really interesting and relevant. There’s nothing to me that’s dated to me about the piece. It’s still so relevant in so many ways.

The silent section, the improv and keeping it real on stage…was that a new way of working for you guys back then? Or had you already been through that type of process before?

No. I think it was new for a lot of us. Danny was just starting out as a choreographer at that time, aside from what he did for his own company. I think for us, and for that time at HSDC, it was pretty new. It was fantastic. What came out of that process was pretty special. Sometimes it all just works. I think “SUPER STRAIGHT” is a great example of when everything really comes together.

River North Dance Chicago, Nov 4&5 at 8pm

Tickets: $30-$75, Harris Theater, 205 E. Randolph, 312.334.7777

Henry V Delights at Dance Center

Post modern guru David Gordon has a way with words.  He uses them as a structure, a starting point, an inspiration and then turns them into a complex living creative act right before your eyes on the stage.  So it is with his Pick Up Performance Co(s)‘ presentation of Dancing Henry Five this weekend at The Dance Center of Columbia College.  This 2004 revival is part theater, part performance art, part dance, part music collage.  A deconstructed take on Shakespeare’s Henry V, it not only entertains, but offers a commentary on war that still resonates today.

The program calls it a “reduction” of Shakespeare’s work.  Once in the theater, the stage shows what Gordon has reduced it down to – the bare necessities.  Everything for the performance is on the stage in plain view.  No wings, props strewn about the stage and performers standing around the edges waiting.  Costumes of colorful, but faded rugby shirts with shorts suggest uniforms of a different kind of battle, rather than the 1415 Battle of Agincourt that they are about to partially recreate.  The performers walk around the stage carrying signs with pertinent information (title, names, please turn off cell phones) passing by like the opening credits of a movie.  Valda Setterfield (Gordon’s wife and former dancer with Merce Cunningham) acts as narrator and chorus moving the action along and adding sly, sometimes biting commentary – Gordon’s,  not her own, she states – as well as joining in the dance.  At 77, she’s still a dynamic performer with impeccable timing.  (Go on with your bad self, Valda!)

Dancing Henry Five incorporates spoken word along with audio excerpts from the stage and movie versions of Henry V with musical interjections of William Walton’s score from the film.  The first Shakespeare quote heard is “a kingdom for a stage” and Gordon transforms this stage into a kingdom, ocean and battlefield.  At times funny, poignant, sad and moving, the one-hour production is a creative, quirky take on a classic historical poem.  Shakespeare through the looking glass.  Seven dancers make the action happen, most notable former American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet star Robert La Fosse.  His trademark mole on his left cheek is barely visible through his make up, but watching him do a low quick jeté shows the technique, if not the flexibility, is still there.

As the plot takes us to war against the French, one can’t help but be reminded of more current events.  ”War takes minds off deficits”, says the narrator.  Indeed.  Originally choreographed in 2004, a year after we began the war in Iraq, the words bring a poignant pause to the audience.  A quilt carried across the “water” includes an American flag, even though Columbus wouldn’t discover America for another 77 years.  One image that sticks is dancers standing on sheets of material being slowly pulled across the stage like ships.

There is one performance left of this interesting post modern take on Shakespeare’s play.  Tickets are still available.

Pick Up Performance Co(s) – Dancing Henry Five

The Dance Center at Columbia College, 1306 S, Michigan, 312.369.8330