Hubbard Street’s danc(e)volve 2013: Review

Hubbard Street 2 dancers Emilie Leriche and Felicia McBride.
Hubbard St 2 dancers Brandon Lee Alley and Emilie Leriche.
Hubbard St dancers Quinn B Wharton and Jessica Tong.
Hubbard St dancers Jonny McMillian and Jesse Bechard.
Hubbard St dancers Alice Klock and Jonny McMillan.
HS 2 dancers Richard Walters and Lissa Smith.
Hubbard St dancers Garrett Anderson and Alice Klock.

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago is known for taking choreographic risks. From bringing top European choreographers like Mats Ek to the Chicago stage to commissioning works from emerging artists to cultivating in-house talent with danc(e)volve: New Works Festival 2013. Some risks are bigger than others. Some pay off, while some get chalked up to a learning experience. This “risk” showcased in the two-week run of performances at the MCA Stage, pays off big time. Usually, there is one piece that sticks with you, one that stands out – a favorite. Not here, all six new works are sharp, unique and satisfying.

The choreographers range from the more experienced – HS2 director Terence Marling, former Hubbard Street dancer Robyn Mineko Williams and soon-to-depart, new Mom Penny Saunders to the younger, just-starting-out HS2′s Andrew Wright. Wright proves he has a bright future as a choreographer opening the show with Agape. Utilizing his fellow HS2-ers, he goes from a twitchy opening female solo with dancers running and reaching for something unattainable to a freeing second section where the dancers run in abandon with their arms and heads flung back. The second company commands the stage in this opening piece, especially Emile Leriche, who will join the main company this fall. She’s strong, subtle and stunning. When she’s on stage, you simply can’t take your eyes off her. At times, she seems to dissipate like a puff of smoke.

With a packed touring schedule, we rarely get to see HS2 perform alongside the main company. It was nice to see the younger dancers mixed in with the more seasoned dancers. Marling’s ditto, a trio with HS2′s Leriche and Brandon Lee Alley dancing with Ana Lopez, blurred the lines between first and second company. Alley showed considerable skill partnering the always stunning Lopez. Saunders’ Adalea featuring six dancers from the main company had some fun with chairs, ending with a tumbling, tossing, physical duet with Jesse Bechard and Johnny McMillan. As a lovely extra, at the end of the first act, a video made by the dancers of their trip with DanceMotion USA was shown giving us a glimpse into some of the adventures they had while in North Africa and Spain. Pictures and video from the trip with voice over from the dancers reveal an inspiring once-in-a-lifetime adventure.

Jonathan Fredrickson’s Límon-esque For the Wandered was a meditation in white for five dancers incorporating text via hidden microphones inside movable starched white mounds of material. Most of the new works were somber, focusing on the complex construction and the dancing, but Marling’s stop…stop…stop. was a lighter, humorous romp set to a mambo with the dancer’s voices remixed on top like an audio thought bubble. HS2′s Lissa Smith and Richard Walters were perfect as a shy, awkward potential couple manipulated by the dashing Quinn B Wharton as a mentor/matchmaker. Wharton’s intermittent sly solos a fun, quirky interlude to the actions of the couple. Mineko William’s Grey Horses closed the show with the black brick back wall exposed creating a darker, starker stage.  Again mixing dancers from both companies (props to Leriche – again – and Walters!), she used the stark setting to create another dance of shadows across the back wall with beautiful solo work by Alice Klock. Set to music titled Ghost Come Morning by Robert G. Haynes, the final image of Klock and her shadow fading in to the dark brought an otherworldly feel.

Most performances are already sold out, but there are ticket still available for the Sunday, June 16 shows. Get them here now!

Slideshow Photo Captions: All photography by Todd Rosenberg.

Emilie Leriche and Felicia McBride in “Agape” by Andrew Wright.

Brandon Lee Alley and Emilie Leriche in “ditto” by Terence Marling.

Quinn B Wharton and Jessica Tong in “Adalea” by Penny Saunders.

Johnny McMillan and Jesse Bechard in “Adalea” by Penny Saunders.

Alice Klock and Johnny McMillan in “For the Wandered” by Jonathan Fredrickson.

Richard Walters and LIssa Smith in “stop…stop…stop.” by Terence Marling.

Garrett Anderson and Alice Klock in “Grey Horses” by Robyn Mineko Williams.

 

 

Benjamin Wardell/The Nexus Project: It’s Complicated

Benjamin Wardell and Michel Cintra.

It starts with two men working with 12 different choreographers separately, then they take the material and remix it. In the meantime, funds need to be raised, a venue found and confirmed and the final product created. Much like the mind behind The Nexus Project – it’s complicated. Benjamin Wardell is not new to the Chicago dance world. He danced with Hubbard Street Dance Chicago for four seasons in a wide range of works by Nacho Duato, Alonzo King and many by resident choreographer Alejandro Cerrudo, among others. After he left Hubbard Street, most thought he’d retired from dance and/or moved away. Lucky for us, he didn’t.

Before coming to Chicago, the Memphis-native danced for the Cincinnati Ballet and Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet. Now a freelance dancer (a touring stint with Azure Barton and Artists and currently with Lucky Plush Productions), he’s also teaching at Extensions Dance Center, Visceral Dance Center and occasionally at Lou Conte Dance Center. He’s the official videographer for Luna Negra Dance Theater and River North Dance Chicago as well as a freelance photographer. He also does repetiteur work setting piece from the Hubbard Street rep around the country and is in charge of the company’s summer intensive program in Iowa. “I’m all over the place,” he said. “For me, that’s great. My brain is in 20 places at once. Whenever I would get into a company, I would eventually feel compressed by the lack of variety. Even just going in the same building every day. Now, I’m in so may place that I stay calm to make sure I don’t forget anything. That lifestyle works better for my internal make-up.”  For the upcoming project he’s teaming up with dancer Michel Rodriguez Cintro (of Hedwig Dances) and a dozen local choreographers for an exciting and ambitious project tentatively scheduled to premiere later this fall.

RB sat down with Wardell earlier this year to talk about his career, past and present.

Hubbard Street is currently in collaboration with Alonzo King/LINES Ballet. You’ve previously said that working with Alonzo for a long period of time is transformative and that it changes the way you dance. Is it also emotionally taxing?

Yes. He pushes really hard. The work is not particularly emotive, but it’s emotionally taxing because you’re always pushing really hard. He expects you to always be generating thought. In a way, your creativity with your movement maxes out, because he always wants it to be different every time and you perform the same piece like 130 times, but if you do it the same 2 or 3 times, he’ll call you out on it. “You need to explore that section of movement in a different way.” Part of the transformation was how to get creative doing the same movements and embracing the constant change. One of the good things is it prevents that subtle death of the choreography where it starts to look comfortable.

When you decided to leave Hubbard Street, what was going through your head?

I started to realize I wasn’t built for companies. It’s becoming easier to freelance and the sound of being in control of what I was doing was appealing. I thought it was pliable for me to do. I got to the point where I’d achieved all my institutional goals. At this point, I’d rather make something new that’s a “swing and a miss” than do a masterpiece that was made for someone else. I found myself at this place where I wanted to be generating stuff rather than learning choreography. That combined with I was getting into video and photo work and wanted to explore those avenues. I needed to be on my own in a way that I could do a lot of things. I had a vague thought about wanting to produce work, but that was the least part of my original plans. 

Why did you call the new project The Nexus Project?

I’d been calling it the “Two Man Show” since it’s inception, but I though that was a little generic for product packaging. I talked to a friend of mine that does marketing and he said I should have an overarching name. “The Nexus Project” was the first thing I came up with. The idea for the project, having all the choreographers and an open rehearsal process for the second half, is that the two of us, rather than being in a bubble, are the crossing point for all the spokes.

How did you pick Michel?

He choreographed for The A.W.A.R.D.S. Show and I was like “who the fuck is this guy and how have I lived here for two years and not know him?” I saw Chino (Michel’s nickname) dance and was shocked that he would be in this city and I had no idea. So I introduced myself. I need to find another guy that I can share the stage with for an hour and be on even ground with and who is available to do the amount of rehearsals needed. That list was short, because of all the demands.

How did you pick the choreographers (*listed below)?

It took me three or four months to hash out the project, it was a pretty slow process. It started off with just wanting to explore male duets. So a two-man show, then I started to think about my particular strengths and weaknesses. I’m not good with or particularly good at generating movement. That was a bit tricky. So what if I work with other choreographers? What am I good at? Outside of dancing, my secondary talent or other interest is coordinating people and finding connections between disparate parts, partly because my brain exists in that place. The way that things connect is how I see thing. I love complexity, so I should make a complicated process, because I’m going to feel at home in it. It’s going to tap into my capacity spectrum. Part of it was wanting to deal with the hierarchy of dance. Every choreography has a different methodology, but the way dance gets made is essentially the same in terms of the choreographer coming into the room and being in charge and making a piece and then leaving. That basic structure doesn’t really change. I’ve never been in a process that has more choreographers than dancers. Let’s try that. And, frankly, I just like the number 12.

Is there a choreographic theme to the show?

No. This is one of the aspects of the show that I’m most proud of – the process. It wasn’t one of my goals, it’s something I realized had happened once the process was set. The 12 choreographers have that truly rare consequence-free environment. That have two dancers who can do pretty much anything they can come up with, who are willing to try whatever, from the most risky to the most strange. We will do whatever you ask us with zero judgment. They get 12 hours of rehearsal each and they get to keep the work, but they’ve given us permission to use them. The choreographers came from wanting to represent the community, to give credit to all the stuff going on. I want people to have total freedom. At the end of February, whether they’ve finished their piece or not, I’m done with that phase of the project and need to move onto the second, which is the remixing process, an open rehearsal process (for donors) and putting the show together. A big part of why the second part is open is that studio time is our favorite time as dancers and yet we never let anyone in. 

What are your hopes for The Nexus Project?

In terms of the final show and guaranteeing it being not terrible, priority number one is “Don’t Suck!” Especially if you’re trying something new. It’s terrifying because this is all my little new idea and I haven’t had any experience with it aside from having a choreographer set work on me. The basis of the show that will make it at the very least not a waste of time, is that they’re going to come see some good damn dancing. You’re going to see two real good male dancers who are real good at dancing with each other and can hold a 60-70 minute show no matter what we’re doing. I felt like we would get better at dancing together more quickly if we had to work with a bunch of different choreographers than if we were spending the same number of hours just doing our own thing. It’s hard to avoid self-indulgence when you’re totally in charge. Having to go from style to style, I feel like we’ve gotten to know each other’s dancing fairly quickly.

For more details on The Nexus Project and to donate to the Kickstarter campaign (ends Wednesday, Jan. 23!) click here.

*Choreographers include: Harrison McEldowney, Francisco Avina, Autumn Eckman, Robyn Mineko Williams, Julia Rhoads, Penny Saunders, Ron De Jesus, Jonathan Meyer and Julia Rae Antonick (Kechari), Nicolas Blanc, Jonathan Fredrickson, Matthew McMunn and Daniel “Brave Monk” Haywood.

 

Sneak Peek: Hubbard Street’s One Thousand Pieces

Hubbard Street dancers Ana Lopez and Garrett Anderson in front of "America Windows". Photo by Todd Rosenberg. Marc Chagall © 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris.

Yesterday morning I popped in on rehearsals at Hubbard Street for Alejandro Cerrudo’s much-anticipated new full-length work, One Thousand Pieces,  inspired by Marc Chagall’s America Windows housed at the Art Institute of Chicago. This was the first rehearsal with the mirrors covered and with the dancers getting used to new elements (which I’ve been asked not to reveal), so there was some experimentation with aspects of the movements and a lot of starting/stopping as is necessary in a cleaning rehearsal. With that in mind, what I saw was a company fresh, focused and on the verge of something big.

Preparing for next week’s world premiere celebrating the company’s 35th anniversary at the Harris Theater (Oct. 18 – 21) is a collaborative effort engaging all Hubbard Street dancers – main company and HS2 – with all artistic staff hands on deck. Hubbard Street rehearsal director Terry Marling, HS2 director Taryn Kaschock Russell and dancer Penny Saunders (who is expecting a baby – congrats Penny and Pablo!) take turns running rehearsals and helping Cerrudo mold his new masterpiece.

The little bits I saw – and, frankly I wanted to stay and watch all day – were enough to make me believe this work will be something spectacular. Here’s a little glimpse into the process filmed by HMS Media:

Hubbard Street Inside the Studio: One Thousand Pieces

 

 

Johnny-Come-Lately

HSDC dancer Johnny McMillan in "Quintett". Photo by Cheryl Mann.

The past few weeks have been pretty good for Johnny McMillan.  In late April, he was promoted from HS2, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago‘s (HSDC) second company, to the main company.  He was immediately cast in William Forsythe’s Quintett (a big fucking deal), which he danced with veteran company members in the Summer Series at the Harris Theater earlier this month.  In addition to Forsythe, he performed a tiny part in resident choreographer Alejandro Cerrudo’s Malditos – “I was a cross-over girl.” – and sections of the group work by Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin THREE TO MAX.  He’s now setting a new work for HSDC’s in-house choreographic workshop Inside/Out, which will be the third piece he’s made since joining HS2 in 2010.  Did I mention he’s only 20?

That’s a lot to absorb for his petite 5’6″ frame, but he’s enjoying every minute.  “I wasn’t really nervous for Malditos at first, because I was just going on stage and doing three counts of eight,” he said last week from HSDC’s West Loop studio.  “But the first night, I run out on stage, slide, and my whole body goes ‘oh no, there are people here’.  That’s when it hit me.  I’m dancing with the main company.  Everything I’ve wanted in dance is happening.” That he got to dance a Forsythe piece in his first show is a testament to his talent and maturity.  Dancing alongside Ana Lopez, Alejandro Cerrudo, Jacqueline Burnett and Jesse Bechard, McMillan fit right in.  “It was a surreal experience,” he said.  “The nice thing about starting with Forsythe was…it wasn’t directed at the audience.  From the moment you’re on stage, you don’t have time to think about anything but the people you’re dancing with and what you’re doing.  That was nice.  It was just being on stage for 25 minutes and having a blast.  That’s the most fun I’ve ever had with a piece.”

Hitting the ground running, so to speak, he’s already learning tons of rep like Twyla Tharp’s speedy marathon Scarlatti and Sharon Eyal’s brain-twister Too Beacoup, while also rehearsing the three works he’ll perform at Inside/Out, as well as setting a solo on HSDC dancer Penny Saunders set to “Goin’ Out of My Head” by Little Anthony and the Imperials.  “It’s really groovy.  We were in Kansas (on tour) in the airport and I heard this song.  I was outside smoking a cigarette and it was on and – shazam! – this is it”, McMillan said.  “I’m really liking the solo and everything Penny is doing with it.  He’s taking a new approach with this piece, working more with improv than strict, set steps and patterns.  Inspired by memories of entertaining his parent as a child and watching videos of HS2 artistic director Taryn Kaschock Russell’s son Donovan, McMillan found his groove.  “Kids have this carelessness.  It’s always about the music.  I really want to play with this lack of counts and just hearing and feeling the music…not even choreographing to the music, but the way it makes you feel.”

McMillan’s work premieres this weekend along with 17 new works from HSDC dancers and artistic staff in the intimate UIC Theater.  Tickets are still available, but going quickly.  The thing I find most intriguing about Inside/Out and new works programs (there are a ton in Chicago) is that when the tables are turned and the dancers have the opportunity to create the movement, you really get a glimpse at who they are as people, not just as performers.  Don’t miss this chance to see you favorite HSDC-ers in a new light.

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago presents Inside/Out at the UIC Theater, 1044 W. Harrison St, Saturday, June 23 at 5 & 8 pm.  Tickets are $20 ($35 for VIP, $15 for students).  Call 312.850.9744 or visit www.hubbardstreet.com.

 

Thoughts on HSDC’s danc(e)volve – for real!

Johnny McMillan in "Never was" by Alejandro Cerrudo. Photo by Todd Rosenberg.

Over the weekend on the MCA Stage, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago (HSDC) presented nine new works created by HSDC dancers/choreographers and the winners of HSDC’s 2010 National Choreographic Competition. danc(e)volve – preview here – proved to be an interesting and intimate look into what makes HSDC tick: its artists.  Tickets for the four shows were sold out early, but there are tickets still available for the upcoming shows this weekend except for Saturday, which is already sold out.  (Hint: get your tickets now!)

Unlike most HSDC programs, this new works festival serves up multiple shorter pieces averaging 15-minutes a pop.  It’s like going to your favorite restaurant for a five-course chef tasting.  You aren’t sure what you’re going to get, but you’re confident you’re going to like it.  Unlike a big, gluttonous meal like an Ohad Naharin work, with a number of smaller pieces, you get varying tastes:  an amuse bouche, a palette cleanser, complex notes, sweet and light and the one course that wow’s you.  If you don’t like one course, something completely different is coming next.  (Hmm…note to self:  remember to eat before the show!)

Each work in danc(e)volve looked remarkably like the dancers that choreographed them, which is testament to their honesty as an artist.  The natural way they move embedding itself into their art.  Many took the opportunity to play with traditional conventions, pushing the definition of what the audience is used to seeing.  Lighting effects – shout out to lighting designer Matt Miller! – (downstage footlights creating shadows on the back wall), entrances and exits (utilizing the side door in the audience), even starting/ending points (music beginning in darkness or the dance ending in darkness, while the music still plays).  Some were greeted with tentative applause (is it over?), others with a murmur of surprised approval.

Resident Choreographer Alejandro Cerrudo’s duet Never was, at seven minutes one of the shortest pieces, served as the main course of each program.    Placed in the middle of Programs A and B, his newest work takes trademark moves (a quick sauté in second, a perky parallel pop up like a pencil, a partnered promenade slide in plié) and distills them into their purest essence.  You see moments of Cerrudo’s previous works woven in and watch as he hones his craft before your eyes.  Straight up props to Emile Leriche and Johnny McMillan (two of the younger dancers in HS2) for their strong showing in this dense, intense piece.

Other pieces of note:  Robyn Mineko Williams’ Recall,  a techno-infused meditation on memory with some breaking tossed in for fun; Penny Saunder’s humorous and slightly creepy Vaudevillian  Bonobo; and Terry Marling’s thrice, which completely transformed from its previous incarnation, twice (once) that premiered last December.   Many of the works used the dancers from HS2.  It was nice to see the younger dancers perform at home (they tour a LOT) and in challenging works made by their HSDC mentors.

Hubbard Street presents danc(e)volve, Jan 26 – 29

MCA Stage, 220 E Chicago, 312.397.4010

Hubbard Street Evolving

HS2 dancers Johnny McMIllan & Nicholas Korkos in Clébio Oliveira's "The Fantastic Escape of the Little Buffalo". Photo by Todd Rosenberg.

The West Loop studios housing Hubbard Street Dance Chicago (HSDC) were bustling last week when I stopped by in preparation for dance(e)volve, a two-program, two-weekend set of performances showcasing in-house choreography opening tonight on the MCA Stage.  Bad news up front:   this weekend’s show are already SOLD OUT!  Tickets are still available, but going at lightening speed, for next week’s run (Jan 26 – 29).

As a natural evolutionary step from HSDC’s Inside/Out Choreographic Workshop that is held every summer, Artistic Director Glenn Edgerton picked certain pieces from last year to be expanded, reworked and presented in the MCA’s intimate theater.  Along with the HSDC and HS2 choreographers, two National Choreographic Competition winners from 2011 will show new works.  HSDC company member Penny Saunders takes inspiration from Vaudeville traveling shows, while Clébio Oliveira ponders the human/animal connection.  New dances from Jonathan Fredrickson, Alice Klock, Johnny McMillan, Robyn Mineko Williams, Taryn Kaschock Russell, Terence Marling as well as a duet by HSDC Resident Choreographer Alejandro Cerrudo also appear on the programs.

Williams’ and McMillan’s works are featured on Program A (Jan 19,20 & 28,29).  I sat in on rehearsals for these very different pieces.  Williams showed her choreographic chops by teaming up with Marling for last year’s hit Harold and the Purple Crayon.  Her new work, Recall stems off the concept of memory.  “I’m fascinated by how different memories work and from one scene people have a similar memory, but a different perspective.”  Set to a driving beat by The Chromatics and an original score by Chris Menth (parts are reminiscent of Canadian band Men Without Hats classic song Safety Dance), the 15-minute piece combines walking in a maze-like patterns and shifts in tempo where some dancers move in slow motion.  It reminded me of the inner workings of a clock, only with Williams’ smooth dance style and personality showing through.  “Glenn wanted me to try something different from Inside/Out,” she says.  “I walked into the studio with no ideas, no music…nothing.  I worked like that for three days.  It’s amazing what starts to develop in such a short time.  With these dancers, they bring so much to the table that it’s much easier for the choreographer.”  Williams’ piece has a techno rewind vibe, but McMillan’s new work Path and Observations takes a more earthy, grounded path.  With a soundscape of Sami folkloric music (Pekka Lehti, Mari Boine), he incorporates autumnal leaves and emotional movement with moments of stillness.  “The first 40 seconds of the piece are two people on stage in stillness,” McMillan (who just turned 20 on Tuesday) tell me.  “It allows the audience to take in everything, to sit there and think, maybe go off in their own thoughts before they have to watch the dancing.”  Promoted from apprentice to HS2 this season, he’s always been interested in choreography and created his first dance at age 16.  “It was a ballet piece with 21 girls.  It wasn’t very good.  There were a lot of bourrés.”  He’s excited to see his new work on the stage this week and is a perfect example of the creative evolution from Inside/Out to danc(e)volve.

Hubbard Street presents danc(e)volve: Jan 19-22 & 26-29

MCA Stage, 220 E. Chicago, 312.397.4010, Tickets are $35

 

 

Thoughts on HSDC 2011 Fall Series

Dancers Jesse Bechard & Penny Saunders in "Arcangelo". Photo by Todd Rosenberg.

Last night was the big night!  Hubbard Street Dance Chicago‘s (HSDC) season opener at the Harris Theater with the world premiere of SCARLATTI by Twyla Tharp.  A packed house (they even had to open up the balcony) full of Chicago dance enthusiasts, including our favorite fan-in-chief Mayor Emanuel and his family, was virtually vibrating with anticipation for a great show.  As usual, HSDC did not disappoint.

Tharp’s SCARLATTI, set to the music of Domenico Scarlatti, opened the show.  Extremely musical; lightening fast, vivid footwork; carefree, fun attitude and work-your-tail-to-the-bone difficult.  In other words, quintessential Tharp.  The dancers made it look easy.  It isn’t.  Not by a long shot.  To say it is simply about the music and the dancing (although it is) is misleading.  There is nothing simple about it.  Using her evil genius mind and savant-like musical knowledge, Tharp creates a dizzying whirlwind of dancers entering and exiting the stage in a nanosecond.  Part of the dizzying effect was due to the costumes, designed by Norma Kamali.  White, black, neon yellow, stripes, leopard spot, headbands, arm bands…too much.  Quite frankly, the costumes were distracting.  The thirty-minute piece was non-stop, balls-to-the-walls dance finishing with a cute wave from new company member David Schultz as if to say, “hi, I’m here!”  Standing ovation.  The audience ate it up and Tharp postponed her bow to hug each of the dancers.

Nacho Duato’s Arcangelo, the next work on the program, is one of my favorite pieces in HSDC’s rep.  A reflection on heaven and hell danced by four couples is set to the music of Arcangelo Corelli and Alessandro Scarlatti, who was the father of Tharp’s composer.  HSDC brought the work into it’s rep last fall and is the only US company to perform it.  (You can read my interview with Duato from last fall here.)  It is gorgeous and the dancers performed it seamlessly.  One audience member stood up to applaud at the curtain before everyone else.  Mayor Rahm Emanuel.  Too cool.

Dancers Kellie Epperheimer & Kevin Shannon in "Walking Mad". Photo by Todd Rosenberg.

Walking Mad by Swedish choreographer Johan Inger closed the show.  Quite a few people had been talking about this piece, trying to convince me I had seen it before.  I hadn’t.  This is something you have to see to believe and you won’t soon forget it.  (Note to Alejandro: party hats, wall, Bolero…now I know!)  An ingenious mix of silliness, heartbreak, passion, despondency, acrobatics, strength and talent, set to the driving force of Ravel’s Bolero.  Originally created ten years ago for the Nederlands Dans Theater, the work utilizes a wall set piece that has the dancers moving through four doorways, around, over and on the wall which also lowers to the floor, raises and folds to create a shadowy corner.  I loved it.

Once again, to name stand outs would be to list every single performer.  New company members Schultz and Garrett Anderson (Alice Klock was not in this cast, but I’m hoping to see her on Sunday) fit in like they’ve been here forever and are definitely where they belong.  The show runs through Sunday and it is a must see.  HSDC just gets better and better.

CDF Opening Gala

Joffrey Ballet's Victoria Jaiani & Temur Suluashvili in White Swan pas. Photo by Cheryl Mann.

Last night was the opening night gala kicking off the fifth year of the Chicago Dancing Festival (CDF). A short 5-piece program on the MCA Stage was followed by cocktails, a buffet with three ballroom dance couples interspersed upstairs at Puck’s Restaurant and outside on the terrace.  The $250-a-head evening was co-chaired by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who stayed to mingle after the show along with his wife and daughter.  A few short speeches preceded the performance. MCA Director of Performance Programs Peter Taub opened the fest saying, “We are here to celebrate the best of dance from across the country”.  CDF co-founder Jay Franke gave some impressive stats including that in the past five years the festival has presented over 35 companies and over 400 dancers and proudly announced that this year CDF sold out approximately 10,000 seats for this week’s performances.  Franke turned over the mic to Mayor Emanuel, who celebrated his 100th day in office by attending the gala.  The Mayor, a former dancer and huge fan, declared that he wants to double the size of the fest and make sure Chicago is the dance destination for the entire country. He added there are 19 companies performing this week to an estimated 19,000 audience members.  Co-founder Lar Lubovitch said, “One cannot describe dance in words, no matter how eloquent,” but then went on to read the most eloquent essay (written by him) on duets, five of which we were about to see.

HSDC's Penny Saunders & Alejandro Cerrudo in Following the Subtle Current Upstream. Photo by Cheryl Mann.

The program of duets featured choreography from 1895 to present and while they represented divergent styles, there was a through-line of choreographic evolution.  A pristine classical white ballet to a fluid neoclassical ballet with a contemporary twist.  An emotive classic modern offering to a postmodern minimal feat.  Then an avant garde performance art work that evoked musical and choreographic themes from the first duet.  A mini-history of dance in 60 minutes or less…sort of.  Joffrey Ballet‘s husband and wife team, Victoria Jaiani and Temur Suluashvili began with Lev Ivanov’s traditional White Swan pas (1895) from Swan Lake.  On a small, bare stage it is difficult to bring the audience into the magical place that is needed for the dance, but what it lacked in mood and setting was made up for by technique.  Jaiani’s extraordinary extensions and limberness were on full display.  (I’m fairly certain her back is made of a flexible pipe cleaner.)  Just as they disappeared into the wings, Hubbard Street‘s (HSDC) Penny Saunders and Alejandro Cerrudo oozed onto the stage in an excerpt from Alonzo King’s Following the Subtle Current Upstream (2000).  While similar to the previous pas in technique, flexibility and master partnering (and similar promenades in penché), this duet was the opposite in feel.  Fluid, continuous and rich.

Martha Graham's Xiaochuan Xie & Tadej Brdnik in "Snow on the Mesa". Photo by Cheryl Mann.

An excerpt from *Robert Wilsons Snow on the Mesa (1995) brought a display of control and drama with Martha Graham Dance Company dancers Xiaochuan Xie and Tadej Brdnik’s gorgeous interpretation.  Strong, yet delicate with minimal, but heartbreaking gestures, I found myself holding my breath through the piece.  The all white costuming and loving touches again reminded me of the first duet.  Brian Brooks Moving Company changed things up with a male duet titled MOTOR (2010).  Clad only in black briefs, Brooks and David Scarantino embarked on a thigh-killing, synchronized chugging spree.  Set to a driving beat with ominous overtones, MOTOR had the men hopping, jumping and chugging, foward, backward, in changing formations around the stage.  It was an exercise in stamina and focus.  There were more than a few moments, however, that took me back to the swan theme.  Precise chugs in attitude devánt (four cignets) and chugs in fondue arabesque (white swan corps).  A stripped down off-kilter Swan Lake.

The final piece Compression Piece (Swan Lake) was a commission by Walter Dundervill , created specifically for CDF this year.  If the previous piece was off-kilter, this was Swan Lake on crack!  Dundervill (who Lubovitch said could be ” a lunatic”), along with partner Jennifer Kjos, creates a white landscape of distorted beauty in his choreography (warped fouetté turns and bourré sequences), sets (a fabric installation that serves as back drop and eventually part of the choreography) and costumes (interchangeable pieces – they changed on and off stage – layered from baroque to bridal).  The soundscape featured swan riffs from Tchaikovsky and Saint-Saëns, but funked it up with Diana Ross and Sonic Youth.  This world premiere proved that the black swan has nothing on the white swan when it comes to crazy (in a good way).

Maybe I have Swan Lake on the brain (a strain of avian flu?), but I caught a definite thread of similarity in the pieces.  As if all of the works were distilled from choreography from 120 years ago and ended up being all of these unique moments on stage…and maybe they were.  Example:  Look at the photos on this page.  From very different styles and eras, yet all are an interpretation of a standard supported arabesque.  Technical issues prevented Faye Driscoll from performing on the program as scheduled, but I’m looking forward to seeing it later in the week at the MCA Moves program to see how it would’ve fit into this program.  As it was presented last evening, it was a testament to the brilliant artistic direction of Lubovitch and Franke.

*This has been updated.   I originally had the piece choreographed by Martha Graham.  Oops!