River North Dance Chicago performing "Nine Person Precision Ball Passing". Photo by Cheryl Mann.
Saturday night was beautiful. The weather, the venue, the dancing. The perfect night to hold an outdoor, free dance concert for the city of Chicago. At Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park, Mayor Emanuel took the stage to introduce the final night of the Chicago Dancing Festival (CDF) and vowed to take the now five-day fest up to six days of free dance events next year. Dubbed a Celebration of Dance, the entire evening was just that. Some of the best dancers in the country came together to dance works by Kylían, Balanchine, Graham and Taylor for the estimated 10,000-12,000 people in attendance. Even the fabulous Gehry-designed concert venue could not compete with what was happening on the stage.
Ballet West, under the direction of former Joffrey dancer and Ballet Master Adam Sklute, opened the show with Jirí Kylían’s Sinfonietta. This troupe won a Chicago following last year when they performed Balanchine’s Serenade at CDF. Program notes declare Sinfonietta is “a celebration of our earthly life” and with joyous jetés and rousing score, it proved to be a pitch-perfect opener for our celebration. A black back drop with sparkling lights like stars came clearly into focus when the piece finished just as the sun set and the stars overhead came out. Timing is everything. The woman sitting next to me literally jumped out of her seat in excitement as the piece ended. She seemed embarrassed at first until she realized she wasn’t alone. This was the first of many mini standing ovations of the evening (most of which were started by the Hubbard Street dancers in the crowd). River North Dance Chicago (RNDC) followed with Charles Moulton’s post-modern Nine Person Precision Ball Passing. For the third time this week, RNDC took their places on three tiers to perform the brain-teasing work which has seven minutes of fast ball exchanges in every possible configuration. It is clear that the dancers have it embedded to memory as they performed it perfectly, even throwing in some sassy faces and attitude. It’s a fun work that drew giggles and appreciation. Now if I could only get that pinball-synth score out of my head.
Joffrey Ballet performed George Balanchine’s difficult and folksy ballet Stravinsky Violin Concerto. The large group piece features two duets (Victoria Jaiani and Temur Suluashvili, Valerie Robin and Fabrice Calmels) to arias mixed in with all male and all female sections. This work is at times difficult for me (why is she doing inside/out back bends? why are they making a thumbs up sign and waving at each other?), but it was performed with flair and verve. With fire engine sirens in the background, Joffrey showed the hometown crowd what it’s made of – strong technique, charisma and love. (Shout out to Derrick Agnoletti for his fierce pas de chats!) Martha Graham Dance Company took the stage next in Diversion of Angels. Graham’s trademark pitches and contractions were staples, but with lyrical passes and beautiful lifts mixed in. Carrie Ellmore-Tallitsch, Ben Schultz and the gorgeous Xiaochuan Xie were stand outs.
Principal dancers Tiler Peck and Gonzalo Garcia from the New York City Ballet (NYCB) wowed the crowd with a stunning performance of Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky Pas De Deux. The virtuoso duet showed the amazing technique, performing chops and musicality of the dancers. Peck, aside from one slight bobble en pointe, was impeccable. Her pointe work, her presence, her extensions, her turns, her playfulness all came together at warp speed. I felt like a little girl seeing something so amazing that it changed my life. (Mommy, I want to be a ballerina!) I had goosebumps and yes, I was one of the many shouted bravo during bows. The excitement carried over to the final piece. The crowd was ready and Paul Taylor Dance Company did not disappoint. Taylor’s Esplanade set to Bach concertos was original inspired by a woman running to catch a bus. The piece incorporates common human gestures with innovative partnering (a promenade with a woman standing on the man’s stomach), ridiculously fast footwork (Michelle Fleet’s solo was lightening fast!), running passes and a little romance. The dancers were joyful with smiles on their faces as if they were having the time of their collective lives. The audience was too. *Insert full standing ovation here.
Every year, a random bird makes an appearance in the show, flying about the stage above the dancers as if it is so caught up in the moment that it wants to be part of the performance. I imagine much of the audience felt exactly the same way. Just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, it did. Multiple times. Every day the festival got better and better and I can honestly say (although I didn’t “get” some pieces) I enjoyed watching every single dance. Lar Lubovitch, Jay Franke and Evin Eubanks deserve great thanks and kudos for pulling off this hugely successful dance festival. I wonder how they’re going to top it next year.