Chicago Dancing Festival 2012

Martha Graham Dance Co dancer Xiaochuan Xie on the Pritzker stage.

The Chicago Dancing Festival (CDF) hits Chicago stages for a week of free dance performances again this August.  Now in its sixth year, CDF – the brainchild of Lar Lubovitch and Jay Franke – is expanding (again) to six days of events with new programs and a couple of commissioned world premieres to boot!  RB will be part of CDF’s blogger initiative for the second year, bringing you sneak peeks, dancer/choreographer interviews, event coverage, reviews and wrap ups.  I’ll also be live-Tweeting pre- and post-event coverage for the Fest complete with photos, behind-the-scenes happenings and audience quotes.

New to the fest this year is an all-Chicago program, Chicago Dancing, featuring local faves Hubbard Street Dance Chicago (HSDC) and Joffrey Ballet and three CDF commissioned works.  Giordano Dance Chicago (note the new name!) makes its CDF debut in a work by Swedish choreographer Alexander Ekman.  New York-based choreographer Nicholas Leichter will work with the After School Matters students to create a world premiere honoring the memory of Maggie Daley, former first lady of Chicago, who started the program in 1991.  A two-week residency led by Larry Keigwin blends dancers and non-dancers from Chicago into a world premiere, Bolero Chicago.  Keigwin’s new work, set to Ravel’s most famous score, will incorporate local movement traits for a uniquely Chicago piece.  New groups performing at the fest this year include Pacific Northwest Ballet and Ballet Arizona, along with returning companies San Francisco Ballet, Houston Ballet, New York City Ballet, Martha Graham Dance Company and Brian Brooks Moving Company.

A partnership with Chicago SummerDance, the city’s outdoor dancing series, for Dancing Under the Stars and prolific local dance writer Zac Whittenburg leads a lecture demonstration, Chicago Now, with local companies at the MCA Stage.  Programming for both of these event to be announced at a later date.   A day of Dancing Movies also takes place at the MCA with films including PINA, All Is Not Lost, Two Seconds After the Laughter and Fanfare for Marching Band curated by local artist Sarah Best.  The fest always ends with a Celebration of Dance at the outdoor Pritzker Pavilion stage in Millennium Park showcasing a number of artists that have performed throughout the week.

Tickets for all of the events are free, however, you do need to reserve seating for the indoor theaters in advance.  These will “sell out” very fast!  More information on tickets will be available the week of July 16th.

Rivno’s Ahmad Simmons Takes Center Stage

River North dancer Ahmad Simmons. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Tomorrow night – Tuesday, June 5th – River North Dance Chicago gives a free concert in Millennium Park on the Pritzker Pavilion stage.  The company just finished a five-week tour of Russia and concludes its 2011-2012 season on a hometown stage.  Read my preview in Time Out Chicago here.

Look for dancer Ahmad Simmons, wrapping up his first season with RNDC,  to take center stage in a solo role local audiences are used to seeing someone else perform.  Former RNDC dancer Christian Denice wowed audiences with his athletic style in Ashley Roland’s Beat, a heavily improvised solo to a fast, percussive score.  Rumor has it, Simmons reached rock-star status in Russia with his interpretation of the piece.

Between traveling back to the States and rehearsals, RB caught up with Simmons via Facebook for a few questions about the recent tour of Russia and the upcoming show.

Tell me about the Russia tour – best parts, hardest parts?

I would say the best part of the tour was the incredible response we got from every one of our audiences. Be it bigger city or small country town, all of the Russian audiences came to our shows with a great sense of excitement and anticipation that we could feel from behind the curtain. One of my favorites being the huge arena in Habarovsk packed with people roaring after every piece. It felt like a rock concert! That said, the hardest part of the tour was getting to the performances. We endured some tough travel days with long bumpy bus rides, exhausting flights, and overnight trains.

What will RNDC be performing for the concert in the park?

In this particular show we will be presenting some of the pieces we toured including “Evolution of a Dream”, “At Last”, “Ella”, “Beat”, “Risoluta”, “The Mourning” and “Habaneras”, with the addition of Mauro Astolfi’s “Contact-Me”. I can honestly say there will be something for everyone. “Evolution”, “At Last” and “Ella” provide a sort of familiarity with music by some well-loved artists. “Beat” shakes it up with improvisation to a fierce drum track. The audience will surely go on an intellectual ride in Sidra Bell’s “Risoluta” and be challenged by the variety of relationships in “Contact-Me”. We are all beyond excited to be making our full evening debut at the Pritzker. First of all is absolutely gorgeous!! It also seats something like 4, 000 people and to be able to reach that many spirits in such a magical setting with be more than fulfilling.

You’re dancing Beat, which local audiences have come to think of as synonymous with Christian (Denice).  I know it incorporates a good deal of improv, but how do you make it your own?

Yes! I’m thrilled to make my Chicago debut of “Beat”. Christian was the only dancer I had seen perform the solo prior to my joining the company. I was in complete awe of his power and command and I remember saying to myself, ‘how would you do that?’ The key for me is continuing to explore my own nuance and essence. The only thing we truly own as dancers is our unique voice. I’m using his footsteps as more of a guide than a formula.

What makes RNDC unique?

River North is so unique because it really does welcome individuality. We all have such different voices that come together to compliment each other. As a newbie, I have to say that it’s a wonderful place to grow. I learn so many new things by watching the seasoned artists work. It also doesn’t hurt that we laugh a lot! Watch out, there are some comedians in Rivno.

River North Dance Chicago at Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park, Tuesday, June 5 at 6:30 p.m.  This is a FREE concert.

*Tuesday’s show will be the last performance with the company for Hanna Brictson.

Bringing the Heat

Joffrey dancers Christine Rocas & Rory Hohenstein in William Forsythe's "In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated". Photo by Herbert Migdoll.

In a pre-show video at opening night of Joffrey Ballet‘s Winter Fire program, artistic director Ashley Wheater says, “This company is eclectic and diverse, the repertory should reflect that”.  The three works presented from international contemporary choreographic stars William Forsythe, Christopher Wheeldon and Wayne McGregor were eclectic, diverse and showed the current company of dancers in a new light.  A big, hot spotlight.  This show reminded me of the Joffrey I fell in love with years ago.  A company that always pushed boundaries with challenging, interesting new works.  A company that made you sit up and ask,”What is happening on stage?”…in a good way.

This program pushed the dancers to a new level, challenging technique and complacency.  They rose to the challenge – they were hot!  The hottest of them all was Rory Hohenstein.  He hasn’t been featured much in his first season with the company (aside from a stand out solo at Dance For Life last August), but wow, keep your eyes on this one.  Last night, he was on fire.  A fierce presence in every piece, Hohenstein showed off his partnering skills, flexibility and attitude with every flick of his wrist, penché pitch and swing of his head.  Paired with Victoria Jaiani in two of the three pieces, he held his own with the dancer that has become the unequivocal star of the company (“All stars/No stars”? I’m not so sure that’s the motto here anymore).

Forsythe’s In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated featured these two in dazzling duets that were so intricate and hyper-extended you wondered how they got through them without being tied in a knot.  Jaiani’s incredible capacity for extension and impossibly thin frame punctuated the dark, downlit stage.  Similar in build and flexibility, Christine Rocas – let’s call them the bendy/flexy twins – showed her stuff alongside a strong cast.  There were some extraordinary things happening on the sidelines, particularly with April Daly, Amber Neumann, Anastacia Holden and Ricardo Santos that unfortunately got lost with so many things going on at once.  Also, the two lead females (Jaiani and Rocas) were supple and strong in the partnering, but seemed timid on their own.  I spotted Chicago Dancing Festival‘s Jay Franke and David Herro in the audience, with Mayor Emanuel and family.  Hint: this would look great on the Pritzker Pavilion stage in August! Yes for the Fest?

Joffrey dancer John Mark Giragosian in Wayne McGregor's "Infra". Photo by Herbert Migdoll.

The LED projections of figures walking displayed above the dancers in Wayne McGregor’s Infra was distracting at first, but became part of the movement theme happening below.  Inspired in part by the 2005 London bombings, McGregor takes the every day action of going to and from work and turns into an emotionally charged romp set to a cyber techno beat by Max Richter.  You could see a hint Forsythe’s influence at work here.  Again, a strong ensemble cast featuring virtuoso turns by all.  Amber Neumann showed her acting chops with a mental melt down center stage.  A large cast of extras walked across the stage sweeping her off with them alluding to the fact that life goes on.  Jaiani and Hohenstein end the work with another eye-popping duet.

Christopher Wheeldon’s After the Rain was the mid-show palette cleanser offering a softer break from the hard-hitting opening and closing numbers.  The music, Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel (which can make me weepy within the first three notes), was brought to life with accompaniment by Paul James Lewis, Paul Zafer and Carol Lahti.  A stellar cast of Jaiani, Hohenstein, Daly, Matthew Adamczyk, Fabrice Calmels and Valerie Robin added maturity and nuance to the work that was a company premiere in 2010.

Joffrey dancers Victoria Jaiani & Fabrice Calmels in Christopher Wheeldon's "After the Rain". Photo by Herbert Migdoll.

The duet by Jaiani and Calmels, which was stunning last season, was one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen on stage (aside, perhaps, from the Act II pas in Giselle).  What once had a breathtaking romantic feel, like how a young girl dreams her first time in love will be, evolved into a heartbreaking, lifelong love shifting in need.  For me, it took on a she’s-dying-and-he’s-taking-care of-her/Dying Swan vibe.  Whatever the impetus, it works.  As the donor’s rose to their feet in ovation, you could sense the many wallets falling open asking simply “how much?”.

 

CDF11 Celebration of Dance

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.

CDF Sneak Peek 2

RNDC dancer Cassandra Porter. Photography by Sandro.

Today I sat in on a rehearsal with River North Dance Chicago (RNDC) to watch them prep for the Chicago Dancing Festival next week.  RNDC  will be performing Charles Moulton‘s Nine Person Precision Ball Passing for the Moderns program at the Harris Theater on Aug 23rd and the Celebration of Dance performance at Pritzker Pavilion on Aug 27th.  Moulton has been working with the dancers since Monday to set his 1980 postmodern piece for nine dancers (the original was for just three dancers and premiered in 1979).  One would think the title says it all, but there is more going here on than just precise handling of spheres.

When you think of postmodern dance, RNDC is not the first company that comes to mind.  Known more for their fast, athletic, emotive style, this “departure” is an interesting switch in process and a welcome challenge.  The dancers are on risers with three on each level – the bottom sitting, while the top two stand.  They do not deviate from these spots for the entire seven-minute piece.  What does happen is an ingenious exercise in brain power, counting, intricate patterns and hand-eye coordination.  Oh yeah, and there are balls passed.  Fast, slow, up, down, over, under, and in patterns with names like “waterfall” and “jaws”.  It is like a crazy puzzle come to life.

Understandably, the dancers are still trying to get the movement patterns into their bodies, while staying relaxed and focused.  “Keep the playfulness from the beginning,” Moulton instructs.  “The playfulness allows us to see the humanness.”  That humanness is the essential ingredient in the work.  What does one do when faced with an impossible task?  It is the reaction to that challenge that is the core of it.  “Mistakes are part of it, but it’s how you react,” he says.  “It speaks to the absurdity of systems and the human tendency to obsess, to perfect.”

I was thrown off when Mariah Carey’s cover of I Still Believe came on for the first run.  What?  This was just for a slower tempo to get the flow going at a friendlier pace.  Eventually, they upped the speed a bit to Barry White’s Never Gonna Give You Up with mixed (and sometimes funny) results.  The actual score by A. Leroy is faster and follows the choreography exactly.  “Speed is in your mind,” Moulton says.  “If you can do it slow, you can do it fast.”  This social experiment using movement (“We haven’t defined it yet.  Is it a dance, a game, a metaphor?”) has been reproduced over the years with ballet companies, children and non dancers.  I find it interesting to see how it evolves when performed by talented, technically trained dancers that weren’t even born when this project started.

CDF Sneak Peek 1

Joffrey's April Daly & Miguel Blanco in Balanchine's "Stravinsky". Photo by Herbert Migdoll.

I sat in on rehearsal this morning at Joffrey Tower. The world-renown ballet troupe, which just came back after their summer hiatus (and a nail-biting mini labor dispute) and is getting ready for a number of upcoming gigs including the Chicago Dancing Festival (CDF).  The fest runs August 23 – 27 at various Chicago venues (with a Gala fundraiser opening the week on Monday, August 22).  Joffrey will be represented at three of CDF’s evening concerts.

This morning, they were rehearsing Balachine’s Stravinsky Violin Concerto, which they performed last fall as an opener for the All Stars program.  It’s difficult.  It’s hard to count (Artistic Director Ashley Wheater:  “Just keep counting!  It’s a six.”), most of it is lightning fast and some of the movements are awkward , but the dancers tackled it with smiles and verve.  The company has been back in the studio since July 25th and there is definitely still an air of back-to-school excitement, most noted in the energetic applause for the violinist playing in rehearsal and a few silly faces aimed at partners.  (Nice jazz hands M.A.)

The Joffrey will be performing Stravinsky at the Celebration of Dance show at Pritzker Pavilion on Saturday, August 27th, as well as this weekend at the Blossom Festival in Ohio.  Dancers Victoria Jaiani and Temur Suluashvili will also be performing the White Swan pas from Swan Lake for CDF’s opening night gala.

UPDATE:  I just got confirmation that Jaiani and Suluashvili will be performing the Act II pas from Giselle for the Masters program on August 25th.  Tickets (free) are still available.