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.
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.
An excerpt from *Robert Wilson‘s 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!