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, pench? 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 P?rt’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?”.

 

Mayoral Proclamation #2

It’s seems our beloved Mayor Emanuel has been busy showing his love for dance.? On the heels of declaring this past Monday Bill Kurtis & Donna La Pietra Day for their contributions to the city’s arts and non-profit scene, he comes out with another proclamation making Friday, November 18, 2011 MERCE CUNNINGHAM DAY in Chicago!

This is to coincide with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company who will be in town November 18 and 19 performing at the Harris Theater (co-presented by the Dance Center at Columbia College) on the second to last stop on their Legacy Tour which kicked off two years ago.

 

Mayoral Proclamation!

Mayor Rahm Emanuel has officially declared today – November 7, 2011 – to be Bill Kurtis and Donna La Pietra Day in Chicago!? The couple receive this honor, along with the JUBA! Award at Chicago Human Rhythm Project’s Jubalee Gala tonight for their long careers and leadership in the non-profit and arts communities.? Chicago Commissioner of the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, Michelle T. Boone, will be on site this evening to read the full proclamation.

Congratulations!

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.

CDF11 Wrap Up

Aspen Santa Fe Ballet in "Uneven". Photo by Cheryl Mann.

Last week was quite a week for dance in Chicago.? The Chicago Dancing Festival (CDF) presented five free nights of dance to eager audiences with an estimated 19,000 in attendance over the course of the week.? Many thanks and much gratitude to the CDF staff – Evin Eubanks (Executive Director), Todd Clark (Director of Production), Natalie Williams (Admin Assistant) and of course co-founders/Artistic Directors Lar Lubovitch and Jay Franke for showcasing such phenomenal talent and giving the city another chance to shine.? Mayor Emanuel attending three nights of dance has secured his place as dance in Chicago’s biggest fan.? I was lucky to be able to attend each night of the fest (I missed the free dance movies day) and I have to admit I was a little disappointed this Monday night when there wasn’t a kick ass show to go see.? Spoiled, but grateful.

Here are links to my coverage of the CDF events:? Opening Night Gala, Moderns, MCA Moves, Masters, Muses and Celebration of Dance.? Some of the highlights for me were Richard Move, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago (Too Beaucoup, Petite Mort), Lar Lubovitch Dance Company (The Legend of Ten), Paul Taylor Dance Company (Eplanade) and New York City Ballet artists Tiler Peck and Gonzalo Garcia (Tchaikovsky Pas De Deux).? I was surprised how much I enjoyed the Martha Graham Dance Company, Doug Varone and Dancers and Walter Dundervill’s work.? I can’t wait to see who CDF will bring in to perform next year.? Plan ahead: you won’t want to miss CDF2012!

Let me know what you think!? Did you go to any of the CDF shows?? What was your favorite?? Are you now a fan of a company you’d never seen before?? What would you like them to do differently next year?? What companies would you like to see at CDF 2012?

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 Kyl?an, 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 Jir? Kyl?an’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 jet?s 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.

CDF11 Masters

Hubbard Street's Jesse Bechard & Ana Lopez in "Petite Mort". Photo by Cheryl Mann.

The Chicago Dancing Festival (CDF) Masters program last night at the Auditorium Theatre was a spectacular night of dance.? The packed house was jazzed and ready for a great show giving Mayor Emanuel (who was in attendance again this evening) thunderous applause for just being there.? It doesn’t hurt that he’s also the city’s number one dance advocate and biggest fan.? The show opened with Hubbard Street Dance Chicago (HSDC) performing Jir? Kyl?an’s Petite Mort (1991), a gorgeous work to two Mozart piano concertos that has been in their rep since 2000.? Between the music, the choreography and the beautiful dancers, it really doesn’t get any better than this.? (I told Artistic Director Glenn Edgerton at intermission that I was getting tired of trying to find new words to describe HSDC and that I might just have to make something up.? Stellatasticerifficabulous?? Nah, that’s harder to say – and type – than Suluashvili!) Anyway, the bar had been set.

River North Dance Chicago in "Nine Person Precision Ball Passing". Photo by Cheryl Mann.

River North Dance Chicago (RNDC) followed with Charles Moulton’s Nine Person Precision Ball Passing (1980) which they performed earlier in the week at the opening gala. ? On Monday, RNDC performed it flawlessly, but two balls during the seven-minute piece “got away” drawing giggles from the audience.? Moulton told me last week that “mistakes are part of it” and that they are inevitable.? With extra balls hidden in their costumes, the number kept pace and you wouldn’t know something happened except for those darn balls rolling on the stage.? I liked that they dropped a ball.? It shows they are human (‘cuz some of the things they can do really make you wonder) and it showed their professionalism and focus when they kept on going.? Act I ended with Victoria Jaiani and Temur Suluashvili from Joffrey Ballet dancing the Act II pas de

Joffrey's Victoria Jaiani & Temur Suluashvili in Act II pas from "Giselle". Photo by Cheryl Mann.

deux (1841) from Giselle.? Please note: I love the Joffrey and Giselle is my favorite ballet (yes, I named my dog Giselle), so it hurts me to say that this was the weakest number in the show.? Jaiani was gorgeous, as usual, but the tempo of the audio track was off.? It was too fast when it should’ve been slow to show off her ridiculous extensions and slowed down during the filler parts.? Plus, you really need to understand the relationship of the characters to fully appreciate what is happening on stage.? They would’ve been better served doing a bravura pas from Don Quixote or Le Corsaire or even the White Swan pas they performed earlier in the week.

Martha Graham Dance Co's Carrie Ellmore-Tallitsch, Tadej Brdnik & Mariya Dashkina Maddux in "Embattled Garden". Photo by Cheryl Mann.

The second act began with the Martha Graham Dance Company in Embattled Garden (1958).? I loved it!? Even though it was choreographed 53 years ago, the work holds up.? The sets by Isamu Noguchi looked like they were from Beetlejuice. The basic, colorful costumes and strict technique all blended into a dramatic story of biblical seduction.? High drama!? Artistic Director Janet Eilber came out before the piece to set up the plot and let us know what we were going to see.? Smart move.? Maybe this would’ve helped with the Giselle pas.? The Eve character’s (danced by Mariya Dashkina Maddux) hair was a character unto itself, whipping violently back and forth to the music as if it had its own choreography.? The Masters program closed with

Lar Lubovitch Dance Co in "The Legend of Ten". Photo by Cheryl Mann.

Lar Lubovitch Dance Company in The Legend of Ten.? Choreographed by CDF co-founder Lar Lubovitch in 2010, the piece for – you guessed it – ten dancers was wonderful.? Set to two movements from Brahms’ Quintet for Piano and Strings in F Minor, Opus 34, Legend showed that Lubovitch is a master with not only movement, but music.? The seamless flow of the dancers’ energy was hypnotic.? It could literally lull you into a stupor, but then you would miss the quick little solo turns by each dancer and the smart, luscious partnering by Jenna Fakhoury and Reid Bartelme.

The main thing I’ve noticed in this week of dance so far is the appreciation and appetite for dance in Chicago. The audiences have been attentive and generous and eager for more.? That’s my kind of town!

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 pench?), 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 dev?nt (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 fouett? turns and bourr? 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-Sa?ns, 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!