P/Review: River North’s Autumn Passions

River North dancers in Frank Chaves' "Eva". Photo by Cheryl Mann.

This weekend River North Dance Chicago (RNDC) takes the stage of the Harris Theater with their Autumn Passions program. RNDC opened the 2013-2014 season with a shortened gala program on Thursday, Nov. 14 featuring two world premieres, a company premiere and the Harris debut of a 2013 work by Artistic Director Frank Chaves and will perform a full program Saturday and Sunday, Nov. 16-17.

Thursday’s gala performance began with Chaves’ Eva, a suite of dances to jazzed up songs sung by Eva Cassidy. Gorgeous vocal mixed with Chaves’ talent for partnering and duets. Three couples swirled to Cassidy’s rendition of Sting’s Fields of Gold (one of my favorite songs) and although timing was off, it offered ?a perfect opening for the evening. A hot, hot, hot quintessentially RNDC, Vent-like duet?with Jessica Wolfrum and Ahnad Simmons and a lovely side-by-side duet for Lauren Kias (sassy haircut, btw) and Hank Hunter. Eva closed with a feel good, full company section to Wade in the Water – a jazz-meets-Ailey’s Revelations.

It was a gala, so speeches and donation pitches came before the world premiere of Ashley Roland’s Get Out the Ghost. Roland, co-artistic director of BodyVox?came to Chicago?in July to set the new work. When I popped in to rehearsals, it wasn’t complete, but after seven days was quickly taking shape. “I need to choreograph faster, otherwise my head gets in the way,” she said. Chaves had asked her to create something “ethereal”. The final section of the Americana work dealing with getting rid of personal baggage or “cleaning your own personal house” is ethereal, but as Roland said, you have to get there first.?The work began with the movement, although that’s not always how she works. “It comes through me. It’s not manufactured,” said Roland. “It’s definitely a gift.”

Dancers twitch and twist in angsty spurts while pulling shiny gold mylar pieces from their costumes throughout the first two sections. I get the idea, but it was too literal and while the dancers gave it their all, it seemed over-danced. A little less attack, a little more softness would have served the work better. Daring running dives and catches wowed, but overall, the work needed more subtly.

Dancer Drew Fountain is the first dancer other than choreographer Adam Barruch to perform his theatrical solo work The Worst Pies in London set to the song of the same title from the Broadway musical Sweeney Todd. Barruch himself performed it here at the Chicago Dancing Festival in 2011. Fountain was hilarious and charming in this quirky duet with a table. It’s a definite crowd-pleaser.

The world premiere of ?Dawn by Deeply Rooted Dance Theater‘s Kevin Iega Jeff closed the hour-long show and proved to be a stellar showcase of the dancers’ talents. Set to the driving beat of a version of Carmina Burana, Dawn depicts an intense, physical, ritualistic society with goddess overtones, or as Iega Jeff states in the program notes – “a new Age of Enlightenment”. All gold tones and biceps – and I’m talking about the ladies! – Iega Jeff makes these dancers WORK! It really is non-stop, balls-to-the-walls dancing – just what we’ve come to expect from RNDC. Wolfrum was fierce as a the head of the hierarchy, boldly commanding the stage.

My only regret not going to see the performances this weekend is I will miss the stunning Nejla Yatkin solo Renatus danced by diva Wolfrum and Daniel Ezralow’s SUPER STRAIGHT is coming down, which was originally created for Hubbard Street Dance Chicago (and one of my fave pieces EVER). RNDC’s first attempt at Ezralow’s work didn’t meet expectations (injuries, etc.), but I’m glad they are bringing it back with a different cast. My guess is they will knock it out of the theater this time around.

River North Dance Chicago’s Autumn Passions at the Harris Theater, 205 E. Randolph St., Saturday, Nov. 16 at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Nov. 17 at 3 p.m. Tickets are $30-$75; call 312.334.7777 or visit harristheaterchicago.org.?

 

Chicago Dance 2012 Highlights

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre dancers in "Revelations". Photo by Christopher Duggan.

Nothing says end-of-the-year-review time quite like the last day of the year…am I right? My proficiency in procrastination aside, now is the time to reflect on the past year and look forward to new, exiting surprises in the next. Here’s my?Dancin’ Feats year-end review for Windy City Times?that came out last week noting 12 memorable performances/performers of 2012, but I wanted to add a few more things.

Looking back at my notes and programs from the year (yes, they are all in a pile, I mean filing system, in the corner of my bedroom) I am so thankful for all the wonderful dance I get to see. Narrowing it down to 12 “top whatevers” was not an easy task for there were too many people and performances to name. Here are some other performances that are still in my thoughts:

Alvin Ailey Dance Theater in Ohad Naharin’s Minus 16. Although Revelations is still amazing, seeing this company in more contemporary work was refreshing. And the audiences at Ailey performances are a show unto themselves.

Paris Opera Ballet and American Ballet Theatre‘s performances of Giselle were stellar for their star-studded casts on opening night, but ABT’s Sunday matinee with real-life couple Yuriko Kajiya and Jared Matthews stole my heart.

Luna Negra Dance Theater founder Eduardo Vilaro brought?Ballet Hispanico?to town with?former Chicago dancers (Jamal Callender, Jessica ?Wyatt and Vanessa Valecillos) back for a rep show at the Dance Center to much acclaim, while current director Gustavo Ramirez Sansano continues to take the company in new and fascinating directions.

The Seldoms, in their tenth year, deconstructed the Harris Theater and traipsed around the world to collaborate with WC Dance in Tapei, while tackling the ongoing arguments around climate change with artistic director Carrie Hanson’s trademark wit and intelligence.

Before Hubbard Street Dance Chicago turned 35 this fall, it said goodbye to retiring, beloved dancer Robyn Mineko Williams. Artistic Director Glenn Edgerton completed his goal of presenting all five master European choreographers in the rep with the acquisition of Mats Ek’s Casi-Casa. Ek’s work took the company to a new level, but I’m still haunted by their dancing in William Forsythe’s Quintett from the summer series.

The Joffrey Ballet performed Forsythe’s In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated in their regular season and at the Chicago Dancing Festival. I was proud to be an official CDF blogger for the second year in a row. New to the fest this year was Giordano Dance Chicago, now celebrating 50 years. And Muntu Dance Theatre of Chicago hit 40!

River North Dance Chicago dancer Ahmad Simmons deserves a mention for his work in Ashley Roland’s Beat, particularly his performance on the Pritzker Pavillion stage in Millenium Park.

Special thanks to Catherine Tully of 4dancers.org for her continuous and generous encouragement and insight. Thanks lady!

Dance writing-wise, I’m thankful for the opportunity to write for Front Desk Chicago, Windy City Times, 4dancers and Dance Magazine.

I could go on (and on…), but tomorrow is a new year and I look forward to seeing more incredible dancing and dancers in our most awesome city. Happy New Year!

 

Rebirth at River North

RNDC dancer Jessica Wolfrum in Nejla Yatkin's "Renatus". Photo by Cheryl Mann.

“It’s a beast,” she says, referring to the costume she will be wearing this weekend at the Harris Theater. River North Dance Chicago (RNDC) veteran dancer, Jessica Wolfrum, dons “the dress” for a world premiere solo work created by?German (now Chicago-based) choreographer Nejla Yatkin and artistic director of NY2 Dance as part of Momentum. Set to the aria from Puccinni’s Tosca, the piece is an emotional, dramatic tour de force.

In her 11th season with the company, Wolfrum, 32, is ready for the challenge. After considering retiring from RNDC last season – “I didn’t feel like it was time and I didn’t want to regret anything.” – she’s back in full concentration mode and ready to go. The solo’s title Renatus means rebirth and explores life’s transformations. “My solo work is very personal, from a personal place,” Yatkin told me over the phone earlier this month. “It’s about transformation, transcendence, letting go of the old and stepping into the new.” She chose Wolfrum for her strength, passion, maturity and subtlety. As for Wolfrum, she’s inspired by Yatkin and enjoyed the intense, intimate and awesome experience in rehearsals.

The piece is a dance for one, but Wolfrum feels its more a duet with the huge, taffeta dress being her partner. Learning to dance in it was difficult. “It took a lot of time to allow it to move and to listen to it,” she said. “Now, I can hear the rhythm of it moving. It’s like a second skin.”

Also on the program, a full-company world premiere by New York choreographer Adam Barruch some audience favorites including maniacally upbeat Three (Robert Battle) and Beat (Ashley Roland), excerpts from Sabrina and Ruben Veliz’s Al Sur del Sur with artistic director Frank Chaves’ works Forbidden Boundaries and The Good Goodbyes.

River North Dance Chicago presents Momentum at the Harris Theater, 205 E. Randolph, Friday-Saturday, Nov. 16-17 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $30-$75; call 312.334.7777 or visit harristheaterchicago.org.

Review: River North Revamps

River North Dance Chicago (RNDC) performed their fall engagement at the Harris Theater over the weekend with a rep of seven diverse dances.? The company opened with what has become its signature piece, Sherry Zunker’s Evolution of a Dream.? Strong and consistent, it was the perfect opener for the show.? If you’re familiar with RNDC, you noticed quite a few unfamiliar faces.? Four new company dancers took the stage on Friday night with another one out due to a broken foot.? Dream and the ball piece (Charles Moulton’s Nine Person Precision Ball Passing), which since they don’t move from the waste down borderlines on dance for me, were the cleanest pieces in the show.? A lovely trio in Al Sur Del Sur featuring Jessica Wolfrum, Tucker Knox and Ahmad Simmons and the ever-stunning Train solo by Hanna Brictson were other stand outs.? Spotty unison, stumbles, wobbles and a handful of missed lifts had me witnessing an extreme rarity:? RNDC had an off night.

I’ve been watching RNDC deliver strong, solid seemingly perfect performances for almost 15 years, so the small flubs took me by surprise.? This is no condemnation of their talents – they are multitude – but this wasn’t their best showing.? The much-anticipated company premiere of Daniel Ezralow’s SUPER STRAIGHT is coming down opened the second half of the show (the perfect spot for it).? For those of us in the audience that had seen the original, and there were many, just hearing the opening note and seeing the hanging bags with the dancers inside brought back a flood of memories.? Fair or not, the RNDC dancers were dancing with the ghosts of the original cast with them on the stage.? A dapper Michael Gross in his suit brought Ron De Jes?s (who was in the audience) rolling across the stage.? Wolfrum in her black dress had Sandi Cooksey defying gravity, hovering inches above the floor.? Twenty two years after the premiere, these five dancers were bringing back a beloved (by many, especially me) piece and I wanted them to BRING IT!? On Friday, it seemed they brought a little and saved some for later.? Perhaps the excitement of seeing it for the very first time back in ’89 helped to create the illusion that vaulted the original cast to rock star status in the dance scene?? Maybe it was the difference between learning it fresh and resetting it?? It could any number of reasons that it didn’t hold the same sway with me this time.? I have no doubt that RNDC will continue to grow and evolve with this work, but this time out, it didn’t live up to the hype.? Especially my own.

 

Preview: River North Opens Fall Season

Jessica Wolfrum & Michael Gross in “Al Sur del Sur”. Photo by Sandro.

This weekend at the Harris Theater, River North Dance Chicago (RNDC) opens it’s fall season. Just off a successful international tour (US, Korea, Germany, Switzerland), RNDC is warmed up, employing five new dancers and ready to take the stage with a mixed rep that is sure to dazzle. Signature group piece by Sherry Zunker, Evolution of a Dream (2009), is joined by last season hits Al Sur Del Sur choreographed by Sabrina and Rubin Veliz and Artistic Director Frank Chaves’ jazz tribute Simply Miles, Simply Us. Charles Moulton’s postmodern Nine Person Precision Ball Passing (1980), which the company performed over the summer during the Chicago Dancing Festival (and shall heretofore be known as “the ball piece”), makes it’s Harris stage debut. Add in an intense solo by Robert Battle from his work Train (2008) and the first duet Chaves every choreographed in 1994, Fix?, and you have the makings for a fantastic and entertaining evening of dance. But it is the company premiere of Daniel Ezralow’s SUPER STRAIGHT is coming down that is getting all the buzz – and rightly so.

Originally commissioned by Hubbard Street Dance Chicago (HSDC) founder Lou Conte in 1989, SUPER STRAIGHT was a cutting-edge, athletic, dynamic piece that helped change the trajectory of the company from a strong, stellar troupe with a jazz/Broadway-based rep to one of the pioneers of contemporary dance. Ezralow, an emerging choreographer at the time, took inspiration from a book of black and white photographs by Robert Longo titled Men in the Cities and set it to an original score by Dutch composer Thom Willems. What came out was a quirky, desperate, intriguing, hyper-physical, 15-minute dance that was like nothing the audience had seen before. Revolutionary seems trite, but it was. Five dancers dressed in black and white appear in what look like plastic garment bags hanging from the ceiling. That image, along with the darkly eerie, industrial score, set the mood for a wonderful and strange adventure. The original cast of Chaves, Sandi Cooksey, Ron De Jes?s, Alberto Arias and Lynn Shepard brought a fierce energy to their talented technical skills and took the stage by storm. I saw it on tour that season and it blew me away! (It was one of the reasons I wanted to move to Chicago and why I’m a huge HSDC fan.) I am so completely STOKED that RNDC is reviving it this weekend. I spoke with Chavez by phone earlier this week about their upcoming program.

You’ve set quite an eclectic program…Miles, Balls, Tango…

This is our “Tour de Force” program (also the title of the Thursday night gala). To be able to go from an authentic Argentinian tango to “SUPER STRAIGHT” with a contemporary edge and then go to Miles Davis, as jazzy as you can get…it shows so many different facets of the company and that we can do all of those things really well.

Jessica Wolfrum in Ezralow’s “SUPER STRAIGHT is coming down”. Photo by Jenifer Girard.

I’m going to cut to the chase. I really want to focus on SUPER STRAIGHT because it is my favorite piece ever! I love it, I love it, I love it! I always wondered when/if Hubbard would bring it back.

(Laughing) We feel the same way. It?s my favorite Daniel Ezralow piece. Not just because I had the great opportunity to perform it, but I?ve been thinking about it for quite a while. I?m always concerned with something that was related to HSDC, that enough time has gone by?we?re careful with all that. We thought it was such a good fit and it?s such a good piece that it just made sense. As you say, it?s my favorite piece of Danny?s and it?s been sitting on a shelf for a long time. It?s so perfect for us. I honestly didn?t think I?d see HSDC do it again. It just isn?t them any more. I felt truly it was more appropriate for us these days, so I went for it.

Are there things he told you, that maybe the audience doesn?t know, that you get to pass down now that you?re resetting it?

As I did it, I brought Sandi and Berto in to help with rehearsal and some tidbits here and there. It was really based on a book of photographs by Robert Longo. The costumes, the look of the piece?everything came from this book. It was very interesting. He took a bunch of pictures of men and women in cityscapes. The idea behind it was that they were having things thrown at them and they were dodging. They were all sort of action/motion shots, but very quirky. They were pedestrians. There were a lot of images that ended up being translated off the page and into the piece. That was the initial jist of it. I?ve described it as sort of an urban meltdown. It?s like these people have been dropped down from some other space. The bags?do you remember? These big huge ice cubes that they melt out of. I remember Danny saying things like, ?Your first step out of that bag is like you?re stepping on to black ice.? You can?t see it. You don?t know if it?s going to hold you. There?s so much uncertainty in the piece, which created a great deal of tension. There was a lot of tension in the creative process too. Danny likes to stir the pit a little bit. He does a lot of improv and then puts the piece together. That?s his process. He feeds off of whatever is happening. If somebody is pissed off and walking around a corner, he?ll use that in the piece. He really wanted to shock the audience. I remember this original composition, he wanted that first note to come in really strong and jolt the audience. You?d hear a collective ?ah? ? it scared them. It transcends you to another place and you?re not sure what?s going on. He said that it was very abstract for him. There was no real meaning behind it for him. There was no story behind it. He wanted to create this tense atmosphere that kept people on the edge of their seats and uncertain. It does that well. So many people wrote it was about AIDS, disease, a takeover, aliens?it had a million different interpretations of what it was. Danny likes to do that. He likes to leave it up to the audience, however they see it, whatever they?re feeling?that was a big part of it.

I definitely got an alien vibe and just kept wonder what was up with the bags?

He likes to make people question a lot. Are they aliens? Are they just arriving here? Were they quarantined? All these speculations came about where these bags came from and then they just float off the stage. These five people are just dropped off somewhere. They have no idea where they are. You can say they?re from a different planet. They don?t even know why they?re there, but they need to go explore. If they are to go on in any way, they need to get out of those bags and find out where they are. It?s a bit of a discovery. The silent section in the middle was very interesting. There are two musical cues in the musical section and other than that it was timing and breath and feeling each other, commanding and finding the silence and doing something with it and translating that into a very tense atmosphere. Again, the uncertainty is what creates this tension. Initially the piece wasn?t counted at all. We just followed each other. For dancers?everybody wants to know what they?re doing at every moment. That was a really interesting part about the piece. I think it keeps it really interesting and relevant. There?s nothing to me that?s dated to me about the piece. It?s still so relevant in so many ways.

The silent section, the improv and keeping it real on stage?was that a new way of working for you guys back then? Or had you already been through that type of process before?

No. I think it was new for a lot of us. Danny was just starting out as a choreographer at that time, aside from what he did for his own company. I think for us, and for that time at HSDC, it was pretty new. It was fantastic. What came out of that process was pretty special. Sometimes it all just works. I think “SUPER STRAIGHT” is a great example of when everything really comes together.

River North Dance Chicago, Nov 4&5 at 8pm

Tickets: $30-$75, Harris Theater, 205 E. Randolph, 312.334.7777