Thodos Dance Chicago "New Dances 2012"
By Laura Molzahn
What a difference a year makes. Though last summer’s “New Dances,” Thodos Dance Chicago’s annual showcase of premieres by company members, was reasonably enjoyable, it was also homogeneous and overlong, taxing audience patience. This time around: same number of works (nine), but polished to a high shine --- and polished off in a brisk, scant two hours, including intermission.
Top-flight works dominate this program, running through Sunday at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts. Each piece was distinct, but the ones that most impressed me had a dark undercurrent, often cut with joy or acerbic wit.
Brian Enos, the evening’s one guest choreographer, contributed the sure-handed new octet “Lullaby,” inspired by (and eventually set to) The King’s Singers’ rendition of Billy Joel’s 1993 “Lullabye (Goodnight My Angel).” The Singers’ close harmonies, sung a cappella, generally have an almost too sweet appeal --- but the first half of the dance is set to Enos’s harsh remix of a King’s Singers tune, chopped up into tasty techno-beats. Six dancers inhabit a hazy realm shot through with icy shafts of light; their dancing is passionate but somehow impersonal.
Then a woman enters, standing motionless in an eerily bright light, the others backlit behind her. Where they’d seemed to inhabit another world, she is otherworldly; soon a man who’s just as unearthly joins her, and The King’s Singers’ full “Lullabye” plays. Caitlin Cucchiara and Brian Hare’s duet is remarkable for its simultaneous tenderness and carved dignity, evoking the supernatural and the mortal, the elegy and the lullaby. Its sense of human frailty reminded me of W.H. Auden’s poem, “Lay Your Sleeping Head, My Love.”
In the athletic quintet “Scaled Gray,” Brian Hare seems to approach the subject of depression. He divides the dancers generally along the same lines: one man (Brandon DiCriscio) with two women, and one male/female duo. But increasingly DiCriscio comes to seem the isolated, unsettled protagonist. Six compositions by Max Richter range from agitation to sorrow to the quotidian; collapse is bathed in sparkling light.
Jeremy Blair’s “Antio Sas” (Greek for “goodbye”), a female quartet, wears its heart on its sleeve: it’s saturated with love for women. Set to bits of Bear McCreary’s music for “Battlestar Galatica,” it starts with rollicking movements, almost like folk dance, that make the dancers’ loose hair, blousy sleeves, and poofy skirts swing and whip. But soon there’s trouble in paradise, as one woman decides to, or must, leave. In a strange motion of farewell, the women kneel, place a palm near one ear, then pull their hands away.
The quintet “93 83,” choreographed by Jessica Miller Tomlinson and Michael McDonald, is pointedly not about anything. Split down the middle by its two disparate pieces of music --- experimental rock by Adrian Belew and a piano-cello composition by Christian Matjias and Crispin Campbell --- it’s further shattered when that music repeatedly cuts out briefly and returns. A quirky, inventive movement vocabulary is organized by certain motifs, especially a dancer’s slapping two hands together, right in front of or behind the waist, sometimes in agitation, sometimes slowly and absent-mindedly, as when the other dancers watch Cucchiara doing the world’s most elegant worm across the stage. Despite its careful “neutrality,” the piece has a kind of grandeur.
“Privilege of Being,” a duet choreographed and performed by Chelsea deVera and Joshua Manculich, was inspired by Robert Hass’s poem of the same name. But you don’t have to read this paean to earthly love to know that these dancers are caught in that whirlwind. The score, however, is austere: a collection of sound effects, from footsteps to an indecipherable conversation. The dancing too is stringent: clipped manipulations of two chairs --- and of each other. “Privilege of Being” is a drive-by dance, speeding through lightning shifts both physical and emotional; it definitely bears a second or third look.
Of the lighter pieces on the program, John Cartwright’s quartet “Two Too” is a standout, a tiny comic gem. Funny dances are not easy. Set to Mozart, it plays off ballet’s rigid gender roles, chivalric codes, and reputation for the pretty and nice --- at the same time it sets its four dancers some considerable technical challenges. Comedy can never be too shameless, and these dancers are bereft of shame.
Annie Deutz’s quartet “Meet-Cute” is cute indeed. Also perplexing: its two couples don’t seem to be meeting for the first time. They seem already sunk deep in their relationships, which reminded me of the Pleistocene-era male/female relations of “Mad Men.” Maybe it was the women’s French twists, or their many poses reclining on the men, or their all-too-persistent smiles.
Jon Sloven’s duet “Phylum” shows two creatures emerging from the primordial slime. I think. Rather than having a relationship, they appear to be two halves of a divided cell. A spray of starlight hovers over them, as does Joshua McGehee’s New-Age original music. “Phylum” didn’t say much to me, and neither did Ray Dones’s “How It’s Been,” set to music by Kaskade. Its subject may have been too big and baggy, described in a program note as “life’s journey and the relationships that we encounter … whether good or bad.” That’d be a tall order for anybody.
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
By Laura Molzahn:
"Take me to church!" yelled the noisy young man behind me on Wednesday night. The occasion? The opening strains of the music for Alvin Ailey's signature work, "Revelations." So what if the curtain was still closed?
That kind of fervor is a natural outcome of Ailey's brand of showy spirituality, epitomized in this 1960 classic. And the two 2009 works also on the program --- one of three in this engagement, which runs through Sunday at the Auditorium Theatre --- each followed a different branch of that Ailey aesthetic.
"Uptown," by company dancer Matthew Rushing, takes the showy route but apologizes for it. Both slight and heavy, this 40-minute piece tours the Harlem Renaissance at breakneck speed, loading up the trip with names, facts, and texts advising us what to think. Our helpful guide explains who Paul Robeson was and what a rent party is as well as informing us that Duke Ellington and Bessie Smith made lasting contributions to society.
Rushing, who wrote the texts with Gregor L. Gibson, clearly assumes a low level of cultural literacy. I could have dealt with that. I was more troubled by the repeated assertions that the accomplishments of the Harlem Renaissance were not just about song and dance but were also intellectual. True, but the declaration seems defensive. And Rushing's evidence --- brief recorded texts by W.E.B. Du Bois and Zora Neale Hurston --- is too skimpy to prove the point. By including so many facets and figures of that era, he devalues all of them.
Rushing also devalues the best part of "Uptown" --- the dancing --- with his inflated claims about the importance of the mind. His choreography tends to repeat (though he creates the illusion of change with different settings and costumes), but the dancing itself can catch fire. In "Rent Party," one girl tossed up by her partner almost flies out of his grasp. The five street-corner loiterers in "Visual Art" sport an appealingly louche masculinity. And the solo set to Langston Hughes's poem "The Weary Blues" is a cut above the rest of the choreography: its emotional nuances show what Rushing is capable of.
Ronald K. Brown's "Dancing Spirit" follows a more soulful, less showy, much less literal path. Created to celebrate Judith Jamison's 20 years as the Ailey company's artistic director, it begins with spartan simplicity. Dancers cross the stage in a diagonal line, repeating a few pared motions: bursting the arms up and open, for example, then dropping them slowly as the dancer steps in releve. It’s impossible to watch without thinking of the deliberate opening movements of "Revelations."
I also thought of the importance of lineage, of the ancestors, in African and African-American culture. The seven dancers follow one another one by one, but as each reaches the downstage corner, he or she exits, essentially making room for the performer entering upstage. (One woman, however, literally steps out of line and does her own thing: Jamison?)
Brown's eclectic mix of music includes two versions of Duke Ellington's "The Single Petal of a Rose," a couple of pieces by Wynton Marsalis, an urgent string composition by Radiohead, and War’s funky 1978 "Flying Machine (The Chase)." The choreography also traces an unpredictable path. Brown beautifully dissolves his simple opening sequence to create a sense of chaos: each individual moves with complete integrity and continuity, but overall the ensemble doesn’t exhibit much congruence --- until the dancers suddenly surround a single woman (Renee Robinson on opening night). Left alone onstage, she steps forward only to retreat, turns this way and then that, but her fluidity and passion show she knows the way.
Brown incorporates African moves but pares them back, smooths them out. The effect, especially given the flouncy costumes, suggests Caribbean dance --- which in turn suggests the "Wade in the Water" section of "Revelations." Echoing Ailey choreography without recapitulating it, Brown creates but never belabors a sense of history. The repetitions growing out of the African movement create but don’t belabor a sense of ritual. African dance simplified and often slowed suggests a very American, very urban brand of cool perfect for the Ailey troupe.
"Revelations" closes every program. It's a keeper --- though I'm tired of audience members who applaud and hoot at discrete bits as if they were athletic feats. For me this work's heart lies in two quirky rather than anthemic sections. In the excruciating male solo "I Wanna Be Ready," the dancer must exert exquisite control to reveal the sinner's lack of control. Odd. Pinned under God's searchlight, this man is trapped --- and so are the three men in the following section, "Sinner Man." Part of me always wants to laugh at the John Wayne-cowboy excess of this melodramatic song and dance. But another part honors its maleness, its courage and strength, and mourns its characters' despair.