Tapman Tristan Bruns and modern dancer Kate O’Hanlon teamed up for Bruns’ latest production called THRUST!, through August 28 at Stage 773. The title is a specific reference to the concert’s inspiration, though not any indication of its content. Stage 773’s three-sided thrust stage makes for an intimate audience experience, and while many a theater show successfully caters to patrons on three of four sides, presenting dances in such a space is exceedingly challenging. The challenge is what enticed Bruns to take it on, railing against presentational, one-sided proscenium dances to create a piece that wouldn’t make the viewers on the side feel like they got the cheap seats. In this respect, Bruns and co-choreographer O’Hanlon totally won; their seven-part dance clearly addressed all sides of the stage, and as a viewer sitting in the traditional front I found this approach provided a unique depth of field.
Addressing the technical and logistical challenges of making dances for an unconventional dance space is enough to work with, but the unfortunate thing about THRUST! is its attempt to address nearly everything else, too. Modern dancers dressed in black unitards with hip daggers and anonymous masks creeping around tap dancers with glowing, color-changing orbs is followed by a three-part ode to flamenco, complete with an awkward pas de deux performed by the long and lanky Bruns and the very petite O’Hanlon. Then comes a political statement on the proposed immigration policies of presidential candidate Donald Trump with dancers moving in and out of literal doors while five singers upstage harmonize Andrew Lloyd Weber’s “Close Every Door to Me,” followed by a punk rock finale complete with sequined belts and axle turns. Any one of these themes alone could take up an entire evening; putting them all together brings what I assume to be serious intentions closer to satire. Or, maybe that’s the point? I hope not, because when all the hodgepodge of themes is stripped bare – as in some of the beginning tap sections and a few rousing moments of jubilation in the finale – THRUST! showcases some of its lovely dancers quite well, reveals Bruns’ smartness and the original point of the piece: to entertain equally to all sides of its stage.
The second half of the evening is another concert entirely, sharing only tap dance and Bruns, who performs with familiar faces from M.A.D.D. Rhythms and Chicago Human Rhythm Project. Ian Berg’s “From the Top” exudes a wholly different mood, but makes clear the talent of each one of his performers. In the program notes, Berg reveals nothing of his process other than a long list of “contributors.” It’s a list that includes the dancers’ names amongst modern dance moguls like Merce Cunningham, Trisha Brown and William Forsythe – plus Kanye West. It’s unclear what these contributors exactly contributed to “From the Top,” although it doesn’t actually matter. Whatever the algorithm, Berg strikes an intriguing balance between full-out flashy tap dance and thoughtful composition. Most striking is a series of cut sequences to three dancers in an upstage corner tapping to Maurice Williams and The Zodiac's "Stay," growing louder and more rambunctious with each pass, and a few super fast renditions of "Sandman" sandwiched between them. In a way, Berg is to tap what Coltrane was to jazz music. “From the Top” pushes its viewers with long stretches of dissonant cacophony, but offers enough repose and comfortable major chords that even the most conventional of tap audiences can find something in it to enjoy.
THRUST! continues through Aug. 28 at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 7:00 p.m., Sundays at 3:00 p.m. Tickets are $20, available at the door or online.