'Four Seasons' the star of Chicago Repertory Ballet's run at the Biograph

Chicago Repertory Ballet (CRB) presents its third concert series this weekend at The Victory Gardens/Biograph Theater. CRB is a fledgling company with big ambitions and big potential, and last night’s premiere had some hits and some misses. Under the direction of former Thodos Dance Chicago member Wade Schaaf, this company thrives in the space where Schaaf is most comfortable: with full-company, big, balletic contemporary works.

Such is the case in CRB’s latest work: a one-act ballet sans narrative set to Vivaldi’s "Four Seasons" (reimagined by contemporary composer Max Richter). The dance channels the score beautifully in a carefully crafted mix of classical ballet and contemporary dancing. Schaff gives homage to traditional ballets by framing the soloists with groupings of corps de ballet members - though at some point in the 45-minute one-act, everyone gets a chance to shine. Each season brought with it a distinct look, complete with bold, colorful lighting from Julie Ballard - complementing the choice for white marley - and botanical separates from esteemed costume designer Branimira Ivanova.  Pieces of costume come on, and off, and on, and off, and eventually really off as the women finish the Winter section in nude leos  (flesh colored tights for the men). Though perplexing that the dancers get more and more naked as the “weather” gets colder, the cool lighting of the final few sections makes for the most flattering fake nudity in recent memory. For many dancers, the nude leotard is the pinnacle of cruel and unusual punishment, yet when they are well constructed, well lit, and worn by dancers with such astounding ability, as they are here, it creates for a magical moment.

Schaaf’s "Four Seasons" was the finale and the star of the evening, and left the audience on a high note. With inspired dancing by smiling dancers, the work is polished and bold, and looks to be a truly enjoyable jaunt across the stage. It’s clear that Schaaf placed focus heavily on the new work, and the older works in the front half of the program sometimes suffered as a result. 

When it premiered in 2012 at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts, "Peoplescape: Juxtaposiiton" left a dramatic impact. Perhaps it was the different vantage point at The Biograph (with the audience sitting stadium style above the stage rather than below it as at Ruth Page), or perhaps a lack of attention to rehearsing this potentially powerful and beautifully composed work, but Friday’s attempt was out of sync and lack-luster.  

Jacqueline Stewart’s choreography opened the evening with "One Way," a dancey tribute to fashion models. The dancers were tentative and unsure in unnecessarily difficult bits of choreography. Stewart is a mastermind in creating glorious, milky, satisfying dance phrases, but One Way felt choppy and forced. It appeared, this time, as though she may have been trying too hard. 

Ultimately, the same might be said about Schaff in considering this weekend’s concert as a whole. For only being around three years, his expectations are exceedingly high. On the whole, it’s a refined product for a company of this size and age, but Schaff clearly wants to play with the big kids, and is still searching for what his company wants to be. The two additional works on the program exemplify this: one moment we see a dainty trio with a literal story set to music with words by Autumn Eckman, and the next an abstract, confusing, melodramatic duet set to Arvo Part’s overplayed "Fratres." Not to say that his company shouldn’t display diversity and versatility in the breadth of its repertoire, but again, Schaaf is at his best when he plays in the realm of contemporary ballet, and "Four Seasons" happened to be one of his best examples to date.