Dance For Life: Alive and Well

The excitement swept across Michigan Avenue for blocks in both directions as streams of festive concert-goers flocked to the Auditorium Theater for “Dance For Life,” the single most important Chicago dance event of the year.

Now in its 23rd year of raising funds for The AIDS Foundation of Chicago, The Dancers’ Fund, Making A Daily Effort, and Agape Missions, NFP, “Dance For Life,” like no other performing arts event in the city, demonstrates the extraordinary spirit and solidarity of Chicago’s dance community.

When visionaries Keith Elliott and Todd Kiech decided to harness the passion, dedication, and love Chicago dancers have for each other and for their art, they tapped into a rare treasure--a dance community that cared for something greater than itself or its individual company allegiances. Last Saturday, Dance For Life drew record numbers--over 2,000 in attendance--and raised $175,000 for its beneficiaries, and what a show it was!

Six Chicago dance companies offered stellar works from their repertories, including Giordano Dance Chicago, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, Joffrey Ballet, River North Dance Chicago, Ensemble Español Spanish Dance Theater, Visceral Dance Chicago. In addition, dancers from each of the participating companies, along with several independent artists and dancers from Thodos Dance Chicago and DanceWorks Chicago, joined together in the opening and closing works, both world premieres.  LEVELdance provided comic relief for the second act raffle drawing. All the dancers donated their time and talent for the event. 

Harrison McEldowney and Jeremy Plummer’s opening, "ready to fall," was a study in counter balance, with inventive partnering and the use of arial rigging to add both suspense and suspension to the abstract design. Lynn ziehe’s jewel-toned pantaloons and dresses complemented the acrobatic spectacle. This collection of dancers  from five different Chicago companies and five independent artists got the evening off to a breezy start with an appropriately celebratory mood and set the tone of “all for one and one for all.”

The program gave us one knockout performance after the next, with distinctly different performance styles that encompassed ballet, modern dance, Spanish dance, jazz, and, an eclectic sampling of mostly contemporary choreography, Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux being the one classical exception. You couldn’t walk away from Dance For Life without noting the depth of talent in the ranks of these companies. It is testimony to the fact that Chicago has truly come of age as a richly-endowed dance town.

While the entire evening was a dance lover’s dream concert, there were several high points that deserve special mention.

Visceral Dance Chicago, new to the roster, made an impressive debut with Nick Pupillo’s "Impetere," an intensely-paced, driven abstraction, set to the beeps and pounding of an electronic pulse. Brian Sidney Bembridge’s lighting created a magical effect where the dancers appeared from within a fog and disappeared from view as if blinked instantaneously out of existence. Sky high extensions and angular jabs alternated with wiggles and split arabesques, putting these eleven powerhouse dancers through their paces at maximum velocity. The mixed diction of Pupillo’s choreographic  voice used the dancers’ facility to combine balletic echapées and jetés with contractions and falls. 

Frank Chaves’ "Excerpts From Eva" is such a rich and emotionally riveting piece, one longed to see it in its entirety, but had to settle for the truly stunning performances of Jessica Wolfram and Ahmad Simmons in “Stormy Monday,” and the mellow “Autumn Leaves,” with Lauren Kias and Hank Hunter. Chaves’ depiction of two contrasting relationships, the first with physically wrenching intimacy, and the second with aching distance, relies on deep access to the impulse engine of human experience. “Wade In The Water,” a joyous gospel echo of Alvin Ailey’s "Revelations," showed River North Dance Chicago at its jazzy, exuberant best.

Alejandro Cerrudo’s "Excerpts from One Thousand Pieces" for Hubbard Street Dance Chicago gave a welcome second glimpse of his fascinating epic 2012 work, a piece that delves into the potency of minute gesture. Cerrudo’s stage world is a curvilinear universe, where dancers define and escape each other’s contours, encircling heads, ducking under arms and legs, intertwining in a flowing continuum of collapse and rebound. 

Autumn Eckman and Nan Giordano’s "JOLT" for Giordano Dance Chicago continues to be a crowd pleaser with its super-caffeinated humor, set to the inspired original percussion score by Evan Bivins, and performed, in part, by the dancers themselves, with spoons tapping on coffee mugs. The strength of the Giordano imprint sets this company apart with its distinctive vitality and attack.

The evening finale united ambassadors from seven participating companies for Randy Duncan’s athletic premiere, "Fly Again," a high-energy send-off that drove home the night’s message of solidarity: dancers in Chicago truly are dancing for life, and love, and something much bigger than themselves.