Julie Nakagawa and Andreas Böttcher started DanceWorks Chicago (DWC) in 2007 after leading Hubbard Street 2 together for 10 years. Given Nakagawa and Böttcher’s backgrounds, it only makes sense that the mission of their company is driven by a commitment to early career artists, but DanceWorks employs a relatively new model. Most groups aimed at developing artists are somehow attached to a larger organization of more mature dancers. The common model, including companies like Hubbard Street 2, Joffrey’s trainee program, Ailey II, etc., gives young dancers a clear direction to strive for, yet few dancers actually arrive at their intended destination. In other words, a job at Ailey II doesn’t necessarily mean a job at Ailey. Julie Nakagawa prepares excellent dancers and exposes them to the greater dance community in Chicago and beyond; nine years after inception, DanceWorks dancers are now dancing in companies all over the country and the world.
DanceWorks’ first performance of its ninth season showed off a brand new company; five of its six members were only just employed in October. Titled DanceFlight, the short evening of tidbits onstage last weekend at the Ruth Page Center for the Performing Arts was inspired by a wine flight – a little of this, a little of that, in digestible portions. DWC’s rep has always been versatile, and DanceFlight is no exception, ranging from ballroom to contemporary to jazz; per usual, Nakagawa’s subtle wit is present in the works and in her commentary between pieces.
Joshua Manculich and Harrison McEldowney are staples in the DWC repertoire, and though very different, the two choreographers suit this company perfectly. Manculich’s Monologue was the first task when the brand new roster turned up to the studios as a way for the dancers to learn about one another. In a post-performance conversation with the dancers after Friday’s DanceFlight, they mentioned that the intricacies and emotional content of the solo are very much left to the individual performer. Teresa Marsala’s interpretation seemed one of loss or exclusion. A single chair lit by a down pool of light is the focus of Marsala’s attention as she makes frenzied passes in and out of the light. It feels as though the chair is filled with an invisible presence, as if the loss of whoever sat there has created chaos and sorrow.
McEldowney’s Perfidia is new to DanceWorks, on loan from River North Dance Chicago (which is also in residence at the Ruth Page Center). Despite its 1993 vintage, Perfidia still feels brand new. DWC’s interpretation of three men in a ballroom dance/cat fight over a single female dancer (Ginny Ngo) is more ridiculous than I remember it being for River North, whose dancers exude more gloss and pizzazz than DanceWorks. Regardless of how different they are, both RivNo and DanceWorks’ Perfidias are a hootenanny to watch, and the smart exchange of rep keeps River North on our radar while the company is on hiatus for restructuring.
Full company pieces opened and closed the program with a snippet from Christian Spuck’s Paradigm and the fun jaunt of Louisiana jazz from Taylor Mitchell called Red Beans and Rice-ly Yours. The absolute gem on this program, the pinot noir, if you will, is Greg Blackmon’s duet for two men called Pack: and for all the lost ones. Former DanceWorks dancer Greg Blackmon first showed the bit of choreography at DWC’s monthly open mic for dance called Dance Chance that would eventually develop into Pack. The delicate gestures and intimate partnering between dancers Jimi Loc Nguyen and Julien Valme flowed seamlessly into passes of strong unison dancing. In those moments it felt like a solo dance beside a mirror, in others, like a private exchange that the audience is allowed to see. While in other pieces it was more apparent that this is a young company of dancers who haven’t worked together long, Pack was refined, mature, and elegant.
As an audience member, it is so special and exciting to see great dance so close onstage at the Ruth Page Center. As a dancer, it can be terrifying. The young artists of DanceWorks Chicago, however, take it in stride and show enormous confidence, particularly considering their short resumés. The next few months will allow this group to further gel and find its new voice, but for the most part, DanceFlight was a strong outing for DWC. As with a wine flight, there are a few you love, and a few that are just ok. Either way you go home happy.