The tagline for River North Dance Chicago’s (RNDC) 25th anniversary season was never more appropriate than onstage at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance last weekend. A delightfully understated RNDC stripped away some of the usual glitz and glamor to reveal purity, vulnerability, and simplicity in its Fall Engagement. That is, until the men and women of “RivNo” jazz walked out in unitards, high ponytails and high-topped jazz boots for the electric revival of Sherry Zunker’s 1992 “Reality of a Dreamer.” Appropriately dated, everything from Todd L. Clark’s hazy, psychedelic lights to the turned in pirouettes and jazz hands was perfectly intact; it’s almost as if the piece were taken out of a time capsule box, shaken out, and laid onstage as is. The nostalgia of seeing quintessential old-school River North and the excitement of this season’s phenomenal cast of dancers easily brought audience members to their feet Friday night, but “Reality of a Dreamer” wasn't the only reason to stand up.
The highly anticipated world premiere of Frank Chaves’ “In the End” is the first Chaves has created from a wheelchair. In a 2009 interview, Chaves spoke with the Chicago Reader about the spinal cyst that would eventually claim his mobility. “I've pictured myself in a wheelchair, still creating beautiful things,” he said. “I could be in a wheelchair and still have my imagination. I pray it won't happen, and I don't expect it to happen, but I have pictured it."Five years later, it has happened, and Chaves does, indeed, still have his imagination. “In the End” is a magical sextet for RNDC’s men, exploring the topic of relationships and affection among men. The piece opens with a striking image of the men standing in a straight line, arms outstretched, holding hands in flesh colored trunks. Their bare skin (lit beautifully by Joshua Paul Weckesser) and simple choreography show a vulnerability not often seen from River North - by its dancers, or by its leader Chaves. As the work builds, the men acquire layers of clothing and don increasingly masculine personas, only to strip down in the end and reveal selves that are capable of feeling, intimacy, and platonic loving relationships with each other. “In the End” is raw, uncomplicated, and simply stunning. It has a rough and slightly unfinished feel that, for River North, is actually quite refreshing. Chaves relied on the dancers more than he ever has, and the result is some of his best work to date.
If “Reality of a Dreamer” and the revival of Chaves’ iconic 2003 duet “The Mourning” celebrate the past (as in the program’s tag line), “In the End” joined by Ivan Perez’s “Flesh” (U.S. Premiere) and Adam Barruch’s “I Close My Eyes Until the End” are meant to define the future. “Flesh” is on loan from Nederlands Dance Theater II, and presented a compelling and challenging movement vocabulary to the dancers. Where RNDC is usually high drama and higher kicks, “Flesh” demands a deep emotional commitment that surfaces from the gut, rather than the face. Its grounded twirlings and noodley, intricate partnering aren't apparently hard for them, but it must have taken a bit of work to get there. The movement speaks for itself; additions of a giant butcher knife hanging from the ceiling and the appearance of a full moon as dancer Hank Hunter randomly drops his pants created unnecessary distractions. Barruch’s “Close My Eyes…” has a similar feel, but without any hint of fluff. This Fall Engagment program was uniquely different from River North’s M.O. for one-after-the-other full-company group dances that sometimes blend together as the evening wanes on. If this is the future of RNDC, it is bright, indeed.