“SpringNine” marks new season by Visceral Dance Chicago and the grand opening of the Ann Barzel Theatre

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    Visceral Dance Chicago performs “Awake,” a world premiere by Nick Pupillo. Photo by Katie Miller.
    Visceral Dance Chicago performs “Awake,” a world premiere by Nick Pupillo. Photo by Katie Miller.

“This is a proud moment,” Visceral Dance Chicago’s founder and artistic director, Nick Pupillo began as the company celebrates its ninth year in existence, and also the grand opening of a new performance venue. The large black box theater, located at the back of the new Visceral Dance Center, is called “The Ann Barzel Theater,” named after the legendary Chicago dance critic.

“SpringNine” is a showcase of the venue’s technical capabilities, allowing lighting designers Collin Helou and Nathan Tomlinson to play with all the toys in the toy box. There were times that I had to remind myself to take my eyes off the visual array and put them back on the dancers, but I do not blame Pupillo & Co. for wanting to pull out all the stops—it’s a grand opening, after all.

The program opens with “Madre” by guest choreographer Mike Tyus. In the program, Tyus writes that, “Madre is dedicated to my Mother,” and that, “It’s a portrait of motherhood from a son who desperately loves his mom.” “Mother” is represented by three women dressed in black pants and halter tops, who dutifully care for their “children,” three men dressed only in white briefs. The mothers lift and drag the men around as if they are lifeless rag dolls. A sharp slap on their bottoms snaps them out of their stupor as they begin to move for themselves. One would think that the mothers would be relieved at the prospect of an empty nest, but it’s the opposite. Instead, they hunch over, hyperventilate, and forcefully slap at their own bellies. The children return as men, this time in black pants, and provide support for the tired and depressed matriarchs, spinning them around and swinging them up upon their shoulders. The piece ends with an intimate duet between one mother and grown son as the lights fade out. Extremely intimate, Tyus’s “Madre” captures the intense emotions that we feel for someone, but may be too “busy” to express to them in person before it's too late.

Guest choreographer Marguerite Donlon’s “Ruff Celts” finds the company dressed in all black, the men wearing kilts, and each dancer sporting a white, ruffled blessume around the neck. The piece begins with one dancer throwing a plume of talc-like powder over their heads, creating a cloudy haze in the air and white dots on the floor. Three groups of dancers move as if they are complementary parts of a machine, using their hands to manipulate their bodies by grabbing and twisting their necks, spiraling their rib cages down and slapping the floor, while each makes a vocal sound—pop, hiss, sshh, whoop, whoa—done without any cheesiness. I actually laughed out loud! The music shifts to a jaunty Irish jig, “The Rocky Road of Dublin,” and the scene morphs into a frolicking party, kicked off by two Celtic fairie sprites who glance coyishly at the audience before sauntering off. Eventually, the crew must return to their jobs at the machine—pop, hiss, whoop—but their jovial time frolicking seems to have energized them, and they go about their tasks with smiles on their faces and a bounce in their steps.

“Mad Skin,” a duet by Pupillo featuring Meredith Harrill and Morgan Williams, is the story of a relationship stretched to its breaking point. Harris plays a tortured soul who compulsively looks and moves towards some unseen obsession offstage while her companion, played by Williams, continuously pulls her back from the edge of the abyss. Williams tries gently leading her back to him, then strains to drag her back, and finally grabs and hoists her overhead, only for her to squirm free and resume focusing on her obsession. The part that really tugs at your heartstrings is when Williams has finally had enough and goes into a rage, throwing his arms up explosively in frustration and bounding across the floor. Then Harrill runs and leaps on his back. This series repeats with Harrill dropping harder and harder onto Williams until he succumbs to her weight, remaining trapped with her in a square prison of light.

“Awake,” a world premiere by Pupillo, begins with swaying bodies appearing to float on tethers beneath a sea of undulating blue and green waves of light set to a meditative and somber soundtrack. The dancers dart around like meandering schools of fish, chase each other away, fight each other in a churning and swirling dual, and play a symbiotic game of “I fall, you catch.” The mood changes as the soft, colorful lighting is replaced by a white, top-down beam. In a recurring motif, necks snap sharply, legs sweep the ground and arms fan like curved windshield wipers over their heads.

The fast pace never relents. Several solos serve as prologues to a series of scenes that show off brilliant light displays. One look resembles a bank heist from a “Mission Impossible” movie as skinny beams of light criss cross and dot the stage while the dancers dart quickly between them. At one point the curtain on the back wall is drawn open to reveal a striking orange brick wall framed by dark blue lights, which the dancers line up along while posing with arms softly outstretched. In the most visually striking moment, a snakelike, single file line slithers across the stage lit by an intense cone of stark white light that follows and moves with them via remote control, eliciting “oohs” and “aahs” from the audience.

For the first performance in the new Ann Barzel Theatre, one couldn’t ask for a better christening than these four works—better than smashing a bottle of Dom Pérignon! The quality of the work is exceptional; The company’s physical stamina and athleticism, combined with a tight rhythmic cohesion clearly communicates the visions of the three distinct choreographers. It’s easy to see why Visceral Dance Chicago not only survived the pandemic but is now thriving in the new dance landscape. A proud moment indeed.

“SpringNine” runs Friday, Saturday and Sunday from March 25 – April 3 at the Ann Barzel Theater in the Visceral Dance Center, 3121 North Rockwell Street. Tickets are $25-$60 and can be found by clicking on the event link below.