Ballet 5:8, Phenomenally


Grounded, erky-jerky movements with cave-like crawling are not the typical description you would use when describing a ballet performance. And yet, this is precisely the goal. Ballet 5:8 is not your average or typical dance company.  Rooted in faith, led by a Latina woman and intentionally collaborating with women designers who prioritize sustainability, Ballet 5:8 is unwavering in their eleventh season with their unique vision to ensure ballet is fresh, functional and accessible to everyone. 

On International Women's Day the company put on a swanky and thoughtful preview of their latest work, “BareFace,” at the 1929 Art Deco Carbide and Carbon building in the Pendry Chicago Hotel. It was a regal yet comfortable evening that celebrated the labor and brilliance of Ballet 5:8 dancers, Choreographer Julianna Rubio-Slager and their creative team. Head of Wardrobe Lorianne Robertson, projectionist Sarah L. Freeman and Set Designer Graham Louthan all took us through their dedicated processes. I was particularly impressed by the set design which used 95 percent recycled materials to create the fictional world of Glome, where the new ballet takes place. 

The celebrations continue into April, as the centering of a woman's point of view is always in vogue.  On April 22nd, we have an opportunity to continue honoring the female as we see the full-length performance unfold at the Harris Theatre for Music and Dance on Earth Day.  

Initially sparked by a conversation between Ballet 5:8’s Artistic Director Julianna Rubio-Slager and her 11 year old son geeking out about ancient Greek mythology, “BareFace” puts a contemporary twist on Cupid and Psyche. In a recent interview Rubio-Slager reveals that “BareFace teaches us to dive into ourselves to understand our own motivations, how our experiences impact us {in} both good and bad {ways} or put a mask on the parts we can’t accept. The re-opening of the mask,  with the myth of Cupid and Psyche, is very relevant to our society today.”

In the first piece, “The Wedding of Trom,” we are drawn in by the commanding presence and facial expressions of King Trom. Further suspense is built with King Trom’s awkward geometric arms, and clunky partnering with Orual and Psyche accents the red, nest-like masks on the dancer's faces.

We are captivated by this intriguing world of Glome, set in the year one million, where the performance is not solely about the line perfection of the body but also about the emotion in the air and the content of each character. Cupid and Psyche reimagined from a woman’s perspective is exciting because we get a chance to explore the challenges of love while reimaging more empowering beginnings and endings.

Another piece that I’m excited to see fully fleshed out at the Harris Theatre is “In the Mines,”  A vocally engaging work that uses the erotic sounds of grunting and breadth from an all-female cast. “In the Mines” eerie soundtrack interrupts disjointed movements, and yet brings you near with dazzling headlamps, that double as both useful prop and meaningful symbol. Shining blinding lights on the audience members remind us that we too are critical components of this dance, a dance that conveys the need for change in our over-consumption and disregard for labor.  As the coughing chorus hovers into an exhausted collapsed clump, the piece gives us a peek into a future which, if we continue to consume unsustainably, will not be viable. 

Packing heavy themes of beauty, otherness and post-apocalyptic visions, the “BareFace” preview continued to build intrigue as I witnessed the “The Priest Demands a Sacrifice” which starts out as a beautifully danced solo, followed by a couple that does not appear to see one another. The constant theme of hyper visibility and invisibility re-emerged as the piece came fully alive. The trio blended into an intense rotation as a dancer appeared in all black attire. Interweaving whimsical gliding scaffolds, the interaction between props and dancers was intense, tactile and at times really fun.  A crimson mannequin gently emerged, and gorgeous vertical lifts of the remaining dancers in white gave a striking contrast to the gliding props.  The conversation between everything on stage gave you a vantage point to really feast your eyes. And perhaps this is what I appreciate the most about this brilliant company.  Everything is being used, from the lights, interaction with the materials, choice of color and each movement. Rubio-Slager’s choreography flows like chimes; even when the wind has passed the beauty, the interaction lingers. It is my definition of phenomenal.

Deeply guided by the world she would like to see, Rubio-Slager’s special touch with Ballet 5:8 is her intentionality, amplification of women's voices and praise for the women who came before her. “If it weren’t for the generations of women and others, and the visions of her abuelitas and tias, it wouldn’t be possible for her to dance as a third generation immigrant from Mexico. My job is to pay that forward to elevate female voices, finding designers who take pride in finding ways to treat our earth well. Passing it on to the next generation in a world I wish I lived in.  In several generations we will look much closer to what we hope and image to be.”