Best dance of 2020: What we gained in a year filled with loss

Twenty twenty was hard. Like everyone else, performing artists coped with the physical and emotional toll of prolonged isolation, a summer of protests and racial reckoning, and a fraught election season. Like millions of other Americans, the pandemic has profoundly upset artists’ livelihoods. As I write this, more than 330,000 Americans have lost their lives to COVID-19.

There are four who are not counted as part of that grim total whose absence is deeply felt in Chicago dance. 

Ann Reinking (1949-2020) and Astad Deboo (1947-2020) died days and continents apart. Reinking’s breakout role as Roxy Hart is not her only Chicago connection. Her kinship with Melissa Thodos yielded two of Thodos Dance Chicago’s game changing, long-form narratives: “The White City” (2011) and “A Light in the Dark” (2013). Reinking staged a triptych of Fosse works in “Fosse Trilogy” (2009) and peppered Thodos’ repertoire with original works for nearly a decade. 

Deboo’s recent collaboration with Natya Dance Theatre brought his distinct style blending kathak and kathakali with modern dance to the stage—literally. His 2019 performance alongside Chicago bharatanatyam titan Hema Rajagopolan in “Inai: The Connection,” dazzled at the Dance Center.

A talented and meticulous dance maker and producer, Brenna Pierson-Tucker (1983-2020) died in November. Husband-and-wife team Brenna and Christopher Tucker co-led a small and nimble dance company, Esoteric Dance Project, for a decade. Their sweet love story started at Interlochen Arts Academy, where they met as teenagers, and continued as the couple pursued dance degrees at Cornish College for the Arts before settling in Chicago. 

The Harris Theater’s fearless leader, Patricia Barretto (1974-2020), died in March. In her three short years as president and CEO of the venue, Barretto transformed the Harris’ programming, revitalized its relationships with Chicago’s dance community and curated some of the best dance I’ve seen—and, sadly, two things I haven’t. The planned Chicago debut of Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch and return of Paris Opera Ballet for the first time in eight years were both nixed from the tail end of the Harris’ spring season due to the pandemic.

In this year of tremendous loss, one might find it gauche to create a “top 10.” By what metrics does one weigh performances of the last nine months against those of the first three? Some audiences have wholly embraced digital dance, while others, I among them, hesitated to get on board. Is it even fair to pick the “best” productions when so many artists are financially, geographically, emotionally and artistically hamstrung?

Indeed, those who muddled through and squeezed dance out of small spaces and small budgets, amid all the chaos and trauma of the year, are to be commended. Dancers learned how to make filmscreate interactive digital platformslivestream and perform safely outdoors. Some extraordinary feats came out of this strange, pandemic year. So, why not pour accolades on the companies, choreographers and venues who met, nay, soared over the high bar 2020 set for us all? Looking back on what is undoubtedly a time we’ll never forget, these are the dance productions (in chronological order) that touched us the most this year. —Lauren Warnecke

Poonie’s Cabaret

Though our ideas of what dance performance is and looks like have changed continually since I saw Poonie’s Cabaret "Classical Masters" almost a year ago, the artists I saw that night stick out to me as innovators—blending traditional burlesque and vaudeville dance with experimental choreography, working with Links Hall to bring different audiences together and raising funds to support queer and emerging artists. If presented today, virtually, I believe the collective of solo acts would be just as engaging. Sio Bast’s feather fan dance with dramatic skirt-ography and Bazuka Joe’s (Ken Gasch’s) lofty unicorn romp, assisted by a pole, could break through any digital fourth wall.  And I’ll never forget Melbo the Clown’s (Meaghan Morris’) hilarious valentine opera that reminded the audience that sex and love take on all sorts of forms and expressions. —Jordan Kunkel

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater

Ailey’s annual pilgrimage to the Auditorium Theatre (a tour stop for more than half a century), was especially striking this year. Opening night featured two works—Aszure Barton’s splendid “Busk” (2009) and “Ode,” created in 2019 by choreographer-in-residence Jamar Roberts—plus the standard closer, “Revelations.” “Busk” and “Ode” are a yin/yang, of sorts. The former is dark and moody in some moments and almost slapstick in others, opaque and nonliteral in all the best ways, while Roberts’ offering is a cathartic howl, an elegy to victims of gun violence placed against a vibrant backdrop of strewn flowers. Together, they serve as a paragon of a company that is still and always on top of its game. —LW

Clinard Dance’s Flamenco Quartet Project

In a typical year, Clinard Dance’s serial salon-style engagements are a marvelous escape into the resplendent world of Andalusian dance and music. As fate would have it, their inspired March show at Evanston’s SPACE, which was part of Instituto Cervantes’ annual Chicago Flamenco Festival, turned out to be my curtain call on normalcy, ushering in a drought on live performance that, for me, would last nearly six months. Wendy Clinard, a Chicago Flamenco stalwart, refined her company’s mission with the Flamenco Quartet Project, formed in 2014.  She dances beside FQP regulars Steve Gibons (violin) and Marija Temo—one of the best guitarists in the city, if not the country. The fourth member rotates; on this occasion it was José Moreno, who periodically left his seat at the cajon to add fiery, prodigious dancing to an incredibly special evening. I was already in love with Flamenco. On this night, as the collective wail of an appreciative audience signaled our subconscious knowledge that things were about to dramatically change, that fervor approached near-obsession. —LW

Para.Mar Dance Theatre

Of all the fierce moves in Para.Mar’s inaugural performance in an Avondale parking lot, a cloth covered kiss is what continues to play on. That intricate tango of safety and passion is the cornerstone of 2020, captured in “Kiss” by artistic director Stephanie Martinez. I think about that crimson carpet on a slightly overcast day, a lonely black fedora, shocking leg extensions and fluid performers that straddle ballet and hip-hop. But more importantly, I think about belonging and how the choreography, coupled with a pre-show community class, set the stage for a grounded ballet that not only impressed but integrated its audience. In this isolated year, breaking the fourth wall between the audience and the stage feels like one of the most critical things a choreographer can do. By incorporating intimate and rigorous partnering when so many of us forgot the importance of trust and touch coupled with the wave of community spirit infused throughout all aspects of the performance, I am happy to say “Kiss” was my best live dance experience for 2020. It was and still is a reminder that dance is one aspect of an entire ecosystem. Physical distance may sustain our lives during this time, but a life of passion is what we should be striving for when all is said and done. —D’onminique Boyd

A screen shot from Rena Butler and Talia Koylass' film, "A Tale of Two," for Hubbard Street Dance Chicago.

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago’s “A Tale of Two”

Rena Butler's 20-minute ode to Black youth surviving and protesting Chicago's harrowing gun violence opened Hubbard Street's 43rd season this October. Butler's cinematic collaborator—filmmaker Talia Koylass—proved to be the perfect fit for the project. The alignment of their respective visions and narratives, via their shared life experiences (as Black women, as native Southsiders, as dancers), infused "A Tale of Two" with a palpable sense of the authenticity and dynamism required for Black people (children and adults) to thrive despite having to quickly discern the sound of firecrackers versus gun shots during Chicago summers. —Felicia Holman

Jumaane Taylor’s “Ugly Flavors”

Shown as a work in progress and livestreamed from the Dance Center in November, this quartet of pious hoofer-monks dodge rhythmic hurdles and paddle and roll against a barrage of melody, in and out of time. “Ugly Flavors” takes up rhythmic arms against the colossal might of what are arguably two of the 20th century’s most remarkable and controversial compositions: Igor Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” and Ornette Coleman’s “The Shape of Jazz to Come.”  While the dancing itself ranges from very good to world-class, it’s the overall respect for tap dance as a whole that made this performance pop. Being able to actually hear the nuance of the dancers’ dynamics—a simple concept that continues to elude sound engineers at even the most prestigious of venues—is satisfactory here. And lighting designer Jacob Snodgrass’ minimalist, shifting illuminations during the opening number is art worthy of wall space at the Museum of Contemporary Art. If I could pick an accompanying ugly flavor it would be anchovy. Modern art isn’t always tasty right out of the can. Taylor’s conscious approach to music may be the secret ingredient to good contemporary tap dance, much like anchovies are the missing link to a world class Caesar salad. —Tristan Bruns

Nejla Yatkin's "The Other Witch"

Nejla Yatkin’s video adaptation of “The Other Witch” was scheduled to be performed live. Her decision to adapt the work for virtual presentation was one of this year’s boldest, most original and fruitful responses to pandemic restrictions. The stigmatizing of strong women as witch, sexual predator, temptress and “other” underscores Yatkin’s witch, a shamanistic agent of healing. Her undulating shoulder, torso and spinal isolations reference 20th century German dance pioneer Mary Wigman’s landmark solo, “Hexentantz,” expanding on Wigman’s feminist take on women and their bodies. Half-human, half-spider, a hand emerges from voluminous folds of black tulle. Arms and legs unfold like independent animals, fingers grope, limbs seek prey. Intermittently, the humanness of flowing hair, glimpses of a face behind the mask and full body spinning and twirling culminate in fully human wholeness that resonates deeply for today. —Lynn Colburn Shapiro

Jenn Freemen (AKA Po’Chop)’s “The Brown Pages”

I’m still processing the digital release of “Collage”—part three of Jenn Freeman’s dance film “Litany." I hold on to Freeman reading a poem in which she referred to Serena William’s erotic vocals as a “Mighty Roar.” Freeman is visually, sonically, digitally and physically fearless about claiming space and taking on a roar of her own. Case in point: In part two of “Litany,” “Issues of Blood,” Freeman undulates in a lace red dress, ushering us to lay down our own issues of shame, faith and womanhood with white gloves amongst abandoned materials in underdeveloped grass-lined lots. The full breadth of her creative process is shared through her accompanying blogzine, “The Brown Pages.” Litany and the Brown Pages was my favorite digital dance experience of 2020, simply because I found and still find myself tapping into an unapologetic essence of pride and self-discovery after experiencing Freeman’s research, movement and innovation. —DB

Bridge Dance Festival

In November, via Links Hall’s digital platform, Bridge Dance Festival brought together artists from Chicago and Kobe, Tokyo for a night of pre-recorded dance films and livestreamed performance art. The festival celebrated four choreographers presenting their latest endeavors, each with strikingly identifiable styles that cohesively ran the emotional gamut. Masayuki Sumi’s haunting “Oni no Fu” played the foil to the delicate and meditative “Transformation” by Irene Hsaio. Mari Fujihira’s “Sustainable,” a captivatingly complex, thirst-quenching comment on populated areas, felt like a trip to the city. But it was Ayako Kato’s “Just Being” that really burned this evening in my mind. Her serene outdoor setting mixed with first-person point-of-view camera angles allowed for a much-needed escape from the confines of my suburban bedroom, while Kato’s slow and methodical movement quality held my undivided attention for the entirety of the film. —Emma Elsmo

Anthony Sims’ “Spectated Specter”

During his short time in Chicago, Sims has forged a reputation as a durational performance wunderkind. His format of choice, the tableau vivant, has proved to be highly adaptive and responsive to social distance protocols, since his 2020 live performances have been set in gallery windows. Traditionally, Sims' works feature his live body as a sort of "control" in the immersive environment. For "Spectated Specter," though, the audience only receives access to his projected silhouette at Roots & Culture Contemporary Art Center—a commentary on the simultaneous hyper/invisibility of the Black body, in art and society, made even more poignant when one considers Roots & Culture's Noble Square location. —FH