The emotional intensity of bodies in turmoil wove a common thread across Visceral Dance Chicago’s one-night stand at the Harris Theater Saturday night. Unlike last year’s varied repertoire, the five works in “Spring Five,” three of them by company founding director Nick Pupillo, revolved around the volatility of human relationship.
Year five in the history of this burgeoning Chicago dance powerhouse sees the company looking sleek and polished, with smart new personalities complimenting seasoned veterans. Spot-on balletic pirouettes and sky-high extensions melted into upper body undulations and core-centered contractions. Tantrums of kicks and explosive arm gesticulations burst out from lyrical passages of sensual partnering. The mix of impressive ballet chops and impulse-driven modern moves added up to an evening of movement metaphors for the formality and chaos of how people connect and separate.
Brian Sidney Bembridge’s dramatic lighting set the tone for Pupillo’s opener, “Impetere” (2013), with Visceral’s five women each occupying a square of light surrounded by a black void. Cones of light beam down as the five company men emerge from obscurity to manipulate them in body mechanics that correspond to the musical sound effects of Apparat, Ólafur Arnalds, Matmos, and Pixel. Costume designer Maggie Jarecki’s black and metallic corsets exposed every spinal ripple and core body nuance to the max. Pupillo finds poetry in momentary flow and breath, releasing tension amidst an otherwise leggy, non-stop trajectory toward the breathless finish. Geometric precision meshed with body curves, punctuating swift changes of coupling, solos, and group sequencing. It called to mind the electricity of relationship on an atomic level, with sudden jumps of valence forming new molecular compounds at every turn.
Harrison Cook and Desiree Miller’s live, on stage cello duet paralleled dancers Riccardo Battaglia and Meredith Harill in Pupillo’s sweet and sensual duet, “Senza di te” (2013). With Cook’s plucked ostinato matching Battaglio’s support role, and Miller’s lush bowed melody giving voice to Harill’s silky affection, the dance begins in the sheer delight of two bodies exploring each other’s physicality. Maintaining a conventional pas de deux formality, their non-stop movement encounter evolves from playfulness to intimacy. Harill is a breath of fresh air, gorgeous and engaging in Moriah Turner’s shimmery gown, a young woman in the first blush of self-discovery and love.
Mónica Cervantes’ “Changes” (2014) plies the calm and storm of changing tides, beginning with Caitlin Cucciara’s tender nuzzling and mimed air calligraphy with partner Prince Lyons. The volatile chemistry these two superb dancers stir up on stage is especially electrifying. Cucciara, a Visceral Dance veteran and visual anchor on stage, brings technical brilliance and dramatic depth to everything she does. And I couldn’t take my eyes off Lyons, a newcomer, whose tall lanky frame devours space with a rapacious appetite and compelling sensitivity. Paired to maximum effect throughout the evening, they formed one of two couples at the center of this piece, dishing up extremes of tenderness and discord, with high anxiety music by F**ck Buttons and Philip Glass upping the anti. The piece builds to a climax as the two central couples juxtapose qualities of slow, smooth continuum with fast, abrasive contortions, longing with conflict, slit pillow stuffing sifting into a sawdust puddle of lost hope. The ensemble echoes their extremes of inward shapes and external outbursts, at play in sharp, abrupt moves, agitated bouncing, and arm and leg thrusts lashing the air, an auditory percolator of eerie chanting in the distance.
The second half of the program opened to the woozy lost world of New York choreographer Kevin O’Day’s world premiere, “A Fine Line.” The dissonant sounds of overlapping voices create an open chasm of space, where dancers, trapped in a version of Dante’s Inferno, mime silent screams. Two dancers emerge out of mass group writhing, with leaps and turns, falls to the floor, and melting resignation. The grim drone of the Kronos Quartet’s music made for overstated commentary on an already-angst-ridden scene, mitigated by Paige Frazer’s personal brand of turmoil, first in a spectacular solo, then in a trio with two men. The tide turns, however, as the black cyclorama lifts to an exposed white backdrop, casting the dancers in silhouette with calming resolve. One of the most powerful moments of the piece is the add-on men’s quintet, which built with each dancer until the five combined in ever-changing shapes and configurations. As the women re-enter, hopeful strings bring upbeat music to the harmony of coupling as the black cyclorama descends on a continuum of motion into blackout.
Pupillo’s world premiere, “Soft Spoken” is a composite of popular songs and instrumental music ranging from Frank Sinatra to Arvo Part, with Joni Mitchell, Irma Thomas, Colin Stetson and Max Richter thrown into the mix. The piece begins, however, in silence, with the company racing repeatedly across the stage. Racing to what? Eventually, hidden arms in the wings catch and lift running dancers, thrusting them back on stage. A trill voice activates a series spiral turns, until the ensemble dissipates, leaving only Cucchiara and Lyons for a slinky tango to Frank Sinatra singing “Strangers In The Night.” As engaging as these dancers are to watch, one can’t help recalling Twyla Tharp’s ground-breaking use of the same music in “Nine Sinatra Songs” (1984) and wondering at the choice here. In other sung segments, duets form as movement has fun imitating select lyrics. Is it about the need for love? Hard to say, but Pupillo’s lyrical style and lush, core-centered, whole body abandon must be fun for these accomplished performers to dance, and maybe that’s just what he was aiming to give them. Hanna Brictson balanced on a dime for oh so long in a stunning solo, while sprinting company members darted on and off, finally coalescing to face the audience dead-on at the edge of the stage. We are real people, they seemed to be saying, before marching a defiant exit through the audience. With all that great dancing and lovely choreography, “Soft Spoken” reiterated what had come before. What it was they were saying is left for our conjecture.