Choreographer Sean Roschman presents “Swarm,” a strong debut performance by company Niko8


Veteran choreographer Sean Roschman brings his wealth of experience working in both concert and commercial productions in New York City to the Chicago stage with “Swarm,” presented by his company, Niko8, at the Ruth Page Center on July 21.

Creepy, tender, scary, political, supernatural…

Thematically, “Swarm’s” greatest strength is how the program fits in numerous moods that overlap to create powerful storytelling—although the music, a compilation of ambient sound over modal chanting in an ancient North Germanic language, is droning and monochromatic. Despite the sometimes one-note quality of the music, the war-drum rhythms are highly syncopated, and Roschman’s attention to every accent is capably conveyed and executed by the company of eight dancers.

While the premise is obvious, the mode of storytelling leaves a lot to the imagination—and that’s a good thing! Dancers as subterranean cultists dressed in ratty overcoats and white cotton undergarments pray on bended knees to their god, a wicker ball with protruding branches that glows with an inner light and casts cobweb shadows over the congregation. Ragged zealots roaming dim backstreets stumble upon a susceptible lone woman who is put through a series of trials, including a duel with a cult matriarch before being inducted and robed in a ragged coat of her own. We mourn for the poor indoctrinated figure; that is, until a twist ending has an ominous figure emerging from the wicker monstrosity, bathed in light and face hidden by shadows—perhaps this god was real all along!

Roschman’s choreography is a combination of heavily detailed movement that corresponds closely with the music. Dancers swing their arms and legs in stiff, wide arcs, mirroring the long sustain of a baritone note. Sharp flicks of the hand coincide with percussive drum strokes, with pale palms reflecting the light, like spies in the distance flashing glints of morse code. Cult members tussle, arms like blades wielded by fierce samurai warriors, with the loser being dragged back to their subterranean lair—a sacrifice?

All this nuance is articulated clearly by the dancers, and it’s no surprise to learn via dancers’ biographies that several of them are products of training programs at Hubbard Street Dance Chicago and Visceral Dance Chicago, two local companies known for producing highly polished work.

A Chicago native, Roschman apparently made great use of his time in New York City, working on off-Broadway productions and with companies like Cirque Du Soleil, and now brings that wealth of experience back to The Windy City. Good choreographers don’t always make good directors, and vice versa; The cohesiveness of the dancers’ execution of the choreography and the simple yet profound theme of the work suggest that Roschman is both a capable artist and competent leader.

Themes of surreal spirituality and dystopian degradation combine with detailed, unified choreography to create “Swarm,” a compelling premiere performance by Niko8. If you’re looking for a fledgling organization to follow in the future, this is it, and audiences would do well to get in on the ground floor of this captivating company of dancers.