Dance Crash Pairs Poetry with Cabbage Patches

The source of inspiration for Chicago Dance Crash’s annual winter concert, “And Now for the Dancing Pants!” which closed Dec. 10 at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts, was the work of famed author/illustrator Shel Silverstein.

After a brief curtain speech by artistic director Jessica Deahr (who took a hiatus from performing in this one), Mattrick Swayze emerged in a green boot-cut unitard and a knee length Santa hat. He then proceeded to kick-ball-change through a "Carol of the Bells," and conduct hilarious feats of strength: a chest pump here, a booty bump there. It’s just what we needed to get in the holiday spirit, and, as he usually does, let the audience know that this is a different kind of dance show. The first half of "And Now for the Dancing Pants!" is reminiscent of KTF, Crash’s long-running dance battle series that, fortunately, will return next season at a new venue: Stage 773. Swayze directs two teams of dancers through improvised dance challenges of which we, the audience, get to determine the winner through our thunderous applause. The competition is moderated by Swayze, who doesn't hesitate to intersperse the action with family un-friendly banter; he might be the only person who can turn “Where the Sidewalk Ends” into something raunchy and ridiculous.

After a brief pause for some Shel-centric trivia, Swayze made his exit and a more conventional dance concert (dubbed “the choreographed portion”) unfolded. Each of the poems runs together in a series of thirteen (13!) mini-dances that create a loose narrative about two loners, Brian Humpherys and Kaitlin Webster, making friends. Each has his/her  own solo, and they dance a lovely duet together to "Masks:"

She had blue skin.

And so did he.

He kept it hid

And so did she.

They searched for blue

Their whole life through,

Then passed right by –

And never knew.

It’s an odd pairing – Humpherys and Webster – but one seen time and again by Crash’s most contemporary of dancers. This time they managed to bring out the best in each other, highlighting Webster’s tall stature and strength by having her do most of the heavy lifting and Humpherys showing longer, cleaner lines than ever before. The two are surrounded by a supporting cast of characters that almost resemble the Peanuts gang. There are tricks aplenty, with highlights including Zak McMahon’s “Dancing Pants” freestyle behind a black light that illuminates only his pants, Stephanie Paul’s percussive choreography using bodies for instruments in “Ourchestra,” and twinsies KC Bevis and Kelsey Reiter in the acrobatic “Us” set to a diddy by Rosemary Clooney.

Compared to the crowd-pleasing first half, the second act is muted, charming, verges on cloying, and reveals the softer, cheesier side of Crash. The tone is not totally unwelcome:  after all, the point is to revitalize and celebrate beloved children’s passages, and that they do. Perhaps more importantly, though, taking on Silverstein is something that (probably) no other company could do, and here’s why: Silverstein was from Chicago, went to three colleges and graduated from none. He was a bit of a misfit, marched to the beat of his own drummer, willingly defied categorization and reveled in his oddities. This may be something that Chicago Dance Crash can identify with. The company is a mishmash of dancers who shouldn’t really look good dancing together but somehow do. They often take a populist approach to dancing, but beneath the glossy exterior are a few “things that make you go hmm.” This gets at the heart of why poetry and hip-hop are good bedfellows; after all, the origins of both genres are rooted in poignant messages shrouded in rhythm and rhyme.

The only thing that was missing was a bit of salty to go with all that sweetness. Maybe the first half of the evening counts for that, but I kept waiting for a massive punch to the gut – the hard-hitting hip-hop that these dancers do so well – the rousing finale that brings an audience to its feet – and I didn’t really get that. It was almost like the sidewalk just ended (see what I did there?).