Deeply Rooted’s “Looking to the Future” a Primer on its Past

On the heels of Deeply Rooted’s successful winter series at the Logan Center, the company kicked off its 21st year with a rep program that largely looked to the past. A bit strange, considering the name of the one-night-only program at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts was called “Looking to the Future.” Instead, accompanying the evening’s single premiere were works spanning more than 30 years, a primer on the roots of Deeply Rooted, particularly those of artistic director and co-founder Kevin Iega Jeff.

The pinnacle of this program came just before intermission, a revival of two signature works by Jeff performed back to back: “Church of Nations” (1991) and “Surrender” (1998). Considered together, these works are a perfect bite – pure in their approach to Horton technique and a quintessential example of Deeply Rooted’s aesthetic. The first, a comment on President H.W. Bush’s invasion into Iraq and the role spiritual leaders play in condoning or condemning war, is well-complemented by “Surrender,” a trio for three women representing the holy trinity of body, mind and spirit. Having seen both of these works more times than I have fingers, I can truly say they don’t get old, though they are starting to show their age a bit. Swirling projections added after-the-fact are a distraction that only further dates these works, the choreography and original designs of which are exquisitely performed and good enough on their own.

The bulk of the second act, providing a long end to an already long evening, is made up of Jeff’s “In a Child’s Eye,” a throwback from 1985 resurrected from the archives. It’s the epic tale of a girl, Nia (Dominique Atwood), who dreams of a magical garden. She dances with a chorus of life-sized flowers and falls in love with MCare (Pierre Clark), who battles a sinister character portrayed by Joshua Ishmon. Both parish in the fight, but Nia uses her goodness to wake them. The end shows Nia sleeping, as if to imply it was all a dream… or was it?!? If this sounds a bit like a springtime “Nutcracker,” I got that too, and this work is appropriately restored with all the glitter, unitards and drama that an enchanted 1980s garden should have.

Clarke-Springer’s 2016 “Femme” and Gary Abbott’s “Desire” (1994) have a similarly vintage vibe. “Femme” saw its mainstage premiere last year, culled from material used in Deeply Rooted’s summer intensive program. Set to music by Nina Simone, several minutes of smooth, gratifying dance blending ballet and Horton with West African dance are followed by a too-fast cover of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” which asks the dancers to perform an unforgiving full tilt menage.

Soloist Rebekah Kuczma was, indeed, 10 feet tall as the voice of Grace Slick singing Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” rang out into the theater as its red velvet curtains rose for the evening’s world premiere: Clarke-Springer’s “Alice.” The stoic Kuczma appears to float, dressed in an enormous pale pink skirt which cascades to the ground. A few clear gestures emerge here – Kuczma cups her breasts, then swirls her hands over head – as if conflicted between the power and euphoria of her current situation. But like the fabled Alice in Lewis Carol’s Wonderland, it can’t last. The skirt becomes a rabbit hole which Kuczma falls through, leaving her in only a leotard. The dance is less commanding and less organized here, deeming her small in comparison with her other self, as though she’s wandering through a frenetic, psychedelic haze. You can almost picture the Cheshire Cat’s purple tail and an imposing, hookah-smoking caterpillar mocking “who are you?” at her. It’s not quite enough to be alarming – at least not yet – but this piece is certainly thought-provoking.

 Lauren Warnecke is the dance writer and critic for the Chicago Tribune