Snazzy, jazzy, sleek and chic, Giordano Dance Chicago (GDC) opened its fall season last night (7:30 PM, Harris Theater, through Saturday, October 27) with its trademark pizzaz in a slam-dunk program of repertory favorites and a brand new show-stopper.
This season’s theme and title, “Live in the MOMENT(UM)” did just that to create the perfect feel-good antidote for troubled times. But for GDC, feel-good doesn’t mean shallow or fluffy by any means. True to its mission to expand the scope and definition of jazz dance as a concert dance idiom, the company continues to push the envelope with cutting edge choreography that explores both substantive ideas and challenging movement.
Add to that a company of dancers that just doesn’t quit on exuberance, technical virtuosity, performance polish, and an infectiously transcendent spirit of ensemble, and you have a date night that leaves you, at least temporarily, a little more optimistic about the human condition.
It’s notable that the company shows increasing attention to the integration of dramatic intention with choreographic structure, a sign of artistic maturity that illuminates older repertoire with new depth. The company just keeps getting better.
The evening of five distinctive but complementary pieces builds organically toward Ray Leeper’s commissioned world premiere, “Soul,” which closes the program with a bang. Teasing the program open is the welcome return of former Hubbard Street Dancer Mark Swanhart’s “Sidecar” (2004), a quirky blend of avant garde theatrics, dance comedy, and dark humor reminiscent of Joel Gray’s emcee in “Cabaret.” Over-the-top facial expressions and upside-down lifts of stiff-bodied circus ballerinas with splayed legs and flexed feet combined with tumbling, a kind of grotesque waltz parody, and the organ grinder atmosphere of a circus gone slightly haywire. Section two morphed into a flirty rock’n roll parody, with Maeghan McHale at her theatrical best as the good-time girl, the always hopeful but never successful temptress. The final segment gives us the full-blown thrust of Giordano jazz dance, with the symmetry of crisp ensemble work in contrasting stage patterns commanding visual excitement. Refreshingly different from recent GDC repertoire, revisiting “Sidecar” is a reminder of just how versatile this company is.
Completing the first half of the program, parody and comedy also characterize two company favorites: Jon Lehrer’s “Loose Canon” (2006) and Autumn Eckman’s “Jolt” (2012).
The best parody delivers its bite with unabashed love for the object of its ridicule. In the case of “Loose Canon,” Lehrer embraces classical ballet while parodying classical form by positing the insipidly over-used Pachelbel Canon in D major and its soporific effect on the listener to create a hilarious physical representation of the music. The height of passion reaches ridiculousness in the dancers’ inability to stay awake between bouts of frenetically goofy waking up rituals. In the process, Lehrer dishes up a delicious menu of dance impulses that reinvent the music through physical orchestration. In an ultimate gesture of musical admiration, the dancers open their mouths and silent-sing Winton Marsalis’s luscious trumpet solo, as if the music were literally pouring out from their bodies, which it does!
As much as “Loose Canon” is about struggling to stay awake, Eckman’s “Jolt” never sleeps. Parodying America’s love affair with and addiction to caffeine, “Jolt” manages to entertain while depicting the human rat-race caffeine addiction supports. As many times as I’ve seen and enjoyed “Jolt,” —and this iteration is better than ever with a few subtle alterations—I always come away wishing the absolutely brilliant combination of movement and music-making of the opening section could be expanded throughout the piece. Here the dancers create their own percussion music with spoons and coffee cups and the rhythm of their bare feet. That’s not to say that the rest of the piece, set to composer Evan Bivins’ recorded original percussion score, is anything less than riveting. I especially enjoyed the dancers’ vocalizations, and Zachary Heller’s comic monologue that leads to heart-attack level overdrive with: “Do you want to see what happens when I drink the whole thing?”
Opening the second half of the program is Peter Chu’s darkly dramatic “Divided Against” (2016). Set to a brooding original electronic score by Djeff Houle, the piece’s unrelenting struggle sets the dancers against an auditory environment that seems to control them. Their plight is to toil at the job that never gets done, a dark commentary on a side of life about which the preceding pieces laugh.
Leeper’s “Soul,” aptly set to music by Gladys Knight and the Pips, Al Green, and Tina Turner, weaves classic popular dance moves, ballet chops, and mock sexy nightclub drama in a non-stop showcase for the company’s considerable depth of talent and artistic range. Stellar senior company members Maeghan McHale and Zachary Heller are at the peak of their careers, with outstanding work from the company core by Katie Rafferty, Natasha Overturff, Adam Houston, Ashley Downs, and Devin Buchanan. Company ranks are enhanced with impressive strength in newer members Jacob Frazier, Linnea Sturson Tolbert, Ryan Galloway, and senior performing associate Ari Israel.
To Leeper’s credit, the give and take of power, both choreographic and theatrical, is equally shared by men and women in “Soul.” In a heart-pumping finale set to Tina Turner’s “Rollin’ On The River,” the company pulls out all the stops, exalting each other in spectacular lifts, leaps, and general rejoicing, right on through bows and dancing into the aisles, sending the audience home on a high note.