Can they get any better? Giordano Dance Chicago keeps strengthening the ranks in an organization structured to keep the home fires burning. Sizzling, in fact.
Celebrating its 55th anniversary and going strong, this indomitable troupe served up typically knock-out performances this past weekend (March 23-4) at the Harris Theater, proof positive that a multi-tiered mentoring process is working to develop promising new talent, while senior company members like Maeghan McHale, Devin Buchanan, and Zachary Heller, among others, continue to soar, raising the bar for each other and their protégés.
So, can they get any better? Well, that depends on what you mean by “better.” And do they need to? Where does a company go, having attained the organizational stability and artistic consistency of a world class dance company? Artistic Director Nan Giordano and Executive Director Michael McStraw have brought the company to a level of success that founding director Gus Giordano envisioned, elevating jazz dance to the concert dance stage as a serious dance genre that holds its own with modern dance and ballet. Gus’s daughter Nan has not only carried the torch for her dad for over a quarter century, she has expanded the scope of his vision and the very definition of jazz dance, even eliminating the word “jazz” from the company name, lest any stereotype image of jazz dance as something akin to back-up dancers for the Bee-Gees cloud the minds of potential patrons.
The past half-century has seen a revolution in cross-pollination of dance idioms, with choreographers for classical, contemporary, jazz, and modern dance companies blurring the lines that once isolated genres, as well as their practitioners, from each other. Today, it’s a given that any aspiring professional dancer be technically trained and highly skilled in all genres, and have familiarity with gymnastics, tap, hip-hop, ballroom, and a variety of codified dance techniques, such as Graham, Horton, and Cunningham.
This holds especially true for Giordano Dance Chicago, whose choreographers hail from the worlds of commercial television, Broadway, Vegas, modern dance, contemporary, hip-hop, and ballet, and whose dancers are superbly trained technicians and artists capable of dancing the dickens out of anything that comes their way.
Unlike some past GDC seasons, with works that sometimes push the envelope ever-closer to what looks and sounds like contemporary dance, this year’s Spring season landed squarely in the center of Giordano’s tried and true jazz idiom. This season, perhaps more than recent ones, was all about the dancing, and GDC’s amazing dancers, and not as much about the choreography.
Brock Clawson’s oppositional “Give and Take" (2009), Joshua Blake Carter’s “Take A Gambol” (premiere), an homage to 50’s jazz, and Christopher Huggins’ tour de force showcase “Pyrokinesis” (2007) anchored the program with a concentration of jazz music and moves that typify GDC’s super-energized core style and high-stakes showmanship. All three pieces gave the dancers ample opportunity to dazzle, with precision triple pirouettes and tours à la seconde, sky-high extensions, breathtaking balances, and gravity-defying jetés, all with the signature pizzaz and sparkle of the Giordano brand.
Davis Robertson’s premiere, “Hiding Vera,” proved a pleasant lyric diversion that felt like sunrise on Paradise Island, with the undulating spines of bare-chested men, and the women in demure silvery halter dresses knitting space in salutary arm squiggles. High arching backs and buoyant leaps into Jacob Snodgrass’s sunlit side-lighting gave a one-note, hymn-to-the-sun ambiance to the whole affair.
Ray Mercer’s exhilarating “Tossed Around,” a company premiere in 2017, reinvented the meaning of musical chairs in a tribalistic exorcism with dangerous props. Fun as it was to watch both chairs and dancers flying across the stage, I wasn’t quite sure how the chairs figured into the group need, but they sure made for excitement. Mood shifts paired the stunning McHale and transcendent Buchanan in a striking duet, with sensual partnering that alternated sweeping leg arcs with rapturous lifts.
Excerpts from Ronen Koresh’s “Crossing/Lines” (2015) featured the company women in a show of strength and earthy solidarity to the strains of Middle Eastern music. Ari Israel, Katie Rafferty, and Meghan McHale made a sexy trio in bras and panties with splayed-leg runs flaunting sexuality and desirability reminiscent of the musical, “Cabaret,” only a little crazier. Ashley Downs and Linnea Sturson Tolbert closed the five-segment excerpt with a rousing athletic duet full of percussive kicks, tours de basques, and jumps, like punch-drunk prize fighters celebrating victory. The excerpted segments, each engaging and strongly performed, provided stylistic contrast and showcased the company’s women without quite gelling into a satisfyingly cohesive composition.
The dancers are a joy to behold, whatever the choreography, and this year’s Spring Season certainly presented a well-balanced, entertaining program. Can they get any better? It’s tempting to say just keep doing what you’re doing, and yet “getting better” may be about continuing to redefine a vision that has no limits, which requires the courage to forge new and bold creative pathways. Who knows how many different uncharted avenues await jazz dance? At 55, Giordano Dance Chicago is poised to do just that, continuing in the spirit that Gus Giordano set in motion with his innovations in technique and choreography.