Hot Crowd: a dance company of cool kids with a well-defined aesthetic

The true test of any new company is not the first season, but the second. It’s easy to rally friends and family and garner support for new dance in this city; staying power is a much harder thing to develop. Formed in 2017, Hot Crowd is a company of seven dancers now faced with the uphill battle of finding its niche in Chicago’s dance landscape. And with “Internal Truce,” a two-act, mixed-repertory evening of dance through Saturday at Stage 773, I’m fairly confident they’ll find it.

Hot Crowd has an aesthetic marked by strong use of gesture and solid contemporary technique. While that is not wholly new or unexplored by Chicago’s dance scene, this gaggle of capable young dancers and makers is teeming with energy and optimism. Artistic director Emily Ashburn fills the majority of the evening, choreographing three of the six works on the program. The other three are by fellow alums of the University of Western Michigan (Izzabella Irwin, Joseph A. Hernandez and Sam Crouch), so there's a distinct vibe to the evening that feels of and by this excellent undergraduate program.

The night opens with Ashburn’s “Bill’s Poem,” a quick, mostly unison ditty set to recorded text by Bill Gordon. Gordon’s poem is a love letter to Chicago, profiling what makes it (obviously) the best city in the world, without ignoring its bumps and bruises. The piece is an exercise in gesture, toying a bit too much with literal translation of the poem – stronger when it sticks to more abstract stylings of Gordon’s words.

Irwin’s “Zemblanity!” and Hernandez’s “Embers We Hold,” complete the first act, two sextets accompanied by varied playlists which explore a range of moods. “Zemblanity!” features the company’s sole man, Crouch, circled by Ashburn, Erin Corcoran, Sam Fink, Brittany Latta and Devon Lloyd wriggling on the floor. The group wears a mish-mosh of thrift store wear from the ‘80s – sports paraphernalia, fanny packs, bold prints, etc. – coming together at the center of the stage for an ambivalent club scene of hip thrusts and gender-blind duets. This section is repeated toward the end of the piece, after the dancers have stripped to their skivvies. I thought maybe that “Zemblanity!” is a generationally-specific gaze at fitting in: the thrift store wear we chose as a matter of asserting individuality, once removed, was a shell that was hiding our similarities.

I had this thought again in the last piece, Ashburn’s “Lessons Learned,” as the almost-identical cast (Ashburn was swapped for Irwin here), danced a wholly unison phrase in matching costumes to Sammy Davis Jr.’s “I Gotta Be Me.” This is not the part of the review in which I pick on Millennials, but rather sympathize with a generation that’s been pressured into personal branding and sticking out in the crowd, contradicted by our natural desire to feel connected to a community.

This push and pull is an undercurrent I felt pulsating throughout the evening. Crouch’s “Trois” employs a chance device which mixes up the casting for each of the three shows, a tender trio for three women set to a soothing, classical score. Hernandez’s “Embers We Hold,” the most technical piece of the evening, spends its first half expressing abundant joy to a mix of djembe and drum kit, then becomes a melodramatic harangue of twitching and chest pulses. Ashburn’s “Lessons Learned,” ahead of its rousing conclusion, explores children’s games, like when Duck, Duck, Goose is used a choreographic tool to build a series of duets ranging from best buds to worst enemies.

Ashburn’s “A Hysterical Woman” might be the anomaly of the evening, and not just because it’s the only solo. A loop of “In My Room” by the Beach Boys is an apt metaphor for Sam Fink’s character as a woman on the brink of breaking. Fink enters with her back to us, wearing high-heeled stilettos and carrying a fancy hand bag. She sets her bag down, removes her heels and white trench coat, and appears a woman in control of the world – full of sex appeal and oozing with power. When she turns to face us, Fink has lipstick and black mascara dripping down her face, her dancing not-quite matching a tormented smile. It all creates a sense of lunacy (similar, perhaps to that of Brian Wilson), which we feel right alongside her, without knowing why. No matter, Fink puts her shoes and coat back on, wipes her face with a cloth handily stored in her purse, and shuffles off to face another day.

One more thing: This fledgling company called Hot Crowd has been exceptionally smart in its use of Stage 773’s Pro theater, a space I’ve often found to be comfortable for audience members, but remarkably bad for dance. The performance space, with its approximately 15-feet of depth from the apron to the back wall, has to be dealt with from the get go – and these young choreographers planned ahead, knowing the challenges of the space and creating their dances to fit perfectly. 


Hot Crowd’s “Internal Truce” closes tonight at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave. Tickets are $25, available by clicking the event page below.