The Hot Crowd modern dance company kicks off their fifth season with a weekend-long “Spring Concert” at The Greenhouse Theater Center. The program features several works of repertory by founder Emily Rayburn and current co-director Brittany Latta, and two world premieres by Sam Crouch and Katie Carey. In a pre-show introduction, co-director Devon Lloyd tells a story that’s become familiar of the small, burgeoning dance company who wouldn’t let even a global pandemic keep them down. Instead, they are more upbeat than ever, with Lloyd boasting of an impressive “84 lifts” in the evening’s performance!
“Who’s A Good Boy?” is a work by Rayburn that was originally set to premiere in 2020, but was canceled due to COVID restrictions, and is presented here as a pseudo-premiere. The work is 20 minutes of dancers acting like puppies in different scenarios, like at training school or romping around a dog park. Each new scenario is accompanied by music such as “How Much is that Doggie in the Window” and “Tijuana Taxi.” Dressed in brown tank tops and tan pants, small groups of two or three “pups” frolic, fight, tussle and tumble with one another. Thick multicolored and braided dog-chewing ropes are used in every way imaginable, as swings, in tugs-of-war, as batons, or to pull each other across the length of the floor. Doggy mannerisms like tongue-wagging, butt-scooting, “scratch that itch” leg-shaking and a hint of butt-sniffing are used as motifs that recur throughout the piece. There are moments when the music cuts out completely. Lit only by a top light, ominous shadows and the uncomfortable silence turns the dancers’ puppy pantomimes from light playfulness to a dark absurdity. During these moments, I expect some deeper meaning to emerge, like how an innate, childlike innocence leaves one susceptible to mindless obedience, but none ever does.
The next three works are all part of a larger piece titled “Green Oxygen” choreographed by Latta in collaboration with the dancers and featuring music by Jordan Hamilton. In “Part 3: Corporate America," three up and coming business executives dressed in white button-down shirts, black pants and green socks attempt to climb the corporate ladder—using each other as the rungs. They appear almost always at different heights, snaking and slithering around and through each other, sometimes climbing up on the others’ backs only to be shrugged off and sent back to the bottom. In “Part 4: The Unbalanced Love Triad,” a couple played by Lloyd and Camryn Babcock argue over finances of a more personal nature. It begins and ends with the pair hunched over a bare table, the dance in between serving as a metaphor for their conversation. The two lift and climb over each other, taking turns spinning the other around while performing arabesques and battements, each trying to gain the upper hand over the other, though neither ever does. In “Part 5: [Re] imagine,” the full company of dancers create shapes and forms with their bodies—like arms with palms rising up into a “V,” or a lunging warrior’s pose—while their attitudes loosely resemble the fast-paced lyrics in the music, like hands covering eyes at the mention of the word “facts.”
“That Day,” a world premiere by Crouch is the embodiment of friendship. Bodies dressed in burnt orange pants and white tank tops are lifted and carried, doing floating summersaults through the air like distant clouds rolling by on the wind. The dancers form a crowd that naively pays attention the happenings. One of them breaks free, clearly disturbed. She writhes on her back and pushes herself halfway across the width of the floor, later gripping her side in pain. A friend takes notice of the suffering, but violent spasms keep her at arm’s length. Not quite sure how to diffuse the situation, the compassionate onlooker circles around, acting as a tense and ready countermeasure should things get too out of hand. While the premise is simple, the variations on the theme of friendship are multifaceted and mature, and the control exhibited by the dancers made each interaction feel tender and heartfelt.
“Bad Apples” by Carey is another premiere and presents a refreshing change in tone, lighting and spatial perspective. The dancers are awash in red lighting and plunged into dark shadows, disappearing and reappearing, creating an eerie visual effect. Several moments stand out as delightfully disturbing, like when a few dancers catch a ball that turns into fruit that they bite, lick and devour. Other striking moments see dancers snapping their arms like crocodile jaws at a dangling overhead prey, or when a tight trio perform a series of on-the-floor, backwards crawls, punctuated with an arched, spider-like leg extending overhead and a spindly arm unfurling out. It is clear in the work that the dancers are fighting their inner demons but leaves the question of if they will be able to overcome them to the imagination.
“Midwestern Kindness” is a work by Rayburn set to an old solo recording of Robert Johnson singing “Sweet Home Chicago.” We again find the familiar theme of three friends, dressed in ripped jeans and unbuttoned flannel shirts, tumbling and twisting around each other, rolling on the floor together and lifting each other up with glee. The lifts, more playful than others in the show, are a bit clunkier and boxier, often prefaced with a brief pause, perhaps due to the more laid-back nature of the work. A highlight comes in the form of a log roll that has the three dancers in tight formation, rolling over and under each other, producing the effect of a conveyor belt, or the surface of a rolling river. After an evening of bonding and horseplay, the trio shake hands and depart company, just another night hanging out in the Midwest.
“Millennials,” also by Rayburn, is about, who else, people of the “Millennial” generation. The program claims that the work portrays Millennials by lieu of their stereotypes, e.g., a sense of entitlement and a proclivity towards technology, but the work is not really that critical, and is, again, mainly about pairs and groups of friends being supportive of one another. For the last piece in the program, the energy level is spectacularly high—they even have the stamina to perform a circuit of jumping jacks mid-dance! Bungee cord lifts have dancers barely touching the ground before they are whisked away again, and one dancer is launched high in the air in a cradled pose. A duet between Latta and Lloyd is similar in style to other partnering work in the program—tumbling, rolling, grasping at wrists—but their connection with each other appears so genuine that they radiate an internal brilliance into the audience, ending their duet interlude with a new lift that has Latta curling around the back of Lloyd’s torso while she gently rocks from side to side. What I thought would be a scathing critique turned out to be a delightfully positive affirmation of humanity, which, as a Millennial myself, I whole heartedly approve.
Despite subject matter that was mostly homogenous, Hot Crowd stands out for their sense of positivity and quirkiness, and for the capable execution of movement exhibited by the dancers. To see the stamina in their bodies and the joy on their faces, you would never guess that the company has not performed live in two years, and it is clear to me that that time was put to good use in preparation for the return to in-person performance. With momentum this great, if more varied avenues of creativity are explored, it is easy to foresee Hot Crowd becoming a formidable force in the Chicago dance scene.