A couple months ago, I first saw the trailer for choreographer Rena Butler's then-untitled dance film which would be opening Hubbard Street Dance Chicago's 43rd season. I was intrigued not only because the work would be Hubbard Street's first virtual season premiere, but because its narrative core was expressed through the perspective of two fellow native Southsiders: Butler and filmmaker Talia Koylass. Later aptly named "A Tale of Two," Butler's new work shines light on Chicago's "extreme cultural dichotomy," as she describes it, using athletic choreography and cinematography as well as a pulsing original score by composer Darryl Joseph and wistful songs by vocalists Shawnee Dez and Alencia Norris.
The 25-minute, eight-section world premiere is masterfully performed by the full HSDC company including Jessica Tong (their newly appointed associate artistic director), and Jonathan Emanuell Alsberry (HSDC artistic liaison). Shot entirely outdoors at parks across the city, Butler's overall vision for the pandemic-era production was "keeping the social distance and still making work that is about connectivity and community," she said in a pre-show introduction to the film. "A Tale Of Two" is also heavily inspired by the work of the Black/Brown youth-led anti-violence organization GoodKids MadCity. Butler further explained that the film essentially is an ode to all the kids (including herself) who've had to learn to differentiate between the sound of fireworks and gunshots during summers in Chicago.
The film's opening sequence, "Black Butterfly," features dancers playing on a jungle gym and slide, then transitions from color to black and white for the film’s first sign of dancing, featuring a lovely acoustic performance by vocalist Norris. This scene gently and effectively sets the dichotomous tone for the rest of the production. The second scene, called "Pandemonium," explodes in living color with the dancers commandeering an open field, bolstered by Joseph's thumping electronic footwork-inspired track and Koylass' deft editing. This scene is also where a recurring "hands up, don't shoot" movement coda is introduced.
Those early scenes feature the full company, but there are memorable trios and quartets too. Among the standouts was the penultimate sequence, "Red Light, Green Light," featuring vocalist Dez. It efficiently evokes the eponymous childhood game and the adult implications of social (im)mobility it belies. The closing scene, "Revolution,” is a montage of the film's previous scenes and ends with the question, "What is your call to action?"
Forever the process nerd, I stuck around for the post-show talk with Butler, Joseph and Koylass. Learning about the organic alignment of vision and purpose among these collaborators, combined with their collective authenticity and artistic prowess (there was not one unnecessary shot), "A Tale Of Two" is yet another testament to the powerful trifecta of Black activism, artistry and collaboration— behind and in front of the camera.
Hubbard Street Dance Chicago's "A Tale of Two" continues through Sunday online. Tickets are free, with reservations required. For more details visit hubbardstreetdance.com or click the event page below.