Join the Evolution!; “New Horizons” at Auditorium Theatre


One of the joys of being a dance writer is seeing the evolution of Chicago companies and artists. None exemplifies this process of development better than Kia Smith and South Chicago Dance Theatre (SCDT), evidenced in their latest production, “New Horizons,” presented at Auditorium Theatre on April 27.

Although this is SCDT’s seventh season, the production marks their second year of commissioning new work from artists outside the company. “New Horizons” featured world premieres by Smith, Joshua Blake Carter, Monique Haley, Terence Marling, Taiwanese choreographer Tsai Hsi Hung and the globally renowned Donald Byrd.

In “an opening,” Terence Marling shocks with a narrative twist that juxtaposes existential themes, reminiscent of Plato’s allegory of “The Cave,” about humanity’s ignorance of the true nature of reality.

Dancers dressed in jumpsuits stand in a line upstage. They twitch and twist in near darkness as electronic melodies buzz around them. They remind me of characters in a video game, each a separate life that leaps and chops their way through the same obstacle course. Dancer Chloe Chandler suffers a writhing “death animation” that pauses the scene, forcing them to restart the level.

When they move past the front legs of the proscenium and gather in a huddle atop the covered orchestra pit, one can sense an imminent change. The back curtain rises to reveal pianist Emily Barrett at a grand piano against a bright grey-colored scrim. As Debussy’s “Clare de Lune” begins, dancers strip down to nude leotards. Naked and reborn, they transformed from stiff automatons to fluid and frolicking children. Bent low, their hands brush the earth, eyes wide and jaws slack in wonderment. When one is drawn back towards the cave, the others rush towards them, place their hands upon them and gently bring them back to paradise. Like Orpheus of Greek mythology, they have managed to escape from the underworld, only they never look back.

Terence Marling's "an opening"; Photo by Michelle Reid

Tsai Hsi Hung’s “Under the Skin” turns the dial of creepiness up to maximum, with dancers appearing as demon-possessed monks in a satanic cult led by dancer Trey Alexander as the imposing high priest. Robed dancers crawl in from the wings like creatures from a Japanese horror movie. Alexander raises a straight leg high above a sacrificial parishioner, clamping down and draining their essence. The demonic disciples spar with each other, swaying, kicking and chopping like drunken boxers. The work ends with Alexander enveloped in a spotlight while reaching out—they’re coming for you!

Lighting Designer Julie E. Ballard outdoes herself in “Under the Skin,” using the full might of the Auditorium’s lighting plot to create a large, red “X” across the length of the backdrop that pops out against purple hues and a thick haze, the perfect complement to Hung’s macabre machinations.

Equally chilling is Kia Smith’s “Surrender,” which has a tightly packed group of dancers jerking sharply like zombies to what sounds like gunshots, screams and creaking doors. Fingers curl, beckoning. Heads grotesquely fold towards their stomachs. It’ a congregation of the walking dead!

Another twist, less dramatic than Marling’s, offers hope. The music shifts from a nightmare soundscape to Antonio Vivaldi’s “Winter” and the movement becomes less jerky and more lyrical. Dancers Trey Alexander and Brodie Wolf engage in a touching duet that has each large dancer lifting the other into the air, kicking their legs like rambunctious children and floating like celestial objects that match the crescendo of violins. Like Marling’s piece, “Surrender” ends with a hand beckoning under a spotlight. The conclusion is not a threat but a sign of redemption.

Donald Byrd’s “It Begins” appropriately opened the show and served as a warmup for both dancers and audience. The work is noticeably pedestrian, i.e. lots of walking—in circles, on and off stage and in intricate patterns—like the runway of a fashion show but on steroids. To a soundtrack that sounds like a 1980’s sci fi/thriller sound score, small groups wearing toned down primary colors break out in a high-spirited canon performed by Trey Alexander, Jack Halbert and Brodie Wolf. “It Begins” is a fine example of postmodern dance that defies audiences’ expectations and goes where it wants to go.

Donald Byrd's "It Begins," with Brodie Wolf; Photo by Michelle Reid

Exuberant shouts erupted from young audience members at the start of Monique Haley’s “Soul Power.” The sound of a waterfall engulfs the room as dancers perform what looks like Eastern martial arts moves—roundhouse kicks, judo body throws. The voice of Maya Angelou begs them to “Come… But seek no heaven. Come… Rest here by my side.”

As the music changes to bass-driven funk, the tone shifts to African-inspired movement. With chests parallel to the floor, dancers flap their arms birdlike then rest with torsos heaving up and down. Unfortunately, large sections seem under-rehearsed, with dancers either anticipating or lagging behind the beat of the music, giving the piece a work-in-progress feel. I would love to see this piece again with a little more polish.

If Byrd’s “It Begins” was their warm-up opener, Joshua Blake Carter’s “Infinity Engine” is a fitting climax. The entire company goes full out. Fast-paced changes in spacing lead to a couple dancers leaping high into the air with legs curled in hyperextended splits before flopping violently to the floor. The spectacle elicited numerous “ahs” and “ohs” from the audience. The piece ends with the company marching in side-to-side skips while shouting “hup, hup, hup”; this was just the preamble, now… To war!

SCDT continues to amaze and delight with new works that inspire awe and reflection. Whether you’re a veteran fan of dance or a relative “noob,” or just want to see something hip and cool, Smith and company has something for everybody. Constantly honing its craft, South Chicago Dance Theatre’s “New Horizons” is like a call to action to “Join the evolution!”

For more information on South Chicago Dance Theatre, click the company link below.