LookOut at Steppenwolf shakes up the space with movement at 1700 Theatre

Aura CuriAtlas is a physical theatre company. The Spektral Quartet is a string quartet. What they have in common is movement, and Steppenwolf’s LookOut series at its cozy 1700 Theatre, just down Halsted Street from Steppenwolf’s main stage venue.

LookOut is a multidisciplinary performance series, designed to present the work of individual artists and companies that incorporate diverse forms, often combining seemingly incongruous elements, in an intimate setting. "Many of the artists we’re working with are breaking down the boundaries of form," said LookOut producers Patrick Zakem and Greta Honold in a statement to See Chicago Dance, "colliding such disparate forms as modern dance, clowning, burlesque, contemporary classical music, improvisation and theater. These genre-bending experiments are right in line with the work the LookOut Series presents year-round."

Dan Plehal is an actor, gymnast, and director. Joan Gavaler is a choreographer. Together, they co-direct Aura CuriAtlas, which blends dance, theatre and acrobatics to tell stories. Their two-hour double bill for the LookOut series presents “Dream Logic” and the Midwest premiere of “The Fool and The World,” running January 9-11.

“Dream Logic” is a collection of quirky stories that ask questions like, “What happens to the crayons that don’t get picked, or when the only seat left on the bus is completely broken?” How do crayons jockey for position to get picked, and what happens to a dream when it loses its dreamer? Using a diverse range of circus, dance, and acting skills, company members pursue the answers to these questions with a lighthearted, curious and fearless dive into non-verbal storytelling.

“The Fool and The World,” set to original music performed live by composer/pianist Sophia Serghi, takes its name from the first and last of the 22 Major Arcana cards of the tarot deck. The idea of exploring the Tarot deck came from composer Serghi, who was intrigued by the use of Tarot cards for fortune telling. 

The company resourced the artwork of several different decks of tarot cards to develop movement, costumes by Christina Leinicke, and visual projections of imagery for each card. A highlight of each performance will be calling up one audience member, who will pick three cards for a spontaneous “reading” of past, present and future by the company.

“Non-verbal (storytelling) connects us to people of all backgrounds,” Plehal said in a recent phone interview with See Chicago Dance. “It’s hard to classify us. We do a lot of acrobatics, but we’re not quite circus. (We) dance, but we’re not a dance company. The human body is our best tool for storytelling.”

Unlike ACA’s innate movement orientation, Spektral Quartet takes a bold step into heretofore uncharted movement territory, presenting the world premiere of “The Space Between” for LookOut January 17 and 18.

The Chicago-based string quartet is known both for its superb rendering of traditional and contemporary classical music and for its daring forays into highly unconventional performance venues and performance concepts, designed to expand the audience’s perception of how music can function as a fundamental element of human experience.

Named Chicagoans of the Year for classical music in 2017, the Chicago Tribune described Spektral Quartet’s work as “performances that are not so much concerts as high-energy thrill rides for musically inquisitive listeners.”

The idea for “The Space Between,” in development for the past three years, began when the string quartet engaged in discussion with Western Michigan University composer-in-residence Lisa Coons. Coons was interested in the phenomenon of “social silencing,” or the exclusion or marginalization of an individual from the conversation for reasons of gender, race or other factors, and its impact on the social relationships between musicians. She brought the initial kernel of ideas and musical gestures to the discussion.

Over the past two years, those ideas evolved from the natural movement the musicians use in playing their instruments, and the subtle physical cues the musicians give each other as they shift roles of leadership and support according to the dictates of the score. Amplification of those gestures through movement, in time and space, absorbed much of the process in developing “The Space Between,” which explores not only the physical proximity of the musicians to each other, but also the impact their physical and psycho-social relationships have on their music-making.

Coons brought New York-based choreographer/director/visual artist Mark DeChiazza into the mix. “He proved to be “a wonderful collaborator,” said quartet cellist Russell Rolen in a recent interview with See Chicago Dance. “It was scary material that was asking us to interact in ways that were uncomfortable,” he said. “(We’re) a courageous group that likes to push limits, (but) this was really breaking boundaries, asking musicians to interfere with their music-making.” The intimate and personal nature of the interactions DeChiazza directed them through ultimately led to an intense sense of intimacy among the players.

In an interview with See Chicago Dance, DeChiazza described himself as always multi-faceted. “I have an odd and broad tool box,” he said of his work as a director for film and stage working frequently with non-dancers. The world of contemporary music has an “increasing appetite for extra-musical events,” he said, having also worked with Grammy Award winners Eighth Blackbird, among other musical ensembles.

For Spektral Quartet, DeChiazza was interested in finding movement that could expand and support the ideas and concepts of the music. “Playing music is a kinetic action,” he said. Capitalizing on the musicians’ innate physicality, he reflected, “There is something to giving people what they understand.” He looked at cueing, bowing, muting and how you go about expanding the movements musicians make intuitively. “The movement is extremely pedestrian.” There’s always somebody with an instrument, and the music is continuous, but at the same time, the musicians are moving about the stage, altering their spatial relationships, touching each other and each other’s instruments. DeChiazza said he took “the idea of who is taking control, how they use intention and focus, elements from their normal language” and exaggerated it in space, their instruments serving “sometimes as objects, sometimes as part of their bodies.”

There is no literal text to “The Space Between,” but “there is a narrative feel to it,” DeChiazza said. Movable rubber panels, designed by DeChiazza, “have a language of tension and collapse, order and disorder,” that create, delineate, and divide space. Manipulated by the musicians, they have a “beautiful skin-like quality that can come between things,” he said.

DeChiazza describes composer/collaborator Coons’s musical interactions as having the feel of dialogue. “The whole piece reads like a play on another planet,” he said.

Of the musicians of Spektral Quartet, he said, “they are so smart—eager to ‘get it.’"

When asked if he thinks the quartet’s new-found self-awareness will change the sound of their music, Rolen said, “I think and hope this experience will change the way we approach each other. It has made us more aware of the physical dimension.” Of one thing he was certain: “It’s gonna make an impact!”


Aura CuriAtlas performs Jan. 9-11 and The Spektral Quartet performs Jan. 17 and 18 at Steppenwolf's 1700 Theatre, 1700 N. Halsted St. Tickets are $25-$30, available by clicking the event pages below.