Fifteen dance numbers, 31 performers, Portugal the Man, and one high-kicking teddy bear. It’s par for the course with Matter Dance Company (MDC), who presents "Once Upon" through May 4 at the Den.
In its 13th season, MDC bases this year's annual concert on fairy tales, taking audience members on an imaginative journey through castles, and woods, and cottages, and glades; channeling everything from Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf to Pygmalion in a series of fast-moving vignettes.
The evening begins with eight tapping librarians in "Dewey Decibel." These ladies return at the start of Act 2 to pass hardcovers along the chorus line as they shuffle with panache to music by Portugal the Man. It’s a hint at the bookish Belle from "Beauty and the Beast," who is among at least three other references to Disney princesses (plus the legs-for-days Patrick Justin, who wears furry wristbands alluding to Simba) on the program. But not everything here takes cues from pop culture or Disney. A gaggle of duets – “At Last, At First” choreographed by MDC co-founder Gail Adduci Goglotti, a beautiful pas de deux at the beginning of Deirdre Dillon and Michael Nolan’s Pygmalion-inspired “As It Is,” and co-founder Carisa Barreca’s Copellia-channeling “Dollmaker’s Lament” – look to slightly deeper topics, as do two driving group works – Michelle Chorski’s “Heist” and Barreca’s “Wild Hunt” – which explore the darker aspects of fairy tales.
The night is strung together with a loose narrative, recited by a voiceover while plumes of fog billow into the theater during each black out. The theater is an odd configuration, with audiences on the narrow ends of a rectangular dance space, like we're sitting in the wings. Honestly, I've yet to encounter a space at the Den ideal for dance, although this ground floor theater fares better than the tiny blackbox the company used last year. Smartly, the audience is taken into consideration by every choreographer, with the use of circles and bifurcated formations so that both sides feel taken care of. Occasionally, the dancers spread out long-ways by emoting toward the space’s pretty brick walls.
If you’ll indulge a metaphor, reader, "Once Upon" is kind of like eating dim sum on Frontier Airlines. To be fair, I just ate dim sum, but work with me here...
Audience members are packed into the Den like sardines while “Once Upon’s” many dances whiz by. If there’s something you don’t like, it’ll be over in five minutes; each dance is a bite-sized dumpling of different flavor profiles and textures.
So while there are certain discomforts in an evening at “Once Upon,” the experience is wacky, filling, and altogether pleasant. As usual, the company is well-rehearsed, their transitions are super smooth, and, like every Matter Dance show I’ve attended, there are some surprisingly poignant moments and a handful of really excellent dancers. An added benefit: plenty of cause to smile and laugh.
So, about that bear: Mid-way through the second act, Ali Keirn’s “Troupe AI-13” finds 11 dancers dressed up like toy soldiers circulating the stage. A twelfth cast member, credited in the program as Ted E. Bear, arrives to assist in what I can only guess is a battle for justice in the fight between good and evil. Mr. Bear’s plush, bouncing ears, debonair kicks and actually impressive pirouettes are, alone, worth the price of admission.
Matter Dance Company presents “Once Upon” through May 4 at the Den Theatre, 1333 N. Milwaukee Ave. Tickets are $25, available by clicking the event page below.