Men, Machines, Monsters…Oh My!; “SpringELEVEN” at Ann Barzel Theater


Show me another television show or movie about an apocalyptic dystopia full of grey, soulless automatons and I’ll yawn, but put it on stage and performed by a capable dance company… Okay, show me what you got.

The program for Visceral Dance Chicago’s “SpringELEVEN” is remarkably consistent in tone despite the inclusion of three choreographers—Gustavo Ramirez Sansano, Roderick George and Nick Pupillo. Themes of mental and physical deflation, pressures of conformity and the formation of identity are present throughout the program. But just when you think you’ve got the big picture… Wham! A twist!

Pupillo’s “Atlas” (2016) is a solid choice for a beginning. The piece gently moves you into melancholy as dancers’ bodies melt and whither in exhaustion. Their partners, ready to catch them, follow closely behind. The formerly wilting dancers shift rapidly from lunging towards the back right corner, then collapsing to the left; their partners do their best to help, one going so far as to flip their somnambulant partner upside down, grab their legs and cart them off as if pushing a human wheelbarrow.

The work presents an interesting take on the relationships between genders. Couples composed of a man and a woman find the latter fainting and falling, the man expected to catch and support. A duo between two men sees more of the same but ends with a white knuckled wrestling match rather than a swoon. The treatment of gender relations in the work leaves questions: Is this purposeful or my own projection? Would it be the same if it were a man and a woman grappling? Is there truth here?

In Sansano’s “18+1,” something sinister lies beneath the surface. Cartoonish soldiers in grey coats move in formation, boogying down to a compilation of bouncy, mambo-infused songs of Pérez Prado. Bopping. Grooving. It’s the plastic smiles on their faces that create an air of uneasiness.

If everyone is as happy as they look, why does one rebel? Dancer Laura Mendes in a red tank top appears like a beacon in the night, standing out with high kicks that almost take her own head off. Meanwhile, those in grey encircle her and continue their puerile prancing.

There’s no happy ending. Mendes is subdued and re-costumed in the grey, joining the others as they move like mimes, funhouse mirror reflections of human beings.

Visceral Dance Chicago presents "SpringELEVEN" at Ann Barzel Theater; Photo by KT Miller Photography


If you didn’t get robot apocalypse vibes from Sansano’s piece, Roderick George’s world premiere, “Man v Machine,” spells it out for you. A movie trailer-style voiceover recounts the fall of humanity to the machines, who now use the former as food à la the plot of the Matrix movies.

In this world, there are humans, machines and monsters. The smell of glycol fills the air as heavy haze rolls in from the wings. As in “18+1” they are again in formation, but the smiles are gone. Palms flex and arms twist as these man/machine hybrids test their new limbs. As soon as they are ready to march off, they are attacked by bodies held aloft, like giant snakes wriggling through the air.

Make no mistake, this is a nightmare world. But there is hope, as a few soloists break free from the mold, a standout being Nia Davis who wowed with her ability to fall hard and ricochet gracefully off the floor as if made of rubber.

“Fixation,” a world premiere by Pupillo, begins with a long white sheet stretched out and rippling the length of the stage. The wavy fabric sets the scene for another monochromatic, dystopian work; but Pupillo, ever the rogue, throws a curve ball.

The fabric is pulled away and dancers wearing tones of light sand and red earth emerge like ghosts from an inky darkness. They roll and crawl across the floor like animals. One becomes wrapped in the large fabric and drowns as if submerged in quicksand. Gone are the hesitant robots. In their place are ideal human specimens, moving quickly in multiple directions with a controlled and balletic aplomb.

In these works, the choreographic styles of Pupillo, Sansano and George are similar. In each work, the constant changes of movement and direction feel like watching scenes in a modern action movie, where the movements are so fast and precise that they whizz by you in a blur. While the choreographies lack a diversity of movement style, you may want to see the show twice to capture the impressively cohesive performance of the dancers and all the little Easter eggs in each piece.

While not the most ambitious or distinct showcase of work by Visceral, “SpringELEVEN” satisfies the urge to take in a performance that hits hard and fast, has a clear message and looks damn good.

“SpringELEVEN” runs through March 17 at the Ann Barzel Theater, 3121 N, Rockwell St. Showtimes are Fri. at 7:30pm, Sat. at 8pm and Sunday at 2pm. Tickets are $25-$60 at or by clicking the vent link below.