New Dances is New Again, at the Newly Refurbished Ruth Page

Last year, Melissa Thodos announced a change in strategy for Thodos Dance Chicago (TDC), the organization she led for 25 years. The ensemble-based dance company disbanded after a final performance with the Auditorium Theatre’s “Made in Chicago” dance series. Everyone figured that July’s “New Dances” at the Athenaeum Theatre would likewise put a cap on the initiative, a 30-plus-years-old important incubator for emerging contemporary choreographers.

Yes, I’ve had my complaints about “New Dances.” The format invited Thodos company members to create new dances (hence the name), with one guest artist on the program a year – sometimes from Chicago, sometimes not. The shows were too long, and, because of the insular nature of a project housed within a single dance company, the works often had a same-same vibe. That said, each year a few high-quality works inevitably emerged from the pack, some to be added to TDC’s repertoire.

It didn’t really seem possible for TDC to continue the initiative without a roster of dancer/choreographers from which to pull, so it was surprising to hear a few months ago that “New Dances,” indeed, was coming back. The key to success is TDC’s partnership with a new collaborating partner, DanceWorks Chicago, and the return of the series to the elegantly remodeled Ruth Page Center for the Arts – at which DanceWorks is a company in residence.

The change not only ensures that the series continues, but all the kinks have been ironed out, too: Rather than drawing from any one company, “New Dances” is now a community affair, providing opportunities for six independent choreographers to create works on a community cast. While Friday’s opening included familiar faces – with a gaggle of DanceWorks and ex-TDC dancers among the cast of 16 – it’s safe to say this year’s “New Dances” was refreshingly diverse.

Opening the program, “Ondulation,” choreographed by DanceWorks dancer Katlin Michael Bourgeois, begins in silhouette, each of the five dancers wearing casual street clothes – rompers and stretch pants, mostly. Undulations through their torsos and low centers of gravity – inspired, it seems by the djembe rhythms of Gary, Indiana-based electronic musician Jlin – slide across Ruth Page’s intimate stage. This, plus an emotional trio and hair-down solo at the end of the piece, match Bourgeois’ program note: “This is a dance about riding the waves of life.”

It’s one of only two pieces to offer an intention in the program; the other is J’Sun Howard, whose “Nearer to Arete” is about “understanding, exploring and moving toward radical hope.” The quartet is similarly in street clothes, and shares two of “Ondulation’s” cast members: Abby Ellison and Rigoberto Fernandez. Howard, more accustomed to working for years on a single project, used his two weeks in process wisely, though the beginning and middle of this piece speak more strongly than the end. They begin in a quadrilateral of light (by Jacob Snodgrass), confined to the same space but not the same movements as they advance and retreat from upstage to down. Each then dons headphones, a literal “march to the beat of your own drummer” kind of a thing. Fernandez dances salsa, Dwigth Dher R. Alaba vogues, and the two women, Ellison and Racquel Mar, do their own brands of contemporary. Magic happens when these disparate movement vocabularies meet up – “contempo-vogue” and “sals-porary” are far more interesting together than apart – a nod toward mutual understanding and appreciation of others. But when the headphones come off, it’s back to the box of light – the sense is a retreating, rather than advancing toward the goal of “radical hope.” Is it an unhappy ending, or a missed opportunity? It’s hard to say.

Shannon Alvis and Braeden Barnes bookend Howard’s “Arete” in the second half, and these are the danciest dances of the night. Alvis offers a quartet: “Heartsong.” Recent works (namely “Sunrise” and “Trees, Melody”) have positioned the women as feeble and gooey, helpless and literally draped over their male partners; in contrast, “Heartsong” is refreshingly egalitarian (even down to the costumes), and strongly danced by Sarah Jones, Cameron Lasater, Duoduo Wang and Imani Williams.

Barnes’ “Causality” is the apt closer, a sweeping group work that eats up every inch of the stage; it feels like at any moment the dancers could swan dive out to us and crowd surf (thankfully, they don’t). Most memorable is the end of this piece: a rendition of Nina Simone’s chilling “Wild is the Wind.” A series of duets unfolds here; one could liken it to “cutting in” at a social dance as they trade partners again and again. But the pas de deux are noticably unemotional, curiously juxtaposing the soulful quintessence of Nina Simone. Somehow, it feels appropriate; lovey-dovey duets would have been cloying here.

Chris Johnson’s “shift in•tensions” and Anna K. Long’s “Florida, man” mark a strong departure from the typical “New Dances” aesthetic, a sign that the move toward an open call for choreographers is broadening the scope of the project – in the best way. Long’s Gaga-inspired homage to the sunshine state starts out, hysterically, with a Hawaiian-shirt clad Jade Monet Hooper in a goofy parade of one. It gets darker, and weirder, from there, as Hooper is met by four bathing beauties crawling on hands and knees, stripping her of her loungewear to join them in their swimsuits. It feels like an episode of Planet Earth (sort of): under the glossy veneer of the beach and ocean’s surface is a bizarre world of rarely seen or unidentified invertebrates – who, apparently, also do model walks on the ocean floor. Johnson’s effort is as deliberately curious as “Florida, man,” though more tempered, cautious, digestible.


Lauren Warnecke is the dance writer and critic for the Chicago Tribune.