"Notified" showcases superb dancemaking with a poignant message about media fatigue

Project Bound Dance had no problem filling Links Hall, even after a venue change when it appeared that Hamlin Park Fieldhouse would not be available during a pending strike. The strike didn’t end up happening, but this five-year-old company’s annual concert did. And while I thought "Notified" would have looked beautiful in Hamlin Park’s dark, moody space, it turns out Links Hall was the perfect venue.

The evening, lasting just over an hour, began with a series of dance films from the One Hour Project, an initiative creating one-minute shorts, in an hour, at various locations all over Chicago. Project Bound dancers serve as the soloists, but the city is often the star of these films, with locations in this grouping including a non-descript alley, a run-down gas station, parks, sidewalks, an abandoned warehouse lot, and in the lake. Yes, actually in it: dancer Rachel Molinaro began Laura David’s film “Tea Time” sitting in Lake Michigan.

The main event, however, was the evening’s title work, “Notified,” a meaty dance developed over more than a year. I saw an excerpt of “Notified” last year, and it’s always exciting to see that a promising preview is not even the best of what a full-length work has to offer.

Before it began, co-artistic director and co-choreographer Emily Loar came out to tell us to turn our phones on, and bring up the volume. Loar and co-choreographer Ashley Deran were hoping for dings, pings and ringtones to interrupt the evening and become part of the sound score. (A disclosure: Ashley Deran and I have co-produced concerts in the past.) They inevitably did, and I felt a pang of panic as my own iThing rang from its usual spot in my purse.

That sense of anxiety, and the almost insatiable desire to check and see who was calling, is a lot of what “Notified” is about. Deran and Loar, who also performs in this sextet, draw from real-life gestures like swiping, liking, and mouse clicks as Ericka Ricketts’s sound score brings a deluge of sounds from cyberspace: the swoosh of sending an email, a high-pitched text message ding, the bleep bloops of a download completing, and so on.

This pattern goes on in unison for quite a long time, strictly adhering to the thumping pulse of Ricketts’s score, which includes found material from The Books, Arthur Lyman, 90sFlav, Philip Glass and Holly Hendon. But it’s not a hodgepodge, and like the score, “Notified” has transitions and concrete chapters, but tells a complete idea from beginning to end.

From those gestures comes full-bodied, hearty dance phrases, which ebb and flow in intensity. Such energetic oscillations can be frustrating, but here, it’s whip smart, leading toward a satisfying climax before dancers Loar and Alix Schillaci are left alone on stage, in isolating light (by Angela Kvitek, who pulled off an unbelievably sophistocated design for Links Hall), to the sound of call ringing in. “Hello?” one says in silence. “Hey,” says the other. “It’s me.”

That is the end, but it's not the only dialog. Some of the vignettes: There’s a series of bored selfie sessions, the frantic hustle of Instagram and YouTube vloggers gunning for likes and subscribers, and a gorgeous moment for Molinaro as her cast mates wrap her in ethernet cable, phone wires and a single desktop mouse. They stuff newspapers down the back of her shirt, and put headphones over virtual reality glasses. As she reaches for her phone, they tuck magazines under her arms and, the piece de resistance, plop a huge computer monitor into her arms.

While “Notified” primarily concentrates on Millennial and Gen Z era distractions, the point is, we’ve always dealt with media saturation. The platform has changed, but as a kid who grew up in the ‘80s, the idea of “screen time” isn’t foreign to me. The question of too much information or not enough has always hung in the balance. The difference, perhaps, is that we’re more connected than ever, and yet we really struggle with human connection. Teens are having less sex, doing less drugs, and drinking less alcohol, because they aren't hanging out—they're on their phones instead. While “Notified” has its cast desperately asking us, the audience, to “like and subscribe,” they rarely interact with each other. Duets leave one dancer staring ambivalently off into space, for example, as the other vies for attention by nuzzling at her partner or rolling over top of her.

But it’s worth repeating that these more theatrical moments are framed by inventive choreography and crisp, clean, technical dancing. Knowing them, I'm tempted to think it’s Loar who contributed the quirkier moments, while Deran is a formalist, but it’s honestly hard to tell who made what. And the clear presence of rock solid composition—something almost wholly absent in a lot of dancemaking lately—digs an exciting and unique foothold for this company on the rise.