Returning to live, Winifred Haun & Dancers provides comforting catharsis grounded in traditional rigor

Winifred Haun and Dancers came back to the theater this weekend for the first time since the pandemic began to celebrate athletic dance on a safe, wide-open marley floor—and to celebrate the almost-forgotten experience of gathering beneath familiar walls with unfamiliar faces to enjoy live performance. “When Day Comes and Other Dances” took the audience through the company’s long legacy with a new premiere, restaged works and a cameo by Banks Performance Project (founded by Winifred Haun alumna Elysia Banks).

Although the decades-old company presented works that spanned back only as far as 2011, it takes mere seconds watching their work to see the lineage of movement style, artistry and execution that spans back to 20th century American modern dance practices. “Finding The Light” opened the performance with clear nods to Martha Graham, despite being choreographed earlier in 2021. Soft, warm lighting by Julie Ballard (who designed the entire evening) faded up to reveal the entire company onstage moving toward the audience on a diagonal. The dancers cycled at different times through a sequence of sweeping Doris Humphry’s falls to the floor and rotations on one leg as the other leg held high in angular bent attitudes. The dancers circled into a seated position around Jacinda Ratcliffe, their legs twisted into Graham’s iconic “fourth position” on the floor.

It’s no surprise that this style of technique would be the backbone for each of the company’s pieces presented. Haun’s background is with the historic and celebrated Joseph Holmes Chicago Dance Theatre. And rehearsal director Deb Goodman worked directly with the Martha Graham Dance Company and acclaimed artist, Yuriko. The company members uphold this legacy with flawless technical ambition that left me wanting to take a dance class just to feel that deep stretch and muscular opposition in my own body. 

Highlights of the evening include the complex, risky lifts and partnering that made their way into each of the Winifred Haun works, a full-company moment in “Your Nearest Exit May Be Behind You” where two diagonal lines of dancers shift geometrically up and down the stage through captivating shapes and poses and the opening moment of “When Day Comes, part 1.” Lights came up in “When Day Comes” to a breath-catching image of Summer Smith standing above a long white sheet that covered Julia Schaeffer’s body, in silence, if I remember correctly. This visual set the tone for the rest of the piece, at once calling to mind the gravity of death and the hope for rebirth.

“Disquiet,” a contemporary solo presented by Banks Performance Project and choreographed by BPP founder and director Elysia Banks, provided a welcome juxtaposition to Haun. Dancer Natalie Dellutri preserved the technical approach of the rest of the evening, while adding fluidity and gestural details typical to Banks Performance Project. Long leg extensions opposed the fluidity of fast-paced, rolling movements that heightened my adrenaline and captured my focus. I appreciate this model of providing visibility of another company in Haun’s performance, especially knowing this collaboration will continue into another performance in May 2022.

There were moments, like the beginning minutes of “Trashed (excerpt),” where the formalness with which Vernon Gooden and Crystal Gurrola transitioned in and out of stylized, flex-footed lifts that contradicted Leon Bridges’ buttery voice—making me feel disconnected from the work. It wasn’t until the dancers began to fatigue and shake and struggle to perform the ongoing series of complex partnering and lifts (from an athletic standpoint, very impressive) that I began to feel a genuine connection in the push and pull relationship of these partners.

In watching the premiere of “When Day Comes, part 1,” I appreciated the artistry and rigor that comes with deep study of codified movement technique, where the emphasis on shapes, musculature and formal execution of the movement provided a physical embodiment and visual escape from a work focusing on grief and rebirth. I did not feel forced to relive the discomfort of the past two years, but instead felt invited to recall an echo of the pandemic’s pain with a blanket of comforting catharsis.

And in moments of calm, like when Gooden spiraled to the ground at the end of “Trashed,” wrapping his arms around Gurrola, I caught a glimpse of deep, honest emotion that will stick with me for a while. Through dim lighting, I saw Gooden’s face sweaty and exhausted—with eyes reaching out to the audience both asking for support and sending out ferocity. That moment and a few others filled me with the intimacy and impact I’m always seeking when I watch live dance performance.


Winifred Haun and Dancers performs “When Day Comes and Other Dances” again tonight, Oct. 2 at the Ruth Page Center For the Arts, 1016 N. Dearborn St.. Tickets begin at $35 with the additional option to take class before tonight’s show. Tickets are available by clicking on the event link below.