Review: Cinematic ‘New Dances’ embraces the choreographic constraints of COVID

I sat down with Melissa Thodos in 2017 on the eve of Thodos Dance Chicago’s final performance. We talked about how Chicago dance had changed since she started her pick up group, Melissa Thodos & Dancers, in 1992. It had gotten harder to keep up with the day-to-day of running a full-time dance company. Thodos wanted to have more freedom to spend time with her kids. Funding was more difficult to come by. By folding the company, Thodos, in a way, returned to her roots, developing a new organizational structure centered more heavily on education and artist development.

Young dancers fresh out of college flocked to Thodos, getting their feet wet in Chicago with a solid contract, teaching opportunities and the New Dances project, a summer showcase for company dancers looking to dabble in choreography. 

Under Thodos’ watch, New Dances catalyzed the choreographic careers of Jessica Miller Tomlinson, Joshua Manculich, Wade Schaff, Luis Vasquez and countless others. And by partnering with DanceWorks Chicago to continue the program from 2017 onward, New Dances stands as Chicago’s longest-running choreographic initiative of its kind.

As it became clear that restrictions on class, rehearsal and performance would extend well into the summer, New Dances carried on, determined to move ahead with a virtual production featuring six emerging choreographers: Sydney Jones, Drew Lewis, Joanna Meccia, Joe Musiel, Brian Martinez and Peyton Winker.

New Dances premiered Saturday on Facebook Live. The full program repeats June 28, with each dance released individually at various times throughout next week.

Because New Dances is, well, new, you never quite know what you’re going to get. It's always been a bit of a mixed bag, and doubling down on the newness, these young choreographers had the added challenge of folding quarantined casts, virtual rehearsals and social distancing into their creative processes. In viewing the quick and breezy hour-long event from my sofa, these six bite-sized dance films demonstrate that dance can, indeed, be compelling during COVID.

Not everyone appeared to stay strictly within the confines of the pandemic reopening plan. Martinez and Musiel opted to gather dancers together, and even do some limited partnering. It’s possible that Musiel’s cast was isolating together, making it possible to gather and dance closely together. Masterful editing spliced from separate takes could be how Martinez positioned his dancers leaning against each other on an outdoor sofa. But these choices raise questions about what dancemakers may now need to disclose about their creative solutions to working responsibly during the pandemic. It’s hard to imagine that we’d be living at a time when choreographers have to justify why their dancers are standing close to one another, but here we are.

With or without disclaimers, Martinez and Musiel offered some of the strongest works on the bill, with Musiel’s “Finding Henry” embracing a particularly cinematic approach. Aerial footage (by New Pixel Films) captures the cast traipsing through barren fields and across artful patterns naturally woven into the rural landscape. Debussy’s tender “Clair de Lune” plays, contrasted by thrashing arms and legs and peculiar mannequin parts strewn about the field. It is captivatingly beautiful, and evolves into the aforementioned indoor scene, set to a somewhat techno score with the dancers boxed in by bright, flourscent lights and a quartet of flimsy folding chairs.

Jones’ “Facing Ourselves, Facing Each Other” has an advantage in going first, since the dancers’ living rooms, dining rooms and bedrooms became go-to locations in more than half the films. Jones flips between indoors and outdoors—most interesting when she considers the horizon and tree line of the dancers’ backyard bushes—and syncs her footage to create unison phrases and side-by-side “duets” in contrasting locations. Shaky, DIY camera work, captured, according to the program, by “helpful friends and family of the cast,” adds a surprising layer of complexity to what is otherwise a run-of-the-mill, pretty dance phrase. Not that that’s entirely a bad thing; I appreciate Jones’ tenacity in having her cast dance full out in their confined, non-traditional spaces. What I question is what all that dancing is for; it seems to lack a clear focus (though there appears to be a certain amount of fixation on what would be the downstage left corner) or intention behind her movement invention.

Lewis’ “Rave/Rage” likewise relies on wide shots of his dancers’ living rooms, akin to a Zoom room, but takes a more pointed approach in his choreography. Like a Lynchian Fosse dance, the dancers lean into the quirky weirdness of their quadrilateral confinement, accentuating a hand or a hip, awkardly tip-toeing and donning brightly colored accents—a blue party hat cape, or bob-shaped wig, for example—to enliven these six strange, simultaneous, solo parties.

Like Jones, Meccia oscillates between indoor and outdoor locations in “An Idyll,” including familiar digs from previous pieces, though the cast has stripped their dwellings of much the furniture and even the wall hangings. Music by Philip Glass and Paul Leonard-Morgan contributes to Meccia's ethereal day dream, which connects the outside and inside, and various domestic spaces by passing puffy, cotton “clouds” and a delicate mobile between each of the dancers’ homes in various takes spliced chronologically.

Martinez uses a melancholy Glass score, too, in his work called “Next to the Portrait of a Red-Haired Lady.” The lady, apparently, is ginger-haired Moscelyne ParkeHarrison, who is featured prominently in solo footage of her dancing about a dark toned sofa in a stark, white, unadorned room. Repeated in retrograde at the end of the piece, the two solos sandwich a communal quartet (Jacob Buerger, Kara Hunsinger, Kara Roseborough and Imani Williams) taking place about ParkeHarrison’s couch positioned out in the park.

Recent Columbia College grad Winker rounds out the evening with “Muffled,” a more direct comment on dancing during quarantine accompanied by digital illustrations by Natalie Schneider.


New Dances continues through June 28 online. Tickets are $10-$30, available by clicking the event page below.