Skilled renegades of CRB offer fresh take on 'Macbeth'

Chicago Repertory Ballet’s “Macbeth” opened last night at the historic Athenaeum Theatre, and it was freakin’ great. 

This was my first exposure to CRB and the choreography of Wade Schaaf, founder and artistic director of the eight-year old company. Delivering a charming curtain speech whose main purpose was to show off his all-too-appropriate black leather kilt, Schaaf was supremely at ease on stage. Gracious, gleaming, and gigantic—standing well over six feet tall— he demonstrated in that brief amount of time a self-assuredness, humor, and vibrancy that welcomed us in to his sphere. This was not the stuffy and self-conscious scene of more traditional ballet worlds, nor was it overly casual or lackadaisical. Instead, this was an invitation to a community of dedicated dancers, designers, technicians, and supporters who love contemporary ballet and are looking for a fresh take on the form. 

Schaaf’s choreography offered tried and true classical lines, lifts, and allegros alongside the straddles, deep lounges, and inversions more commonly associated with virtuosic contemporary/modern dance techniques. The combination of styles, as well as his use of narrative gesture and character acting, offered effective storytelling and drama. 

But this was not drama in the capitol “D,” groan-worthy sort-of-way (although we are talking about Shakespeare’s “Macbeth”). Most of us know the story already, or at least brushed up on the Wiki-gist of it ahead of time, so we weren’t necessarily dependent on the choreography to tell us what was happening. Nevertheless, I was impressed with how succinctly he summarized the plot and depicted the complexities of the characters, even the minor roles, through expertly staged and terrifically danced choreography. There is a lot of ground to cover in this story—war, witches, kings, children, wives, murder, madness— and Schaaf nailed it with his precise and distinctive vision. 

A large part of what moved the story along and provided the essential macabre tension in the work was the excellent projection design by John Pobojewski of Thirst Design. His was a modern animation notable for its clean lines and mid-century style. The trees in the formidable Scottish forest, for example, were thin, dense, and rectangular and King Duncan’s “castle” in the background looked more Mies van der Rohe than Balmoral. Schaaf’s minimalist set design, constructed by Leonard Prange, consisting of white, modular cubes that were constantly rearranged by the dancers and two white ramps flanking the upstage sides, were perfect additions to this streamlined, contemporary look. (Not to mention, economical; way to make the most out of a presumably tight budget.) Pobojewski kept effectively relentless streams of rain and wind upon the scene and just when things seemed to be lightening up for the players, dripped and oozed blood from the concrete walls reminding us of a treasonous past and an impending doom. Even the projection’s over-the-top moments— toy soldiers, helicopters, explosions, and obvious yet hard-to-read key words from Shakespeare’s text— were sort of cheeky and fun. 

I should mention the awesome sound design, also credited to Schaaf, that contributed to the overall atmosphere with howling wind and wolfs, hooting owls, chanting voices à la Rosemary’s Baby and an occasional pounding heart beat that would give Edgar Allen Poe the creeps. He blended these sound effects seamlessly with melodic music (accredited to whom I’m not sure, as it wasn’t listed in my program) that supported the dancers through their pas de deux, ballroom scenes, manipulations, and murder.  

Speaking of the dancers: this company is strong. Professional, nuanced, fully-embodied, and well-trained, these performers worked terrifically together as an ensemble. Yes, the lead characters of Lord Macbeth and Lady Macbeth played by Django Allegretti and Miriam-Rose LeDuc, respectively, were great but I was particularly taken by Felicity Nicholson in the role of Banquo. Playing a traditionally male role, Nicholson triumphed among the men with her lofty leaps and puffed up portrayal of a solider turned defender of the King turned vengeful ghost. She maintained her stamina dancing fully and energetically throughout the entire three-act ballet and gave the most convincing performance of (spoiler alert) death-by-strangulation I’ve seen on stage. Bravo. Also notable were lusciously long-limbed Mickey Erickson as King Duncan and the statuesque and graceful Sarah Marley as Lady Macbeth’s Shadow. I look forward to seeing more of them in the years to come. 

Actually, I look forward to seeing everything CRB has in store for us in the coming seasons. If I had one desire for Schaaf and this company it would be for them to take even more risks. Schaaf clearly has a strong vision, a sense of self, and a keen eye for invention, movement, content, and form. But I sense that he can push further and defy the conventions even more. We need skilled renegades nowadays, so don’t tiptoe into the fringe, just go ahead and leap. 


Chicago Repertory Ballet's "Macbeth" continues through Sunday at the Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport Ave. Tickets start at $25, with Hot Deals available by clicking the event page below.