South Suburban Ballet 5:8 Looks to Heaven and Earth for Inspiration

Every so often, Ballet 5:8 ventures into Chicago, sharing what might be the suburbs’ best kept dance secret. But it won’t be long until Ballet 5:8 is a secret to no one. The seven-year-old, faith-based professional ballet company is a decidedly robust operation serving dance fans and students across the south suburbs of Frankfort, Palos Heights and Beverly, and in Valparaiso, IN. 

In a two-act performance at the Athenaeum Theatre Oct. 20-21, the company looked to heaven and earth for inspiration, reviving artistic director Julianna Rubio-Slager’s “Four Seasons of the Soul” for the evening’s first half and premiering new work called “The Space in Between” in the second. 

The familiar strains from Max Richter’s reimagining of Antonio Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” began to play, and indeed, this music is fodder for dancing. At this point, the piece has been used more than enough, but it’s still beautiful and provides an opportunity to draw some comparisons. Coincidentally, for example, Chicago Repertory Ballet artistic director Wade Schaaf created a one-act to the same music in 2014, although these two mid-size Chicago-area ballet companies share little when it comes to choreographic approach and style. 

Rubio-Slager’s choreography in “Four Seasons of the Soul” is more measured and traditional; she follows her music’s notes and phrases carefully rather than abandoning the specificity of Vivaldi for Richter’s minimalist flow, as others have done before her. 

There’s an adherence to convention in Lorianne Barclay’s waistcoats and beautiful tutus, too, though their knee-length tulle suggests a subtle rebellion that occupies a space somewhere between the romantic and classical periods. The same goes for the yellow “hula hoop” tutus in the Summer variations, which play well with the more modern style of the choreography in this section. 

For the second act, Rubio-Slager created a new ballet, “The Space in Between,” based on C.S. Lewis’s novella “The Great Divorce.” Lewis famously wrote novels which explored Christian themes, the most popular of which is probably “The Chronicles of Narnia.” 

In “The Great Divorce,” residents of a grim and downtrodden place called Grey Town take a bus ride to heaven. Once there, the lost souls of Grey Town – a metaphor used to symbolize hell – meet spirits who try to convince them to repent and remain in heaven. 

It’s a much more complicated tale, evidenced by a long synopsis in “The Space in Between’s” program notes. And while these details are important to understanding Lewis’ religiosity and its real-world application, it’s quite challenging, and perhaps unnecessary, to flesh all of this out as a ballet. Each locale – Grey Town, the bus ride, and Heaven – are crystal clear and exceptionally well done through the use of light, minimal props and atmospherics (by Rubio-Slager and Michael Goebel). I don’t know that trying to cram all of Lewis’ allegory into a one-act ballet serves it well, though maybe the references to certain characters and plot lines are more transparent to those familiar with the story (I’m not). What I got was a somewhat muddled plot with gorgeous settings housing beautiful, well-danced choreography. 

It’s easy to feel the heart of this company and the passion that resonates from its mission. But let’s be clear: Ballet 5:8 is not a feel-good liturgical dance company. These are serious, talented dancers, particularly the company’s excellent lead artists Stephanie Joe, Brette Benedict and Antonio Rosario. And their director is not holding back, making challenging work that stretches their technique and partnering skills to the max and provides dance fans with options for good quality professional ballet outside the city limits.