Stomping Grounds finale honors Dame Libby, five other percussive dance divas

Chicago Human Rhythm Project’s (CHRP) “Stomping Grounds” wrapped up its fifth annual city-wide festival with a rousing Grand Finale at the Harris Theater Friday, featuring a melting pot of percussive dance representing the cultural traditions of Mexico, Spain, India, Ireland, Africa, and America.

The entire evening was dedicated to beloved Chicago dance icon, Dame Libby Komaiko. The founder of Ensemble Español Spanish Dance Theater passed away earlier this year. Five additional women, one from each of the other Stomping Grounds participating companies, were also honored for their support of the percussive dance field for almost half a century, including Pamela Crutchfield (CHRP), Amaniyea Payne (Muntu Dance Theatre of Chicago), Hema Rajagopalan (Natya Dance Theatre), Matie Ovalle (Mexican Folk Dance Company of Chicago) and Kim Niewiedzial (Trinity Irish Dance Company).

Documentary-style videos of each of the honorees framed the live performances, with an introduction by CHRP founder and director Lane Alexander, who set the tone for the evening with a message of rhythm as a universal language forging connections across cultures and across Chicago’s neighborhoods.

Ensemble Español’s audience pleaser from previous seasons, “Mar de Fuego,” choreographed by Carlos Rodriguez, opened the program with a Flamenco/modern fusion that combines signature Flamenco hands, footwork and rhythms, with contemporary upper body torso isolations, spirals and pirouettes. This year, the piece built in drama to a culminating montage of the entire ensemble focused upstage toward a giant projected image of Dame Libby, smiling down on them.

Hema Rajagopalan’s Natya Dance Theatre offered two group pieces, “Stri Shakthi—W.E. The Women,” and “SamishTi—The Power of Connection,” both choreographed by Rajagopalan. In both pieces, the combination of precise, small body rhythms between feet, hands and fingers, and large-body gestures of arms and torso creates visual interest with fascinating musical accents in rhythm-based spatial design.

Trinity Irish Dance Company’s Act 1 “Communion,” choreographed by company director Mark Howard, is an intriguing à cappella piece employing the gentle sounds of body slapping, finger-clicking, soft-shoe shuffles and scuffles, and the ensemble of young women’s voices, chanting a liturgy of unknown origin. The company’s Act 2 familiar “Soles”, also choreographed by Howard, returns to the more typical Trinity spectacle of lightning-fast auditory footwork, some on the tips of their toes, and daunting rhythms to the traditional sounds of Irish drum and guitar.

The swirling skirts and flashing swords of the Mexican Folk Dance Company of Chicago filled the stage with color and polished flare in “State of Nayarit/Raiz Viva Living Root.” The pageantry and elaborate feathered headdresses and ankle rattles of “Aztec Ritual Dance” compensated for a less-assured ensemble of younger dancers.

Daniel Borak’s “Alien/RYTME/Fusion” for Stone Soup Rhythms is a truly innovative fusion of tap and modern dance, combining full-body gesture, swinging arms, falls to the floor, body pulsing and the sound of heels scraping the stage. A big dance for five men and three women, this piece fills the Harris stage with fantastic body moves, folding torsos and a literally tapped-out mood of urban anxiety, expressed in virtuoso tap dance rhythms.

In a prelude to Muntu Dance Theatre’s Act 2 finale, company director Amaniyea Payne described a company tour to a slave castle in Ghana, West Africa. “It was as if ancestors had cried out on that stage,” she said. Her words added poignance to the performance of choreographer Iddrishu Alahassan’s traditional “AGBEKOR,” bringing those ancestors to life on stage. Their living visualization also served to emphasize the importance of preserving all of the diverse cultural traditions that make Stomping Grounds such an inspiring example of universal brotherhood.

Muntu’s drumming never fails to galvanize audiences to fever-pitch excitement, their Act 1 appearance as musical entr’acte only. We had to wait until the end of Act 2 for the company’s indefatigable dancers to join the musicians with spectacular jumps and spins to the shifting tempi and complex internal beats created by the interchange of drumming and barefoot stomping. Dancing the dickens out of an unstoppable pulse, Muntu led fellow Stomping Grounds partners back on stage for a rip-roaring cross-cultural hoe-down, delighting the audience with tap, Flamenco, Indian, Mexican, African and Irish combos.