On April 28, Visceral Dance Chicago celebrated ten years of dancemaking with “SPRINGTEN,” performed at the Harris Theatre, where the company made a splash during their inaugural season. Artistic Director Nick Pupillo has spent those years expanding his company and his enterprise. As owner of a sleek dance studio—also named “Visceral,”—he has now upgraded to an even sleeker one in Avondale. My favorite part, the back studio converts into a state-of-the-art black box theater named after legendary Chicago dance writer, Ann Barzel.
It is in this intimate setting that I know Visceral best, but on this occasion the company has taken over the wider stage at the Harris, filling the seats with fans old and new, and a dozen rows of young fans—no doubt students and pre-professional trainees—who whooped and screamed and hollered “o-kay” with raucous enthusiasm.
For more information on the process behind Visceral’s work, check out this preview of “SPRINGTEN” featuring an interview with Pupillo and dancers (you can view the article here).
The program begins with “Impetere” by Pupillo, which debuted on the same stage in 2013. Many of the elements that define the company are present in this early work. The creep factor at maximum —and that’s a good thing!—with dancers melting out of the shadows then receding and disappearing like ghosts. Technique is strong and balletic, with arms fractalizing into rigid shapes, breaking the “rules” of ballet while remaining strict and disciplined. Bodies are launched into the air, a demonstration of the strength and confidence exuding from the dancers. The fire lit during the premiere of “Impetere” burns just as bright today.
Pupillo’s “Keep”(2018) features dancers Braeden Barnes and Meredith Harrill in a bittersweet duet, a farewell piece for Barnes after six years with the company. Like the cover of an alien abduction movie, Barnes bares his naked chest against light like fire in the sky, resisting arms flexed at the sides while a buzzing sound crescendos to a roar. Enter Harrill, shy, scared and in a constant state of collapse. On one leg she spins but starts to lose momentum. Barnes races over to give her a boost lest she topple over. She falls limp and Barnes is there to catch her, using the momentum to swing her skyward and back onto her feet. By the end it is Barnes who might collapse if not for Harrill, who recovers from her malady in time to now save him, a metaphor for the way people in relationships or in a society depend on one another to survive.
“Ruff Celts”(2016) by Marguerite Donlon is a returning fan favorite that has the audience shouting back. Dancers wore flowing black kilts/skirts and necks wore white blessumes. Women romp playfully, kicking their knees up high, while men tumble around doing summersaults to the sound of an Irish reel on the fiddle. Shoulder to shoulder the dancers bounce like boiling water, arms clenched at their sides, chests turned upwards, a kettle about to blow! Calls of “hey,” “whoop” and “hah” explode from on and off the stage. “Ruff Celts” all but begs you to have fun!
A premiere by Danielle Agami, “Name It,” begins like contemporary dance combined with a Ted Talk. Dancers waddle like ducks in the background while a lone speaker asks, “What is or is not essential in our culture?” Dancers as pedestrians walk in geometric formations as the speaker informs us that “We found ourselves labeled as ‘non-essential,’ and that was very hard.” The lecture continues. The walking continues. The lecture concludes and those left meandering find uneven slices taken out of their clothes, exposing their stomachs and legs. With dumbfounded looks on their faces, they scratch at itchy necks, ribs and shins, a reaction to finally seeing the world as it truly is and then… A blackout abruptly ends it. “Name It” provides a thought- provoking view of superficiality, consumerism and contradictory Western/Neo-Liberal values, told and shown as if addressing a naive child. What could have been shown is instead told, and when the telling turns physical and things heat up, it just ends.
Capping off the performance is “Lotus,” a premiere by Pupillo that uses elements from “Impetere,” like looking super creepy (but a sexier “Anne Rice” kind of creepiness), a strong foundation in ballet and dancers showing off a tremendous level of strength and control. Duets one after another come off like grandiose circus acts, with some foreplay leading to a climactic lift atop a shoulder—ta-da! The mood set by the thumping bass line is fun, but the dancing is serious, and these lift-and-holds are breathtaking, especially when they tumble oh-so-smoothly out of them.
And then we party! The ensemble breaks out into a frolic-like folk dance to the tune of pizzicato plucks on violin strings. They form a long line and ripple like a chain made of living links. The light follows the ripple in an impressive display of timed light choreography. Pumping their fists in the air, the ensemble jumps off the stage and cuts blazing swaths through the aisles. Everyone is on their feet! Red lasers sweep over us. We are all punching our fists upward, the line between dancer and observer momentarily blurred by the excitement.
Over the past ten years, Visceral Dance Chicago has kept audiences interested by treating dance like fertile soil, keeping it lush and never stale through a rotation of different choreographers, styles and formats. At the helm is Pupillo, in control but generous, allowing artists and dancers a healthy degree of autonomy and expression. But the company still feels young, blossoming out of pubescence and realizing a newfound strength, but still the same on the inside. In “SRINGTEN,” Pupillo and Visceral Dance Chicago show that after ten years they are just warming up.