“Celebration of Dance”
Chicago Dancing Festival
Jay Pritzker Pavilion
August 25, 2012
by Leigh Witchel
copyright © 2012 by Leigh Witchel
A heat wave threatened, but cool breezes on a balmy Saturday night made for an ideal occasion to sit outdoors and watch Chicago Dancing.
The festival, now in its sixth season, is a week of performances, exhibitions and discussions at several theaters and the Museum of Contemporary Art. The closing night performance took place at the amphitheater in Millennium Park. The metal petals of Frank Gehry’s design curled up and away from the stage, forming a frame and canopy for the shows.
Undercutting New York’s competition, Chicago Dancing is even cheaper than Fall for Dance. All tickets are free, though this meant that a last-minute musical-chairs rush for unclaimed VIP seating at the front turned into an impromptu episode of “So You Think You Can Sit?” Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and festival founders Jay Franke and Lar Lubovitch led off with cheerleading remarks.
Nicholas Leichter’s “Touch of Soul” was a happy opening surprise. Performed by the city’s “After School Matters” Hip Hop Culture Dance Ensemble, it was an arts-in-education piece, but a few cuts above the usual. The group – largely minority teens all dressed in loose white clothing, danced hip-hop, but structured by Leichter into choreography that had them strutting across or forward and back in changing lines.
They danced with skill and verve; Leichter inserted an occasional breakout for some, such as Dorian Rhea who did everything just a little bigger and more joyfully, or Denea Maldonado who practically kicked herself in a grand battement and then slid into a split.
Perhaps the best thing the students learned from Leichter‘s example is the work required to turn dancing into choreography. He took what they did well and helped them make it look professional.
From hip-hop in white to summer whites. Houston Ballet followed with Mark Morris’ “Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes,” which felt even more pastoral outdoors. Made in 1988, this was Morris’ third ballet commission, and the work has the freshness of someone still exploring a medium. For the same reason, it’s still occasionally pedantic. Connor Walsh leads a duo by doing multiple pirouettes that finish with a leg balanced out to the side. He stops his momentum and then grinds himself around in a promenade, finishing by extending his leg high to the side. Morris makes him repeat this five or six times. Still, the dancers made the work clean and clear, including Walsh, long-legged Amy Fote, and Melissa Hough and her flashing turns.
Local mainstay Hubbard Street Dance Chicago performed Ohad Naharin’s “Tabula Rasa,” or Yet Another Angst-Ridden Work to Arvo Part. Five couples huddled, kicked and lifted; at the climax a woman was rejected by one couple at a time round a circle. Naharin is at his best when he’s forced to follow the roadmap of the music, but still, all the drama seemed for show.
Two Hispanic guests from New York City Ballet brought a Russian warhorse. Ana Sophia Scheller and Gonzalo Garcia powered their way through the “Don Quixote” pas de deux, and seemed to mightily enjoy the chance to get Spanish on us. The performance veered towards the edge of control, but Scheller did strong double fouettés in her coda, and Garcia did a one-handed press with Scheller that lasted twice as long as usual. In another guest duet, Sofiane Sylve and Vito Mazzeo from San Francisco Ballet showed off Christopher Wheeldon’s pretzel logic in a duet from his “Continuum.”
The evening closed with Chicago Not Dancing: Larry Keigwin’s messy “Bolero Chicago.” The piece placed a horde of local amateurs in comic movement sketches to the Ravel score that didn’t mitigate their inability to move. The occasional drag queen or acrobat disguised in a Chicago Bulls suit livened up the soggy proceedings.
“Bolero Chicago” has plenty of sports references: mascots, pennants and Styrofoam fingers – and next to no dance. It’s almost cynically adaptable – local versions have been done in New York City, but also Santa Barbara and Akron. Assumedly they just change the colors for the teams.
The piece wants nothing more than to be a crowd pleaser, and it is. Leichter had a similar situation – albeit with more talented material, but he also tried harder. He took students and made them look polished in a piece that was not just Chicago, but Dancing.
copyright © 2012 by Leigh Witchel
Photos by Cheryl Mann
Top: “Touch of Soul” (Dorian Rhea is the man at the left front.)
Bottom: “Bolero Chicago”