Three days in dance month affirm off-Loop concert dance’s place in #chidance

By on April 25, 2018

CHICAGO — We’re in the home stretch of Chicago Dance Month, a celebration of the breadth and depth of dance in the Windy City. For me, that has included a number of illuminating full-length works from out-of-towners like Bebe Miller and Okwui Okpokwasili, Hubbard Street and Giordano on the same two nights at our city’s grandest venues, and entertaining educational programming by See Chicago Dance.

But what of the “storefront” scene? Off-loop dance is perceived by many to be the stuff of fringe festivals: the avant garde or experimental works disliked or misunderstood by the masses who get their dance fix by attending the Nutcracker once a year. While storefront dance certainly can be that — the creation of which is bolstered by artistic residencies with Links Hall, High Concept Labs and Chicago Dancemakers Forum, to name a few — there is, in fact, a vibrant concert dance scene happening outside of downtown. I saw this in Chicago Repertory Ballet’s most recent performance, as well as the three performances I attended in three days last weekend.

What do I mean by concert dance? Well, for the most part, I’m thinking of ballet and contemporary dance presented in relatively conventional theater settings. You dance, we watch. While I’m not excluding full-length works, or those rooted in non-Western cultural traditions, I’m talking more here about evenings with multiple shorter works, maybe with an intermission between. I would use the term “recital,” which is not an insulting word in the music world, but definitely is in professional dance circles.

So I’m not going to call it that.

I’m going to say “concert dance” instead.

Cerqua Rivera Dance Theatre (CRDT) started my weekend, kicking off a new season on April 19. So named after co-founders Joe Cerqua and Wilfredo Rivera, this company’s commitment to live music and visual art have been unwavering throughout its 19 year history, but in recent years the group has asserted itself in the contemporary dance scene. Their efforts to expand have not gone unnoticed. In addition to embarking on a period of tremendous growth which saw this company performing an extended run in three venues for last season’s fall concert, the production values are higher and the dancing and choreography is better; last season even brought a commission from the Chicago Sinfonietta.

As usual, CRDT was incapable of keeping things casual for its Thursday night sneak preview, dressing up a works-in-progress showing with lighting design, costumes, and a full band for the one-night event at the Old Town School of Folk Music. Rivera introduced several new company dancers (many of whom are expats from the recently disbanded Thodos Dance Chicago), and unveiled new projects for the upcoming year.

“American Catracho,” a feature-length work by CRDT artistic director Wilfredo Rivera with original music by Joe Cerqua, will be fully realized in 2018 | photo credit: Dan Kasberger

Later in 2018, Rivera will finalize the third section of a triptych called American Catracho, which centers on his experience as an immigrant to the United States from his native Honduras, and includes a beautiful score by Cerqua, his husband. Trumpter Pharez Whitted shared a new composition which is being created alongside a commissioned work from Deeply Rooted Dance Theater’s Joshua Ishmon, while master of musical arrangements Stu Greenspan discussed how he spent last summer: deconstructing Clarice Assad’s Sin Fronteras, the score she created for the Chicago Philharmonic that will be presented later this year by the jazz ensemble alongside Rivera’s choreography.

Matter Dance Company premiered fifteen dances (15!), performed by a company of thirty dancers (30!), for its 12th annual concert, Emerge. Held at the Den Theatre in Wicker Park, this concert packed hoards of dancers onto the tiniest stage you’ve ever seen. It seemed like a bad idea at first, but honestly, after the first piece I thought the other dances (all of which had smaller casts) handled the space quite well. The dancers managed to achieve full-bodied movement in a cramped space, to the delight of adoring fans.

Matter Dance’s five men were featured in one of the many works in “Emerge” | photo credit: Michael Courier

And that is kind of the point with Matter Dance. Directors Gail Adduct Gogliotti, Carisa Barreca and Niki Wilk Mahon have a crystal clear vision for their company, which is aimed at producing accessible, entertaining work. To that end, they succeeded with Emerge, as they always do, though I was missing the through-line that has cleverly connected some of the other concerts I’ve seen. Emerge turned toward the serious more often than previous concerts, aiming to explore various facets of real and imagined experiences, and indirectly inspired, perhaps, by fake news and social media. But without commentary or some common link between dances, they tended to run together, marked by the insertion of two random tap dances and a wacky (but hilarious) bit for five faceless dancers donning creepy hooded wig heads as hats.  ​​

Cellist Alex Chambers-Ozasky (foreground) with Israeli dancer/choreographer Miriam Engel

Meanwhile, Lin Batsheva Kahn is cleverly infusing dance programming at an institution with no dance major. Kahn created a modern dance curriculum and developed coursework relating to diversity in dance as a faculty member in the Theatre School at DePaul University. As part of her efforts and in conjunction with the University Diversity Series, Kahn recruited Miriam Engel, choreographer and artistic director of the Jerusalem-based Angela Dance Co., to come to the Vincentian campus and work with students across several degree programs.

April 22 was the culminating event of Engel’s residency, presenting choreography by Kahn and Engel, with many pieces including live accompaniment by students and alumni from DePaul’s prestigious School of Music.

“It was beautiful to see the students discovering a new way of communication and conversation through phy​sical language a​nd ​o​pen-mind​ed​ness. The ph​y​sical experi​e​nce confirmed how we all have more things in common than we have differences,” said Engel in an e-mail communication.

Engel performed the final piece of the afternoon, a solo showing her exquisite sensibility for balancing restraint with reckless abandon, complemented by a mixed score of Liszt and a Hebrew love song.

“This interactive, artistic, educational, experiential learning is​ ​important and ​valuable ​for​ freshmen ​through ​seniors with diverse majors from many U.S. states and countries​,” wrote Kahn in an e-mail.​ “DePaul students discover and appreciate how movement is a ​medium for ​heightened​ self-awareness and ​authentic interpersonal connection​, ​a means of individual and shared resilience,​ a meaningful craft to refine, ​and an ongoing ​universal non-verbal language to enjoy and celebrate.”

There’s a lot of hypersensitivity today about labeling dance, versus performance, versus performance art; about identifying Western and non-Western origins in movement traditions which have all, at some point, been brought out of their natural environments to live on a stage; and dividing Loop from off-Loop, or “mainstream” from “experimental” art, or concert dance from…. dance.

My point? What Kahn said:

“… [M]ovement is a ​medium for ​heightened​ self-awareness and ​authentic interpersonal connection​, ​a means of individual and shared resilience,​ a meaningful craft to refine, ​and an ongoing ​universal non-verbal language to enjoy and celebrate.”


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