Chicago Sinfonietta’s ’13-14 Season Opener (review)

Maestra Mei-Ann Chen of the Chicago Sinfonietta, photo by Ken Carl
Maestra Mei-Ann Chen of the Chicago Sinfonietta, photo by Ken Carl

Can classical music and hip hop dance truly be friends?

I don’t know…

…but the Chicago Sinfonietta had the guts to try it in its opening performance for the 2013-14 season at Symphony Center Saturday night. The first half of the evening was a fascinating salad of Swan Lake, Hip Hop Dance, symphonic Americana, and Aram Khachaturian.

I’ve seen something like this once before, when Rockford Dance Company collaborated with local hip hop artists in a brand new Rite of Spring last April.

Having grown up a ballet dancer, the melodies and standard rhythmic interpretations of Swan Lake are ingrained in me, and it was really intriguing to see the music interpreted by dancers with little to no ballet background. I expected the combination of the famous 19th Century Euro-dramatic Swan Lake with two movements from American Florence Price’s Symphony in E minor to be off-putting, but the sweeping crescendos of Tchaikovsky’s score were a surprisingly pleasant bedfellow to the Joplin-esque passages of Price’s 1933 composition.

In some ways I thought Rockford Dance Company’s Rite was a more successful collaboration, if only because the full 80+ piece Sinfonietta only left about five feet of depth for the dancers onstage. The apparent lack of depth limited the scope of choreographic possibilities, so at times the dancing fell flat.

That’s not to say it was bad; this show was ultimately about the Sinfonietta, and this collaboration with hip hop crews FootworKINGz (pictured below) and Kuumba Lynx is exactly in line with their mission of “forming unique cultural connections through the universal language of symphonic music.”

In that sense, I’d say Saturday’s performance was wildly successful.

Members of FootworKINGz

A look out into the crowd proved that collaborations like this are important in the ongoing effort to expand arts audiences.  I’ve been to plenty of orchestra concerts, and this was perhaps the most diverse audience I’ve seen at Symphony Center.  Sinfonietta patrons were exposed to a style of dance they’ve likely never seen. Meanwhile, friends and fans of FootworKINGz and parents of the young Kuumba Lynx dancers were given the opportunity to experience a rarely heard and amazingly beautiful Rachmaninoff Symphonic Dances.  Continually pushing the envelope of what and who belongs together in performance is how we’re all going to survive.

At times it was awkward – the dancing and music didn’t always get along, the audience didn’t know you’re not supposed to take pictures or clap between movements – but I suppose that’s all part of us getting to know one another.  High School sweethearts are awkward at first too, but sometimes they become life long partners.

Author: Lauren Warnecke

Lauren Warnecke is a reporter for NPR affiliate station WGLT and freelance arts and culture critic, primarily reviewing dance for the Chicago Tribune. Lauren enjoys cooking, cycling and attempting to grow things in her backyard. She lives in central Illinois.