Three Premieres in River North’s ‘Autumn Passions’ (review)

After an exhausting year that included a pilgrimage to Cuba and two brand new works, River North Dance Chicago’s Artistic Director Frank Chaves decided to take a back seat creatively in the company’s 24th season. For the 2013 Fall Engagement, RNDC recruited three new works from choreographers Ashley Roland, Adam Barruch, and Kevin Iega Jeff. All three premieres, plus Chaves’ 2013 work Eva were presented Thursday in an expedited Gala program at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance.

Opening the performance with Eva, I felt the Harris a slightly more fitting venue for the tribute to jazz/folk/gospel singer Eva Cassidy than the Auditorium, where it premiered last season. The colder architecture of the Harris and enhancements to Joshua Paul Weckesser’s lighting design better compliment the collection of songs; the only through-line between sections is a series of voice-over recordings of Cassidy’s voice. The standout section is the Autumn Leaves duet from dancers Lauren Kias and Hank Hunter, whose refined and subtle approach to Chaves’ intricate phrasings are executed with ease. The piece as a whole looks really enjoyable to dance.

The opening number was followed by a speech from Executive Director Gail Kalver, who primed us to expect diversity in the next pieces akin to seeing three separate dance companies. I think she was right – the efforts of Roland, Barruch, and Jeff are wildly different from one another, and the primarily jazz and ballet technique of River North’s dancers complimented all three. Like Giordano, RNDC ditched the “Jazz” from its name years ago, and yet last night Ms. Kalver purported the company as a “Jazz-based contemporary dance company.”

And it is.

"Dawn" by Kevin Iega Jeff
“Dawn” by Kevin Iega Jeff, photo credit Cheryl Mann

While clean lines and technical panache are almost always a good thing, I wanted Kevin Iega Jeff’s Dawn to be verging a little more out of control. Filled with ritual exhalations and hints at ancient hieroglyphs, the fast and furious movement infused with sharp staccatos are reminiscent of works from Deeply Rooted Dance Theater’s repertoire (Jeff’s artistic home). Like his company, the standards are high, the exhibition full tilt, and the execution spot on. However, there is a spark in Jeff’s dancers that comes from their guts – an extreme level of intensity and passion that were lacking here. Make no mistake, Dawn is fierce, but seeing Jeff’s work set on jazz dancers revealed some of the differences between modern and jazz. I wished the two could marry here.

Honestly, The Worst Pies in London was the best of the night. The short and sweet, outlandish bit of physical theatre from Adam Barruch (brilliantly performed by Drew Fountain) is inspired by Angela Lansbury’s performance in Sweeny Todd. Get out the Ghost, on the other hand, falls short, perhaps due to odd musical choices and unfortuante gold lamé scarves. Though Ashley Roland creates some interesting images (complemented by Weckesser’s stained-glass lighting effect), the piece is a mishmash of cultural influences and gimmicks that never quite come to fruition.

The full performance of “Autumn Passions” also includes Dawn Ezralow’s SUPER STRAIGHT is coming down… on loan from Hubbard Street Dance Chicago’s rep, and Princess Grace awardee Nejla Yatkin’s Renatus.

River North Dance Chicago’s Autumn Passions takes place November 16 (8pm) and 17 (3pm) at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance (205 E. Randolph). Tickets are $30-75, on sale at (312) 334-7777 or online at

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.