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THE DANCE SAMPLER

at the Ruth Page Foundation Theatre

September 16

GALA PERFORMANCE: DANCING, CHICAGO STYLE

at Northeastern Illinois University

September 20 and 21

Dance presenters are learning to cater to the public's bargain mentality. To lure the hoi polloi into the theater--to give them better value for their entertainment dollar--the trend is to offer snippets of live entertainment (like sneak previews of movies) in one big grab bag of an event, and charge cheap admission to boot. The idea is that these samplers will make you crave more, and you'll return for the full performance of each company dancing in the presenter's series. It's all handled very professionally, briskly, efficiently, and with a big smile, but there's also a hint of the carnival, with the bearded lady, the fat lady, the tattooed man, and the sword swallower all doing a turn outside the tents to get you to pay to see the show.

On the positive side, these samplers have a crazy-quilt charm--everything tossed together in a bright-hued jumble of color. Juxtaposing mismatched swatches of cloth often creates unexpectedly pretty new patterns, and doing the same with completely different styles of dance can produce the same felicitous results. It's a bit like filling up on hors d'oeuvres instead of sitting down to dinner--overloaded as your stomach may feel, your taste buds are gladdened.

Seven companies were originally on the agenda for "The Dance Sampler" at the Ruth Page Foundation Theatre, but sadly Dancescape (whose full performance was scheduled for September 28) had to pull out because of the sudden death of its artistic director, Pamela Bedford, in August. The program was dedicated to her.

Najwa Dance Corps performed Frokroba, choreographed by Yao Marshall and staged and directed by Najwa I, an energetic initiation dance from the Malkine people of Guinea in West Africa. The eager audience enthusiastically solicited a brief encore. The Hatzabarim Israeli Folk Dance Company did three dances, each more showy than the last. The final work, Kormim--The Vintners, is almost a dance sampler of its own, incorporating the steps from many kinds of folk dance. (Because Israel is such a recently formed country, its "traditional" folk dances draw on several cultures, and the "folk" have had the liberty of choreographing some pretty stagy pieces.) Their first dance, Roeh v'Roah--Shepherd and Shepherdess, had a number of characteristic fluttery hand gestures, the hands held high above the head, which a little girl next to me unself-consciously tried to imitate.

The Patterson Ballroom Dance Company--Tommy and Nancy Patterson--did two glittering star turns, she in resplendent red for La Paloma and feathery blue for I'll Take Manhattan. Both Pattersons dance with an understated elegance that makes their lyrical self-assurance even more expressive.

Akasha Dance Company presented one of their signature pieces, Vastus Sylva, premiered in 1987. Pilobolus member Austin Hartel choreographed this quirky, humorous crowd pleaser for them. The company has gotten progressively better at bringing out the dance's nuances; each animal movement has become more and more realistic. The seal imitations at the end of the piece are especially effective, pathetic and hilarious at the same time.

Perceptual Motion was represented by Lin Shook's Touch the Earth, which has a Native American theme. Its hand movements are like physical manifestations of chants, and even though the music, by Vangelis, is more new-age than Native American, it's sufficiently repetitious and driving to suggest chanting and drumming and create the right mood. Like the music, the choreography is almost a distillation of the essentials of Native American dance, blended with a modern-dance vocabulary, just as the performers' short, fringed tunics over leotards suggest an Indian theme. The dancers (Jacqueline Farina, Rebecca Rice, and Shook) really throw themselves into the movement: hands clasped in a circle facing out, for instance, they seem to be searching the distant horizon for signs and listening for drum or animal sounds, and are so convincing you expect smoke signals or something equally dramatic to appear onstage at any minute. The Momenta! dancers in Stephanie Clemens's Can Can! throw themselves just as wholeheartedly into this comic send-up of chorus lines, featuring the choreographer's husband, James Tenuta, as the hilariously bungling Madame LaPlotz. His wig keeps falling off, not to mention his skirt; his attempts to keep up with the other dancers while trying to retrieve his wig and clothing make for some raucous, uproariously funny moments. But the funniest moment involves one of those cruel jokes that make you feel a trifle guilty for laughing. After carefully lifting and setting down each of the dancers, Madame LaPlotz takes a running leap at the lineup, shouting "Catch me!" But they all move out of the way, and she falls flat on her face. I'm not quite sure what gets Tenuta through this and other tumbles--a lot of padding or sheer force of will--but it's certainly impressive.

In a totally different vein, and even more impressive, is the other offering from Momenta!--a reconstruction by Letitia Coburn of Doris Humphrey's masterpiece, Air for the G String. The dancers' stately, elegant posing in their long, trailing dresses and capes creates exquisitely beautiful lyric patterns, the lengths of material stretching or billowing with the dancers' movements and creating an extra layer to the choreography. Humphrey premiered this piece in 1928; far from looking dated, it has the same moving eloquence that made it a classic in Humphrey's repertoire.

Previewing Northeastern Illinois University's dance series was a sampler festively labeled a "gala performance." The range of styles here was just as broad as in "The Dance Sampler," even in different pieces by the same company. Ensemble Espanol, for example, contrasted a fiery Paseo Andaluz with the stately elegance of the balletic La Era Romantica--despite the dance's clicking castanets, the escuela bolera style of dance is based on classical ballet steps. Ballet Chicago provided three glimpses of its work--artistic director Daniel Duell's airy duet Pas Vivace, danced by Petra Adelfang and Manard Stewart, and two brief Balanchine teasers, Adelfang in the "Liberty Bell" solo from the spectacular Stars and Stripes and Stewart in a solo from Apollo.

Representing Venetia Stifler & Concert Dance was Lon Gordon, who danced an overlong solo he choreographed in 1986 to the songs of Roberto Carlos, When Things Come Quick and Clear. (He dedicated this weekend's performances to Nancy Hauser, a dancer and choreographer who died recently.) Gordon, who has been strongly influenced by Asian dance, uses a fan in the first section, opening and closing it, fluttering it, holding it up to his face, as he approaches a chair at the other end of the stage. While it's a bit jarring and silly to see the oriental movements done to Latin songs, the juxtaposition works in the first section, but not in the second, with its mannered, melodramatic movements.

Alexander Michaels/Future Movement featured Kelly Michaels and JoAnn Concialdi in an excerpt from Michaels's 1986 Primitive Lyric; they danced with a streamlined intensity that gave the piece a long-lined look--hands, feet, legs, and even whole bodies seemed to radiate outward. The dim lighting on bright orange costumes made for a muted moodiness, an autumnal melancholy sunset. Michaels and Lane Alexander in Fred Strickler's tap number, Chicago Ellington, are lively and high-spirited. Michaels in his solo is very loose and laid back, hands in his pockets, smiling as he looks down at his dancing feet, as if he were blithely unaware of the furor of applause. Alexander, on the other hand, is all spitfire technique: fast and furious steps, crystal-clear taps. If he were a locomotive, he'd be the Orient Express; I'm always in awe of this man's technique. Before the dance concludes, with another lively tapping duet, there's a misguided section that meanders aimlessly; but this minor flaw only momentarily detracts from a piece that otherwise works quite well.

Gus Giordano Jazz Dance Chicago performed a piece by company member Paul Brown, Camp Meetin' Tonight. The almost mimed opening scenes are much more interesting than the giant rollicking party it turns into. The sanctimonious church lady, who fainted in shock when she saw a couple off to the side in a sensual duet, inexplicably drops her guard and dances just as readily as the sinners (Brown and Mary Mitchell) with the preacher (Mark Schulz) and the rest of the company. As at most parties, there's a degree of sameness to the "social" dancing that makes you want to tune out quickly; if it were TV, you'd switch the channel. Which is too bad, because the dancers, including Brown himself, are quite superb--they need a less limited vocabulary to really demonstrate their considerable technique.

Akasha Dance Company, which could not appear because it was giving performances at the Weinstein Center for the Performing Arts, was represented by a video, "Remote Control"--a section from Remote, choreographed by Ginger Farley. In the age of technology, you can be two places at the same time, and this fast-paced MTV-style tape enhances the feeling of our modern frenzied pace: images of the dancers performing are interrupted by close-ups of celebrities flashed for a millisecond. Then back to the dancers in their practical and unflattering beige costumes. Even when they're shown in an occasional close-up, the medium of video distances them from us.

Much as I enjoyed both samplers, their variety and contrasts, I'd feel better about them if I knew the dancers were getting paid back for their time and effort. This way, they're like a sideshow luring the complacent burghers to the carnival tents.

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