The in-house choreography workshop performance was once a rare bird. Most members of concert-dance companies went from debut to retirement without calling a single shot. They’d spend year after year learning steps to dance onstage, but never dream up their own, coach or direct. There’s no downside to the fact that these series have become more common, in both classical and contemporary dance. There’s no shortcut to what you learn from being the one in charge.
Locally, Thodos Dance Chicago’s workshop is one of the oldest: This weekend’s shows, at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts, mark the 12th year of “New Dances.” As you might expect, a night of choreography by young dancers — some trying their hand at the craft for the first or second time only — yields uneven results. But it’s always worth seeing, as are Hubbard Street Dance Chicago’s similar “Inside/Out” annual, and “COLEctive Notions,” produced by the Dance COLEctive. For every shot in the dark, there’s a curveball; for every plainly derivative exercise, a new voice takes shape.
There are nine “New Dances” this year and, per tradition, one is by an established guest choreographer. Duration limits seem better adhered to than in years past; the program is lengthy but mostly free of bloat. Two short duets and a transitional quartet called meet-cute, by Annie Deutz, open the show on light notes. Deutz connects with George Gershwin’s Three Preludes, as interpreted by Yo-Yo Ma and Jeffrey Kahane, in a most traditional but sensitive manner. Her four dancers are dressed smartly like mannequins in a Banana Republic window, and the open-ended symbolism of each couple’s exchanges suggests she’s seen a fair amount of work by Jerome Robbins.
Scaled Gray, by Brian Hare, is approximately as close (not overly) to its reference point: Wayne McGregor’s Infra, seen in February at the Joffrey Ballet. The two share some music composed by Max Richter and a steely palette but Hare’s movement wears its weight a little lower on the hips. Brandon DiCriscio, one of a few non-Thodos guest performers, holds focus as the abstract quintet’s putative protagonist. Jacob Snodgrass’s lighting scheme locates the goings-on in a kind of stark sewer. The work’s episodes are sequenced somewhat arbitrarily but each is compelling and well-made; Scaled Gray leaves little more than the sense of a mood, but it’s a specific mood, built deliberately.
From rough and aggressively cheery beginnings, Antio sas, a women’s quartet by Jeremy Blair, collects substance as it continues. What seems at first a girly romp in cute skirts and prim blouses becomes bittersweetly about one, guest dancer Katie Graves, joining a group and then leaving it behind. With more inventive structure and movement vocabulary, it could be a sharp little poem about moving on.
Jon Sloven’s duet Phylum has structure down — it’s as tight as a drum — and two fine performers in Ray Doñes and Cecilia Ferguson-Bell. And kudos are due to Sloven for being the one choreographer who commissioned an original score. Unfortunately, that score, by Joshua McGehee, is as New Agey as its title: “Vibronic Volitation.” Slightly less conventional are the beats by Kaskade used by Doñes for his ambitious ensemble work, how it’s been. But he, like Sloven, can build a work that makes sense, that teaches you the language of itself as you watch it and, furthermore, uses that language to say something. how it’s been needs a few more rehearsals but it’s a promising introduction to Doñes as choreographer.
At last year’s “New Dances,” the discovery was Michael McDonald, who teams this year with Jessica Miller Tomlinson, at this point a seasoned dancemaker in her own right. Their collaboration, 93 83, declares plainly in the program that it’s a “movement investigation.” Set to the stylings of “experimental whammy twang bar czar rhino King Crimson stunt guitarist” Adrian Belew, jarringly paired with a Christian Matjias and Crispin Campbell track — which fades in and out — 93 83 is unwieldy. But it’s also firmly out on its own. Wearing drop-crotch black pants and off-the-rack tops, the two choreographers plus three dancers create a parade of strange images, from two main motifs: both arms out in long arches in front of the face, as if supporting an awning for the dancer’s body; and a steadily metered clap of one palm against the back of the other hand, either in front of or behind the dancer’s torso.
Against variations on these themes, petite powerhouse Caitlin Cucchiara moves prone across the stage like an inchworm. Dancers subgroup and form factions that regard each other with some hostility. They reconvene, face the audience and deliver itchy, sassy poses reminiscent of Bob Fosse. A bright-green spotlight illuminates the downstage-right corner of the floor. Dancers hop off of the stage apron to perform a sequence in the dark, for the front row. McDonald and Tomlinson tumble complexly over each other. The women stiffen their bodies while sitting and rock as one piece from the backs of their legs to their shoulders, their fingers splayed, their hands jazzed into rigor mortis. It doesn’t quite all cohere but it’s a fun ride while it lasts.
The same applies to Privilege of Being, also cochoreographed, by Chelsea deVera and Joshua Manculich. Their duet among ’50s-style, workaday metal chairs uses for most of its soundtrack stock audio of footsteps and people whispering and clearing their throats in a crowd. The piece ends with an image that recalls the following lines from Robert Hass’s poem of the same name:
…they look at each other;
two beings with evolved eyes, rapacious,
startled, connected at the belly
in an unbelievably sweet
lubricious glue, stare at each other,
and the angels are desolate.
(Between 93 83 and Privilege of Being on the program is a quartet, Two Too, by John Cartwright. It’s a naked attempt to recreate Jiří Kylián’s 1986 Sechs Tänze and I will say no more about it.)
Show closer Lullaby is by guest choreographer Brian Enos. Among interesting lighting effects (by Nathan Tomlinson) and lots of haze, the octet seems at first to draw blindly from Enos’s bag of tricks: sexy street ballet in ever-shifting arrangements, interrupted by short, heterosexual duets during which the woman gets tossed around. Everyone wears black tank tops and leggings and their movements are machined, sharp-edged and freezing cold. But then, Cucchiara walks onstage, in white, and stands, and stares into the audience, and does nothing while the pandemonium continues around her unabated. Hare, bare-chested and wearing baggy pajama pants, then joins her. Driving, machined, sharp-edged and freezing-cold beats produced by Enos fade out, and an a capella arrangement of Billy Joel’s “Lullaby” by the King’s Singers comes in. Hare and Cucchiara’s movements interpret the song simply but tenderly. It works whether you take it as “the numbing routine will eventually put you to sleep,” or as a pure-dance supercollider that slams two deeply different atmospheres against each other.
Thodos Dance Chicago’s “New Dances” closes July 29 at 5pm, at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts. Click on any photo below to enter the gallery.