It would be a mistake to assess River North Chicago Dance Company from some kind of wry, removed, meta-perspective so I won’t. Their Valentine’s Weekend bill at the Harris was the first full RNCDC concert I’d attended since early 2002, when a friend and I saw them perform on tour at Asheville’s Diana Wortham Theatre. (I’ve caught RivNo’s dancers since, of course, a number of times on festivals and gala bills.) The company has changed a lot in the interim.
Programming is still in the same vein: Last night I saw eight works on an evening running over two hours, although it felt shorter (I seem to recall, incorrectly I’m sure, seeing about a dozen dances in North Carolina). Most conspicuously absent from yesterday’s performance were pieces–moments, even–of adagio, legato or andante and, really, that’s okay for a number of reasons, one of which being that the dancers of the company are uniformly outstanding at allegro. Not only is the ensemble technically capable of executing whipcrack phrases and fancy footwork with ease (their fast, free approach to pirouettes is the best this town has), but it seems spending such a majority of one’s working time in this realm breeds a kind of comfort with it. To call the dances “brisk” is an understatement but no one ever looks rushed, and the care given to keeping staccato out of the quicksilver except when called for is an area in which River North is expert.
A new creation that handily distills the River North experience is Uhuru, choreographed by seven-year company member Monique Haley. The warmth of Haley’s contagious aliveness as a performer resonates with her colleagues, and in a casual way Haley shows a sure hand with composition that surpasses much of what the marquee names on the bill were able to generate for their dances. The entire company, Haley included, is onstage for most of the brief work with a steady swagger and liberated abandon that does the title (Swahili for freedom) and Haley’s program notes (“a celebration of the spirit, life, and power inside everyone,” “a fusion of styles”) justice. It’s absolutely jubilant dance without a hint of an aftertaste. I look forward to seeing more from her, and recommend it be commissioned in short order.
Daniel Ezralow’s Pulse is the one work that was on both last night’s and 2002’s program, and with little surprise: It’s been a company signature since its 2000 creation and even audiences that have seen it numerous times seem ever-ready for an encore. It’s notable mostly for its employment of slick booties that allow the dancers to glide Risky Business-style across a prominent center downpull and more gobos than you can shake a stick at. Apart from a thoroughly unrewarding creative proccess, something that sticks in my craw about Ezralow’s work is that he has a dismissive attitude toward the mental attention requested by modern composers: Here, as in 2004’s SF/LB for Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, he treats music by Bang on a Can all-star David Lang as an ambient, sonic backdrop and not a considered composition. Lang’s score for Pulse–dressed cheaply in muted blips and synth washes by Michael Lowenstern–plugs along in a humming, easy throb and, as the pajama-clad dancers glide by gently colliding into four- and six-way-symmetries you wonder if the aim of the work is to induce anything more than a catatonic trance. As the choreographic approximation of the interior of a lava lamp it’s a success, but it asks so little of its audience that it has hardly anything to offer in return.
There seems to be an aesthetic being beta-tested by RNCDC that holds great promise: In Robert Battle’s Train, a beautiful black-and-white Kieferesque and Kline-ish backdrop for Underground Movements (AD Frank Chaves’ 2006 closer) by Christopher Ash, and a just-out-of-reach curiousness to A Mi Manera (Zunker/Farley/Jeff, 2001), there’s an edgier identity being born and I think it suits everyone involved. I suppose I assumed some time ago that there was a resistance at River North toward acknowledgment of real pain. Perhaps harder times are merely reflecting off of every surface; Love Will Follow certainly goes down easier without a war (or two) on, before the Bush Era has happened and with a five-digit Dow. Whatever the cause, it was a great experience to sit entranced by wonderful dancing by some of this city’s most assured performers, and it should be mentioned that, at least for Saturday, RivNo doesn’t seem to have much of a problem with gathering attendance. Many in the crowd stood, whooped and hollered throughout the show and the dancers responded in kind, audibly vocal in many of the works’ rousing finales. Chaves has acquired some terrific new dancers for his company, particularly among the men: Christian Denice showed impressive power and command in Chaves’ world premiere Tuscan Rift as well as in Pulse and Underground Movements and Chicago native Reginald Harris, away for six years with Ballet Austin, is a great fit with the ensemble and can move his unusual height around with surprising fluidity and delicacy. Michael Gross and Melanie Manale-Hortin delivered outstanding performances in Chaves’ second premiere of the evening, Sentir em Nós (Even for Us), which shows not only their chemistry as partners but also Chaves’ fluency with duet form.
The above photo was taken from an incredible thread of historical photographs of Chicago in the SkyscraperPage Forum, BTW.