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River North Dance kicks some...

Monday, October 13, 2014 tgoandco

River North Dance 25th Anniversary Gala Performance kicked off the company's season performance schedule with a bang. The Harris Theater was buzzing with warmth and excitement. This silver anniversary was a milestone full of achievement for the company for several reasons. The evening highlighted it's past accomplishments, displayed how it reaches into the education system and provides support for kids in schools and displayed some new ground breaking work.

Hayley Meier and John Litzler in Iván Pérez’s “Flesh.”

There was an outpouring of support for the company who's tradition has been to not just dance for the public, but to move them with an emotion. The company mission states it wishes to "promote and present dance, makes vital connections between dancers and the audience, create partnerships and collaborations... and advocates for dance." Last night, it did all that. Making emotional connections without words may sound like a tall order, and to many it would be tough - not so for River North. This evening provided many wonderful emotional moments on stage with dance and film.  The level of enthusiasm from the followers of River North Dance Company was palpable. It was a glitzy crowd with lots of eye candy and as sexy as the dancers were on stage. It was also a younger crowd than I expected to find for a cultural arts event. My guess is, perhaps, this was a group in where the dance company had made a significant imprint on their artistic life as well as their city.

The company is moving forward at providing the latest ideas and innovations in the field of contemporary dance. Dancers moved from the heart with performances that dissected the life, the way we live, play out emotions and deal with life's challenges. Themes dealt with relationships, wars, loves, hope, dreams and disappointments. It was a full scope of the human relationships and realities of all kinds and their differences.

An Emotional Trio

Contained in tonight's presentation were three vignettes or paintings (for the more visual). Each vignette was done by a different choreographer. Two of the evenings vignettes were world premieres of new work. The last was a revival of one of the company's ground breaking pieces centering around the work of a 22-year old dancer.

The first painting, entitled Flesh,  starts with segments of a poem called The Knife by Keith Douglas. Portions of the poem are read aloud and illustrate the four themes of this dance movement. Flesh centers around thoughts of memory, love, loss and living in memory after death. It was conceived after the loss of both the choreographers parents and thus made the work intensely and deeply personal. The first movement or sonnet was extremely sensual though not exactly sexual. It was powerful in it's themes of attraction, emotion and it's physicality. It was highly polished in its reflection of movement used tell a story.

A side note — the music for tonight's performance was perfection. Every movement was tied to a tonality that made the music one with the dancer's body. There were movements with cello and violin, acapella choral arrangements and pop rock. It all flowed beautifully. Throughout this vignette, the music was positively breath-taking. One of the movements had an acapella choral piece Her Sacred Spirit Soared by Eric Whitacre that accompanied the dancers. This choral accompaniment added a new dimension to the dance and was expressively precise for presenting the humanitarian conflict. The whole body of work was deeply thought provoking.

The choreographer was Iván Pérez, a Spanish choreographer based out of the Netherlands making his artistic debut in the US. Given the title of "one of the best contemporary dancers of the last decade", the choreographer held true to his standards.  The third movement was particularly moving when a kiss takes on new meaning as two dancers are tied together in movement while being joined at the mouth. It was a tremendous moment expressed by dancers Hayley Meier and John Litzler. The last part of this vignette was very distinctive. The dancers were superb in their performance which was characterized expressive movements of the legs, exhausting physical fitness and harmony between the dancers and the music. It ended with two dancers showcased in a portrait that fades with time to show the non-permanence of life.

(l to r) John Litzler, Hank Hunter, Ahmad Simmons, Levizadik Buckins,
Drew Fountain and Ethan Kirschbaum in Frank Chaves’s “In The End.”

In the End... it was fabulous.

The second presentation was very emotional and my favorite of the evening.  This vignette is entitled In the End. It was choreographed by Frank Chaves, the company's artistic director. Innovative in concept, the themes center around what he describes as the “male relationships of a non-romantic nature.” This description was particularly vague and made me go "WTF?" What it seemed to really center around was man as he struggles to perform roles in society that are particularly hard or challenging — such as being in a group like a fraternity as it evolves and ends, confidentiality and friendship, multiculturalism and breaking beyond the norms of individuality and self identity, being close and confidants in adversity like war and dealing with the pressures of the work world conformity.

There were five segments to this vignette. This was a journey in life and, in a way, the series expressed the very interdependence between friends and coworkers. There was a strange combination of melodious quick movement that was accompanied by violin that added deep sorrow to the content. But it was sorrow mixed with strength and not weakness. This third part of the painting came across clearly about the relationships of humanity between the difficult periods in life when faced with crisis, revolution or war. Chaves' created a segment that would then evolve as the dancers transformed from soldiers to men in business dressed in suits. It was extremely powerful.

There were two significant and breath taking movements of the evening; The first WOW moment of the evening was provided by dancers Levidazik Buckins and Ahmad Simmons. This portion of the show was positively riveting and full of emotional depth. It was amazing in it's expression of what I understood to be two friends caught in a time of war or adversity. They were soldiers or two individuals caught in conflict and providing emotional support and then we watched as their relationship evolved. The last movement was with dancers Drew Fountain, Hank Hunter, Ethan R. Kirschbaum, John Litxler, Ahmad Simmons and Levidazik Buckins. It was so expressive and poignant with how it dealt with men in business. This section was particularly inventive in using neck ties as a noose around the neck strangling the dancers as they work through the day. For some reason, perhaps it was physicality or the dexterity of the dancers, that reminded me of the work of Gene Kelly or Matthew Bourne. It had a comic appeal that made one laugh while at the same time made it easier to pallet the emotion depth of the dance.

John Litzler in Frank Chaves’s “In the End.”

There were five segments to this portion of the program. It also reminded me of the work of the late Martha Graham. Ms Graham was pivotal in pushing modern dance into the forefront of the American psyche. Her work portrayed woman, sexuality and oppression at a time when it wasn't shown on the dance stage. Tonight's performance was equally riveting in that it dealt with mens issues. There has been a lot in the past generations written about how women act, cope and deal with society. Ms Graham gave women a voice in dance. Tonight was the mens turn with Frank Chaves' world premiere of In the End. And like Martha Graham, there were some strikingly poignant similarities. Frank Chaves, like Martha Graham, has had wonderful stints with Hubbard St. Dance Company,  New York's Ballet Hispanico and now is on to producing brilliant works. But also like Ms Graham whose talents was taken away by arthritis, this was Graves first work where he had to choreograph from a wheelchair as the result of surgery to remove a cyst on the spine. It made the evening's performance more significant and perhaps explained the deep emotional richness of the work. I am not a dancer but I was totally on page with this work. It left me with such a sense of awe. The dancers were brilliant in their use of body to tell story and convey emotion.

(l to r) Ahmad Simmons, Hank Hunter, Ethan Kirschbaum,
Drew Fountain (Below), Levizadik Buckins and
John Litzler in Frank Chaves’s “In The End.”

 Flashback to the Beginning

The last movement of the show was a revival of Reality of a Dreamer. Originally done in 1992, the vignette's musical focus centered around British pop band Eurythmics' Sweet Dreams (Are made of This). This segment of the evening provided a dramatic contrast to how much choreography has changed and evolved during the company's tenure. This high energy performance was more of a "line dance" like performance that while less emotion-gripping, was no less intense. It was very high energy and ended the evenings performance on an incredible high note. The original performance in 1992 is what catapulted the company onto the national stage with a PBS broadcast of the company in a three-part documentary. This documentary broadcast titled Reality of a Dreamer won and Emmy Award for Outstanding Entertainment and also a Silver Plaque at the Chicago International Film Festival.  Tonight's performance was choreographed by the company's first Artistic Director Sherry Zunker. The piece centers around a dream that is yet to be realized. Twenty five year later, dreams change - the artistic vision of this company remains steady. This evenings performance displayed that previous dream and how it has gained roots. The dreams are now reality. This piece now symbolizes how the company would like to move forward. Given tonight's performance, I would say the company has made lofty dreams a reality and moving forward is a short step away.

Three presentations provided humanitarian cases and the different stages of different emotional journeys.  Nicely condensed, the evening was brisk and concise while at the same time provided new additions to contemporary dance. As this was the kickoff of River North Dance 25th Anniversary Season, they now start a world tour that takes them away from Chicago for some time. Should you have the opportunity to catch them on their performances on October 10 or 11th, run to see them. Your next opportunity is in late February when the perform at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie on the 28th. They also have a one day performance at the Auditorium Theater in late March. Should you happen to be in Israel or Europe in Mid-October through Mid-November, you will want to make a point of seeing them. You can find them online at Enjoy

Written by: Thom Olson and Tareq Al Saud

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