Category Archives: Penny Saunders

Thoughts on HSDC 2011 Fall Series

Dancers Jesse Bechard & Penny Saunders in "Arcangelo". Photo by Todd Rosenberg.

Last night was the big night!  Hubbard Street Dance Chicago‘s (HSDC) season opener at the Harris Theater with the world premiere of SCARLATTI by Twyla Tharp.  A packed house (they even had to open up the balcony) full of Chicago dance enthusiasts, including our favorite fan-in-chief Mayor Emanuel and his family, was virtually vibrating with anticipation for a great show.  As usual, HSDC did not disappoint.

Tharp’s SCARLATTI, set to the music of Domenico Scarlatti, opened the show.  Extremely musical; lightening fast, vivid footwork; carefree, fun attitude and work-your-tail-to-the-bone difficult.  In other words, quintessential Tharp.  The dancers made it look easy.  It isn’t.  Not by a long shot.  To say it is simply about the music and the dancing (although it is) is misleading.  There is nothing simple about it.  Using her evil genius mind and savant-like musical knowledge, Tharp creates a dizzying whirlwind of dancers entering and exiting the stage in a nanosecond.  Part of the dizzying effect was due to the costumes, designed by Norma Kamali.  White, black, neon yellow, stripes, leopard spot, headbands, arm bands…too much.  Quite frankly, the costumes were distracting.  The thirty-minute piece was non-stop, balls-to-the-walls dance finishing with a cute wave from new company member David Schultz as if to say, “hi, I’m here!”  Standing ovation.  The audience ate it up and Tharp postponed her bow to hug each of the dancers.

Nacho Duato’s Arcangelo, the next work on the program, is one of my favorite pieces in HSDC’s rep.  A reflection on heaven and hell danced by four couples is set to the music of Arcangelo Corelli and Alessandro Scarlatti, who was the father of Tharp’s composer.  HSDC brought the work into it’s rep last fall and is the only US company to perform it.  (You can read my interview with Duato from last fall here.)  It is gorgeous and the dancers performed it seamlessly.  One audience member stood up to applaud at the curtain before everyone else.  Mayor Rahm Emanuel.  Too cool.

Dancers Kellie Epperheimer & Kevin Shannon in "Walking Mad". Photo by Todd Rosenberg.

Walking Mad by Swedish choreographer Johan Inger closed the show.  Quite a few people had been talking about this piece, trying to convince me I had seen it before.  I hadn’t.  This is something you have to see to believe and you won’t soon forget it.  (Note to Alejandro: party hats, wall, Bolero…now I know!)  An ingenious mix of silliness, heartbreak, passion, despondency, acrobatics, strength and talent, set to the driving force of Ravel’s Bolero.  Originally created ten years ago for the Nederlands Dans Theater, the work utilizes a wall set piece that has the dancers moving through four doorways, around, over and on the wall which also lowers to the floor, raises and folds to create a shadowy corner.  I loved it.

Once again, to name stand outs would be to list every single performer.  New company members Schultz and Garrett Anderson (Alice Klock was not in this cast, but I’m hoping to see her on Sunday) fit in like they’ve been here forever and are definitely where they belong.  The show runs through Sunday and it is a must see.  HSDC just gets better and better.

CDF Opening Gala

Joffrey Ballet's Victoria Jaiani & Temur Suluashvili in White Swan pas. Photo by Cheryl Mann.

Last night was the opening night gala kicking off the fifth year of the Chicago Dancing Festival (CDF). A short 5-piece program on the MCA Stage was followed by cocktails, a buffet with three ballroom dance couples interspersed upstairs at Puck’s Restaurant and outside on the terrace.  The $250-a-head evening was co-chaired by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who stayed to mingle after the show along with his wife and daughter.  A few short speeches preceded the performance. MCA Director of Performance Programs Peter Taub opened the fest saying, “We are here to celebrate the best of dance from across the country”.  CDF co-founder Jay Franke gave some impressive stats including that in the past five years the festival has presented over 35 companies and over 400 dancers and proudly announced that this year CDF sold out approximately 10,000 seats for this week’s performances.  Franke turned over the mic to Mayor Emanuel, who celebrated his 100th day in office by attending the gala.  The Mayor, a former dancer and huge fan, declared that he wants to double the size of the fest and make sure Chicago is the dance destination for the entire country. He added there are 19 companies performing this week to an estimated 19,000 audience members.  Co-founder Lar Lubovitch said, “One cannot describe dance in words, no matter how eloquent,” but then went on to read the most eloquent essay (written by him) on duets, five of which we were about to see.

HSDC's Penny Saunders & Alejandro Cerrudo in Following the Subtle Current Upstream. Photo by Cheryl Mann.

The program of duets featured choreography from 1895 to present and while they represented divergent styles, there was a through-line of choreographic evolution.  A pristine classical white ballet to a fluid neoclassical ballet with a contemporary twist.  An emotive classic modern offering to a postmodern minimal feat.  Then an avant garde performance art work that evoked musical and choreographic themes from the first duet.  A mini-history of dance in 60 minutes or less…sort of.  Joffrey Ballet‘s husband and wife team, Victoria Jaiani and Temur Suluashvili began with Lev Ivanov’s traditional White Swan pas (1895) from Swan Lake.  On a small, bare stage it is difficult to bring the audience into the magical place that is needed for the dance, but what it lacked in mood and setting was made up for by technique.  Jaiani’s extraordinary extensions and limberness were on full display.  (I’m fairly certain her back is made of a flexible pipe cleaner.)  Just as they disappeared into the wings, Hubbard Street‘s (HSDC) Penny Saunders and Alejandro Cerrudo oozed onto the stage in an excerpt from Alonzo King’s Following the Subtle Current Upstream (2000).  While similar to the previous pas in technique, flexibility and master partnering (and similar promenades in penché), this duet was the opposite in feel.  Fluid, continuous and rich.

Martha Graham's Xiaochuan Xie & Tadej Brdnik in "Snow on the Mesa". Photo by Cheryl Mann.

An excerpt from *Robert Wilsons Snow on the Mesa (1995) brought a display of control and drama with Martha Graham Dance Company dancers Xiaochuan Xie and Tadej Brdnik’s gorgeous interpretation.  Strong, yet delicate with minimal, but heartbreaking gestures, I found myself holding my breath through the piece.  The all white costuming and loving touches again reminded me of the first duet.  Brian Brooks Moving Company changed things up with a male duet titled MOTOR (2010).  Clad only in black briefs, Brooks and David Scarantino embarked on a thigh-killing, synchronized chugging spree.  Set to a driving beat with ominous overtones, MOTOR had the men hopping, jumping and chugging, foward, backward, in changing formations around the stage.  It was an exercise in stamina and focus.  There were more than a few moments, however, that took me back to the swan theme.  Precise chugs in attitude devánt (four cignets) and chugs in fondue arabesque (white swan corps).  A stripped down off-kilter Swan Lake.

The final piece Compression Piece (Swan Lake) was a commission by Walter Dundervill , created specifically for CDF this year.  If the previous piece was off-kilter, this was Swan Lake on crack!  Dundervill (who Lubovitch said could be ” a lunatic”), along with partner Jennifer Kjos, creates a white landscape of distorted beauty in his choreography (warped fouetté turns and bourré sequences), sets (a fabric installation that serves as back drop and eventually part of the choreography) and costumes (interchangeable pieces – they changed on and off stage – layered from baroque to bridal).  The soundscape featured swan riffs from Tchaikovsky and Saint-Saëns, but funked it up with Diana Ross and Sonic Youth.  This world premiere proved that the black swan has nothing on the white swan when it comes to crazy (in a good way).

Maybe I have Swan Lake on the brain (a strain of avian flu?), but I caught a definite thread of similarity in the pieces.  As if all of the works were distilled from choreography from 120 years ago and ended up being all of these unique moments on stage…and maybe they were.  Example:  Look at the photos on this page.  From very different styles and eras, yet all are an interpretation of a standard supported arabesque.  Technical issues prevented Faye Driscoll from performing on the program as scheduled, but I’m looking forward to seeing it later in the week at the MCA Moves program to see how it would’ve fit into this program.  As it was presented last evening, it was a testament to the brilliant artistic direction of Lubovitch and Franke.

*This has been updated.   I originally had the piece choreographed by Martha Graham.  Oops!