Category Archives: Pritzker Pavillion

CDF11 Celebration of Dance

River North Dance Chicago performing "Nine Person Precision Ball Passing". Photo by Cheryl Mann.

Saturday night was beautiful.  The weather, the venue, the dancing.  The perfect night to hold an outdoor, free dance concert for the city of Chicago.  At Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park, Mayor Emanuel took the stage to introduce the final night of the Chicago Dancing Festival (CDF) and vowed to take the now five-day fest up to six days of free dance events next year.  Dubbed a Celebration of Dance, the entire evening was just that.  Some of the best dancers in the country came together to dance works by Kylían, Balanchine, Graham and Taylor for the estimated 10,000-12,000 people in attendance.  Even the fabulous Gehry-designed concert venue could not compete with what was happening on the stage.

Ballet West, under the direction of former Joffrey dancer and Ballet Master Adam Sklute, opened the show with Jirí Kylían’s Sinfonietta.  This troupe won a Chicago following last year when they performed Balanchine’s Serenade at CDF.  Program notes declare Sinfonietta is “a celebration of our earthly life” and with joyous jetés and rousing score, it proved to be a pitch-perfect opener for our celebration.  A black back drop with sparkling lights like stars came clearly into focus when the piece finished just as the sun set and the stars overhead came out.  Timing is everything.  The woman sitting next to me literally jumped out of her seat in excitement as the piece ended.  She seemed embarrassed at first until she realized she wasn’t alone.  This was the first of many mini standing ovations of the evening (most of which were started by the Hubbard Street dancers in the crowd).  River North Dance Chicago (RNDC) followed with Charles Moulton’s post-modern Nine Person Precision Ball Passing.  For the third time this week, RNDC took their places on three tiers to perform the brain-teasing work which has seven minutes of fast ball exchanges in every possible configuration.  It is clear that the dancers have it embedded to memory as they performed it perfectly, even throwing in some sassy faces and attitude.  It’s a fun work that drew giggles and appreciation.  Now if I could only get that pinball-synth score out of my head.

Joffrey Ballet performed George Balanchine’s difficult and folksy ballet Stravinsky Violin Concerto.  The large group piece features two duets (Victoria Jaiani and Temur Suluashvili, Valerie Robin and Fabrice Calmels) to arias mixed in with all male and all female sections.  This work is at times difficult for me (why is she doing inside/out back bends?  why are they making a thumbs up sign and waving at each other?), but it was performed with flair and verve.  With fire engine sirens in the background, Joffrey showed the hometown crowd what it’s made of – strong technique, charisma and love.  (Shout out to Derrick Agnoletti for his fierce pas de chats!) Martha Graham Dance Company took the stage next in Diversion of Angels.  Graham’s trademark pitches and contractions were staples, but with lyrical passes and beautiful lifts mixed in.  Carrie Ellmore-Tallitsch, Ben Schultz and the gorgeous Xiaochuan Xie were stand outs.

Principal dancers Tiler Peck and Gonzalo Garcia from the New York City Ballet (NYCB) wowed the crowd with a stunning performance of Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky Pas De Deux.  The virtuoso duet showed the amazing technique, performing chops and musicality of the dancers.  Peck, aside from one slight bobble en pointe, was impeccable.  Her pointe work, her presence, her extensions, her turns, her playfulness all came together at warp speed.   I felt like a little girl seeing something so amazing that it changed my life.  (Mommy, I want to be a ballerina!)  I had goosebumps and yes, I was one of the many shouted bravo during bows.  The excitement carried over to the final piece.  The crowd was ready and  Paul Taylor Dance Company did not disappoint.  Taylor’s Esplanade set to Bach concertos was original inspired by a woman running to catch a bus.  The piece incorporates common human gestures with innovative partnering (a promenade with a woman standing on the man’s stomach), ridiculously fast footwork (Michelle Fleet’s solo was lightening fast!), running passes and a little romance.  The dancers were joyful with smiles on their faces as if they were having the time of their collective lives.  The audience was too.  *Insert full standing ovation here.

Every year, a random bird makes an appearance in the show, flying about the stage above the dancers as if it is so caught up in the moment that it wants to be part of the performance.   I imagine much of the audience felt exactly the same way.  Just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, it did.  Multiple times.  Every day the festival got better and better and I can honestly say (although I didn’t “get” some pieces) I enjoyed watching every single dance.  Lar Lubovitch, Jay Franke and Evin Eubanks deserve great thanks and kudos for pulling off this hugely successful dance festival.  I wonder how they’re going to top it next year.

CDF Sneak Peek 2

RNDC dancer Cassandra Porter. Photography by Sandro.

Today I sat in on a rehearsal with River North Dance Chicago (RNDC) to watch them prep for the Chicago Dancing Festival next week.  RNDC  will be performing Charles Moulton‘s Nine Person Precision Ball Passing for the Moderns program at the Harris Theater on Aug 23rd and the Celebration of Dance performance at Pritzker Pavilion on Aug 27th.  Moulton has been working with the dancers since Monday to set his 1980 postmodern piece for nine dancers (the original was for just three dancers and premiered in 1979).  One would think the title says it all, but there is more going here on than just precise handling of spheres.

When you think of postmodern dance, RNDC is not the first company that comes to mind.  Known more for their fast, athletic, emotive style, this “departure” is an interesting switch in process and a welcome challenge.  The dancers are on risers with three on each level – the bottom sitting, while the top two stand.  They do not deviate from these spots for the entire seven-minute piece.  What does happen is an ingenious exercise in brain power, counting, intricate patterns and hand-eye coordination.  Oh yeah, and there are balls passed.  Fast, slow, up, down, over, under, and in patterns with names like “waterfall” and “jaws”.  It is like a crazy puzzle come to life.

Understandably, the dancers are still trying to get the movement patterns into their bodies, while staying relaxed and focused.  “Keep the playfulness from the beginning,” Moulton instructs.  “The playfulness allows us to see the humanness.”  That humanness is the essential ingredient in the work.  What does one do when faced with an impossible task?  It is the reaction to that challenge that is the core of it.  “Mistakes are part of it, but it’s how you react,” he says.  “It speaks to the absurdity of systems and the human tendency to obsess, to perfect.”

I was thrown off when Mariah Carey’s cover of I Still Believe came on for the first run.  What?  This was just for a slower tempo to get the flow going at a friendlier pace.  Eventually, they upped the speed a bit to Barry White’s Never Gonna Give You Up with mixed (and sometimes funny) results.  The actual score by A. Leroy is faster and follows the choreography exactly.  “Speed is in your mind,” Moulton says.  “If you can do it slow, you can do it fast.”  This social experiment using movement (“We haven’t defined it yet.  Is it a dance, a game, a metaphor?”) has been reproduced over the years with ballet companies, children and non dancers.  I find it interesting to see how it evolves when performed by talented, technically trained dancers that weren’t even born when this project started.

CDF Sneak Peek 1

Joffrey's April Daly & Miguel Blanco in Balanchine's "Stravinsky". Photo by Herbert Migdoll.

I sat in on rehearsal this morning at Joffrey Tower. The world-renown ballet troupe, which just came back after their summer hiatus (and a nail-biting mini labor dispute) and is getting ready for a number of upcoming gigs including the Chicago Dancing Festival (CDF).  The fest runs August 23 – 27 at various Chicago venues (with a Gala fundraiser opening the week on Monday, August 22).  Joffrey will be represented at three of CDF’s evening concerts.

This morning, they were rehearsing Balachine’s Stravinsky Violin Concerto, which they performed last fall as an opener for the All Stars program.  It’s difficult.  It’s hard to count (Artistic Director Ashley Wheater:  “Just keep counting!  It’s a six.”), most of it is lightning fast and some of the movements are awkward , but the dancers tackled it with smiles and verve.  The company has been back in the studio since July 25th and there is definitely still an air of back-to-school excitement, most noted in the energetic applause for the violinist playing in rehearsal and a few silly faces aimed at partners.  (Nice jazz hands M.A.)

The Joffrey will be performing Stravinsky at the Celebration of Dance show at Pritzker Pavilion on Saturday, August 27th, as well as this weekend at the Blossom Festival in Ohio.  Dancers Victoria Jaiani and Temur Suluashvili will also be performing the White Swan pas from Swan Lake for CDF’s opening night gala.

UPDATE:  I just got confirmation that Jaiani and Suluashvili will be performing the Act II pas from Giselle for the Masters program on August 25th.  Tickets (free) are still available.