Live review | Chicago Dancing Festival 2011: “Celebration of Dance”

Smart programming and standout performances marked the festival’s closing-night show, as they did its entire weeklong run.

  • Photograph: Cheryl Mann

    Michelle Fleet, right, of the Paul Taylor Dance Company in Esplanade

  • Blakeley White-McGuire, center, with Martha Graham Dance Company members in Diversion of Angels

  • Photograph: Cheryl Mann

    Ballet West dancers in Sinfonietta

  • Heads, from left: Temur Suluashvili, Derrick Agnoletti, John Mark Giragosian, Ricardo Santos and Raul Casasola of the Joffrey Ballet in Stravinsky Violin Concerto

Photograph: Cheryl Mann

Michelle Fleet, right, of the Paul Taylor Dance Company in Esplanade

Shortly after arriving here at 6am, via Greyhound bus from Denver, 80 days into the 90 allowed for his first visit to the United States, Paul Farrington of Cornwall, England heard about the Chicago Dancing Festival. He showed up early at the [node:31586 link=Pritzker Pavilion;] in Millennium Park and watched the Paul Taylor Dance Company, the Joffrey Ballet and two dancers from the New York City Ballet rehearse, in sweatpants, for the evening’s free performance. It was his first time seeing professional dancers live. Watching the dances again that night “with the crowd, the lights and the costumes, was mindblowing,” he told me after the show.

Gosia Czarnecka of Wilmette doesn’t watch much dance and says that she’s terribly uncoordinated, but gave it a shot to live music by Guitarra Azul, at “Hot Summer Nights” at the Chicago Botanic Garden last Thursday evening. Her friend, Alicja Pierzchała, trained in ballet as a young woman and takes her two daughters to see the Joffrey’s Nutcracker at the [node:31924 link=Auditorium Theatre;] most winters. Neither had attended the festival’s free programs before, but “it’s going on my calendar for next summer for sure,” said Czarnecka, who I met along with Pierzchała on a late-night, northbound Red Line train home.

Chicago native Laura Brussell is no festival novice, having attended each of its five years of free shows so far. She arrived with her friend, Lynn Siegler of Glenview, at around 3pm to make sure that they got good seats, up close, for [node:14896737 link=“Celebration of Dance.”;] Like Farrington, they caught the Taylor company dancers practicing that afternoon. “I’d never seen a ballet to Bach before,” Brussell told me before the show, in reference to Taylor’s 1975 Esplanade, which closed the week on notes of [node:14911799 link=mastery;], generosity and warmth.

Three or four years ago, South Loop retiree Joe Cassidy attended his first dance concert, by Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater at the Auditorium, where he heard a group of dancers seated behind him discussing their injuries. “I had no idea what these people go through,” he said, seated to my right in the pavilion. “They’re like any other athletes. The sweat just pours off of them.”

These six, and (a to-be-confirmed) 10,000 other folks, were treated to the festival’s superbly danced and thoughtfully curated finale on August 27, a date which was kind enough to provide absolutely perfect weather. Clarity and simplicity ruled the evening, from a calmly commanding treatment of George Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux (1960) by Gonzalo Garcia and Tiler Peck of NYCB; to an electric Diversion of Angels (1948) by Martha Graham and 11 of her namesake company’s current members; to the show opener, Sinfonietta (1978) by [node:14762443 link=Jiří Kylián;], danced with raw enthusiasm by 14 artists from Salt Lake City’s Ballet West.

[node:14915855 noterms cck=field_caption; cck=field_credits;]

[node:14908455 link=As on Tuesday at the festival’s opening public performance;] at the [node:33023 link=Harris Theater;], River North Dance Chicago handled Charles Moulton’s Nine Person Precision Ball Passing (1980) as if it were a walk in the park (although I look forward to watching these powerhouse dancers perform full-bodied again, rather than sit and trade balls as they have all week). In Balanchine’s Stravinsky Violin Concerto (from 1972, not 1941, as printed in the festival’s program), the Joffrey Ballet was more assured than it was [node:118977 link=nearly a year ago;], but, still, this company’s priorities aren’t quite in the right places. Few of the dancers pushed or pulled the air with much force, attacked their material with interpretive ideas or wit, or replied to Stravinsky’s music with any creativity or immediacy.

After the Graham, my companion said, “That felt like the most contemporary thing I’ve seen all night.” As in Graham’s Embattled Garden, [node:14911799 link=performed on Thursday;] and choreographed a decade later, short phrases often repeat two or three times each, giving us a chance to take in all of the details of their systems. At its beginning, one man splayed his fingers wide behind his partner’s head, making it look as if she was wearing a crown; at the end, this temporary coronation repeated, only with two hands and thus a headdress twice the size. As the Woman in Red, Blakeley White-McGuire sat at one point on her partner’s knee as he knelt; he, too, bestowed this crown but softened it, dropping his fingers out of sight as she reached out with one, longing arm toward the dancers swirling around them. (It was as if they represented youth that she felt that she’d lost.) Leaping to sit on her partner’s shoulder, Xiaochuan Xie, as the Woman in Yellow, drew gasps from the crowd.

So did Garcia and Peck, numerous times, not so much because of what they did but because of how easy they made it look. Peck’s fouetté turns in the coda were effortless, as were Garcia’s double tours en l’air in his solo. Both stayed in active, teasing dialogue with the taped music and with each other. Their confidence drew us in, as did Peck’s wide smile; the only thing out of scale was both dancers’ small, blurry batterie. The crowd roared when they finished.

It’s fascinating to watch Kylián’s Sinfonietta, to Leoš Janáček, knowing how [node:76696 link=he’s grown as an artist in the 33 years since it premiered;]. So many now-hallmarks of his style are there, in basic forms, being test-driven: The sliding as if on ice, the swinging of one body between two others, the play with proximity, the contrast between images of confinement and explosion. Its final section reprised much of its first—an early example of his craftsmanship with men’s ensemble work—only with orientations to the back and the front of the stage exchanged. The dancers ended by gesturing away from us, walking upstage—or, we were watching the beginning again, through a different lens and from behind, and they were welcoming us to the experience that we had just had.

Taylor’s Esplanade is a great counterpart to Sinfonietta, from the same era and the same triumph of clarity in composition. Its power comes from the fact that its bedrock events are things that all people do, whether dancers or not. (Brilliant programming choice for a festival meant to draw in first-timers.) Esplanade begins with simple walking to give meaning to later moments of running and crawling; it begins without contact to shade its fourth section, in which the dancers hold hands, rest them on thighs and touch cheeks. It lays out all of this artfully organized pedestrianism to make its finale, in which the dancers tumble and fly across the stage, seem even more superhuman than it already is. It’s the perfect demonstration of setup and payoff, much like the festival itself was this year.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel introduced the evening’s show, with remarks from notes on a smartphone he held in his right hand. Nowhere else in America offers anything like the festival, he said, which assembled five days of free programs for its fifth anniversary.

“For the sixth year? Six free nights of dance!” promised the mayor, to thunderous applause and whoops of approval.

A closing thought: Two more great dancers I saw this week were buskers in front of the Walgreens at 30 North Michigan Avenue, who entertained the droves streaming into Millennium Park. Chicago is home to accomplished [node:95537 link=African;], [node:123587 link=Bulgarian;], Chinese, Haitian, Indian, Indonesian, champion Irish, Japanese, [node:14896721 link=Mexican;], [node:79183 link=Middle Eastern;], [node:14786371 link=Native American;], Polish and other culturally specific dance groups; [node:14850255 link=experimentalists;]; [node:14881521 link=amazing tappers, many young;]; [node:14865773 link=breakers and footworking crews;]; [node:215645 link=a thriving Latin dance scene;]; [node:14865767 link=flamenco;] and [node:14830207 link=classical-Spanish dance groups;] and [node:14805183 link=schools;]; [node:7560295 link=political choreographers;]; [node:14864833 link=straight guys who strip for men to pay for their college tuition;]; swing enthusiasts and ballroom dance fanatics; [node:14829129 link=aerialists with a message;]; [node:166127 link=DIY choreography competitions;]; [node:77667 link=performance artists;]; [node:14744051 link=Butoh practitioners;]; [node:14889621 link=tireless club kids;]; [node:7553369 link=dance-therapy professionals;] and, concurrent with the show reviewed above, a [node:14917933 link=competitive pole-dancing showcase in Tinley Park;].

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