River North Dance Chicago | Miles Davis Festival | Live review

River North Dance Chicago members Hanna Brictson and Christian Denice in Simply Miles, Simply Us.

River North Dance Chicago members Hanna Brictson and Christian Denice in Simply Miles, Simply Us. Photograph: Joshua Paul Weckesser

In its first-ever concert at the Auditorium Theatre, River North Dance Chicago took the stage April 16 as part of the Aud’s celebration of jazz legend Miles Davis, the four-month festival’s sole dance event. Simply Miles, Simply Us, by RNDC director Frank Chaves with dancers Christian Denice and Ricky Ruiz, also happened to be the theater’s first commission of new choreography (in partnership with Michigan State’s Wharton Center for the Performing Arts).

The thirteen-member company—less Clayton Cross, announced out with an injury before the show began—performed seven works, beginning with Sherry Zunker’s Evolution of a Dream. Its dozen dancers started slowly from two lines, their movements evolving as the music transitioned into “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This).” It set the evening’s theme: Rock-hard bodies wielded with skill in a parade of distinct and varied atmospheres.

Denice, the company’s smoldering Hercules, impressed in Beat, a structured improvisation by Ashley Roland. Dancing center stage, he seemed to create its driving, rhythmic music, swinging his muscular arms into a blur and playing the air with his fingertips.

Reset with red drapes, the stage and its temperature changed for Chaves’s Sentir Em Nós (Even for Us), danced by Michael Gross and Melanie Manale-Hortin. The two remained physically connected through fluid, graceful partnering, their movements as romantic as the music by Andrea Bocelli and Dulce Pontes. But I wondered why they wouldn’t look at each other.

It’s appropriate to pay homage to Davis—a composer with a knack for finding other talented artists—with this fine array of dancers. But Simply Miles, Simply Us was simply smooth: Softer sides of Davis were captured perfectly, but his spikier phrases could’ve supported a fuller embrace of the berserk.

The first of four sections, to “So What,” featured the entire company, decked out in purple-and-black costumes by frequent RNDC designer Jordan Ross. They stood in a circle, leaning on each other, looking cool. They parted, walking cat-like on their highly arched feet, shifting constantly in dynamic, from uniquely punctuated solos to groups dancing in unison. As the music got heavier and more deeply into bass notes, their shoulders rolled up and dropped down. Shrieking horns set the dancers off in more directions still.

An excerpt from the more eccentric Bitches Brew followed, interpreted by nine dancers. While some accentuated the music with sharp leaps, their bodies punching upward off of the floor, others slunk slowly across the stage, sliding on the jazz and wagging their arms like drunken streetwalkers. In the duet that followed, romance returned, although Denice was oddly unmoved by Hanna Brictson, dressed sexily in red for “Blue In Green.”

Twelve silhouettes paraded around at the beginning of the work’s finale, set to “Half Nelson.” The lights came up on big smiles, and precise, controlled choreography to this eclectic and soulful music. Nothing onstage matched the gusto of Davis’s horn section; perhaps another structured improvisation would’ve made a bigger impact. I watched the dancers glide when I wanted to see them jive.

But Robert Battle’s Train, to percussion by Les Tambours du Bronx, roared through after an intermission to blow us all away, performed by five females (Cross is usually also in this piece). The spotlight on Brictson’s solo made a shadow upstage as visually enticing as her own movements, which were as athletic and powerful as Denice’s were earlier in Beat.

Cutesy Etta James duet At Last and Chaves’s Habaneras, the Music of Cuba followed. The latter, in six sections, made for a vibrant conclusion to the program, its dancers in multicolored, flowing costumes filling the stage with beauty and grace, and bringing yet another atmosphere, and culture, to the mix.

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Laura Baginski, Editor (@TimeOutChicago)