Melissa Thodos likes to explore new avenues for creative expression. Through collaborations with such groups as Fulcrum Point New Music Project, The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Tony-award winning Ann Reinking, and, now, innovative architect Jeanne Gang, she finds ways to connect history, storytelling, architecture, and physics through contemporary and highly athletic movement.
The first of four works presented at Saturday’s winter concert at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie, 2 of which were world premieres, was “A Light in the Dark: the Story of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan”.This story ballet, co-choreographed by Thodos and Ann Reinking, premiered a year ago with great success.
Reprised this year, with Jessica Miller Tomlinson as Helen and Alissa Tollefson as Anne repeating their roles, it was equally strong and compelling. Tomlinson, a truly gifted and exquisite dancer, in a tour de force role, exhibits all the bewilderment, rage, and loneliness that Keller must have felt as a 7 year old child who could not hear, see, or speak. We see the struggle played out between the impetuous, uncontrollable “wild” child and her patient but equally strong-willed teacher, Sullivan, who “civilizes” her by teaching her table manners and preparing her to take her place in her family and society.
A particularly poignant and revelatory scene is when Keller learns and is able to articulate the word for the liquid she splashes on her face: water. In the process of discovery, the world opens up for her. Acted, as much as danced, this work was performed with tremendous empathy, enhanced by an original score by Bruce Wolosoff, lighting by Nathan Tomlinson and costumes by Nathan Rohrer.
The much anticipated world premiere of “Changes of Phase”, was conceived, as Studio Gang lead architect Jeanne Gang notes, because of the “interest in the temporal qualities of dance and (we) wanted to explore kinetic “change” in the architecture that supports it.”
The Gang design and construction team Claire Cahan, Juan de la Mora, Schuyler Smith, Mike Vallara and Juliane Wolf created “membranous” forms that looked a bit like huge, bubble wrapped tentacles that could change shape as they were manipulated. Initially mixed in among a cluster of bodies piled against and atop each other, these forms began to resemble biomorphic organisms as the bodies of dancers breathed and came to life, separating from each other.
Nicknamed “jamoebas”, (a combination of the physics process called “jamming” and an amoeba-like, changing quality), these amorphous objects took on intriguing contours you could interpret in many different ways, one of which looked like a long skirt as dancer Lauren Zimmerer crawled under and inside its center to stand. As the human bodies moved and changed shapes, so too did these non-human "creatures", sometimes almost "walking." Other dancers smoothly propelled themselves across the stage, their bellies on little wheeled platforms, looking like chameleons or alligators, an eerie, beguiling sight. Were the dancers and “jamoebas” creatures from the sea? Were they interchangeable? Perhaps a second viewing or further development of the process will produce a satisfying answer. As it is the work was fascinating but felt slightly unfinished.
A second world premiere, choreographed by Lucas Crandall, rehearsal director for Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, was set to an original score by Johnny Nevin, is a brooding, intense work filled with erotic struggle.
Reflective of its title, “Tsuru”, (Japanese for Crane, the bird that mates for life and symbol of longevity), two couples, beautifully performed by Joshua Manculich and Diane Winfree, and Kyle Hadenfeldt and Jessica Miller Tomlinson danced their rituals and struggles amidst the ensemble, again lit by Nathan Tomlinson’s wonderful lighting design.
Closing the program was Ahmad Simmons’ “Panem Nostrum Quoditianum” (“Our daily bread” in Latin). Simmons, currently with River North Dance Chicago, has performed a wide range of works with leading contemporary choreographers such as Bill T. Jones, Robert Battle, David Parsons, and Lar Lubovitch.
The work, performed by seven members of the company, is set to music of the Texas Boys Choir, Max Richter’s “Four Seasons Recomposed: Winter 3 and Summer 3, Journey 3” (from Vivaldi). It also includes a voice over of “The Lord’s Prayer”, as dancers are lifted heavenward.
While a strongly performed evening of dance, with much to contemplate, there is there is usually a greater variety of moods in a mixed repertory program, which I would have enjoyed.
This program will be repeated Saturday, March 8 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, March 9 at 2 p.m. at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance, 205 E. Randolph Street, Chicago, as long as the fire damage to the theater has been repaired.
Tickets are $20-$60; half off for students, seniors and industry.
For more information or to purchase tickets call the Harris at 312-334-7777 or visit the Harris Theater website.
Photos by Cheryl Mann