The next time Luna Negra Dance Theater presents a program, I’m going to write a glowing review ahead of time. Okay, I probably won’t do that — and it would be contrary to all the rules of reviewing — but there are two good reasons for taking this approach. First is that time and again this troupe meets or surpasses my expectations. This 13-year-old contemporary dance company with a Latin inflection is consistently excellent, with technically proficient dancers performing inventive choreography. Second is that Luna Negra’s primary showcase, its Fall Program, is a one-of, presented on a single night. Be sure to catch it or regret not doing so.
Luna Negra’s October 13 program, entitled “Reencuentros” (“reunions”) at the Harris Theater was a case in point. Even with ultra-stiff competition from other stellar Chicago dance troupes — Hubbard Street Dance Chicago and the Joffrey Ballet come to mind — Luna Negra has risen to the top of my list, a must-see. And yet there were empty seats waiting to be filled by dance aficionados on that Saturday night. The economics of dance explain why the theater was booked for one night only, but multiple nights would increase the fan base, a catch-22 that I hope can be resolved.
The fall program was comfortably paced, with three pieces organized around two intermissions. “Bate” (Portuguese for “heartbeat”), which premiered at Luna Negra in 2010, made for an appealing opener. Brazilian choreographer Fernando Melo set his work to an engaging mix of the music of Tom Zé, Fausto Papetti and Dinah Washington. Said to combine “the melodrama of Brazilian soap operas with the machismo of samba,” “Bate” highlights the company’s five male dancers, all of them superb: Christopher Bordenave, Christian Broomhall, Nigel Campbell, Zoltán Katona and Eduardo Zuñiga.
But we don’t see the men right away. First, a seemingly endless white strip of cloth is pulled across the stage like an impossibly long bridal train. The cloth soon becomes a conveyor belt for a dozen or so pairs of red stilettos. Then, one by one, openings in the black backdrop are spot-lit to reveal a framed face or foot or prop in a series of storybook tableaux, with lighting design and recreation by David Stockholm and Jared B. Moore.
The tease continues with the curtain half raised to reveal the dancers’ bare feet. Only after this foreplay are the men fully exposed, albeit in tailored suits designed by the choreographer. Melo’s principal metaphor in “Bate” seems to be respiration/inspiration, with the dancers becoming upright like inflated dolls, only to deflate into flaccid heaps before beginning the cycle anew, accompanied by whooshing sounds. Eventually the dancers launch into a series of looping movements that carry the piece to an evocative conclusion under a shower of rose petals.
Although the women of Luna Negra had only cameo appearances in “Bate,” they received equal billing in the next two works, both world premieres. All the women deserve mention: Renée Adams, Mónica Cervantes, Veronica Guadalupe, Filipa Peraltinha and Kristen Shelton. The October 13 performance was the last in Chicago for Guadalupe, but the talented dancer, who joined Luna Negra in 2002, will remain with the company as rehearsal director.
Luna Negra’s artistic director, Gustavo Ramírez Sansano, choreographed “18 + 1” to celebrate his 19 years as a choreographer — he began as a boy. Shifting banks of industrial lights comprise the set. Unisex costumes in charcoal and houndstooth check (designed by the choreographer and Sergio Cordoba) terminate at the knee, exposing the dancers’ crew socks, to lend the effect of conservative business attire run through a blender. The neutral lighting and background highlight the occasional bursts of color: Kirsten Shelton in a red chemise, an eruption of red glitter. The real color is in the dancing. Set to the tunes of Pérez Prado, “18 + 1” spins the dancers through movement that is at first mechanical and then wildly liberated, like robots learning to mambo. Another winner.
The program returned to choreographer Melo for the final piece, “Walk-In.” Working from “the notion of a person whose spirit has departed from his body and has been replaced by a new soul,” Melo organized the work into scenes, incorporating assorted stage business into the dancing, with vocalizations by the dancers in one section and a broadcast of talk radio in another: “Does your ex want to get together?”
Melo’s dance vocabulary of folding and enveloping movements in “Walk-In” seems to take its cue from the work’s significant prop, an illuminated vending machine cum jukebox that transforms the coins the dancers insert into cans of Coke that roll across the stage. Ultimately the cans are replaced by the dancers rolling across the stage, with nothing to stop them but inertia. But of course, Luna Negra dancers never seem to run out of steam.
“Reencuentros,” the Fall Program of Luna Negra Dance Theater, took place at Harris Theater in Chicago on Oct. 13, 2012. The company will perform in Spain, Wisconsin and New York before returning to Chicago in December for a family-oriented, narrated dance performance at Ruth Page Center for the Arts. For more information about Luna Negra Dance Theater, visit lunganegra.org.
Photos: Cheryl Mann