“New Music and Dance” Review - Thodos Dance Chicago and Fulcrum Point New Music Project light the stage in a shared spotlight

Thodos Dance Chicago and Fulcrum Point New Music gave a stellar performance last Friday night. The only problem was it was just that—a “one-night-only”, for it surely  deserved more. The almost full house felt the same way. These long time dance and music collaborators worked beautifully together to present six works at the new (it’s only been open a year) Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts at the University of Chicago. Four of the works were a retrospective of the past decade of teamwork by these two companies, a world premiere, and an archival solo work choreographed by Sybil Shearer, an early pioneer of modern dance.


Opening with Modest Mussorgsky’s Promenade, from his Pictures at an Exhibition, this duet, played by virtuoso trumpeter Stephen Burns, founder of Fulcrum Point New Music Project, and the Project’s pianist Jonah White, was a beautiful introduction to an unusual – diverse evening of movement and music through humor and social commentary. The clarion call of the solo trumpet’s opening notes makes one sit up straight and heralds one to pay attention to what will follow, much like Jeremiah Clarke’s Trumpet Voluntary.  It was delicious and a little spine-tingling in this new performance space.


In a Vacuum, choreographed andfirst performed by the innovative Sybil Shearer (1912-2005) in 1941, at New York’s Carnegie Hall, was lovingly re-created and re-staged by Toby Nicholson, a former company dancer.  A quirky, unusual and sometimes humorous number, described by Nicholson as “a factory worker caught in a maze of machinery”, it was performed by Melissa Thodos dancer Jessica Miller Tomlinson, to Mussorgsky’s Goldenberg and Schmuyle from Pictures at an Exhibition music, performed again by Burns and White.  This is a short tour-de-force solo of repetitive, almost robotic arm movements, in an almost stationary position, with occasional jerky leg movements. The piece is idiosyncratic of unemotional, thoughtless, and mechanistic behavior. The Chicago Film Archives states,  “In a Vacuum…explored earthly problems and portrayed an assembly-line worker with physically demanding but unrelated movements that suggested dehumanization.”  Shearer’s work, which was mostly solo pieces, depicted both spiritual visions and human foibles. Trained by Doris Humphrey and Agnes de Mille, Shearer left New York for Chicago in the early 1940’s.


The delightful introduction to Sentient, a relatively new work by Thodos, with the entrance of 13 year old violinist Hannah White, brought smiles and chuckles to the audience.  A merit scholarship recipient and member of the Music Institute of Chicago, White was carried aloft, with legs crossed, by 3 male dancers, set down, handed her violin and bow and bowed to.  She then nodded to her attendants, instructing them to be off—and dance.  This piece is set to Fritz Kreisler’s virtuosic violin work Praeludium and Allegro.  White, accompanied by pianist brother Jonah White, created a seamless, fluid work which showcased both this violin prodigy and the smooth technique of the six dancers.


Shulamit Ran, former Composer-in-Residence of theChicago Symphony Orchestra, Professor of Music at the University of Chicago, and a Pulitzer Prize winner (among many other awards) was on hand to enjoy Thodos’  2006 Eastwind, a trio set to Ran’s flute solo of the same title, performed by flutist Mary Stolper.  Dancers Tenley Dorrill, Kyle Hadenfeldt, and Lauren Zimmerer skillfully wove in and out and was clearly a winner for the enthusiastic audience.


The world premiere of Fluid Altitude, choreographed by Melissa Thodos, to the musicNagoya Marimbas, composed bySteve Reich,was a show-stopper. The two marimbas, played by virtuosi percussionists Greg Beyer and Doug Perkins, were set center stage, with eight dancers literally dancing circles around them.  Lying on their backs in a wide circle of light, the dancers began rhythmically lifting their heads off the floor and rhythmically bobbing them up and down, an arresting move, with an occasional arm being thrown up towards the light for greater emphasis.  Costumes, by Vanessa J. Arden, added to the feeling of energy and youthful exuberance.  The work celebrates the complexity of Reich through intricate kinetic dynamics and layers of crafted choreographic phrasing, culminating in a fluidly intense experience.


The program closed with the full company performing Aries, a 2009 work about the Zodiac choreographed by Thodos and set to music by Karlheinz Stockhausen for trumpet, andperformed hauntingly Stephen Burns. Since the signs of the zodiac are 12 and the company is 12 dancers, that would make the solo trumpeter the sun. Staged by Thodos, Burns faced upstage, towards the dancers, like a conductor facing his orchestra, leading them to perform, as he played that clear, bright trumpet sound. He, played continuously as he walked through andlkk among the dancers, encouraging them, but also at times became one of them, and was buffeted about by them, rarely facing the audience directly.  At one point he held one note seemingly forever, mesmerizing all, as he slowly encircled the entire stage, causing me to wonder at his breath control.  It was a stunning display of virtuosity.  A little long, with some of the dance movements becoming lackluster, it was still an intriguing work which has been critically acclaimed.


Melissa Thodos, founder and artistic director of Thodos Dance Chicago, developed the company in 1992. Her twelve dancers excel in contemporary and highly athletic dance movement.  Thodos seems to enjoy collaboration—not only with Fulcrum,   creating three works together, but also with Tony Award winner Ann Reinking, with whom she created The White City, about the 1893 Columbian Exposition.  Their highly successful joint effort, A Light in the Dark: the Story of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan, will be reprised this winter, along with a new work with Studio Gang Architects, inspired by art and architecture.


Founded in 1998 by trumpet virtuoso and conductor Stephen Burns, Fulcrum Point seeks to champion new classical music and highlight contemporary composers who are inspired and influenced by popular culture, including literature, film, dance, and music.  The 25 member Fulcrum Point ensemble encourages audiences to make cross-cultural connections between music, art, technology and literature, gaining greater insight into today’s diverse world.


I am only sorry that New Music and Dance had only one performance at the Logan Center.  Open only a year, with a 474 seat house, it is a medium size performance space that seems perfect for dance and concert work, creating a warm environment and bringing the audience close to the artists.  While I am not a music performance hall expert, the acoustics seemed fine, the solo instruments, as well as the marimbas, sounding clear yet resonant, and gave me a feeling of immediacy with the music. It is also a welcome addition to Chicago’s South Side and the University.

For more information go to the Thodos Dance Chicago website



Photos:  Courtesy of Fulcrum Point and Thodos Dance Chicago




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