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Dance/Performance Review:

CERQUA RIVERA ART EXPERIENCE at Black Orchid Show Lounge

BY LUCIA MAURO

With so many dance companies performing to pre-recorded music, it’s such a breath of fresh, sonorous air to come in contact with a troupe committed to live music. But Cerqua Rivera Art Experience – presenting a suave and electrifying Duke Ellington-style concert through June 30 at the Black Orchid Show Lounge in Piper’s Alley – even transcends the notion of live musical accompaniment.

This five-year-old artist collective headed by composer-vocalist Joe Cerqua, choreographer Wilfredo Rivera and visual artist Matt Lamb integrates an array of art forms on stage. A musician partners a dancer; a dancer twirls around with a vocalist; a sax player morphs into a provocative scenic and aural design element; Lamb’s wild-hued murals seems to pulsate together with the eclectic colors of Cerqua’s and Donald Neale’s compositions.

But Cerqua Rivera Art Experience, which has only recently been producing its own full-blown concerts (it’s traditionally part of larger dance festivals), is at the height of its creativity and sophistication. The multidisciplinary environment the group fosters extends beyond a literal interaction. The dancers are at one with the essence of the music. Attentive to giving viewers an authentic experience, the artists have chosen a posh supper-club venue to mirror the vintage variety-act structure of the program.

Rivera’s brazenly theatrical and joyously off-the-wall choreography dominates the bill for the two-night engagement. Musical theater-inspired dancemaker Kenny Ingram, who is extending his reach to social-justice themes, has created two works for the company. The evening, while it runs about 15 minutes too long, demonstrates a sensitivity to balanced, interconnected offerings and a seamless flow of energy.

Plus Cerqua Rivera Art Experience is not restricted to one style of music. Ten musicians and two vocalists fill the velvety room with opera, jazz, Latin, musical theater, rock and Klezmer shadings. Their instruments include keyboards and electric guitars, cellos, violins, brass and percussive instruments. Meanwhile, the dancers sail from tango to classic ballroom, ballet, vaudeville, jazz and a quirky fusion of all of the above.

Rivera, who favors flashes of sexy bravado and flights of whimsy, has developed a complex style that toggles between the theatrical, experimental, diabolical and poetic. One would think that such rampant eclecticism would result in a hodgepodge of self-indulgence. Not with this refined troupe. Not a single discipline gets shortchanged. This is most evident in the total merging of forms in Rivera’s "Summertime Suite" in which silken soprano Carol LoVerde appears to conjure a group of pliable dancers representing the cycle of life’s reunions and losses before powerhouse jazz vocalist Bobbi Wilsyn enters and carries the story to its inspiring climax.

Woven throughout each dance piece are jolts of engaging compositions – from Neale’s "Y La Nina Bailaba!" to Cerqua’s "Uncle Vanya" – so that at no moment is there a lull in the proceedings. One section leads smoothly into the next. The artists also move with impressive ease on quite a small stage, and are particularly agile in Rivera’s jaunty "Good Time Charlie." The spirited ensemble (known for its intricate precision in what appears free-style movement) sports umbrellas, rain coats and beach props as they fly across a packed stage of musicians and vocalists, but never create a sense of clutter.

Of the 17 works on the program, Rivera’s "Carole King Suite," featuring Cerqua’s intensely malleable vocals, attests to the dancers’ deceptively casual approach to intelligently deconstructed movement. The piece is bathed in hippie splendor as the ensemble sways its hip huggers and shakes its love beads and fringe with an airy glow. Ingram’s revivalist-infused "Weep No More" – a luminous piece for vocalist Wilsyn – sends its five dancers into a spiritual stratosphere.

Ingram’s world premiere, "Givin’ Out Some Soul," claims to celebrate African-American cultural influences on mainstream America, but does not make its ideas clear or connect its movements compellingly to the music. It feels unfinished. The same is true of Rivera’s moving but ultimately unfulfilling "Black Country," whose metal-bar prop is meant to serve as a metaphor for the struggles of AIDS, but does not illuminate that point.

On the flip side, the world premiere of Rivera’s comedic switcheroo, "American Plan," takes a 1950’s rubbery Donald O’Connor-esque routine and makes a spirited statement about gender relations. Paul Christiano, whose body is capable of super-human feats, and the precise and stylish Eddy O’Campo shine in this piece.

The entire ensemble in their Dr. Seuss/"Godspell"-like garb, with the flexible and expressive Rivera leading the way, continues to shower the stage with multiple colors and textures in Rivera’s signature merry-go-round of a dance, "Tom and Jerry" – the perfect finale to an evening of endless artistic shadings.•

Cerqua Rivera Art Experience runs through June 30 at 8 p.m. at the Black Orchid Show Lounge (Piper’s Alley), 230 W. North Ave. Tickets: $35. Call 312-944-2200.

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