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Dance Review:

RIVER NORTH CHICAGO DANCE COMPANY, Dance Chicago 2001 at The Athenaeum Theatre


It’s always enlightening to view the spectrum of a dance troupe’s repertoire from the last few years interspersed with world premieres – the format of River North Chicago Dance Company’s (RNCDC) fall program as part of Dance Chicago 2001 at the Athenaeum Theatre. This expansive structure allows audiences to see what the artists have achieved and where they’re headed. But it also reveals how some pieces age better than others.

At RNCDC’s Nov. 24 concert, all of these factors were on display and made me think deeply about the next pivotal tier in this modern dance company’s development. The 12-year-old troupe’s appeal is rooted in its ability to give the psychological underpinnings of modern dance an entertaining commercial edge. This fusion has attracted diverse audiences who can appreciate RNCDC’s emotion-driven style without having to ponder layers of abstracted subtext.

Yet, while the company boasts works of great invention and demanding technique, it can still push the artistic envelope even further into a more daring movement stratosphere. Ashley Roland’s new mind-blowing structured-improv solo, "Beat," performed by the elastically adept Stephanie Martinez, should serve as a fresh template for RNCDC’s creative growth.

Martinez, who barely moves her feet, appears to be driven into a piercing shaft of light, where she isolates almost every joint, mirroring the surrounding percussion in her elbows, shoulders, knees and neck. She resembles a wooden puppet, whose limbs are loosely strung together, creating the illusion of body parts engaged in separate "hinges" of movement removed from the torso. It’s also a hard-hitting work that showcases one of the company’s many powerhouse female dancers.

Two more premieres -- artistic director Frank Chaves’ "Love Will Follow" and former co-artistic director Sherry Zunker’s "A Mi Manera" – encompassed RNCDC’s signature treading of pop-tinged and timeless terrain. Chaves’ "Love Will Follow," a ballroom-inspired ensemble piece juxtaposed against the music of Kenny Loggins, was the more successful of the two. Despite smatterings of awkwardly retrofitted dips and twists, this work exhibited a sophisticated merging of polarized styles.

Zunker’s concept – three simultaneously performed solos to the Gipsy Kings’ Spanish version of "My Way," each crafted by Zunker, Ginger Farley and Kevin Iega Jeff – set out to meld individual choreographic approaches. But this all-too-brief and undefined solo/trio – danced with great skill and fire by Martinez, Lara Tinari and Tony Peyla – failed to unveil new dimensions of the choreographers or their choice of music. It surprisingly favored stream-of-consciousness Latin cliches rather than a heartfelt exploration of the words’ paradoxical sense of invincibility and longing.

The rest of the evening consisted of past favorites, with Chaves’ red-hot 1995 "Charanga" and his faux-comedic 1999 "At Last" duet (oddly taken out of the larger context of "Mission") looking a bit worn and dated – particularly in the realm of over-zealous visual humor. Randy Duncan’s inspirational, Afro-centric 1997 work (which included an achingly acute solo by James Gregg) brought down the house for its sheer volume and synergy. But the dancers could have more wrapped themselves more profoundly around Duncan’s earthy choreography.

Daniel Ezralow’s 2000 "Pulse," developed through improvisation and reminiscent of scintillating planets floating and darting across the galaxies, has a mesmerizing quality that – due to the excessive length of the piece -- ultimately grows redundant. Zunker’s 1998 "Vent," a salute to two women’s resilience, gives Martinez and Brittany Blume a chance to demonstrate their fiery narrative-movement skills. And Roland’s 1998 "Captain Tenacity," which features the supple Shannon Elliott as an intrepid but hapless superhero with a Velcro belt, remains an audience favorite. It can easily become a one-joke wonder, but Roland had the good sense to keep it short and pungent.

Chaves’ 2000 "The Two Sides of Tes – and Then Some" highlights RNCDC’s versatile and chiseled men: Ruedi Arnold, Chad Azadan, Miguel Perez, Gregg and Peyla, together with a impeccably sultry appearance by Molly Cofman as a free-spirited temptress. This complex three-part work – centered in sculpted athleticism and enhanced by Todd L. Clark’s alluring lighting -- is one of the most emotionally complex and technically demanding works in the company’s repertoire. But, from a structural perspective, each section still feels disconnected. A sharply discernable transition between parts one and two could alleviate the work’s disjointed nature.

River North Chicago Dance Company’s performances at Dance Chicago 2001 once again proved the dancers’ exuberant ability to master any style. Now the troupe needs to stretch that mastery into the riskier realm of totally new movement forms.•

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