Archive for the ‘Music – Dance’ Category

PostHeaderIcon Ballet Overshadows Opera Drama

Opening Night at Lyric Opera is always a glittery, red-carpet affair that no other Chicago arts organization does so grandly. Such was the case last Saturday evening complete with limousines, many men in tuxedos and ladies in their formal finery and scurrying photographers seeking to capture all the early spectacle.

Joffrey Ballet & Dmitry Korchak

Joffrey Ballet & Dmitry Korchak
© Todd Rosenberg Photography 2017

The work chosen to kick off Lyric’s 63rd season was “Orphee et Eurydice” by Christoph Willibald Gluck. An added attraction was the participation of 43 dancers from the Joffrey Ballet, with which the Lyric has just announced an artistic partnership to start with the 2020-21 season.

In this production, Orphee is a contemporary choreographer and his wife, Eurydice is the company’s star ballerina who suffers a fatal accident.  The opera, directed, choreographed and designed by John Neumeier, head of the Hamburg Ballet, was dazzling in its dance sequences and beautifully sung by its three perfectly-matched leads.

Dmitry Korchak

Dmitry Korchak

Special praise goes to Russian tenor, Dmitry Korchak, whose rich voice was without strain and a pleasure to listen to.  He conveyed Orphee’s grief over Eurydice’s death convincingly along with his resolve to descend to Hades and rescue her. Andriana Chuchman as Eurydice and Lauren Snouffer as Amour provided stellar accompaniment, particularly in the “Tendre Amour” trio near the end.

Ticket holders should know that Gluck wrote two versions of this story, a fact I hadn’t realized before Saturday’s performance. The last time Lyric presented the work in 2006 (which I attended), it was Gluck’s original 1762 Italian version, performed by noted counter-tenor, David Daniels. I totally enjoyed that staging and mistakenly thought that is what I would be seeing.

Not so. Gluck reworked his score for a 1774 French version that had Orphee’s castrato role now sung by a tenor along with extensive additions of dance music that rendered it more of a danced opera.  I give Neumeier great credit for effectively blending the production’s disparate elements and instilling freshness into the 243-year-old opera (with kudos to Lyric’s orchestra and chorus).

Yet, I regretted his downplaying of the tale’s rich drama. Orphee and Eurydice’s reunion and horrible loss seems to happen in an instant compared to all the terpsichore (although I’ve seldom seen the Joffrey dance better).

The Opening Night version struck me as wan by comparison with Lyric’s 2006 production. The evening damped down the opera’s emotional heart.  Neumeier chose a cooler narrative, one that prioritized the dance elements.

For example, near the end, as Orphee seeks to heal from the devastating loss of his beloved for a second time, Amour tells him to “savor the beauty of love”. There followed a lovely imaginary waltz between Orphee and a ghostly Eurydice. This seemed the poignant and perfect moment on which to end the opera. Instead, Orphee retreats to the back of the stage and we witness an extended, exuberant dance. For Neumeier, who replaced the happy ending of Gluck’s French version only to end with such a light-hearted frolic, seemed like the wrong move.

This production has much to recommend it–fine singing, appealing ballet sequences and Gluck’s music–and will delight many. It simply left me, however, with mixed emotions. Give me Italian Gluck!

Five more performances of “Orphee et Eurydice” remain through October 15. For dates and to purchase tickets, go to






PostHeaderIcon Thrilling Terpsichore!

For one delightful week, the dance capital of America is here in Chicago. Leading modern dance and ballet companies from New York, London, Philadelphia and our Windy City have landed here for the 10th Anniversary of the Chicago Dancing Festival. Opening night was a thrilling display by four of America’s top companies: Pennsylvania Ballet (making its overdue Chicago debut), Martha Graham Dance Company, American Ballet and The Joffrey Ballet.

Pennsylvania Ballet

Pennsylvania Ballet

Each company brought one of their signature dances. As a total package, the night offered a rich, contrasting blend of styles in music and movement. The Pennsylvanians performed a classic George Balanchine work, “Concerto Barocco” (1940) while the Graham company offered its iconic piece, “Appalachian Spring” (1944), with its equally iconic score by Aaron Copland. American Ballet offered up a lesser-known, highly witty Balanchine piece, “Who Cares?” (1970), with music by George Gershwin. For the highly enthusiastic audience, these three numbers were a schoolbook primer on 20th Century Dance. The Joffrey ended the evening with a head-spinning display of 21st Century dance.

Martha Graham Dancers

Martha Graham Dancers

The evening was a pure delight. It was refreshing to see Balanchine receive an elegant and overdue treatment in Chicago. Unless American Ballet makes its once-every-decade appearance, this great master is simply non-existent on our stages. Nearly all ten Pennsylvania Ballet dancers fit the Balanchine mold of tall, willowy ballerinas. Lillian Di Piazza stood out. They showed strong training and beautiful execution. Chicago should invite them back soon.

Martha Graham’s company was uniformly top-notch. Each dancer represented a certain pioneering figure in early America–the Preacher, Bride, Cowboy and Husband, Pioneering Woman–and each executed their sharp, angular movements with precision. Graham herself was a dance pioneer. Charlotte Landreau as The Bride conveyed rich emotion in her movements.Though the gap between the Graham work and the Joffrey’s offering, “Episode 31” (2011), was only an hour, it spanned 200 years in our imaginations. I and the entire audience were unprepared watching the 22 Joffrey dancers execute their stunningly-synchronized movements.

Episode 31

Episode 31

This was something new. The choreography was post-George (Balanchine), post-Martha (Graham), even post-Twyla. Call it thrillingly tribal.  As someone who has seen much of the Joffrey repertoire over 40 years, this was a revelation. It says only good things about the company’s future direction, following the deaths of mainstays Robert Joffrey and Gerald Arpino.

Saturday’s closing dance program picked up where the Joffrey left off as Rennie Harris’ Pure Movement company of 9 muscular black men continued the athletic emphasis with acrobatic displays of body slamming and forward/backward flips. The gymnastic element was in evidence again in Hubbard Street Dance Chicago’s closing number, One Flat Thing, reproduced.

Choreographer William Forsythe put the 14 dancers through very imaginative moves. That number reinforced my perception that Dance is entering a new century with new energy. Against the Joffrey and Hubbard Street contributions, the three Pas de Deux on both night’s programs, while elegant and captivating, seemed to be from a very distant time.

Thank you homeboy, Lar Lubovitch, and co-founder Jay Franke for 10 years of a great idea that keeps on giving.



PostHeaderIcon Mark Morris Shines, River North an Evolving Ensemble

Of all the art forms I enjoy, dance is the one I get to see least. Simply a matter of allocating my time among Chicago’s rich cultural offerings and my preference for art, music and theater. However, I hold strong dance memories from my 20s and 30s in New York City many years ago.

There were magical nights watching the then new gymnastic contortions of Pilobolus or being at City Center when Alvin Ailey, with a young Judith Jamison, danced the joyous “Revelations,” the first time I saw The Joffrey Ballet perform the rock ballet, “Trinity” or Twyla Tharp’s “Deuce Coupe.” I watched, transfixed, as Mikhail Baryshnikov, shortly after his defection, executed astounding, seemingly effortless, leaps. I still retain a lasting interest in the work of Tharp and the ageless, ever-inventive Paul Taylor.

So, when two companies—River North Dance Chicago and the Mark Morris Dance Group–appeared at the Harris Theater last month, the time seemed right for a new dance fix. I’d seen River North on three prior occasions but this was my introduction to Mark Morris’ company.

River North

–It’s hard to believe River North has been around for 22 years. They were such a fresh face on Chicago’s then-smaller dance scene in the 1990s. They have always had a fine ensemble of superbly-trained dancers capable of smart execution and choreographic fireworks. Yet, on my last visit in 2009, I felt the company was dancing in place, mounting too many short works from its “greatest hits” repertoire but not breaking new ground. I left wondering if the company was stalled creatively.

River North - Tango

River North - Tango

Perhaps the company felt the same need for an injection of new blood. For this engagement, it shifted from its predominant jazz-dance technique and commissioned Argentinian choreographers, Sabrina and Ruben Veliz, to produce a five-movement suite of tangos, “Al Sur del Sur.”

Though I’m no Sid Smith, the Tribune’s dance critic, I found this world premiere a success. The dancers’ graceful fluidity and their mastery of tango style was very winning. My reaction to the rest of the program was mixed. Artistic Director Frank Chaves’ “Duets” showcased River North at its best with the segment set to the music of  “At Last” struck the ideal Valentine’s Day chord.

While “Love Will Follow” may have been fresh in 2001, today it plays too much like a commercial for “Dancing with the Stars” and should be shelved.  And though “Beat” and “Train”, two bodywork selections, featured virtuosic performances by Christian Denice and Hanna Brictson respectively, they left me emotionally cold.

Count me as favoring River North’s original jazz-dance identity as manifest in “Duets,” “Reality of a Dreamer,” its long-time signature piece by former co-artistic director Sherry Zucker as well as her 2009 re-envisioned “Evolution of a Dream” over the more athletic, street-influenced style.

Like Zucker, I look forward to River North Dance Chicago’s evolution as well. Perhaps the company, building on its success with the Veliz’s, should look outside its own borders for material from a wider range of choreographers.

The company’s next outing will be on April 16th at the Auditorium Theatre which features the world premiere of Artistic Director Frank Chaves’ “Simply Miles”, part of the Miles Davis Festival. That strikes me as the perfect marriage of jazz-dance and jazz.

Mark Morris

–The New York Times has hailed Mark Morris as “arguably the most successful and influential choreographer alive.” While I’m not about to challenge that opinion, I was impressed by the program of three newer works that he presented at the Harris.
Morris is a former dancer who performed with the dance companies of Lar Lubovitch, Laura Dean, Eliot Feld, Hannah Kahn and the Koleda Balkan Dance Ensemble early in his career. That direct connection with dance and the body surely influenced his own unique style.

Morris choreographed two of three dances with text to great creative effect. “The Muir” featured folk songs by Beethoven that perfectly captured the buoyant feeling of young love. “Socrates” was performed to music by Eric Satie with words taken directly from Plato’s “Dialogues” and projected on an overhead screen, an inventive touch that I’ve not seen employed before in dance. Yet the words, however powerful in their own right, proved distracting by forcing the audience to keep shifting their gaze from the dancers to the screen above to catch the words.

Mark Morris - "Petrichor"

Mark Morris - "Petrichor"

All three works exhibited a consistency of style that contributed to the overall effect.  In “The Muir,” dancers scampered lightly across the stage, like birds flitting from one branch to the next. In Petrichor, the dancers’ colorful, wispy tunics enhanced and expanded the dancers’ movement (see photo).

Apart from “Socrates,” the mood was sunny and light-hearted. Morris’ inventive choreography was expertly executed by his dancers. I particularly remember the moment in “Socrates” when the dancers, all portraying the Greek philosopher, collapsed to the stage en masse upon drinking the hemlock. This was a performance spotlighting the talents of the entire company. There were no star-turns, only dance that flowed organically with the music.

The result on this viewer was to switch off my critical faculty and simply revel in the joy of the dancers’ movements. I can’t wait to see more.

PostHeaderIcon Swan Lake Shows True ABT

Swan Lake - Julie Kent and Marcelo Gomes_ Photo by Gene SchiavoneWhen I returned last Sunday to see “Swan Lake”, I was no longer in America but Tsarist Russia. The opening night performance, however fine, had merely been the crowd-pleasing appetizer portion. As soon as the curtain rose on “Swan Lake”, I immediately knew that this staple of the ballet world was the main entrée. And, keeping the dining metaphor, the performance was a delectable four-star feast.

ABT’s engagement here was an appetizer in another sense as well since the company will open its annual 6-week residency at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House in late May. During its stay at The Met, ABT will perform its signature story ballets—Swan Lake, Romeo & Juliet, La Bayadere—in rotation with the All-American selections and tributes to other choreographers.

I must confess that I didn’t expect to enjoy “Swan Lake” as much as I did. My dance viewing has consisted mainly of going to see modern dance company performances featuring three or four selections. Could I be as captivated by a two-hour single work? Well yes, I discovered, proving it’s not a classic for nothing (“Swan Lake” premiered in March, 1877. The Petipa/Ivanov version had its first full-length production in January, 1895 and ABT Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie’s updating debuted at the Kennedy Center in March, 2000). I just let the whole dreamy story unfold and felt a long-lost sense of enchantment roll over me.

The ballet opens at Prince Siegfried’s “coming of age” birthday party (Was that 16, 18 or 21 in those fairy-tale days?). The royal court set and the sumptuous costumes evoked the right ambiance of luxury, beauty and splendor that was carried through the evening, particularly in the Great Ball scenery of Act III.

ABT’s principal dancers in the lead roles of Prince Siegfried, Princess Odette and Odile and Rothbart, the evil sorcerer, all gave technically winning performances.  At the performance I attended, the Prince was danced by Marcelo Gomes and Odette was played by Veronika Part.  This final Chicago performance held a fascinating twist.

Ms. Part was to dance the role of both Princesses as usual. Yet, she gave way to Gillian Murphy as Odile in Act III and IV. Ms. Part may have been overly tired after performing the dual parts the previous night. This created an unintended competition of choosing the stronger portrayal. For me, the winner was Ms. Murphy. Each time she stepped on stage, she brought a greater sense of electricity to the choreography and the audience accorded her a rousing ovation at the end.

If you are in New York between May 27 and July 10, make a date to catch this timeless fairy tale and at least another program in ABT’s extensive dance stable.

PostHeaderIcon ABT: A Contemporary Classic

ABT - fancy free

Chicago is more a home for modern dance than classical ballet. The names of our most noted local companies stress that point: Hubbard Street Dance, River North Dance Company, Joel Hall Dancers. Yes, we can now boast of our illustrious Joffrey Ballet but it relocated here from New York in 1995.

This preference for modern dance is probably rooted in the nation’s more democratic, pioneering character while “The Ballet” took root in aristocratic Europe.  This town clearly prefers dance with an American pedigree mixed with some Broadway razzmatazz, exemplified by such 20th Century choreographers as Alvin Ailey, Paul Taylor and Twyla Tharp to Lou Conte, Bob Fosse and Merce Cunningham.

However, when American Ballet Theatre, one of the world’s great dance companies pays a visit to the Civic Opera House, attention must be paid. They are here through Sunday, April 18 for six performances of an updated staging of Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” by its Artistic Director, Kevin McKenzie.

ABT is celebrating its 70th Anniversary this season as “America’s National Ballet Company”(so named by an act of Congress in 2006). That doesn’t mean the company consists of purely American talent. Bios of the company’s principal dancers note they hail from St. Petersburg, Madrid, Havana, Buenos Aires and other international cities as well as the U.S. of A.. The claim refers to its stated mission of presenting the best ballets of the past while also performing new works by outstanding contemporary choreographers.

I used to regularly attend ABT and George Balanchine’s New York City Ballet when I lived in New York more than 25 years ago. For Wednesday’s opening night performance, McKenzie chose to show off its stellar company of 85 dancers in an All-American program. I went, curious to see how predominantly foreign-born, classically-trained dancers executed the contrasting dance steps and style of Tharp, Taylor and Jerome Robbins.

When the curtain rose on Twyla Tharp’s “Brahms-Haydn Variations”, however, we were not in Kansas but some 19th Century Mittel-Europa city like Vienna.  The dancers wore traditional ballet costumes and the ballerinas danced on point. There were many lifts and duet partnering. The only idiosyncratic Tharp touch I could detect were long slides across the stage and one ballerina’s flip of her feet in a dash of exuberance.  Who knew Tharp had a classical period?

As I watched this smartly-executed, semi-enjoyable work commissioned by ABT and premiered in 2000, I longed to see flashes of Tharp’s signature style, as in “Push Comes to Shove” or “Nine Sinatra Songs” and on full display in her Broadway hits, “Movin’ On” and the current “Come Fly With Me”.

Perhaps ABT was reluctant to be too All-American and sought to reassure the tony opening night audience that they were in the right house.  As soon as the perky sounds of the Andrew Sisters opened “Company B” by Paul Taylor, all worries dissolved and I sat back to thoroughly enjoy the company’s catchy swing dance variations to a host of popular World War II songs—“Bei Mir Bist du Schon”, “Pennsylvania Polka”, “Oh, Johnny”, “Tico Tico” and their smash hit, “Bugle Boy of Company B”. The evocative duet by Simone Messmer and Grant Delong in “There Will Never Be Another You” was particularly moving while Craig Salstein’s male heart-throb in “Oh Johnny, Oh”, captured the braggadocio of a single guy in hot pursuit by seven frisky females to winning perfection.

The gingham shirts, red bandanas, hoop skirts and slacks relocated us back smack in the American heartland while the sailor costumes in Jerome Robbins’ classic “Fancy Free” sealed the deal.  The delightful “all-American” trio of Carlos Lopez, Sascha Radetsky and Daniil Simkin (hailing from Madrid, Santa Cruz, CA and Russia respectively) danced up a storm, executing Robbins’ hot-blooded boys meet girls escapade with aplomb and panache.  They moved the audience to its feet, generated lusty applause at the final curtain and left me exiting the Opera House thinking, “Yep, that’s real American”.