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River North Dance Chicago

By Laura Molzahn

Harris Theater for Music and Dance
Chicago, IL
November 16–17, 2012
Performance reviewed: Nov. 16


River North Dance Chicago is an expert shape-shifter thanks to Frank Chaves, now celebrating his 20th year as artistic director of the 23-year-old troupe. Straight-up tango, lyrical contemporary, much-less-lyrical contemporary, humorous acrobatics, and a brilliantly refreshing palate cleanser: all appeared on the fall program, “Momentum.” And that list doesn’t really cover the two premieres, one by talented 26-year-old New York-based Adam Barruch, the other by Nejla Yatkin, who recently relocated to Chicago.

What creates the continuity, the company’s identity? Technical polish combined with total physical and emotional commitment to each piece, no matter its challenges. RNDC defines itself as a contemporary jazz troupe, but it’s traveled far beyond those bounds in terms of movement—while keeping the jazz impulse to “sell” the choreography.

In Barruch’s I Close My Eyes Until the End, the costumes may be soft—close to T-shirts and sweat pants—but this piece for 11 is taut, even suspenseful. A former child actor, Barruch shows a strong theatrical sense in this abstract dance, divided in half by two Olafur Arnalds piano/strings/electronica compositions, the first expressing anxious anticipation, the second, urgency. I Close My Eyes opens quietly, with a single woman just standing, then swiftly drawing her hands up her torso and overhead, throwing her head back. That sense of abandon repeats—and intensifies in the second half, in which lashing, hip-hop–inflected throw-downs punctuate running turns.

 


Adam Barruch's I Close My Eyes Until the End. Photo Courtesy RNDC.

 

Yatkin’s premiere, a solo called Renatus (“Rebirth”), slowed the evening’s action to a crawl—in a good way. It began with a gloomy stage and a golden light picking out the triangle of Jessica Wolfrum’s bare back, the dorsal muscles almost imperceptibly working. Then one arm speared the space as her back canted away. Emerging from her gown as from a cocoon, Wolfrum slowly revealed its impressive train, finally whipping it around herself or trailing it like a ballooning red cloud. Sounds from nature—wind, waves, insects—open and close the work, contrasting with the recording at its heart: Puccini’s soaring aria “Vissi d’Arte” from Tosca. The female soloist seems like an embodiment of womanhood, rooted in nature yet capable of the heights of human feeling, of civilization.

 

 

Jessica Wolfrum in Nejla Yatkin's Renatus. Photo by Cheryl Mann, Courtesy RNDC.

 

Chaves revealed his tender side in the new septet The Good Goodbyes. Josephine Lee played her own stirring piano composition live, in a downstage corner so brightly lit, unfortunately, that her playing distracted from the gentle, organic choreography. Chaves revealed his ferocious side in a revival of Forbidden Boundaries (2009), which, according to a program note, is about self-imposed limitations. But the movement seems more about exterior limits, as some dancers twist others’ long, gauzy sleeves into torturous tourniquets and confining ropes. 

Rounding out the program were Robert Battle’s acrobatic comedy sketch, Three; excerpts from Sabrina and Ruben Veliz’s tango suite, Al Sur Del Sur (“South of the South”); and Ashley Roland’s solo Beat—a structured improvisation that Ahmad Simmons killed. Other standout dancers included 10-year RNDC veteran Melanie Manale-Hortin and five-year RNDC stalwart Michael Gross. But no one embodies the Chaves heart-on-sleeve aesthetic quite like the precise, expressive Wolfrum, who’s been with River North for 11 years. Practice does make perfect.

 

Pictured at top: Frank Chaves's The Good Goodbyes.

Photo by Erika Dufour, Courtesy RNDC.