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Dance Review:

DANCE CHICAGO 2001 at the Athenaeum Theatre

BY LUCIA MAURO

Dance Chicago 2001 has never been shy about its "Taste of Chicago" sensibility. Organizers Fred Solari and John Schmitz forge ahead with their goal of attracting new audiences to the city’s diverse dance scene in this month-long movement festival, now in its seventh season, at the Athenaeum Theatre. Opening Night (Nov. 3) typically takes on the feel of an endless buffet table piled high with samplings of dance dishes from modern to ballroom to ethnic.

This year is no exception. But, regardless of the impressive variety packed into one evening, the interminable length of the program remains a challenge even for the most diehard dance fans.

Part of the problem is that 14 companies of varying degrees of quality in one night – extending to almost three hours – tend to blur. A few of those artists also went beyond their condensed time limits, making for some uneven programming. Nevertheless, Dance Chicago 2001’s Opening Night celebrations featured at least eight shining moments: the biggest showstoppers being ballroom champions Gregory Day and Tommye Giacchino performing a playfully sexy and technically perfect cha cha cha to Bette Midler’s "In These Shoes"; and the more subtle and pure yet experimental tango work of Leandro Palou and Andrea Misse of Tango Danza.

In the solo realm, Joffrey Ballet of Chicago principal dancer Pierre Lockett’s moving interpretation of artistic director Gerald Arpino’s 1977 revival-themed "Touch Me" – featuring Geoffrey Holder’s multifaceted angelic skirt, which Lockett partners – demonstrated the body’s capacity for expressing faith from the deepest recesses of the soul. Inspirational music by Rev. James Cleveland traverses a dynamic but meditative territory – although the piece, whose repetitive movements are key to its richly climactic arc, can be shortened for greater spiritual impact.

The more inventive, meaningful and meticulously performed pieces by ensembles included Deeply Rooted Productions’ transcendent "Nia Keii – A Gift of Life," which fluidly integrates the elements, by Kevin Iega Jeff. There’s not a superfluous gesture in this work that almost defies descriptions because it so completely touches the heart and the essence of the life cycle.

The laser-sharp dancers of Hubbard Street 2 (Hubbard Street Dance Chicago’s second company) mastered the undulating exactness of Brian Enos’ "Whip," created specifically for Dance Chicago 2001. The dancers’ lyrical executions are but a breath away from their relentless attacks. Ron DeJesus of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago is proving his demanding choreographic skills, evident in "Negro" for the Joel Hall Dancers. Combining primal and sculpted variations, the piece pairs an outward unfolding of motion with a dangerous athleticism.

On a more reflective note, Melissa Thodos’ "Lossfound" for Melissa Thodos & Dancers delicately sends the performers across a wave of destruction and hope through John Nevin’s mesmerizing sound collage. Thodos shows her adeptness at tackling multiple dance "conversations" on stage at once, all building to a quiet crescendo -- this time the ethereal arrival of her infant twin daughters.

Eddy Ocampo’s seductive "Black Binasuan" for Gus Giordano Jazz Dance Chicago, with evocatively placed flashlights, was quite a compelling exercise in seamless synchronicity. River North Chicago Dance Company presented Frank Chaves’ 1995 Latin-themed crowd pleaser, "Charanga." But the energy of the piece was not as powerful this time around – due, perhaps, to the traditionally spectacular troupe’s being last on the bill of a very long evening.

Among the featured performances that did not wholeheartedly succeed were Trinity Irish Dance Company’s dreary concept piece, "The Mollies." This full-length step-dancing theatrical work, choreographed by Mark Howard and Brian Jeffery, attempts to track the struggles of Irish immigrant miners in Pennsylvania at the turn of the 20th century. Inexcusably long and repetitive – with the dancers smudged with grime – "The Mollies" was not appropriate for the "sampling" nature of Dance Chicago. Audiences expect to see more traditional showstoppers, like "Celtic Dawn," here.

The usually vibrant Cerqua Rivera Art Experience did not showcase the best of its interactive musicians-dancers aesthetic with Wilfredo Rivera’s luke warm and unsculpted "Manteca," meant as a salute to Afro-Cuban jazz. Muntu Dance Theatre of Chicago also presented a sloppily executed drumming ensemble piece, "Lamban/Dombah."

"Shanequa’s World," Randy Duncan’s solo for the impassioned Sarita Smith Childs, rambled into a realm of distracting obscurity. And Billy Siegenfeld’s "If Winter" looked more busy and fussy in the Athenaeum setting – diametrically opposed to the impish fluidity of the work seen earlier at The Dance Center of Columbia College.•

Dance Chicago 2001 runs through December 2 with seven more themed programs: Dance R/Evolution; New Dances; Jazz Rhythms; Dance Slam; River North Chicago Dance Company; Dance For Kids, Too!; and the Finale. Performances take place at the Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport. Tickets: $5-$25. Call 773-935-6860 or 312-902-1500.

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