‘New Dances’ is end of the beginning, the final performance for Thodos Dance

Review by Lauren Warnecke with Chicago Tribune

Thodos Dance Chicago’s performance in the “Made in Chicago” series at the Auditorium Theatre in March marked the end of the group’s run as an ensemble company, after artistic director Melissa Thodos announced she would disband her 25-year-old company to focus on independent projects. After “Made in Chicago,” the only thing that remained was New Dances, a long-standing summer initiative handing the reins to Thodos company dancers to try their hand at choreography. As the remaining company members prepare to enter the dance world at large, “New Dances 2017’s” two shows at the Athenaeum Theatre give each a springboard to propel them into the next phase of their careers.

As per usual in “New Dances,” the long show has some hits and misses, but it’s hard not to value the platform Thodos has provided for the past 17 years as these aspiring choreographers boldly try whatever they want. Thodos veterans Jessica Miller Tomlinson and John Cartwright have offered up multiple works during their tenures, each developing a unique voice through the years. Tomlinson in particular has honed her keen and quirky aesthetic thanks in large part to “New Dances,” and this season’s work, “Berseluk-Beluk,” is no exception — at least for its first half. Niccolo Paganini’s recognizable theme and variations, “Caprice No. 24,” is the perfect accompaniment for the detailed, pizzicato gestures in the opening solo and duet of “Berseluk-Beluk,” an Indonesian phrase meaning “intricate.” But then it dissolves into just another dance: a mass of tangled-up arms and legs as each of the large cast takes turns being partnered by the rest, set to music that sounds like Philip Glass (in this case it’s actually the Italian composer Ezio Bosso).

Cartwright’s “Fluid” is his strongest effort to date, a sensual, sexy men’s quintet dressed in all black. While the frequent gestures — two hands across the nose and mouth, tucking hair behind an ear — suggest hesitation, the dancing says “just go for it,” with Cartwright’s choreography suggesting an all-in intimacy between players. “Fluid,” like Tomlinson’s “Berseluk-Beluk,” is strongest in its first half when it abides by the pulse of Joyce Lindsey’s original music.

In two seasons, Hattie Haggard has emerged as the comedic genius of the group, proving with her latest, “Ranch Dressing,” that lightning can indeed strike twice. Last year’s hilarious baking escapade called “Show a Little Taste” is an even match with “Ranch Dressing,” a sarcastic, boot scootin’ tribute to the choreographer’s Texas roots.

The works of Abby Ellison and Luis Vazquez are worth noting, with Ellison’s “Beneath the Clouds, Above Rest” demonstrating a couple in turmoil. Vazquez’s tour de force performance is captivating; he twitches and convulses at intervals, as if a man possessed. Partner Kristen Vasilakos has, to a certain extent, the ability to calm his spasticity, and they dance, in intervals, until Vasquez again reverts to his convulsions and tremors. “Above Rest” is sentimental but bittersweet, as though Vasilakos is dancing with the man she wishes to dance with, rather than the one presented to her.

Vasquez’s “Siren,” at first, escapes notice, having little that bubbles to the surface to stand out among a long evening of nine dances. But the work starts to grab hold of viewers through its smart and disciplined choreography. Vasquez’s use of vertical and diagonal lines gives “Siren” a captivating dimensionality, while members of the large, 10-dancer cast take turns coloring outside the lines, popping in and out of the unison for solos. Like Ellison’s “Above Rest,” “Siren” is unapologetically dramatic and angsty, yet both somehow evade any hint of cliche. One gets the sense that the dancers in “Siren” are anticipating some great crisis, or perhaps reacting to one that has just occurred. Each, in intervals, reacts and objects to his/her situation, and then reverts to the comfort of the group, which is, for the most part, refreshingly void of too much emotional investment. As with the stages of grief, “Siren” portrays moments of denial and resistance, but resolves with a sense of acceptance as the group lines up right to left, chests out, wrists turned up, walking toward a wall of bright light downstage.

Thomas Jacobson’s “Reception” and Brennen Renteria’s mambo-inspired “When in Doubt” round out the lighter works, while contributions from Alex Gordon and Thodos cap the evening’s more serious tones. “Reception” reads the strongest of this bunch, using white noise and an onstage boom box to shift the mood as the dancers embody five disparate musical genres. Thodos’ “Undercurrents” fully exploits the talents of resident costume designer Nathan Rohrer, using Victorian underthings as an idiom for unveiling the hidden emotions of five women and one man, but fails to gel amidst awkward musical transitions and misplaced blackouts. Gordon doubles as a choreographer and costume designer for his “Amour Devorant.” Despite promising movement invention and a fully committed cast of seven, Gordon’s flesh-toned leotards with three red accents, half a bra, half a pair of trunks and a protruding red spinal column, paid no favors to the dancers, or the dance.

Lauren Warnecke is a freelance critic.

ctc-arts@chicagotribune.com

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