Thodos Dance Chicago’s A Light in the Dark: The Story of Helen Keller & Anne Sullivan Told Through Dance

Review by Stephen S. Best

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Antony and Cleopatra. Lucy and Ethel. Batman and Robin. When it comes to unique and powerful collaborations, it looks like we need to add another moniker to the helm; Thodos Dance Chicago and Chicago Children’s Theatre. While that one doesn’t quite roll off the tongue as easily as the others, there is no doubting the delightfully insightful and dynamic new collaboration from two emerging Windy City entertainment institutions.  The inventive alliance in question is the novel staging of A Light in the Dark: The Story of Helen Keller & Anne Sullivan now playing at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts. This family-friendly piece runs just over an hour while telling, in striking visuals, the story of Helen Keller and her teacher, Anne Sullivan, portrayed almost exclusively through modern dance.  Very little dialog is actually spoken, but the captivating narrative is quite easy to follow through all of the performers’ movements.  A haunting original score, written by Bruce Wolosoff, punctuates a vibrant and touching celebration of triumph told through dance.

The piece began by focusing squarely on Anne Sullivan, played by both Abby Ellison and Shelby Moran, and her relationship with her younger brother, Jamie Sullivan (Thomas Jacobson and Richard Pena) both institutionalized as children because of ailments.  Co-Choreographed by Ann Reinking and Melissa Thodos, the initial powerful duet of dance was both chilling and ultimately heartbreaking. The vignette demonstrated the bond between siblings, her brother performing while exasperated, signifying his tuberculosis was worsening.  Pena’s heavy breathing punctuated the dance throughout the stunning “The Asylum” introduction. As he laid his head in her lap at the song’s conclusion, it was obvious this brother and sister team would not be leaving together. Instead, this was a flawless introduction to the primary character motivation and fortitude which would lead Anne into teaching, helping they most challenging of students.

Helen Keller (Jessica Miller Tomlinson and Melissa Panetta) may have been blind and deaf in reality, but here she is in perfect sync with the music. Staged artfully through the remaining segments; the defiance of her parents, brother, and new teacher. Using small props including a suitcase, doll, hat, and fork, Anne and Helen forged a bond and developed a language, bringing Helen into her family’s world. This cast of a dozen dancers all used their bodies to forge a story symbolizing peace through dance, celebrating the human condition, complete with harmony and healing.  What a fantastic lesson for Chicago-area children and their families to witness, exposed to this story in such an original and fresh way. Nathan Rohrer’s period costumes do not inhibit the dancers’ movements in any way, while Nathan Tomlinson’s dramatic and soulful lighting accentuated each performance with precision. Whether spotlighting just a hand, a water spout, or a solo performer, the lighting was as essential as any individual character on display.

One could conjecture that Thodos Dance Chicago, now celebrating its 25th anniversary season, and the Chicago Children’s Theatre, both share a dominant trait with heroine Anne Sullivan, each demonstrating their own unique passionate vision for improving the lives of children. Their techniques and approaches might be radically different, but their endgame and goals are remarkably similar. Improving the human condition while inspiring children of all ages. On stage, this was done with a story, brought admirably to life, of a caring and devoted teacher helping to shape a blind and deaf girl into an internationally acclaimed writer and political activist. At the end of the program, there was a short question and answer session between the performers and the engaged audience members. It was delightfully refreshing to see so many young hands thrust immediately up in the air, with comments and inquiries ranging from their impressions of the story telling to the history of the individual dancers themselves. Who knows what inner lights were ignited in the young attendance of this performance? That, hopefully, is the real gift shared by both Thodos Dance Chicago and Chicago Children’s Theatre to the next generation of potential performing artists.

Thodos Dance Chicago’s A Light in the Dark: The Story of Helen Keller & Anne Sullivan is now playing at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts  through October 23, 2016