Town and country
Two premieres show River North widening its scope.
Performances by River North Chicago Dance Company—known within the scene as “RivNo”—used to be a generally innocuous affair. We first caught it about eight years ago in Asheville, North Carolina, touring a huge program of short dances opening with “Love Will Follow,” a stage full of couples smoothly whipping through ballroom steps peppered with Broadway jazz. Each magnetic dancer drew from a bottomless reserve of conviction and attack, but in service of a parade of gimmicky numbers buffed to a forgettable shine. The audience loved it and business was good, then and ever since—it just wasn’t for us.
River North celebrates its 20th anniversary this season; move the decimal back and you’ll have a pat summary of how the company is entering its third decade. RivNo 2.0 keeps the explosive energy and blinding polish that’s been its reputation but is gently diversifying its repertoire to provide sustenance for newer fans on the fence about keeping in touch. This savvy, subtle reinvention is described and exemplified by the two world premieres it will present at the Harris Theater Friday 12 and Saturday 13: Robert Battle’s Three, and former Hubbard Street dancer Lauri Stallings’s Suppose.
Both choreographers are Florida natives, and both are following up on previous commissions by River North artistic director Frank Chaves. (Battle made Train for the company in 2008 and Stallings created ahimsa in 2006.) The similarities end there. The men’s trio that Battle has set to a score collaged from tracks by Eleventh Hour, Art of Noise and Les Tambours du Bronx is, like Train, a relentless barrage of staccato aggression broken by moments of totemic stillness even more intense. Dancers Christian Denice, Michael Gross and Ricky Ruiz enter the choreography with militaristic focus—emerging from the other side, they take their bows exhausted, but looking like Navy SEALs. For a performance of his work to feel right, Battle says there should be “a necessary tension and daring in the air—electricity and magic. The choreographer, dancers and audience all play a role in the ‘perfect’ performance; if any of those ingredients are lacking, then it’s very difficult for another to make up the difference.”
It’s a long journey from Miami native Battle’s strobelike percussiveness to the misty, mysterious swamps of Suppose. “I can still smell the country of my youth,” Stallings says, “its sand dunes and pine trees right next to one another. Walking around barefoot and getting things stuck in between my toes. Smelling green and getting sweaty and finding things crawling all over me.” Suppose is as expansive as Three is compact, a work for seven dancers that alternates between the unison rush of bodies right up to the stage apron and explorations of residual eddies as the wave recedes. Neither piece is being put forth as the future direction of River North, and that’s fine—between them, there’s a lot of room to grow.
Battle’s solo Ella joins these two works and five others at River North Chicago Dance Company’s Valentine’s Weekend Engagement at the Harris Theater Friday 12 and Saturday 13.