Thodos Dance Chicago | 2013 Winter Concert | Dance review
Thodos Dance Chicago, now in its 21st season, doesn’t shy from a tough challenge. It’s evident in the company’s 2013 Winter Concert, playing this weekend at the Harris Theater, where the main attraction is the latest collaboration between Melissa Thodos and Broadway veteran Ann Reinking. After the success of 2011’s The White City: Chicago’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, the duo follows up with A Light in the Dark, the story of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan. But how much of this story can be told in 45 minutes? Therein lies the challenge.
One of the most endearing relationships in American history is naturally suited for a dance. Keller, the blind, deaf child of a Southern family, became one of the most prominent figures of the 20th century, thanks in part to her teacher and companion Anne Sullivan. The couple’s unique kinesthetic relationship, which lasted more than 40 years, is what makes Thodos and Reinking’s contemporary story-ballet so intriguing. It even begs for more. In 11 scenes that span the early years of Keller’s life, Keller (a superb Jessica Miller Tomlinson) goes from trouble child to perpetual knowledge seeker. Sullivan (a shrewd performance from Alissa Tollefson) is unquestionably the reason for the latter. The transitions from scene to scene, however, require frequent blackouts and their respective brevity can detract from the dance.
A contemporary ballet as much as it is a theatrical drama, A Light depends on the acting as much as it does the dancing. Saturday’s cast proved to be both deft technicians and regal actors (John Cartwright as Anne’s brother, Cara Carper as Helen’s mother, Jon Sloven as Helen’s father and Brian Hare as Helen’s brother), but the ingenuity of the story occasionally staggers in its blatancies. For example, when Tollefson signs “W-A-T-E-R,” during the much-chronicled breakthrough scene, Tollefson shouts, “She knows! She knows!” The revelation feels obvious enough without the overt dialogue.
Still, A Light is successful in other ways. Tomlinson’s movement, for example, is less whimsy and more substance. Her flailing arms and distant stare feel authentically driven; overdramatic tendencies are nicely removed. Considering the task, Thodos and Reinking have made something special; the piece is a collectively touching portrait of personal strength and perseverance.
Not to be overlooked, the show’s second half delights in its surprises: a company premiere from choreographer Brian Enos and premieres from KT Nelson and Thodos.