DanceWorks Chicago: Live review
Though its husband-and-wife founders, Andreas Böttcher and Julie Nakagawa, have long been major players in the Chicago dance scene, DanceWorks Chicago is still a young entity, just entering its fourth season. Its dancers are young, too: Böttcher and Nakagawa fill their performing company’s three female and three male slots, which cycle about every 18–24 months, with fresh college grads, dancers whose apprenticeships with other troupes have ended, and talented scholarship students a few years out of high school. In many ways, DWC resembles Böttcher and Nakagawa’s previous co-directorship: Hubbard Street 2’s first ten years, 1997–2007.
Unconventional programming has become a hallmark of their new venture. Last season, DWC worked with the Harris Theater in launching Eat to the Beat: Cheap, short, lunchtime dance concerts rebooted November 12 with River North Chicago Dance Company. It’s a driving force behind emerging choreographers’ lottery Dance Chance and regularly hosts free midday stage and studio showings dubbed Dance Bytes. Its daily morning practice is a community hub, open to professionals from all companies. (Full disclosure: I was a regular teacher of these classes for about a year.) And its evening offerings often take the form of something called a Dance Flight, the latest of which was held November 16 at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts. Named to evoke a wine flight, they’re two breezy, one-hour triple bills presented back-to-back. One is $10, both are $15; the decision to spend that extra hour and Lincoln can be spontaneous.
In a field that’s often embarrassingly resistant to smelling the coffee, DWC stays up-to-date; as I tweeted after a recent Dance Chance, it’s the first Chicago troupe to include QR codes on its paper programs (scanning one bounces you to more detailed performance information on DWC’s blog). But the human touch is always up front: Nakagawa warmly hosts DWC’s events, peppering her apron speeches with timely humor and gently reminding audiences that shared responsibility is central to live performance. She chooses her words carefully and, more often than not, her vocabulary is what you’d use to describe a family, not a business.
This recent Dance Flight highlighted another development: DWC has quietly become one of Chicago dance’s busiest international ambassadors, still warm from its Mexico City debut and off to Germany the following day. Underlining their itinerary, Böttcher and Nakagawa programmed Mexican-born choreographer Edgar Zendejas’s Sada, one of DWC’s first commissions, and two works by prolific choreographer Christian Spuck, in residence at Stuttgart Ballet and the new artistic director of Zürich Ballet, beginning with its 2012–13 season.
It’s a good thing that we have DWC out there showing the world what Chicago dance is about; though modest in scale, the operation has an uncommon generosity of spirit, and a humility on stage that resists show-offy touches. (If anything, DWC’s dancers could stand to sell their talents a little more aggressively.) These two flights were especially choice pours of choreography; DWC is occasionally saddled with lackluster work, but the pair of Spucks—Die Blume and Paradigm, both company premieres—put its strengths up front, the return of Harrison McEldowney’s Chess classics–scored Blues for Ann was welcome, and Sada is your better Zendejas. A world premiere quartet to Vivaldi, Ajorca, by former Hubbard Street dancer Brian Enos, needs a more declarative approach to its Sechs Tänze–style musical humor, but given time to settle and confident performances, will complement much of DWC’s repertoire. (It’s nice to see Enos, a mohawk-sporting former colleague given to clowning around, having a little fun in his work, too.)
Gina Patterson’s full-company My Witness, closer of the first Flight, has been in heavy rotation since its premiere—you might call it DWC’s signature piece. When it opens, Patterson is fighting the score, a suite of songs by Chicago folk group Sons of the Never Wrong. She matches it step for beat and largely ignores the peculiar, spiky lyrics. We struggle to know these print dress–wearing women and cargo-panted, t-shirted men, their relationships no more legible than a story on looseleaf dropped in a hallway collision and scattered out of order.
It must’ve been choreographed in sequence, though: By halfway through, Patterson’s relaxed, stretched out, and choosing better battles. She shifts from the fast-paced manhandling of garden-variety contemporary dance to a language that lets fingertips linger touching before parting and eye contact burn in. A connective tissue of stillness becomes the work’s true statement. Two male duets, beautifully danced by James Johnson and Joseph Kudra, are fluid in their sharing of weight and openly, tenderly bromantic. “Dance, take your time/Dance, let it be/Dance, you have every right/With or without me” come late lyrics, and what you see is obviously listening. When it ends with a kind of family portrait, it’s of the company as much as of the characters.
DanceWorks Chicago tours Germany through mid-December; interested parties may inquire about joining the company for an 11-day companion trip including tickets to performances by Leipzig Ballet, Stuttgart Ballet, Bavarian State Opera Ballet and the Forsythe Company, an excursion to Schloss Neuschwanstein, and other Deutsch delights.