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Thodos Dance’s ‘Helen Keller’ a feast for the senses

2/17/13 10:59:39 AM  Thodos Dance Company Presents 'A Light Dark' The Story Helen Keller Anne Sullivan.. © Todd Rosenberg

2/17/13 10:59:39 AM Thodos Dance Company Presents "A Light in the Dark" The Story of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan.. © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2013

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Updated: February 17, 2013 9:49PM

In her third decade leading her own company, Melissa Thodos continues to look in every direction. Past styles and even past eras, a great diversity of contemporary forms of choreography and the future not only of dance but of its audiences and even its dancers all fall within her active gaze.

And things Thodos has seen in all of these directions are a part of Thodos Dance Chicago’s Winter Concert 2013, including a significant, 45-minute examination — the choreographer’s second full-out collaboration with Broadway legend Ann Reinking — of what movement means to a person unable to see or hear.

“A Light in the Dark, the story of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan” grew out of the work the two women did together with their 2011 “The White City: Chicago’s Columbian Exposition of 1893.” Clearly, too, as seen in its world premiere Saturday night at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie, “Light” also emerges from a lifetime of making, watching and experiencing movement. This is a work of tremendous empathy that literally animates a true story many know from its theatrical or film recreation as “The Miracle Worker”: Helen Keller, was rendered both blind and deaf as an 18-month-old in the early 1880s, and a remarkable young woman, Sullivan, is hired by Helen’s family to try to break through to the girl her mother is sure is locked inside the child’s physical limitations.

Although Reinking and Thodos stay within the timeframe of Helen’s childhood, culminating with her famous apprehension of both the word “water” and the idea of words and communicating them physically, “A Light in the Dark” is no mere danced version of the popular play and movie. Clearly influenced by such works as Joseph P. Lash’s later “Helen and Teacher,” the dance puts the ingenious and deeply committed Sullivan, herself seriously vision-impaired, at the work’s center, starting with the shunting of her and her also “damaged” brother as children to a filthy and deadly orphanage, and taking her through her “miracle” at the Kellers in Tuscumbia, Ala.

As with “White City,” the recognition that clothes and societal expectations shape movement shape the general physical language of the sighted characters in “A Light.” Students of Sullivan’s at the Perkins Institute for the Blind in Boston provide a bridge of “proper” blind behavior. And Helen’s mercurial shifts from feral to gently clinging offer a tour de force opportunity for a dancing actor to make us re-think the child’s experience and what we can still gain from it.

Hope College grad Alissa Tollefson, in only her second season with Thodos, is a commanding Sullivan, elegantly demonstrating the blend of love and iron that could not only break through to Helen but would have Sullivan become her teacher and companion for half a century. (Keller lived another 32 very active years after Sullivan’s death, with one of Sullivan’s student’s, Polly Thompson, joining Keller until the then famed writer, lecturer and activist’s death at the cusp of 88 in 1968.)

Thodos mainstay Jessica Miller Tomlinson performs her own miracles as a wholly convincing seven-year-old much more than a wild child. A choreographer herself, one senses that she and the work’s rehearsal assistant, the renowned Gary Chrsyt, were close partners with Reinking and Thodos in creating this powerful portrait of the meaning of communication, movement, independence, freedom and love.

John Cartwright captures the doomed dependency of Jimmie Sullivan, Cara Carper the strength and hope of Mrs. Keller. Brian Hare catches the complexity of Helen’s long-suspicious, ultimately supportive older half-brother, James. Jon Sloven centers Captain Keller as Southern gentleman with an unusually risk-taking nature. Bruce Wolosoff’s recorded original score, Nathan Tomlinson’s sculpted lighting and Nathan Rohrer’s period costumes are all key to the work’s hold on the audience. Six additional Thodos apprentices and interns form a corps as needed.

After intermission, three 10-minute 2012 works for eight to 12 dancers make up the second half of Winter Concert (to be reprised in full March 2 and 3 at the Harris Theater). It is odd that a company open to so many styles and schools, as well as ages and body types, has wound up presenting three works that seem so similar to each other. The strongest is “Lullaby” by local choreographer and former Hubbard Street dancer Brian Enos to crazily remixed singing of the King’s Singers, culminating in a flowing duet. Perhaps it was the context, but “rest is not always possible” by San Francisco’s KT Nelson and “Subtle Passages” by Thodos herself, both having Chicago premieres, did not add or show much.

Andrew Patner is a free-lance writer and arts critic.

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