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In front of 2 mayors, Hubbard Street’s ‘Scarlatti’ electrifies dance fest, costumes aside

 Rory HohensteinIn (left) VictoriJaiani Joffrey Ballet rehearse 'The Middle SomewhElevated.'

Rory HohensteinIn (left) and Victoria Jaiani of the Joffrey Ballet rehearse "The Middle, Somewhat Elevated."

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Updated: August 21, 2012 3:09PM

Any number of quite remarkable things occurred Monday night at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance as the sixth annual Chicago Dancing Festival staged the opening salvo in its week-long celebration of admission-free events.

To begin with, there was the sight of two mayors and their families watching a formidable all-Chicago program that included performances by Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, the Joffrey Ballet and Giordano Dance Chicago — world class companies by any measure — all bookmarked by two “novelty pieces” that turned out to be irresistible illustrations of Martha Graham’s observation that “dance is the hidden language of the soul.”

It was Rahm Emanuel (billed as “the only mayor in the U.S. who can do a proper plie”) who quoted Graham in his welcoming speech. He also paid homage to former Mayor Richard M. Daley, whose late wife, Maggie, was winningly remembered for her love of the arts, and was fittingly toasted by the world premiere of “Touch of Soul,” New York-based choreographer Nicholas Leichter’s complex, ingeniously devised, spirit-raising hip-hop piece. It was performed with formidable skill, and a mix of both great synchronicity and distinctive personality by an ensemble of several dozen dancers from the After School Matters program.

From there it was on to the professionals, and they were on fire.

Hubbard Street reprised Twyla Tharp’s “Scarlatti,” the demonically difficult, ballet-infused piece she created for the ensemble in 2011. This was the first time I’d seen the company dance the work (set to seven piano sonatas and a fugue by the baroque composer of the title) since its tense premiere. And they now bring a gorgeous, flirty playfulness, a confidence and a relaxed spirit to the piece that probably was not possible when it was brand new, and when its fearsome maker was in the audience.

The Hubbard Street dancers are ever-astonishing, with Jacqueline Burnett, Meredith Dincolo, Ana Lopez, Kellie Epperheimer, Jessica Tong and Laura O’Malley winningly teasing and tagging their male counterparts, including Jason Hortin, Garrett Anderson, Jesse Bechard, Kevin Shannon, Johnny McMillan, Pablo Piantino and Quinn Wharton.

The piece still has two problems: A wholly unnecessary “second ending,” and some of the ugliest costumes (by Norma Kamali) ever perpetrated on gorgeous bodies.

The Joffrey Ballet performed an equally demonically difficult work — “In The Middle, Somewhat Elevated,” by the American-bred, European-based choreographer William Forsythe. The dancing — by Victoria Jaiani, Rory Hohenstein, Christine Rocas, Amber Neumann, Graham Maverick, Alexis Polito, Ricardo Santos, Anastacia Holden and Jenny Winton — was uniformly dazzling in its razor-sharp, knife’s-edge precisionism and fierce technical brilliance. Set to the mechanically percussive electroshock score of Thom Willems, the dancers must move like highly competitive, ultra-chic urbanites with killer attitudes and plenty of sexy alienation. Pitched into the most extreme and extended positions, they often resemble poisonous spiders in their black tights and green leotards. Though a fascinating showcase for the bravura Joffrey dancers, this work often feels painfully emblematic of its 1980s vintage and all its hot-and-cold narcissism.

With “Two Become Three,” ideally danced by Maeghan McHale and Martin Ortiz Tapia of Giordano Dance Chicago, audiences here got their first glimpse of the work of the young Swedish-bred choreographer Alexander Ekman. Clearly he is a charmer as he spins one of the oldest stories ever told (boy meets girl, nervous courtship ensues, the hormones rush into action, baby makes three and boy heads for the door). Performed to the romantic music of Chopin counterpointed by Ekman’s winningly tart-taped narration, nothing is overplayed in this perfectly jaded little relationship drama.

Bringing the evening to a sweetly goofy close was “Bolero Chicago,” devised by New York’s Larry Keigwin + Company and set to the Ravel classic. It was performed with great ebullience by about 40 Chicago volunteers of all shapes, sizes, ages and skill levels — a group clearly united by their sheer delight in turning pedestrian movement into “dance.” A whimsical evocation of the Chicago cityscape, it included everything from L straphangers, bicyclists, dog-walkers and umbrella spinners to a drag queen, an acrobatic Bulls mascot and a crowd of cellphone illuminators. Gimmicky, but deftly done, feel-good fun.

NOTE: The Festival continues at several venues, culminating with a gala Saturday evening performance at the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park. Wednesday’s program (7:30 p.m. at the Auditorium Theatre) will feature Jerome Robbins’ “Afternoon of a Faun” (Pacific Northwest Ballet); George Balanchine’s “Rubies” (by Ballet Arizona); the “Sleeping Beauty” pas de deux (by stars of the San Francisco Ballet); Martha Graham’s “Chronicle” (by the Martha Graham Dance Company) and “Descent” (by Brian Brooks Moving Company). Saturday’s program in the park will feature the Houston Ballet, the Martha Graham Dance Company, stars of the San Francisco Ballet and the New York City Ballet, Hubbard Street (in “Tabula Rasa”), and repeats of both the Leichter and Keigwin pieces.

For a complete list of other events and ticketing guidelines visit www.chicagodancingfestival.

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