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Chicago Dancing Festival delights, but here’s how to make it better

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago performs segment from Ohad Nahari's 'TablRasa' Chicago Dancing Festival finale Saturday Millennium Park. | CHERYL MANN

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago performs a segment from Ohad Nahari's "Tabla Rasa" at the Chicago Dancing Festival finale Saturday at Millennium Park. | CHERYL MANN

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Updated: September 28, 2012 6:10AM



For the sixth year running, there was not a drop of rain Saturday to disturb the grand finale of the Chicago Dancing Festival — that amazing, admission-free phenomenon that showcases a sophisticated mix of classical, modern and contemporary dance performed by companies from Chicago and throughout the United States.

Clearly the weather gods must be dancers, or at the very least, dance-lovers. And, like the estimated crowd of more than 10,000 who gathered in Millennium Park (a crowd very much a cross-section of the city itself), they were treated to quite an evening. Among the highlights:

† Hubbard Street Dance Chicago’s thrilling, intensely immediate performance of the first section of “Tabula Rasa,” Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin’s heated conjuring of male-female relationships to the music of Arvo Part.

† The easeful, elegant, snap, crackle and pop of New York City Ballet soloists Ana Sophia Scheller and Gonzalo Garcia in the pas de deux from Petipa’s “Don Quixote.” Always a test of superb technique and high Spanish style, it was full of special flourishes here. And Scheller and Garcia, supremely well matched, also bring a unique warmth to their spectacular dancing. Neat trick.

† The Houston Ballet’s altogether lovely performance of Mark Morris’ “Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes” (with Virgil Thomson’s piano score played live by Katherine Burkwall-Ciscon). Morris’ 1988 work is a charmer, with a classical ballet vocabulary subtly infused with hints of American folk dance, and the leggy women and exceptionally fleet, strong men of the company were most winning.

† Sofiane Sylve and Vito Mazzeo of the San Francisco Ballet in Christopher Wheeldon’s exquisitely modernist pas de deux, set to the angular music of Gyorgy Ligeti. Sylve is a strong dancer and a great beauty, but there is something palpably tense about the onstage relationship between these two dancers.

† Also on the program was a reprise of the central section of “Chronicle,” Martha Graham’s 1938 anti-war work, with the powerhouse women of the Graham company seizing the stage with their jumps and frieze-like moves; Nicholas Leichter’s hip-hop creation, “Touch of Soul,” expertly rendered by the dancers of After School Matters (with Mayor Emanuel noting that a new park will soon be named for that program’s longtime supporter, Maggie Daley), and a reprise of the playful “Bolero Chicago,” which, as the announcer noted, was the work of “Larry Keigwin + Company and your neighbors.”

This weeklong, multi-venue festival is, without a doubt, something of a miracle, but a number of ideas might be considered to make it even better. They include:

† Adding some international companies to the lineup (perhaps Sweden’s Cullberg Ballet, the Nederlands Dans Theater, the Royal Danish Ballet, Britain’s Rambert Dance or the Australian Ballet).

† Programming more of Chicago’s own ethnically rooted troupes, including Luna Negra Dance Theatre (whose production of “Carmen.maquia” would bring the house down); Ensemble Espanol Dance Theater (whose “Zapateado,” about Spanish cowboys, is a knockout); a return visit by Muntu Dance Theatre, or a first look at Kalapriya, Chicago’s Indian dance company.

† Building in an extra intermission or two at the indoor venues and using that time to show videos of Chicago’s smaller and more experimental companies. (A live performance of a section from Thodos Dance Chicago’s “The White City: Chicago’s Columbia Exposition of 1893” would intrigue the Millennium Park audience.)

† Finding funding for more live musical accompaniment.

† Creating a far more distinctive logo for the festival. Also, banners, fliers and posters on the CTA are needed, alerting both locals and tourists to the event. Chicago’s tourism office also needs to do more promotional work, nationally and internationally

† Taking a tip from the success of Shakespeare in the Parks this summer and putting together a challenging dance program that can travel to a handful of neighborhood parks, too.



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