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River North Dance Chicago and the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic in “Havana Blue” at the Auditorium Theatre

In bringing together Orbert Davis’ Chicago Jazz Philharmonic (CJP) and Frank Chaves’ River North Dance Chicago (RNDC) for “Havana Blue” — the multifaceted, one-night-only centerpiece of the new Music + Movement project, the Auditorium Theatre has engaged in an ideal exercise in cultural cross-pollination and audience-building. And it is an exercise wholly organic rather than artifically engineered.

Saturday night’s collaboration made it possible for an audience that loves its jazz somewhere between big band style and classical to make the acquaintance of a dazzling dance company that can move to anything, but all too often lacks live accompaniment. At the same time, dance audiences had the chance to see and hear a rousing orchestra that includes everything from congas to clarinets.

The opening warmup session featured a chamber ensemble from CJP playing three short works: Orbert Davis’ spirited “Seraphim,” inspired by his and Chaves’ nine-day (legal) visit to Cuba, and the 80-year-old man, Orlando, who took the two men on a five-mile walk around Old Havana; Davis’ arrangement of Dizzy Gillespie’s rousing “Manteca,” full of hard-driving brass and percussion; and a somewhat uneven rendering of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Chega de Saudade.”

Then came a big surprise: The Chicago premiere of Chaves’ “Eva,” a new work set to four standards recorded by Eva Cassidy — a hugely talented singer who died in 1996 at the age of 33.

Each section of “Eva” begins to the sound of the charming Cassidy herself introducing a song during what must have been a live recorded club date. And Chaves, a master of the duet in all its many manifestations, embellishes Cassidy’s splendid vocal interpretations to perfection, creating a piece (beautifully lit by Joshua Paul Weckesser and costumed by Jordan Ross) that has all the marks of an instant classic.

The dancing here was sensational. Three couples (Levizadik Buckins, Taeler Cyrus, Hank Hunter, Ethan R. Kirschbaum, Melanie Menale-Hortin and Hayley Meier) joined for the opening segment — a richly lyrical take on Sting’s “Fields of Gold.” This was followed by a knockout Apache duet brilliantly danced by Jessica Wolfrun and Ahmad Simmons, counterbalanced by a delicate, aching lost love duet set to “Autumn Leaves” and exquisitely danced by Lauren Kias and Michael Gross. The full company then captured all the rippling sensation of “Wade in the Water” as a finale.

“Havana Blue,” the world premiere everyone was waiting for, came after an intermission, with the full CJP seated across the back of the stage to perform trumpeter Davis’ wonderfully wide-ranging work — a piece that sidestepped the cliches of traditional Cuban music yet still captured the easy sensuality and many moods of the island, as well as the percussive beat that is so irresistible.

As any visitor to Cuba will tell you (and I’ve traveled there twice, legally, during the past few years), there is something about the meeting of the sea and the sky in Havana that is entirely seductive, and the opening sections of “Havana Blue” tap into all that.

Particularly winning are the sequences called “Soleteras” (“Single Ladies”), in which individual women briefly segue away from the group, and “Lo Masculino” (“The Masculine”), which features six men in a feral dance that has hints of santeria and Brazilian capoeira. Two fine musical interludes bookend the haunting “El Malecon” — a reference to the coastal border wall in Havana that some call “the longest makeout couch in the world” because it attracts so many couples to its cooling sea breezes each night. But here, with the dancers in sheer midnight blue costumes, there also was a powerful sense of yearning — a wish to be able to freely travel “the 90 miles” to somewhere else.

Note: Farewell bouquets were presented to two veteran River North dancers — Gross and Manale-Hortin — who are retiring from the company. Talk about leaving on a high note.



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