Sensational Steps — The 10 best dance events of 2013

Hedy Weiss Sun-Times Dance Critic

December 26, 2013 4:08PM

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Updated: December 29, 2013 10:17AM

For Chicago dance aficionados it was among the best of times. The city’s major and midsize companies (including River North Dance Chicago and Giordano Dance Chicago, both of whose artistic directors have a unique knack for programming ideally eclectic mixed bill programs) have never looked stronger. Companies from throughout the United States and the world were showcased here. And the annual late-summer, admission-free Chicago Dancing Festival drew thousands.

The one painful scar on the season was the disbanding of the artistically rich but badly managed Luna Negra Dance Theatre, the contemporary Latino-influenced troupe that had been thriving under the maverick leadership of Spain’s Gustavo Ramirez Sansano. A true loss.

Here are some of the year’s highlights, all of which blended dance with strong elements of storytelling:

Joffrey Ballet

The company’s initial performance of “Episode 31,” the astonishing, ultra-modern, Robert Wilson-like piece by Swedish choreographer Alexander Ekman, blew away the Chicago Dancing Festival audience at the Auditorium Theatre. (It will be danced again during the Joffrey’s winter program there, Feb. 12-23.) Also during the Festival, Victoria Jaiani gave a breathtaking rendering of “The Dying Swan” solo at the MCA, with a brokenness and defiance permanently etched in my memory.

Thodos Dance Chicago

The world premiere of “A Light in the Dark,” the second “story ballet” choreographed by Broadway legend Ann Reinking and Melissa Thodos, was an emotionally riveting dance riff on “The Miracle Worker,” capturing the real life tale of Helen Keller, the extraordinary woman who was deaf and blind, the dynamics within her family, and her remarkable teacher, Anne Sullivan. (It will be repeated this winter.)

Hubbard Street Chicago

The company brought a stunning new ferocity, propulsion and authority to “Casi-Casa,” Mats Ek’s wonderfully absurd look at domestic life, which was danced at the Auditorium and then again at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance. This company of highly individual dancers invariably breathes as one.

Chicago Tap Theater

In “Mama’s Boy,” Mark Yonally’s gifted troupe tapped out a terrific rat-a-tat-tat story about Chicago in the Prohibition era complete with an innocent kid in knickers, a scarlet woman, bootleggers, a mobster-turned-politician and more. The wonderfully expressive dancers and their elaborate footwork were complemented by a superb four-piece band, with airtight direction by Harrison McEldowney.

Compagnie Marie Chouinard

To mark the 100th anniversary of “The Rite of Spring,” Igor Stravinsky’s revolutionary score, the MCA presented Quebecoise choreographer Chouinard’s 1993 interpretation — a stunner of primeval fury with barechested women in hoof-and-antler-like appendages. Also on the program was her beautiful new work, “Mouvements,” in which the dancers winningly embodyied the black-and-white drawings of Belgian artist Henri Michaux.

“Oliver!” at the Drury Lane Oakbrook Theatre

Director-choreographer Rachel Rockwell gave the tiny boys in her revival of this irresistible Dickensian musical immense challenges, and they triumphed over every one of them. Her amazing little band of orphans had the audience cheering from the moment they zapped the “Food Glorious Food” number — one of most delicious moments in musical theater this season.

Hamburg Ballet of Germany

In a rare visit to Chicago, choreographer John Neumeier’s superb company presented a spellbinding work of dance-theater by way of the lavishly produced “Nijinsky.” This complex psychological study of the tortured genius both delved into the tumultuous personal relationships of the legendary dancer-choreographer and evoked his greatest roles.

Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg, Russia

Another psychological portrait of the artist came in the form of “Rodin,” with choreographer Boris Eifman using his remarkable company to suggest the creative process of Auguste Rodin, and the great French sculptor’s stormy relationship with his mistress/muse, the gifted sculptor Camille Claudel. In one notably stunning moment the dancers draped themselves on a scaffolded form as if cast in bronze.

Dance Chicago

This monthlong festival at the Athenaeum Theatre opened with a superb program of short ballets by Gordon Pierce Schmidt that included his exquisite new work, “An American Portrait,” which brought to life the famous Winslow Homer painting, “Snap the Whip,” and also showcased former Joffrey dancers Jennifer Goodman and Randy Herrera, both in top form. A Chicago Human Rhythm Project program brought the U.S. debut of the altogether astounding all-male Argentinean company, Che Malambo, which will return ito Chicago in late September and is a must-see.

Striding Lion Performance Group in “Dada Gert”

I’d never heard of the German-Jewish Expressionist dancer and cabaret artist Valeska Gert until I caught this fascinating multimedia dance-theater piece. Choreographed and performed (at the Hamlin Park Fieldhouse) by the highly imaginative Annie Arnoult
Beserra and her troupe, it featured eye-popping black-and-white sets and costumes and archival film.

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