River North Dance Chicago Provides Both Art and Entertainment

River North dance Chicago concert- March 2010- St. Louis

‘A poem shouldn’t mean but be”

Is ‘art’ justified if it’s simply loved? Tons of people love twilight but I’m pretty sure most English majors or serious writers across the country hate it- or at least hate the success it receives -why does everyone insist on being served lower form of art?

About a month ago the jazz company River North dance Chicago came to my hometown of Saint Louis. I had seen them perform once before and they were pretty amazing so I had high hopes for the show. It opened with a piece choreographed by Sherry Zunker who has had a diverse career choreographing for everything from contemporary companies to cruise ships. The piece was a good wake up call for the audience, with a lot of dancers onstage dancing all together to a high-energy pop song.

I didn’t dislike it, I would just call it more ‘entertainment’ than ‘art’. Next was a structured improvisation solo work that didn’t move around the stage very much but was dynamic and surprising. I have a pretty good handle of dance ‘steps’ and while I caught things like a perfect quadruple pirouette in the midst, it looked much more -I hate to use this hackneyed word- organic rather than choreographed and was only more engaging for it.

The third piece was three men showing strength, rhythm, and versatility in almost primitive-like movement to loud Taiko drum music. This seems to be a big trend with jazz and contemporary companies these days. I don’t know who it originates with, but my guess is either Alonzo King or maybe Cedar lake. I have the feeling that the audience appreciated the obvious strength and stamina the men had, but perhaps made the mostly older crowd of the Midwest a little uncomfortable.

In all honesty, sometimes the choreography was so stylized that though they still looked great doing it, with three scantily-clad men I was a little reminded of the SNL parody of Beyonce’s ‘Single Ladies’ video where Justin Timberlake and two other guys prance about in leotards and heels imitating the pop icon. The most stunning piece of choreography and dancing I had seen in a long time was ‘Forbidden Boundaries’ choreographed by RNDC artistic director, Frank Chaves.

The piece was three movements, opening with what I can best describe as a ‘Tim Burton’ feel- eerie and melancholy. The dancers did intricate partnering in duets involving stretchy fabric somehow attached to their otherwise very simple costumes while sharing practically no visual communication. To me, it looked as if each pair was representative of a single being fighting with their own fears or limitations, holding themselves back (in this case, often with the fabric). The second movement was a trio of two men and a woman centered at all times between the two and carried, flipped, manipulated by the fabric.

It had a touch of cirque de soleil aerials but managed to not look ‘gimmecky’ or acrobatic. The three dancers managed to display beautiful lines, lyric movement quality, strength and grace through unconventional choreography and use of props. The effect was stunning. The third movement ended the piece and the first act with a sort of ‘battle’ between pairs contrasting the fluid quality and more balletic feel of the second movement with a more aggressive, finale that showed the dancers strong jazz training. It was incredibly touching and ultimately empowering. End act one.

Begin act two; the predominantly over 60 population of the saint Louis audience shuffled back in from the bathrooms and the curtain rose for three more pieces on the bill. I think there is little to say about any of these three. The opening piece was well danced, very contemporary, and had a very fitting title, ‘Suppose’- aptly named because I can only suppose what, if anything, the choreographer was trying to SAY (and if I guessed I would probably be wrong). The next piece was a tango-style pas de deux (dance of two). Very nice, seen stuff like it before. Closing piece: a big Cuban number complete with dance-team fouettes (the most commonplace trick for competitions) that I didn’t find challenging or even that exciting. I would have preferred just the second, third, and fourth piece and have called it a night.

Why was what I thought the best piece sandwiched between more accessible pieces- with a progression of challenging the audience to let us off easy by the end? It sort of felt like the parental routine of attempting to slip vegetables into your fussy kids by covering them in cheese or peanut butter. It really frustrated me that what I found to be communicative, technical, and innovative wasn’t featured as the last impression to take way from the experience.

It seems smart for dance companies to include a range of work in a given show, like a buffet where the audience can pick and choose what to take away. Some can be over-analytical (like me, sometimes to my detriment) or just enjoy the pure entertainment factor. River North did an excellent job of providing a little of everything and all of it was danced well. Everyone is entitled to be their own critic and I stand firm in my judgment- Twilight is poorly written, fast food is bad for you, and fouettes don’t add much artistically. Feel free to disagree.

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