They’re calling it “3-1-2,” this season, a revamp of the Auditorium Theatre’s “Made in Chicago” series, which for several years has provided a platform for local dance companies to perform one-nighters at the landmark venue. But filling thousands of seats, even for just a day, is a tall order for a mid-size dance company, so the goal this year was to create shared bills to give Auditorium audiences an introduction to companies they might not otherwise see. First up in the series came Friday’s “3” event in the “3-1-2,” a triple bill by Deeply Rooted Dance Theater, Visceral Dance Chicago and Ate9 Dance Company.
On paper, it doesn’t seem the most natural choice, putting these companies together, but with each taking a third of an evening that spanned well over two hours, quick transitions and smart programming made for a surprisingly cohesive and efficient performance.
Opening the night with a trio of works, Deeply Rooted Dance Theater offered a view of its history with works spanning three decades. First came Nicole Clarke-Springer’s heart-wrenching “Until Lambs Become Lions,” created in 2014, then “Church of Nations” (1991) by artistic director Kevin Iega Jeff and “Heaven” (2004), by Jeff and Deeply Rooted co-founder Gary Abbott.
“Church” has become a signature work for this company, first created as a response to the U.S. invasion of Iraq and religious leaders who politicized Christianity to justify the war. But this work, performed in simple black costumes adorned with clerical collars, has mostly stood the test of time, and can be seen more generally as a comment on the paradoxes within organized religion. Not to mention, it’s a perfect primer to Deeply Rooted’s aesthetic, which is steeped in the techniques of Martha Graham and Lester Horton, with a central focus on themes and traditions of the African diaspora and the experiences of African-Americans.
It’s a style which is easily recognizable, honed over more than a quarter century. By comparison, Visceral Dance Chicago (VDC) is still figuring out what it wants to be. Now in its sixth season, this contemporary company raced out of the gates with an impressive line-up of dancers and a beefy arsenal of commissioned works, including one by Ate9’s artistic director, Danielle Agami. At the center of VDC is artistic director Nick Pupillo, whose knack is for contemporary ballet, best seen in jaw-dropping works like “Impetere” and “Synapse.” This latest one, “Soft Spoken,” feels like a bit of an experiment for Pupillo, playing in a choreographic space that falls half-way between his typical aesthetic and some of the more bizarre works that have filtered into the company’s rep.
I love that this company is exploring something new, but “Soft Spoken” is bogged down with cliches, from oft-used tracks by Arvo Part and Max Richter, to dancers taking the buns out of their hair mid-way through and traipsing the aisles as the Auditorium’s main curtain closed, looking straight into our eyes from feet, or even inches, away. That’s not to say “Soft Spoken” is without merit; on the contrary, it may be a stepping stone to a really interesting place. Because for the first time, I really saw the humanity and vulnerability of those dancers in real time.
Ate9 closed the evening, a Los Angeles-based company making its Auditorium debut with a work called “Calling Glenn,” by Agami. The local connection is with percussionist Glenn Kotche, a Roselle-native best recognized as the drummer of Wilco. Kotche composed the musical score for “Calling Glenn,” which is not actually named after him, by the way. He traverses the upstage space playing drum kit, vibraphone and glockenspiel, among other less-traditional instruments, and once, comes to the lip of the stage to patter three drumsticks against the masonite floor. In “Calling Glenn,” Kotche is part musician, part Foley artist, and so engaging to watch. He has a dynamic and peculiar physicality that plays well with Ate9’s nine dancers, though at times I found my eyes drawn to the back of the stage, distracted from the dancing by his fascinating body language and my curiosity about how certain sounds were being made.
Agami, who spent eight years with the Batsheva Dance Company, is a choreographer who revels in seemingly random happenstances. But it’s likely that everything about “Calling Glenn” is carefully prescribed. Sharp, hyperbolic gestures performed in unison near the front and back of this piece draw the most interest — not to mention a hilarious encounter as each dancer fights for a turn at a downstage microphone, voicelessly mouthing screams while Kotche creates absurd frog-like sounds. Less exciting is a long section of duets in the middle, recreating various interactions between partners which range from tender playfulness to humorously aggressive, all done with a flat affect on their faces. It all sounds silly, but I came away from “Calling Glenn” feeling quite serious, wondering why the combination of extraordinary physicality (which, by the way, very seldom includes recognizable “dance steps”) and above-the-neck apathy packs such a punch.
Lauren Warnecke is a freelance critic.