Dancers grounded in flights of fancy
Swedish choreographer Johan Inger may not be a common name among dance lovers in the United States, but surely it's only a matter of time. His "Walking Mad" on last night's sold-out Hubbard Street Dance Chicago program at the Cutler Majestic Theatre was the evening's riotous hit, a clever, surreal romp set to Ravel's "Bolero." Choreographed in 2001 for the Nederlands Dans Theater, with which Inger performed in the 1990s, the "mad" in "Walking Mad" evokes both connotations, but it is a slightly daft quality that gives the work its charm.
Jamy Meek sets the work's irreverent tone, ambling down the theater aisle as lights dim. Dressed in trench coat and bowler hat, he sidles past stragglers to crawl onstage, where a 6-foot wall moves to meet him, pasting his lanky frame in relief like a squashed bug. As doors in the wall open and close, other dancers emerge. A wall separation affords the most fleeting mirror dance by a woman and man wearing identical dresses. Blink and you miss it.
In Kellie Epperheimer's dazzling duet with Kevin Shannon, she is limp as a rag doll one moment, stiff as a puppet the next, as Shannon maneuvers her limbs and hoists her into the air. Round and round she is chased by randy boys in pointy red party hats, bodies jiggling, pelvises thrusting in mock obscenity. As dancers throw themselves at the wall, it becomes a picket fence, something to be climbed over to see what's happening on the other side. And when the party seems to travel beyond the wall/fence, it folds inward, forming a V with Meredith Dincolo trapped dejectedly inside. "Bolero" recedes, the party going on without her.
The activity has a skewed, slightly manic quality that is utterly engaging. But beyond the theatrics, Inger's choreography has real substance and heft, with mercurial shifts of dynamics and weight that are visually arresting and totally unpredictable. The moment the wall falls backward, forming a platform for the full ensemble to dance atop, is breathtaking. The work's only flaw is a needless coda after Ravel's rousing music comes to its climactic conclusion.
The Hubbard dancers are known for their versatility in a wide range of accessible, audience-pleasing repertoire. The program's three other works, while entertaining, were disappointingly similar in movement vocabulary. "Lickety-Split," by company dancer Alejandro Cerrudo, was a playful exercise in quixotic couplings characterized by fluid elasticity and quick shifts in direction. A gentle touch set off chains of movements rippling through bodies. In Lucas Crandall's athletic "Gimme," Jessica Tong and Jason Hortin held a rope that served as leash, whip, rubber band, often sending one spinning off like a top. In the end, it became a shared piece of spaghetti leading to an impulsive kiss.
Though there were moments of human connection in Doug Varone's intriguing "The Constant Shift of Pulse," the dancers were a bit like bugs in tar, with attempts to soar repeatedly pulled down to the ground.