The members of Giordano Dance Chicago – the company founded in 1963 by jazz dance master Gus Giordano – arrived on the stage of the Harris Theater for Music and Dance in grand style and exceptional form on Friday evening. It was their first major live performance since the outbreak of the pandemic. And to open the program, artistic director Nan Giordano, her co-choreographer Cesar D. Salinas, and the dancers devised a piece that had the feel of a joyful modern ritual in the aptly titled “Illuminate.”
Clad in white, the dancers were heralded onto the stage by Bongi Duma, the South African-born singer/composer whose many credits include a long association with the Broadway musical, “The Lion King.” As they gathered in a long, horizontal line, and the women waved beautifully colored silk scarves, they fully lived up to what was described as “a dance of welcome that embraces all we are feeling - beauty, community, energy, gratitude, love and unity.” And then it was on to the superb performance of six works by an ensemble comprised of many gifted new dancers and a few veterans. Among the latter was Zachary Heller, an outstanding member of the company for the past 14 years, who was given a heartfelt “farewell” to celebrate his final performances with the company.
Heller danced beautifully as a soloist in the program’s opening work, “Flickers,” an intensely athletic and acrobatic piece for 11 other dancers (Brittany Brown, Ashley Downs, Rosario Guillen, Amanda Hickey, Adam Houston, Sasha Lazarus, Skyler Newcom, Onjelee Phomthirath, Katie Rafferty, Fernando Rodriguez and Erina Ueda). Choreographed by Marinda Davis, it is set to music by the experimental band Son Lux, with lighting designer Julie Ballard playing off the work’s title by way of a slew of starry lightbulbs suspended over the action. And although it was created in 2019, just before the outbreak of the pandemic, the piece - with its sequences of running in place, frantic lurches into elaborately supported lifts, and a series of frenetic mood shifts from darkness to light - now possesses a somewhat uncanny hint of what was about to take hold in the world.
Next up was “A Little Moonlight,” a charming romantic duet choreographed by Autumn Eckman, and performed with effortless panache by Adam Houston and Katie Rafferty. Set to “What a Little Moonlight Can Do,” the popular 1934 song by Harry M. Woods (made famous by Billie Holiday, but here in a recording by Canadian singer Emilie-Claire Barlow), it evoked the company’s jazz dance roots that were so winningly planted decades ago by Giordano.
A far more contentious series of sexual relationships was conjured by Ray Mercer in his 2015 piece, “Shirt Off My Back.” Set to the music of Max Richter, Olafur Arnalds and Bongi Duma, this work for 10 dancers dealt with themes of heated connection and rejection, outside interests and all the rest. Notably disturbing was the chilling pas de deux superbly performed by Amanda Hickey and Fernando Rodriguez that felt like an eerie reminder of the recent Gabby Petito and Brian Laundrie pairing.
There was a far lighter, more joyful, and jazz-infused quality to Joshua Blake Carter’s 2018 work, “Take a Gambol,” set to the music of Yazz Ahmed, Maynard Ferguson, Perry Como, Mose Allison and Quincy Jones. The ensemble assumed various roles of guys and dolls from flirtatious couples, to a sexy troublemaker, to a lonely loner and a bunch of jacket-swinging guys — all part of a stylish, exuberantly danced mix and match.
“All For You,” a duet choreographed by company member Adam Houston, and set to “Undan Hulu (“From Behind Shadows),” spacey, lyrical music by Icelandic composer Olafur Arnalds, was beautifully danced by Newcom and Downs.
Closing the program was “Pyrokinesis,” a grand-scale, high velocity work from 2007 choreographed by Christopher Huggins (a former Alvin Ailey dancer). Set to music by George Winston and the “nu-jazz” United Future Organization, with the dancers dressed in Branimira Ivanova’s red-streaked black costumes, it was Heller’s personal choice of a “send-off” piece, and it fit the bill ideally.
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