Chicago’s dance scene is in high gear these days with formidable performances by ballet, modern, jazz, tap, Spanish and classical Indian companies on stages in and around the city. Adding to the mix are visiting companies from around the U.S., Europe and beyond. And what has been especially notable this past year are the large and enthusiastic audiences drawn to the performances of these companies in theaters both grand and intimate.
A case in point was this past Saturday’s one-night-only world premiere performance of “Memoirs of Jazz in the Alley” by South Chicago Dance Theatre. The company, established in 2017, attracted an impressively large and enthusiastic audience to the Auditorium Theatre on Saturday evening. And audience members were clearly enthralled by this complex work — choreographed by Kia S. Smith, the company’s executive artistic director, and ideally accompanied by a superb band featuring saxophonist Isaiah Collier and The Chosen Few — that spins the story of a wild, and at times deeply troubled, series of relationships.
Set to the sound of nearly two dozen newly arranged jazz classics (at times blended with synthesized segments), Collier drew on the music of Fletcher Henderson, Cab Calloway, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Louis Armstrong and King Oliver, as well as that of Smith and himself. Smith happens to be the daughter of the late Jimmy Ellis, the saxophonist and mentor renowned for his role in the jam sessions known as Jazz in the Alley that were held on Chicago’s South Side during the 1960s and ‘70s. This work is also a tribute to her father.
Columns of sheer mesh panels hung over the Auditorium stage, suggesting a dreamlike setting. A quirky character called The Sandman (danced by Trey Alexander, a tall, thin, strangely ghostlike figure) appears to be conjuring the story of the stormy relationship between The Girl in Red (Kim Davis, a fearless dancer and evocative actress) and a character played by the intensely charged, technically stunning Elijah Richardson, who pursues The Girl in Red, and in one pivotal scene, turns into her abusive partner. As it happened, that scene, in which Richardson’s character tried to sexually assault Davis’ character, was so disturbing that at one point someone in the audience loudly shouted out: “Do something!”
Throughout the show, a chorus of exuberantly outfitted male and female dancers gathered to frame certain scenes and to capture the irresistible and wonderfully varied rhythms of the music that was deftly accompanied by Rasean Davonte Johnson’s elaborate, vividly hued projection designs.
Alternately exuberant, eccentric and deeply troubling, this “Memoir” suggested the emotional heat and beat so elemental to “that thing called jazz.”
Note: For information about the many (and often free) Chicago-area dance events scheduled throughout the summer, as well as the lineup for the 2023-24 season, visit seechicagodance.com. The website’s listings serve as vivid proof that the city is a flourishing dance center.
Follow Hedy Weiss on Twitter: @HedyWeissCritic