"Do I dare disturb the universe?"
~T.S. Eliot

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Jazz Dance World Festival--Chicago, 2009

Jazz dance dominated the scene at the Harris Theatre in Millenium Park July 22 through July 25, as the Jazz Dance World Festival returned to Chicago. Gus Giordano, who passed in March of 2008, is hailed as one of the most influential founders of concert jazz dance. Giordano initiated the first Jazz Dance World Congress, a five-day celebration of dance, in 1990. Master classes are held throughout the day, and inspirational performances are given in the evening. In 2002, the Congress was held in downtown Chicago for the first time, and the performances were presented as the “Jazz Dance World Festival.” The event has been held in numerous international locations, and has been in Chicago every other year since 2005.

Giordano helped shape the definition of jazz dance as a form that derives its soul from the expression of rhythm and musicality. Arguably, there is no company that can deliver this sense of intonation better than the Windy City’s own Giordano Jazz Dance Chicago. The company’s performance of Pyrokinesis, choreographed by Christopher Huggins, was sizzling with energy. The first section, set to solo piano music, was modern-dance based, and the movement, with pleading contractions and flexed hands and feet harkens back to Martha Graham’s technique. The second half becomes an explosive expression of jazz, exemplifying how the movement is the music (a spicy jazz piece by the United Future Organization) made visual. The trumpet trills became rounds of fouette turns, the percussive underlying beat transcribed as an African-based step. Truly, the Giordano dancers appear so tight with their unisons, bold in their solos, and in tune with each other when harmonizing, that they act as musicians with their bodies.

River North Chicago Dance Company also impressed the audience with its incredible physicality. The athletic piece, called Take a Seat, by Frank Chaves, featured five male dancers from the company and five chairs, on which they jumped and turned. In the second half, they commenced to do a whole section of turning, jumping, weaving in an out of each other, and even back-bending with the chairs mounted on their backs. I couldn’t imagine how much rehearsal (and how many injuries) this must have taken to perfect.

LehrerDance, a new company founded in Buffalo, New York by former Giordano Associate Director Jon Lehrer, performed their premiere performance at the Harris Theatre. Lehrer’s Fused by 8, as the title implies fused modern and jazz forms, while also adding elements of gymnastics or break-dancing. This echoed the music, which was a hybrid of classical and electronic/hip-hop. Though they did not quite possess the poise and perfection of the Giordano dancers, in time, they have potential to mature and become more in tune with each other as artists and athletes.

Other highlights from Friday night’s program include Billy Siegenfeld’s Chicago company, Jump Rhythm Jazz Project. This theatrical company combined elements of comedy, drama, vocalization, singing, body rhythms, and tap dance to make for an extremely entertaining experience.

All of the companies that performed graced the stage with technicality and musicality. The Las Vegas Contemporary Dance Theater showed off incredible extension combined with a balletic style. Two dancers from Philadelphia’s “Philadanco” performed a serious duet with utter beauty and concentration. Finally, the Cuerpo Etéreo Danza Contemporénea, hailing from Mexico performed a highly technical, athletic, and intricately rhythmic piece. All of the companies performed with the energy, grounded power, and expressive lightness that epitomizes jazz.

Monday, July 27, 2009

The loss of a creator

As I reflect on the recent passing of Merce Cunningham, I recognize the philosophy and achievements of the innovative choreographer and creator. Perhaps he is most recognized for his Chance techniques, which were so revolutionary in the 50s when he began utilizing them. Personally, when I think of Cunningham, I have images of arrayed and partnered dancers using ballet vocabulary to communicate the randomness of the directions that has been given to them. I recognize the intelligence of the dancers and everyone involved to put together such an intellectual performance. Of course, he should also be recognized for his collaboration with brilliant composer John Cage (also credited for the ideas behind chance operations). The two artists were so mentally in synch when they were working together that the end result of their creations was genius. Cunningham's use of modern technology as it advanced is also incredibly impressive.

For all his achievement, I find this quote of his own to be most moving:

"You have to love dancing to stick to it. It gives you nothing back, no manuscripts to store away, no paintings to show on walls and maybe hang in museums, no poems to be printed and sold, nothing but that single fleeting moment when you feel alive. It is not for unsteady souls."

To me, this most clearly shows Cunningham as a moving, thinking, dancing human being. It is a beautiful way of describing the life and spirit that is the epitome of dance, and why we are brought together to move and be moved. Cunningham, certainly, was anything but an unsteady soul, but was bold and confident as he paved the way for many modern dancers to come.

CSO shines at Ravinia

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra performed for a packed house on Saturday night at its summer home, the Ravinia Festival, and even the vast lawn was brimming with picnickers.

The world-class orchestra opened the evening with Piano Concerto No. 1 in D Minor, by Johannes Brahms (1833-1897). Two celebrated Ravinia regulars returned to the Festival; pianist Peter Serkin performed for his 23rd season, and world-renowned conductor Christoph Eschenbach led the CSO with his emotional, emphatic direction.

The Brahms concerto (c.1858) consisted of a multitude of moods, from celebratory to somber. The violin section demonstrated their versatile abilities when they played triumphant passages that instantly became sweet and lyrical, enhanced by exposed oboe and horn solos. Serkin played the sweeping arpeggiated chords with meditative beauty, but brought the most feeling to the cadenza at the end of the first movement, and the energetic finale to the third.

The second half of the concert presented the main attraction, Antonin Dvořák’s (1841-1904) Symphony No. 9 in E Minor, (“From the New World”). The Czech composer was in the “New World” itself when writing the symphony; he conducted his previous Symphony No. 8 in August of 1893 at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, and was inspired to write his ninth that year while residing in the rolling hills of Iowa.

The first movement, especially, presented the composer’s portrayal of the musical melting pot of America, as one could catch glimpses of Eastern European, English, and Celtic-sounding melodies. The CSO demonstrated the ability to transition seamlessly from luscious string lines to sharp accentual punctuations, driven by the percussion section.

The English horn soloist, Scott Hosteltler, produced a beautifully lyrical, warm tone in the second movement, “Largo,” that is emblematic of the pastoral mood. The reoccurring chord progression, first stated by the brass opening, later repeated in a less densely orchestrated choir of woodwinds and solo horn, and closing the movement by brass again, became familiar and nostalgic. The CSO brought a dynamic sense of forward motion to idyllic landscape that Dvořák painted.

The third movement, “Scherzo: Molto vivace,” became more overtly energetic and featured the intricate brilliance of the CSO’s violin and woodwind trills and majestic brass statements.

The final movement, “Allegro con fuoco,” highlighted the strength of the CSO brass section. The trumpets produced impeccably tuned, crisp fanfares, and the horn and low brass section provided the backbone of power. The element of the percussion, especially the timpani, brought the excitement to its true height. Principal horn player Dale Clevenger effortlessly soared melodically in the numerous, high-range solos, and the brass as a whole appeared united in strength and power that arguably tops previous seasons at Ravinia. Eschenbach conducted this final coda with passion that was evident in his grand, flourishing movements.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Sing us a song, you're the Piano man...

Two nights ago, I was fortunate enough to hear two of the greatest living musicians of this era. Billy Joel and Elton performed to a sold-out crowd at Wrigley Field in Chicago on July 16, and they still have all the passion and soul of their heydays. The concert was about 3 1/2 hours long without intermission, and featured multiple sets that kept the show in constant motion. Elton John, dressed sharply in a tux with a flashy blue collared shirt and his signature shades, opened with the tender "Your Song." Soon, Billy Joel, dressed in a black suit like a classic jazz pianist, also selecting something sentimental, performed "Just the Way You Are" as his solo opener.

They then joined together in a dueling-piano style, the two grands "face to face," as the subtitle of their concert implied. They turned up the heat with "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me," the old-fashioned LED lights projecting a sunset, echoing the evening sky itself, and rocking the house with the passion of the rebellious teens they once were, with "My Life."

John and Joel proceeded to play generous individual sets. Personal highlights from John's set include the melodic "Levon," classic "Tiny Dancer," with it's instantly recognizable piano intro, and poetic "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road." In the latter, the back up vocalists carried the enthusiastic crowd through the sweeping, melodic chorus. John concluded with "Crocodile Rock," which got the crowd on their feet dancing, and really highlighted his tight band.

At this point, the audience assumed a break, but soon the lights came up again to reveal Billy Joel, jamming like he would love nothing better than to deliver a crowd-pleaser. He opened with the catchy "Angry Young Man," an immensely energy-filled, piece, impressively driven by his two drummers and guitarists. He continued with a multitude of his bests, including the rhapsodic "Scenes from an Italian Restaurant," (highlighting Joel's band and talented saxophone players) the classic "River of Dreams," and the anecdotal "We Didn't Start the Fire," which, now in 2009, reminds us all of the repetitive nature of history. The crowd was on its feet again, snapping and shimmying with his closing "Only the Good Die Young."

Next, the duo joined again for a combined set of both their songs. I loved hearing the two great masters jam together and add a new voice to each other's music. What strikes me as unusual in the world of celebrity, is that after all the years in the spotlight, both musicians still seem grounded, and they showed a genuine gratitude for their audience's enthusiasm. Both portray stylistic differences to a similar genre; John's songs often tend to be more sentimental and poetically abstract, and his voice is sweeping and rich in timbre. Joel sings honestly about the struggles of the every day man just trying to get by, and his voice cuts through the air with sharp passion, even when singing softer, more lyrical tunes. Both voices may have been roughened by age, but the passion behind the music was as present as ever, and their fingers still sharp. Their chemistry on stage is evident, pointing and gesturing to give the credit to the other. The audience that comprised the full house was diverse in age, revealing how John and Joel's music speaks to every range of people.

While both remained on stage for the encores, both had a final word--John sang his beautiful and touching "Candle In the Wind," written in honor of Marilyn Monroe's death (and re-written as a tribute to Princess Diana after her death), while we linked arms and swayed, lighters and cell phone lights popping up across the stadium bleachers. Of course, Joel's Piano Man was the most fitting closure to the night...we were all indeed in the mood for a melody and were certainly feelin' all right.

At that point, the stage went dark, but I was not ready for it to be over. I could have listened to the two play far into the night. As the bright stadium lights came on, and I resigned myself to the bittersweet sense of finality. I am grateful that I had the opportunity to see these two brilliant musicians light up the stage together, perhaps for one of the last times.

Billy Joel and Elton John's Face 2 Face Tour will play again at Wrigley Field on July 21st, and have scheduled performances in other cities across the country through November.