I was fortunate enough to see CDI in action during a rehearsal at the Ruth Page Center. When I arrived, the dancers were eagerly working on an exciting Ravina premiere, “Irregular Pearls,” created by Artistic Director Venetia Stifler, with input from the dancers. The piece was inspired by the CDI’s 2009 tour to China, where they performed in Beijing and Shanghai, and participated in an exchange with dance students at Nanjing University as part of the International Dance Learning Project. Stifler explained that the piece’s four sections represent different themes or emotions relating to their interactive experiences in China. The piece is a reflection of the customs, art, and history they witnessed abroad and the reaction to the vast culture gap and formality of Eastern etiquette. The Company’s desire to honor Chinese traditional dance and ideas are juxtaposed with the desire to build further on these practices and push the boundaries of dance and art.
This interdisciplinary piece utilizes projected images of historical sites and ancient Chinese art and music given to the Company by the students at Nanjing. The dancing contains touches of meditation and ritual and ruminates on toeing the line between tradition and revolution. These images of custom, demonstrated by simple gestures, heavenward motions, and geometric shapes with the body, are set against contemporary movement of diving into the ground and pulling each other in wild but graceful motions. The dancers exemplify the idea of being pulled in multiple directions by spiraling around themselves or other dancers. They use their breath as impetus for movement, which gives their dancing a living and evolving quality. The finale of the piece makes use of beautiful, draping, silk sleeves that are of traditional Chinese dress; the sleeves are the lone representation of traditional garb, which makes a statement of simultaneously honoring the past but not being suspended there, and instead, moving forward. Stifler said that the “goal is to create specific images,” and I clearly saw these pictures as the dancers paused briefly at perfect moments of suspension. As the piece progresses, the sleeves are pulled, twisted, and used as a means to suspend, images lingering both on the stage and in our minds.
“The Better Angels of Our Nature,” which premiered at Ravinia last season, returns to the stage this summer. This theatrical, creative, and often comical work uses text from personal letters and speeches written by former President Lincoln, and is narrated by Ravinia President/CEO Welz Kauffman. The dance is set to the music of Lawrence Dillon, whose work was selected as one of three winning pieces at Ravina’s first composition competition. The aptly named Lincoln Trio will perform the music as the dancers bring Dillon’s score to life. Using a mix pedestrian, gestural, and highly technical movements, the piece pays homage to the Lincoln’s language without literally mimicking the words. A particularly poignant moment occurs during an excerpt from The First Inaugural Address, when the dancers become “the better angels of our nature,” rising up by lifting each other, acting as a stronger force against a tide that wants to shake and rock their unity.
Two additional pieces are featured on the concert. One is a world premier entitled “El Salon Mexico,” which was created in honor of the 20th anniversaries of Copland and Bernstein’s deaths, and also to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Mexico’s independence. The piece is set to rhythmic, Mexican-inspired music of Aaron Copland and arranged for two pianos by Leonard Bernstein, which will be performed by Welz Kauffman and Adam Marks. The dancers create images of family portraits as they change and shift through time. Also on the program is “When All Is Said and Done/German Songs,” which, using both highly physical movement and subtle connection between dancers, traces the relationship of a couple through different levels of intimacy, including initial chemistry, romance, conflict, and reconciliation.
Stifler spoke to me about the CDI’s rehearsal process, and how, though she is the choreographer of all the pieces, the dancers’ input is crucial. Regarding the rehearsal process, she said, “They might do something that’s more interesting, and I’ll say, ‘Oh no, that’s better—do that!’” The company is also multicultural, and I noticed a blend of Spanish and English being spoken throughout the rehearsal. Two of the artists are originally from Cuba, and Stifler said this melting pot of backgrounds informs their work, as the different perspectives and native cultures inspires an environment of sharing and collaboration. I saw this sense of trust as I witnessed the dancers rehearse and alter soaring lifts with no fear. The beautiful Ravinia Festival is an idyllic setting for this coming together of artists.