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DANCE A top seven in dance in 2016
by Lauren Warnecke

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It's been an interesting year for Chicago dance.

Exciting, big-budget initiatives propelled our city into national and international dance dialog, while favorite local traditions are changing, shifting, evolving, and in some cases ending. Choosing a top seven, rather than "the" top seven, seemed appropriate in a year that was full of surprises, and from which the only clear winner was us: dance audiences. This is by no means an exhaustive list, and doesn't even begin to cover the storefront dance scene ( which I'm saving for another publication ). I've chosen these seven companies because they made notable contributions to dance that were especially apparent this year.

—After a year of waiting, The Joffrey Ballet's brand-new Nutcracker was finally unveiled this December, with choreography by superstar Christopher Wheeldon and his top-notch design team. Most of the details were kept under wraps until the world premiere a few weeks ago, and Wheeldon's Chicago-centric ballet took artistic liberties that make this anything but "just another Nutcracker."

Opinions about the reimagined holiday classic vary widely, and I certainly have mine. While I wouldn't count the libretto among my top picks this year, it's impossible to deny Joffrey's productivity and grit this season in bringing its ambitious new production to life—even if you don't consider the fact that they put up an entirely different full-length ballet for October's fall series in the middle of the process. So, this nod is for Joffrey, if not for its Nutcracker. In fact, a mixed response for the new ballet is perfectly in line with the company's founders: risk-taking "mavericks of dance" who challenged their audiences and brazenly pushed the form to new places.

—Chicago Tap Theatre's June one-nighter at the Athenaeum Theatre called "We Will Tap You" was an all-out spectacle honoring the music of Queen. Set to a live onstage band playing Kurt Schweitz's arrangements, and featuring rock-star vocalists Nick Davio and Elisa Carlson belting classic Queen hits, the ever uncouth Mattrick Swayze ( AKA Matthew Hollis ) and his "Swayzettes" emceed while managing a myriad of costume changes and helping direct traffic for pretty much every pride organization in Chicago ( the most notable of which were the Lakeside Pride Marching Band, the Chicago Gay Men's Chorus, and the Chicago Spirit Brigade ).

The stakes were high in coordinating the company's biggest endeavor in its 13-year history, and fortunately this tap-dance-glam-rock-musical-spectacular-summer-Pride-extravaganza actually worked, and was totally awesome. Plus, there are a few rumors floating around that CTT may continue to produce a Pride-themed show on an annual basis ( yes, please! ).

—Dance for Life celebrated its 25th anniversary this year with a stunning gala and record-breaking attendance at the annual concert which raised $425,000 for the AIDS Foundation of Chicago and the Dancers' Fund. All the usual suspects were there: Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, Chicago Human Rhythm Project, Giordano Dance Chicago, and the Joffrey Ballet, which performed a stunning revival of Gerald Arpino's 1983 "Round of Angels." The two wild-card spots went to Chicago Dance Crash and Visceral Dance Chicago, who easily filled the aesthetic gap once occupied by River North Dance Chicago in an evening that remembers the impact of HIV/AIDS on Chicago's great dance community.

Attendees would later find out that the fundraiser's silver anniversary would also be Anthony Guerrero's swan song, as he later announced he was leaving his post as executive director of the newly-formed Chicago Dancers United, an umbrella organization supporting ongoing programs and projects including Dance for Life and the Dancers' Fund, an emergency grant program for dance professionals experiencing financial distress due to chronic illness.

—Seeing Giordano Dance Chicago ( GDC ) at the Dance Center last February was an extraordinary treat. After a 37-year absence, the longest running American jazz dance company took to Columbia College's intimate 278-seat dance venue, performing audience favorites from the past few seasons and a few Giordano classics that are best viewed up close.

The powerhouse GDC dancers, not typically known for subtly, were challenged to make necessary adjustments that come with being just feet from the front row. This, perhaps, was a harbinger of things to come. Back at the massive Harris Theater for their fall series a few months ago, a new work by Peter Chu asked the typically emotive dancers to wipe their faces free of any expressions. After more than 50 years, it's refreshing to see GDC stretch by maintaining and revitalizing dances by the company's founder while simultaneously pushing beyond S-curves and kick-ball-changes to explore the edges of the form.

—In March, Chicago Repertory Ballet's ambitious full-length ballet modelled on the story of MacBeth was a new direction for the fledgling ballet company lead by Thodos Dance Chicago expat Wade Schaaf. The brilliance here was in the collaborations: namely Schaaf's creative partnerships with projection designer John Pobojewski of Thirst Design and lighting designer Sarah Lackner, who together literally transformed and elevated the typically drab Ruth Page Center for the Performing Arts.

The immersive visual environment and Schaaf's unique mix of classical and contemporary vocabulary generally kept to the Shakespeare tragedy's plotline, but the setting was situated in an ambiguous era that was part Elizabethan, part World War II, part apocalyptic future. Alluding to the timeless nature of Shakespeare, it was a similar approach to Krzysztof Pastor's take on Romeo & Juliet ( presented for a second time by the Joffrey Ballet in October ), although far more effective.

—The year it premiered, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago's "The Art of Falling" appeared on every "best of" list—except mine. Last summer's revival was my first glimpse at the masterful collaboration between Hubbard Street and The Second City. Laugh-out loud and at times bittersweet, "The Art of Falling" revealed the humanity of a world-class company that is otherwise super serious.

Also worth a mention is the November Fall Series, which highlighted yin and yang in Jiri Kylian's amazing duo of works for Hubbard Street's women and men: "Falling Angels" and "Sarabande," respectfully. I personally prefer the two pieces in the reverse order, but I'll take them however I can get them, and the same goes for Alejandro Cerrudo's gorgeous world premiere, "Niebla." If this weren't enough, Hubbard Street gave us the first taste of Brian Brooks' much discussed choreographic residency at the Harris Theater, for which the NYC-based choreographer will create a series of works over the next year.

—The Chicago Dancing Festival recently announced that it would not enter its second decade, deeming the project "complete" and likely clearing the way for new initiatives similar to the aforementioned Brooks residency. The loss will be felt across the city—who now will miss out on the chance to see world-renowned local, national, and international companies for free. The cut is all the more deeper having gotten a glimpse at a new direction this season—one that I had hoped would become an annual tradition: Planet Chicago.

The outdoor mini-fest at Navy Pier featured local dance companies performing an array of world dance in a parade-style format that included Bhaharatanatyam ( Natya Dance Theatre ), African dance ( Muntu Dance Theatre ), Brazilian capoeira ( Gingarte Capoeira Chicago ) and charming student performances in tap, jazz, and footworking. Planet Chicago showed off Navy Pier, it showed off Chicago, it showed off dance and it challenged valid criticisms that the festival wasn't Chicago-centric or diverse. Also important: it was really, really fun.

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