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Lucky seven: The best in Chicago dance this year
by Lauren Warnecke

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It has been a wonderful year for dance audiences in Chicago, with a wealth of dance emerging from the community, and exemplary tours making a stop in our great city. Remarkable remounts and freshly reimagined works stood alongside an abundance of new and innovative performances, including a few surprises. Seven standouts emerged from the pack, though this consolidated list could easily be expanded to twenty:

Something old

Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan visited the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University in March for the highly anticipated reconstruction of Lin Hwai-min's iconic 1994 work Songs of the Wanderers. In our hyper-stimulated, fast-paced lives, Songs of the Wanderers requires much patience—sometimes frustratingly slow to develop—which makes the exhilarating climax all the more worth it. Songs of the Wanderers teeters between dance and the divine; images of golden Taiwanese rice cascading from the sky to pile at a praying monk's feet, and the methodical raking of each performance's three-and-a-half tons of it into a giant-sized Zen garden won't soon, if ever, fade.

The Museum of Contemporary Art presented a very different but equally significant work in bringing the 30th-anniversary tour of Rosas danst Rosas ( 1983 ) to its Edlis Neeson Theater. The mesmerizing dance is a ferociously incessant score of repeated steps and gestures, divided into three distinct sections. It's a maddening maze that audience members will find to be completely brilliant or entirely obtuse. Indeed, audience members began to trickle out of the theater after about 10 minutes last October, leaving the rest of us to gaze on the pristinely restored, revolutionary work.

Something new

The latest creation from Jonathan Meyer is Oubliette, premiering last month in a tiny outbuilding nestled in a North Side park. Meyer—whose collective with partner Julia Rae Antonick and sound guru Joe St. Charles is called Khecari—is somewhat of a madman, whittling away at all perceptions of what dance can and should be to carve out an experience that is wholly new. The quartet Oubliette is stationed in a five foot-by-eight foot pit with audience members ( only 12 per showing ) peering down from six feet above. It feels voyeuristic and uncomfortable, as though looking in on rabid animals ready to strike at a moment's notice. On the contrary, the four dancers of Oubliette are somehow able to dance in that box, exploiting its every possibility and, an hour later, leaving us utterly satisfied.

Michelle Kranicke's Zephyr Dance hardly resembles itself from 10 years ago. Kranicke has been wise to allow her company's mission to evolve alongside her work, and has found a gem in The Balance in Between. In a developing process that it likely to span another two years, Kranicke's September installation at Defibrillator Gallery would be one of the space's last public performances. The dance community was dealt a pretty harsh blow in losing Defibrillator, a tiny space on Milwaukee Avenue that became a popular hotbed for experimental performance. Zephyr is not for the faint of heart; Kranicke challenges her audiences with durational performance that takes a bit of patience to get through, but ( at least in the case of The Balance in Between ) is worth the wait.

Something borrowed

Christopher Wheeldon's Swan Lake saw its Chicago premiere with the Joffrey Ballet—only three weeks after a highly successful mixed-rep program that included historic gems George Balanchine's Prodigal Son and Antony Tudor's Lilac Garden alongside the absolutely gorgeous RaKu on loan from San Francisco Ballet's resident choreographer Yuri Possokhov. In a refashioned telling of the classic story ballet, Wheeldon kept all the best bits from Marius Petipa's original in tact. Updated characters and a new setting modeled after Edgar Degas' ballerina paintings give a soft, impressionist feel to the white ballet ( not to mention the slightly happier ending ).

Something blue ( i.e., honorable mentions )

These concerts aren't blue, per se, but definitely deserve a mention among the best dance moments of 2014. One of the first events to hit the winter dance season was the kickoff of the Harris Theater's spinoff to its Eat to the Beat lunchtime series. In this first installment, a DanceWorks Chicago premiere was to be the inaugural Eat ( and Drink ) to the Beat, a relatively informal showing that might have escaped notice until a tragic accident suddenly took the life of dancer Marco Antonio Huicochea Gonzalez. In a resilient and brave "show-must-go-on" performance, DanceWorks took to the stage with a reconfigured program and a touching tribute to Gonzalez, leaving no dry eyes in the full house.

River North Dance Chicago ( RNDC ) celebrates its silver anniversary in 2014-15, and the season kickoff at the Harris Theater this fall put RNDC back on the map. The concert featured items from the archives, including a high-kicking, high-ponytailed, all-out jazzy closer in Sherry Zunker's perfectly restored 1992 Reality of a Dreamer ( unitards, jazz boots, and all ) Artistic Director Frank Chaves premiered In the End, a sextet for the company's men, and the first work he would create from a seated position. Although Chaves can no longer fully realize his choreography physically, In the End is his strongest work in recent memory, demonstrating a sophisticated and refreshing balance between raw physicality and restraint.

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