Written by Sid Smith
Posted: July 23, 2012
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Muntu Dance Theatre of Chicago's gala benefit at the Harris Theater is typically one of the summer's more festive outings, and this year the cause for celebration was momentous — the company's 40th anniversary. That impressive milestone inspired a provocative program Saturday, one rich with the troupe's traditional flash and energy, but also boasting examples of recent collaborations with contemporary American choreographers. That list includes Monique Haley, of River North Dance Chicago fame, and her "See (In) Me," which premiered earlier this year as part of joint programming starring Muntu and DanceWorks Chicago.
"See (In) Me" opened Saturday's program, a bold choice in that it's such a departure from the rousing ensemble spectacle so associated with Muntu. It's stark and compressed, three dancers (Errin Berry, Amansu Eason and Nicole Noland) almost trapped in a dimly lit landscape. Their animated solos and interactions are angst-ridden, troubled and laced with danger, while sometimes beautiful, too. They leap into each other's arms with an intensity possibly hostile. Set to often eerie music by Godspeed You! Black Emperor, it's short but compelling — bleak lives with only glimmers of hope.
By contrast, "Roff," a seductive new piece (named for a spice blend treasured in Senegal) from artistic director Amaniyea Payne and Idy Ciss, is lively and invigorating, though it, too, begins with dim lighting. But it quickly brightens to show offcolorful, silky costumes and its rich evocation of various West African traditions, including the wonderfully named bougarabou. It's a nice addition to the troupe's authentic African explorations. Jeffrey Page premiered "Beauty, I Am," a new version of an earlier work in progress, and it could use further tinkering. A kind of allegory exploring the joys and pitfalls of beauty, it features a character whose relationship to her mirror is explored via mythic fantasy figures — including a Funk Mother (Payne) — who alternately encourage and torment her.
Ramona Lindsey's costumes — turquoise and pink with some rainbow tulle for the women and creamy, stylish suits for the men — are winning. But the choreography features long stretches of posing and oblique dramatics. The all-out romp for the women at its end, however, is classic Muntu fire and intoxicating fury.
The all-musical Afro-Caribbean tribute, also on Saturday's program, was pure delight.