Muntu, DanceWorks combine to explore common foundations

Chicago Tribune
Written by Sid Smith
Posted: May 12, 2012
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An ongoing project this season has been pairing up various troupes for partnerships, and the effort reached a high point over the weekend when Muntu Dance Theatre of Chicago and DanceWorks Chicago joined forces for an engaging, illuminating concert.

At first glance, the two companies could not seem more different. Muntu is a long-established home for African legacy and tradition, specialists in authenticity and sizzling spectacle. DanceWorks, more chamber-like, focuses on contemporary choreography and serves as novel, mini-conservatory for young professionals.

But Saturday's venture at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie showed off some fascinating parallels. The selections, especially a couple of collaborations, illustrated just how much the modern idiom and pop entertainment owe to the African tradition, not to mention how seamlessly the two modes can team up. The latter was most dramatically on view in Chicago choreographer Monique Haley's "See (In) Me," an edgy, haunting quartet boasting Amansu Eason and Errin Berry of Muntu and Demetrius McClendon and Marissa Horton of DanceWorks.

Instead of a transparent nod to each style in some sort of match-off, Haley achieves the more audacious goal of melding the companies' dancing together, borrowing strengths from both. A stark piece throbbing with drama, "See (In) Me" features the intricate partnering and abstract interrelationships of modern dance. But it also pulsates with the full-body thrusts, articulate feet and percussive scoring of Muntu. You're hard put to guess which dancer comes from which company, especially since the partnerships intermix by the end.

In a different approach, Alex Ketley's "If Ever (an Ocean) Relinquished" was set on the dancers first, without music, on six dancers, the Muntu musicians then asked to devise a score. Though more freeform and less successful than Haley's, the work proved an interesting collaboration, Muntu ingeniously adding the grace note of having one of its musician open the piece with an entry from the audience.

The program overall was thoughtfully planned, showing off the skills of both companies in ways that reverberated and echoed. Amaniyea Payne, Muntu's longtime artistic head, proved engaging onstage presence in two works, served as multiple choreographer and provided a unison finale that briefly--but memorably--turned the DanceWorks performers into energetic Muntu-like revelers.

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