The classics of literature, film or ballet earn their keep by remaining fresh and compelling from one generation to the next. Still a contemporary update can sometimes make even a classic more relevant. That’s the case for two dance performances currently on stage in Chicago. For Eight Forty-Eight, Lucia Mauro tells us how.
At first glance, break dancing and the silent movie era seem like a pretty surreal anachronism. Not so for Chicago Dance Crash, a daring eclectic troupe known for unexpected mash ups. Christopher Courtney and Michael Dice, Jr., are the creative forces behind The Trials of Busta Keaton, the first full-length hip-hop ballet. It’s a contemporary homage to the famous 1920s stone-faced stuntman Buster Keaton. His action-comedy films are considered classics. Chicago Dance Crash compares the silent comedian’s tortured career to the grueling lives of dancers. Courtney, a break dancer known for pushing his body to the limit, admits to performing with strained muscles a collapsed lung.
So The Trials of Busta Keaton parallels Keaton’s increasingly dangerous stunts with a dancer’s need to constantly challenge their physical capabilities. The large ensemble – clad in pork pie hats and Converse sneakers - often portrays multiple Buster Keatons, who smoothly vacillate between pratfalls and pop and lock. Most significantly, the cast is painted head to toe in black-and-white monotint to convey a live silent film. Yet weaving their way through the intense ensemble action are girls wearing 1960s-style shift dresses in TechniColor. They represent the advances in film technology – from sound to color – that cut short the careers of great physical actors like Keaton. One of the most high-powered numbers mixes up two tap dancers, three acrobatic B-girls, and an ensemble that joins together synchronized music-video moves, wide ballroom sweeps, and the Charleston. It’s the dance equivalent of Keaton flinging himself down a flight of stairs or dangling from a speeding train.
ince 1869, choreographers like Marius Petipa, have been staging classical ballet versions of the 17th century novel, Don Quixote by Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes. The title idealistic knight, best known for jousting with windmills, has long symbolized hope, despite the more cynical realities of life. Russian choreographer Boris Eifman, who fuses extreme ballet with avant-garde ideas, brings to Chicago his full-length ballet, Don Quixote, or Fantasies of a Mad Man. He reimagines the lead character as a patient in a psychiatric ward. This Don Quixote escapes his torment by pretending to live among the villagers celebrating the wedding of Kitri and Basil from Book Two of Cervantes’ novel. He and his patients wave their bed sheets as they alternate with matadors swinging their capes. It’s a soaring, discombobulating affair – complete with gravity-defying lifts and hyper-extended legs – to convey the enduring power of the imagination.
Both Chicago Dance Crash and Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg infuse the classics with fresh and provocative life.
Chicago Dance Crash performs The Trials of Busta Keaton through May 1 at the Hoover-Leppen Theatre in Chicago.
The Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg will perform Don Quixote, or Fantasies of a Madman at Chicago’s Auditorium Theatre.