Two upcoming dance performances tackle epic themes of world war and global harmony. But the scale is surprisingly intimate. For WBEZ, dance Critic Lucia Mauro provided a review.
Mention Leo Tolstoy’s 1869 novel, War and Peace, and most people make some kind of comment about its massive length and scope. So imagine the response to a one-hour dance-theater interpretation of a tome that chronicles the Napoleonic invasion of Russia. The book is also told through the eyes of five aristocratic Russian families. But the dance performance is not so much a condensed version of the novel. It’s a larger exploration of the effects of war at home and abroad, an idea that’s certainly relevant for our times.
Local theater director Jim Manganello teamed up with choreographer Amanda Timm, along with artists from Redmoon and Collaboraction theaters for this production. Their format, reminiscent of the musical Cabaret, sets the catastrophe of war and strife in the absurdist realm of a circus-like variety show. Even the makeup has a garish tone, with ashen lighting punctuated by bursts of blood reds and bruised purples. There are no characters, only archetypes of personalities associated with a combat unit. For instance, there’s the anxious live wire, the misfit who becomes a form of comic relief, and the cool-headed leader.
The artists begin with a juxtaposition of a battlefield and a ballroom, and visually show how the two intersect. The bigger irony centers on the idea of the prevalence of war to preserve civilized society. One section bounces between couples waltzing and soldiers getting stabbed and blown up. The harmonious becomes confrontational, and we can clearly see the fine line between a headlock and an embrace. The performers also manipulate stools and a table to become a stuffy group of politicians barking out strategies in the safe confines of a situation room. Another sequence involves dancers being bound together with elastic, but they’re really not connected.
They seem to be enemies, not lovers.
Overall, War and Peace uses circular movements to suggest the cyclical nature of its theme. The late choreographer Alvin Ailey took a similar approach with his epic 1960 dance classic, Revelations. But its iconic set pieces, from a blazing orange sun to a giant round umbrella, emphasize a cycle of unified humanity. When Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater makes its annual Chicago stop this month, the dancers will no doubt get the audience up on its feet in celebration of the 50th anniversary of Revelations.
The three-part African-American opus, set to spirituals, embodies Ailey’s blood memories of growing up in rural Texas. It begins with a moving evocation of faith triumphing over oppression. Then it segues into the exuberant mood of a baptism within a stream of undulating fabric. Revelations ends with a rousing unison dance to "Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham".
Both War and Peace and Alvin Ailey’s Revelations show the intersection of conflict and joy to address the ultimate triumph of the human spirit.
War and Peace runs through May 22 at The Viaduct Theatre in Chicago
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performs May 18-22 at the Auditorium Theatre in Chicago.