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Dancers Explore the Theme of Global Identity

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Dancers Explore the Theme of Global Identity

Home is the subject of upcoming Chicago performances from two visiting dance companies. The London-based Akram Khan Company and South Carolina's Columbia City Ballet delve into the many dimensions of ethnic identity in an increasingly global world. For WBEZ dance critic Lucia Mauro takes us on their journey.

On Stage:
Akram Khan Company
Friday-Saturday, Feb. 26-27, 7:30 p.m.; Sunday, Feb. 28, 3 p.m.
Museum of Contemporary Art

Columbia City Ballet: Off the Wall and Onto the Stage
Feb 27 at 7:30 p.m.
Harris Theater

Home, and its ever-shifting definitions, is the subject of two dance performances in Chicago. London-based Akram Khan Company and South Carolina's Columbia City Ballet delve into the many dimensions of ethnic identity in an increasingly global world. Eight Forty-Eight's dance critic Lucia Mauro takes us on their journey.

The international dancers in Akram Khan's contemporary dance theater work, titled bahok, are stranded in an airport terminal. It's the perfect location to convey the Bangladeshi choreographer's explorations of a diverse society forever in transit. These individuals must navigate across a border-less world, attempting to communicate their personal memories of home through movement.

Bahok, which means carrier in the Bengali language, receives its Chicago premiere at the Museum of Contemporary Art Theater. It opens with a languid scene of travelers slumped in nondescript terminal seats as the words “Please Wait” or “Rescheduled” flash across an overhead screen. The delays force the once-anonymous passengers to gradually confront each other. A ranting, lost young woman desperately pleads with an annoyed man on a cell phone. And, in one of the funniest sections, a young woman doses on a stranger's shoulder. The more he tries to push her away, the harder she clings to him, coiling her legs around his neck. With their splayed and wrapped arms and legs, the pair seems to resemble a multi-limbed deity.

The work mixes ballet, modern and suggestions of ethnic folk styles. Composer Nitin Sawhney's score traverses many international rhythmic styles to add to this offbeat and exhilarating Tower of Babel in dance. The performers tell abstract stories through wide sweeping circles, rapid spins that blur like a figure skater's, and acrobatic twists that spring from the floor. Their destination? A rich and respectful terrain of universal communication.

Akram Khan Company performs bahok Feb.26-28 at the MCA. South Carolina's Columbia City Ballet makes its Chicago debut at the Harris Theater with a new full-length ballet celebrating the multifaceted Gullah culture of America's Low Country. Artistic director William Starrett has choreographed Off the Wall and Onto the Stage: Dancing the Art of Jonathan Green. It brings to life – through ballet, African, jazz and modern styles – the vibrant paintings of Jonathan Green. The performance honors the 70th anniversary of Chicago's South Side Community Art Center.

Green graduated from the School of the Art Institute. He's long been chronicling his Gullah heritage in canvases that portray weddings, men weaving fishing nets, and women decked out in big straw hats and billowing dresses. Choreographer William Starrett has selected 22 paintings as the subject of dances honoring this slowly disappearing way of life. The Gullah people are descendants of West African slaves. They remain isolated along the coast and barrier islands of America's Low Country between Florida and North Carolina. They also developed a distinct Creole language.

Act One conveys a series of lively vignettes of well-dressed girls swinging in a park on a dreamy Sunday afternoon. They incorporate earthy movement into dances on pointe as neighborhood boys flirt with them. In other, less idyllic scenes, such as My Brother Your Brother, racism is addressed in an intense duet mirroring a painting of a white man and a black man holding hands. The dance is set to a 1977 sermon about unity. The second act takes place in a blues club, where a diverse group of partygoers spice up their lives with sensual music and exuberant social dancing.

Columbia City Ballet performs Feb. 27 at the Harris Theater in Millennium Park. Both Akram Khan Company and Columbia City Ballet honor the qualities inherent to specific cultures while encouraging universal communication in a global age.

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