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Dance Preview: Dance Experimentation to New Heights

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It's not just music that inspires choreographers-art, literature, current events and, of course, the human body itself have all stirred a dancer's soul. But two Chicago companies have taken experimentation to new heights. For WBEZ, dance critic Lucia Mauro previews their offerings.

MadShak runs May 13-23 at Epiphany Episcopal Church Dance COLEctive runs May 21-23 at Links Hall

Established Chicago dancer-choreographer Molly Shanahan has long refused to settle for movement as a rote connection of steps. She champions work that comes from a very deep place in the gut. This week, she opens a revival of her psychologically rich solo, My Name Is a Blackbird, and continues the run with the Chicago premiere of her ensemble piece, titled Stamina of Curiosity: Our Strange Elevations. The name stems from a commitment to not only physical endurance, but also to intense mental engagement. She encourages her ensemble to respond to the stimuli within and around them.

Though more evocative when experienced live, Stamina of Curiosity can best be described as an exchange of energy among the dancers. Their effort is palpable through their audible breathing and exhaling. There's also a sense that they are partnering the air, which serves as an individual barrier for them…even though air is inherently infinite. A recurring image of curled fingers and cat paws evokes the feeling that the dancers are beckoning, seducing and shielding. They cling together before breaking apart…frequently resembling flocks of birds. Most poignant are the movement motifs of rescue and support. In one section, the dancers appear to be forming an assembly line, passing sandbags during a natural disaster. They become a compassionate string of individuals who are part of an equally empathetic community.

Margi Cole, who heads The Dance COLEctive, encourages her ensemble members to test their choreographic skills. Experimental in nature, the group views dance as an open playing field that can comment on social issues, venture into multimedia, or celebrate the endless possibilities of pure movement. In its showcase, titled COLEctive Notions at Links Hall, the company debuts fresh work from a wealth of inspirations, including money itself. In “Push,” Maggie Koller explores two contrasting approaches to finances: one meticulous and balanced; the other careless – as if bills are merely decorated pieces of paper. Koller actually gets down to the molecular level and includes in her movement gestures that resemble the harvesting and converting of cotton into paper that eventually becomes money. A quartet of dancers begins each section by activating a robot piggy bank that eats quarters. The movement centers on push and pull; give and take – perhaps to symbolize who is in control.

For her trio, Harmonic Breath, Jessica Post studied paintings by Russian abstract artist Wassily Kandinsky, who favored a cacophony of geometric design and color symbolism. While Post's dance is not an exact recreation of these paintings, Kandinsky's intersecting lines and rush of images are reflected in the work's composition. One memorable image is of a woman sitting on the floor and fussily stroking her legs as she peddles an unseen bicycle. Subconsciously, the dancers and their twisting postures suggest models in an artist's studio.

Both Molly Shanahan's Mad Shak and The Dance COLEctive infuse modern dance vocabulary with rich and full-bodied back stories that link movement to present-day life.

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