Golden Celebration of Dance @ Auditorium Theatre

Golden Celebration of Dance @ Auditorium Theatre

3 Stars out of 4

The Auditorium Theatre of Chicago, designed by famed architects Adler and Sullivan with their new guy Frank Lloyd Wright, is arguably the finest theatre in the world for seeing dance. No less than George Balanchine thought so: he is said to have told theatre savior Beatrice Spachner that he wanted to float his new New York State venue down the Hudson and replace it with the Auditorium.  Anna Pavlova performed there, as did Isadora Duncan.  I grew up seeing the likes of Paul Taylor and Martha Graham on that stage, and I went to every one of Geraldine Freund’s International Dance Festival of the Stars showcases, and saw Les Mis and Miss Saigon under the twinkling golden arches of The People’s Theatre. It is a grand space, a palace of performance with impeccable acoustics and fantastic sight lines.   

Fifty years ago on Halloween, in 1967, the aforementioned Spachner reopened the Auditorium after it had gone dark and fallen into disrepair starting in 1941. After 26 years of going to seed, she raised millions of dollars for a renovation, enlisted famed architect Harry Weese, and fought the fashion of pulling down venerable old buildings to revive this landmark venue.   In the age of the internet, her work is not yet done, and it remains for Roosevelt University, the current owners of the landmark theatre, to give new generations many reasons to leave home and gather in a beautiful community space for a show.

This season the stewards of the theatre are highlighting their history while showcasing annual regulars from Joffrey to Alvin Ailey.  The Golden Celebration of Dance on November 12 was meant to do both, and it took a page from Ms. Freund’s book, with mostly solos and duets with the top dancers from around the world.  Balancing telling the story of the theatre and honoring that past with the demands of putting on a show with dancers from all over the world performing copyrighted works can create a continuity struggle and leave the show feeling like a review: the producers of the show, while creating a virtual Who’s Who showcase, did not completely succeed in creating a well paced fulfilling night of meaningful dance. That said, it was a night never to be forgotten, bringing the dance world together in a shared celebration of a space and those who fill it with beauty.

The night began with a surprisingly intimate trip down memory lane with Edward Villela, the NYC Ballet dancer who helped reopen the space in 1967 with the NYC Ballet rendering of Midsummer Night’s Dream.  His ballerina, and Balanchine’s then muse, Suzanne Farrell, was present via audiotape.  The two served as honorary co chairs of the evening which included a gala to raise funds for another round of renovation of the theatre.

And then the dancing began and such dancing it was: NYCB dancers Megan Fairchild and Daniel Ulbricht started us off with a breakneck precise rendering of Balanchine’s Tarentella.  We moved into Mr. B’s Meditation, the first ballet he set on Farrell, performed by Michael Cook and Natalia Magnicaballi.  The geometry is all there and it’s a work of genius in its reconstruction of the physics of the human body.  Next was the ever tear jerker solo: The Swan where Liudmila Knovalova performed Mihail Fokine’s signature portrayal of a dying swan.  Then back to breathless as Koto Isishara and Brooklyn Mack performed the Diana and Acteon pas de deux. Brooklyn Mack is a phenom the way Baryshnikov was--- Mack’s insane athleticism and over the top ballon makes him a guy to watch.   Daniil Simkin of ABT and the Berlin State Ballet was up next with Ben van Cauwenbergh’s  Les Bourgeois,  a work steeped in the tragedy of clowning while still utilizing finely tuned physical prowess.  Hubbard Street Dance Chicago contributed the first act closer with the symbiotic group work: Solo Echo.   The seven dancers moved as one organism and the ever falling snow made me nostalgic for the summer.

After intermission, Ian Spring performed David Parson’s iconic Caught, a work about precise gesture and a lighting design that shows its as much what you don’t see as what you do see that moves you.   Next Victoria Jaiani and her recent partner Temur Suluashvili of the Joffrey performed the lovely and evocative pas de deaux from  Yuri Possokhov’s Bells.  This breathtakingly spare duet uses the classical form to showcase thoroughly modern bodies and technique.  Crowd favorites MOMIX offered Millenium Skiva, where silver clad Todd Burnsed and Nicole Lozides perform Moses Pendelton’s ode to skis. We go back to classical ballet with Youth America Grand Prix winner Madison Penney in a magnificent rendition of La Esmeralda variation by Petipa, and the Balanchine  Chaconne pas de deux with Ballet West stars Emily Adams and Adrian Fry. 

MeganFairchild - Theme and Variations

Alvin Ailey’s company has been an Auditorium Theatre staple for decades and their contribution was quite interesting: Solomon Dumas performed the tour de force Takademe, a work requiring exquisite isolations and perfect timing  as a visual representation of Sheila Chandra’s verbal rendition of Kathak rhythms.  Its is a cultural mashup of African American dance set to traditional Indian music, or perhaps it is a cultural appropriation: as we move into the digital age, are artists still free to range the world and incorporate other traditions into their work?  On a showcase, suddenly, with no cultural context, the piece called attention to itself and asks important questions.

Maria Kochetkova. Photo by Erik Tomasson

Finally, we see Maria Kochetkova of the San Francisco Ballet and Daniil Simkin again in the ever popular and very famous Petipa Don Quixote pas de deux.  Kochetkova slipped in landing her allegro variation but it was otherwise flawless.  As a finale it was solid if not particularly meaningful—what does it say about the Auditorium Theatre’s next 50 years that they return to an 1869 ballet to close a celebration of the theatre’s rebirth  50 years ago?  The producers might not have thought of the symbolism of such an ending, but those of us who worry about the future for such big and beautiful spaces pray that programmers will continue to keep the offerings relevant and desirable for a new generation to discover the pleasures of gathering in such a place for live, in the moment, ephemeral experiences.

A Golden Celebration of Dance:Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the Auditorium Theatre’s Re-Opening  played November 12, 2017 at the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University, 50 East Congress Parkway, Chicago IL.   For more information go to or call 312-341-2300.

Featured photo by Richard Nickel.