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In the vein of the Chicago Dancing Festival, which was a cultural staple here for 10 years, Harris Theater for Music and Dance Mounts a wide-ranging celebration of the festival's co-founder,  choreographer Lar Lubovitch and his indelible contributions to the Chicago Dance.

By Fred Cummings

​​​​From the Autumn 2019 Issue of Clef Notes Chicagoland Journal for the Arts

​For the better part of a decade, Chicago Dancing Festival was a popular mainstay on the city's bustling cultural calendar. The multi-day summer fête celebrating the uniquely inspiring and diverse dance community presented free, high caliber performances in at Millennium Park’s J. Pritzker Pavilion. It featured more than 500 dancers representing 75 top flight dance companies from around the globe during its tenure in Chicago, and it routinely drew tens of thousands of eager patrons annually, eventually expanding to fill indoor venues like Harris Theater for Music and Dance, Auditorium Theatre and Museum of Contemporary Art’s performance theater. Those uniquely inspiring performances were made possible in large part by the efforts of the festival’s co-founder, the also uniquely inspiring Chicago-born choreographer, Lar Lubovitch. Founder of his own namesake dance company based in New York, Lubovitch’s efforts helped usher in an era of dance in Chicago that brought a new level of collaboration to the surface, flourishing into performances that presented dance before hundreds of thousands of locals and visitors alike—some who might not have had occasion to indulge such a rich artistic treasure but for this single endeavor.

​With that kind of auspicious residence in the Windy City, where the world’s greatest dance companies routinely present such performances to sold-out houses, the epilogue to this massive and ambitious effort came with the 2016 festival providing little fanfare to commemorate the invaluable benefit the initiative made to Chicago.

​This fall, in the unique vein of Chicago Dancing Festival, Harris Theater for Music and Dance will present a celebration of Lubovitch’s own work in a show of gratitude for the incalculable impact his contributions have made to the city’s dancing community—and the audiences who love them. Featuring local and visiting companies performing repertoire from Lubovitch’s prolific career, A Celebration of Lars Lubovitch will help offer a fitting culmination to the festival’s august purpose and the impact it has had here.

As Patricia Barretto, Harris Theater’s Alexandra C. and John D. Nichols President and Chief Executive Officer, told me, after the sudden conclusion of the festival’s 10-year run, this celebration is something all players—including fellow co-founder Jay Franke and David Herro—truly felt needed to happen. “The festival has done great things for the Chicago dance community, cultivating audiences for dance here,” she explained. “But the Chicago Dancing Festival came to an end three summers ago, and when it did, it felt rather abrupt…So Jay spoke with Lar and with me and really wanted to effect a more formal culmination, in a celebratory manner, to the festival, and also to say 'thank you' to Lar Lubovitch for his incredible contribution to the Chicago dance community.”

Barretto explained that in developing the scope of this celebration, it was important to retain the Chicago Dancing Festival format, so a selection of companies that were near and dear to Lubovitch’s heart were tapped to showcase works that spanned the breadth of his incredible output.

Of the programming planned for A Celebration of Lar Lubovitch, Barretto noted, “The pieces, the repertoire and the companies were really a collaboration between Jay and Lar and myself. We wanted to include companies that Lar felt an emotional connection with… we also wanted to make sure that the pieces demonstrated the breadth and scope of Lar’s work.”

​To that end, they invited four world renowned companies to present very personal presentations of some of the choreographer’s most iconic works.

The program includes Joffrey Ballet dancers in selections from one of Lubovitch’s most visceral works, Otello, and Martha Graham Dance Company in his ethereal Legend of Ten, choreographed to the first and fourth movements of Brahms’ Piano Quintet in F-minor, Op. 34. Ballet Austin will perform Dvořák Serenade, and three dancers (two from Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, one from Lubovitch's own company) will present the choreographer's Little Rhapsodies. The through line in this program—and in Lubovitch’s massive output, many would say—is  the extraordinary way in which he fuses classical ballet dance idioms with modern dance, which in a way seamlessly unites the disparate companies that will be in residence on the Harris Theater stage and were indeed representative of the wide swath of dance collectives at work during Chicago Dancing Festival’s 10-year run.

Ashley Wheater, The Marylin B. Galvin Artistic Director for the Joffrey Ballet, points out that this facet of Lubovitch’s choreography is precisely what created consonance with The Joffrey’s distinctive aesthetic. “Joffrey dancers are able to convey a story through dance, to bring life to individual characters,” Wheater told me. “Lar’s work always contains an emotional element, not always found in abstract modern dance. Joffrey dancers are good actors: skilled at conveying passion, sorrow, romance, joy…Lar choreographs with the entire body. His movement extends to the tips of a dancer’s fingers and toes. The movement of a dancer’s head is an organic continuation of his or her body. This is extremely important to me and fundamental to the ‘technique’ of the Joffrey.”

​For Stephen Mills, Ballet Austin’s Sarah & Ernest Butler Family Fund Artistic Director, Lar Lubovitch’s choreography has long served as a natural conduit between two seemingly disparate dance forms. “Lar’s work has always been a bridge between modern dance and ballet.  There was a time when modern dance and ballet were very much at odds, never collaborating. I believe Lar has been a champion in breaking down barriers and building alliances between all forms of dance.”

​Lubovitch’s work in helping to birth and mature Chicago Dancing Festival was nothing if not a result of that profoundly important effort. Chicago audiences blessed with an opportunity to view festival programming routinely enjoyed a melding of traditional ballet and modern dance performances, often on the same stages.

For this fall’s Harris Theater performance, audiences are slated to see one of Lubovitch’s most dramatic works unfold when Joffrey dancers present excerpts from Othello, an evening length work based on the Shakespeare’s iconic play of the same name. Wheater notes that for him, there is certainly a personal connection with bringing this work to the stage in a celebration of the composer so near and dear to his heart. “Lar created Othello for American Ballet Theatre and San Francisco Ballet in 1997, and I was a ballet master in San Francisco when they presented this piece,” said Wheater. “Unlike traditional narrative ballets, which depend upon mime and gesture to tell a story, Lar used pure movement. The work was ground-breaking, and audiences responded.

​"When I first became artistic director at the Joffrey, I knew the Chicago audience must see Othello.” Wheater further noted that thought the company’s first staging of the work in 2009 amounted to a massive undertaking, it ultimately became one of the Joffrey’s signature pieces simply because of the way in which the landmark work expanded the choreographic language available to contemporary dance. “I believe Lar crafted a new dance vocabulary: at times angular and dissonant, at others lyrical and romantic,” said Wheater. "One realizes the broad range of tools available to a choreographer.”

Those tools prove equally revelatory for Austin Ballet, which will perform Lubovitch’s Dvořák Serenade in this fall’s performance. And for Mills, the Serenade, a modern dance that sits comfortably on classically trained dancers, is one of Lubovitch’s “most beautiful and enduring works.” And again, as Mills stresses, this is one of the elements of Lubovitch’s choreographic style that distinguishing him among choreographers of his day, and truly many before him. “If art is a reflection of the time in which it is created, it would be difficult to tag Lar’s work to a particular period,” said Mills. “His movement vocabulary is extremely broad and has the ability to rest comfortably upon the bodies of dancers of many styles.  He is concerned with formal construction as it relates to music. And whether the work is telling a story or is strictly abstract, it is innately human.  That, I believe, is what creates and perpetrates relevance.”

​Lubovitch’s work maintains relevance through the many disparate dance companies for which it so readily resonates. 

A seminal performance in this fall's showcase will be Martha Graham Dance Company dancers in the Lubovitch's Legend of Ten, set to Johannes Brahms’s Piano Quintet in F minor; the Lubovitch Company premiered the work in 2010. It has become a staple of Martha Graham Dance’s repertoire. The masterpiece showcases the company’s uncanny artistry couched in breathtaking athleticism.

Capping the evening will be the choreographer's layered and uniquely lyrical Little Rhapsodies. Performed by Lubovitch Company's Jonathan Alsberry, and Hubbard Street's Andrew Murdock and Craig Black. The work showcases fluidity of a trio of male dancers in a striking visual treatise on male identity.

Together these works in sum reveal a vivid picture of the sheer range of Lubovitch’s output—not just in technique but also in artistic scope. And in a real sense that is the magic of Lubovitch’s work, appealing to a broad range of dance talents, showcasing an affinity for both ballet and modern styles—indeed melding the two. His work is a compelling draw for the myriad dance companies performing on today’s stages, and drawing more audiences in to the art form as the Chicago Dancing Festival had done for a decade shows the power of his incredible reach and the vision of his purpose.

​​Carrying the torch that Chicago Dancing Festival lit will be left to innovative dance presenters like Harris Theater with programming that breaks new ground in exciting ways. For Barretto, whose leadership at the Harris is ushering in summer rooftop programming and wonderfully exciting dance collectives new to Chicago audiences this season, this kind of out-of-the-box programming is just the tip of the ice berg. For her, introducing new audiences to dance starts with serving as  the premiere dance presenter in the country. When I asked about programming presentations like this within the constraints of a limited season, she made it very clear that Harris Theater was moving well beyond those limitations. "It's not about a fall schedule or a summer schedule or a winter schedule," she told me. "Where we're moving is if you want to see great dance, the Harris should be the first theater that comes to mind."

​With innovative programming like A Celebration of Lar Lubovitch this fall, that goal is squarely in reach. The coming commemorative performance this October is just one of the many ways the Harris is leading the way in dance performance in the U.S.

But don't get the impression that this fall's celebration will speak to an artistic output that is etched in time and bereft of relevance. As Ashley Wheater pointed out, Lubovitch's dance works are as artistically vibrant as they have always been. Said Wheater, “Lar’s work is intellectually rigorous and emotionally potent. His work has developed and changed through the years, yet seems as relevant today as the day it was created.”  For that reason alone,  A Celebration of Lar Lubovitch will feel more like discovery than approbation. There’s too much immediacy in his choreography to restrain it to mere reverential exhibition.

​And, given the full breadth of his contributions to the dance community and Chicago's cultural profile, it seems quite fitting, nay necessary that artists representing five premier U.S. dance companies and audiences from  all over the Chicagoland area gather at Harris Theater for Music and Dance this October to offer our sincerest thanks.

A Celebration of Lar Lubovitch will take place October 5 and 6, 2019 at Harris Theater for Music and Dance in Millennium Park. Visit harristheaterchicago.org to learn more.

Joffrey Ballet's Fabrice Camels and April Daly in Lar Lubovitch's Othello (photo by Cheryl Mann).