Theater & art

Dance Review

Chicago troupe champions work of Latino choreographers

Eduardo Zuñiga in choreographer Fernando Melo’s “Bate.’’
Christopher Duggan /Jacob’s Pillow
Eduardo Zuñiga in choreographer Fernando Melo’s “Bate.’’

BECKET — Chicago’s Luna Negra Dance Theater dabbles in whimsy and madness: The troupe’s nine members dance as if it’s the last night on Earth.

The company’s primary raison d’être is to champion the work of Latino choreographers, and the three dances presented this week in the company’s Jacob’s Pillow debut share that cultural tie as well as a generosity of spirit and physicality.

Christopher Duggan
Christopher Bordenave, Nigel Campbell, and Eduardo Zuiga of Luna Negra Dance Theater in “Bate.”

In his cinematic, enigmatic “Bate,” the Brazilian choreographer Fernando Melo plays visual tricks, often showing only parts of the dancers. A front drop is raised enough so that we see the legs of a barefoot woman walking across the stage, red shoes dangling from one hand. In a sly comic turn, the train of her dress becomes like a conveyer belt, with several pairs of red shoes ferried along.


A back curtain with multiple squares cut out makes it seem as if we are voyeurs looking into an apartment building full of private tableaux, which are funny and intimate because of what we can see — and what we imagine might be happening. The skit-like scenes serve as a bridge leading to the great crescendo of a dance for five men. Heartbeats of percussive vocals accompany this quintet, in which the men fall and rise, sometimes flailing as if for their very lives, sometimes bursting triumphantly into the air.

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While the characters of “Bate” glow with humanity, the dancers in Spanish choreographer Fernando Hernando Magadan’s “Naked Ape” are just beginning to discover their sentience. Stiffened shirts and pants, uninhabited, are eerie backdrops to four dancers in white who twitch, like storefront mannequins, at the whims of a man in a black suit. The dark metaphors of manipulation and oppression are subtly allayed as the power shifts and the quartet feels the pleasure of being able to move their own limbs, and then, as they learn to trust others, how they can pitch themselves into space, knowing a safety net awaits them.

The beings in Mónica Cervantes’s “Requiem,” however, are at the other end of the evolutionary scale. Now perhaps too much in their own heads, they have to re-learn how to play with others. The movement is virtuosic, rife with agitated strangeness. Dancers spar like dogs trying to win alpha status, or like wrestlers seeking dominance on the mat. The dance almost topples into histrionics, Mozart’s “Lacrimosa” beautiful but unbearable, before a shift into a circusy waltz lulls the dancers. As they settle down, rocking to the offbeat melody, a friendly little wave of catharsis ripples across the stage and toward us. We are all of us a little strange, but we are all of us, finally, just human.

Janine Parker can be reached at