Second annual 'Summer Shorts' heads outside in Lawson Dance's first collaboration with new studio Rooted Space

These days, live dance is hard to come by. Strict social distancing guidelines prohibit dancers from touching one another. Theaters are mostly shuttered and audience members must stay six feet apart—all challenging hurdles in putting a show together. Lawson Dance Theatre, in their first partnership The Rooted Space (a new North Center dance studio in the former Rast Ballet space) made an open-air effort with “Summer Shorts” Friday. 

“Summer Shorts” came to fruition in 2019 when Lawson Dance wanted to create a casual and welcoming multi-disciplinary performance series. Intended as a way for artists to comfortably share their work, this year’s show—staged outdoors in the North Center Town Square—gave performers an opportunity to showcase their talents mid-pandemic. String lights hanging above a crowd of masked faces and an exposed “backstage area” revealing dancers running through minimized versions of their dances reminded me of a coffee shop open mic night—casual vibe achieved. 

It was a full hour of performance: with live music and seven dances. Musicians Caryn Culp, Millie Rivera, and the evening’s emcee, Nick Davio, powered through street sounds of laughter and car backfires as they sang. Singer-songwriter Culp’s acoustic guitar act was an endearing opening, and Rivera, in a sparkling red dress and with Latin dance embellishments, added fire with a song backed by guitarist Alex Kleinberg. Davio closed the night with two audience-engaging songs, a sweet nod to his children’s songwriting background.

Four dance solos graced the outdoor stage. Lawson Dance Youth Company member Una Tarpey showed off her ballet technique-in-training and burgeoning choreographic skills wearing bright red Converse; I suspect she made her parents proud. Kate O’Hanlon Bruns’ “My Way” ate up the small circular stage with physically demanding choreography, while Cara Wedeking’s “Seize the Unknown” bewildered as she skipped around and stripped off long, white opera gloves. The only piece of non-original choreography in the show was Mary Waterman’s rendition of Jerome Robbins’ “Woman’s Variation from Other Dances,” originally set in 1978. A pointe shoe clad Waterman navigated the technically demanding piece with tremendous effort—an outlier in both style and choreographic vulnerability. 

The remaining three dances were quartets, including two from the newly-established Chicago dance collective Littlefires. Savannah Dunn’s “Six Feet,” ironically, didn’t keep the dancers at six feet of distance. Though dancers Maddy Joss, Hannah DiLorenzo, Celine Spinka and Ingrid Ferdinand all wore masks, they executed partner work that toyed dangerously with physical contact. Taking it one step further, Julia Schaeffer’s “Bound” blatantly ignored any semblance of social distancing as dancers Dorianne Thomas, Delia Constantino, Keila Hamed and Chihjou Cheng laid on, grabbed and lifted each other. And as the dancers flooded the audience to watch the remaining acts in the show, I watched performers hug family and friends. I distractedly questioned how safe the audience was after all.   

The other quartet, “Catch All,” choreographed by Littlefires founder Jamie Greco, was the strongest piece of the evening, by far. With a soundtrack of a humbly relatable original spoken word, written and presumably voiced by Greco, the four dancers—Ophelia Brian, Rachel Ferring, Teagan Reed and Audrey Sides—twitched to a symphony of “ums” and “likes” with an unassuming energy. The masked movers alternated solos, executing individualized, noodle-like choreography—even though their faces were covered, a tone of self-awareness mixed with a hint of self-consciousness rang through due to a lack of eye contact among the dancers. 

It smacked of a talent show at times, and COVID accountability definitely needed to be addressed. But all in all, “Summer Shorts” offered the chance to see some live and in-person art and created a way for artists do what they love—and not just over a computer or social media platforms.