Review: The Moonwater Dance Project sets the bar high in their latest presentation, “Moonwater IV"


This year, I’ve been floored by the quality of work being produced by our Chicago choreographers and dance companies. As soon as I’m done reeling from one exceptional performance, another gets me all worked up again. Case in point:

On July 1, The Moonwater Dance Project presented “Moonwater IV” at The Ruth Page Center for the Arts and featured dancers Emily Brand, Summer Smith, Rachel Spies, Celine Spinka O’Brien and Abigail Stachnik. Guest artists included Jade Hooper and Lieana Sherry, and there were two numbers by the MDP Youth Company. Founder and Artistic Director Mackenzie King, in a note in the program, writes that, despite tough times, this is MDP’s largest production yet. “This is a huge moment for me,” writes King, “reminiscing about everything we have accomplished, everything we tried and failed at… all I can do is feel hope.”

“Water From The Trees,” choreographed by Noelle Kayser, begins with five figures twisting and writhing under a single spotlight, accompanied by awkward commentary from an old episode of the TV show “Seinfeld.” Too much time with George Costanza would stress anyone out, and the soundscape switches to a self-help tape, to which the dancers let their energy out by clomping loudly across the floor and slapping their chests. But it is no use. They become beasts — soaring eagles, slithering jellyfish, crawling marsupials. The dark humor in “Water From The Trees” is subtle, and the gracefulness and togetherness of movement by the dancers is polished enough to get the point across: We all have a little animal inside.

King performs solo in “Cheeks,” a lyrical piece by choreographer Dana Alsamsam set to the autotuned singing of Bon Iver’s “715-Creek.” To the lyric “find it in your hands,” King pulls both her arms down into her chest, fingers clasped together. To the lyric “All I’m tryin’ to do is get my feet up from the creek,” King pulls at her feet, stuck to the floor. In “Cheeks,” Alsamsam intelligently translates poetry into body language, performed expressively by King.

The MDC Youth Company takes the stage in “Unspoken” by Abigail Stachnik, a straightforward piece of modern dance fundamentals, like wide fan kicks and quick rolls across the floor. The costumes — grey slacks, white collar shirts and a single black fedora — are a nod to jazz dance greats, like Bob Fosse and Joel Hall. “Unspoken” is a concise, mild cabaret-style number that allows room for each individual dancer’s personality to take center stage.

The main company returns in “Montage” by Jessica Miller Tomlinson. In silence, three dancers in bodysuits melt out of the darkness and begin to swirl in, around, and over each other. Without an audible beat, they stay perfectly coordinated. The dancers are whisked together, blending like oil and water, holding their shape briefly before separating again. They throw their bodies around without abandon. A body is launched into a corkscrew spin on the back of another. “Montage” is high-octane start to finish, and a true test, and testament to, the rhythmic acuity of the dancers.

“Miss Caroline” is a deceptively bittersweet number by Megan Rhodes. A happy, bouncy, Beach Boy-style song draws out five happy-go-lucky dancers wearing casual, unbuttoned shirts. They skip and slice at the air with blade-like arms, playfully fighting the wind during a stroll along a blustery beach. But the mood takes a sharp turn as all but two leave. Like a summer fling turned sour, one of them clings to the other’s leg, a literal “hanger on.” The intention of the work is made clearer by what sounds like recordings from couples counseling sessions. Rhodes’ creativity in “Miss Caroline” achieves a perfect mix of sweet and sour and displays a lightness that belies its great depth.

Dancers Summer Smith and Rachel Spies move as mirror images in Mackenzie King’s “The Weight They Carry,” a duet set to the deep, weighty arpeggios of Bach’s “Cello Suite No. 3 in C Major.” Smith and Spies have an uncanny ability to match each other’s movements. Every leg raised to the side is at the same height, toes equally pointed. Their arms gently rise and fall in tandem. It is like they are breathing at the same tempo! In a moment of separation, one tosses the other upwards and into a spiral, and holds them there in midair for an impressive length of time. In “The Weight They Carry,” King’s choreography is delicate and nuanced, but also explosive, and this dichotomy succeeds thanks to the cooperation between Smith and Spies.

The MDP Youth Company returns in “Escher” by Mackenzie King and Celine Sprinka O’Brien. Set to a muddy and dirge-like indie-pop tune, four dancers jerk and fidget like malfunctioning automatons. In succession, they lurch forward and recoil back, traveling the length of the floor via deep lunges. “Escher” reminds me of films by the early German expressionist directors — creepy and grotesque, but with a sense of fun and dark humor.

“Clarity” by Hanna Brictson sees the full professional company of dancers taking the guise of an army of martial artists training for an upcoming battle. Their brows furrow as their hands perform fast, intricate shapes, their shoulders pulled back and square. Then off they go, walking stiffly back, like a lumbering gang of aggressive hulks. Suddenly, their bodies shake and seize as if being riddled by bullets — never bring a throwing star to a gun fight, I guess. “Clarity” is exciting, serious, monstrous, militant — a mélange of attitudes in perfect proportion to Brictson’s aggressive choreography.

MDP’s attention to rhythm and togetherness is outstanding. To be honest, I was blindsided by it. Every choreographer’s voice came through clearly in the execution of each piece through the diligence of the painstakingly precise group movements of the dancers. Each piece was a different flavor of creativity. If this is the level of quality coming out in the first year following the global COVID pandemic, then I cannot help but echo King’s sentiment of hopefulness. At the very least, I can hope that there will be another Moonwater Dance Project show soon.