Lost in 60077

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I am a passionate supporter of new works, since it goes without saying that they are essential for ensuring that our artistic lives continue to thrive.  I am always up for seeing a new performance piece, whether in any of the major downtown performing arts venues, or in a musty, creaky storefront in Wicker Park, or in an art gallery in the northside, or even somewhere in the unfamiliar terrains of the Chicago suburbs.  Last Friday, I motored via executive coach (actually BFF Debra’s car) to the unknown reaches of the 60077 zip code, better known as Skokie, Illinois, to watch my friend Alfie perform in a new ballet of “Frankenstein”, the inaugural presentation of a newly-created ballet company, the Alma Dance Company, whose mission is to present ballets with “original stories, original choreographies, original music- and taken one step further.” Although I laud the hard-work and dedication that are required from those who launch new arts organizations, after last Friday’s performance, I’m really not sure where that “one step further” is going.

We arrived at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts early so I could claim our complimentary tickets and get settled in our comfortable seats with time to spare before the performance started.  The theater had five box-office ticket windows, with everyone lined up in an orderly fashion (this was the tony North Shore after all), patiently waiting their turn at the ticket windows.  Francis’s bad karma struck again –  I ended up with the nastiest box-office agent among the five, a scowling, droopy-eyed, bun-faced, shrill-voiced chick who looked liked she was miserably missing out on a hot, lusty date on a Friday night (note to chick:  two words before you could even think of hot, lusty date:  major makeover…or, better yet, hot shower!).  Miss Skokie High School 2000 insisted that there were no tickets under my friend Alfie’s name, and there were no tickets under my name.  I said, pleaded, could you check again under my name.  She rustled papers, peered into her computer, sighed loudly, and then bellowed…”there are no tickets!  what do you want me to do?” My delicate Asian sensibility in shell-shock, I ran to the press table looking for my tickets (yeah, that was a brilliant move) to no avail, called my friend on his mobile and told him of my predicament, and then stood in line again hoping that I would get one of the nicer box-office agents.  Yep, no dice.  I found myself facing the antithesis of Little Miss Sunshine again.  She snarled “what now?”.  I said, calm and composed (and looking fab in Hugo Boss), “can you please look for tickets for S-A-D-A-C? My friend says they’re under my name at the box office.”  With eyes rolling and loud sighing, plus some really unglamorous snorting, she finally lifted herself out of her seat and walked to the shelf at her back, as if weighed down by cinder-block, and found…my tickets. 

First the good news about “Frankenstein”, the new ballet.  I loved watching a dance performance with an 18-piece live orchestra instead of recorded music.  I thought the production values were superb, with no-expenses-spared set and costumes (and even a black and white expository video).  I thought some of the dancing was terrific, of course, Alfie, in particular, who looked gracefully sleek as a member of the corps de ballet.  I believed there was a genuine attempt on the part of the creators to de-emphasize the scarier, pulpier aspects of the stereotypical Frankenstein story, and focus on the emotional heart of the piece, the need for human connections.

But I was in a state of bafflement for most of the evening.  It started when the Artistic Director came out and welcomed the crowd.  First I wondered, why was Annie Lennox in Skokie…oh, no, it wasn’t her.  Secondly and with bated breath, I wondered if those spaghetti straps slowly sliding down her muscled arms could continue to hold up that low-cut dress.  The questions continued when Igor, the one character in Frankenstein who was supposedly hideously deformed, hunchbacked, and who ate cockroaches, came out in a solo ballet number wearing…a mesh shirt? And why was he twirling around and high-kicking like a chorus boy auditioning for the road tour of, gulp, “Cats”?  A question when the lighting booth started to emanate blinking white lights in the middle of the first act…was there a poltergeist in the house?  Of course the biggest questions came with the advent of Act Two.  After an Act One of fairly classical ballet, Act Two began (and went on for an interminable 35 minutes) with the whole company dancing the samba.  Samba in Frankenstein? Where did the ballet go?  Then the dreaded conga line appeared.  A conga line in Frankenstein?  where was..Charo?  As I sipped wine at the post-performance reception (where a last baffling question surfaced- what alternative fashion universe did these North Shore women live in, where it was acceptable to wear embroidered floral beige-colored pants?), I thought how admirable it was to start a dance company.  But I also thought about how much hard work and critical, no-holds-barred reflection was ahead of the Alma company to ensure that they overcome these birth pains and emerge as a sustainable organization in Chicago, a city where hundreds of artistic companies in various fields vie intensely for the mindspace, and dollar, of arts consumers.

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