Appearing in monotone hues, dancers in Chicago Dance Crash’s latest performance seamlessly transitioned from 1920s moves into hip-hop numbers. The dancers, who were spray-painted gray and dressed in black and white, visually emulated characters of the silent film era while executing modern day movements. The juxtaposition contrasted the conflicting ideas of the past and present through dance.
“The Trials of Busta Keaton,” Chicago Dance Crash’s newest and largest production of the season, combines dance, comedy and acrobatics drawing inspiration from silent film actor Buster Keaton. Departing from the company’s usual performance structure, “Busta Keaton” provides an opportunity for the dancers to be part of a more visual narrative.
According to the show’s director, Chris Courtney, he and other Chicago Dance Crash producers have been working on the idea for more than a year. He said he wanted to create something slightly akin to a Cirque du Soleil performance, a surreal abstract experience for the audience, while incorporating the dance styles of Chicago Dance Crash and physical slapstick comedy of Keaton.
“Michael Dice, [the show’s co-producer], always liked silent films and always wanted to do a show about silent films, and I was game so we came up with the show,” Courtney said. “What was relevant then was something completely different than what is relevant now. So using what is hip now, we kind of compare the two, while we’re in black and white.”
Along with the mixture of classic and contemporary choreography, the music conveys a contrast between past and present throughout the show. Some pieces are performed to old commercial jingles, while other dances utilize Kanye West as their soundtrack.
At the center of the narrative is the battle between old and new. Black and white dancers perform against dancers in full color. According to Courtney, they explore entertainers from different eras throughout the show, accounting for the sharp contrasts in music, movement and tone.
For the dancers, the inspiration of the silent film era proved a challenge at first, but according to dancer Julian Devine, the connection between dance and the acting style of silent film stars helped him grow as a performer.
“I really like how Keaton was known for having a stone face, but he was able to express his emotions through his movement and eyes,” Devine said. “For me, being a very expressive person, it was a challenge, but I found it to be very life-changing in a way.”
For company member Jessica Deahr, the show’s strong visual aspect helped the dancers along in a way she wasn’t used to during past performances with Chicago Dance Crash.
Deahr, who has blond hair and pale skin, is transformed into a character with gray skin, black eyebrows and lips. On top of that, she wears a black wig and a monotone outfit for each show. According to Deahr, this puts her in the correct mind set for this show.
“Immediately I feel crazy, which kind of helps you get into the character,” Deahr said. “It’s really nice to have something that looks so crazy; people are immediately sucked in. I hope all the shows we do can have such a strong image that stands out.”
Deahr said the high-art concept of the show created a more engaging experience for the audience and dancers. The strong theme and visual structure of the show took dancers out of their typical routine and allowed them to be more emotionally present in the performance, Deahr said. She hopes the company continues to experiment with different concepts while maintaining its niche style of contemporary dance.
While Courtney is pleased with the response to this particular performance, he said to maintain the reputation built up with this show, the company must continue to evolve from show to show to keep dancers and audience members interested.
“We’re doing things very few companies have been doing,” Courtney said. “It’s partially groundbreaking, so I think [dancers] are excited about that. We’re going to go in a completely different direction for our next show. Every show is completely different.”
“The Trials of Busta Keaton” will finish its run with performances on April 29 and 30 at 8 p.m. and on May 1 at 3 p.m., at the Hoover-Leppen Theatre, 3656 N. Halsted St. Tickets range from $20 to $25 and can be purchased at BrownPaperBagTickets.com. For more information, visit ChicagoDanceCrash.com.