If you had a chance to read our PRE-View for Ballet 5:8’s Compass (which you can read here), then you know that Artistic Director Julianna Slager and her company of incredibly expressive dancers have committed their season thus far to spreading compassion in every community they touch. This past Friday, Ballet 5:8 took the stage at the Athenaeum Theater in Chicago and delivered an evening of inspired choreography and thought-provoking performance. The program touched on a number of politically sensitive topics including race, abortion, and immigration, but when these charged topics are approached through Julianna’s choreographic lens of compassion, it is clear that the purpose of the program is not political at all. Its true purpose is to inspire empathy and kindness, and all artists involved in Compass deserve congratulations for successfully emoting and delivering this message with grace. DancerMusic’s Kristi Licera was in the audience for this one-night only performance, and invites you to join her as she RE-Views Ballet 5:8.
All God’s Children
Of all of the choreography presented, ‘All God’s Children’ is closest to what you might imagine a classical ballet to be, just with buckets of whimsy and an extra sprinkle of imagination. It kicked off the performance by showcasing the technical prowess of the dancers both as individuals and as a corps. The program notes tell us “If God created all people, then He created every shade of skin color; this leaves no room for prejudice”. Regardless of whether you practice any form of religion or not, Ballet 5:8’s message of equality is relevant and necessary, especially in a city like Chicago where issues involving race are regularly seen in headlines. Julianna’s clear movement motifs divide the different classes of characters, referred to as ‘Cultures’. To close the work, these four cultures and their respective movement motifs eventually evolve and combine in a dazzling display of unified movement performed en manége (the classical ballet term for performing travelling steps in a circle).
Regardless of whether you practice any form of religion or not, Ballet 5:8’s message of equality is relevant and necessary, especially in a city like Chicago where issues involving race are regularly seen in headlines.
I must also absolutely give major kudos to costume designer and Ballet 5:8 Solo Artist Lorianne Barclay for her vibrant and masterfully made designs. Lorianne’s detailed costuming of all of the pieces, and particularly of ‘All God’s Children’, help transport the audience into the worlds carefully crafted by Julianna’s choreography. In the post-show talk back, Julianna described the setting for this work as whimsical and Dr. Seuss-like – a world perfectly represented by Lorianne’s designs. Each class of character had specific costume colors and head pieces, plus hand dyed pointe shoes for soloists to match. Her costuming had the most impact at the end of the piece, where the dancers shed their colorful outer layers to reveal a single unified costume underneath, in a hue I imagine would be created if you mixed every skin tone together – spectacularly beautiful!
Shades of Refrain
In this modern day interpretation of the book of Psalms, Julianna’s choreography challenges dancers to be at their most vulnerable and rely on each other and their higher power to pull through. To give more context to the quality of movement for this work, take a moment to reflect on the title. In this context, refrain is used as a noun, and refers to a poetic phrase — or in this case, a prayer — that is often repeated. Julianna infuses classical ballet with more contemporary and modern movements, incorporating echoes of Martha Graham’s famous pleadings and gestures that reach from the heart toward the creator above.
Julianna infuses classical ballet with more contemporary and modern movements, incorporating echoes of Martha Graham’s famous pleadings and gestures that reached from the heart toward the creator above.
From the balcony of the Athenauem, you could see just how deeply the dance artists connected with this piece. Each extension of the leg and arch of the back carried with it purpose, love, and surrender. In the midst of all of this beautiful movement, Julianna strategically placed moments of stillness, sculpting her dancers into tableau that reminded me of the artwork in my childhood church. Visually, it gave the eye and mind a moment to process the performance, but for the dancers, it acted as a sort of embrace, as if the moment of unity had the comfort and encouragement of a parent.
Although this piece deals with the topic of abortion, it takes no form of a political stance. Instead, it begs you to empathize with the lead character, danced with pure emotion by Solo Artist Lorianne Barclay.
Set to a movement from composer Henryk Gorecki’s “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs”, ‘The Mother’ tells the tale of a woman plagued by regret and haunted by the ghosts of what could have been. Although this piece deals with the topic of abortion, it takes no form of a political stance. Instead, it begs you to empathize with the lead character, danced with pure emotion by Solo Artist Lorianne Barclay. Lorianne is joined on stage by three children (Libby Dennen, Morgan Kelly, and Laura Peterman). Through the magic of lighting, costuming, and the dancers’ quality of movement, the three drift among the shadows to haunt stage and the mother.
Strangers and Angels
Set in Ellis Island in 1917 and 2017, ‘Strangers and Angels’ frames two sets of refugees from Armenia and Syria. The choreography lives up to the level of excellence that we come to expect from Julianna, and was by far the most contemporary of the program. The most striking moment of the piece brought two groups of dancers representing refugees to the front of the stage with documentation in their hands, pleading for entry to a better life. During the post show talk back, an audience member raised his hand and shared how deeply the moment affected him. As I sat and listened to his experience, I could not help but notice the number of audience members that, a) had stuck around for the post show talk, and b) were nodding their heads in agreement. Ballet 5:8’s mission was to inspire compassion through their performance, and by my observation, they succeeded.
What left the biggest impression was the cast of this piece, which included nearly 20 dancers from Ballet 5:8’s main company, trainee program, conservatory, and studio companies. It was a living and moving example of just how far Ballet 5:8 has come in just five years. In our previous interviews and chats with Julianna, Johnny and I learned that the company started with just 6 dancers. It is a true testament to their rigorous and passionate approach to their work and a glimpse into the great things that are sure to come.
What left the biggest impression was the cast, which included dancers from Ballet 5:8’s main company, trainee program, conservatory, and studio companies. It was a living and moving example of just how far Ballet 5:8 has come in just five years.
Ballet 5:8 is a company whose mission is truly based around love, compassion, and kindness. They use the values of their faith only in the most positive ways – to inspire their audiences, to motivate one another, and to provide a basis for their approach to dance and choreography. In a world wraught with violence and ignorance, its a pleasure to have artists like those at Ballet 5:8 spread their message of light.
Learn more about Ballet 5:8 and their upcoming performances at https://www.ballet58.org.
All photographs courtesy of Ballet 5:8/Lana Kozol.