Laura Bleiberg reviews:

River North Dance Chicago on Thursday kicked off day one of Laguna Dance Festival. This is the festival’s seventh season of dance performances, master classes and collaborations with art galleries, all in Laguna Beach.

River North has been a regular visitor to Southern California in the past six months, with shows at the Cerritos Center and the Smothers Theatre in Malibu. The audience cheered lustily, nonetheless, when festival founder and artistic director Jodie Gates announced that this was River North’s first time in Laguna Beach. And there’s the draw of this plucky festival, which moves this year from the high school auditorium to the slightly smaller, but more suitable Laguna Playhouse.

Laguna Dance Festival draws a small crowd, but it’s an intense and proudly local one. Never mind if not every show is an exclusive event; it’s more important that they have come to Laguna Beach. But more on the festival in a bit.

River North is a going-on-23-year-old jazz and contemporary dance company, its roots not unlike those of its more established cross-town cousin, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago. Artistic director Frank Chaves choreographs for the jazz side of the repertory. His work tends to be balletic and lyrical, as we saw in the multi-section show-closer, “Habaneras, The Music of Cuba,” the swirling, overstuffed duet “Sentir Em Nos,” and a second duet, for a charmingly smitten couple, performed to “At Last,” that Etta James signature song (all the music was recorded).

More interesting was Chaves’ “Simply Miles, Simply Us,” to four iconic Miles’ compositions. Here was a thoroughbred jazz dance piece — loose, sashaying walk; exaggerated body isolations; and that c-o-o-l, sexy style. Something about Chaves’ literal reading of his musical selections tends to tamp down his dancers, slow down their reactions. The energy level was drained and less spontaneous. Two exceptions: the group section to “Bitches Brew,” in which Miles’ percussive anarchy translated into off-balance and unexpected moves, and falling to the floor. The second highlight was Hanna Brictson and Michael Gross in the steamy duet to “Blue in Green.” Brictson has lightning reflexes and throws herself to extremes; throughout the night, my eye naturally gravitated to her, so surprising were her responses. Gross is just a super partner, in place exactly where he should be to catch or spin his girl. They made dreamy fireworks together.

Works by three other choreographers were featured, too. “Evolution of a Dream,” by company co-artistic director emeritus Sherry Zunker, was an energetic and vivaciously delivered piece that resembled an advertisement for a health club, with its group writhing.

“Beat,” by Ashley Roland (co-founder of Portland’s Bodyvox), on the other hand, was a stunning solo developed (it appeared) from a simple kinetic question: what would happen to the rest of your body if you whirled your arms like propellers? Ahmad Simmons answered with a virtuoso performance of whipped intensity, leavened with stillness to Evan Solot’s original percussive score. Simmons, like Brictson, accented his dancing in unique ways. His swinging arms seemed to pull the rest of his body along from one pose to the next.

Another highlight was “Train,” set to the crackling drum compositions of Les Tambours du Bronx, and choreographed by Robert Battle, now artistic director of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. “Train” was a punishing workout for five women and Simmons. Perhaps it was purely abstract. But it felt like an oppressive force was at work, holding down these feeble humans, particularly in a solo for Brictson. It was a riveting tour de force.

The festival continues Friday night with Ballet X from Philadelphia. Saturday and Sunday’s programs are a gala-style mishmash of classical and contemporary excerpts. The guest stars hail from a variety of companies, including Tiler Peck and Joaquin DeLuz of New York City Ballet, as well as students from UCI. Festival director Gates has launched this event to prominence in relatively short time, thanks to her connections with former colleagues from Pennsylvania Ballet and the Joffrey who now run their own companies. She has also always featured local dancers at every festival, which is a significant give back to the community.

This season, Gates has also put her own choreography on the program; one piece for the UCI students and another for Ballet X, which will soon be taking it to New York City. It would be more desirable if Gates had kept separate her duties as festival director and choreographer; it muddies the festival’s credentials as an independent entity, making it look like a vanity project. I asked Gates about this before the show. She said it’s the first time she’s put her own work on the program. She has gotten some prominent commissions recently, including from the Joyce Theatre, where Ballet X will perform her new “Delicate Balance.” She wanted the community here to see her latest pieces, she said.

There’s no denying that Gates’ dance-world connections are opening doors to some great opportunities for dance students and for audiences. On Thursday she announced that the fall lineup for Laguna Dance Festival includes Orange County’s Backhausdance, and Hubbard Street Dance Chicago and Alonzo King Lines Ballet. The latter two will be working together at UCI on a new piece, and then they will offer two week-long sessions for students. That’s a win-win.

Info: Laguna Dance Festival, Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach. Performances 7:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. $50 general and $35 students. http://www.lagunadancefestival.org or 949.715.5578

Photo 1: Sentir em Nos by Frank Chaves. Dancers: Melanie Manale-Hortin and Michael Gross, photo by Cheryl Mann.

Photo 2:  Simply Miles, Simply Us by Frank Chaves. Dancers: Hanna Brictson and Michael Gross, photo by Jennifer Girard.

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