Appalachian State University’s Performing Arts Series kicked off the new semester by hosting River North Dance Chicago, a dance company known for its eclectic, powerfully evocative style. The program was a wonderful example of artistic work that manages to be enjoyable and emotionally compelling while wrestling with contemporary and timeless issues. Dance can be so abstract as to distance audiences; this company’s work is both accessible and provocative, a special but necessary combination in the contemporary arts scene.

The performance featured a wide variety of styles, issues, and emotions. The company presents its style as primarily jazz and modern with Spanish influences. Marketing aside, the presence of classical ballet is very strong, despite other eclectic influences. Regardless of stylistic semantics, the movement within this ensemble is wonderfully unified. Many companies focus on synchronization to the point of mechanical precision, but River North Dance Chicago’s gift lies in the unity of the quality rather than the form of movement. The choreography, though much of the work was not done in-house, is unified, refreshingly original, and free of gimmicks. Interestingly, much of the choreography for the male dancers defies traditional roles and is more lyrically than athletically demanding. Gender issues were frequently explored throughout the night. From the near-abusive choreography in Stormy Monday to questions of female identity in Renatus, the raw physicality of the movement pushed these issues to the forefront.

River North Dance Chicago utilizes a variety of lighting and costume designers for different pieces. The lighting was artistically provocative; many pieces absolutely depended on the space and shapes created with light. Unfortunately, it was somewhat technically lacking, with visibility becoming an issue. Considering the inherent limitations of a truck-and-bus tour and possibly of the venue itself, the problems were certainly forgivable. The costumes were consistently excellent, supporting and enhancing the choreography without distracting, as well as providing cohesion of style and palette.

The program opened with Eva, a series of pieces by the artistic director Frank Chaves set to songs performed by Eva Cassidy. Fields of Gold featured three pairs of dancers moving with incredible tenderness, intimacy, and fluidity. The aforementioned Stormy Monday provided a graphic and uncomfortable portrayal of a relationship hovering in the ugly gray area between violent passion and abuse. On the other hand, Autumn Leaves was a stunning and sad duet of isolation and disconnection, and Wade in the Water provided an energetic company number with a focus on community. The range of emotions and relationships portrayed was all over the place, but none the less powerful.

The Worst Pies in London was a delightfully funny and creepy solo piece, featuring Drew Fountain as Mrs. Lovett from Sondheim’s Sweeny Todd. More pantomime than dance at times, the piece was driven exclusively by the score and was remarkably effective. It was followed by Dawn by Kevin Iega Jeff, an exhausting, primitive, and ritualistic piece in the Rite of Spring sort of vein.

The second half of the program began with the intense SUPER STRAIGHT is coming down… originally choreographed by Daniel Ezralow for Hubbard Street Dance Chicago. It was described in the program as a “fiercely physical urban meltdown of epic proportions” (which, to be honest, sounds like a preview for the next zombie hit). What the piece actually presented was a thoughtful and disturbing exploration of dysfunction in the corporate workplace, inspired by the work of Robert Longo. Five dancers dressed in business casual explored struggle of the intersection between personal breakdown and professional competition. Backstabbing, ostracism, perfectionism, rejection, exploitation – it was all there, presented in a visceral, athletic style that made one a little afraid to go back to the office on Monday.

SUPER STRAIGHT was followed by Jessica Wolfrum’s astonishing performance of Nejla Yatkin’s Renatus. The bulk of this piece is set to Puccini’s magnificent aria “Vissi d’arte,” from Tosca, with wind chimes and an insect-like fluttering before and after the aria. The solo dancer begins cocooned in yards and yards of fabric, which is eventually revealed as a stunning red gown, designed by Jordan Ross. The dress both limits her movements and enhances them because of the sheer length of the fabric. When she eventually disentangles herself from it, there is a palpable sense of both loss and freedom. Issues of transformation, identity, expectations, control, and the female body are very much evident throughout this powerful piece.

Havana Blue, also choreographed by Frank Chaves, is a series of pieces that much more strongly demonstrated the Spanish and Latin influences on Chaves’ work. While it was enjoyable and energetic, it did not quite achieve the emotional depth present throughout the rest of the program.

River North Dance Chicago has managed to create works that are simultaneously original, artistically authentic, emotionally evocative, and socially relevant. See them in action if you get the chance – you won’t regret it.

The Appalachian Performing Arts Series continues throughout the spring semester; for details, see our calendar.