Chicago Tribune: Third dancer’s the charm in unforgettable collaboration between Third Coast Percussion and Movement Art Is

Published on May 3, 2023 by Hannah Edgar       |      Share this post!

“The evening’s biggest letdown? Metamorphosis was booked here for just a single evening…Third Coast ought to reprise this program as soon as possible.”

It had been a hectic 24 hours for Third Coast Percussion.

As ensemble member David Skidmore told Tuesday night’s audience at Harris Theater, the percussion quartet spent the previous day preparing “Metamorphosis,” an exuberantly staged performance to choreography by multidisciplinary dance organization Movement Art Is. But when dancer Trent Jeray came down with a sudden illness so severe he had to bow out, Ron Myles – a specialist in the same Memphis street dance style as Jeray, and who had worked on “Metamorphosis” during its inception in 2020 – was flown to Chicago to take his place on short notice.

Turns out, though, the infirm Jeray woke up on Tuesday “feeling like a million bucks,” per Skidmore. So, Third Coast moved forward with three dancers instead of the usual two – a first for “Metamorphosis,” which has toured the U.S. since last year. It was an aptly sensational frame for the program’s long-awaited Chicago premiere, one of 2023’s most inspiring cultural events so far.

In broad strokes, Movement Art Is projects center street dance – an umbrella term for contemporary dance with roots in African American urban communities. Chicago’s is no exception: footwork, a dance style with knotty step patterns and breakneck tempos of 160 beats per minute or more, was pioneered here and has since become one of the city’s great cultural exports.

Jerrilynn Patton, a Gary, Indiana-based composer who produces music as Jlin, was first catapulted to fame when her music was featured on a cornerstone footwork compilation in 2011. Since then, her work has been associated with the genre, if erroneously: Her recent output bears little resemblance to the art form, save, maybe, its fine-fibered intricacy.

But it does make her music a peanut butter-and-jelly fit for the Third Coasters. Where there are polyrhythms and instrumental arrays that would make the Met’s collection sweat, percussionists Skidmore, Sean Connors, Robert Dillon and Peter Martin won’t be far behind. For Jlin’s suite “Perspectives” – recorded on a Grammy­nominated Cedille Records album last year, and scattered throughout Tuesday’s show – the composer sent Third Coast seven electronic tracks for the quartet to adapt acoustically.

Roughly every other work on “Metamorphosis” incorporated Movement Art Is dancers. One sometimes wished they were onstage more consistently, though the format certainly gave the dancers much-needed respites between dances, as one of “Metamorphosis’s” most enthralling moments proved. To the teeming beats of Jlin’s “Embryo,” Jeray and Cameron Murphy squared off in a taut display of one-upmanship. But just afterward, during the entirety of her gamelan-flavored “Fourth Perspective,” Jeray and Murphy didn’t retreat offstage but instead remained stock-still, their eye contact unbroken and chests heaving.

Yes, there can be a virtuosity to stillness. Jeray and Murphy proved it, their intensity and Jlin’s music inviting us into their own invisible, inner choreography. Only the delicate marimba tinkles beginning “Duality” beckoned them back to the world of the living, melting into a 21st-century pas de deux.

The Third Coast percussionists also cast Philip Glass’ familiar “Amazon River” – from the composer’s “Aguas da Amazonia” suite but itself adapted from one of his piano etudes – in their own yearning, ever-layered arrangement. Poignantly portrayed by Murphy, a protagonist cut from the same tragic cloth as Frankenstein’s monster becomes entranced by Jeray’s fluid gait but finds, agonizingly, that he cannot replicate it.

But he tries, and tries, and tries. After some stumbles, Murphy’s character haltingly, then fluidly, manages a high-kneed airwalk in the center of the stage. The audience’s full-chested cheer in response only just scratched the surface of the triumph. I’ll never hear Glass’ etude the same way.

If “Amazon River” was the night’s most touching moment, Tyondai Braxton’s “Sunny X” was its most exhilarating. In keeping with the composer’s four­dimensional musical imagination, “Sunny X,” workshopped and premiered by Third Coast, fuses its acoustic and electronic elements so organically it sounds as if they emerged simultaneously.

Some of the artists who helped make “Metamorphosis” the event of the year never stepped foot onstage on Tuesday: director Leslie Buxbaum Danzig, lighting/video designer Joe Burke and the Harris Theater’s audio team. But their work zipped to the foreground of “Sunny X.” The spatial sound design was some of the best I’ve heard in the Harris space – one moment the listener felt like a mite on a circuit board, hearing currents pulse behind unseen walls, the next as hough a huge bionic mosquito was whirring figure­ eights above the Harris auditorium. Burke’s visuals backed the stage in slowly shifting monochromes throughout, which, during “Sunny X,” smash-cut between soft grays (paired with acoustic sections) and mega-saturated hues (Braxton’s electronics). During one whiplash switch to ultra-ultra-violet, someone behind me let loose an audible, charmingly Midwestern “Holy cow.” No frills, but all thrills.

All three dancers joined together at the very end for “Derivative,” a standout from Jlin’s “Perspectives.” Third Coast laid down a dizzily swaggering beat with water-filled metal bowls and Thai gongs. Jeray, Murphy and Myles cavorted in a circle on stage and took individual spotlights, as though handing off their very kinetic energy to one another.

The evening’s biggest letdown? “Metamorphosis” was booked here for just a single evening, and a tight one, too, running an hour with no intermission.

Third Coast ought to reprise this program as soon as possible. And if they expanded the project and looped in local movement artists, like footwork collective The Era, for a more pointed homage to Chicago’s own choreographic lineage? Sky’s the limit.

Hannah Edgar is a freelance journalist.

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