A spark in the park – dance and classical music on a sunny afternoon

Members of the South Chicago Dance Theatre perform as part of a program in Kenwood Park. (Photo by Owen M. Lawson)

By M.L. RANTALA
Classical Music Critic

The audience crowded the Kenwood Park baseball diamond last Thursday, but it wasn’t for an afternoon of America’s pastime. Instead, about 100 Hyde Parkers gathered to cheer for a free concert of classical music and dance. More than half the audience was made up of children who enthusiastically embraced the artful presentation.

Live music was presented by the string quartet D-Composed, whose members were  Danielle Taylor (violin), Alexandria Hill (violin), Adjedmaa Ali (viola), and Tahirah Whittington (cello). Hill and Ali were guest artists, rather than regular members of the quartet.

These four Black women were eager to share music with the next generation of classical music listeners, with an emphasis on Black composers. They connected with the kids (and adults) not by dumbing down the music, but rather by simply trusting that kids can appreciate good music if you share it with them sincerely and without pretense. They were a clear success.

D-Composed opened with Tomeka Reid’s “Prospective Dwellers.” Reid has an attractive tonal language and the work employed jazz, classical, and improv techniques. A little girl of about nine sitting directly in front of me got up at one stage and danced to the music. It’s hard to find a better endorsement than that from a kid.

The quartet alternated with dance performances. The first featured teens from the South Chicago Dance Theatre’s Advanced Training Program in partnership with After School Matters. They performed a mixed style piece to Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman.” It was energetic and enthusiastic. What I liked the most about the choreography of Kia Smith was that it was all well within the grasp of the young dancers, but easily allowed for the variations in technique of the young adults. Some of the dancers were more fluid and graceful than others, but the movements were nonetheless well matched throughout and the teens showed poise and polish.

Shannon Washington sported a glorious red dress when she danced to Nina Simone’s “I Love You Porgy.” Ballet and modern technique were wedded artfully with Washington particularly adept at expressing yearning.

D-Composed then performed the short “Punto” by William Grant Still, one of the great yet underappreciated composers of the 20th century. This was an excerpt from a larger work entitled “Danzas de Panama” (“Dances of Panama”). The quartet was restrained, not feeling that the music needed to be juiced up to be appreciated. And they were right.

Mariterese Altosino offered a contemporary dance solo choreographed by Smith and set to the music of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. (All the dances were performed to recorded music.) Altosino is a sensitive dancer who brings drama to a performance. The movements were evocative and engaging and my only objection is that I didn’t agree that the mood of the dance matched the mood of the music. Nonetheless, the style of the dance was alluring.

“Strum” by Jessie Montgomery had great texture. It opened with pizzicato in the viola, strumming by the second violin, and smooth bowing by the cello. The music had country-Americana inflections with a modern sensibility.

Shannon Washington, Mariterese Altosino, Charles Buckner, Georgia Pauley, and Dorianne Thomas gave a bubbly jazz dance performance to the music of Glenn Miller, and everyone on stage and in the audience found themselves “In the Mood.” Smith told me that she choreographed this as a homage to her parents, who worked in Chicago’s jazz scene. It was joyful and exuberant and great fun to watch. There was lots of big air in the dancers’ movement and it ended with a gorgeous stop-action pose.

The event closed with dancers and the string quartet joining forces. The music was “Parks” by Daniel Bernard Roumain. The dancers featured emerging artists from the Hyde Park School of Dance, Georgia Pauley and Isabel Roitman (both Hyde Parkers), and South Chicago Dance Theatre dancers Dorianne Thomas and Julia Schaeffer.

The collaboration was a great success, with four women making music and four women dancing to it, creating a complex web of music and movement. Roumain’s music featured rapid repeated figures with brief melodic fragments given careful articulation by the musicians. The dancers were in attractive, short red shifts each with a white collar. At first they appeared to be cogs within a gear, but the dance grew in complexity and emotion, making for a thoughtful presentation.

Throughout the afternoon, the members of D-Composed made brief comments. They could have done a bit more with this, to draw kids further into an interest in classical music. There were many mentions of universities (where the players studied, where composers taught), which I thought made the music seem more academic than artful. They might have spent one minute each, when their turn came, showing what their instruments can do, for example. cellist Whittington mentioned in passing that she’s in the orchestra for Chicago’s production of “Hamilton.” This might have been better exploited, letting kids know that classical performers are part of a larger music scene. But perhaps that’s the kind of patter D-Composed can develop if they continue to perform marvelous outreach concerts like this one.

There was lots of grateful applause when it was all over and even one heartfelt shout of “awesome!”

This free performance in a local park captured so much of what is true about music and dance: they are for everyone, rich and poor, young and old. And they are not dusty attic relics but living forms of art, renewed and re-invigorated by generation after generation. D-Composed and the South Chicago Dance Theatre ought to be proud of how they turned a small corner of a local park into an art haven that captured the imagination of so many kids as well as adults.

Upcoming performances of D-Composed include a concert on Aug. 30 at 6 p.m. at the closing of the “Prisoner of Love” exhibit at Museum of Contemporary Art. They will also perform at the Stony Island Arts Bank on Sep. 7 at 1 p.m. in a “Family Edition” concert.