Though "jamming" might sound like a new street dance, it's actually a physics concept — equally applicable to traffic jams and vacuum-packed coffee — about particles whose states change under pressure, from liquid to solid and vice versa.
It was that kind of jamming that inspired Melissa Thodos' new "Changes of Phase," created with input from Chicago architect Jeanne Gang and University of Chicago physicist Sidney R. Nagel. Thodos Dance Chicago debuted the work Feb. 22 at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, but it'll be reprised Saturday and Sunday at the Harris Theater with three other works, among them Lucas Crandall's new "Tsuru."
Thodos has long been fascinated by science, especially physics. "That interest likely comes from my late father," she says, "a chemical engineer who taught at Northwestern University for 44 years. In our big, fat Greek family, dinnertime was where life was lived, over good food. And our conversations would be about theory and science and creative thinking, problem solving. They were never about our day or logistical things.
"Science is very much about thinking past the physical, being conceptual in what you're doing," Thodos adds. That might also describe at least some contemporary dance.
In "Changes," jamming governed the construction of the set pieces — the "jamoebas" — that the 12 performers manipulate. Created by Studio Gang Architects, these large, translucent objects contain lightweight plastic balls ("toy balls," Thodos says) within fanciful shapes constructed of a thick plastic able to withstand the pressure of jamming and resist tearing when manhandled by the dancers. Valves allow air to pass out of or into the shapes, compressing the balls or relieving the pressure, which enables the change from solid to malleable and the other way around; both processes happen during the piece.
The effect is otherworldly, as if you've been to an undersea realm or another planet. They resemble stalagmites, a four-legged octopus, clouds — or they can be worn as starfish skirts.
Crandall, Hubbard Street's rehearsal director, says "Tsuru" ("Crane") evolved from Japanese concepts of the bird, reputed to mate for life and consequently a symbol of luck at weddings, represented by collections of tiny origami cranes. But while the bride is expected to make 1,000 of them, he adds slyly, the groom supplies one.
"Tsuru" has morphed since its initial conception. Though Crandall's first thought was to aim for exaltation — a natural with the score, dominated by taiko drumming — that became a wish for something "more delicate, vulnerable."
The result is a fierce, haunting, thoughtful work for two couples and a corps of eight. Choreography, costumes and lighting together produce a striking composition.
The company reprises Ahmad Simmons' "Panem Nostrum Quoditianum" ("Our Daily Bread"), a lovely septet that captures this young River North dancer's intense, conflicted feelings about religion.
And Thodos brings back last year's uplifting story ballet, created with Ann Reinking, "A Light in the Dark: The Story of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan."
Thodos says "Light in the Dark" is a "special piece to me, the company, and Ann. Unlike when I was in school, Helen Keller's autobiography is not on kids' reading lists anymore. But we feel it's an important American story that needs to be told."
The company now performs an outreach program in schools, "Connections," that addresses disability through dance.
"This particular evening has a lot of power — power in thought, in physicality, in relationships," says Thodos. "It has a wonderful charge."
ALSO WORTH NOTING
Kalapriya Dance: The troupe performs "Re-Imagine," a 75-minute Bollywood dance tribute to classic actor Raj Kapoor. 7:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday, Ruth Page Center for the Arts, 1016 N. Dearborn St.; $15-$25 at 312-436-2789 or kalapriya.org
Philip Elson: This Seldoms dancer presents his first evening-length work, "Terms and Conditions," about privacy in the digital age. 7 p.m. March 14-16, Links Hall, 3111 N. Western Ave.; $10 at linkshall.ticketfly.com
Chicago Tap Theatre: The company reprises "LoveTaps," an interactive tap opera, now rewritten by poet Marc Smith. 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday, March 14-23, Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave.; $22-$35 at 773-327-5252 or stage773.com
Hyde Park School of Dance: HPSD remounts its story ballet based on Hans Christian Andersen's "The Nightingale." 7 p.m. March 15, 2 p.m. March 16, Logan Center for the Arts, 915 E. 60th St.; $10-$20 at 773-493-8498 or hydeparkdance.org
Thodos Dance Chicago
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday
Where: Harris Theater for Music and Dance, 205 E. Randolph St.
Tickets: $20-$60; 312-334-7777 or harristheaterchicago.orgCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun