Imagine a huge canvas covered in human flesh and billowing cloth, combining Hieronymus Bosch's earthbound creatures with the angels of Michelangelo's "Last Judgment."
That was the vision as the curtain rose on "Surge," a jam-packed visual wonder created and performed by both Aerial Dance Chicago and Elements Contemporary Ballet. Some 25 dancers from both companies either swept across the floor en masse or hung in clusters from the rafters, swathed in the silks of aerial dance. Closing "Silk & Steel" — a shared program of five pieces Saturday at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie — "Surge" brought the sold-out house to its feet.
Aerial dance and ballet on the same stage is a genius move. The technique is similar, with extended limbs and taut torso, and so is the aim: to go beyond the human body and everyday life, to approach the magical, even the eternal. "Surge" does all that, but it also suggests human frailty and loss.
It opens with a recording of a brief text by Czeslaw Milosz describing a dream of return — multicolored, joyous — to a long-gone, much-loved home. It's the opening of Max Richter's aching composition "The Trees," which accompanies the first section of "Surge." The dancers' minimal costumes reveal them as individuals and as souls traveling the way of all flesh.
Divided roughly in three, "Surge" proceeds from its masses of entwined or rushing bodies to a trio for a man (Joseph Caruana) and two women, one "flying" on a rope (Chloe Jensen) with the man's help, the other dancing on pointe (Megan Walsh). In what seems a love triangle, the man is tied to the airborne woman but fascinated by the one with her feet on the ground. The final section, set to a new-agey composition by Christian Collier featuring tabla and throat singing, literally takes off, with flying leaps onto the hanging silks and huge swings across the space.
Though jointly choreographed by Elements' Mike Gosney and Caruana and ADC's Karen Fisher-Doyle and Jensen, "Surge" is seamlessly thrilling.
Gosney's ambitious "Curiosity" (2010), also on this program, displayed his gift for adding emotional nuance by slightly distorting classical form. He excels at duets; unfortunately, ensemble sections were muddied by uneven performances. Jensen's quartet on trapeze, "Symbiotic" (2009), revealed a foursquare aesthetic and strong feeling for visual drama.
Rounding out the program were Caruana's 2008 duet "Angel" — which he also performed, showcasing his uniquely sinuous approach to ballet — and ADC's 2011 "UnEarthed," addressing our changing environment, choreographed by Jensen, Fisher-Doyle, and others.