Malashock Dance, Art of Élan and Kontras Quartet collaborate and make a big leap with ‘High Strung’


Taking a risk is an act that all great artists share on their journey to excellence.

It can be scary as hell or thrilling beyond words, providing a transcendent experience for all.

The latter outcome is the goal of three organizations who have come together to create “High Strung,” a risk-taking dance concert staged by Malashock Dance, Art of Élan and its ensemble-in-residence, the Chicago-based Kontras Quartet.

The idea for this show goes back decades, when artistic director John Malashock first stunned spectators and challenged his dancers with a program similar to “High Strung.”

And for audiences attending the upcoming performance at the Lyceum Theater, there’s a big surprise in store.

Read on for the reveal.

The three collaborators — Malashock; Kate Hatmaker, co-founder of Art of Élan; and Jean Hatmaker, co-founder of Kontras Quartet — are connected by a common mission: to deliver the unexpected.

The Hatmaker sisters, Malashock says, are a multi-talented, dynamic duo, invested in breaking the elitist stigma that still clings to classical music performances.

Jean Hatmaker is a cello professor who co-founded Kontras Quartet 10 years ago with string principals from the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, and the ensemble has gone on to record and perform internationally.

As a cellist, she has worked on numerous collaborations with dance companies, including Hubbard Street Dance Company, Youth Empowerment Performance Project and the NewArt School of Ballet, where she combined teaching and performing with classical ballet lessons. It gave her a sixth sense when sharing a stage with dancers.

“It’s taught me the big picture flow,” she says. “It’s the difference between how music sounds and how it feels to move to music aurally and emotionally. Once you move across a room to music, it takes on a different dimension, one I couldn’t perceive before.”

Kate Hatmaker is a violinist for the San Diego Symphony and heads the artistic programming for Art of Élan, celebrating its 12th season with the theme “Ways of Listening.”

The organization is known for its cross-disciplinary productions and “High Strung” is Art of Élan’s third collaboration with Malashock Dance.

“The whole point is to liberate classical music from the concert halls and bring it to unexpected places and to curate these intimate, shared human experiences for people,” Hatmaker says.

“I think it’s something we desperately need in this era when everyone is on their phone. Though technology connects us, we need to find ways to come together and rub shoulders with people in a transformative way.”

“High Strung” is danced by Malashock’s company of six women and four men. It starts with “After Dust,” a poignant work he choreographed a decade ago that parallels maintaining a home with a relationship that requires upkeep. Music by modern composers Mary Ellen Childs and Osvaldo Golijov accompanies the dance.

The String Quartet No. 2 by composer Leos Janácek is performed to Malashock’s second dance in the program. It’s a composition also known as “Intimate Letters,” and the story behind it enriches its listening.

Janácek was 27 when he married his 15-year-old wife Zdenka, and after the deaths of a son and daughter, the couple grew apart. Later in life, the composer fell in love with Kamila Stösslová, a married woman more than 30 years his junior.

During the last decade of his life, Janácek wrote her more than 700 letters and the tempo of his composition ranges from frenetic and explosive to intimate and tender.

Written in 1928, “Intimate Letters” invites the listener to hear a musical version of the composer’s obsessive, passionate thoughts.

“It’s a hard piece of music, no question,” Malashock says.

“It tells the truth about what was going on inside his internal landscape. He was more than a little high strung. Others have choreographed to this piece of music and taken a literal approach by portraying him and portraying her. I have taken a more expressionistic approach. Kamila was a fantasy for him — a multifaceted projection. As I would typically choreograph, I’m following where the music goes but working with a lot of configurations. Some of the work is duet, some group and there’s a female quintet, where I’m working with different aspects of her.”

Contemporary dancer Brittany Taylor took a break from rehearsals to explain how the choreography connects to Janácek’s turbulent range of emotion .

“There are lots of musical shifts that directly relate to the dancing and very specific sections per musical movements,” Taylor says.

“The women are sensual and strong on their own and the men are fascinated with them — sometimes obsessed. In the duet/quintet piece, my character ignores my male counterpart and keeps slipping away from his grasp. You’ll see a theme of the men moving the women around like statues or objects as well.”

The final dance — appropriately titled “Unbridled” — is set to Antonin Dvorák’s exuberant and optimistic “American Quartet,” written in 1893 and inspired by the composer’s summer retreat in Iowa. The works are both string compositions written by Czech composers and almost identical in length, but the similarities stop there.

“It was about finding music with a tremendous amount of contrasts,” Malashock says teasingly.

And now for the spoiler alert.

The dancers will perform the same exact choreography to both compositions. After mastering the steps to Janácek, the dancers must tune in to their inner sense of timing and apply the lifts, partnering and the athleticism Malashock’s choreography is known for to the faster, more melodic Dvorák work.

It’s an experiment Malashock executed years ago that intrigued audiences, and it fit well with Art of Élan’s “Ways of Listening” theme.

“So many people said that it was not the same choreography because it seemed completely different,” Malashock recalls.

“What I learned is that context is everything. When you recontextualize something, it will be quite different. And that’s what I like to do with dance-make work that draws people in.”

Malashock Dance and Art of Élan, with Kontras Quartet, present: “High Strung”

When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday. 7 p.m. Sunday

Where: Lyceum Theatre, 79 Horton Plaza, downtown

Tickets: $15 students, $35-$45 general admission

Phone: (619) 544-1000


Pre-show Young Professionals Happy Hour at 6:30 p.m Friday is an additional $15; a pre-show VIP reception at 6:30 p.m. on Saturday is an additional $25.

Manna is a freelance writer.