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By Zachary Whittenburg
Inside Chicago's diverse dance scene
Luna Negra, with (from left) Nigel Campbell, Mónica Cervantes, Diego Tortelli (crouching), and Veronica Guadalupe. Photo: Cheryl Mann, Courtesy Luna Negra
Chicago exists in the popular imagination as a city of big shoulders, heavy industry, political corruption, terrible weather, and gang violence. It’s famous for deep-dish pizza and for churning out brilliant comedians nonstop. It’s known as a city of groundbreaking achievements in architecture and engineering, music and literature, food and theater.
In the last decade, it’s also reconnected with its history as a world capital of dance. Then and now, that story is one of unique voices—many of them. Chicago is overflowing with dance of all genres.
From the start, diverse groups of dancers have worked in partnership here. Take for example a nexus of artists in the 1920s that included Adolph Bolm of the Ballets Russes, choreographer Ruth Page, and émigré directors Andreas Pavley and Serge Oukrainsky. A young Katherine Dunham, who performed in some of their ambitious collaborations, would go on to become a pioneering choreographer and the first American to put Afro-Caribbean dances onstage.
Talley Beatty, once a student of Dunham’s and later an international choreographer in his own right, began his career here in Chicago. It was also the center of gravity for idiosyncratic dance artist Sybil Shearer, a major influence on Hamburg Ballet director John Neumeier, who trained at Walter Camryn and Bentley Stone’s esteemed academy.
Lou Conte put Hubbard Street on the map, and Gus Giordano founded his namesake company here. Current craze footworkin’—a speedy alloy of hip-hop and tap—is just one of Chicago’s many homegrown forms. From 1974 to 1990, key venue MoMing was a spot for Chicago artists to connect with the avant-garde elsewhere; experimentalists Trisha Brown and Bill T. Jones were among its guests. Under the direction of Gerald Arpino, The Joffrey Ballet made the Windy City its new home in 1995.
Chicago is a nerve center for tappers, many of whom train alongside members of contemporary, jazz, and bharata natyam ensembles in residence at the American Rhythm Center. This brand-new dance hub, located in the grand old Fine Arts Building in the Loop, is just the latest in a long line of cooperative ventures. Founding organizations include the Chicago Human Rhythm Project, Giordano Dance Chicago, Luna Negra Dance Theater, River North Dance Chicago, and Kalapriya Center for Indian Performing Arts.
Dance fans and practitioners often find themselves in parks, as the Chicago Park District not only manages the nation’s largest network of city green spots, it also hosts companies in its roomy, historic fieldhouses. In exchange for offering public classes, groups such as the Chicago Moving Company and Zephyr Dance can create and perform work in a single location.
DanceBridge, an essential city program, welcomes two to three grantees at a time into a studio in the Chicago Cultural Center, for three months of rehearsal, capped with a shared showcase. In two adjacent lofts in the Wicker Park neighborhood—CrawlSpace and OuterSpace—freelance dance artists build gutsy projects for short runs. Links Hall, a venerable alternative performance space, is booked all day, every day for rehearsals, shows, and workshops.
Seven companies-in-residence cross paths at Visceral Dance Center, including Chicago Dance Crash, The Seldoms, and Lucky Plush Productions. Ballet Chicago’s skyscraping studios bustle as well. Another consortium, the Chicago Dancemakers Forum, supports choreographers in process and helps fund large-scale projects. The service organization Audience Architects presents a series of free talks and panel discussions.
In 2003 the Harris Theater for Music and Dance opened underneath Millennium Park. The state-of-the-art, hard-edged, 1,500-seat venue became home base for performances by two founding dance companies: Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, a standard-bearer in the U.S. for productions of work by such choreographers as Nacho Duato, William Forsythe, Jirí Kylián and Ohad Naharin; and African-diasporic ensemble Muntu Dance Theatre, a cultural touchstone in the city for four decades. In the years since, many more troupes have presented home seasons at the Harris, including Ballet Chicago, Giordano, Luna Negra, River North, and Natya Dance Theatre. Former dance student Rahm Emanuel is a regular visitor; by the time he introduced the Paris Opéra Ballet at the start of its U.S. tour last summer, such apron speeches by Chicago’s dance-loving mayor were commonplace.
Three blocks west stands the Joffrey Tower. Opened in 2008, it houses the 45-member ballet company, its offices, and Academy of Dance on three of the glistening high-rise’s 31 floors. The Joffrey presents its home season at the Auditorium Theatre, an opulent, 3,900-seat national landmark next door to the American Rhythm Center.
While the Auditorium and the Harris share hosting duties for the largest visiting ensembles—think Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Batsheva Dance Company, Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan, and San Francisco Ballet—most visiting solo artists and touring productions play the Dance Center of Columbia College, the Museum of Contemporary Art, or Links Hall. The two-year-old DEFIBRILLATOR is the city’s always-hopping home for butoh and performance artists from around the world.
Chicago’s newest essential dance venue is the Fasseas White Box Theater, a whistle-clean, versatile space tucked away in a Lincoln Park boys’ and girls’ club. Close by, a studio complex and intimate theater named for Ruth Page sees a slew of activity. Technique classes there are popular and a monthly showcase, Dance Chance, offers new work by local choreographers chosen at random from those who attended the previous episode.
You can find former Dance Theatre of Harlem member Homer Bryant’s school, the Chicago Multi-Cultural Dance Center, in the city’s historic Printer’s Row neighborhood, and another firmly established training center, bearing Joel Hall’s name, in Edgewater.
The city’s two largest dance organizations’ artistic directors—The Joffrey’s Ashley Wheater and Hubbard Street’s Glenn Edgerton—prefer curating to choreographing. Ditto DanceWorks Chicago artistic director Julie Nakagawa. But they’re exceptions in a city where, at all scales, dancemakers tend to launch and run companies dedicated to their own work.
Thodos Dance Chicago in A Light in the Dark, with Jessica Miller Tomlinson and Alissa Gigler Tollefson. Photo: Cheryl Mann, Courtesy Thodos
River North routinely features works by its director, Frank Chaves, as does Thodos Dance Chicago, founded by choreographer Melissa Thodos. Spanish choreographer Gustavo Ramírez Sansano brought Luna Negra into its second phase three years ago, after founder Eduardo Vilaro returned to New York to direct Ballet Hispanico. Ron De Jesús, a Hubbard Street and Broadway alum, produces locally on a project-to-project basis with dancers from around the country.
In the contemporary scene, creative forces are overwhelmingly female. Four artistic directors recently announced a new venture for joint audience development called FlySpace: Jan Bartoszek of Hedwig Dances, Margi Cole of Dance COLEctive, Michelle Kranicke of Zephyr Dance, and Joanna Rosenthal of Same Planet Different World Dance Theatre. In addition, dancemakers Carrie Hanson, Shirley Mordine, Julia Rhoads, Nana Shineflug, Venetia Stifler, and the companies they lead are all mainstays.
A Moveable Feast
After 10 years, the Other Dance Festival went dark in 2011. Chicago lost a crucial forum for contemporary work and dance theater, but other gatherings soldier on, joined by exciting new ones.
The Harvest Chicago Contemporary Dance Festival might well fill the void left by the departure of “the Other”: its third annual run featured 28 companies and independent artists over three days in October. Last summer saw the debut of Rapid Pulse, a massive, 10-day spread of body-based and performance art representing nearly two dozen countries. Going on its sixth year, the Chicago Dancing Festival (see “Dance Matters,” Aug. 2011) brings free performances, film screenings, and other events to more than 10,000 fans of world-class dance each August. For three years, a fresh fest called the Open Space Project has toyed with different ways of presenting and advocating for young choreographers. An interdisciplinary collective called The Inconvenience brings dance into the theater scene.
Throughout each season, the Chicago Human Rhythm Project organizes summits for students and pros of tap and percussive dance. “Windy City Rhythms” gathers talent from around the city; “Global Rhythms” features groups like Barbatuques and Step Afrika! during a Thanksgiving-weekend event. “Rhythm World” is CHRP’s two-week summer blowout of master classes, workshops, and showcases with headliners such as Derick K. Grant and Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards. Comparable in form and scope is the long-running American Spanish Dance & Music Festival, hosted by Ensemble Español Spanish Dance Theater.
Derick K. Grant at a Rhythm World event. Photo: Nathan Keay, Courtesy CHRP
The city’s cultural diversity reflects beautifully in large attendance for events during two annual tango fests, the Chicago International Salsa Congress, the Chicago Flamenco Festival, and the outdoor social gathering SummerDance. A recently opened second building for the Old Town School of Folk Music expands its capacity to offer world dance classes and present showcases. Dance Union presents mixed bills on themes throughout the year, devoted to contemporary and cross-disciplinary work. The Aloft Loft regularly presents people experimenting in circus arts, and the Out of Site series places live performance art in public spaces. Irish dance endures as a tradition going back generations in Chicago. Students from Trinity Irish Dancers’ network of schools, founded by Mark Howard, routinely garner top awards at championship events held worldwide.
With any luck, we’ll see an encore of the Dance Improvisation Fest held around the city in 2011: eight days of on-the-spot choreography with Chris Aiken, Angie Hauser, Bebe Miller, Nancy Stark Smith, and many others. And here’s hoping that the venerable, bucolic summer venue Ravinia Park revives its waning dedication to dance.
The overarching theme of dance in Chicago is that there are no overarching themes. Only rarely will a choice or method trend, and any such fads are short-lived. (That said, site-specific productions and spoken text abound.) As in fellow world cities, companies increasingly follow a collaborative model of choreographic development.
While some dancers pursue the ultimate expression of a singular form, more look for ways to cross-pollinate with experts from other disciplines. Natya Dance Theatre, Kalapriya, and Soham Dance Space rethink classical Indian dance forms using a theatrical approach. Hedwig Dances, The Seldoms, and Khecari all find new ways to integrate smart design, fashion, original music, and live performance. Members of many Chicago companies develop their directorial skills and present new dances as a matter of course. The Dance COLEctive, Hubbard Street, Luna Negra, and Thodos all include choreographic workshops for dancers in their regular season schedules.
Chicago’s breakdancing, B-boy and B-girl scenes thrive. Stellar exponents like Evol of Brickheadz Crew represent the city at major contests and exhibitions, while community-focused programs such as Connect Force provide mentorship for the next generation.
This all combines to provide a palpable sense of possibility, and, given Mayor Emanuel’s stated goal of making Chicago a global mecca for dance, the next decade here should be at least as interesting as the last.
Zachary Whittenburg is a freelance journalist, essayist for the Chicago Dancemakers Forum, and manager of communication at Hubbard Street Dance Chicago.