Windy City Moves
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.
From the minute my journey as a dancer began at age 4, there were no other options of what I might do with my life.
Sure, I tried other "after-school activities." I tried desperately to master The Phantom of the Opera with my squeaky violin rental—a headache for my parents who paid for private Suzuki method lessons at our house. Constantly attempting famous show tunes on my violin, the effort was completely futile. I actually remember thinking, 'Surely this sheet music is wrong, this sounds nothing like the Phantom of the Opera.'
I even tried my hand at gymnastics. But when my mom's brilliant bribery of $100 for my first mastery of a kip or a back handspring didn't produce any results, we quickly threw in the towel.
When Miami City Ballet artistic director Lourdes Lopez was a principal dancer at New York City Ballet, she missed her opportunity to honor Jerome Robbins onstage. "Every time there was a celebration for Jerry, I was either injured or had just retired," says Lopez. "I was never able to publicly thank him onstage for all that he taught us and the beauty he left us."
But when Lopez was planning MCB's Jerome Robbins Celebration for the 100th anniversary of the legend's birth, she saw an opportunity. She asked the Robbins Trust to allow her to perform the Ringmaster in Robbins' Circus Polka, a role the choreographer originated himself.
Growing up in inner city Rochester, NY, Aesha Ash was just one of the neighborhood kids. She'd imagine people driving by, judging her by her black skin.
"They'd never know that I was dreaming of becoming a professional ballet dancer. No one would think, Some day she's going to make it into New York City Ballet," says Ash.
After an inspiring career at NYCB, Béjart's Ballet Lausanne and LINES, the January 2006 Dance Magazine cover star—one of our 25 to Watch that year—is no longer performing. But she's determined to use her dance background to change the stereotypes and misconceptions that people—including black people—have about women of color. "I want to show it's okay to embrace our softer side, and let the world know we're multidimensional," says Ash.
Aesha Ash in Richmond, CA. PC Renee Scott via swandreamsproject.org
In 2011, she launched the Swan Dreams Project to inspire kids in the community she grew up in. The original idea was to post images of herself in a tutu all over Rochester. "I remember growing up and in the bodega you'd see images of girls in bikinis on motorbikes," says Ash. "I wanted to replace those with photos that show women of color in a different light."
She knew the power imagery can have: She still remembers what it felt like as a student at the School of American Ballet to see a photo of black ballet dancer Andrea Long. "That image was everything on days when I was feeling disenchanted. I'd see that picture of her, and know that the struggles I was going through, she went through them, too."
Ash soon realized she didn't have the budget to fund her original plan ("I never realized how expensive a bus stop advertisement is!"). But she's made the images available through an online store, and often simply gives away prints at her own expense to schools and students in need of some inspiration.
Any proceeds she makes from the sales go directly to other organizations that are working to expand ballet in diverse communities. One large donation even led to a pointe shoe fund at dancer Robyn Gardenhire's City Ballet of Los Angeles school—and it helped one dancer who had quit ballet because of the expense come back to class.
Now a mother of two in San Jose, CA, Ash will also start teaching a free after-school ballet class at her daughter's public school next month. "I recently taught at Girls Inc. in Oakland, and one of the little black girls said, 'Are you the ballet teacher?' She just stood there, staring at me with her mouth open, like a unicorn had just walked into the room," Ash says. "You never know the impact you can have just by being a presence."
Ever find yourself lusting after that six o'clock penché, or a développé that will reach your nose? You're not alone. The eye is naturally drawn to the end points of a movement, and, in dance, that often translates to the highest extension.
But what if you're born without extreme, Instagram-worthy lines? It's a matter of developing a laser focus on alignment as well as strengthening and stretching with better body mechanics in mind.
From coast to coast, choreographers have spent the first year of Donald Trump's presidency responding to the impact of his election and what it means for them as artists.
New York City's Dante Brown used rubber Trump masks in his work Package (revamped), which examines the monstrosities of power.
A video titled "Dancers vs. Trump Quotes" went viral last summer, showing dancers taking Trump's "locker-room" talk to task.
Alexis Convento, lead curator of the New York City–based Current Sessions, dedicated a whole program to the concept of resistance, while educator and interdisciplinary artist Jill Sigman has initiated a workshop called "Body Politic, Somatic Selves," as a space for movement research around questions of support, activism and solidarity.
In San Francisco, choreographer Margaret Jenkins facilitated a panel of artists about the role of activism within their work.
When London-based perfume company The Beautiful Mind Series was looking for a collaborator for their next scent, they skipped the usual celebrity set and brought in prima ballerina Polina Semionova instead. "I was fascinated by what goes on in the mind of a great dancer," perfumer Geza Schoen said in a press release. Semionova's ballet-inspired scent, Precision & Grace, celebrates the intelligence and beauty behind her craft.
Courtesy of The Beautiful Mind Series
The ever-so-busy Kyle Abraham is back in New York City for a brief visit with his company Abraham.In.Motion as they prepare for an exciting spring season of new endeavors with some surprising guests. The company will be debuting a new program at The Joyce Theater on May 1, that will include two new pieces from Abraham, restaged works by Doug Varone and Bebe Miller, and a world premiere from Andrea Miller. Talk about an exciting line-up!
We caught up with Abraham during a recent rehearsal where he revealed what he is tired of hearing in the dance community.
Choreographer Tero Saarinen has a proclivity for the peculiar—and for epic orchestral music. That he should be commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic to create a new dance work to accompany the U.S. premiere of Bernd Alois Zimmermann's Cello Concerto en forme de pas de trois only makes sense. Zimmermann's eerie, difficult-to-classify composition falls squarely in Saarinen's wheelhouse. Walt Disney Concert Hall, Jan. 19–21. laphil.com.
Two competition routines are equal in technical proficiency, artistry and choreography. One consists of all girls, the other includes a boy. Guess which takes home first prize?
If you guessed the one with the boy, you may be privy to an unspoken and much-debated phenomenon in the competition dance world: The Boy Factor. According to The Boy Factor, a competitive piece is more likely to win if there's a boy in it.
"If it's all technically equal and one group is all girls and the other group has a boy, the one with the boy will win," says Rysa Childress, owner of All Star Studios in Forest Hills, New York. "Boy soloists are sometimes scored higher than more technically proficient girls because if a boy has good stage presence, we let him slide," says an anonymous competition judge. "And most of the feedback will be for the boy."
I'll never forget something Roberto Bolle once told me when I was interviewing him about his workout regimen: Talking about how much he loved to swim, he said, "I would love to go in the Italian sea, but I am too well-known there to show up in my suit."
It always amused and kinda shocked me that a ballet dancer could reach that level of fame. But it's true: In his native Italy, Bolle is a bonafide celerity.