Dance Matters

April 27, 2010

The Beat Goes On

Chicago Human Rhythm Project turns 20.


It’s National Tap Dance Day this month. Do you know where our largest tap-dance organization is?


In terms of year-round presenting and one huge festival, it’s in Chicago and celebrating its 20th anniversary this year—though the Chicago Human Rhythm Project’s longevity hasn’t come easy. Director and cofounder Lane Alexander says that establishing a stable percussive-dance organization “is like scaling Mount Everest. You can get close, but most don’t make it to the top.” He has a few theories about that. A tap dancer himself, he notes that the form is all about improvisation. “So it’s hard to focus on planning. Also, tap is primarily thought of for soloists—and you don’t need an organization for soloists.”


CHRP is perhaps best known for Rhythm World, a summer festival of workshops and performances that has presented Savion Glover, Jimmy Slyde, and Gregory Hines as well as Jason Samuels Smith, Derick K. Grant, Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards, and Jason Janas. Global Rhythms, an international showcase now annually staged in November at Chicago’s Harris Theater for Music and Dance, is also high profile, with past guests such as Barbatuques of São Paulo and Tapeplas of Barcelona. More local events include a student Winter Tap Jamboree and Windy City Rhythms, a performance on or around May 25 in celebration of National Tap Dance Day. This year, however, CHRP hosts 20 small events (in honor of its anniversary) in Chicago throughout May. Then, from May 27 to May 29, its resident ensemble BAM! performs at Dance St. Louis’ regional Spring to Dance Festival.


Though CHRP is now a national—and even international—presenting and advocacy institution, it started small. Back in the day, Alexander says, he and cofounder Kelly Michaels (who died in 1995) had to do “a lot of breaking doors down. But now dance presenters think that if you’re representing the spectrum of dance, it’s not complete without tap.”


Tapper Dianne (“Lady Di”) Walker can appreciate the hard work it’s taken to get to this point, having been involved with CHRP since its inception. She says that after the very first performance “we all went to a fast-food chain, and we sat around in that booth, so excited about the project. Lane laid his hopes and dreams out that day.

“What he’s created is like an empire, but he didn’t build it for himself.” From day one, Walker says, “Lane has focused on building the community through education.”


Peter Taub, director of performance programs at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, calls Alexander “an ambassador of tap and rhythm.” Their work together since 2001 has resulted in Rhythm Asia in 2004 and the first two Global Rhythms shows, in 2005 and 2006—and the museum is still home to some CHRP shows. Taub adds that when CHRP wanted to stretch to a larger venue (the Harris), “Lane’s creativity, gumption, and energy enabled him to pull that off.” In part, Alexander’s creation of an innovative revenue-sharing sales program, Thanks4Giving, made the move possible.


Alexander is currently working on a tap curriculum for the Beijing Contemporary Music Academy, enabling students at the Chinese university to get a degree in American tap dance (called ti ta wu in Chinese). Dancers there, he says, love Shirley Temple and Bill Robinson but don’t know a thing about Fred Astaire.


But Alexander’s big dream is less global: He’d like to create an American Rhythm Center, a permanent facility with classrooms for percussive dance, a performance space, and administrative offices. Dreaming big has worked for him before, and maybe it will again. —Laura Molzahn



A Little Bit of Pixie Dust

Milwaukee Ballet flies in Peter Pan.


Boyish heroes and magical wonderment are familiar to ballet lovers everywhere, but Peter Pan, the beloved tale of never growing up, shines on its own. While the ballet is common in the U.K. (J. M. Barrie, Peter Pan’s playwright and novelist, was Scottish) and U.S. audiences may be familiar with Septime Webre’s production (originally for Cincinnati Ballet), Milwaukee Ballet’s three-act version debuts this month. Complete with a commissioned score, MB’s Peter Pan caps off its 40th anniversary season.


Story ballets are familiar territory for Milwaukee Ballet, thanks to the artistic vision of director Michael Pink. From his experience as associate artistic director of Northern Ballet Theatre in England to his work with ballet companies in Colorado, Atlanta, and Boston, Pink has sought to capitalize on the story ballet niche. He emphasizes first-class music, staging, and acting. “You don’t need a million-dollar price tag to provide those things,” says Pink. Milwaukee Ballet benefits from its own orchestra, costume workshop, scenery shop, and training ground—Milwaukee Ballet II and the Milwaukee Ballet School.


Peter Pan’s creative team has been working on the ballet since 2005. Ending a season that began with the premiere of Pink’s Cinderella and included MB’s annual Nutcracker, the production was “very helpful for our bottom line,” remarks Pink. The ballet’s set by Rick Graham, which includes an enormous pirate ship, is entirely moveable, “like a children’s toy box.” Scenes will transition without blackouts, manipulated by visible “shadows.” The lighting effects by David Grill (whose commercial work includes the halftime show at this year’s Super Bowl) and sound effects by Philip Feeney enhance the onstage magic. The commissioned score by England-based Feeney has been even longer in the making.


For the company, Pink’s ballets require an integrated approach. “All of my work is about exploring character first and foremost. Out of the character we create the movement, which gets rid of gratuitous dance,” he says.


Marc Petrocci, one of two Peters, has internalized this thinking over his seven seasons with MB. “Michael has encouraged me to give motivation and narrative momentum to the steps,” says Petrocci. “If I’m going to engage someone in a pas de deux, it’s not just that the texture of the dancing is fluid or restrained or brash. It becomes a personal story.” Pink believes that “all dancers are more than capable of acting. But if they’re not coached, it can come out as shallow gesturing and posturing with no real thought process.”


Pink works from extremely detailed drafts. “We approach it more like a play than a ballet,” says Petrocci. “We walk through scenes together first.” The choreographic process is both individual and collaborative. “There are islands of choreography that are well planned out, but a lot of the steps evolve both from him and us,” says Petrocci. “He’ll say, ‘I’ll want this kind of interaction to happen, then this is your reaction, and then I want you two to have this kind of explosive movement.’ ”


Petrocci has benefited from Pink’s coaching. “I came here when I was 18,” remembers Petrocci, “and I used to always open it up full throttle. He’s pulled me back—now my dancing has highs and lows. He has a way of calming me down by giving me a look that says, ‘You’re going off the handle.’ We also have a very open dialogue outside the studio.” Petrocci ascribes the intense but enjoyable rehearsal environment to Pink’s attitude. “Michael’s focused, with a dry British sense of humor.”


Petrocci admits he’s still “a bit of an adrenaline junkie” and is excited about the flying effects. The whole company will continue to fly, past the second star to the right and straight on till morning. —Kina Poon



Photo of Zada Cheeks, Tristan Bruns, and Kristi Burris of BAM! by William Frederking, Courtesy CHRP