Frank Chaves Opens Up About the End of River North and Learning to Choreograph From a Wheelchair

September 25, 2019

For choreographer and former River North Dance Chicago director Frank Chaves, this weekend is a reemergence. Since 2005, Chaves has managed syringomyelia, a degenerative spinal cord disease which results in spasticity, chronic pain and loss of mobility. The first major work he choreographed while using a wheelchair full-time was In the End—his last before retiring in 2015 from River North, the company he had led since 1993 and which folded unceremoniously about a year after he left. Now, he’s created a new work on Kansas City’s Wylliams/Henry Contemporary Dance Company as part of New Dance Partners, a platform curated by Michael Uthoff in which local KC companies are matched with notable choreographers commissioned to create world premieres. Ahead of the work’s debut, I met up with him in Kansas City and asked him about the end of River North and the adjustments he’s made as he has learned to choreograph differently.

Your retirement wasn’t supposed to be the end of River North. What can you tell me about your decision to retire, and how that cascaded into the end of the company?

My decision to retire really was based on my health, and feeling like I needed to take a break. I just didn’t need to run a company anymore. It was difficult, because I felt like I could still choreograph. I had so much desire to still create, but not while running a company, worrying about where the money was going to come from and just the every-day requirements of running a company, especially without an executive director.

In the foreground, a female dancer with short, curly blonde hair is lifted by a dark skinned male dancer. She is wrapped around his back, her legs bending to slot between his, her head arcing around his shoulder. The choreographer, a wheelchair-using older man in glasses observes rehearsal from the front of the mirrored studio.
Franke Chaves rehearses Wylliams/Henry Contemporary Dance Company

Mike Strong, Courtesy Mershon & McDonald, LLC

It was Gail Kalver, right?

Gail left in 2013. I think for me one of the biggest mistakes was that the board never decided to hire another executive director. They started looking at how to save money without looking at where we could increase revenue and build fundraising. For them to think that bringing in a consultant from the corporate world, three days a week, was going to fix everything for the company, when most executive directors work 60-80 hours a week—I honestly thought it was a joke.

I think in terms of leaving a legacy, it’s there. I couldn’t be happier and more content with what we did. It was hard to have all that history, and then come to this point where the people that were coming in and running the company had no sense of it, and didn’t really care about the history—that was disheartening for me. The company still went on for about a year and a half after I was gone. I was kept completely out of the loop.

One thing I will say that I’m very proud of is I don’t think, to the last minute we were onstage, that the company ever suffered artistically. The quality never wavered. The dancers were there, full-hearted and ready to go even though things weren’t pretty.

A female dancer with short, curly hair balances on her coccyx. One knee is bent, with her toes skimming the floor; her other leg extends at a 45 degree angle. Her upper body mirrors that angle, and her arms are raised in front of her, elbows curled and wrists exposed. Her neck is supported in the hand of a male dancer lunging behind her, watching her face. His upper body is twisted away from her, with his free arm behind his back.
Wylliams/Henry Contemporary Dance Company

Mike Strong, Courtesy Mershon & McDonald, LLC

Is this new piece for Wylliams/Henry Contemporary Dance Company your first major work since leaving River North?

Yes! I left River North in December 2015. I took that year off to breathe and regroup. Having finished things up at River North with In the End, I felt so satisfied for awhile. I did a couple small things: the Latino Project for the Latin American Music Festival, and my first pas de deux on pointe with the Ballet Chicago Studio Company. I was happy to come out of semi-retirement under the radar and get my feet wet again. I just came to Kansas City from staging Habeneras: The Music of Cuba, a signature work of mine, on American Midwest Ballet. I always wanted to see that piece on a ballet company.

I want to continue to create. So, here I am, making a dance, having a great time, coming up with, I think, really beautiful stuff. It reminds me how much I love this. If I can just be in the studio, I’m good to go, as difficult as it is, sometimes, to get there.

A female dancer with a blonde ponytail, wearing rehearsal clothes, balances on one leg, her torso parallel to the ground. Her right leg reaches in parallel to the side, a little above 90 degrees. Her right arm is raised to mirror that line as the left dangles toward the floor. A dark-skinned male dancer turns her with one hand at the back of her waist.
Wylliams/Henry Contemporary Dance Company

Mike Strong, Courtesy Mershon & McDonald, LLC

Every dancer deals with how their body changes. Yours changed more and quicker. What changed about the way you choreograph?

I used to demonstrate everything. When I came out of Hubbard Street in 1993 and went to River North, I didn’t discover or have any issues until 2005. So, I was really still dancing and figuring out my choreography on myself, and then I would come in and teach it. I wasn’t collaborative in my early times; I had so much in me and could still dance. In the process of me teaching and coaching it, that’s how the dancers grew, with the amount of detail, nuance, style and technique that I needed for the pieces.

I can still be quite specific, but I had to develop a different way of communicating that. I don’t feel like the dancers or my assistant [former River North dancer Hank Hunter] are doing the choreography. Having people that were in the company, that are going to move organically the way I would move, is key. They’re my interpreters.

So, it seems you’re not quite retired, are you?

Oh no. I’m just not running a company. I really feel like I’m reemerging. I have a great interest in working with ballet companies. I feel like that’s a niche I haven’t tapped into. I’ve worked in all the other disciplines—it’s not that I don’t want to—I’m doing it here and it feels like home. But I really want to explore that world.

An older man with glasses smiles thoughtfully at a group of dancers. He is giving notes from his wheelchair in the corner of a mirrored studio. The dancers' backs are to the camera.
Frank Chaves gives notes to the dancers of Wylliams/Henry Contemporary Dance Company

Mike Strong, Courtesy Mershon & McDonald, LLC

What is this new piece about?

In the End
was about how, as we grow older as men, it’s less and less okay to be affectionate with each another. Part of that piece was the constrictions that get put on men, in particular. I felt like I wasn’t done with that. With this piece, I approached it from the aspect of, what would it be like to have absolutely no human touch in your life? I feel it’s such a basic human need to have touch in your life. There are so many things that we need, and until you don’t have them, you don’t realize how much you need them.

The more I’m in this position and living with chronic pain every day, finding a new norm is like finding a moving target. I hurt a lot, and that’s not to say that I don’t have amazing support and an amazing partner, but when I came home from the hospital after a spinal surgery in 2016, I came home to a hospital bed in what used to be our master bedroom. It had not hit me until that moment that my partner and I were no longer going to be sleeping together. I find that, more and more, my pain, whether it be physical or emotional, is finding its way into my pieces. That’s nothing extraordinary, but I’m realizing how much my personal life is playing into my professional life. I tell the dancers, you can ask me anything that’s going on and I’m more than happy to talk about it. I want people to know.