Category Archives: Cheryl Mann

Preview: Lucky Plush’s The Better Half

The cast of "The Better Half". Photo by Cheryl Mann.

Tonight at the MCA Stage, Lucky Plush Productions (LPP) opens a two weekend run of its new production The Better Half.  A 75-minute collaboration between LLP Artistic Director Julia Rhoads and physical theater troupe 500 Clown Co-Founder Leslie Buxbaum Danzig, this new work puts a modern, interactive twist on the psychological thriller Gaslight (1944 movie based on the Patrick Hamilton play Angel Street) where a husband tries to make his wife believe she’s losing her mind.  The Better Half incorporates characters, text, lighting (Heather Gilbert) and sound (Mikhail Fiksel) cues and a heave dose of reality to keep the story evolving in real time on stage.  Add in costumes by Jeff Hancock and you have the setting for a fun, creative collaboration living inside a live, artistic whodunit?

I spoke with Rhoads earlier this week about her process and the new work.

I’m embarrassed to say, I think the last thing I saw Lucky Plush perform was Lulu Sleeps (2005). (*Side note:  After viewing the repertoire on LPP’s website, I’m happy to say I have seen most of the recent work, although I did miss last year’s hit Punk Yankees.)    Back then, you were incorporating theatrical elements, but recently you seem to be adding even more theatrics and humor.  Is that a different direction you’ve taken over the years, or is it just because I’ve missed some of your work?

I think it’s both.  One of our first works has been our longest standing work which we’ve done over and over is Endplay (2003).  That work has a (Samuel) Beckett play inside of it and is very much about human relationships and about the performers on stage and how they’re interacting and negotiating with each other.  I think that piece had a real liveliness to it that I’m interested in now in my work.  One thing that was a big game-changer for me was Cinderbox 18 (2007).  It just was kind of a magical process.  That was a process in which I started to think more about the liveness, the immediacy of being in performance and having the performers be in a state of response to each other, so it’s less like every move and detail is set and choreographed…there was a real openness.  I did this thing back then where I’d write a little note down for each of them some unknown element that they had to accomplish during the run.  Some of them ended up being in the show in a fantastic way and some of them miserably failed, but the best thing is it wasn’t really meant to find new things to add to the show, it was just a bonus if something really landed.  What it did was put the performers in a constant state of presence because they had no idea what the changes were going to be and what someone might do to change the game.  Even though the sections and the structure and the movement was set, there were things that would happen that they would have to deal with and respond in a very real-time way.  It was just such an exciting process for me.  Since 2007, and really going back to Endplay, I really want the audience to feel like they are knowing the performer, that it was really about the people and not just the dancers being sort of a non-subjective entity. 

This process in The Better Half is even going more in that direction.  Accessibility is really important.  I think it’s sometimes perceived as a dirty word.  I think accessibility is great.  You can be incredibly intelligent and accessible.  It doesn’t mean you’re diluting the content, it just means you’re allowing the audience to enter into it and to maybe laugh or maybe feel like they’re included.  This process has moved more into the dialogue…it’s more narrative.  The dialogue is in service to character development. Narrative, at the same time, we’re doing something very familiar to LPP’s body of work.  We’re also the performers that arrive at the MCA when we start.  We all show up and we get a name of a character.  We get character descriptions.  We hear this vague synopsis of a play.  My character, Mrs. Manningham hears that another person is called Mr. Manningham, so really all we know is presumably, we’re married, so we start to negotiate having a relationship in real time.  Things start to happen.  There’s kind of a loop structure, like reset button, but each time, the consequences change…grows more into the Gaslight story.  The way we hope the work is going to land is kind of fun look at contemporary domestic relationships.  It’s about the five of us being in the space together and negotiating roles that we’ve taken on or that have been imposed on us…how we grow into them.  The loop structure is about routinization that happens in relationships, sometimes how we bring our habits and our role to a relationship and then it’s like that forever.  You can recast yourself in a relationship, but it’s going to take a lot of work.  The piece wants to speak to all of those things, how you want to jump script sometimes and how you find the resilience within a marriage or a domestic relationship.  It’s fun and it’s funny and it has all of those elements, but it also lands with a real resonance about the question of can two people spend their lives together?

When the characters are getting the descriptions, is someone on stage telling them? How is that interacting happening?

In the beginning we’re sort of being directed by light.  Light plays a really important role, light and sound, and we’re directed to a place on stage and one of the characters is directed to a place in the audience where there’s a podium with a binder that has the Gaslight synopsis.  He’s privy to information that he’s one of us too.  It says there’s another character and he gives himself the role of detective.  He comes into the story and is in it for the remaining…being with us on stage as new narratives are proposed.  There are about five or six scripts that we’re sort of navigating through.  There are real time consequences for introducing those scripts and being inside of them and how it ultimately lands back in this central marriage.

How did the collaboration with Leslie come about?  Have you worked together before?

We’ve known each other for a while.  The thing that really drew us to each other is that she’s also interested in the immediacy of presence with the audience and having a real time experience.  She’s also interested in humor.  We’re a really good fit for each other.  She came in during Cinderbox 18.  I asked her to come in to give feedback to the process.  I liked her language and I was really excited by her point of view.  She had seen my work and I think she felt the same way.  She’s really drawn to physicality.  Her work is physical theater and she’s really drawn to dance and physical vocabulary as a way to move a story forward.  We started talking about doing something together a couple of years ago. We’re both really excited about this work.

Lucky Plush Productions’ The Better Half, Oct 27-29 & Nov 3, 5, 6

MCA Stage, 220 E. Chicago, 312.397.4010

Thoughts on Luna Negra ¡Mujeres!

Luna Negra dancers in "Naked Ape". Photo by Cheryl Mann.

Saturday night at the Harris Theater, Luna Negra Dance Theater presented ¡Mujeres!, a one night only show celebrating influential Latina women.  Since installing Gustavo Ramírez Sansano as Artistic Director in 2009, Luna Negra has quickly become one of my favorite companies to watch.  The new artistic vision and technical ability of the dancers are similar to the style of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago (It was nice to see many HSDC-ers in the audience!) and is a decidedly different direction from the former Luna.  For the performance, I think I had the best seat in the house (V 106). It was the “center stage” spot in the audience. I normally sit closer and did miss seeing more of the facial expressions (I didn’t have my glasses), but this seat provided the perfect perch to view the complex patterns and minimal sets.  I was excited to see the first piece, Sansano’s world premiere Not Everything, which I’d seen earlier in the month in rehearsals.  It not only did not disappoint, but was the best number in the show.

Not Everything was inspired by a photograph by Graciala Iturbide that caught Sansano’s attention at an exhibit in Spain.  Opening with a powerful female duet by Renée Adams (in all black) and Mónica Cervantes (in all white), he sets the mood and stage by having Adams intermittently carry a large bucket across and upstage following the path of white linoleum strips laid in an L shape.  The weight of the bucket, which we find out at the end of the duet, is loaded with red paint alludes to the heavy internal burden the woman in white (Cervantes) is carrying.  Adams pours the paint onto the white strip in a big puddle, unburdening herself before she leaves the stage.  The second section, much faster and frenetic, adds in the rest of the company dressed all in black.  The dark costumes and dark lighten sometimes made it difficult to see all of the movement.  This energetic section personified the flux the woman in white is feeling.  The choreography seemed to be controlled chaos with an underlying back and forth swaying that carries over into the final section.  That subtle, lulling, repetitive movement assures that the chaos will come to an end.  The dancing is so unique and interesting, you barely notice the white panel being slowly lifted to the left, causing the paint to run.  The third section is performed in a vertical line moving from stage left to stage right.  Cervantes, second from the front, slowly walks undeterred across the front white panel.  All the other dancers, in black, dance in front of and behind her pace in a continuous cannon reminding us of the chaos in her mind as she slowly and steadily walks forward.  The final image has Cervantes walking in front of the white panel that is now fully vertical with the paint running down recreating the picture that inspired the work.  The music, sets and dancing were all beautiful.  The final image – stunning.  Congrats to Sansano for achieving another remarkable choreographic feat.  I, for one, look forward to watching his work for many years.

The second piece, another world premiere, is inspired by the first queen of pre-modern Spain.  Asun Noales’ Juana is another dramatic, black and white dance showing the female lead’s decent into insanity.  White fabric pieces hanging from the ceiling move up and down ultimately creating the tower in which the queen is locked in by her people.  Veronica Guadalupe‘s interpretation of the mad queen was dramatic, strong and heartfelt.  Even though she doesn’t leave the stage for the entire piece, it is ther final solo that drives and haunts.  The other dancers almost seemed a distraction.  The look and feel of the work was too similar to the first piece, that my companions and I questioned whether they should’ve been back to back.  The consensus of the group I was with during the second intermission was that the two pieces were so much alike that it almost seemed as if Juana was part two of Not Everything.

The third work was a restaging of work by Michelle Mazanales about the life of Frida Kahlo.  Paloma Querida was a big hit with the Luna Negra audience when it premiered in 2010 and the work holds up.  Splashes of red and vibrant music lightened the mood created by the first two works, but there was plenty of drama and strong female dancing.  Compared to the other pieces that had a more European contemporary feel, Paloma stylistically felt like old Luna.  The company is strong and focused and heading in a really interesting, new direction.  I’m all for keeping your roots and acknowledging where you came from, but maybe it’s time for Sansano to forge ahead with his own vision.  I think the company and the audience is ready.

I want to note a few problems I had with the show.   1.  With a one-night-only show, you can’t go back to see it again and this program warrants a second viewing.  I want to see it again (especially Sansano’s work).  2.  Dedicating the season to women naturally tends to highlight the spectacular women in the company – and that is all of them! – but, the men, who are just as fascinating to watch seemed to be overlooked.  Aside from a sassy little solo by Eduardo Zuñiga in the final piece (where he literally almost danced out of his pants), the men didn’t stand out.  That’s a shame.

Q&A with Luna Negra’s Veronica Guadalupe

Guadalupe in "Danzon". Photo by Cheryl Mann.

Saturday marks the first performance of her 10th season with Luna Negra and Veronica Guadalupe is ready. After two major injuries during her career, she’s at the top of her game and excited about the upcoming performance ¡Mujeres! at the Harris Theater. The program celebrates Latina women with three pieces: a restaging of a work Paloma Querida, inspired by Mexican painter Frida Kahlo; a premiere about the first pre-modern queen of Spain;  and another premiere inspired by a photo by Mexican photographer Graciela Iturbide.

Guadalupe has been dancing since she was 2 1/2 years old and studied at the Virginia School for the Arts, danced in the second company with Giordano Jazz Dance Chicago and was an apprentice with River North Dance Chicago before joining Luna Negra in 2002.  She’s now also co-rehearsal director, was one of the dancers to stay with the company after founder Eduardo Vilaro left in 2009 to run Ballet Hispanico in New York and current Artistic Director Gustavo Ramírez Sansano took over. I spoke with her two weeks ago about the transition, the company and her career.

How did you end up at Luna Negra?

I apprenticed with River North for a year and I sustained a really terrible injury when I was there.  I fractured my tibia almost all of the way through and I have a titanium rod in there now.  They think that I probably had a stress fracture that I danced on for at least three months.  I was out for six months.  After that, my leg was a noodle.  I’d been on crutches for 12 weeks and in a cast for another 10 weeks…it was terrible.  I was barely taking barre again when my friend wanted us to go and audition for Luna Negra.  Are you kidding me?  When we got to rep, luckily, everything was on the other leg!  He (Vilaro) offered me a contract and I had to tell him I hadn’t danced in six months, but he was willing to give me a try. That was July 2002.

Tell me about the transition.  When Eduardo left, you were one of the only people who stayed…

I’d left for a brief period of time, while the transition was happening.  When Eduardo announced he was leaving, almost immediately Michelle Manzanales and another board member contacted me and wanted me to come back. I did a fall season as a guest artist and I was part of the search for the new Artistic Director.  I was the only one to have worked with all of the candidates.  I could tell the dancers what it was like to work with them and tell the board and search committee what my experiences had been with these people.  I told them flat out there was only one person I would come back for. Gustavo choreographed on us in 2002 and he worked with us two other times.  I said, he’s the only person who can take the company to the next place.  He was my choice.  I told the board that this is what the company needs.  It worked out perfectly.

The company looks completely different now.  How was the transition?

The transition was really smooth, because we did have a change over with dancers too, so we had a lot of new people starting over.  I think that was really important.  When we signed him, he couldn’t come here for a few months and I think a lot of dancers were thinking selfishly about what they would do in the meantime, instead of what would be good for the company as a whole.  I think it was important to have a group of dancers that could begin new with this new era. 

How do you like the difference in style of dancing?

I love it.  I think it’s fresh and new and exciting.  I think it’s shaking up the Chicago dance community. It’s something they haven’t seen before and no one else is doing it.  It’s incredible.

Let’s talk about your dancing.  Are you in all three pieces in !Mujeres!?

Yes.  I’m resetting “Paloma Querida”.  Michelle (Manzanales) came in for a weekend and worked with us.  She made a lot of changes.  It’s almost like a new piece now.  The heart of it is still there, but she did a lot of structural changes that I think made a big difference.  She was very respectful that these weren’t the same group of dancers that I worked with before and let’s utilize what we have now.  She made some really great changes. 

Tell me about the two world premieres.

“Juana” – oh, I’m Juana! – she was the first queen of modern Spain.  Her story is she fell in love with this guy Phillipe.  They called her Juana Loca and he was Phillipe Hermosa.  Phillip the beautiful and Juana the crazy.  She was crazy in love with him and he cheated on her left and right.  When he died, she went totally crazy and was obsessed with him even though he was dead.  It drove her mad.  Her family left her.  The country wouldn’t entrust her with the power of being queen, so they locked her in a tower to die.

Do you get a crazy Spanish Giselle mad scene?

Kind of. It’s a hard balance.  At first, I was focusing more on the emotional and dramatic aspect of it and then she (Asul Noales) threw a whole bunch of dance in.  I don’t leave the stage for 21 minutes.  It’s intense.

(Gustavo’s piece) “Not Everything” is inspired by a female photographer.  It’s just so beautiful.  The music…it a very intense piece musically.  There’s a really soft beginning with just Mónica (Cervantes) and Renée (Adams) that lays the groundwork from the picture.  The group section is…it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life.  It’s so fast.  We were watching rehearsal footage the other day and someone said it looked like it was in fast forward.  It feels like it’s in fast forward!  This is the test, the challenge…he’s throwing the hardest thing at us right now, because we have to get it.  We’re performing it in a couple of weeks.  The third section is the most beautiful music and it totally changes directions. 

Luna Negra – ¡Mujeres!, Saturday, October 1, 2011 @ 630pm

Harris Theater, 205 E Randolph, 312.334.7777

Break

RB took a little time off after the Chicago Dancing Festival (CDF), but now I’m back and ready to go!  Coming up: interviews/previews with Luna Negra (Veronica Guadalupe), Inaside Chicago Dance (Mary Williams), Joffrey Ballet (Michael Smith), Hubbard Street (David Schultz) , Smuin Ballet (Jonathan David Dummar) and even a little chat with Twyla Tharp!

Keep a look out for changes/additions to the blog in the coming weeks, but in the meantime, here are some beautiful pics from CDF finale by the gorgeous and gracious mama-to-be Cheryl Mann.

Michelle Fleet and the Paul Taylor Dance Co in "Esplanade".

NYC Ballet dancers Tiler Peck & Gonzalo Garcia in "Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux".

Martha Graham dancer Xiaochuan Xie in "Diversion of Angels".

Joffrey's Temur Suluashvili & Victoria Jaiani in "Stravinsky Violin Concerto".