Category Archives: contemporary

Preview: River North Opens Fall Season

Dancers Jessica Wolfrum & Michael Gross in "Al Sur del Sur". Photo by Sandro.

This weekend at the Harris Theater, River North Dance Chicago(RNDC) opens it’s fall season.  Just off a successful international tour (US, Korea, Germany, Switzerland), RNDC is warmed up, employing five new dancers and ready to take the stage with a mixed rep that is sure to dazzle.  Signature group piece by Sherry Zunker, Evolution of a Dream (2009),  is joined by last season hits Al Sur Del Sur choreographed by Sabrina and Rubin Veliz and Artistic Director Frank Chavez’s jazz tribute Simply Miles, Simply Us.  Charles Moulton’s postmodern Nine Person Precision Ball Passing (1980), which the company performed over the summer during the Chicago Dancing Festival (and shall heretofore be known as “the ball piece”), makes it’s Harris stage debut.  Add in an intense solo by Robert Battle from his work Train (2008) and the first duet Chavez every choreographed in 1994, Fixé, and you have the makings for a fantastic and entertaining evening of dance.  But it is the company premiere of Daniel Ezralow’s SUPER STRAIGHT is coming down on the program that is getting all the buzz – and rightly so.

Originally commissioned by Hubbard Street Dance Chicago (HSDC) founder Lou Conte in 1989, SUPER STRAIGHT was a cutting-edge, athletic, dynamic piece that helped change the trajectory of the company from a strong, stellar troupe with a jazz/Broadway-based rep to one of the pioneers of contemporary dance.  Ezralow, an emerging choreographer at the time, took inspiration from a book of black and white photographs by Robert Longo titled Men in the Cities and set it to an original score by Dutch composer Thom Willems.  What came out was a quirky, desperate, intriguing, hyper-physical, 15-minute dance that was like nothing the audience had seen before.  Revolutionary seems trite, but it was.  Five dancers dressed in black and white appear in what look like plastic garment bags hanging from the ceiling.  That image, along with the darkly eerie, industrial score, set the mood for a wonderful and strange adventure.  The original cast of Chavez, Sandi Cooksey, Ron De Jesús, Alberto Arias and Lynn Shepard brought a fierce energy to their talented technical skills and took the stage by storm.  I saw it on tour that season and it blew me away!  (It was one of the reasons I wanted to move to Chicago and why I’m a huge HSDC fan.)  I am so completely STOKED that RNDC is reviving it this weekend.  I spoke with Chavez by phone earlier this week about their upcoming program.

You’ve set quite an eclectic program…Miles, Balls, Tango…

This is our “Tour de Force” program (also the title of the Thursday night gala).  To be able to go from an authentic Argentinian tango to “SUPER STRAIGHT” with a contemporary edge and then go to Miles Davis, as jazzy as you can get…it shows so many different facets of the company and that we can do all of those things really well.

Jessica Wolfrum in Ezralow's "SUPER STRAIGHT is coming down". Photo by Jenifer Girard.

I’m going to cut to the chase.  I really want to focus on SUPER STRAIGHT because it is my favorite piece ever!  I love it, I love it, I love it!  I always wondered when/if Hubbard would bring it back.

(Laughing) We feel the same way.  It’s my favorite Daniel Ezralow piece.  Not just because I had the great opportunity to perform it, but I’ve been thinking about it for quite a while.  I’m always concerned with something that was related to HSDC, that enough time has gone by…we’re careful with all that.  We thought it was such a good fit and it’s such a good piece that it just made sense.  As you say, it’s my favorite piece of Danny’s and it’s been sitting on a shelf for a long time.  It’s so perfect for us.  I honestly didn’t think I’d see HSDC do it again. It just isn’t them any more.  I felt truly it was more appropriate for us these days, so I went for it. 

Are there things he told you, that maybe the audience doesn’t know, that you get to pass down now that you’re resetting it?

As I did it, I brought Sandi and Berto in to help with rehearsal and some tidbits here and there.  It was really based on a book of photographs by Robert Longo. The costumes, the look of the piece…everything came from this book.  It was very interesting.  He took a bunch of pictures of men and women in cityscapes. The idea behind it was that they were having things thrown at them and they were dodging.  They were all sort of action/motion shots, but very quirky.  They were pedestrians.  There were a lot of images that ended up being translated off the page and into the piece.  That was the initial jist of it.  I’ve described it as sort of an urban meltdown.  It’s like these people have been dropped down from some other space.  The bags…do you remember?  These big huge ice cubes that they melt out of.  I remember Danny saying things like, “Your first step out of that bag is like you’re stepping on to black ice.”  You can’t see it. You don’t know if it’s going to hold you.  There’s so much uncertainty in the piece, which created a great deal of tension.  There was a lot of tension in the creative process too.  Danny likes to stir the pit a little bit.  He does a lot of improv and then puts the piece together.  That’s his process.  He feeds off of whatever is happening. If somebody is pissed off and walking around a corner, he’ll use that in the piece.  He really wanted to shock the audience.  I remember this original composition, he wanted that first note to come in really strong and jolt the audience.  You’d hear a collective “ah” – it scared them.  It transcends you to another place and you’re not sure what’s going on.  He said that it was very abstract for him.  There was no real meaning behind it for him.  There was no story behind it.  He wanted to create this tense atmosphere that kept people on the edge of their seats and uncertain.  It does that well.  So many people wrote it was about AIDS, disease, a takeover, aliens…it had a million different interpretations of what it was.  Danny likes to do that.  He likes to leave it up to the audience, however they see it, whatever they’re feeling…that was a big part of it.

I definitely got an alien vibe and just kept wonder what was up with the bags? 

He likes to make people question a lot.  Are they aliens?  Are they just arriving here?  Were they quarantined?  All these speculations came about where these bags came from and then they just float off the stage. These five people are just dropped off somewhere.  They have no idea where they are.  You can say they’re from a different planet.  They don’t even know why they’re there, but they need to go explore.  If they are to go on in any way, they need to get out of those bags and find out where they are.  It’s a bit of a discovery.  The silent section in the middle was very interesting.  There are two musical cues in the musical section and other than that it was timing and breath and feeling each other, commanding and finding the silence and doing something with it and translating that into a very tense atmosphere.  Again, the uncertainty is what creates this tension.  Initially the piece wasn’t counted at all.  We just followed each other.  For dancers…everybody wants to know what they’re doing at every moment.  That was a really interesting part about the piece.  I think it keeps it really interesting and relevant.  There’s nothing to me that’s dated to me about the piece.  It’s still so relevant in so many ways.

The silent section, the improv and keeping it real on stage…was that a new way of working for you guys back then?  Or had you already been through that type of process before?

No.  I think it was new for a lot of us.  Danny was just starting out as a choreographer at that time, aside from what he did for his own company.  I think for us, and for that time at HSDC, it was pretty new.  It was fantastic.  What came out of that process was pretty special.  Sometimes it all just works.  I think “SUPER STRAIGHT” is a great example of when everything really comes together.

River North Dance Chicago, Nov 4&5 at 8pm

Tickets:  $30-$75, Harris Theater, 205 E. Randolph, 312.334.7777

Happy Halloween!

RB as the Evil Queen in "Snow White". Typecasting?

Dance this weekend:  Check out Lucky Plush Productions at the MCA tonight or Saturday, Could Gate Dance Theatre at the Harris this weekend, Synapse Arts tonight at Holstein Park or Ailey II tonight at Governors State University.  I’m going to Cloud Gate tonight and  the Zombie Revolution at House of Blues tomorrow.  Merde to my zombie dancers!  Have a fun and safe weekend!

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 HSDC 2011 Fall Series

Dancers Jesse Bechard & Penny Saunders in "Arcangelo". Photo by Todd Rosenberg.

Last night was the big night!  Hubbard Street Dance Chicago‘s (HSDC) season opener at the Harris Theater with the world premiere of SCARLATTI by Twyla Tharp.  A packed house (they even had to open up the balcony) full of Chicago dance enthusiasts, including our favorite fan-in-chief Mayor Emanuel and his family, was virtually vibrating with anticipation for a great show.  As usual, HSDC did not disappoint.

Tharp’s SCARLATTI, set to the music of Domenico Scarlatti, opened the show.  Extremely musical; lightening fast, vivid footwork; carefree, fun attitude and work-your-tail-to-the-bone difficult.  In other words, quintessential Tharp.  The dancers made it look easy.  It isn’t.  Not by a long shot.  To say it is simply about the music and the dancing (although it is) is misleading.  There is nothing simple about it.  Using her evil genius mind and savant-like musical knowledge, Tharp creates a dizzying whirlwind of dancers entering and exiting the stage in a nanosecond.  Part of the dizzying effect was due to the costumes, designed by Norma Kamali.  White, black, neon yellow, stripes, leopard spot, headbands, arm bands…too much.  Quite frankly, the costumes were distracting.  The thirty-minute piece was non-stop, balls-to-the-walls dance finishing with a cute wave from new company member David Schultz as if to say, “hi, I’m here!”  Standing ovation.  The audience ate it up and Tharp postponed her bow to hug each of the dancers.

Nacho Duato’s Arcangelo, the next work on the program, is one of my favorite pieces in HSDC’s rep.  A reflection on heaven and hell danced by four couples is set to the music of Arcangelo Corelli and Alessandro Scarlatti, who was the father of Tharp’s composer.  HSDC brought the work into it’s rep last fall and is the only US company to perform it.  (You can read my interview with Duato from last fall here.)  It is gorgeous and the dancers performed it seamlessly.  One audience member stood up to applaud at the curtain before everyone else.  Mayor Rahm Emanuel.  Too cool.

Dancers Kellie Epperheimer & Kevin Shannon in "Walking Mad". Photo by Todd Rosenberg.

Walking Mad by Swedish choreographer Johan Inger closed the show.  Quite a few people had been talking about this piece, trying to convince me I had seen it before.  I hadn’t.  This is something you have to see to believe and you won’t soon forget it.  (Note to Alejandro: party hats, wall, Bolero…now I know!)  An ingenious mix of silliness, heartbreak, passion, despondency, acrobatics, strength and talent, set to the driving force of Ravel’s Bolero.  Originally created ten years ago for the Nederlands Dans Theater, the work utilizes a wall set piece that has the dancers moving through four doorways, around, over and on the wall which also lowers to the floor, raises and folds to create a shadowy corner.  I loved it.

Once again, to name stand outs would be to list every single performer.  New company members Schultz and Garrett Anderson (Alice Klock was not in this cast, but I’m hoping to see her on Sunday) fit in like they’ve been here forever and are definitely where they belong.  The show runs through Sunday and it is a must see.  HSDC just gets better and better.

Moving Up

Dancers David Schultz & Alice Klock in "I Can See Myself in Your Pupil". Photo by Todd Rosenberg.

For two of the three new dancers added to Hubbard Street Dance Chicago‘s (HSDC) roster this season, it was a new road traveled.  Alice Klock and David Schultz – 23 and 24 respectively – are the first two dancers to move up the HSDC chain from summer intensive students to members of HS2 to being promoted to the main company.  All in two years.

Both dancers hail from Michigan, but the similarities in dance beginnings end there.  Schultz stated dancing at five taking tap (he wanted to be Donald O’Connor), then began taking ballet classes with his older brother Nick.  Once hooked, he took numerous summer workshops that eventually led to an apprenticeship (while still in high school) and then a full-time position with the Grand Rapids Ballet, where he danced for over four years.  Klock didn’t start dancing until age 11 with ballet classes.  She quickly took to the form and three years later attended a summer program at San Francisco Ballet, where she decided she wanted to be a professional dancer.  She went to Interlochen Center for the Arts for high school and after two years at Dominican University, figured it was time to start her professional career.

Here’s where there stories come together.  Both attended the HSDC summer intensive in 2009 and were asked to join the second company HS2.  Landing here happen almost by accident, but now they couldn’t be happier.  “I’d known a little bit about the company, but once I got here, I realized how much I really loved the whole philosophy and the rep,” says Klock.  Schultz agrees.  “Just learning the rep I thought ‘this is it’!  This is what I want to do.”  Their success ties into the larger HSDC mission of nurturing the next generation of artists.  “David and Alice are great examples to a bigger mission of mine, which is to mentor young dancers and prepare them for a profession in dance rather or not they continue with Hubbard Street or not,” says Artistic Director Glenn Edgerton.  “They’ve matured so quickly in all ways, both in their dancing and also in their understanding of how to approach their work creatively and practically.  I feel we have been able to tap into their talents and start to challenge them toward their potential.”  That potential will be challenged this season with having to learn the previous repertoire that includes masters like Ohad Naharin, Nacho Duato and Jirí Kylián, as well as new company works by a range of choreographers from Resident Choreographer Alejandro Cerrudo to the legendary Twyla Tharp (her world premiere hits the stage this Thursday, Oct 13th).

Alice Klock & David Schultz in "Harold and the Purple Crayon". Photo by Todd Rosenberg.

No one is more proud of these two dancers than HS2 Director Taryn Kaschock Russell, “I’m so proud of them!”  After thriving under her guidance in the second company, Klock attributes much of their success to her.  “Taryn is amazing,” she says before class last Tuesday morning.  “She’s such a caring and passionate leader.  Taryn really looks at each dancer in the second company and finds what exactly it is that will take them to the next step.  Because of that, we progressed really quickly.”  With this close bond, Kaschock Russell was the perfect person to ask what it is about these two that impressed her.  On Schultz:  “He is a never-ending ball of energy and curiosity.  He is willing, always.  He has grown exponentially over the course of two years and added texture and versatility to his already dynamic stage presence.  He soaked up every bit of information that he could get his hands on from me and all of the choreographers and colleagues he worked with.  Don’t get me wrong, he’s also a handful – in a wonderful way.  You have to keep your eye on that one.”  On Klock:  “Alice has an intelligence that often stops me in my tracks.  When I first began working with her, I was taken by her physical beauty and long lines.  When she attended the summer program, she was very timid and a bit like a young fawn on those beautiful legs of hers.  During her two years with HS2, she went from that understated shy presence, unsure of her place in the room, to eating up the stage with her every movement.  She commands attention, her stance is strong and her gaze unyielding. ”

Come see Klock, Schultz, along with new HSDC company member Garrett Anderson this week (Oct 13 – 16) at the Harris Theater (205 E. Randolph)as Hubbard Street presents their Fall Series.  On the program, a world premiere SCARLATTI by Twyla Tharp, Nacho Duato’s Archangelo and Walking Mad by Johan Inger.  Tickets can be purchased by calling 312.850.9744, 312.334.7777 or by visiting the Harris Theater box office.

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.

Leopold Group is dancing

Dancers Melissa Claire Block & Nicole Romano Uribarri in "une elephante". Photo by John W. Sisson Jr.

This weekend (Aug 26 – 28), the Leopold Group presents dancing, three days of dance with a different guest company performing at each show.  Artistic Director Lizzie Leopold takes the shared community one step further.  “By inviting guests to perform, you get a a cross-pollination of audiences,” she says.  The company will present two works, Lips of Their Fingers, a 25-minute piece for five women set to music from the Beastie Boys and une elephante, a 30-minute duet for two women to John Adams’ Johns Book of Alleged Dances.  Joining Leopold and her dancers this weekend are Theater Unspeakable Clowns (Fri), Winifred Haun and Dancers (Sat) and CCBdance Project (Sun).  Leopold is generous like that, constantly offering her ideas and knowledge and anxious to keep the conversation going.  With a BFA in dance from University of Michigan, a Masters in Performance Studies from New York University, and a Broadway show she produced her belt, she has a lot to say.  She’s smart, driven and still thirsty for more knowledge.  It’s refreshing.  This fall, Leopold heads back to school at Northwestern University to get a PhD in Interdisciplinary Theater and Drama Studies.  But first, her company has a show to put on.

I spoke with her just after the Dance/USA conference this summer and right after she left her gig at Audience Architects to prepare for the concert and school.

First, tell me about the Broadway musical experience.

My undergraduate degree is in dance, but my husband (he’s a musician in the rock band “I Fight Dragons”) and our best friend, they both studied musical theater.  We stared working on a show when we were in college.  We were going to put on a show in a barn.  Three years later, someone said to us, “You should put it on Broadway.”  We were 23, so we weren’t going to say no.  We probably should’ve said no.  We weren’t ready.  Someone gave us an opportunity and we ran with it.  The show had a pretty successful regional run in DC.  Some of our producers saw it and thought it was cheap and they could make money off of it.  We kind of got swept up in the glitz and glamour.  We were open for one night.  We had sixteen previews and a one-night run.  We are a trivia question.  (It was called) “Glory Days”.  We call it glory night.  It was wonderful and I learned more about the business of making art in that one day than I have learned in the other 27 years of my life.  It was a lesson in show making and money-making and how those things crash and burn and intersect.  I had always worked in modern dance, which is explicitly non-for-profit and the Broadway world is out to make a profit.  That’s not a secret.  It’s a different beast.  It was a spectacular night.

When and why did you decide to start a company?

I was in college.  I think it was one of those situations where somebody tells you that you’re good at something and you’re like, “oh yeah!”  I’ve never been a very technical dancer.  I work really hard, but I didn’t feel it was ever going to happen for me.  I love dance and I was doing lighting design and stage management and choreography.  I was trying to figure out how to stay in this world, because I wasn’t a good enough dancer.

So, you don’t dance in your company?

No.   I used to, but I think dancing and choreographing are both full-time pursuits and I couldn’t do both.  I made a dance and my professor said, “You’re really good.  This is what you do.”  And I thought, “ok this is what I do.” I finished college early and came back to Chicago and started the legalese of starting the company.  Then my classmates followed me, so I sort of had a ready-made group of dancers who wanted to be dancers.  Two of them are still here six years later.

What do you find the most difficult part of running a company?

In Chicago, and this is probably true of lots of cities, if you aren’t going to be a dancer for a company, people don’t treat you seriously as a choreographer.  I don’t have the street cred.  I have some now.  It’s been hard…you can be 21 and be a professional dancer and everyone thinks that’s alright, but you can’t be that age and be an artistic director.  That’s been hard to figure out how to navigate that divide and how to get myself involved in this community when I wasn’t ever going to dance for one of those companies.  I think I lived and made dances in Chicago (during the three years in between Michigan and going to NYC) pretty unsuccessfully.  I think it was important, but I think it was more insular than it should’ve been.  Since I moved back from New York, I’ve been braver.  I’ve learned that people are people.  I’m less afraid to ask them if I can have a seat at the table.

What did you learn at NYU that made that shift?

I learned that everyone’s point of view is important.  The companies that I looked up to in Chicago looked a certain way.  Like Hubbard Street, Luna Negra, Lucky Plush.  When I think about Hubbard Street, those dancers look a certain way – and I don’t look that way.  I had to learn that what I had to contribute to the conversation was just as important as those companies.  Scale is confusing.  Bigger is always better, or it looks that way.  Also, I learned that anyone who grows up and trains as a dancers spends a lot of time in a room filled with mirrors staring at themselves, which is a terrifying way to grow up.  I went to NYU, I didn’t study dance; I studied theory.  Most of the time they were talking about performance as a frame, not as a thing that happens.  Like to look at the guy on the street selling a newspaper as a performance.  Performance art was a big part of that.  So I got to take my blinders off and stop staring at myself in a mirror and I think that has helped me in a big way in both what I’m creating as a choreographer and how I view myself in this community.

What is an Interdisciplinary PhD in Theater and Drama Studies?

The way I’ve been explaining it is it’s kind of a “choose your own adventure” PhD.  There a very few dance-related PhD programs.  I knew when I went back for my Masters that I didn’t want an MFA because I wasn’t going to be a dancer.  To go back into the studio and take technique class wasn’t going to benefit me.  That’s not what I need.  I see a whole and I think I can fill it with research and writing.  My thesis…I can give you the stupid academic jargon version.  Something about the intersection of American Modern dance and the organizational structures, theoretically and historically…basically dance and business and how those things intersection, the growth of the non-profit and the journey from dance piece to product of a corporation.  That history.  It goes back to the whole Broadway dance thing and the intersection of dance and money.  Mostly because it makes me want to vomit.  It makes me super uncomfortable, but you can’t just do dance to do dance.  It’s not just this fantastically pure art form.  You have to make money to succeed.  You have to make choices that aren’t purely artistic.  I want to look at that.  I’m pretty sure I’m going to find that was never the case, but I need to know that.

Tell me about the upcoming show and une elephante.

Two dances, both new.  The full show is a dance show about dance.  It’s supposed to be redundant.  I’ve said that I want to make modern dance more accessible.  I know a lot of people have said that, but I’ve been saying it for a long time and had never really done anything about it.  This is the first blatant attempt to demystify modern dance in that the dances are about dance.  We’re using QR codes in our program to link to our extensive program notes, so giving people the option of watching the dance then reading about it or read about it, then watch the dance, or none of the above.  If you want all the answers, you can have them.   It’s not some oblique reference, it’s here are the questions I’m asking about dance.  The first piece is the duet.  We made it because we got a Dance Bridge residency at the Cultural Center.  It’s basically a free space.  You propose a piece to them and they give you free space and then you do a showing.  I told them that I wanted to try and draw parallels between dance and portraiture and the idea of duration.  One of the big things I dealt with at NYU was about how dance is ephemeral.  As soon as you dance, it’s gone.  Every time you do a step, it’s over.  There’s no way to stop it. We made this duet trying to figure out ways to slow down time.  The way you can sit and look at a painting for five minutes, how can you have that same experience with dance.  We started making task-based choreography.  I usually make up steps and people learn them and I put them together.  This was more like – spin in a circle for five minutes, we played games – it wasn’t based on a step, but on an idea, so I could watch it develop a little more.  What came out of it was this really strange, intense relationship.  The physical movements themselves had an emotional element that I would have never known if I hadn’t looked at it for two minutes straight.  The duration allowed me to think about what the actual step meant.  It’s a challenge, both for the dancers and for the audience.  It’s super easy to get bored and say “I get it” and move on.  Most of us that have seen dance are used to it moving quick.  I almost think it’s long enough that you can watch it, be bored, get unbored, go back to watching it.  We’ve been building pieces of it since March.  There’s a very clear relationship that came out that I had not intended.  One of the things that bothers me about dance is that it happens so quickly.  The reason people are confused or afraid of it is because you don’t have time to digest.  How do I tell you – here are the things you think you don’t know about dance, but you know them already.  You think there’s a secret.  If you’ve every done the YMCA, you’ve already accepted the fact that you can communicate with your body.  That’s all you need to get.  If you can do the YMCA, you get modern dance.  There is no secret.

Leopold Group dancing, August 26&27 @ 8pm, Aug 28 @ 5pm

The Drucker Center, 1535 N Dayton, Chicago

Tickets:  www.brownpapertickets.com, $20

CDF11 Moderns Program

Aspen Santa Fe Ballet in "Uneven". Photo by Rosalie O'Connor.

Tonight was the Chicago Dancing Festival‘s (CDF) Moderns program at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance.  The packed house was ready for a great show and CDF didn’t disappoint.  Opening with Aspen Santa Fe Ballets commissioned work by Spanish choreographer Cayetano Soto Uneven (2010) set the bar high.  There was nothing uneven about it.  The local audience (and Hubbard St fans) might have noticed some hints of Nacho Duato, Ohad Naharin and Jirí Kylían in this work, as Soto performed some of their works as a dancer.  It obviously had a very contemporary European flavor and the ASFB dancers were on top of their game tonight (although it looked like the floor was slippery) as cellist Kimberly Patterson played live on stage.

River North Dance Chicago followed up with Charles Moulton’s Nine Person Precision Ball Passing (1980).   I sat in on rehearsals last week after the company spent two days learning it.  This speedy coordination game drew giggles and then awe as the dancers kept the balls in sequence for the seven-minute duration.  The  program notes call it “community art in the form of a living Rubik’s Cube” and that mistakes are inevitable.  Leave it to the perfectionists at Rivno to not make a mistake.   Doug Varone and Dancers finished up the first act with Varone’s Lux (2006).  I really enjoyed this piece.  I hadn’t seen Varone’s work or company before and wasn’t sure what to expect.  When the announcer said it was set to the music of Philip Glass, the two ladies next to me said, “oh”.  I’m not sure if it was meant to be good or bad, but it turned out (for me) to be good.  The dancers’ movement quality was luscious and it just looked like it would be fun to dance.  With a slowly rising moon on the back drop center stage, it was like a midnight frolic in the moonlight.

Adam Barruch in "Worst Pies in London". Photo by Christopher Duggan.

Adam Barruch‘s solo Worst Pies in London (2008) opened the second act.  Set to music of the same name from Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, this was really duet between Barruch and Angela Lansbury singing the vocals on track.  Short, sweet and funny, Barruch looked like a young Jim Carrey with rubbery facial expressions and the flexible body to match.  Closing the show was Hubbard Street Dance Chicago (HSDC) performing Sharon Eyal’s Too Beaucoup (2011).  This was one of my favorite works from their last season.  Androgynously clad in flesh-toned body suits with white make up, wigs and contacts, the dancers look like a group of aliens that stumbled upon a mixed cd from earth and decided to have a dance party.  Weird, kooky, cool.   A fun, entertaining evening.  The appreciative audience agreed.

CDF Opening Gala

Joffrey Ballet's Victoria Jaiani & Temur Suluashvili in White Swan pas. Photo by Cheryl Mann.

Last night was the opening night gala kicking off the fifth year of the Chicago Dancing Festival (CDF). A short 5-piece program on the MCA Stage was followed by cocktails, a buffet with three ballroom dance couples interspersed upstairs at Puck’s Restaurant and outside on the terrace.  The $250-a-head evening was co-chaired by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who stayed to mingle after the show along with his wife and daughter.  A few short speeches preceded the performance. MCA Director of Performance Programs Peter Taub opened the fest saying, “We are here to celebrate the best of dance from across the country”.  CDF co-founder Jay Franke gave some impressive stats including that in the past five years the festival has presented over 35 companies and over 400 dancers and proudly announced that this year CDF sold out approximately 10,000 seats for this week’s performances.  Franke turned over the mic to Mayor Emanuel, who celebrated his 100th day in office by attending the gala.  The Mayor, a former dancer and huge fan, declared that he wants to double the size of the fest and make sure Chicago is the dance destination for the entire country. He added there are 19 companies performing this week to an estimated 19,000 audience members.  Co-founder Lar Lubovitch said, “One cannot describe dance in words, no matter how eloquent,” but then went on to read the most eloquent essay (written by him) on duets, five of which we were about to see.

HSDC's Penny Saunders & Alejandro Cerrudo in Following the Subtle Current Upstream. Photo by Cheryl Mann.

The program of duets featured choreography from 1895 to present and while they represented divergent styles, there was a through-line of choreographic evolution.  A pristine classical white ballet to a fluid neoclassical ballet with a contemporary twist.  An emotive classic modern offering to a postmodern minimal feat.  Then an avant garde performance art work that evoked musical and choreographic themes from the first duet.  A mini-history of dance in 60 minutes or less…sort of.  Joffrey Ballet‘s husband and wife team, Victoria Jaiani and Temur Suluashvili began with Lev Ivanov’s traditional White Swan pas (1895) from Swan Lake.  On a small, bare stage it is difficult to bring the audience into the magical place that is needed for the dance, but what it lacked in mood and setting was made up for by technique.  Jaiani’s extraordinary extensions and limberness were on full display.  (I’m fairly certain her back is made of a flexible pipe cleaner.)  Just as they disappeared into the wings, Hubbard Street‘s (HSDC) Penny Saunders and Alejandro Cerrudo oozed onto the stage in an excerpt from Alonzo King’s Following the Subtle Current Upstream (2000).  While similar to the previous pas in technique, flexibility and master partnering (and similar promenades in penché), this duet was the opposite in feel.  Fluid, continuous and rich.

Martha Graham's Xiaochuan Xie & Tadej Brdnik in "Snow on the Mesa". Photo by Cheryl Mann.

An excerpt from *Robert Wilsons Snow on the Mesa (1995) brought a display of control and drama with Martha Graham Dance Company dancers Xiaochuan Xie and Tadej Brdnik’s gorgeous interpretation.  Strong, yet delicate with minimal, but heartbreaking gestures, I found myself holding my breath through the piece.  The all white costuming and loving touches again reminded me of the first duet.  Brian Brooks Moving Company changed things up with a male duet titled MOTOR (2010).  Clad only in black briefs, Brooks and David Scarantino embarked on a thigh-killing, synchronized chugging spree.  Set to a driving beat with ominous overtones, MOTOR had the men hopping, jumping and chugging, foward, backward, in changing formations around the stage.  It was an exercise in stamina and focus.  There were more than a few moments, however, that took me back to the swan theme.  Precise chugs in attitude devánt (four cignets) and chugs in fondue arabesque (white swan corps).  A stripped down off-kilter Swan Lake.

The final piece Compression Piece (Swan Lake) was a commission by Walter Dundervill , created specifically for CDF this year.  If the previous piece was off-kilter, this was Swan Lake on crack!  Dundervill (who Lubovitch said could be ” a lunatic”), along with partner Jennifer Kjos, creates a white landscape of distorted beauty in his choreography (warped fouetté turns and bourré sequences), sets (a fabric installation that serves as back drop and eventually part of the choreography) and costumes (interchangeable pieces – they changed on and off stage – layered from baroque to bridal).  The soundscape featured swan riffs from Tchaikovsky and Saint-Saëns, but funked it up with Diana Ross and Sonic Youth.  This world premiere proved that the black swan has nothing on the white swan when it comes to crazy (in a good way).

Maybe I have Swan Lake on the brain (a strain of avian flu?), but I caught a definite thread of similarity in the pieces.  As if all of the works were distilled from choreography from 120 years ago and ended up being all of these unique moments on stage…and maybe they were.  Example:  Look at the photos on this page.  From very different styles and eras, yet all are an interpretation of a standard supported arabesque.  Technical issues prevented Faye Driscoll from performing on the program as scheduled, but I’m looking forward to seeing it later in the week at the MCA Moves program to see how it would’ve fit into this program.  As it was presented last evening, it was a testament to the brilliant artistic direction of Lubovitch and Franke.

*This has been updated.   I originally had the piece choreographed by Martha Graham.  Oops!