Category Archives: jazz

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

Autumn in the City

Dancer/choreographer Autumn Eckman. Photo by Mike Canale.

I’m not talking about the turning leaves, chilly weather and shorter days, but dancer/choreographer Autumn Eckman.  An artist that has danced with Giordano Jazz Dance Chicago (GJDC), Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, Luna Negra Dance Theater, Lucky Plush Productions, Ron De Jesús Dance, as well as choreographed for Instruments of Movement, Inaside Chicago Dance, Northwest Ballet Ensemble, Indiana Ballet Theatre, just to name a few.  She’s also on faculty at Northern Illinois University, teaches at a number of area studios and serves as Artistic Associate and Rehearsal Director for GJDC and Director of Giordano II.  To put it mildly – Autumn, 34, is everywhere these days.

This weekend at the Harris Theater, Eckman will premiere a new work, Alloy, as GJDC takes the stage for its fall engagement.  The first performance of the 2011-2012 season titled Passion and Fire will showcase seven numbers including two premiere, one of which is Eckman’s.  Other pieces include Gus Giordano’s signature work Sing, Sing, Sing (1983),  last season’s ballroom hit Sabroso (2010), former GJDC dancer Jon Lehrer’s Like 100 Men (2002), a restaging of Davis Robertson’s 2005 work Being One, a world premiere by Kiesha Lalama and Eckman’s Yes, and…! from 2010.

I talked with Eckman over the phone last week as she was walking to rehearsal about her process and her inspiration.

You’re a busy lady.  What is a typical day for you?

A regular Giordano day?  They start class at 9:30 and we rehearse until 4:00pm.  Usually I’m off teaching class somewhere in the evenings.  In addition to choreographing, rehearsal directing, mentoring and guiding the second company, I’ve also been rehearsal directing the first company in preparation for the upcoming shows and tours.  For this concert, I’m helping get six pieces up and running, cleaned and polished and rehearsed.  It’s a big task, but fun.  

Who are your choreographic influences?

I take a lot of inspiration from books.  I draw my influence off of the vocabulary of the dances that I’ve done with each different company.  It’s so ingrained in my body that I try to make it my own and formulate my own style.  I love all the choreographers from my time at Hubbard Street –  Nacho (Duato), Ohad (Naharin), (William) Forsythe, but I also love jazz choreographers.  Randy Duncan has been a big influence.  I love Harrison McEldowney.  I have been inspired by the work and working with Robert Battle. Other dancers include the great entertainers of our time: Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire. I grew up watching their films along with the works of Busby Berkley. I was obsessed with his pattern making for film and dance.  In terms of the dance itself, I am often inspired by the way a writer would write or compose a song for start to finish: the verse, the chorus, the bridge, etc. I aspire to make dance the way a good song takes you on a journey.

When you choreograph something, what is your process or does it change?

I write everything down.  I could own stock in Post-It notes.  Everything is kind of disorganized, but if I have an idea, I grab a pen and write it down or if I see something, I’ll write down something…like a couple walking in the park.  Then I’ll hear a piece of music that will, in my mind, fit the idea.  It’s kind of like playing match up.  I have these really diverse ranges of music that I know I want to eventually use and finding what matches it and trying to build a story to it.  Sometimes it’s about the movement.  I like moving for movement’s sake as well.

For your premiere, Alloy, what was the impetus for it?

KRESA (Kalamazoo Regional Educational Service Agency) had asked me to choreograph a piece.  They asked for a duet.  I was really excited.  I hadn’t pushed myself to see how strong my work was in that aspect.  It’s a mixture.  I researched the word alloy and then it took on this metallicy, liquid kind of tone.  Two people that will do anything to be with each other, be one…a blend.

So the idea, the word and the concept came first and then you added music?

Yeah.  I wanted to try classical piano…listened to a simple score and see how that worked.  I knew I wanted to use soft, simple music.  Sometimes I think less is more.

You reworked it for GJDC.  How has it changed – or has it?

Nan (Giordano) had seen the dancers rehearsing.  She approached me and said she wanted it for the fall concert.  Can we add this to it?  Can we have these two dancers (Devin Buchanan and Ashley Lauren Smith)?  She loved the look of their body types together and thought they’d be a great partnering. Turns out, they are great together. They have great chemistry and it took on a sexier, really stripped down tone.   It really came all about their sensuality, their body and their movement and how they…even one touch, how that reacts to each other.  It took on a deeper, more personal tone when I worked on it the second time.  I’m extremely happy with the results.  It’s always my goal to see where jazz dance is going and how to push boundaries of what jazz dance is.  I think this is just another direction – for the company as well.  Another boundary being pushed.

Giordano Jazz Dance Chicago, Oct 21 & 22 at 8pm

Harris Theater, 205 E. Randolph, 312.334.7777

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

Proud Mary

Inaside dancer Mary Williams. Photo by Eddie Eng.

Mary Williams will take her final bow this Saturday night after performing in the one-night-only show Constant Motion at the Harris Theater.  This show is the first in a series of shared performances of Chicago dance companies funded in part by the New Stages for Dance Initiative, a program brought to Chicago through the local dance service organization Audience Architects in partnership with Dance USA and MetLife.   Constant Motion pairs Inaside Chicago Dance* (ICD), where Williams is a dancer and Marketing Director, and  Cerqua Rivera Dance Theatre (CRDT) for the evening-length program.

ICD starts the show with four numbers, plus a piece by their Youth Training Program dancers, then CRDT takes the stage with their signature live musicians and both groups participate in a collaborative finale choreographed by Artistic Directors Richard Smith (ICD) and Wilfredo Rivera (CRDT).  Although stylistically different, the two companies come together (with the help of the initiative) to bring their talents to a larger venue than either one could secure alone:  the Harris Theater.  For Williams, it’s a pinnacle moment in her career.

Growing up in a small Michigan town, she started taking ballet class at age three and then got into Jazzersize (hilarious, but no joke).  When a new dance school opened in town, she began taking classes and eventually danced competitively.  College studies followed at Western Michigan University, with a double major in Dance and English.  Williams had her heart set on moving to New York City, but landed a scholarship at Giordano Jazz Dance Chicago and moved here instead.  During that first summer on scholarship, a fellow dancer asked her if she wanted to come with her to an audition.  Of course, the energetic 23-year-old said yes and was asked to be an apprentice with Inaside.  She’s been there ever since.  Now, at 30, she’s decided it’s time to take a break from dancing and focus on other aspects of her career.  I chatted with Williams last week around 10:30 pm, after she spent a long day (12 hours to be exact) rehearsing and teaching.

Inaside dancer Mary Williams. Photo by Eddie Eng.

Tell me about the show and the collaboration. 

Some of the great things about this collaboration, from a marketing aspect and as a behind-the-scenes person, we’ve been able to see a whole other group just like us…their system…how they do it, how they work together compared to how we work together…tricks of the trade.  I know a lot of their dancers, so it’s been fun.  It’s hard because we’re putting together two companies.  I think we’ve had four rehearsals.  It’s so fun when we get to do Wilfredo’s choreography.  I think the dancers on both sides really liked it.  It’s like having a guest artist come in.

CRDT dances to live music.  How was it adjusting to dancing to live music for the final piece?

We have our first rehearsal with live music on Sunday!  We’ve been working off of a recording.  I think it will be exciting.  It brings an element of surprise and almost improv into it.

Why did you decide to retire now?

I feel like dancing-wise I’m doing really great.  I know the young talent that is coming up is exceptional.  Right now, when I’m at my peak is a great time to stop dancing.  Other than that, it’s very consuming.  It consumes your life.  Especially with the marketing…having these twelve hour days…they’re brutal and you start to feel it after a while.  It’s been a hard decision to make, but I’m kind of excited to take the next step in my life and career.

What’s next?

I’m staying on as Marketing Director and I hope I can still come take class and keep up with my craft.  I’m still teaching kids, but I want to be able to take class.  I was recently named Dance Coordinator at Des Plaines Park District.  I’ll be working in the dance office, getting to know the program, talking to parents, etc…kind of like my office job.  I just won’t be a dancer on stage.

Since your last show is next week, what are you feeling? 

I have so many different things going on.  I’m excited about the show.  It’s this huge, awesome event.  It’s not going to hit me that I’m not going to be dancing with the company anymore until I sit in the audience and watch them perform.  I feel like I should be focusing on the show more now, but you’ve gotta work, do the marketing…all this other stuff in life.  Right now, I’m being pulled in a lot of different directions, which I think is distracting me from the reality that I’m not going to be a dancer any more.

The day after the show might not be so fun.

I’m probably going to cry a lot.  I’m very emotional.

But, what a way to go out!

I can leave with a great sense of accomplishment.  I set out to be a dancer and I did it!  I followed my dreams.  It’s so cheesy, but it’s true.

Are you looking forward to a little bit of a break?

Yes.  I’ll get to eat.  I’m kind of excited about that.  I never starve myself, but you watch what you do.  I’m looking forward to some free time and spending time with my husband.  That will be nice.

Constant Motion: Inaside Chicago Dance & Cerqua Rivera Dance Theatre – Saturday, September 24th, featuring choreography by Harrison McEldowney and Tony Savino, Autumn Eckman, Eddy O’Campo, Richard Smith and Wilfredo Rivera.

Harris Theater, 205 E. Randolph, 312.334.2400, Tickets: $25-40,

*Disclosure:  I’m a former board member for ICD and currently serve in an advisory capacity and with special projects.

DFL Last Dance

Last night I got to watch a run-thru of this year’s Dance For Life (DFL) finale at the Lou Conte Dance Studios.   DFL is the hugely-popular annual concert benefiting the AIDS Foundation of Chicago and the Dance For Life Fund.  Five top local companies share the stage for a one-night-only dance extravaganza in honor of the 20th year of this charity event.  Once again, Randy Duncan will be choreographing the grand finale incorporating dancers from diverse companies across the city. His DFL finales from the past two decades are the stuff of Chicago dance legend (and his notoriously difficult and fast choreography!) and are one of the many reasons people keep coming back every year.  Harrison McEldowney took over finale duties last year, while Duncan was out of the country, so this year both choreographers created pieces for the show.  Along with these two multi-company collaborations, the performance will include performances by Giordano Jazz Dance Chicago, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, Joffrey Ballet (a solo by new company member Rory Hohenstein),  River North Dance Chicago (Sherry Zunker’s Evolution of a Dream) and Ron De Jesús Dance.

Last night’s preview was attended by a small group of donors, collaborators, board members, dancers, special guests…and me!  I had the luck to sit in between the fantastic Jeff Hancock (who designed the barely there costumes for the finale) and the fabulous McEldowney (they had a preview of his piece the night before).  Duncan greeted everyone and said a few words before the run, mentioning that the Auditorium Theatre – where DFL will be held this year for the first time – is his favorite theater.  The theater has 4,000 seats and almost 3,000 tickets have been sold, so tickets are still available ($50)!  Then the eclectic group of dancers took over.  Representing Giordano, Ron De Jesus Dance, River North, Same Planet Different World, Milwaukee Ballet with a number of freelance/independent artists, the group had one thing in common besides being terrific dancers.  The majority of them were graduates from the Chicago Academy of the Arts, where Duncan is the Chair of the Dance Department.  A talented group!  Set to an interesting interpretation of Stand By Me, the music has a section where there is parts of an inspirational speech overlaid saying “many of them asked, why me?” and “together, yes, we can move mountains”.  The dancing and the choreography are both motivational and moving.  That’s all I’m going to tell you for now, because I want you to GO SEE IT!  Great show + great cause = great evening of entertainment.  This is a chance to see some of the top dancers and companies in Chicago on one stage together.  Do it!  Buy your tickets now 🙂