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