Category Archives: Harris Theater for Music and Dance

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!

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

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.

The Interview

On a sunny morning in early June, I was in a cab heading to the West Loop studios of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago.  It’s standard procedure at this point for me to watch rehearsals or steal a few minutes with a dancer or someone on the artistic staff to chat about an upcoming show, but this morning was different.  I was going to interview Twyla Tharp.  I was getting twenty minutes face-to-face with a legend. To say I was nervous is a serious understatement, but I was determined to rally all of my confidence and go for it.  In my research for this meeting (which included reading her two newest books The Creative Habit and The Collaborative Habit), I found Tharp often quoted saying, “If you’re not early, you’re late.”  Leaving nothing to chance, I was in the lobby of the studio 45 minutes ahead of our scheduled interview time going over the questions in my head and trying semi-successfully to not freak out.  (In fact, Communications Manager Farrah Williams later told me I looked like I was going to throw up.  Great.)

Truth be told, I’d been obsessing about this interview ever since I got the “ok” from my editor weeks prior.  I had pitched it hard, eventually annoying her into agreement.  My inner mantra was:  Don’t f*#^ this up!  Advice from a dancer that worked with Tharp frequently (who shall remain nameless):  Be prepared.  Don’t waste her time.  Roger that!  I was definitely prepared, but the problem with the twenty minute time frame is I knew I wouldn’t be able to ask her all of the questions I wanted.  Let me set the record straight.  I gained press access to Ms. Tharp because I was writing a story for CS Magazine*, not because of Rogue Ballerina.  I’m sure my little dog-and-pony show would not register on the press map to someone of her caliber, plus I heard she does NOT like bloggers.  However, I was hoping for the chance to include a couple of questions beyond the scope of the CS readership.

I was escorted upstairs and down a long hallway behind the studios.  No turning back now, it was time.  First impression:  she’s tiny!  She’s smaller than I thought she’d be, but otherwise looked just like…well, Twyla Tharp.  Petite, but with an enormous presence.  Smart, dry, direct, intense.  Intimidating.  Completely daunted, I forged ahead with my questions punctuated by my trademark idiotic nervous laughter.  The next twenty minutes quite frankly is a blur.  It went by way too quickly and I came out thinking I was somewhere between having been eaten alive and having held my own.  I had survived.  Luckily, I have the entire conversation on tape!  Upon listening, I found Ms. Tharp to be quite generous and genuine.  She has a biting sense of humor that I think, because of her extremely analytical mind, doesn’t come always across.  For instance, when I asked my final question – if you went back to your parents’ drive-in movie theater and saw the story of your life on the screen, what would it be titled? – after commenting on what a bizarre question that was (which I took as a complement), she went on to analyze if it would work, how it would work, why it would work, what would be in it, plotting scenes, wondering who would be changing the marquee and then deadpans, “Shirley MacLaine could play me now.”  We discussed her process, her habits, her books, what she’s reading and the dreaded subject of getting older.  We did not discuss her upcoming work for HSDC.  It was still in the planning stages. I would’ve liked to talk to her more about her writing process and asked about her collaboration with musician/composer Danny Elfman, but time ran out.

Here are some excerpts of our conversation that didn’t make it into the article for CS (reprinted in Front Desk Chicago – images below)*.

Congratulations on the Spotlight Award.

Thank you.  You’re very kind.  As far as I’m concerned, I’m handing it right back to Lou (Conte).

Because you do have quite a few awards already…what makes this one special?  Is it the fact that Lou is coming back to give it to you or is it the relationship that you have with Hubbard Street?

It’s not about awards; it’s about work.  Lou is a phenomenal legend – a Chicago legend.  I’m always, always happy to see him.  He’s an honest guy.  I really value that.  He’s built around his abilities and talents and able to grow it into what is essentially one of the very few repertory companies in America for modern dance.  There are numbers of repertory companies for ballet, but very few for modern dance.  This is going to become more and more of an issue in the future because will single company founders passing away…Graham, Cunningham, Paul’s in his 80s, I’ve already disbanded the company because I was curious about investigating what happens after you die?  Which was my experiment.  It’s still my experiment.  I kind of look at it as I’m visiting into the world after I’m gone to see both what I can still do in terms of working with the talent and with the – and I really don’t like this word – legacy.  The work that’s been done previously, how has it taken hold?  How has it imbedded itself, so when I come back 15 years later, what’s there that I can pick up on?  What’s made a difference? What has mattered to these dancers?  What has been useful to them?  That’s sort of a privilege that I have to go back and try to explore…excavate in a way.  It’s like archeology.  

After 15 years, how did this new collaboration come about?  Why did you decide this is the right time to come back?

Well, Glenn (Edgerton) asked if I might do a piece and I was able to put the time in place to do it.  Also, it’s always a good time to go back and regroup.  2015 is my 50th anniversary of work and we’re already starting to develop the platform that we’ll present that year.  We’re putting up a new website that is going to give a much more comprehensive overview of things.  I’m working on a full-length ballet, a narrative ballet…of a lot of lessons learned and questions asked.  I think this is something of the same thing.  It’s a revisitation to roots to see where…roots is a bad analogy, because plants don’t grow fast enough.  We only have 3.5 weeks to grow this plant, to see where we can get it to.  In particular, it’s about the women here.  My first group from 1965 – 1970 was all women.  We worked in a very different way, different than anybody was working at the time.  In being only, not only, but having no men in the group, we pushed ourselves physically as hard as possible.  There was no, “ok the guys can do this”.  If we wanted jumping, we jumped.  If we wanted partnering, we partnered.  We developed physically in different ways and we also developed emotionally in very different ways.  The women in this company are closer to that ethos than most women in dancing are.  It’s about using their courage. 

Are you comfortable being labeled a genius?

It’s a ridiculous word.  Everyone has a genius.  Everyone has a spirit, a spark inside that’s very, very special.  There are those who are both fortunate and who have been corralled enough by resourceful human beings to develop discipline.  It’s the ones who manage to discipline that spark, to harness that spark that get labeled with this nomenclature.  The romance of the genius is ridiculous.   Part of genius is the guidance system that one grows up within.

"The Tao of Twyla" - CS Magazine

"Dance Diva" - Front Desk Chicago

See Twyla Tharp’s World Premiere SCARLATTI for Hubbard Street Dance Chicago next week at the Harris Theater!  Tickets:   312.850.9744, at HSDC (1147 W Jackson) or in person at the Harris box office (205 E. Randolph).

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

Preview: Luna Negra ¡Mujeres!

"Los Pollos, Juchitan, Qaxaca" (1979) by Mexican photographer Graciela Iturbide.

Luna Negra Dance Theater presents ¡Mujeres! this Saturday, October 1st at the Harris Theater.  Mujeres, or woman, is the driving force of an evening showcasing the Latina woman in various forms:  a premiere by a female Spanish choreographer about the first queen of pre-modern Spain, a reworking by a Mexican-American female choreographer about a Mexican female painter, and a premiere of a new work inspired by a female Mexican photographer.  Touted as “a celebration of globally influential Latinas”, the one-night-only show kicking off Luna’s 2011-2012 season, comes in the middle of Hispanic Heritage Month.  Featuring choreography from Artistic Director of Otra Danza, Asun Noales, former Luna dancer and Rehearsal Director of Ballet Hispanico, Michelle Manzanales as well as a world premiere from Luna Negra Artistic Director Gustavo Ramírez Sansano, the seasons opens with a bang!

Earlier this month, I sat in on rehearsal for Sansano’s new work inspired by the photograph Los Pollos, Juchitan, Qaxaca (1979) – or The Chickens – by Graciela Iturbide (shown above).  The picture captured his attention because it is her only photo in which the subject is blurred, like she’s running or trying to get somewhere.  He wanted to know why.  In Not Everything, set to music by Arvo Pärt, Sansano recreates the picture and adds context for the mood or actions that happen in the five seconds before she runs.  An ambitious goal.  “It’s like everything is good, then you get bad information and it goes from your head or brain to your heart and then your gut, then you decide to do something about it,” he explains from their State Street rehearsal studio.   “I want it to have the quality of taking you on a trip.”  It’s the moment the picture is taken that closes the dance.  Add in linoleum set pieces that will be raised to frame the stage with liquid running down in patterns and you literally have art imitating art on the stage.

Sansano is ambitious with his choreography too.  At the beginning of rehearsal, he’s cleaning a section that has at least one gesture for every count.  “More legatto…a softer moment”, he says, working the nuance of every detail, squeezing emphasis into a phrase that seems to have no more room.  With verbal counts, the movements seem quick and hard to place together.  Run with music, it’s faster, but flows together organically.  The dancers seem to take it in stride.  Now on to the fast section, which dancer and co-rehearsal director  (she shares duties with Mónica Cervantes) Veronica Guadalupe says is “the hardest think I’ve ever done before”.  She nods to indicate that this is it.  Complex patterns, high energy movement, split-second drops to the floor with seemingly effortless recoveries, singular moments of pause only to join back into the group a few seconds later like nothing happened all to driving, dramatic music.  With the music off, you can hear the heavy breathing and almost forget how easy they made it look.  Almost.  My response was “holy s*^t!”

And that’s just the opener.  Asun Noales, in her Luna Negra debut, created a full company piece inspired by Juana la Loca (Juana the Mad).  The dramatic story of the first queen of pre-modern Spain, danced by Guadalupe, incorporates intense love, grief, richness and madness to a score by Tomás San Miguel.  Rounding out the show is a revamped version of Paloma Querida (Beloved Dove), which Luna performed right before Sansano took over directorial control from Eduardo Vilaro.  Michelle Manzanales came back to set her piece based on the work of painter Frida Kahlo on the new Luna dancers.  The was a huge hit with the audience back in 2010.  I’m curious to see it set on a different group of dancers.

I’ve been telling pretty much anyone who will listen that they need to go see Luna Negra since Sansano’s debut last fall (his Toda Una Vida was simply stunning).  Nothing against the former company, but this group of dancers under his direction is fresh, unique, surprising and super talented.  Get your tickets for Saturday’s performance before they are sold out.  I promise, it will be worth it.

¡Mujeres! – Luna Negra Dance Theater, Saturday, October 1 at 6:30 pm, Harris Theater, 205 E Randolph, $25-$65, 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.