Category Archives: Hubbard St

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

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.

Break

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

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

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

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

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

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

CDF11 Wrap Up

Aspen Santa Fe Ballet in "Uneven". Photo by Cheryl Mann.

Last week was quite a week for dance in Chicago.  The Chicago Dancing Festival (CDF) presented five free nights of dance to eager audiences with an estimated 19,000 in attendance over the course of the week.  Many thanks and much gratitude to the CDF staff – Evin Eubanks (Executive Director), Todd Clark (Director of Production), Natalie Williams (Admin Assistant) and of course co-founders/Artistic Directors Lar Lubovitch and Jay Franke for showcasing such phenomenal talent and giving the city another chance to shine.  Mayor Emanuel attending three nights of dance has secured his place as dance in Chicago’s biggest fan.  I was lucky to be able to attend each night of the fest (I missed the free dance movies day) and I have to admit I was a little disappointed this Monday night when there wasn’t a kick ass show to go see.  Spoiled, but grateful.

Here are links to my coverage of the CDF events:  Opening Night Gala, Moderns, MCA Moves, Masters, Muses and Celebration of Dance.  Some of the highlights for me were Richard Move, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago (Too Beaucoup, Petite Mort), Lar Lubovitch Dance Company (The Legend of Ten), Paul Taylor Dance Company (Eplanade) and New York City Ballet artists Tiler Peck and Gonzalo Garcia (Tchaikovsky Pas De Deux).  I was surprised how much I enjoyed the Martha Graham Dance Company, Doug Varone and Dancers and Walter Dundervill’s work.  I can’t wait to see who CDF will bring in to perform next year.  Plan ahead: you won’t want to miss CDF2012!

Let me know what you think!  Did you go to any of the CDF shows?  What was your favorite?  Are you now a fan of a company you’d never seen before?  What would you like them to do differently next year?  What companies would you like to see at CDF 2012?

CDF11 Celebration of Dance

River North Dance Chicago performing "Nine Person Precision Ball Passing". Photo by Cheryl Mann.

Saturday night was beautiful.  The weather, the venue, the dancing.  The perfect night to hold an outdoor, free dance concert for the city of Chicago.  At Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park, Mayor Emanuel took the stage to introduce the final night of the Chicago Dancing Festival (CDF) and vowed to take the now five-day fest up to six days of free dance events next year.  Dubbed a Celebration of Dance, the entire evening was just that.  Some of the best dancers in the country came together to dance works by Kylían, Balanchine, Graham and Taylor for the estimated 10,000-12,000 people in attendance.  Even the fabulous Gehry-designed concert venue could not compete with what was happening on the stage.

Ballet West, under the direction of former Joffrey dancer and Ballet Master Adam Sklute, opened the show with Jirí Kylían’s Sinfonietta.  This troupe won a Chicago following last year when they performed Balanchine’s Serenade at CDF.  Program notes declare Sinfonietta is “a celebration of our earthly life” and with joyous jetés and rousing score, it proved to be a pitch-perfect opener for our celebration.  A black back drop with sparkling lights like stars came clearly into focus when the piece finished just as the sun set and the stars overhead came out.  Timing is everything.  The woman sitting next to me literally jumped out of her seat in excitement as the piece ended.  She seemed embarrassed at first until she realized she wasn’t alone.  This was the first of many mini standing ovations of the evening (most of which were started by the Hubbard Street dancers in the crowd).  River North Dance Chicago (RNDC) followed with Charles Moulton’s post-modern Nine Person Precision Ball Passing.  For the third time this week, RNDC took their places on three tiers to perform the brain-teasing work which has seven minutes of fast ball exchanges in every possible configuration.  It is clear that the dancers have it embedded to memory as they performed it perfectly, even throwing in some sassy faces and attitude.  It’s a fun work that drew giggles and appreciation.  Now if I could only get that pinball-synth score out of my head.

Joffrey Ballet performed George Balanchine’s difficult and folksy ballet Stravinsky Violin Concerto.  The large group piece features two duets (Victoria Jaiani and Temur Suluashvili, Valerie Robin and Fabrice Calmels) to arias mixed in with all male and all female sections.  This work is at times difficult for me (why is she doing inside/out back bends?  why are they making a thumbs up sign and waving at each other?), but it was performed with flair and verve.  With fire engine sirens in the background, Joffrey showed the hometown crowd what it’s made of – strong technique, charisma and love.  (Shout out to Derrick Agnoletti for his fierce pas de chats!) Martha Graham Dance Company took the stage next in Diversion of Angels.  Graham’s trademark pitches and contractions were staples, but with lyrical passes and beautiful lifts mixed in.  Carrie Ellmore-Tallitsch, Ben Schultz and the gorgeous Xiaochuan Xie were stand outs.

Principal dancers Tiler Peck and Gonzalo Garcia from the New York City Ballet (NYCB) wowed the crowd with a stunning performance of Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky Pas De Deux.  The virtuoso duet showed the amazing technique, performing chops and musicality of the dancers.  Peck, aside from one slight bobble en pointe, was impeccable.  Her pointe work, her presence, her extensions, her turns, her playfulness all came together at warp speed.   I felt like a little girl seeing something so amazing that it changed my life.  (Mommy, I want to be a ballerina!)  I had goosebumps and yes, I was one of the many shouted bravo during bows.  The excitement carried over to the final piece.  The crowd was ready and  Paul Taylor Dance Company did not disappoint.  Taylor’s Esplanade set to Bach concertos was original inspired by a woman running to catch a bus.  The piece incorporates common human gestures with innovative partnering (a promenade with a woman standing on the man’s stomach), ridiculously fast footwork (Michelle Fleet’s solo was lightening fast!), running passes and a little romance.  The dancers were joyful with smiles on their faces as if they were having the time of their collective lives.  The audience was too.  *Insert full standing ovation here.

Every year, a random bird makes an appearance in the show, flying about the stage above the dancers as if it is so caught up in the moment that it wants to be part of the performance.   I imagine much of the audience felt exactly the same way.  Just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, it did.  Multiple times.  Every day the festival got better and better and I can honestly say (although I didn’t “get” some pieces) I enjoyed watching every single dance.  Lar Lubovitch, Jay Franke and Evin Eubanks deserve great thanks and kudos for pulling off this hugely successful dance festival.  I wonder how they’re going to top it next year.

CDF11 Muses

Hubbard St dancers Ana Lopez & Benjamin Wardell in Cerrudo's "Maltidos". Photo by Todd Rosenberg.

Dance writer/critic/historian Lucia Mauro opened Chicago Dancing Festival‘s (CDF) Muses program (Friday, Aug 26 on the MCA Stage) by distinguishing the difference in meanings of the term muse.  In ancient Greek mythology, the work referred to “beings who imparted knowledge.  They were empowered beings, the sources of greatness”.  But today, we refer to a muse as someone who inspires artistic creation.  After giving a brief list of famous choreographic partnerships (Balanchine and Farrell, Tharp and Baryshnikov, etc.) Mauro set the stage for the discussion to follow with Lar Lubovitch, Alejandro Cerrudo, Janet Eilber and Bettie de Jong that dealt with the artist/choreographer relationship.  Is it “control or collaboration”?  And how has that relationship been defined historically and is it being redefined now?

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago‘s (HSDC) resident choreogher Alejandro Cerrudo subscribes to the “two brains think better than one” theory and tends to use a collaborative approach with his dancers.  After praising the HSDC dancers many talents, he says, “anything the dancers give me is valid” and states simply, “I became a choreographer to become a better dancer.”  HSDC dancers Ana Lopez and Benjamin Wardell (frequent muses for Cerrudo) danced the final duet that was created on them from Cerrudo’s 2010 work Deep Down Dos.  Wardell is leaving HSDC to pursue independent projects.  I’m really going to miss these two artists dancing together.  They seem to have a kinetic ESP that drives their duets.

Janet Eilber, Artistic Director of the Martha Graham Dance Company told stories about working with the iconic choreographer in the 70s.  Eilber took over many of Graham’s roles once she was retired from dancing and said the best advice she ever gave her was to always create an internal monologue.  “You have to talk to yourself the whole time,” Graham advised her. Eilber also talked of how Graham had changed after a leave of absence from the company (depression and an extended hospital stay).  Once back, the way she choreographed changed to “visually instead of viscerally”.  Clips were shown of Eilber dancing in Graham classics Frontier and Clytemnestra.

Bettie de Jong, Rehearsal Director for Paul Taylor Dance Company brought her considerable personality and humor to stories of working with Mr. Taylor.”Unlike Martha, he doesn’t like to talk about the dances he’s making…maybe two words”, she says.  “His dances had an animal instinct, a dark side, a musical side, a funny side.”  Clips of her dancing with Taylor were shown including Esplanade and Big Bertha.

CDF co-founder Lar Lubovitch came last and promptly rearranged the two chairs on stage into a more pleasing configuration (he admitted it had been bothering him the entire program).  Once settled, he explained that his approach to choreographing is to tell the story of the music.  The dancers need to embody the music.   “My relationship with my dancers is based on who they present themselves to be,” he says adding, “there has to be a bond of trust in the room.  We trust and therefore can be free and therefore can create.”  An excerpt from HISTOIRE DE SOLDAT, Three Dances:  Tango, Waltz, Ragtime (2011) with three of his dancers followed telling a story with dark humor of a soldier, a princess and the devil.  Mauro opened the floor up to questions from the audience before wrapping up a lovely discussion on dance, history and the choreographic process.