Category Archives: Inspiration

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 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.

Lar On Duets

Joffrey Ballet's Victoria Jaiani & Temur Suluashvili in "Bells". Photo by Herbert Migdoll.

At the opening night gala performance for Chicago Dancing Festival on Monday, co-founder/co-artistic director Lar Lubovitch spoke so beautifully about dance and the art of the duet. I asked his PR firm if I could obtain a copy of the poem or essay he read from only to find out that Mr. Lubovitch wrote it himself.  Here is an excerpt from his speech:

For all of the effort to do so, one cannot authentically describe dance in words, no matter how eloquent the speaker.  In fact, only dance in action can describe itself.  It’s a language for the eyes, for those who can see, and a sensation of the heart, for those who can feel.  By the same token, it is useless to attempt to sum up in words the essence of a duet.  Its meaning is embodied by its action.

Of course, language is indispensable before the act of dance can be committed.  Through hours of practice two dancers in a duet become sublimely sensitive to the transmission of the subtlest physical sensation.  And to arrive at that destination, a deluge of language has been employed, parsing words to the nth degree in order to reach their objective.  But when the resulting movement illuminates what many words have contrived to describe, no further language is necessary – or even possible.  It is then that the dancers have established the bond of trust that enables them to be free to risk everything in the hands of the other with wordless abandon.

But when the performance arrives, at the end of all the words and all the work, all former understandings fly out the door and the reality of the stage steps in.  Now the air is charged with an unfamiliar energy.  A black void exists where a mirror once stood.  The heart rate is altered and powerful shafts of light press on their bodies.  Now is the moment when speech is useless and only action counts, when the dancers minds and therefore their bodies must meet in perfect synchrony.  Once the curtain goes up and the journey has begun, they must negotiate the thicket of possibilities without a word.

This tension – this energy – this profound act of trust between two beings has been at the heart and soul of nearly every dance ever choreographed.  It is the moment when all the frenzied group action subsides and two dancers become one in a profound exhibition of freedom through trust that the human spirit is revealed and the essence of dance is made apparent.  It would not be incorrect to say that the essence of dance, and in fact all of art, is inherently love, but it would be even more accurate to say it is about belief.  The belief that all artists share, that through acts of dedication and imagination there is the possibility of a better way and therefore, a better world.

DFL Last Dance

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

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

Quote of the day

There must be a real passion to dance, and a certain lust for adventure, the audacity to throw away technique and get beyond it.  ~Twyla Tharp