Category Archives: Joffrey

Joffrey’s Don Q: Q for Questioning

Derrick Agnoletti & Fabrice Calmels in "Don Quixote". Photo by Herbert Migdoll.

The sets were amazing, the costumes stunning, the integration of video/images imaginative, the score fast and flamboyant, the life-size horse puppet fantastic, the choreography ambitious, the characters lovable, so why am I left with the feeling something was off? Last night’s premiere of  Yuri Possoknov’s version of Don Quixote for the Joffrey Ballet at the Auditorium Theatre had all the elements for a spectacular opening night, but it just didn’t quite get there.  That may be a bit harsh.  It was a wonderful show and sure to be a huge hit with audiences, but some of casting and staging were questionable and at times it seemed more like a full dress run and not up to the bar Joffrey has set for themselves.  The show was held for twenty minutes due to a medical emergency (someone slipped and fell in the lobby), which may have had a negative effect on the dancers.  I should also note that I sat in the third row, which was too close for my taste, and the ballet seemed almost too big for the stage.

Victoria Jaiani as Kitri in "Don Quixote". Photo by Herbert Migdoll.

Let’s start with the good stuff – and there was more than plenty.  First, Victoria Jaiani as Kitri was fantastic as we have come to expect.  Her fiery, flirty interpretation seemed second nature (although she seemed uncharacteristically nervous in parts of Act I) and I assume, growing up in Tbilisi, Georgia, she was practically weened on the part.  Her ridiculous flexibility was on full display particularly in Kitri’s Act I solo with Plisetskaya leaps (named after Maya Plisetskaya who made them famous with the Bolshoi) where she literally kicks the back of her head.  But why was she carrying castanets if she wasn’t playing them?  The Act II wedding pas de deux coda famously has a run of thirty-two fouettes.  Jaiani’s was spot on, even tossing in doubles every third turn in the first half.  From my seat, while watching her turn, I could perfectly see her husband Temur Suluashvili’s face behind her beaming with love and pride.  Jaiani’s partner (hired to replace the injured Miguel Angel Blanco), Cuban guest artist Carlos Quenedit, was charming, charismatic and mui talented, although I kept wondering “who is this guy?”  The program only notes (with an asterisk) that he’s a guest artist.  He was great and would be a lovely addition to the Joffrey family, but why hire a guest artist?

Amber Neumann & Anastacia Holden in "Don Quixote". Photo by Herbert Migdoll.

The other star of the show was the puppet.  Crafted by Von Orthal Puppets, Rocinante, Don Q’s faithful companion was fresh and endearing addition to the cast performed by Shane Urton and Alberto Velazquez.  The creation, nicknamed Otis by the company, only appeared in a few scenes which was a shame.  Free Otis!  More of the horse please.  All of the character parts were perfectly played.  Fabrice Calmels as Don Quixote (dashing, distracted), Derrick Agnoletti as Sancho Panza (delightfully bumbling), Willy Shives as Lorenzo (deliciously daft) and Matthew Adamczyk as Gamache (scene-stealingly silly).  Soloists Amber Neumann and Stacia Holden were stand outs as Kitri’s friends.  The corps — toreadors, seguidillas, dryads and bridesmaids — were outstanding and, aside from Kitri, did most of the dancing.  Two female solo variations beautifully danced by Amber Neumann and Jeraldine Mendoza inserted in the middle of the Act II pas de deux seemed out of place and unnecessary.  Equally perplexing was the need for the character Mercedes, a street dancer (Alexis Polito) who danced in the village with the toreadors.  No offense to Polito who danced a lovely solo amidst daggers ingeniously stuck to the floor with frightening intensity, but I failed to see how her character aided the story line.

Victoria Jaiani & Carlos Quenedit in "Don Quixote". Photo by Herbert Migdoll.

The audience at first seemed timid and unsure of how to react to such a bold and ambitious production.  Case in point:  Kitri and Basilio do these amazing one-handed presage lifts about six times.  The first four are done in pairs and in quick succession separated by supported pirouettes.  Fair enough, the lift might not have been held long enough for them to really see what was going on.  The second two are held for a sustained period of time – long enough for Jaiani to hold, look at audience and shake her tambourine before coming down – with the orchestra (Chicago Sinfonietta) holding for effect.  The first lift…nothin’.  The second, held long enough for Quenedit to carry her  – with one hand! –  across the entire stage.  I laughed out loud before obnoxiously clapping, wondering what it was going to take to get these people going.  Luckily, they came around and were clapping to the music enthusiastically during the finale.  Over all, it was a tremendous undertaking that, once a few kinks are figured out (particularly the long, awkward “pause” in Act II), will delight for the entire two week run.  As Artistic Director Ashley Wheater said last week, “I think the company will grow into it.”  I think they will and hope Don Q will be in Joffrey’s rep for a long, long time.

Joffrey Waxes Quixotic

Joffrey dancers Victoria Jaiani & Miguel Angel Blanco. Photo by Sandro.

This Wednesday, October 12th, Joffrey Ballet premieres a new version of Don Quixote at the Auditorium Theatre. The two act re-envisioning of Cervantes classic literary tale brings humor, drama and love to life with bravura dancing and a dash of horseplay.  Choreographed by Yuri Possokhov (former star of the Bolshoi Ballet and current resident choreographer at San Francisco Ballet), the ballet promises to continue the Russian classical traditions, while adding in his charismatic flair.  Possokhov delighted Chicago audiences last spring with Joffrey’s premiere of his commissioned work Bells.  His history with Don Q is long.  “I was ten years old first time I dance in this ballet,” he says in halted English at an Artists Talk Series lecture hosted by Instituto Cervantes last week.  The Bolshoi is the only company to keep Don Q “alive” in it’s rep with every generation passing  it on to the next.  “It’s a gift for him to pass onto this generations of Joffrey dancers,”  says Artistic Director Ashley Wheater of Possokhov’s vast base of knowledge with this ballet.  “I think the company will grow into it.”

How do you take a classic that’s over 140 years old and make it fresh?  “I had to make some twist, something that belongs to this city, this company,” says Possokhov.  That twist includes a more dancing for Don Quixote, which is traditionally more a character role, projections and video by Wendall Harrington integrated to help particularly in the dream sequences, plus a life-size horse puppet created by Von Orthal Puppets operated by male dancers in the company (insert horse’s ass joke here).  Along with the lively score by Ludwig Minkus (played live by the Chicago Sinfonietta, the Joffrey-ized Don Q will surely keep you on the edge of your seat.  Shortly before Possokhov was set to come to Chicago to set the ballet, the Golden Gate Park Windmills, which had been under restorative construction for years, began to spin.  “Is good sign.”

Joffrey Ballet presents Don Quixote, Oct 12th – 23rd

Auditorium Theatre, 50 E Congress

Tickets:  800.982.2787 or 312.386.8905

The Joffrey Academy of Dance, the Official School of the Joffrey Ballet, is offering a Don Quixote-themed master class next Monday, October 17th at 5:30 pm.  Taught by dancer Ericka Mac, the class gives a brief history of the story and choreography, as well as giving a fun barre warm up and teaching the steps of Kitri’s (the female lead) solo.  The class is for students of all levels and ages.

Joffrey Tower, 10 E Randolph, $15, or $10 with a valid college ID.

Reservations:  reception@joffrey.org or 312.784.4600

Joffrey Nutcracker Children’s Audition

Anastacia Holden as Clara in Joffrey's "The Nutcracker". Photo by Herbert Migdoll.

This Sunday, September 18th the Joffrey Academy of Dance is holding a children’s audition for the Joffrey‘s 2011 production of The Nutcracker.  If you are between the ages of 9 and 14 (as of this Sunday) and between 4′ and 5′ tall, you could be a part of this wonderful holiday classic.  For the children’s cast, rehearsals will be held throughout the months of October, November and December and you must be available for performances between December 9th and 27th, 2011.

The audition will be held at Joffrey Tower (10 East Randolph).  All participants must bring a completed audition form (available here) and a photo or headshot.  There are three audition times with registration being open for one hour prior to the audition.  Here’s the breakdown:

1st audition time:  10-11:30am, 4′ – 4’5″, ages 9 – 11

2nd audition time:  12- 2:30pm, 4’5″ – 5′, ages 10-14

3rd audition time:  3-4:30pm, 4’5″ – 5′, ages 9-10

All dancer should be prepared to stay until 5:00pm!  For more information:  312.784.4600 or email reception@joffrey.org

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 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 Masters

Hubbard Street's Jesse Bechard & Ana Lopez in "Petite Mort". Photo by Cheryl Mann.

The Chicago Dancing Festival (CDF) Masters program last night at the Auditorium Theatre was a spectacular night of dance.  The packed house was jazzed and ready for a great show giving Mayor Emanuel (who was in attendance again this evening) thunderous applause for just being there.  It doesn’t hurt that he’s also the city’s number one dance advocate and biggest fan.  The show opened with Hubbard Street Dance Chicago (HSDC) performing Jirí Kylían’s Petite Mort (1991), a gorgeous work to two Mozart piano concertos that has been in their rep since 2000.  Between the music, the choreography and the beautiful dancers, it really doesn’t get any better than this.  (I told Artistic Director Glenn Edgerton at intermission that I was getting tired of trying to find new words to describe HSDC and that I might just have to make something up.  Stellatasticerifficabulous?  Nah, that’s harder to say – and type – than Suluashvili!) Anyway, the bar had been set.

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

River North Dance Chicago (RNDC) followed with Charles Moulton’s Nine Person Precision Ball Passing (1980) which they performed earlier in the week at the opening gala.   On Monday, RNDC performed it flawlessly, but two balls during the seven-minute piece “got away” drawing giggles from the audience.  Moulton told me last week that “mistakes are part of it” and that they are inevitable.  With extra balls hidden in their costumes, the number kept pace and you wouldn’t know something happened except for those darn balls rolling on the stage.  I liked that they dropped a ball.  It shows they are human (‘cuz some of the things they can do really make you wonder) and it showed their professionalism and focus when they kept on going.  Act I ended with Victoria Jaiani and Temur Suluashvili from Joffrey Ballet dancing the Act II pas de

Joffrey's Victoria Jaiani & Temur Suluashvili in Act II pas from "Giselle". Photo by Cheryl Mann.

deux (1841) from Giselle.  Please note: I love the Joffrey and Giselle is my favorite ballet (yes, I named my dog Giselle), so it hurts me to say that this was the weakest number in the show.  Jaiani was gorgeous, as usual, but the tempo of the audio track was off.  It was too fast when it should’ve been slow to show off her ridiculous extensions and slowed down during the filler parts.  Plus, you really need to understand the relationship of the characters to fully appreciate what is happening on stage.  They would’ve been better served doing a bravura pas from Don Quixote or Le Corsaire or even the White Swan pas they performed earlier in the week.

Martha Graham Dance Co's Carrie Ellmore-Tallitsch, Tadej Brdnik & Mariya Dashkina Maddux in "Embattled Garden". Photo by Cheryl Mann.

The second act began with the Martha Graham Dance Company in Embattled Garden (1958).  I loved it!  Even though it was choreographed 53 years ago, the work holds up.  The sets by Isamu Noguchi looked like they were from Beetlejuice. The basic, colorful costumes and strict technique all blended into a dramatic story of biblical seduction.  High drama!  Artistic Director Janet Eilber came out before the piece to set up the plot and let us know what we were going to see.  Smart move.  Maybe this would’ve helped with the Giselle pas.  The Eve character’s (danced by Mariya Dashkina Maddux) hair was a character unto itself, whipping violently back and forth to the music as if it had its own choreography.  The Masters program closed with

Lar Lubovitch Dance Co in "The Legend of Ten". Photo by Cheryl Mann.

Lar Lubovitch Dance Company in The Legend of Ten.  Choreographed by CDF co-founder Lar Lubovitch in 2010, the piece for – you guessed it – ten dancers was wonderful.  Set to two movements from Brahms’ Quintet for Piano and Strings in F Minor, Opus 34, Legend showed that Lubovitch is a master with not only movement, but music.  The seamless flow of the dancers’ energy was hypnotic.  It could literally lull you into a stupor, but then you would miss the quick little solo turns by each dancer and the smart, luscious partnering by Jenna Fakhoury and Reid Bartelme.

The main thing I’ve noticed in this week of dance so far is the appreciation and appetite for dance in Chicago. The audiences have been attentive and generous and eager for more.  That’s my kind of town!

CDF Opening Gala

Joffrey Ballet's Victoria Jaiani & Temur Suluashvili in White Swan pas. Photo by Cheryl Mann.

Last night was the opening night gala kicking off the fifth year of the Chicago Dancing Festival (CDF). A short 5-piece program on the MCA Stage was followed by cocktails, a buffet with three ballroom dance couples interspersed upstairs at Puck’s Restaurant and outside on the terrace.  The $250-a-head evening was co-chaired by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who stayed to mingle after the show along with his wife and daughter.  A few short speeches preceded the performance. MCA Director of Performance Programs Peter Taub opened the fest saying, “We are here to celebrate the best of dance from across the country”.  CDF co-founder Jay Franke gave some impressive stats including that in the past five years the festival has presented over 35 companies and over 400 dancers and proudly announced that this year CDF sold out approximately 10,000 seats for this week’s performances.  Franke turned over the mic to Mayor Emanuel, who celebrated his 100th day in office by attending the gala.  The Mayor, a former dancer and huge fan, declared that he wants to double the size of the fest and make sure Chicago is the dance destination for the entire country. He added there are 19 companies performing this week to an estimated 19,000 audience members.  Co-founder Lar Lubovitch said, “One cannot describe dance in words, no matter how eloquent,” but then went on to read the most eloquent essay (written by him) on duets, five of which we were about to see.

HSDC's Penny Saunders & Alejandro Cerrudo in Following the Subtle Current Upstream. Photo by Cheryl Mann.

The program of duets featured choreography from 1895 to present and while they represented divergent styles, there was a through-line of choreographic evolution.  A pristine classical white ballet to a fluid neoclassical ballet with a contemporary twist.  An emotive classic modern offering to a postmodern minimal feat.  Then an avant garde performance art work that evoked musical and choreographic themes from the first duet.  A mini-history of dance in 60 minutes or less…sort of.  Joffrey Ballet‘s husband and wife team, Victoria Jaiani and Temur Suluashvili began with Lev Ivanov’s traditional White Swan pas (1895) from Swan Lake.  On a small, bare stage it is difficult to bring the audience into the magical place that is needed for the dance, but what it lacked in mood and setting was made up for by technique.  Jaiani’s extraordinary extensions and limberness were on full display.  (I’m fairly certain her back is made of a flexible pipe cleaner.)  Just as they disappeared into the wings, Hubbard Street‘s (HSDC) Penny Saunders and Alejandro Cerrudo oozed onto the stage in an excerpt from Alonzo King’s Following the Subtle Current Upstream (2000).  While similar to the previous pas in technique, flexibility and master partnering (and similar promenades in penché), this duet was the opposite in feel.  Fluid, continuous and rich.

Martha Graham's Xiaochuan Xie & Tadej Brdnik in "Snow on the Mesa". Photo by Cheryl Mann.

An excerpt from *Robert Wilsons Snow on the Mesa (1995) brought a display of control and drama with Martha Graham Dance Company dancers Xiaochuan Xie and Tadej Brdnik’s gorgeous interpretation.  Strong, yet delicate with minimal, but heartbreaking gestures, I found myself holding my breath through the piece.  The all white costuming and loving touches again reminded me of the first duet.  Brian Brooks Moving Company changed things up with a male duet titled MOTOR (2010).  Clad only in black briefs, Brooks and David Scarantino embarked on a thigh-killing, synchronized chugging spree.  Set to a driving beat with ominous overtones, MOTOR had the men hopping, jumping and chugging, foward, backward, in changing formations around the stage.  It was an exercise in stamina and focus.  There were more than a few moments, however, that took me back to the swan theme.  Precise chugs in attitude devánt (four cignets) and chugs in fondue arabesque (white swan corps).  A stripped down off-kilter Swan Lake.

The final piece Compression Piece (Swan Lake) was a commission by Walter Dundervill , created specifically for CDF this year.  If the previous piece was off-kilter, this was Swan Lake on crack!  Dundervill (who Lubovitch said could be ” a lunatic”), along with partner Jennifer Kjos, creates a white landscape of distorted beauty in his choreography (warped fouetté turns and bourré sequences), sets (a fabric installation that serves as back drop and eventually part of the choreography) and costumes (interchangeable pieces – they changed on and off stage – layered from baroque to bridal).  The soundscape featured swan riffs from Tchaikovsky and Saint-Saëns, but funked it up with Diana Ross and Sonic Youth.  This world premiere proved that the black swan has nothing on the white swan when it comes to crazy (in a good way).

Maybe I have Swan Lake on the brain (a strain of avian flu?), but I caught a definite thread of similarity in the pieces.  As if all of the works were distilled from choreography from 120 years ago and ended up being all of these unique moments on stage…and maybe they were.  Example:  Look at the photos on this page.  From very different styles and eras, yet all are an interpretation of a standard supported arabesque.  Technical issues prevented Faye Driscoll from performing on the program as scheduled, but I’m looking forward to seeing it later in the week at the MCA Moves program to see how it would’ve fit into this program.  As it was presented last evening, it was a testament to the brilliant artistic direction of Lubovitch and Franke.

*This has been updated.   I originally had the piece choreographed by Martha Graham.  Oops!

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 🙂

Straight Guy Talking

Scott Silberstein of HMS Media.

Even if you’ve never heard of HMS Media, if you’ve watched Chicago dance footage in the last 20 or so years, you’ve definitely seen their work.   With 15 Emmy Awards and 23 Emmy nominations for their work creating arts-based, engaging programs for public tv, these media gurus have shown an instinctual talent for theatrical production and an affinity for filming dance.  Lucky us.  Their first project, the PBS documentary Why Am I Hiding, a barrier-breaking inside look at Rape Victim Advocates, won them their first Emmy Award (1989) and even had Oprah calling for a copy.  Co-founder Scott Silberstein — writer, producer, composer, director, musician, blogger, dance-lover, music aficionado and straight guy — is the S in HMS.

A classically trained pianist, Silberstein has always had the arts in his blood.    Passion, compassion and a bit of genius led him and HMS co-founder (and band mate – they met at summer camp!) Matt Hoffman to film dance.  “I got fixed up with a dancer in the Lynda Martha Dance Company,” Silberstein remembers.  He went to see her in a show and fell in love.  “The date didn’t go well, but I like to think of it as I got fixed up with dance.”  Much like their experience with the rape documentary, pretty much everything they did struck gold.  Starting out with clients like Mordine & Co, Hubbard Street and Joseph Holmes Dance Theatre and after winning two Ruth Page awards (and two more nominations) they quickly became the go-to guys for the Chicago dance community.

The next big project was another PBS documentary on a small, new company called River North.  With a show quickly approaching, they were struggling to sell tickets.  HMS convinced PBS to air the special a few days prior to the show as advertising and by the next morning they had sold out.  “That was two shows in a row that we’d been able to make and team up with WTTW and see the world change a little bit,” says Silberstein.  “The first, I really think some people got help and the second, a dance company survived.  You start to feel a little powerful, like you can do something to help.  It was powerful, but humble.  It always needs to be about their work or cause first.”

Around this time, Dance for Life (DFL) was in its third year and really starting to take off.  The brainchild of dancers Keith Elliott and Todd Keich, DFL is an annual one-night gathering of the top local dance companies for a performance to raise money for HIV/AIDS awareness, care and prevention.  Silberstein got together with Elliott and Harriet Ross to talk about making a documentary for DFL.  The same conversation continued for 15 years, but the stars never aligned.  Fast forward to present.  For the 20th anniversary of DFL, HMS Media’s Dance For Life:  The Documentarywill air on WTTW 11 tomorrow night (details below).  “This is exactly the right time, because it fell into place so easily and so quickly,” he says.  “Going into the 20th, a great milestone, and giving an opportunity to tell their story again through the eyes of survivors, beneficiaries, and people that have lost someone…it was the right time.  Almost now more than ever.  With all the advances in treatment and medication, now no one is talking about it.  The gay community is finally getting some recognition and receiving rights that are long overdue, but there is some push back.  It’s subtle and that’s what is scary.  Maybe now the need is stronger than ever.”

The will, the need, the funding and the desire was there.  Now came time to film.  “All of the dance had to be shot in one day at the Harris,” says Silberstein.  “Instead of a half hour to space and check lighting, we’re going to dedicate that half hour to a full out performance and then we’re going to do it exactly the same way in a few hours.  One day of live performance.  No camera rehearsal.  It was an intense day.”  That intensity paid off.  The documentary is a stunningly accurate presentation of last year’s live performance (I was there) technically and emotionally.  It opens with shots cutting from Joffrey Artistic Director Ashley Wheater teaching warm-up on stage to people standing in line to get into the Harris Theatre to dancers rehearsing backstage to the audience finding their seats.  The effect is an insider’s look to everything that is happening in real time.  The into ends with Margaret Nelson calling the first cues, a quick peek at the dancers taking their places for the first number and the opening announcement.  It’s like you’re there.

Then the show starts.  While you do get to see a majority of the beautiful dancing, it is the interspersed interviews that really steal the spotlight.  Personal accounts and memories tell the story of the devastating disease and the impact it has had on the dance community.  “We wanted to make it look like the dances were created to tell the story,” Silberstein says.  “The movement would complement the story.  We got chills in the edit room, when we would line a shot up that would fit perfectly.  I knew Matt Hoffman was doing some genius editing.  He’s the best there is.”  Gorgeous, heart-wrenching, poignant, hopeful, joyous and brilliant.  I smell another Emmy.

Dance For Life documentary broadcast premiere:  Thurs, Aug 11 at 10pm on WTTW11 with a rebroadcast on Sat, Aug 13th at 4am and on WTTWPRime on Fri, Aug 12th at 4pm.  The program will also be available through Aug 31st at Comcast OnDemand.  You can watch preview clips on the Dance For Life Facebook page. 

Ballet Beauty

In honor of the Joffrey Ballet dancers going back to work yesterday (after reaching an agreement through AGMA with the management – yes!), here is a cute little Q&A with ballerina April Daly.

April Daly and partner Miguel Blanco in "Stravinsky". Photo by Herbert Migdoll.

In her eighth season of what has turned out to be her dream job with the Joffrey Ballet, April Daly finds herself in a really good place.  The 29-year-old Lincoln Square resident, when not on stage eliciting thunderous applause for her artistic talents, might be seen rooting on the Cubs or devouring a steak at Tango Sur.

Do you have any pre-show rituals?

I’m an OCD shower-taker.  I’m really superstitious.  I blame my mother.  Before a show, a hot shower before warm up and I feel like it’s a brand new day.

Do you still get nervous?

Yes.  I think nerves are a great thing.  They’re kind of inevitable.  If one day I don’t get nervous, I’ll be scared.  It gives you the adrenaline.  I try to make sure it stays in the wings and it never comes on stage with me, because it takes all the fun out of it.

Personality-wise, would you be a white swan or black swan?

I think I might be more on the black swan side, but not in an evil way.  I’m pretty outgoing and feisty.

Growing up, were you a tomboy or a girlie girl?

A total girlie girl – I still am.  I don’t own tennis shoes. I have to be in heels at all times.  After rehearsals, I refuse to be in flats.  I can do a flip flop in the summer, but I’m in heels 99% of the time.

Most people think dancers don’t ever eat.  What’s you favorite ice cream flavor?

Ben & Jerry’s Strawberry Cheesecake.

What would be your last meal?

An amazing steak and definitely a big glass of wine.  I love food!  I’m a huge foodie.  I’m not that stereotypical ballerina.  If I had to be on a diet all the time, I would find another job, because I love food too much.