Category Archives: Lou Conte

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

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 🙂

Interview with Dance/USA Board Member – Julie Nakagawa

Don’t let her small stature and soft-spoken, polite nature fool you.  She is highly intelligent and a fiercely passionate advocate for dance.  Julie Nakagawa, Co-founder and Artistic Director of DanceWorks Chicago (DWC) and an officer on the Board of Trustees for Dance/USA, is an artist, teacher, mentor and director that focuses on nurturing not only the individual artist, but the global dance community as a whole.  There is no ego here.

A native of Evanston, IL, Nakagawa moved away for a dance career with Off Center Ballet, Cleveland Ballet and Twyla Tharp Dance before returning to Chicago to be with Ballet Chicago dancer, husband Andreas Böttcher.  “We just wanted to be in the same area code,” she says from her River North office inside the Ruth Page Center.  At a crossroads in her career, a social dinner with Lou Conte offered her a surprising opportunity and she wound up managing the Lou Conte Dance Studio.  More opportunities came in the form of directing the Hubbard Street Training Ensemble (now Hubbard Street 2) which she nurtured for the first decade of its existence.  Böttcher joined the organization and an unstoppable team was formed.  With mentors like Conte and Gail Kalver, there really wasn’t any other outcome.  “That was a great place for us to learn separately and collectively and grow together,” Nakagawa says.  “Those two are the best in the business.”

When it was time for them to leave the organization, they took some time off to travel and really focus on what they wanted to do.  Eventually their brainchild DWC was born, which they announced at that year’s Dance/USA conference.  DWC just celebrated its 4-year anniversary in June.  RB sat down with Nakagawa earlier this summer to talk about DanceWorks, Dance/USA and the dance community.

How did the idea of DanceWorks Chicago come about?

The community was already showing signs of strain in resources.  The most obvious resource is money, but for dance, space (which is associated with money), time (which is associated with money) and just the pressure to produce too.  What seemed like a potential danger was that these young dancers that were coming up weren’t…their directors and the companies were at risk of losing the valuable time of investment.  To bridge the gap between student or BFA graduate or conservatory grad or first job, second job thing, because there wasn’t an extra studio space or ballet master to kind of help you along.  Or the idea that yes, we can hire a dancer that we need to put an investment year in…those things weren’t happening.  Directors were saying to me that they can’t renew them because there’s some resource that they are lacking and each company handles that differently, but for the dancer that’s devastating.  Psychologically, that’s devastating.  You don’t get prepared for that in school.  You get prepared for success, but what about the many different ways success can look?  What about things that look or seem like failure, how do you turn those around?  I don’t think that’s necessarily overattended to.  In talking to dancers…they were the ones that said to us that it’s important.  This contribution is important.  The emphasis on companies is constantly to produce the dances.  Our concern has always been to produce the dancers.  That is the difference.  And we need both.  We decided to found DanceWorks Chicago to fulfill that need in the community to continue to have this laboratory or this research and development time to invest in the dancers, because a really courageous and equipped dancer can really do something in these companies.  Where the companies themselves…that might not be their priority.  That’s not a criticism.  They need to produce dances, but the dancers need to be ready to do whatever it is they need to do to help those companies reach their goals. 

We’ve been committed to 30-week contracts for the dancers annually, on salary and with health insurance.  That’s been a push and will continue to be a push, but we’re committed to that because we feel that’s the right thing to do.  We’re committed to building that relationship with them.  To build any relationship you need time.   It can’t be a two-week project and a one-week project and a gig.  That’s not a relationship, that’s two projects and a gig.  Again, that’s not a criticism; it’s just a different rhythm.  Our rhythm needs to be that we’re with each other on a daily basis for full days (9:30 – 4:30).  Time is the most precious commodity.  Money, if  you don’t have it or if you lose it, you can get it back.  You might not, but it’s in the realm of possibility.  Time, you won’t get it back.  We take that very seriously.  The artists’ time, the audience’s time, funders’ time…it’s really important.  From little things like trying to start and end on time, to reconfiguring performances into these dance flights, which are two 45-min segments back-to-back separated by 15 minutes.  That total time is like a regular performance, but the audience has more of a say in how they want to spend their time or their resources.  Trying to do things like that has also been important to us, as well as this laboratory for dancers to explore who they are and test that muscle of courage. That’s a muscle that’s really, really important.  Confidence besides the technical tools, the intellectual capacity and the emotional availability to really be a compelling artist.  We try to give them experience so they can make the best choices.  Do I want to be in a touring company?  Maybe that’s not for me.  If it’s not for you, then you can eliminate certain situations and save you and the company time and discomfort.  It’s a broad dance world out there, but it’s got to be about the relationship and the fit.  Hopefully having these experiences helps them identify a better next step, a better fit for them.

How did you get involved with Dance/USA?

When I retired from dancing, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do.  It was more of a personal/professional decision.  I felt I’d had a great decade-long career and felt very grateful about my career and my dancing.  I enjoyed it.  I still was enjoying it, but felt like I needed to make a life choice..a life change.
I talked with my director Dennis Nahad at Cleveland Ballet and he suggested I go to Dance/USA.  Cleveland Ballet were a member organization.  So I went (Minneapolis) and I went to the dancers forum.  There was like seven of us, but it was a really great opportunity that there was a much broader dance community out there and that there were all these people working on all different levels and in all different areas.  To come to a national convening was something I’d never done.  It was really important.  That was my first connection with Dance/USA.  Then, Hubbard Street was a member organization, so I went again.  There’s a lot of value in it.  If you want to play on a national or international level, I think it’s a mistake to think you can do it just in your own backyard.  It doesn’t really matter where your backyard is, even with the internet and technology, it’s a people business.  While you can’t always jet around, you can go to Pittsburgh or Portland or…if you plan ahead, you can make that happen.  Seeing who was at Dance/USA, seeing who wasn’t at Dance/USA, seeing who was making things happen for themselves…there’s definitely a connection there.  The panels, the forums, the speakers, that’s all really important.  The time in the elevator, the time between sessions, even lunch is equally important.  There are so many connections made, deals done, business cards exchanged, synergies discovered that makes it exhausting.  But hopefully you’re exhausted in the right way.  We’re looking for that inside information, that extra edge.  One of the first things we did as a young organization (DWC) was join it.  We felt it was important.  Joining Dance/USA and having 30-week contracts with insurance…it’s not the norm, but if we can do it, it can be done.

…and joining the Board?

Someone nominated me, which was very generous and gracious.  I have some big shoes to fill.  Eduardo Vilaro (former Artistic Director of Luna Negra, currently Artistic Director at Ballet Hispanico) was the most recent Chicago representative on the board.  I think Eduardo is an example of someone who really was a great board member for Dance/USA and translated that into success for Luna Negra…and rightfully so.  I was honored to accept and was subsequently nominated to be Secretary.  I had to ponder that for logistical reasons.  I feel it’s really important to give back.

What do you think having the conference here this summer will do for the Chicago dance community?

We’re all really excited about it coming to Chicago.  It’s the center of the country, so hopefully it’s easy for everyone to get here.  It would be great to have more Dance/USA members in Chicago.  I think it’s such a vibrant community.  Sometimes there’s a perception that there’s New York and then the rest of the country.  I think that has been true.  I don’t think it needs to be true.  Does there need to be one destination for dance in the country?  No.  The math just doesn’t add up any more for lots of folks.  I think Dance/USA is navigating a broad spectrum of dance in terms of their constituency and a broad geographic range on an on-going basis.  I think Chicago is such a great destination for dance.  If you want people to come, it’s not enough just to be here.  Part of it is connecting with them where they are…it’s audience outreach.  I think that one of the things is that it has provided an opportunity for the dance community to convene.  As wonderfully diverse and dynamic as the community is, it’s not difficult to stay in your own area.  Sometimes it’s their geographic area, sometimes their genre…whatever it is.  We had a community breakfast, which drew a really great cross-section of people from the local artistic community.  Artists, presenters, press, agents…it was great.  The opportunity for the community is to come together around dance and around the conference and to represent Chicago.  I think the challenge for the community is what’s going to happen after this?  Are we all going to go back to business as usual?  Your energized and refreshed, and that’s not without value, but what is tangible?  That needs to be attended to.  I would love to suggest a post-Dance/USA community convening to share experiences.  There are so many things to select, there are so many session to attend…it might be beneficial to tag team, so you’re not all at the same meeting.  Can we do that at a broader level?  Can we have the community get together and share for the people that couldn’t come or selected not to come…so that they can still get something out of it.  Just sit down and talk.  I think that would be a great follow up.  And again, I’m a believer in personal responsibility.  Maybe there’s a group that wants to talk about national touring and they identify themselves at the follow-up meeting and then they start meeting bi-monthly.  It would be great to have some really honest, passionate, respectful conversation.

My hope is that the Chicago community really uses this as an opportunity to really shine a light on dance in Chicago in some way. Even if they can’t be there or don’t understand, they understand that the opportunity is out there and they made a choice to attend or not to attend and they stand by that choice.  We’re going to throw a big party – what’s going to happen after it?  That’s the place where there’s a potential to maximize the opportunity for each individual or organization.  There is a way that we can maybe do that as a community.