Category Archives: Lucky Plush Productions

Happy Halloween!

RB as the Evil Queen in "Snow White". Typecasting?

Dance this weekend:  Check out Lucky Plush Productions at the MCA tonight or Saturday, Could Gate Dance Theatre at the Harris this weekend, Synapse Arts tonight at Holstein Park or Ailey II tonight at Governors State University.  I’m going to Cloud Gate tonight and  the Zombie Revolution at House of Blues tomorrow.  Merde to my zombie dancers!  Have a fun and safe weekend!

Preview: Lucky Plush’s The Better Half

The cast of "The Better Half". Photo by Cheryl Mann.

Tonight at the MCA Stage, Lucky Plush Productions (LPP) opens a two weekend run of its new production The Better Half.  A 75-minute collaboration between LLP Artistic Director Julia Rhoads and physical theater troupe 500 Clown Co-Founder Leslie Buxbaum Danzig, this new work puts a modern, interactive twist on the psychological thriller Gaslight (1944 movie based on the Patrick Hamilton play Angel Street) where a husband tries to make his wife believe she’s losing her mind.  The Better Half incorporates characters, text, lighting (Heather Gilbert) and sound (Mikhail Fiksel) cues and a heave dose of reality to keep the story evolving in real time on stage.  Add in costumes by Jeff Hancock and you have the setting for a fun, creative collaboration living inside a live, artistic whodunit?

I spoke with Rhoads earlier this week about her process and the new work.

I’m embarrassed to say, I think the last thing I saw Lucky Plush perform was Lulu Sleeps (2005). (*Side note:  After viewing the repertoire on LPP’s website, I’m happy to say I have seen most of the recent work, although I did miss last year’s hit Punk Yankees.)    Back then, you were incorporating theatrical elements, but recently you seem to be adding even more theatrics and humor.  Is that a different direction you’ve taken over the years, or is it just because I’ve missed some of your work?

I think it’s both.  One of our first works has been our longest standing work which we’ve done over and over is Endplay (2003).  That work has a (Samuel) Beckett play inside of it and is very much about human relationships and about the performers on stage and how they’re interacting and negotiating with each other.  I think that piece had a real liveliness to it that I’m interested in now in my work.  One thing that was a big game-changer for me was Cinderbox 18 (2007).  It just was kind of a magical process.  That was a process in which I started to think more about the liveness, the immediacy of being in performance and having the performers be in a state of response to each other, so it’s less like every move and detail is set and choreographed…there was a real openness.  I did this thing back then where I’d write a little note down for each of them some unknown element that they had to accomplish during the run.  Some of them ended up being in the show in a fantastic way and some of them miserably failed, but the best thing is it wasn’t really meant to find new things to add to the show, it was just a bonus if something really landed.  What it did was put the performers in a constant state of presence because they had no idea what the changes were going to be and what someone might do to change the game.  Even though the sections and the structure and the movement was set, there were things that would happen that they would have to deal with and respond in a very real-time way.  It was just such an exciting process for me.  Since 2007, and really going back to Endplay, I really want the audience to feel like they are knowing the performer, that it was really about the people and not just the dancers being sort of a non-subjective entity. 

This process in The Better Half is even going more in that direction.  Accessibility is really important.  I think it’s sometimes perceived as a dirty word.  I think accessibility is great.  You can be incredibly intelligent and accessible.  It doesn’t mean you’re diluting the content, it just means you’re allowing the audience to enter into it and to maybe laugh or maybe feel like they’re included.  This process has moved more into the dialogue…it’s more narrative.  The dialogue is in service to character development. Narrative, at the same time, we’re doing something very familiar to LPP’s body of work.  We’re also the performers that arrive at the MCA when we start.  We all show up and we get a name of a character.  We get character descriptions.  We hear this vague synopsis of a play.  My character, Mrs. Manningham hears that another person is called Mr. Manningham, so really all we know is presumably, we’re married, so we start to negotiate having a relationship in real time.  Things start to happen.  There’s kind of a loop structure, like reset button, but each time, the consequences change…grows more into the Gaslight story.  The way we hope the work is going to land is kind of fun look at contemporary domestic relationships.  It’s about the five of us being in the space together and negotiating roles that we’ve taken on or that have been imposed on us…how we grow into them.  The loop structure is about routinization that happens in relationships, sometimes how we bring our habits and our role to a relationship and then it’s like that forever.  You can recast yourself in a relationship, but it’s going to take a lot of work.  The piece wants to speak to all of those things, how you want to jump script sometimes and how you find the resilience within a marriage or a domestic relationship.  It’s fun and it’s funny and it has all of those elements, but it also lands with a real resonance about the question of can two people spend their lives together?

When the characters are getting the descriptions, is someone on stage telling them? How is that interacting happening?

In the beginning we’re sort of being directed by light.  Light plays a really important role, light and sound, and we’re directed to a place on stage and one of the characters is directed to a place in the audience where there’s a podium with a binder that has the Gaslight synopsis.  He’s privy to information that he’s one of us too.  It says there’s another character and he gives himself the role of detective.  He comes into the story and is in it for the remaining…being with us on stage as new narratives are proposed.  There are about five or six scripts that we’re sort of navigating through.  There are real time consequences for introducing those scripts and being inside of them and how it ultimately lands back in this central marriage.

How did the collaboration with Leslie come about?  Have you worked together before?

We’ve known each other for a while.  The thing that really drew us to each other is that she’s also interested in the immediacy of presence with the audience and having a real time experience.  She’s also interested in humor.  We’re a really good fit for each other.  She came in during Cinderbox 18.  I asked her to come in to give feedback to the process.  I liked her language and I was really excited by her point of view.  She had seen my work and I think she felt the same way.  She’s really drawn to physicality.  Her work is physical theater and she’s really drawn to dance and physical vocabulary as a way to move a story forward.  We started talking about doing something together a couple of years ago. We’re both really excited about this work.

Lucky Plush Productions’ The Better Half, Oct 27-29 & Nov 3, 5, 6

MCA Stage, 220 E. Chicago, 312.397.4010

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

CDF11 MCA Moves

Richard Move as Martha Graham. Photo by Josef Astor.

Foreshadowing the evening to come, the title of the Chicago Dancing Festival‘s second consecutive free night of dance, MCA Moves, proved to be right.  The night was Move’s.  Richard Move, Artistic Director of Moveopolis!, TEDGlobal 2011 Oxford Fellow and impersonator of the iconic Martha Graham, hosted the program as Graham.  With costume changes, quips and quotes, he offered insights littered with history into her persona by becoming – in spirit, cadence and mannerisms – Martha. Joined by two young dancers (Deborah Goodman and Sandra Kaufman), he/she led a class Graham technique mini-class (“contract, release, repose”) and later performed his solo Lamentation Variation, an homage to Graham’s version commissioned by her company in 2007.  Quite frankly, he stole the show. (Honestly, any show that starts with a dude in drag as emcee – I’m in!)

There were two shows this evening at 6pm and 8pm.  I attended the second showing.  Two pieces from Monday night’s opening gala performance were on the program – Shaker Interior from Snow on the Mesa (1995) by artist from Martha Graham Dance Company and Brian Brooks Moving Company‘s duet from MOTOR (2010).  One I liked more the second time around and the other less.  The precision athleticism of MOTOR that enthralled on Monday wasn’t there.  The men were out of sync and looked tired.  Perhaps, two shows back-to-back for this number was too much.  Shaker Interior, by contrast, seemed more subtle and fragile this time.  The female dancer (Xiaochuan Xie) performed the piece topless, which made more sense contextually than the white leotard she wore on Monday.  There is a moment when she is kneeling on the floor with the man (Tadej Brdnik) sitting on a bench next to her and she slowly lifts her hand up so the back of it lightly touches his back and he moves ever so slightly in acknowledgement…it’s breathtaking.

Lucky Plush Productions piece Habituation (2010) incorporated everyday gestures and humor to deliver a clever dance about how they make dances. Faye Driscoll‘s If you pretend you are drowning I’ll pretend I am saving you is an excerpt of a work-in-progess not…not (2011).  More performance art than technical dancing, she and Jesse Zaritt tackle the strange and sometimes awkward developments in a male/female relationship.  Using their breath as music and a triangle of hot pink duct tape (did anyone else think this was a sexual reference?) as the stage parameters, they flirted, climbed, humped, bumped and writhed through their quirky attempt at a sexual bond.  Sometimes funny, sometimes wtf?  I’m not sure about this one.  I’d like to see it again in the context of the entire work.

Leopold Group is dancing

Dancers Melissa Claire Block & Nicole Romano Uribarri in "une elephante". Photo by John W. Sisson Jr.

This weekend (Aug 26 – 28), the Leopold Group presents dancing, three days of dance with a different guest company performing at each show.  Artistic Director Lizzie Leopold takes the shared community one step further.  “By inviting guests to perform, you get a a cross-pollination of audiences,” she says.  The company will present two works, Lips of Their Fingers, a 25-minute piece for five women set to music from the Beastie Boys and une elephante, a 30-minute duet for two women to John Adams’ Johns Book of Alleged Dances.  Joining Leopold and her dancers this weekend are Theater Unspeakable Clowns (Fri), Winifred Haun and Dancers (Sat) and CCBdance Project (Sun).  Leopold is generous like that, constantly offering her ideas and knowledge and anxious to keep the conversation going.  With a BFA in dance from University of Michigan, a Masters in Performance Studies from New York University, and a Broadway show she produced her belt, she has a lot to say.  She’s smart, driven and still thirsty for more knowledge.  It’s refreshing.  This fall, Leopold heads back to school at Northwestern University to get a PhD in Interdisciplinary Theater and Drama Studies.  But first, her company has a show to put on.

I spoke with her just after the Dance/USA conference this summer and right after she left her gig at Audience Architects to prepare for the concert and school.

First, tell me about the Broadway musical experience.

My undergraduate degree is in dance, but my husband (he’s a musician in the rock band “I Fight Dragons”) and our best friend, they both studied musical theater.  We stared working on a show when we were in college.  We were going to put on a show in a barn.  Three years later, someone said to us, “You should put it on Broadway.”  We were 23, so we weren’t going to say no.  We probably should’ve said no.  We weren’t ready.  Someone gave us an opportunity and we ran with it.  The show had a pretty successful regional run in DC.  Some of our producers saw it and thought it was cheap and they could make money off of it.  We kind of got swept up in the glitz and glamour.  We were open for one night.  We had sixteen previews and a one-night run.  We are a trivia question.  (It was called) “Glory Days”.  We call it glory night.  It was wonderful and I learned more about the business of making art in that one day than I have learned in the other 27 years of my life.  It was a lesson in show making and money-making and how those things crash and burn and intersect.  I had always worked in modern dance, which is explicitly non-for-profit and the Broadway world is out to make a profit.  That’s not a secret.  It’s a different beast.  It was a spectacular night.

When and why did you decide to start a company?

I was in college.  I think it was one of those situations where somebody tells you that you’re good at something and you’re like, “oh yeah!”  I’ve never been a very technical dancer.  I work really hard, but I didn’t feel it was ever going to happen for me.  I love dance and I was doing lighting design and stage management and choreography.  I was trying to figure out how to stay in this world, because I wasn’t a good enough dancer.

So, you don’t dance in your company?

No.   I used to, but I think dancing and choreographing are both full-time pursuits and I couldn’t do both.  I made a dance and my professor said, “You’re really good.  This is what you do.”  And I thought, “ok this is what I do.” I finished college early and came back to Chicago and started the legalese of starting the company.  Then my classmates followed me, so I sort of had a ready-made group of dancers who wanted to be dancers.  Two of them are still here six years later.

What do you find the most difficult part of running a company?

In Chicago, and this is probably true of lots of cities, if you aren’t going to be a dancer for a company, people don’t treat you seriously as a choreographer.  I don’t have the street cred.  I have some now.  It’s been hard…you can be 21 and be a professional dancer and everyone thinks that’s alright, but you can’t be that age and be an artistic director.  That’s been hard to figure out how to navigate that divide and how to get myself involved in this community when I wasn’t ever going to dance for one of those companies.  I think I lived and made dances in Chicago (during the three years in between Michigan and going to NYC) pretty unsuccessfully.  I think it was important, but I think it was more insular than it should’ve been.  Since I moved back from New York, I’ve been braver.  I’ve learned that people are people.  I’m less afraid to ask them if I can have a seat at the table.

What did you learn at NYU that made that shift?

I learned that everyone’s point of view is important.  The companies that I looked up to in Chicago looked a certain way.  Like Hubbard Street, Luna Negra, Lucky Plush.  When I think about Hubbard Street, those dancers look a certain way – and I don’t look that way.  I had to learn that what I had to contribute to the conversation was just as important as those companies.  Scale is confusing.  Bigger is always better, or it looks that way.  Also, I learned that anyone who grows up and trains as a dancers spends a lot of time in a room filled with mirrors staring at themselves, which is a terrifying way to grow up.  I went to NYU, I didn’t study dance; I studied theory.  Most of the time they were talking about performance as a frame, not as a thing that happens.  Like to look at the guy on the street selling a newspaper as a performance.  Performance art was a big part of that.  So I got to take my blinders off and stop staring at myself in a mirror and I think that has helped me in a big way in both what I’m creating as a choreographer and how I view myself in this community.

What is an Interdisciplinary PhD in Theater and Drama Studies?

The way I’ve been explaining it is it’s kind of a “choose your own adventure” PhD.  There a very few dance-related PhD programs.  I knew when I went back for my Masters that I didn’t want an MFA because I wasn’t going to be a dancer.  To go back into the studio and take technique class wasn’t going to benefit me.  That’s not what I need.  I see a whole and I think I can fill it with research and writing.  My thesis…I can give you the stupid academic jargon version.  Something about the intersection of American Modern dance and the organizational structures, theoretically and historically…basically dance and business and how those things intersection, the growth of the non-profit and the journey from dance piece to product of a corporation.  That history.  It goes back to the whole Broadway dance thing and the intersection of dance and money.  Mostly because it makes me want to vomit.  It makes me super uncomfortable, but you can’t just do dance to do dance.  It’s not just this fantastically pure art form.  You have to make money to succeed.  You have to make choices that aren’t purely artistic.  I want to look at that.  I’m pretty sure I’m going to find that was never the case, but I need to know that.

Tell me about the upcoming show and une elephante.

Two dances, both new.  The full show is a dance show about dance.  It’s supposed to be redundant.  I’ve said that I want to make modern dance more accessible.  I know a lot of people have said that, but I’ve been saying it for a long time and had never really done anything about it.  This is the first blatant attempt to demystify modern dance in that the dances are about dance.  We’re using QR codes in our program to link to our extensive program notes, so giving people the option of watching the dance then reading about it or read about it, then watch the dance, or none of the above.  If you want all the answers, you can have them.   It’s not some oblique reference, it’s here are the questions I’m asking about dance.  The first piece is the duet.  We made it because we got a Dance Bridge residency at the Cultural Center.  It’s basically a free space.  You propose a piece to them and they give you free space and then you do a showing.  I told them that I wanted to try and draw parallels between dance and portraiture and the idea of duration.  One of the big things I dealt with at NYU was about how dance is ephemeral.  As soon as you dance, it’s gone.  Every time you do a step, it’s over.  There’s no way to stop it. We made this duet trying to figure out ways to slow down time.  The way you can sit and look at a painting for five minutes, how can you have that same experience with dance.  We started making task-based choreography.  I usually make up steps and people learn them and I put them together.  This was more like – spin in a circle for five minutes, we played games – it wasn’t based on a step, but on an idea, so I could watch it develop a little more.  What came out of it was this really strange, intense relationship.  The physical movements themselves had an emotional element that I would have never known if I hadn’t looked at it for two minutes straight.  The duration allowed me to think about what the actual step meant.  It’s a challenge, both for the dancers and for the audience.  It’s super easy to get bored and say “I get it” and move on.  Most of us that have seen dance are used to it moving quick.  I almost think it’s long enough that you can watch it, be bored, get unbored, go back to watching it.  We’ve been building pieces of it since March.  There’s a very clear relationship that came out that I had not intended.  One of the things that bothers me about dance is that it happens so quickly.  The reason people are confused or afraid of it is because you don’t have time to digest.  How do I tell you – here are the things you think you don’t know about dance, but you know them already.  You think there’s a secret.  If you’ve every done the YMCA, you’ve already accepted the fact that you can communicate with your body.  That’s all you need to get.  If you can do the YMCA, you get modern dance.  There is no secret.

Leopold Group dancing, August 26&27 @ 8pm, Aug 28 @ 5pm

The Drucker Center, 1535 N Dayton, Chicago

Tickets:  www.brownpapertickets.com, $20