Category Archives: River North Dance Chicago

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

Q&A with Luna Negra’s Veronica Guadalupe

Guadalupe in "Danzon". Photo by Cheryl Mann.

Saturday marks the first performance of her 10th season with Luna Negra and Veronica Guadalupe is ready. After two major injuries during her career, she’s at the top of her game and excited about the upcoming performance ¡Mujeres! at the Harris Theater. The program celebrates Latina women with three pieces: a restaging of a work Paloma Querida, inspired by Mexican painter Frida Kahlo; a premiere about the first pre-modern queen of Spain;  and another premiere inspired by a photo by Mexican photographer Graciela Iturbide.

Guadalupe has been dancing since she was 2 1/2 years old and studied at the Virginia School for the Arts, danced in the second company with Giordano Jazz Dance Chicago and was an apprentice with River North Dance Chicago before joining Luna Negra in 2002.  She’s now also co-rehearsal director, was one of the dancers to stay with the company after founder Eduardo Vilaro left in 2009 to run Ballet Hispanico in New York and current Artistic Director Gustavo Ramírez Sansano took over. I spoke with her two weeks ago about the transition, the company and her career.

How did you end up at Luna Negra?

I apprenticed with River North for a year and I sustained a really terrible injury when I was there.  I fractured my tibia almost all of the way through and I have a titanium rod in there now.  They think that I probably had a stress fracture that I danced on for at least three months.  I was out for six months.  After that, my leg was a noodle.  I’d been on crutches for 12 weeks and in a cast for another 10 weeks…it was terrible.  I was barely taking barre again when my friend wanted us to go and audition for Luna Negra.  Are you kidding me?  When we got to rep, luckily, everything was on the other leg!  He (Vilaro) offered me a contract and I had to tell him I hadn’t danced in six months, but he was willing to give me a try. That was July 2002.

Tell me about the transition.  When Eduardo left, you were one of the only people who stayed…

I’d left for a brief period of time, while the transition was happening.  When Eduardo announced he was leaving, almost immediately Michelle Manzanales and another board member contacted me and wanted me to come back. I did a fall season as a guest artist and I was part of the search for the new Artistic Director.  I was the only one to have worked with all of the candidates.  I could tell the dancers what it was like to work with them and tell the board and search committee what my experiences had been with these people.  I told them flat out there was only one person I would come back for. Gustavo choreographed on us in 2002 and he worked with us two other times.  I said, he’s the only person who can take the company to the next place.  He was my choice.  I told the board that this is what the company needs.  It worked out perfectly.

The company looks completely different now.  How was the transition?

The transition was really smooth, because we did have a change over with dancers too, so we had a lot of new people starting over.  I think that was really important.  When we signed him, he couldn’t come here for a few months and I think a lot of dancers were thinking selfishly about what they would do in the meantime, instead of what would be good for the company as a whole.  I think it was important to have a group of dancers that could begin new with this new era. 

How do you like the difference in style of dancing?

I love it.  I think it’s fresh and new and exciting.  I think it’s shaking up the Chicago dance community. It’s something they haven’t seen before and no one else is doing it.  It’s incredible.

Let’s talk about your dancing.  Are you in all three pieces in !Mujeres!?

Yes.  I’m resetting “Paloma Querida”.  Michelle (Manzanales) came in for a weekend and worked with us.  She made a lot of changes.  It’s almost like a new piece now.  The heart of it is still there, but she did a lot of structural changes that I think made a big difference.  She was very respectful that these weren’t the same group of dancers that I worked with before and let’s utilize what we have now.  She made some really great changes. 

Tell me about the two world premieres.

“Juana” – oh, I’m Juana! – she was the first queen of modern Spain.  Her story is she fell in love with this guy Phillipe.  They called her Juana Loca and he was Phillipe Hermosa.  Phillip the beautiful and Juana the crazy.  She was crazy in love with him and he cheated on her left and right.  When he died, she went totally crazy and was obsessed with him even though he was dead.  It drove her mad.  Her family left her.  The country wouldn’t entrust her with the power of being queen, so they locked her in a tower to die.

Do you get a crazy Spanish Giselle mad scene?

Kind of. It’s a hard balance.  At first, I was focusing more on the emotional and dramatic aspect of it and then she (Asul Noales) threw a whole bunch of dance in.  I don’t leave the stage for 21 minutes.  It’s intense.

(Gustavo’s piece) “Not Everything” is inspired by a female photographer.  It’s just so beautiful.  The music…it a very intense piece musically.  There’s a really soft beginning with just Mónica (Cervantes) and Renée (Adams) that lays the groundwork from the picture.  The group section is…it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life.  It’s so fast.  We were watching rehearsal footage the other day and someone said it looked like it was in fast forward.  It feels like it’s in fast forward!  This is the test, the challenge…he’s throwing the hardest thing at us right now, because we have to get it.  We’re performing it in a couple of weeks.  The third section is the most beautiful music and it totally changes directions. 

Luna Negra – ¡Mujeres!, Saturday, October 1, 2011 @ 630pm

Harris Theater, 205 E Randolph, 312.334.7777

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!

CDF11 Moderns Program

Aspen Santa Fe Ballet in "Uneven". Photo by Rosalie O'Connor.

Tonight was the Chicago Dancing Festival‘s (CDF) Moderns program at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance.  The packed house was ready for a great show and CDF didn’t disappoint.  Opening with Aspen Santa Fe Ballets commissioned work by Spanish choreographer Cayetano Soto Uneven (2010) set the bar high.  There was nothing uneven about it.  The local audience (and Hubbard St fans) might have noticed some hints of Nacho Duato, Ohad Naharin and Jirí Kylían in this work, as Soto performed some of their works as a dancer.  It obviously had a very contemporary European flavor and the ASFB dancers were on top of their game tonight (although it looked like the floor was slippery) as cellist Kimberly Patterson played live on stage.

River North Dance Chicago followed up with Charles Moulton’s Nine Person Precision Ball Passing (1980).   I sat in on rehearsals last week after the company spent two days learning it.  This speedy coordination game drew giggles and then awe as the dancers kept the balls in sequence for the seven-minute duration.  The  program notes call it “community art in the form of a living Rubik’s Cube” and that mistakes are inevitable.  Leave it to the perfectionists at Rivno to not make a mistake.   Doug Varone and Dancers finished up the first act with Varone’s Lux (2006).  I really enjoyed this piece.  I hadn’t seen Varone’s work or company before and wasn’t sure what to expect.  When the announcer said it was set to the music of Philip Glass, the two ladies next to me said, “oh”.  I’m not sure if it was meant to be good or bad, but it turned out (for me) to be good.  The dancers’ movement quality was luscious and it just looked like it would be fun to dance.  With a slowly rising moon on the back drop center stage, it was like a midnight frolic in the moonlight.

Adam Barruch in "Worst Pies in London". Photo by Christopher Duggan.

Adam Barruch‘s solo Worst Pies in London (2008) opened the second act.  Set to music of the same name from Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, this was really duet between Barruch and Angela Lansbury singing the vocals on track.  Short, sweet and funny, Barruch looked like a young Jim Carrey with rubbery facial expressions and the flexible body to match.  Closing the show was Hubbard Street Dance Chicago (HSDC) performing Sharon Eyal’s Too Beaucoup (2011).  This was one of my favorite works from their last season.  Androgynously clad in flesh-toned body suits with white make up, wigs and contacts, the dancers look like a group of aliens that stumbled upon a mixed cd from earth and decided to have a dance party.  Weird, kooky, cool.   A fun, entertaining evening.  The appreciative audience agreed.

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 🙂

CDF Sneak Peek 2

RNDC dancer Cassandra Porter. Photography by Sandro.

Today I sat in on a rehearsal with River North Dance Chicago (RNDC) to watch them prep for the Chicago Dancing Festival next week.  RNDC  will be performing Charles Moulton‘s Nine Person Precision Ball Passing for the Moderns program at the Harris Theater on Aug 23rd and the Celebration of Dance performance at Pritzker Pavilion on Aug 27th.  Moulton has been working with the dancers since Monday to set his 1980 postmodern piece for nine dancers (the original was for just three dancers and premiered in 1979).  One would think the title says it all, but there is more going here on than just precise handling of spheres.

When you think of postmodern dance, RNDC is not the first company that comes to mind.  Known more for their fast, athletic, emotive style, this “departure” is an interesting switch in process and a welcome challenge.  The dancers are on risers with three on each level – the bottom sitting, while the top two stand.  They do not deviate from these spots for the entire seven-minute piece.  What does happen is an ingenious exercise in brain power, counting, intricate patterns and hand-eye coordination.  Oh yeah, and there are balls passed.  Fast, slow, up, down, over, under, and in patterns with names like “waterfall” and “jaws”.  It is like a crazy puzzle come to life.

Understandably, the dancers are still trying to get the movement patterns into their bodies, while staying relaxed and focused.  “Keep the playfulness from the beginning,” Moulton instructs.  “The playfulness allows us to see the humanness.”  That humanness is the essential ingredient in the work.  What does one do when faced with an impossible task?  It is the reaction to that challenge that is the core of it.  “Mistakes are part of it, but it’s how you react,” he says.  “It speaks to the absurdity of systems and the human tendency to obsess, to perfect.”

I was thrown off when Mariah Carey’s cover of I Still Believe came on for the first run.  What?  This was just for a slower tempo to get the flow going at a friendlier pace.  Eventually, they upped the speed a bit to Barry White’s Never Gonna Give You Up with mixed (and sometimes funny) results.  The actual score by A. Leroy is faster and follows the choreography exactly.  “Speed is in your mind,” Moulton says.  “If you can do it slow, you can do it fast.”  This social experiment using movement (“We haven’t defined it yet.  Is it a dance, a game, a metaphor?”) has been reproduced over the years with ballet companies, children and non dancers.  I find it interesting to see how it evolves when performed by talented, technically trained dancers that weren’t even born when this project started.

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.