Zephyr Dance is celebrating 20 years in the Chicago dance community with performances of In the Looking premiering at Epiphany Episcopal Church this weekend. 20 years! That’s quite an accomplishment, especially for someone that studied political science, not dance, at Notre Dame. Founder and Artistic Director Michelle Kranicke somehow had the vision and fortitude to make it work. What began as a group of pick-up dancers hiring themselves out, evolved into something much more intriguing. ”Slowly…people went in different directions,” says Kranicke over coffee. ”I guess I just was the person who was interested enough to continue. I was the lone woman standing.” Now, Zephyr has a core of four committed female dancers, with one eager apprentice, and long-standing working relationships with a lighting guru (Rich Norwood), costume designer (Amanda Francke) and musician/composer (Michael Caskey).
This weekend Zephyr will showcase two works. Kranicke’s The Trace of Her is Barely Visible dives into the abstract by asking challenging questions about movement and pushing spatial boundaries with the audience. Described as “a movement palimpsest”, the new work invites more than just visual senses to participate. Also on the program is Some Fabulous Dance, choreographed by Associate Director Emily Stein. Sprouting from her early work for soloists, Bonsai #2 and #4 (which are also on the evening’s roster), a new trio formed. Stein’s work — always pristine, but complex — utilizes her thoughtful approach and skillful teaching to enhance the improvisational process.
Known for continually pushing boundaries, Zephyr takes it one step further in this performance by changing the boundaries of the stage mid-show. One piece in the round, another alters to make the audience more interactive. Speaking of interactive, Zephyr, with Kranicke at the helm, has left a big mark with their educational programming which has been cultivated since 1994. A few of their accomplishments are: Dance is for EveryBODY (1996), artists in residence at Holstein Park since 1997, TAIL – Teaching Arts Integration Laboratory (2006), M2: Math in Motion (2009), along with various workshops, senior outreach and performing arts camps.
(*Full disclosure: Rogue Ballerina was a member of Zephyr for the ’99-’00 season.)
RB talks with Michelle Kranicke about the new concert and her thoughts on reaching the 20 year mark.
RB: So, 20 years — Congratulations! Did you ever think…?
MK: No, I never, ever thought…especially because when this whole thing came about, a bunch of us were dancing for somebody else and we decided to leave and start our own company. As Zephyr began, we actually hired ourselves out as a group of dancers who always perform together, so therefore we had a kind of…cohesive relationship and you weren’t hiring just a bunch of pick up dancers who had never worked together before and had to create the cohesion in a short period of time. But every time we finished a show, the choreography wasn’t ours to recreate. Then we began hiring choreographers and as I became more interested in creating dances, I guess I just was the person who was interested enough to continue and slowly as people went in different directions, I was the lone man standing – the lone woman standing. Then when Emily came into the company and after she had been in the company for several years and I decided to ask her to be Associate Director…it sort of just took off from there. You know, it’s definitely been up and down. We’ve had years when we’ve had much more touring, more funding, more education work and years where things have been lean. We’re in a lean period now.
RB: Everyone is in a lean period right now.
MK: The thing I really like about the company now is I feel really, really comfortable with my own aesthetic and my own investigations into dance making. The research process to create a work has gotten a lot longer, but again, I feel comfortable with that. And I have, right now, a group of dancers – one that’s been with the company for six years, one that’s been with the company for five years – we’ve formed a core of four main members. They’re really committed, as well, to this process. It’s been really great to have them there, to have them to build on from piece to piece to piece to piece. So that makes what I feel a really deep complex relationship that is actually visible in the end product. I have to say that’s sort of what keeps me going – the commitment of the people I work with.
RB: Where do you find inspiration for a piece?
MK: My thoughts and ideas about creating work are moving into much more abstract realms. I used to use a narrative as a jumping off point, but I’ve sort of completely abandoned that. I really want to be as abstract as possible from my beginning point. Right now I’m inspired by really abstract questions about movement. Can you erase movement? What does that mean? My inspiration comes from basically thinking about movement and what can happen to it if I place a specific group of rules or set of ideas on that movement. Can it be erased? What does it mean to dissolve? Where’s the negative space? How can you create tension? Those are the things I find really challenging in rehearsal.
RB: Did you have the music in mind ahead of time – or did you start working with movement?
MK: I just started working with movement. For a few years now, I haven’t started with music. Music will often present itself midway through. The last section of htis piece began with music, then I pulled it out for the past three or four months and I’ve just recently come back to adding music to it.
RB: Is it the same music you started with?
MK: Actually, it is the same music I started with, so I’m surprised about that because usually that doesn’t happen. For this particular piece there are three compositions and some original music by Michael Caskey, who I worked with on Just Left of Remote, so I’ve been working with Michael for a the past couple of years.
RB: How did you come up with the title?
MK: It kind of goes back to the palimpsest idea. Part of this whole erasing thing came about when I’d seen the Brice Marden show. He’s a visual artist. One of the things I really like about some of his works was that you could see small, little traces of color beneath this canvas that had been washed over with another color. The depth of the canvas came not from the color palette that was on top, but more from what was underneath…the layers that were almost imperceptible, but then lent a definite weight to the work. The improvisations that we were doing…exploring ideas of erasing movement, leaving traces behind…there is always some residue left from those exercises. It’s like you can’t shed it.
RB: It does stay with you and enhances the work.
MK: That’s the thing about dance. It’s so elusive. You’re there, you watch it, it exists in your memory. Whether you’ve gone to see something familiar with 2,000 other people or you go to see something unfamiliar and there’s only ten other people in the room, your connection to those ten other people is the memory of that work and the experience you had together watching the work.
RB: Why Epiphany Church?
MK: It’s such a great space. It’s fantastic. For this piece in particular, it was a conscious choice because of the spatial quality that it allows. The majestic feel of the room, the height of the ceiling, the stained-glass windows…Meigan Cameron is the priest there. She is an incredible supporter of dance. I can’t say enough about her.
RB: The title of the performance, In the Looking, where did that come from?
MK: That was specifically chosen because we, Emily and I, are hoping that the way we’ve set up the spaces and the choreography that we present engages people to really look. I looked up the definition of “look”. It’s different from “see”. To see is…is just going through life and seeing what’s around you, but looking is an intentional act. We really want people to take in what they find compelling and not worry about what they don’t find compelling. That’s what we’re asking the viewers that come see this concert to do…to intentionally look, watch, find those places where you are just completely drawn in and be comfortable with that, stick with that if it is to the exclusion of other things within the performance. I think that’s ok. You’re asking the audience to be courageous to allow themselves to be confused or to feel uncomfortable…and love it or hate it.
RB: Why Zephyr?
MK: I was young! Because I thought it was pretty. (Laughing) I also like the dual meaning. I like that it meant strong wind, but also the fact that poetically it could also mean a light, blowing breeze…these opposite ideas coming together to create something different, something new from both directions.
RB: What are some highlights from the last 20 years?
MK: Performing twice at The Dance Center (Columbia College), getting our great review in The New York Times, working with Emily…and having the privilege to work with all fo the dancers that have come through the company.
Zephyr Dance, In the Looking
Epiphany Episcopal Church, 201 S Ashland
June 24 – 26, Tickets $20 (adults), $15 (students & seniors)
For more information: 773.489.5069, www.zephyrdance.com