and in with the new. Dances, that is. Thodos Dance Chicago presents New Dances 2010 this weekend at The Dance Center at Columbia College. Now in its 10th year, New Dances is celebrating a century of dance creation with nine world premieres — eight from TDC company members and one from a guest artist collaboration. The New Dances concept isn’t new, in fact it was re-introduced by Artistic Director Melissa Thodos in the organization’s eighth year from a program she participated in at her very first professional dance gig. Now that program is one of her favorite parts of the job — giving her dancers the chance to choreograph and present their own work. “To see how the artists grow,” Thodos says, “that is what’s rewarding for me. That we’ve been able to provide a platform for them to grow. It’s that simple.”
RB caught up with Thodos while dancers rehearsed ensemble member Jessica Miller Tomlinson’s new work Big Technique at their studios in the Drucker Center.
RogueBallerina: Ten years…congratulations! Tell me about New Dances. How did it start?
Melissa Thodos: The seed of it was part of my history in dance here in Chicago. After graduating from college, I went around for a year auditions at different places and ended up landing a job back here. I’m actually from Evanston originally, so it worked out great. And that particular company, which is no longer around, the Chicago Repertory Dance Ensemble, had a neat structure to it. That structure related to the idea of activating each of the artists as educators and choreographers in addition to dancers. I went in very passionate about performing and touring and we did all of those things a lot, then got much more involved in teaching, which is something you don’t necessarily do so much in college.
RB: It’s a different skill set.
MT: Completely. However, I noticed when I began teaching that I became a much more thoughtful dancer, because it forced me to articulate and think about what was important and transferring information and how to do that. What really inspired me was the opportunity to choreograph. New Dances is the title of the choreographic component that I’m so excited about and that’s entering its 10-year anniversary with this organization. When the company was eight years old, I was able to have enough infrastructure formed to launch this project. The title actually came from Chicago Repertory Dance Ensemble. I had called the co-Artistic Directors of the company since its folding and asked for permission to use the name. They were delighted that there was interest in continuing the mission and the idea of that component of their organization. I really wanted to implant it and grow it.
RB: It’s a fantastic idea.
MT: What’s neat about it is that we’ve really taken what it was in that organization and we’ve really evolved it. It really feels like each of these artists really run their own company for three months. They are completely in charge of structuring the rehearsals and hiring the dancers. We supply them with all of the resources they need to do that. It’s also a nationally unique project for the company.
RB: Are all of the dancers from your company, or do they audition other dancers for the show?
MT: We structure an audition for the project. The dancers can hire anyone they want from the community. We have an immense amount of community involvement in it.
RB: You also have guest choreographers. Is this the first time?
MT: We’ve always had a guest choreographer. It’s a specific spot that is set aside for a Chicago-based choreographer for them to develop and evolve their work. This year we have a collaborative team. Because they’re Chicago-based I kind of have my ear to the ground about who’s out there and what they’re up to. Stephanie Martinez (Bennitt) I’ve known for a very long time from her work with River North. She’s partnered with Francisco Avina, who had an amazing career with Hubbard Street and then did Celine Dion’s show. The dancers have loved it. They loved working with both of them. It creates a nice fresh environment for them to work. I love bringing people in from the outside.
RB: Tell me about the panel and the mentoring process.
MT: Every year we look for artists in the community who have varied perspectives on process and development. I will choose independent artists who have done a lot of different things. (This year’s panel includes Jeff Hancock, Same Planet Different World, founding member of River North Dance Chicago, independent choreographer, Glenn Edgerton, Artistic Director of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, Michael Anderson, former dancer at Joffrey Ballet and independent choreographer, and Anna Sapozhnikov, founder and Artistic Director of MOYAMO Dance.) I always try to get an Artistic Director and others from the community that have their own thoughts on process. It’s the process of it. We have a very specific time together before we begin with the artists talking about how to…not how to give feedback in terms of teaching it, but to talk about the environment we create because the feedback that we really look to give to the artists is one that is very neutral. Really talking about what it is we see. It’s like a mirror.
RB: So, they meet a few times throughout the process to give advice or answer questions?
MT: All of the above. We set a whole day aside two times within the process and it’s a very strategic time..about one month into the process, then at about two months in. Following that, each of the choreographers and their dancers come in and are given a 30 minute slot to show their work and to sit and to just talk. What’s really neat about the project, the artists come out at the end of each of the performances and talk to the audience about their work and answer questions and receive impressions from the audience — a post-performance curtain talk. It’s such and important component to it all. I really believe as an artist you have a responsibility to be able to articulate and talk about your work.
RB: Every piece has an underwriter. Do the artists have to find a sponsor, or does the board find sponsors? How does that work?
MT: We have a very structured sponsorship campaign…a honed group of New Dance fans in our system. We work in development very strategically, so…no, the dancers aren’t required to do that. However, they are required to organize and to execute fundraising activities for the project. This year, because we are the teaching company here, we have a school of over 100 kids and we have a recital every year. So this year we had a deal with A New Leaf and sold flowers at the recital. Any profit would go to New Dances. The dancers also organized a collaborative sneak peak event at the Serbian Cultural Center. We have a regular accompanist with Thodos Dance Chicago that plays for our modern classes, who is in a band called District 97, so they shared a performance experience. At the end the dancers organized themselves to do some sneak peaks and talk about their works. Then the band played afterward.
The dancers also organized an art auction, a silent auction (to be held in the gallery space at The Dance Center during the performances). We got donations of art from various artists in the community. They will be displayed for people to bid on. And finally, we came up with a really neat fundraising initiative called The Box Project. Each dancer received a nominal budget of like $25 to create a box…a very creative box which audience members can put money in. So each dancer will have their own box and in order to vote for your favorite artist, you have to vote with your money. Put in your bus change, put in a check…we’ll take anything. To be part of this project, it is required that you participate in fundraising activities. That dimension is really important because the artists learn about that facet of the industry and it makes them that much more independent.
RB: Do you enjoy having a show where you don’t have to choreograph?
MT: Yes and no. It gives me a break and allows me to focus on other components of the organization where I need to be.
RB: Less stress?
MT: I don’t know if it’s less stress. It’s different work. Actually, I’m so happy in the studio. That’s where I get jazzed is in the studio teaching and choreographing.
New Dances 2010, July 16, 17 & 18
The Dance Center of Columbia College
Ticket information: 312.369.8330, www.colum.edu/dancecenter