Concert Dance Inc (CDI) is celebrating its 30th anniversary season. Lead by the indefatigable Venetia Stifler – Founder of CDI, Artistic and Executive Director of The Ruth Page Foundation, Coordinator of Dance at Northeastern Illinois University, Emmy-nominated choreographer, teacher, dancer and closet singer – CDI pulls together a group of collaborating artists to create a one-of-a-kind dance experience. It is their choreographic process that makes them unique and perhaps why they have lasted for 30 years. This weekend’s performance will feature three CDI works: Controlled Chaos – a world premiere about CDI’s process, The Rope – a commissioned work about the labor movement and the history of Pennsylvania coal miners, and Meetings Along The Edge – exploring what happens when you bump up against another culture.
RB sat down with Ms. Stifler over lunch in Edgewater to talk about her career and what it means for CDI to be hitting 30.
RB: 30 years is pretty huge for a choreographer and for the company. Tell me about your background and how you got started.
VS: My grandparents were opera singers. When I was born, apparently I destroyed my playpen because I was jumping around, leaping and hopping, so my grandfather decided I would be the dancer in the family. When I was old enough he found a conservatory for me. It was at 218 S. Wabash. My grandfather would take me there for my lessons. He died suddenly when I was about 12 or 13. We weren’t really in the position to pay for ballet classes at the time. I woke up on the next Saturday and said, “I have to go to class”. I got on the bus with no money and told the bus driver that I had to go to my class. I went to class and said, “I don’t have any money”, so they gave me a scholarship. They were so kind to me. That’s how I got started.
RB: How/why did you start the company?
VS: I went to the University of Illinois here in Chicago, majored in theater, still took dance and worked. I would go to NY and study with Merce Cunningham and go to the Limon studio. I made some friends there. I was part of a group that was dancing and performing, so I’d bring people back from New York to come train with us. Why I thought I needed to start a company at twenty-something…That was ridiculous, but it’s what you did. I knew that I wanted to keep working, I wanted to keep learning, so I got a space, got some dancers together and we started working. The company started as a repertory company. It went on like that for a long time. We were pretty successful.
RB: Was it always called CDI?
VS: Early on it was Movement Afoot. I forget why we changed it.
RB: When did you switch from studying ballet to modern?
VS: Right after college. It was a really hard transition. That whole concept of codified movement as opposed to the creative uncodified movement physically came hard. Intellectually, I think I got it right away. I was interested in it, but that transfer from the codified elegance of ballet and the correct position and the right form to do to the mindset of all movement is good, you just have to find the appropriate movement to use in the piece…that appealed to me. The body didn’t come along quite so easily. Now I’m very happy that I had both lives. When I teach at Northeastern or Ruth Page or wherever I’m teaching, I run across both types of students. I understand where they’re coming from and I can help them.
RB: Tell me about CDI and the upcoming concert.
VS: We’ve evolved from a repertory company to a group of people who are a collaborative all looking for that special moment, that interesting moment, the moment of reality, the moment of uniqueness, the moment of something where you go “that’s different, I would have never thought of doing that”. That’s really in a nutshell, I think, where the company has evolved to. A lot of our work is commissioned. My theory is you can dance about anything, you just have to handle it. I never counted on coal miners being my topic (The Rope). As it turned out, it was a challenge, but had a great following. The folks up in mining country love it and we’re going to do it in our concert. It’s a narrative. It’s got live music. It’s a highly emotional piece. We call on a lot of physical, textural relationships with one another to make it work. That’s one style we work in. The other is a piece that we made right after we had a big shift in the company. We were kind of starting over and getting new focus. It’s called Meetings Along the Edge. (Video excerpt on CDI site). It’s quite the opposite. It’s not narrative – it’s highly kinetic, fast, difficult. It came out of improvisational work that we all did together. The last piece is vaguely about our process. It is the most improvisational that we’ve ever been. It really all comes out of exploration. We decided we wanted to explore “what is this process?” I think it’s refreshing. The three dances are so different, but we like to go everywhere. Because it’s collaborative, because we don’t have outside choreographers We’re all choreographers. I’m kind of editor-in-chief. I work with some really talented, creative people.
RB: How did you decide you wanted to do a piece about the process?
VS: Because it was the 30th year, I thought we shouldn’t do a commissioned work. We ought to do something that’s just us. So we just got up and starting working with no pre-conceived notions. When interesting things happened, we’d stop. We just wanted to explore who we are and what do we do and what could each dancer bring to the mix. We don’t have auditions, because the personality mix is as important as the artistic mix. There’s no 5, 6, 7, 8’s here. Ours is an ever-evolving work. We present finished pieces, but they are only finished for that concert. I love that! A whole examination happens all over again. It’s very exciting to me. It keeps the piece alive and fresh and new and it keeps the dancers interested and involved. If things really get rough, then I’m editor-in-chief. I like that they’re all teachers and choreographers in their own right. They have their own point of view. I like the uniqueness of it. I don’t ask everybody to look the same. I like that they all look different. The way that we get there is different. I’m committed to that right now. I think it gets us to a unique place. We really work on things that we hope communicate. We’re not dancing for ourselves, we really want to communicate to the audience, while maintaining this creative, intellectual approach.
RB: What are some of your career highlights, favorite works?
VS: Getting your name in the New York Times isn’t a bad thing. Having (dance critic) Jennifer Dunning call you a “magnetic presence” ain’t bad. The MacArthur Foundation’s International Connections Fund and being picked to go to China. The first time we performed at Ravinia. What pieces? German Songs, Dvorak Suite, Meetings Along the Edge and oh, Billy Sunday and being nominated for an Emmy! I think just being able to do it. Only someone young and stupid would start a company in their 20s.
RB: I have a number of friends that started companies in their 20s that are still going strong. That’s partially because of you.
VS: Well, I hope so. I would say to everyone that’s doing it, if you can stand it, keep doing it. I know more now because I kept going. The opportunity to learn, to absorb new ideas, to be sensitive to what the body can say grows with every year. There is a little bit of reinventing the wheel, but if you do it long enough, you can tell what came before and you can produce things that are interesting or at least attempt to do things that are mature and interesting and can be part of the artistic conversation.
Controlled Chaos – April 1 & 2 @ 8 pm
Northeastern Illinois University Auditorium
Fine Arts Bldg FA – 158 (3701 W Bryn Mawr)
Tickets: 773.442.4636 or www.boxoffice.neiu.edu