This Saturday, April 16th, River North Dance Chicago (RNDC) hits the stage of The Auditorium Theatre for the very first time to join the city-wide celebration of what would be the 85th birthday year of legendary jazz musician Miles Davis. This is also the Auditorium’s first commissioned work, and considering some of RNDC’s audience may have never heard Miles Davis, makes it a night of firsts. “It’s huge really,” says RNDC Artistic Director Frank Chavez. “I’ve performed at the Auditorium. It’s one of my favorite theaters in the city. From the audience, it’s just gorgeous and from the viewpoint of being on stage, it’s pretty outstanding. I was terribly excited to think of the company, our dancers, our rep on that stge and them getting to experience that.”
When approached by Brett Batterson, Executive Director of The Auditorium Theatre, about this special collaboration, Chavez was exited, but also a little daunted. Although a former musician himself (sax), he wasn’t very familiar with Davis’ music. “I never owned one of his albums growing up or throughout my musical career,” he says. “I quickly got immersed in Miles Davis. It took me about six months to just plow through so much of his library of music.” Over time, he found music for the 20-plus minute piece – Simply Miles, Simply Us – making its world premiere this weekend at the one-night-only show. Along with the Miles tribute suite, the program features a “best of” mix of six other RNDC audience favorites. Former RNDC Artistic Director Sherry Zunker’s Evolution of a Dream, Ashley Roland’s Beat (performed by Christian Denice – yes!) and Robert Battle’s Train are joined by three other works by Chavez – At Last, Sentir em Nós and Habaneras (which has become the company’s signature piece).
RB talked with Chavez after the company’s recent Midwest tour. Here is an excerpt of our conversation.
RB: Tell me about getting to know Miles as a musician.
FC: It was a process. He has such a vast library and I must say my ears were bleeding for a little while. I just listened to so much music! Jazz can be difficult and Miles is such a purist. For the general public, if they don’t have an appreciation or a trained ear, it can be difficult to listen to. It can often times sound all the same. When you’re listening to hundreds of songs…it just gets overwhelming. I certainly wanted to represent him as best I could in different facets of his music throughout his career. At the same time, I strongly needed something that I could listen to that would make me see dance. I narrowed it down to about 20 pieces and from there I really jumped into a whole new stratosphere of listening.
RB: How long did that music selection take?
FC: It was about an eight month to almost a year process of really listening to the music and getting acquainted with Mile and reading about him. Once I started putting movement to music, I was a complete convert. It’s not that I didn’t realize or notice before, but once I really was able to get into the music and really listen, then you really understand and realize the mastery that is Miles Davis. He and his fellow musicians…what they were able to do with the instruments, the inflections and how they would literally speak with these horns is just amazing.
RB: How did the dancers take to the music? I assume it is pretty difficult to count.
FC: Yes, it is. Some found it more difficult than others. Id’ say, listen to the base. The base will always follow the rhythm. So we had to find some different ways to count and what to count. Dancers are so musical. The movement becomes the music and the music becomes the movement. It just gets integrated. I think they’ve responded very well. Maybe we are going to introduce Miles Davis to a lot of people that never thought of him, so a whole new generation is getting to experience Miles Davis, including my dancers.
RB: Christian Denice and Ricky Ruiz served as Assistant Choreographers for the new Miles piece. How did that work?
FC: This (project) came about before I knew I was going to need some spinal surgery, which happened in July. I ended up pushing back my creative time to Decembers. I had a lot of issues and problems and my functionality was really compromised. This was quite a daunting task…and I was feeling somewhat overwhelmed in terms of being able to pull this off by myself. I’ve never used assistants in my life! They’ve been with the company for a while and they’ve both done a lot of choreography, not necessarily at the professional level, but I very much like their material. I thought it would be really great to bring them in and use them as much as I needed to, depending on what I could do and what I couldn’t do. There are parts where they choreographed on their own and parts where I would teach them stuff or we would work the material and I would have them be my body, so to speak. The dancers were terrific. They were very patient and understanding. It was difficult. This was the first time where I had to create something without being able to move…having to verbally describe everything, instead of even minimally being able to demonstrate it. It turned out to be great. I think the piece turned out much better by me doing that. It’s what it needed. I couldn’t be happier about making that decision.
River North Dance Chicago premieres at The Auditorium Theatre
Saturday, April 16 at 8 pm
Tickets: 800.982.2787 or ticketmaster.com/auditorium