Monday night I stopped by the Ruth Page studios to peek in on the end of an adult jazz class. A group of women were dancing a short combination to a slow GLEE version of Florence + the Machine’s Shake It Out. Leading the combo was River North Dance Chicago (RNDC) dancer Ethan Kirschbaum, 25, who was sub teaching for a friend. Even though he was marking while demonstrating, emotion and easy enthusiasm oozed out of his body. You could feel how much he loves to dance.
Kirschbaum grew up in Oakland, California and began studying dance on a bet from his babysitter. He and his brother had to take a class and if they didn’t like it, she would buy them a Slurpee. “We went and pretended we hated it to get our free Slurpee,” he said. “But a week later, we were taking classes. We started out in jazz together and slowly started adding classes until I was basically living at the studio. My brother broke off into more hip hop and I went more classical.” His training took him to the San Francisco Ballet School and summer programs with Alonzo King LINES Ballet and the Juilliard School. He was also a performing apprentice with Reginald Ray-Savage’s Savage Jazz Dance Company.
He attended college at the Ailey School/Fordham University in New York where he had the chance to perform with the Ailey company in his sophomore year, travel to the Holland Dance Festival and perform a work by Spanish choreographer Nacho Duato. “I got a lot of great opportunities in school, but I felt like I wanted to get closer to contemporary work,” he said. “The summer of 2007, I was doing my first paid gig with the Santa Fe Opera and I had this epiphany. I should dance with Hubbard Street 2!” He auditioned, got the job and moved to Chicago with college friend Jacqueline Burnett, also joining HS2 (now in Hubbard Street’s main company) in January 2008. After two and a half years, director Taryn Kaschock Russell suggested he audition for Marguerite Donlon’s company while they were touring in Germany. He did and, shockingly (snark), he got in and moved to Germany in 2010. “It was probably the hardest thing I’ve done to date,” he said. “I’d never lived alone. I’d never lived in another country. I had a boyfriend in Chicago at the time. My heart was here, but my career was there. My friends were here, but my future was there. It was rough, but it brought me a lot of self-awareness.”
Back in Chicago after a season with Donlon Dance Company, he auditioned around town and found a home at RNDC. He’s now concluding his second season. “I think I was intrigued by going back to my jazz roots,” Kirschbaum said. “I think River North has a good balance and a good rep. There was something familial about it. After being in a foreign country for a year, where I felt like I didn’t belong, I wanted to be somewhere that felt like home. It’s been a good fit so far. I love the people I work with. We just have fun every day. We laugh at each other. That’s one thing I’ve really learned. It’s not so much the job, but the people you work with. The day-to-day, in-the-studio is your life as a dancer. It’s not the two minutes on stage; it’s the hours in the studio.”
This weekend, Kirschbaum and his RNDC family perform at the Auditorium Theatre as part of the Music + Movement Festival with the world premiere of Havana Blue, a collaboration with Orbert Davis’ Chicago Jazz Philharmonic (CJP). Davis and RNDC artistic director Frank Chaves traveled to Havana together for a nine days of research, immersing themselves in Cuban music and culture. Also on the program for the one-night-only show are three pieces by CJP and Chaves’ Eva, which premiered earlier this month at the Annenburg Center for the Performing Arts in Philadelphia, coincidentally the same theater where he first auditioned for HS2 (“full circle moment!”). Kirschbaum said of the new work, “It’s very musical, very emotional, very expressive…quintessential Frank. It’s always amazing to have live music on stage next to you. There’s energy. You can make eye contact. You can play off of each other. It’s something special.”
Saturday’s performance is the last of the season for RNDC. Kirschbaum will spend the hiatus teaching – take his 11:30 am intermediate modern class at Conte’s on Saturdays! – before returning to rehearsals in July to start his third season. Eventually he may want to explore other contemporary avenues, but for now, he’s happy where he is. “I love my life,” he said. “Right now, I’m very content with where I’m at. I love my home environment. I love to connect with the community. I love the fluidity of the relationships and how quickly you can all become friends.”
River North Dance Chicago & Orbert Davis’ Chicago Jazz Philharmonic premiere Havana Blue at the Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress Pkwy., Saturday, April 13 at 8 pm. Tickets are $32-$76; call 800.982.2787 or visit auditoriumtheatre.org/musicandmovement.