P/Review: River North’s Autumn Passions

River North dancers in Frank Chaves' "Eva". Photo by Cheryl Mann.

This weekend River North Dance Chicago (RNDC) takes the stage of the Harris Theater with their Autumn Passions program. RNDC opened the 2013-2014 season with a shortened gala program on Thursday, Nov. 14 featuring two world premieres, a company premiere and the Harris debut of a 2013 work by Artistic Director Frank Chaves and will perform a full program Saturday and Sunday, Nov. 16-17.

Thursday’s gala performance began with Chaves’ Eva, a suite of dances to jazzed up songs sung by Eva Cassidy. Gorgeous vocal mixed with Chaves’ talent for partnering and duets. Three couples swirled to Cassidy’s rendition of Sting’s Fields of Gold (one of my favorite songs) and although timing was off, it offered  a perfect opening for the evening. A hot, hot, hot quintessentially RNDC, Vent-like duet with Jessica Wolfrum and Ahnad Simmons and a lovely side-by-side duet for Lauren Kias (sassy haircut, btw) and Hank Hunter. Eva closed with a feel good, full company section to Wade in the Water – a jazz-meets-Ailey’s Revelations.

It was a gala, so speeches and donation pitches came before the world premiere of Ashley Roland’s Get Out the Ghost. Roland, co-artistic director of BodyVox came to Chicago in July to set the new work. When I popped in to rehearsals, it wasn’t complete, but after seven days was quickly taking shape. “I need to choreograph faster, otherwise my head gets in the way,” she said. Chaves had asked her to create something “ethereal”. The final section of the Americana work dealing with getting rid of personal baggage or “cleaning your own personal house” is ethereal, but as Roland said, you have to get there first. The work began with the movement, although that’s not always how she works. “It comes through me. It’s not manufactured,” said Roland. “It’s definitely a gift.”

Dancers twitch and twist in angsty spurts while pulling shiny gold mylar pieces from their costumes throughout the first two sections. I get the idea, but it was too literal and while the dancers gave it their all, it seemed over-danced. A little less attack, a little more softness would have served the work better. Daring running dives and catches wowed, but overall, the work needed more subtly.

Dancer Drew Fountain is the first dancer other than choreographer Adam Barruch to perform his theatrical solo work The Worst Pies in London set to the song of the same title from the Broadway musical Sweeney Todd. Barruch himself performed it here at the Chicago Dancing Festival in 2011. Fountain was hilarious and charming in this quirky duet with a table. It’s a definite crowd-pleaser.

The world premiere of  Dawn by Deeply Rooted Dance Theater‘s Kevin Iega Jeff closed the hour-long show and proved to be a stellar showcase of the dancers’ talents. Set to the driving beat of a version of Carmina Burana, Dawn depicts an intense, physical, ritualistic society with goddess overtones, or as Iega Jeff states in the program notes – “a new Age of Enlightenment”. All gold tones and biceps – and I’m talking about the ladies! – Iega Jeff makes these dancers WORK! It really is non-stop, balls-to-the-walls dancing – just what we’ve come to expect from RNDC. Wolfrum was fierce as a the head of the hierarchy, boldly commanding the stage.

My only regret not going to see the performances this weekend is I will miss the stunning Nejla Yatkin solo Renatus danced by diva Wolfrum and Daniel Ezralow’s SUPER STRAIGHT is coming down, which was originally created for Hubbard Street Dance Chicago (and one of my fave pieces EVER). RNDC’s first attempt at Ezralow’s work didn’t meet expectations (injuries, etc.), but I’m glad they are bringing it back with a different cast. My guess is they will knock it out of the theater this time around.

River North Dance Chicago’s Autumn Passions at the Harris Theater, 205 E. Randolph St., Saturday, Nov. 16 at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Nov. 17 at 3 p.m. Tickets are $30-$75; call 312.334.7777 or visit harristheaterchicago.org. 

 

CDF13 Recap

Joffrey's Victoria Jaiani and Fabrice Calmels in
Tamako Miyazaki and Brooklyn Mack in
Giordano Dance Chicago in
Chicago Human Rhythm Project in
Brooklyn Mack and Tamako Miyazaki in
Hubbard Street Dance Chicago in
Joffrey Ballet in
Joffrey Ballet in
Joffrey Ballet in
Joffrey Ballet in
Joffrey Ballet in
Philadanco in
Hubbard Street's Johnny McMillan and Alice Klock in
Brian Brooks in
Chicago Human Rhythm Project in
 
1/15
 

Last week Chicagoans were treated to five free dance concerts courtesy of the 2013 Chicago Dancing Festival (CDF). For the third year, I was one of CDF’s official bloggers covering the performances. Here’s a recap of the events as well as some awesome performance photos by the lovely Cheryl Mann*.

The Harris at 10! Anniversary Special at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance.

Solitaire – A Game of Dance at the Museum of Contemporary Art/MCA Stage.

Dancing in Chicago at the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University.

Celebration of Dance at the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park.

Huge THANKS to Lar Lubovitch, Jay Franke, David Herro, Evin Eubanks, The Silverman Group, venues, sponsors and all the artists who shared their beauty and talent. It was another great fest packed full of amazing performances. It is one of my favorite, most exciting, exhausting and inspiring week of the year. I’m looking forward to seeing what they do to top it next year.

*Photo credits: all photos by Cheryl Mann.

1. Joffrey Ballet’s Victoria Jaiani and Fabrice Calmels in “Son of Chamber Symphony.”

2. Tamako Miyazaki and Brooklyn Mack in “Diana and Actaeon” pas.

3. Giordano Dance Chicago’s Maeghan McHale and Martin Ortiz Tapia in “Two Become Three.”

4. Chicago Human Rhythm Project in “In the Beginning…”.

5. Tamako Miyazaki and Brooklyn Mack in “Diana and Actaeon” pas.

6. Hubbard Street Dance Chicago dancers Jesse Bechard, Johnny McMillan and David Schultz in “Casi-Casa”.

7. Joffrey Ballet in “Episode 31″.

8. Joffrey Ballet in “Interplay”.

9 & 10. Joffrey Ballet in “Episode 31″.

11. Joffrey Ballet dancers John Mark Giragosian and Anastacia Holden in “Tarantella”.

12. Philadanco in “Wake Up”.

13. Hubbard Street Dance Chicago dancers Johnny McMillan and Alice Klock in “Little mortal jump”.

14. Brian Brooks in “I’m Going to Explode”.

15. Chicago Human Rhythm Project in “In the Beginning…”.

CDF13: Solitaire – A Game of Dance (gala)

Alvin Ailey dancer Samuel Lee Roberts in "IN/SIDE". Photo by Paul Kolnik.

Last night the Chicago Dancing Festival (CDF) hosted a benefit gala at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) and premiered the Solitaire – A Game of Dance performance that will be repeated this Friday at 6 and 8 pm. Guests mingled in the lobby with wine and passed hors d’oeuvres while perusing silent auction items. MCA Director of Performance Programs Peter Taub introduced CDF co-founders Jay Franke (in the cutest shorts suit!) and Lar Lubovitch, who in turn introduced our favorite local dance fan, Mayor Rahm Emanuel. After telling the dancers backstage to “break a leg” (Eek!), he proceeded to boast about “the largest free dance fest anywhere in the country”. He brought his family along including his parents who were celebrating their 58th wedding anniversary (aww). He talked about the 750 free events that have taken place in Chicago this summer and said that next year the hope is to take CDF around the city and “break out to all the neighborhoods”.

Franke graciously thanked everyone that helped to make CDF13 possible and Lubovitch, a man as eloquent with words as he is with choreography, gave us a history of the game solitaire (“the game of patience”) and a brief essay on how hard it is dancing and creating a solo. But he promised the performance would show just “how vast and varied the art of dancing alone is”. The show indeed did just that. A hand of cards projected on the back wall served as program notes and transitions. Before each solo a card was flipped with the picture and name of the artist about to perform.

First, the exquisite Victoria Jaiani of the Joffrey Ballet danced a breathtaking and heart-wrenching (yes, I cried) Dying Swan variation from 1905. She seemed to float across the stage in her entrance. From her delicate death, we jump to the dramatic, super strong solo In/Side (2008) performed by Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre‘s Samuel Lee Roberts. His sheer physicality was expertly matched by Robert Battle’s intense choreography. Ensemble Español‘s Julia Hinojosa danced a beautiful ode to Cuba in this flirtatious, percussive solo complete with a gorgeous long ruffled skirt and a large white fan. Ensueños de mi Caribe (2012), inspired by the city of Havana, showcases the traditions of flamenco. The petite Camille A. Brown commanded the stage in a powerful, puppet-like excerpt from her 2012 work Mr. Tol E. RAncE celebrating black performers and challenging stereotypes.

Natya Dance Theatre dancer Krithika Rajagopalan. Photo by Amitava Sarkar.

Things lightened up as Hubbard Street Dance Chicago dancers Johnny McMillan, David Schultz and Jonathan Fredrickson took the stage in Alejandro Cerrudo’s charming PACOPEPEPLUTO (2011), a fun, technically challenging and “cheeky” trio of solos set to Dean Martin songs. Krithika Rajagopalan of Natya Dance Theatre, wearing a stunning orange and red sari, was a study of intricate detail and expression in Sthithihi – In the Stillness (2013). The placement of each finger or the raising of an eyebrow telling an entire story. The performance went from stillness to the extreme with Brian Brooks’ frenetic 2007 solo I’m Going to Explode. Towards the end of the solo, he spirals down onto his knees leaving one arm extended up to the ceiling reminding me of the swan dying at the beginning of the show.

The evening ended with guests gathering in the upstairs galleries for drinks, dinner, dancing and a live auction. Once again, CDF did what it does best, which is bring a wide range of dance forms together on one stage performed by some of the best dancers around. You may not enjoy every style of dance you see here, but you can’t deny the talent, commitment and artistry involved.

CDF13: The Harris at 10! Anniversary Special

Tamako Miyazaki and Brooklyn Mack in "Diana and Actaeon pas". Photo by Sarah Weymar.

Opening night of the 7th annual Chicago Dancing Festival (CDF13) was in honor of the Harris Theatre‘s 10th anniversary – and what a celebration it was. A packed house was treated to a star-studded, eclectic evening of beautiful dancing. It is an amazing thing watching local audiences witness for FREE what I am humbly privileged to see all the time as a dance writer and from the reaction (thunderous applause, mini standing ovations and, what I can only call, whooping), they enjoyed it as much as I did.

Pieces are announced by a Let’s-get-ready-to-ruuuuuuuumble! voice over giving pertinent details of the upcoming work. The show started off with a bang – or stomp – with a CDF13 commissioned work by local artists Lane Alexander and Bril Barrett. Chicago Human Rhythm Project busted out some crazy mad beats in a showcase of a groovy, partially improvised master tap class. Shout out to the ladies Donnetta Jackson and Starinah (“Star”, yes she is) Dixon. The flaptastic opening was followed by Hubbard Street Dance Chicago performing Little Mortal Jump (2012) by their resident choreographer Alejandro Cerrudo. (If you’ve ever read my blog, you know I’m a huge fan of AC.) This fun, theatrical work never ceases to impress. Retirements and injuries updated the original casting and added new, interesting timing and phrasing choices. The slow-motion duet near the end by Ana Lopez and Jesse Bechard always gives me goosebumps. A woman sitting near me started a chorus of “Bravos”, while a number of people jumped to their feet with enthusiasm.

Washington Ballet dancer Brooklyn Mack and Tamako Miyazaki of the Columbia Classical Ballet and Dortmund Ballet stunned in the Diana and Actaeon pas de deux. I wasn’t familiar with this pas based on a greek myth where a goddess turns a man into a deer like a 1935 balletic version of Beauty and the Beast. The casting of Miyazaki (tiny, pale and petite) and Mack (tall, dark and massive) was perfect. Both were exceptional dancers showing off technical tricks in a classic forum. While Miyazaki breezed across the floor with fleet footwork, Mack defied gravity with amazing jumps. Those jumps!** A friend said it was a switch leap, jete coupe with a 520…huh? I still can’t quite figure out what that is, but WOW! And he did it more than once. Not to be outdone, Miyazaki more than held her own with beautiful extensions, pristine pointe work and top-like turns. Her fouette run in the coda with a double every other turn and a lightly landed triple to finish was only topped by the supported turns with Mack that were so fast, furious and frequent that I lost count. (Yes, I do count them). Get thee to the Pritzker Pavillion in Millennium Park to see this for yourself on Saturday at 7:30 pm. What a way to end Act I.

The only work that seemed to leave the audience perplexed was festival co-founder Lar Lubovitch‘s Crisis Variations (2011), which was likely from a lack of exposure to this style. Set to a musical suite of the same title, and played by the amazing Le Train Bleu, Crisis was difficult and dischordant from the start. The swooping, circular flow that I love about his choreography was absent here, likely on purpose, but I missed it. The dancers of his company began in formations on the floor and for most of the dance, the majority stayed on the floor as if grounded by a magnet or unbearable burden. A couple performed a dependent and (again) difficult duet, climbing and resting on top of one another as if struggling and helping each other at the same time. Perhaps that was the point. Something can come out of a crisis that is unique, strong and loving, but not necessarily pretty.

Brian Brooks in "I'm Going to Explode". Photo by Christopher Duggan.

New York-based artist Brian Brooks followed with a quirky solo I’m Going to Explode (2007). Beginning in a chair on stage left, the suited and ready for work Brooks took off his shoes and jacket, walked to the other side of the stage and started swishing his arms from front to back, then side to side. The movement became more frenetic as if he indeed was going to explode. He looked like a human washing room, but with the cycle going backwards. He started off crisp and dry and ended soaked and disheveled. As he made his way back to the chair, the audience couldn’t wait for him to put his shoes back on before starting to clap. Rounding out the show was a balls-to-the-walls performance of Stanton Welch’s Son of Chamber Symphony by the Joffrey Ballet. This work, created for them last season, demonstrated the opposite end of the classical ballet spectrum. With inside-out tutus, impeccable, off-kilter technique to a contemporary score, Son is almost a ballet inverted. My notes are basically a list of the cast as every dancer brought their ‘A’ game and then some.

It was a spectacular night of dance to open the festival. It makes me proud to be a Chicagoan. I can’t wait to see what happens next.

**UPDATE: I sat next to Brooklyn Mack at CDF’s Dancing in Chicago show last night (08/22/13). He told me the jumps are a twist on a 540, not 520 as I originally reported. Here is a video of a Le Corsaire pas. The male dancer does two 540s at the beginning, so you can see the base of Mack’s incredible jump.

2013 Chicago Dancing Festival

Chicago Dancing Festival at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion. Photo by Todd Rosenberg.

It’s almost that time of year again. In late August (20th-24th), the seventh annual Chicago Dancing Festival (CDF) hits Chicago stages for another year of fantastic FREE dance concerts. Once again, for the third year, I will be part of CDF’s blogger initiative covering the performances and providing dancer/choreographer interviews and behind-the-scenes rehearsal sneak peeks. Woot!

This year’s line up of performers is fantastic. Local companies Chicago Human Rhythm Project, Giordano Dance Chicago, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago and The Joffrey Ballet as well as NY-based companies Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Brian Brooks Moving Company, Camille A. Brown & Dancers and Lar Lubovitch Dance Company all return to the fest. CDF newcomers include Chicago’s Ensemble Español and Natya Dance Theatre and Philadelphia’s Philadanco, plus artists Brooklyn Mack of Washington Ballet and Tamako Miyazaki of Columbia Classical Ballet and Dortmund Ballet.

2013 Chicago Dancing Festival will also have two commissions: a new piece by Chi-town tappers Lane Alexander and Bril Barrett and the Chicago premiere of Alexander Ekman’s Episode 31 by Joffrey (this work will also appear on their Winter program in Feb 2014). Live music will accompany the Lubovitch company and Ensemble Español. Tuesday (Aug. 20) opens the festival with a celebration for the Harris Theater‘s 10th anniversary. Wednesday (Aug. 21) is the CDF gala performance and benefit at the Museum of Contemporary Art/MCA Stage. It’s the only event in which you need to purchase a ticket ($250). Thursday (Aug. 22) showcases Dancing in Chicago with an all-local show at the Auditorium Theatre. Friday is a free repeat of the gala performance, Solitaire – A Game of Dance, featuring all solo works. And, Saturday is the much-loved, highly-attended Celebration of Dance at the outdoor Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park.

All performances – except the gala – are free. Tickets for indoor events need to be reserved, but the outdoor Pritzker show is open to the public. The ticket release for the performances is staggered and there is a limit of two (2) tickets per order. Stay tuned for a post with the ticket release dates and performance times.

CDF 12: Dancing East & West of Chicago

CDF 12 Giordano Dance Chicago in Alexander Ekman's "Two Become Three". Photo by Cheryl Mann.

The Chicago Dancing Festival continued last night with the Dancing East and West of Chicago program at the Auditorium Theatre at Roosevelt University.  Where Monday night’s Chicago Dancing show focused on local talent, Wednesday’s show featured companies from around the country.  The East was represented by Brian Brooks Moving Company and Martha Graham Dance Company, both from New York, and the West by Ballet Arizona, San Francisco Ballet (SFB) and Pacific Northwest Ballet (PNB) from Seattle.  Not only did the program represent dance companies from coast-to-coast, but the works presented spanned centuries from the 1890 classical ballet (Sleeping Beauty pas de deux) to 2011 postmodern (Brooks’ Descent).

Brook’s piece began with dancers carrying one another across the stage across their backs in a 45-degree plank.  The patterns were a meditation in strength and balance, but the most intriguing moments happened with props.  Dancers waving flat boards created wind gusts that animated pieces of tulle.  The effect was like the movie American Beauty, where the paper bag danced in the wind. Here, the fabric was doing the dancing, while the dancers did the grunt work. It was beautiful.  The other New York contingent presented an all-female work about reactions to war.  Chronicle (1936) highlights the strength of women with Graham’s signature contractions, pitches, cupped hands and severe drama.  The Red Shroud solo performed by Blakeley White-McGuire was particularly intense.  Ladies – fierceness be thy name.

A last-minute Midwest addition to the program was Alexander Ekman’s Two Becomes Three performed by two dancers from Giordano Dance Chicago (GDC).  Maeghan McHale and Martin Ortiz Tapia danced this quirky duet on Monday night at the Harris Theater.  They were delightful then and even better last night.  The audience loved them.

Although only one of the three ballet companies performed a work by George Balanchine, they all have ties to the famous Russian choreographer.  The artistic directors of Ballet Arizona (Ib Andersen), SFB (Helgi Tomasson) and PNB (Peter Boal) all danced for the company Balanchine founded, the New York City Ballet (NYCB).  All three have Balanchine works in their rep and employ dancers that fit in the quintessential Balanchine ballerina mold (read: short waists, long legs, gorgeous feet).  His trademark fast footwork and neo-classical style were on full display in the opening number by Ballet Arizona.  Rubies, an excerpt from his three-part ballet Jewels (1967) was pertly performed by the petite cast – except for soloist Kenna Draxton, who towered above the rest.  The tableau of 15 dancers in a semi circle, dressed in ruby red costumes, hands joined above their heads as the curtain opened was stunning.  What followed was a whirlwind of delight.  Shout out to Jillian Barrel and Nayon Iovino, quite the dynamic duo.

PNB dancers Lesley Rausch and Seth Orza beautifully performed Jerome Robbins’ Afternoon of a Faun (1953), which is set in an abstract dance studio with the audience serves as the mirror.  The haunting score by Claude Debussy lends a melancholic tone to the duet where the dancers seem more interested in their reflections than each other.  While this pas was more casual in tone and in dress (leotard and tights with hair down for her, tights and bare-chested for him), the Sleeping Beauty pas de deux, performed by SFB’s Sofiane Sylve and Vito Mazzeo, was full-out formal.  Normally danced at the end of the nearly three-hour ballet, this duet represents the marriage of the princess to her prince.  The sparkling tiara, tutu and tunic couldn’t out-dazzle this couple.  They were spectacular.

There was one slip up – literally – in last night’s show that I must mention, because I think it was the turning point -wow, no more puns I promise – of the show.  During the Beauty pas, Sylve slipped and fell.  Not just a “whoops!”, but a crash-and-burn on her…um, tutu.  The shock of it had made the audience gasp loudly, but Sylve got right up and finished with the grace and talent of the true professional she is.  I’m (almost) glad this happened for three reasons.  1. Shit happens -  when it does, you get back up and continue on.  2. It proves she’s human.  3.  It not only shows the audience, which more than likely had some ballet newcomers in it, that the stage was slick, but if a ballerina of this caliber can fall just walking to the upstage corner of the stage, it shows just how difficult it is be to dance a difficult pas in pointe shoes.  The slip upped the respect of the audience tenfold, because she made the rest of it look utterly effortless.

 

CDF12: Chicago Dancing

The Chicago Dancing Festival (CDF) kicked off its sixth year with a performance showcasing local talent.  CDF Board Chair David Herro welcomed the audience and took a few minutes to talk about the origins of the fest and its mission.  He said it’s threefold: 1) to make Chicago a national and international dance destination, 2) to keep elevating the dance form and building an audience by providing the best dance at the lowest possible cost – free!, and 3) to provide a forum, a place where these dancers can come together and watch each other perform.  Mission accomplished.

Our dance-loving Mayor was up next, introduced by Herro as “probably the only Mayor in the United States that can do a proper plié”.  (True and something I’m not ashamed to say I’m particularly proud of.)  Rahm Emanuel took the mic, quipping that his plié talent came in handy in the City budget meetings.  While introducing the opener of the show – a performance by After School Matters Hip Hop Culture Dance Ensemble, a program started by the late First Lady Maggie Daley – the current Mayor acknowledged the Daley family in the audience and said the work’s title Touch of Soul was perfect because “dance is the hidden language of the soul.  I can’t think of a better tribute to the soul of our city, Maggie Daley”.  Mayor Emanuel finished by thanking the family – “from the entire city, thank you for sharing her with us”. (Tear.)  That beautiful, but melancholy moment was short lived, because seconds later, 31 young dancers dressed in white took the stage in a world premiere by choreographer Nicholas Leichter with such energy and enthusiasm that the audience was whooping with joy.

Hometown heavy-hitters Hubbard Street Dance Chicago (HSDC) technically tantalized in the epic, exhaustive Scarlatti.  Choreographed for HSDC by Twyla Tharp in 2011, this work for twelve dancers is a testament to speed and stamina.  In their CDF debut, Giordano Dance Chicago (GDC) paired up with Swedish choreographer Alexander Ekman for a humorous duet featuring lead dancers Maeghan McHale and Martin Ortiz Tapia about life and love, but not necessarily a happy ending.  (Great job Maeghan and Martin!)  Intermission was abuzz with conversation, the packed theater a mass of movement, hand shakes and hugs.

The Joffrey Ballet opened Act II with William Forsythe’s In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated.  This contemporary masterpiece from 1987 changed the way people thought of ballet.  The stark set, the off-center partnering, the hyper-flexibility and “I don’t care” attitude wowed audiences then and continue to now.  Dancer Rory Hohenstein’s multiple, multiple pirouettes amazed.  (He later attributed them to a slippery stage.)  The finale of the show was a collaboration with choreographer Larry Keigwin, a few of his dancers and everyday Chicagoans.  Introduced by CDF co-founders Jay Franke and Lar Lubovitch, Bolero Chicago was a tribute to our city.  Big and small, short and tall, the dancers in this piece represented everyone.  A lady reading a newspaper, a woman walking her dog, a passerby smoking a cigarette, a commuter biking to work, a cluster holding on for balance on a bumpy el ride, and a man in drag losing a battle with his umbrella and the wind.  Bears, Bulls, Cubs and Sox tees – even Benny the Bull merrily flipping around the stage.  Illuminated cell phones lit the stage before bows were replaced by the “everyday” contingent jamming out on stage.

Chicago Dancing had something for everyone and everyone liked something different. Perfect.

CDF 12 Artist Spotlight: Hubbard Street’s Jesse Bechard

HSDC dancers Jesse Bechard & Ana Lopez in  Jirí Kylían's
HSDC dancers Jesse Bechard & Penny Saunders w/ Nacho Duato.  Photo by Igor Larin.
HSDC dancer Jesse Bechard.  Photo by Cheryl Mann.
HSDC
HSDC Penny Saunders & Jesse Bechard in
HSDC Jesse Bechard & Jacqueline Burnett in
HSDC Jesse Bechard & Ana Lopez in

The studios at Hubbard Street Dance Chicago (HSDC) were eerily quiet last week.  The dancers were on a well-deserved break and the staff was holed up in their offices busily preparing for the upcoming season (rehearsals started yesterday).  Fresh off a three-week trip to Costa Rica, dancer Jesse Bechard agreed to meet with me before taking an afternoon ballet class.  After spending an hour chatting with the 31-year-old, this is what I know. He’s smart, funny, loyal, curious, an avid reader, and a self-proclaimed news junkie. He plays drums, he loves kale – and, let’s be honest – he’s pretty easy on the eyes.

Bechard grew up in the Northeast (Connecticut, Massachusetts) and cites seeing Baryshnikov dance on tv as his impetus to start dancing.  Here’s the Cliff Notes of his early career:  danced in various Nutcrackers and recitals; quit dancing during the middle schools years to focus on academics and play sports like soccer, basketball and lacrosse; started dancing again at 16/junior year of high school; went to Walnut Hill School for the Arts for his senior year; attended Boston Ballet summer programs; quit dancing again to go to college (one year at University of Chicago); moved to New York City to dance (and wait tables); apprenticed with Ballet Austin for a year; joined Richmond Ballet in Virginia where he danced for eight years.  Whew!  “I didn’t have that much exposure when I was growing up dancing,” he said.  “The things that were put in front of me as goals were all these white tights things.  I didn’t know what was going on in Europe.  I’d seen Hubbard Street, but I didn’t know about NDT (Nederlands Dans Theater).  In the early 2000′s I went to see NDTII and that really changed my trajectory substantially.  ‘Well, there it is!  That’s what I’d like to do.’  I remember the next day in class, my whole motivation and what I was focusing on had really shifted overnight.  I never really had that much of a desire to be the prince at all.  You always idolize Baryshnikov.  He’s beautiful. He does incredible things.  But I don’t think I was built for that.  It’s an interesting point when you come to the realization of what you want to do and what your body is aesthetically built for.”

The “third time is a charm” adage rang true to for Bechard and his bumpy adventure to reach HSDC.  He auditioned for three times before everything worked out.  The beginning of the financial crisis, other contract obligations and lack off an opening in the company all delayed his debut with HSDC until August of 2010.  In 2011, Bechard performed at the Chicago Dancing Festival (CDF) for the Moderns (Sharon Eyal and Gai Behar’s Too Beaucoup) and Masters (Jiri Kylían’s Petite Mort) programs.  This year he’s scheduled to perform Twyla Tharp’s Scarlatti in the Chicago Dancing program on Monday, August 20, and Ohad Naharin’s Tabula Rasa in the closing night’s Celebration of Dance on Saturday, August 25.  (Casting may change.)  Here are some excerpts from our chat.

The first thing I remember seeing you in was Nacho Duato’s Arcangelo.  Since then, it seems like you’ve been in everything.  Who were some of your favorite choreographers to work with or favorite pieces?

Nacho was really fun to work with. It was really fun to work with Yoshi (Fumi Inao), who came to set Ohad’s  (Naharin) work.  ”Too Beaucoup” was a really difficult process for me.  I was new.  I’d only been in the company six months at that point and certain things, like Nacho’s piece were within my comfort zone.  Then we come in and have this crazy Israeli woman dancing around asking you what you got out of that.  You get to a point in this company where you get much better at learning the way that things operate.  It’s not often in a ballet company that someone will come in and do something and ask what you got from it, so you learn a lot more how to interpret what you do.  We do a massive amount of improvisation.  If you make it up and it looks convincing, it will probably work.  It’s true.  If you’re tentative and hesitant, that reads.  But if you’re like this is what I’m going to do, that’s a choice.  It really doesn’t have to be right, it just has to be what you intend to do.  You can take risks and something can happen that you didn’t intend, but you have to make it happen.  As you get more comfortable with that it becomes more enjoyable.  In her process, I was not quite used to that and her movement style is…insane.  The process was cool, but it wasn’t my favorite process, but now it is one of my favorite pieces to perform in terms of the visceral experience as a dancer.  You’re in this unitard, you have contacts on, you have a wig on, you’re dancing to this killer music with these awesome lights and you’re just one little cog in the wheel. It’s awesome for your brain.  You’re just in there, talking to yourself.  You have to count everything.  There’s 9 of these and 14 of these and 12 of these. I think that’s the piece with the biggest difference between how much I enjoy doing it and how much I enjoyed the process. I love Sharon and Gai, they were really cool, but the process was really hard.

“Petite Mort” (Jirí Kylían) – that’s another thing you want to check off the list in your dance career.  That’s one that for most dancers, you really, really want to do. It’s almost a perfect piece.  It’s concise, it’s short.  It’s not overdone.  It is so insanely musical and so simple.  The whole men’s section…getting six guys to breathe together.

When you all turn around that first time and swipe the sword…it’s such a great moment.

That’s definitely one of the most stressful things…walking down with it balanced on your finger.  Finding that balance point is difficult.  You get good at it, but when the curtain opens up, there is a shift in air and then you’re trying to walk backwards, downstage and find your mark and look at the other person, then lower your sword down and as you lower it, trying to keep it balanced on your finger. I love dancing in silence with only the sounds of the swords.  There’s such a cool internal rhythm to it. 

Alejandro’s (Cerrudo) stuff feels really good to do.  The movement feels really nice.

Does his work become shorthand after a while, since you’ve worked with him so much? 

It becomes much easier to know what he wants.  I think it’s like that with a lot of choreographers.  You know what they like to see.  Not even what they like to see, it’s not about ass-kissing or pleasing someone, but you kind of have an idea of what aesthetic they’re shooting for, so you can just get to it quicker.

The Forsythe piece in the Summer Series was amazing.  You were in both casts.  How did you get through that week?  

It was really difficult.  That was a hard program.  I drank a lot of Pedialyte.

What was the learning process like for Quintett?

The people that he sent – Thomas (McManus), Stephen (Galloway) and Dana (Caspersen) – they were fantastic.  None of us really knew what to expect when they came in.  That process was great.  I really enjoyed working with them. I think what Thomas was asking me to do and trying to get out of me and everybody felt massively different from the beginning to the end.  And then it felt massively different from when we did it here and at ADF. 

Did you get to meet William Forsythe at the American Dance Festival? 

Yeah, he worked with us.  He comes in wearing jean, sneakers and a tee shirt. He’s a totally quirky, awesome, incredibly laid-back guy.  I’ve heard that he can really not be that way, but anyone who is trying to create something can go a little crazy. He wasn’t like “Forsythe”.  He was joking about himself and totally mellow. He was super encouraging.  In that piece, because of the nature of the music and the movement, you really are supposed to go for it as much as you can.  And if something happens that didn’t happen before?  See where it goes.  

At the Harris, I’m pretty sure I saw you slide off the stage at one point.

I fell at one point.  I was running and sliding and hit a tape mark.  But honestly, that could be the movement. 

There was something different about that work.  Even in rehearsals, if was the first time I saw you guys laughing and having fun in rehearsal. Not that you don’t have fun, but everyone seemed really laid back and you seemed to be having such a good time, especially on stage.

It makes you smile.  We don’t have a lot of smiling pieces.  It feels like that when you’re doing it.  We weren’t putting that on.  In rehearsals, you’re kind of like – gasp! – dying, but on stage, it makes you smile. The fact that it was made right after his first wife passed away, you thought it was sort of memorial, but it’s a celebration of life and memory.  Working with them there was no stress.  There was so much respect.

So, Twyla. What was it like working with her? 

It’s another one of these “icon” people.  She was great.  She was super fun to work with.  She a little ball of energy.  She could power a city.  She 71 now. She was jumping on me and wrapping herself around me – totally off the floor.  I’m there with Twyla hanging off of me thinking ‘I can’t drop her. This is a lawsuit waiting to happen.’  She’s so professional and has such a specific style and procedure of working. She’s a workhorse.  She didn’t take lunch.  She would have lunch brought to her and stagger our lunches, so we could have lunch, but she could continue working throughout the day.  

How is dancing Scarlatti?  

It’s a fun piece to do.  It’s entirely different than “Quintett”.  In “Quintett”, you want to really throw yourself at it.  ”Scarlatti”, you throw yourself at it too, but there are parts that are much lighter on the floor.  It is super musical, so it’s fun to dance.  I think it’s exactly what she intended it to be.  It exactly fits the music. I’d like to work with her again.  

Chicago Dancing Festival 2012 runs August 20 – 25.  For more information, visit chicagodancingfestival.com.

Slideshow Photo Credits:

Bechard with Ana Lopez in Jirí Kylían’s “Petite Mort”.  Photo by Cheryl Mann.

Bechard in “Arcangelo” rehearsal with Penny Saunders and Nacho Duato.  Photo by Igor Larin.

Bechard headshot by Cheryl Mann.

Bechard in Jonathan Fredrickson’s “Untitled Landscape”. Photo by Todd Rosenberg.

Bechard and Penny Saunders in William Forsythe’s “Quintett”. Photo by Cheryl Mann.

Bechard and Jacqueline Burnett in Alejandro Cerrudo’s “Malditos”. Photo by Todd Rosenberg.

Bechard and Ana Lopez in Alejandro Cerrudo’s “Little Mortal Jump”. Photo by Todd Rosenberg.

 

 

 

You Can Be Part of CDF12

Paul Taylor Dance Company performing at the Chicago Dancing Festival in 2011.

Have you always dreamed of dancing on stage in front of an audience?  How about dancing on an outdoor stage in front of thousands of people while looking out over Millenium Park?  That dream can come true.  This year, the Chicago Dancing Festival (CDF) has commissioned a new work by New York-based choreographer Larry Keigwin set to Maurice Ravel’s famous music Bolero.  The world premiere of Bolero Chicago will feature up to 75 non-dancer participants from the Chicago area alongside the dancers.  NO DANCE EXPERIENCE NECESSARY!  Ashley Browne, a member of Keigwin’s company – Keigwin + Company – will be leading four open casting call/community meetings this weekend to meet potential participants and discuss what will be involved by taking part in this historic performance experience.  At the end of the meeting, there will be a chance to sign up for Bolero Chicago, which will be performed twice during the festival:  Monday, August 20th in the Chicago Dancing program at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance and Saturday, August 25th in the Celebration of Dance program on the Pritzker Pavilion stage in Millenium Park.

People of all ages and abilities are encouraged to participate.  Remember there is no dance experience required.  If you join the cast of Bolero Chicago, there will be a two-week residency with rehearsals that run Monday through Friday evening, August 6th – 11th, as well as dress rehearsals on August 19th and 24th. This is the chance of a lifetime.

Open Casting Call/Community Meetings:

Friday, July 13 at 4:30 pm, the Dance Center of Columbia College, 1306 S. Michigan Ave.

Saturday, July 14 at 11:00 am, National Museum of Mexican Art, 1852 W. 19th St.

Saturday, July 14 at 2:00 pm, PINT, 1547 N. Milwaukee Ave.

Sunday, July 15 at 2:00 pm, Beverly Arts Center, 2407 W. 111th St.

Please email your RSVP for attendance in advance to: info@chicagodancingfestival.com.  This RSVP will enter you for a chance to win 2 VIP tickets to one of CDF12′s performances.

Preview: River North Opens Fall Season

Jessica Wolfrum & Michael Gross in "Al Sur del Sur". Photo by Sandro.

This weekend at the Harris Theater, River North Dance Chicago (RNDC) opens it’s fall season. Just off a successful international tour (US, Korea, Germany, Switzerland), RNDC is warmed up, employing five new dancers and ready to take the stage with a mixed rep that is sure to dazzle. Signature group piece by Sherry Zunker, Evolution of a Dream (2009), is joined by last season hits Al Sur Del Sur choreographed by Sabrina and Rubin Veliz and Artistic Director Frank Chavez’s jazz tribute Simply Miles, Simply Us. Charles Moulton’s postmodern Nine Person Precision Ball Passing (1980), which the company performed over the summer during the Chicago Dancing Festival (and shall heretofore be known as “the ball piece”), makes it’s Harris stage debut. Add in an intense solo by Robert Battle from his work Train (2008) and the first duet Chavez every choreographed in 1994, Fixé, and you have the makings for a fantastic and entertaining evening of dance. But it is the company premiere of Daniel Ezralow’s SUPER STRAIGHT is coming down that is getting all the buzz – and rightly so.

Originally commissioned by Hubbard Street Dance Chicago (HSDC) founder Lou Conte in 1989, SUPER STRAIGHT was a cutting-edge, athletic, dynamic piece that helped change the trajectory of the company from a strong, stellar troupe with a jazz/Broadway-based rep to one of the pioneers of contemporary dance. Ezralow, an emerging choreographer at the time, took inspiration from a book of black and white photographs by Robert Longo titled Men in the Cities and set it to an original score by Dutch composer Thom Willems. What came out was a quirky, desperate, intriguing, hyper-physical, 15-minute dance that was like nothing the audience had seen before. Revolutionary seems trite, but it was. Five dancers dressed in black and white appear in what look like plastic garment bags hanging from the ceiling. That image, along with the darkly eerie, industrial score, set the mood for a wonderful and strange adventure. The original cast of Chavez, Sandi Cooksey, Ron De Jesús, Alberto Arias and Lynn Shepard brought a fierce energy to their talented technical skills and took the stage by storm. I saw it on tour that season and it blew me away! (It was one of the reasons I wanted to move to Chicago and why I’m a huge HSDC fan.) I am so completely STOKED that RNDC is reviving it this weekend. I spoke with Chavez by phone earlier this week about their upcoming program.

You’ve set quite an eclectic program…Miles, Balls, Tango…

This is our “Tour de Force” program (also the title of the Thursday night gala). To be able to go from an authentic Argentinian tango to “SUPER STRAIGHT” with a contemporary edge and then go to Miles Davis, as jazzy as you can get…it shows so many different facets of the company and that we can do all of those things really well.

Jessica Wolfrum in Ezralow's "SUPER STRAIGHT is coming down". Photo by Jenifer Girard.

I’m going to cut to the chase. I really want to focus on SUPER STRAIGHT because it is my favorite piece ever! I love it, I love it, I love it! I always wondered when/if Hubbard would bring it back.

(Laughing) We feel the same way. It’s my favorite Daniel Ezralow piece. Not just because I had the great opportunity to perform it, but I’ve been thinking about it for quite a while. I’m always concerned with something that was related to HSDC, that enough time has gone by…we’re careful with all that. We thought it was such a good fit and it’s such a good piece that it just made sense. As you say, it’s my favorite piece of Danny’s and it’s been sitting on a shelf for a long time. It’s so perfect for us. I honestly didn’t think I’d see HSDC do it again. It just isn’t them any more. I felt truly it was more appropriate for us these days, so I went for it.

Are there things he told you, that maybe the audience doesn’t know, that you get to pass down now that you’re resetting it?

As I did it, I brought Sandi and Berto in to help with rehearsal and some tidbits here and there. It was really based on a book of photographs by Robert Longo. The costumes, the look of the piece…everything came from this book. It was very interesting. He took a bunch of pictures of men and women in cityscapes. The idea behind it was that they were having things thrown at them and they were dodging. They were all sort of action/motion shots, but very quirky. They were pedestrians. There were a lot of images that ended up being translated off the page and into the piece. That was the initial jist of it. I’ve described it as sort of an urban meltdown. It’s like these people have been dropped down from some other space. The bags…do you remember? These big huge ice cubes that they melt out of. I remember Danny saying things like, “Your first step out of that bag is like you’re stepping on to black ice.” You can’t see it. You don’t know if it’s going to hold you. There’s so much uncertainty in the piece, which created a great deal of tension. There was a lot of tension in the creative process too. Danny likes to stir the pit a little bit. He does a lot of improv and then puts the piece together. That’s his process. He feeds off of whatever is happening. If somebody is pissed off and walking around a corner, he’ll use that in the piece. He really wanted to shock the audience. I remember this original composition, he wanted that first note to come in really strong and jolt the audience. You’d hear a collective “ah” – it scared them. It transcends you to another place and you’re not sure what’s going on. He said that it was very abstract for him. There was no real meaning behind it for him. There was no story behind it. He wanted to create this tense atmosphere that kept people on the edge of their seats and uncertain. It does that well. So many people wrote it was about AIDS, disease, a takeover, aliens…it had a million different interpretations of what it was. Danny likes to do that. He likes to leave it up to the audience, however they see it, whatever they’re feeling…that was a big part of it.

I definitely got an alien vibe and just kept wonder what was up with the bags?

He likes to make people question a lot. Are they aliens? Are they just arriving here? Were they quarantined? All these speculations came about where these bags came from and then they just float off the stage. These five people are just dropped off somewhere. They have no idea where they are. You can say they’re from a different planet. They don’t even know why they’re there, but they need to go explore. If they are to go on in any way, they need to get out of those bags and find out where they are. It’s a bit of a discovery. The silent section in the middle was very interesting. There are two musical cues in the musical section and other than that it was timing and breath and feeling each other, commanding and finding the silence and doing something with it and translating that into a very tense atmosphere. Again, the uncertainty is what creates this tension. Initially the piece wasn’t counted at all. We just followed each other. For dancers…everybody wants to know what they’re doing at every moment. That was a really interesting part about the piece. I think it keeps it really interesting and relevant. There’s nothing to me that’s dated to me about the piece. It’s still so relevant in so many ways.

The silent section, the improv and keeping it real on stage…was that a new way of working for you guys back then? Or had you already been through that type of process before?

No. I think it was new for a lot of us. Danny was just starting out as a choreographer at that time, aside from what he did for his own company. I think for us, and for that time at HSDC, it was pretty new. It was fantastic. What came out of that process was pretty special. Sometimes it all just works. I think “SUPER STRAIGHT” is a great example of when everything really comes together.

River North Dance Chicago, Nov 4&5 at 8pm

Tickets: $30-$75, Harris Theater, 205 E. Randolph, 312.334.7777