Dancer Spotlight: Abigail Simon, Dance For Life

Dancer Abigail Simon. Photo by Gina Uhlmann.

This Saturday, Aug. 18, marks the annual dance performance, Dance For Life, that raises money and awareness for HIV/AIDS prevention. Proceeds from this year’s benefit will go to the AIDS Foundation of Chicago, the Dancer’s Fund and Chicago House. Always a highlight of the show are two world premiere finales, Act I by Harrison McEldowney and Jeremy Plummer/C5 and an Act II finale by Randy Duncan. Participating companies include DanceWorks Chicago, Giordano Dance Chicago, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, River North Dance Chicago and Thodos Dance Chicago. Also performing this weekend are independent artists Mauro Villanueva and Abigail Simon.

Simon, 27, was born in New York to a director/actor father and an opera singer mother. The family was bi-coastal spending time split between NY and Los Angeles, where she started dancing at age three. At seven, back in NYC, she studied for three years at Ballet Hispanico and at ten, was accepted to the School of American Ballet (SAB), where she studied for ten years. She danced with American Ballet Theatre‘s second company (ABT II) for two years and with the main company for another two years. “I learned so much there,” she said. “I knew that because I came from SAB and because I hadn’t had much classical training that I needed to go to a smaller company to get my wings.” Joffrey was holding auditions in NYC, she auditioned and spent the next seven years dancing with them here in Chicago.

Some may recognize her from her extremely perky performances as Clara in The Nutcracker, but some of her favorite roles from her time at Joffrey are the virtuoso pas Balanchine’s Tarantella and Valencienne in Ronald Hynd’s The Merry Widow. Simon has only performed in Dance for Life one other time when she was part of Harrison McEldowney’s finale in 2011. This year, she partners with former Joffrey dancer Villanueva for the pas de deux from Le Corsaire, a gala favorite. “We’re excited,” Simon said. “It’s pure classical. It’s got tricks!”

Simon recently left Joffrey to pursue a freelance career. “I’m going to miss that family feel and being on the road,” she said, “but when I told them I was leaving, it felt like the chains coming off. You’ve got to trust your instincts and follow your heart.” So far, she’s kept busy dancing with Ballet Next, coaching students for the Youth America Grand Prix, modeling for Bloch and Revolution Dancewear. She has modeling gigs set with Capezio and Custom Barre and auditioned for Christopher Wheeldon’s new Broadway project An American in Paris. She’s also up for a lead role in an upcoming movie with actress Sean Young set to film next year in Venice, Italy. (Rumor has it people affiliated with the film will be at the show on Saturday. Perhaps if we clap extra loud, she’ll get the part!)

Simon said it is easier to find consistent work as a freelance dancer in New York, so she and her boyfriend are getting a place there too and will be splitting their time. “I’m excited,” she said. “I’m very open. It took me a couple of years to figure out, but if you’re positive and open to change, good things can happen. Just get on the horse and start riding. I’m so happy.”

Dance for Life at the Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress Pkwy., Saturday, Aug. 17 at 8 pm. Tickets for the performance only are $50-$75.

A pre-performance gala reception will be held in the International Ballroom of the Hilton Chicago, 720 S. Michigan Ave., at 5 pm. Gala tickets (which include a ticket to the performance) are $200-$500.

For more information, call 312-922-5812 or visit danceforlifechicago.com.

Spring Break

After the whirlwind that was the spring dance season, it is time for spring break. Spring cleaning, holidays for some, chocolate (hopefully) for all and a little down time until we hit the theaters again with for another run of performances.  I saw a truckload of fantastic dance in the last few weeks.  In fact, the final performance of ABT‘s Giselle still haunts my dreams with its beauty.  My hopes are to put up delayed reviews at some point, but for now lé brain is fried and Seabiscuit needs a nap.

Happy Spring!

Henry V Delights at Dance Center

Post modern guru David Gordon has a way with words.  He uses them as a structure, a starting point, an inspiration and then turns them into a complex living creative act right before your eyes on the stage.  So it is with his Pick Up Performance Co(s)‘ presentation of Dancing Henry Five this weekend at The Dance Center of Columbia College.  This 2004 revival is part theater, part performance art, part dance, part music collage.  A deconstructed take on Shakespeare’s Henry V, it not only entertains, but offers a commentary on war that still resonates today.

The program calls it a “reduction” of Shakespeare’s work.  Once in the theater, the stage shows what Gordon has reduced it down to – the bare necessities.  Everything for the performance is on the stage in plain view.  No wings, props strewn about the stage and performers standing around the edges waiting.  Costumes of colorful, but faded rugby shirts with shorts suggest uniforms of a different kind of battle, rather than the 1415 Battle of Agincourt that they are about to partially recreate.  The performers walk around the stage carrying signs with pertinent information (title, names, please turn off cell phones) passing by like the opening credits of a movie.  Valda Setterfield (Gordon’s wife and former dancer with Merce Cunningham) acts as narrator and chorus moving the action along and adding sly, sometimes biting commentary – Gordon’s,  not her own, she states – as well as joining in the dance.  At 77, she’s still a dynamic performer with impeccable timing.  (Go on with your bad self, Valda!)

Dancing Henry Five incorporates spoken word along with audio excerpts from the stage and movie versions of Henry V with musical interjections of William Walton’s score from the film.  The first Shakespeare quote heard is “a kingdom for a stage” and Gordon transforms this stage into a kingdom, ocean and battlefield.  At times funny, poignant, sad and moving, the one-hour production is a creative, quirky take on a classic historical poem.  Shakespeare through the looking glass.  Seven dancers make the action happen, most notable former American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet star Robert La Fosse.  His trademark mole on his left cheek is barely visible through his make up, but watching him do a low quick jeté shows the technique, if not the flexibility, is still there.

As the plot takes us to war against the French, one can’t help but be reminded of more current events.  ”War takes minds off deficits”, says the narrator.  Indeed.  Originally choreographed in 2004, a year after we began the war in Iraq, the words bring a poignant pause to the audience.  A quilt carried across the “water” includes an American flag, even though Columbus wouldn’t discover America for another 77 years.  One image that sticks is dancers standing on sheets of material being slowly pulled across the stage like ships.

There is one performance left of this interesting post modern take on Shakespeare’s play.  Tickets are still available.

Pick Up Performance Co(s) – Dancing Henry Five

The Dance Center at Columbia College, 1306 S, Michigan, 312.369.8330