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.

Chicago Dance 2012 Highlights

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre dancers in "Revelations". Photo by Christopher Duggan.

Nothing says end-of-the-year-review time quite like the last day of the year…am I right? My proficiency in procrastination aside, now is the time to reflect on the past year and look forward to new, exiting surprises in the next. Here’s my?Dancin’ Feats year-end review for Windy City Times?that came out last week noting 12 memorable performances/performers of 2012, but I wanted to add a few more things.

Looking back at my notes and programs from the year (yes, they are all in a pile, I mean filing system, in the corner of my bedroom) I am so thankful for all the wonderful dance I get to see. Narrowing it down to 12 “top whatevers” was not an easy task for there were too many people and performances to name. Here are some other performances that are still in my thoughts:

Alvin Ailey Dance Theater in Ohad Naharin’s Minus 16. Although Revelations is still amazing, seeing this company in more contemporary work was refreshing. And the audiences at Ailey performances are a show unto themselves.

Paris Opera Ballet and American Ballet Theatre‘s performances of Giselle were stellar for their star-studded casts on opening night, but ABT’s Sunday matinee with real-life couple Yuriko Kajiya and Jared Matthews stole my heart.

Luna Negra Dance Theater founder Eduardo Vilaro brought?Ballet Hispanico?to town with?former Chicago dancers (Jamal Callender, Jessica ?Wyatt and Vanessa Valecillos) back for a rep show at the Dance Center to much acclaim, while current director Gustavo Ramirez Sansano continues to take the company in new and fascinating directions.

The Seldoms, in their tenth year, deconstructed the Harris Theater and traipsed around the world to collaborate with WC Dance in Tapei, while tackling the ongoing arguments around climate change with artistic director Carrie Hanson’s trademark wit and intelligence.

Before Hubbard Street Dance Chicago turned 35 this fall, it said goodbye to retiring, beloved dancer Robyn Mineko Williams. Artistic Director Glenn Edgerton completed his goal of presenting all five master European choreographers in the rep with the acquisition of Mats Ek’s Casi-Casa. Ek’s work took the company to a new level, but I’m still haunted by their dancing in William Forsythe’s Quintett from the summer series.

The Joffrey Ballet performed Forsythe’s In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated in their regular season and at the Chicago Dancing Festival. I was proud to be an official CDF blogger for the second year in a row. New to the fest this year was Giordano Dance Chicago, now celebrating 50 years. And Muntu Dance Theatre of Chicago hit 40!

River North Dance Chicago dancer Ahmad Simmons deserves a mention for his work in Ashley Roland’s Beat, particularly his performance on the Pritzker Pavillion stage in Millenium Park.

Special thanks to Catherine Tully of 4dancers.org for her continuous and generous encouragement and insight. Thanks lady!

Dance writing-wise, I’m thankful for the opportunity to write for Front Desk Chicago, Windy City Times, 4dancers and Dance Magazine.

I could go on (and on…), but tomorrow is a new year and I look forward to seeing more incredible dancing and dancers in our most awesome city. Happy New Year!

 

The Snow Scene

 

Snow Queen in "The Nutcracker" with Alexei Khimenko. Photo by someone's dad?

The other day I was home working on my November column for Windy City Times.?My iTunes genius list was set to “classical”. A little Corigliano, some Yo Yo Ma and then more familiar music came on. Music I’ve known intimately for years. I first remember being moved by it when I was much younger. I was in the kitchen of the house I grew up in. The rest of my family was downstairs watching who knows what (probably basketball), but I was upstairs standing in the kitchen watching Baryshnikov’s The Nutcracker on PBS.

It was the beginning of the snow scene – or snow pas. Misha had just magically turned from a “wooden” soldier to a prince and was asking Gelsey Kirkland (“Clara”) to dance. The setting was beautiful and romantic. The dancing…well, it was Misha and Gelsey. It is still my favorite version of my favorite scene and I still watch it every year. And, yes, it still makes me cry (but don’t tell anyone, I have a reputation to uphold).

Luckily, I got to dance a version of the snow pas many times in Springfield. I still get a little tingly with anticipation (and a bit nauseated with nerves) when I hear the first few notes. Walking out to do the pas was nerve-wracking, but once you got through it, you were home free for the rest of the scene. The flakes come on and you get a break, then basically just a few quick jump passes and lifts? – oh, how I love the lifts, especially when? your partner is 6’5″ – and you’re already in the blizzard. Slow down, resolution, make it snow and scene.

I know it’s only the beginning of November, but the snow scene will happen, real and on stage, soon! So here’s a little something to get you in the mood.

 

Happy Anniversary to RB!

Last week – September 24th to be exact – Rogue Ballerina turned 3! While there are ups and downs to having a one-person-pony-show dance blog (up: getting to see tons of kick-ass dance, down: burn out, making very little $ – read 0.00), and while I honestly consider scrapping the whole thing about once a week (sometimes daily), I’m still having a helluva good time doing it. I get to meet amazing artists one-on-one (even if it’s via phone) and discuss what they love passionately. I’ve been exposed to genres and styles I never would have come across in my normal “post-dancer/civilian” life and my knowledge base and tastes have evolved exponentially (I am now a full-fledged Forsythe fan!).

Going over some of the posts from the last year, my belief that Chicago is a world-class city for dance has only grown. From the big dogs like Hubbard Street Dance Chicago and Joffrey Ballet, to small start-ups like Leopold Group and Elements Contemporary Ballet and everything in between, the Windy City has myriad opportunities to see great dance and a ceaseless artistic creativity that is unmatched.

Someone recently told me they appreciated my enthusiasm. While I’m certain some find it annoying, it was greatly appreciated. I see myself more as a cheerleader for all dance in Chicago as opposed to a critic (although I sure do have my opinions).

On the writing front in the past year, I took over the monthly dance column at Windy City Times, covered the sixth annual Chicago Dancing Festival as one of the official bloggers for the second year in a row and had the pleasure of writing Hubbard Street’s Robyn Mineko Williams’ transition notice for Dance Magazine, as well as my usual gigs as a culture writer for Front Desk Chicago and CS Magazine. Other noteworthy events – and there are way too many to list here – include interviewing Twyla Tharp (terrifying!), singing “Happy Birthday” to Ann Reinking and seeing Batsheva Dance Company, Merce Cunningham Dance Company on the final leg of The Legacy Tour and the American Ballet Theatre (live) and the Paris Opera Ballet perform Giselle live (via simulcast).

Goals for the upcoming year include officially meeting fellow dance lover Mayor Rahm Emanuel (instead of just smiling and nodding in passing at events – an interview would be stellar!) and moving forward with a book project (or two) near and dear to my heart and possibly throwing some advertising up on this mug.

Thanks to everyone who reads RB!

Feeling the love,

Vicki

 

 

 

 

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 l? brain is fried and Seabiscuit needs a nap.

Happy Spring!

The Power of Love

ABT's Yuriko Kajiya in "Giselle". Photo by Rosalie O'Connor.

If you like a good love story, then get thee to the Auditorium Theatre this weekend, poste-haste.? A romantic tale on par with Romeo and Juliet takes over the stage with some of the top ballet dancers in the world bringing the action to life.? Originally created in 1841 for the Paris Opera Ballet (they are coming to Chicago this summer for the first time ever!), Giselle tells the story of a young peasant girl who falls in love with a prince, only to find out he is betrothed to another.? She goes mad, dies of a broken heart, then proceeds to come back from the grave to save her love from an untimely death.? Drama.

American Ballet Theatre (ABT) brings its version of “the quintessential Romantic ballet” to town for five performance starting tomorrow.? The lead roles of Giselle, Prince Albrecht and Myrta, Queen of the Wilis are some of the most sought after in ballet.? On top of difficult technical feats, the dancer must add emotion and dramatic acting skills to aid the plot while making it all look easy.? And the women are dead in Act II!?? It takes a tremendous amount of technique to do a series of entr? chats and look as if you are other-worldly.? Of course, there are artistic choices to be made.? Some Albrecht’s play the cad who later tragically regrets his actions.? Some Giselle’s commit suicide with her lover’s sword.? For real-life couple Yuriko Kajiya and Jared Matthews (both soloists who will be debuting as Giselle and Albrecht in ABT’s version this Sunday, March 25th) they rely on the power of love.? Matthew’s Albrecht is truly in love with Giselle and Kajiya’s Giselle dies of a broken heart, yet relies on her love for him to save his life in Act II.? “Albrecht is a role you aspire to achieve and work on,” said Matthews.? “It’s more than just about dance, you have to bring them into your world.”? Kajiya has the dual challenge of the dramatic mad scene at the end of Act I and then switching into Wili-mode for Act II.? She’s been working with her coach Irina Kolpakova on the nuances of the character.? “In Act II, the upper body has to change,” she said.? “You have to be very much forward.? That helps with the illusion.”? But Matthews adds, “It takes a lot of work to make her look weightless.”

ABT's Jared Matthew's in "Le Corsaire". Photo by MIRA.

The duo have performed together often outside of the company and have even performed Act II of Giselle together, but they have never performed the full-length ballet together until now.? The couple met as teenagers while in ABT’s Studio Company (now ABT II) and have been together romantincally for eight years, literally growing up physically and artistically side by side.? ( I spoke with them separately from NY on consecutive days off.) “We have a huge passion for ballet,” Kajiya said.? “We love and know each other so well.? We work really well together in and out of the studio.”? Matthews agreed, “We both want the same things and we’re both willing to put in the time…refining and honing, growing and changing…to become better artists. We have the same goals.” With vastly different backgrounds – she is from Japan and moved to China to study ballet at age ten, he grew up in Texas – they both came to know of ABT via the screen.? Matthews remembers watching Baryshnikov on television and Kajiya saw videos of the company at school and on the big screen in the movie Centerstage.? It is another love story that has them ending up at the same place together now.

They have fond memories of Chicago having danced in the first two years of the Chicago Dancing Festival at Pritzker Pavilion.? Some may remember them as well from a July 2010 guest appearance on So You Think You Can Dance, where they performed the second act pas de deux from Don Quixote.? “Every few minutes, someone would come by to remind us that the show was live,” said Kajiya.? Executive Producer and judge Nigel Lithgoe had seen her perform at a gala and asked her if she’d like to perform on the show.? Matthews said, “The air conditioning was on high, which made the floor slick like ice.? Once we were out there dancing, it was fun.”

Come see Kajiya and Matthews fall in love again on stage this Sunday with live music by the Chicago Sinfonietta.? This story of romance, love, betrayal and forgiveness, set to the achingly gorgeous score by Adolphe Adam is not to be missed.

American Ballet Theatre performs Giselle at the Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress Pkwy.

Thurs & Friday, March 22-23 at 7:30 pm, Saturday, March 24 at 2 & 8 pm, and Sunday, March 25 at 2 pm.

Tickets are $32-$137. Call 800.982.2787 or visit ticketmaster.com.

 

 

 

In The Wings

Waiting in the wings for your first entrance in a performance is one of the most exciting and terrifying moments for a dancer – at least in my experience. Nerves, adrenaline, fear and anticipation mix with knowledge, practice, talent and confidence to catapult you out on your cue. My blog is my stage now and I wanted to let you know some of the things that are coming up!

I’ve had a great response to interview requests so far (full disclosure: I’ve pretty much been asking friends or dancers with whom I’ve worked) and I’m still waiting on permission to re-print a couple of previous interviews. Check out the list of awesome local artists that will be featured here soon:

  • Cheryl Mann – photographer, former dancer Hubbard Street Dance Chicago
  • Carrie Hanson – Artistic Director, The Seldoms
  • Calvin Kitten – dancer Joffrey Ballet
  • Margi Cole – Artistic Director, The DanceCOLEctive

And…drum roll please…former American Ballet Theatre principal dancer Cynthia Harvey has agreed to do an interview from New York via email!! I know, she really has nothing to do with the Chicago dance scene, but it’s Cynthia Harvey!

Also in the works, an interview with some of the tappers involved with the new Cirque du Soleil show Banana Shpeel opening in November.

I’m off to opening night of Joffrey’s Othello. Merde to all the dancers. I can’t wait to see it.