Dancer Spotlight: Hubbard Street’s Emilie Leriche

Hubbard Street dancer Emilie Leriche. Photo on left by Quinn B Wharton. Photo on right by Todd Rosenberg.

“I’m an old soul,” Emilie Leriche said. At 20, she’s the youngest main company dancer at Hubbard Street Dance Chicago. She’s also the first dancer to come up through the Hubbard Street ranks entirely from attending Youth Summer Intensives all the way to joining the main company earlier this year. “I’ve done every step on the ladder.” If you haven’t seen her dance, you should. She’s stunning.

Leriche took her first dance class in Santa Fe, NM “because my babysitter danced”. As a self-proclaimed tomboy, soccer was more her style, but she quickly found a love for the art. “I didn’t want to go to ballet class, ” she said. ” She [Mom] forced me into a leotard and kicked me into dance class and, I don’t know, I just liked it.” Proving a natural, she auditioned and was accepted into the Walnut Hill School for the Arts, leaving home at 14 to attend the school full-time for three years. “I had to go,” said Leriche. “This is what I had to do.”

She attended workshop intensives on her summers off including Hubbard Street’s for younger dancers in Los Angeles. The summer before her senior year, she came to the older/advanced dancer intensive in Chicago and was offered an apprenticeship with the second company at age 17. “It was another situation where I had do.” Leriche finished her high school courses online and danced with the second company, HS2, for two years before being promoted to the main company this year. “It’s been really crazy and whirlwindy,” she said.

As a member of HS2, Leriche had to chance last year to perform with the main company in the premiere of resident choreographer Alejandro Cerrudo’s evening-length One Thousand Pieces inspired by Chagall’s America Windows, which the company revisits “by popular demand” this weekend at the Harris Theater. She credits being in the same room with the main company as a learning experience that taught her about professionalism and productivity. “Resetting it has given us the chance to set everything and fix things. It’s given us the chance to beautify it. At this point, we’re excited to get into the theater,” she said. “You hit that point where you say, ‘We’re ready. Let’s do it!’”

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago presents Alejandro Cerrudo’s One Thousand Pieces at the Harris Theater, 205 E. Randolph Dr., December 12-15. Performance times vary. Tickets are $25-$99; call 312.850.9744 or visit hubbardstreetdance.com/winter.

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.

Watch Out For Team McQueen!

Dancer/choreographer Jeremy McQueen. Photo by Eduardo Patino.

If you haven’t heard of Jeremy McQueen; you will. The New York-based dancer/choreographer has had quite a year – and it’s only June! McQueen was one of three choreographers to win Joffrey Ballet‘s Choreographers of Color Award (2013), culminating in the world premiere of his Black Iris at the Harris Theater this past March. Last week he wrapped up teaching a workshop for Motion 41 Dance in Omaha, Nebraska, while last Friday, his new work Au bord de l’eau (At the water’s edge) premiered at Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri. Later this summer, he’ll present a new commissioned work at the Fire Island Dance Festival along with nine other choreographers including Lar Lubovitch and Christopher Wheeldon. In August, he competes as a finalist (for the second year in a row) for Capezio’s Award for Choreographic Excellence (ACE).

McQueen grew up in San Diego, California and began studying music (violin, flute, piano) at an early age and by eight was active in children’s theater. It wasn’t until he was picked on and bullied in 6th grade P.E. class that he opted to take dance as an alternative. While attending a performing arts high school for music, his love of dance really took hold. He then attended the Ailey School/Fordham University, graduating in 2008 with a B.F.A. in Dance. “I just kind of threw myself into a professional career auditioning for whatever,” said McQueen. “I always talk about being well-rounded, so I do see myself as a dancer, but I also do music and theater. I kept my skills up in those areas, so that when I graduated I might have a better shot with different opportunities. I didn’t know what door would open first.” His musical theater background served him well. He was cast in Contact in a Boston-area theater, did two years of the Radio City Christmas Spectacular as well as the national tours of The Color Purple and Wicked. “I always tell people I know what it means to persevere and have patience and faith,” he said. “Wicked was always a show I wanted to be in. I auditioned about nine times over the course of four years before I got the job, but here I was at 23 and I was in the show.”

Leaving the cast without another job lined up was a leap of faith for McQueen, but he was ready to pursue other dreams and goals. Earlier, in 2008, while frustrated with the “audition grind” and missing concert dance, he had gathered a group of friends to “play” in the studio in between projects to see what he could do creating choreography. That turned into a project-based company affectionately called “Team McQueen” and proved to be a blessing after he left the touring circuit. This Friday, Team McQueen will dance (again, for the second year in a row) on the outdoor Inside/Out stage at Jacob’s Pillow. “Choreography was a creative outlet I wanted to explore. I knew that was a long-term goal of mine,” he said. “I really didn’t have a lot of expectations when I started. I wanted to see what I could say with it, not necessarily what I could do or get. I love seeing my vision come to life on stage. It’s been the greatest experience of my life to see my own voice develop through other people.”

For Jacob’s Pillow, McQueen and Team will be presenting three works. Black Iris, the classic, contemporary ballet piece (en pointe) McQueen created on the Joffrey Academy dancers earlier this year, was inspired by artist Georgia O’Keeffe’s painting Black Iris III and represents the strong black women in his life including his mother, godmother and aunt. Dancer Nardia Boodoo, who originated the role in Chicago, will again be the lead. Also dancing in the work, is former Joffrey dancer Brian Gephart, who danced for two seasons with the Atlantic Ballet Theatre of Canada and recently moved to New York City. Gephart and McQueen met in 2006 while attending the San Francisco Ballet summer program and reconnected in April. “It’s such a treat to get to work with someone with that uniquely Broadway-grounded eye for detail and precision and yet have the movement quality from Ailey in the same person,” Gephart said (via email). Gephart is also the lead in another work on the program, an excerpt from a full-length work titled What Lies Within. This piece for seven male dancers has six of them representing the lead dancer’s insecurities. “It’s been a fabulous creation process of letting me explore movement based on my ballet foundation, where I feel so at home, but ultimately working to strip it down to a more pedestrian, relatable place,” he said. “It’s one of those special opportunities where the role pushes you as an artist to something beyond just technique and turns. Making it be ‘human’ and not a ‘dancer’ has been delightfully a stretch for me.”

The final work on the program – the aforementioned Au bord de l’eau – was created in residency with the Ailey School and Stephen’s College and pays tribute to women fighting breast cancer. McQueen has a close friend that is going through this struggle and her beauty and strength inspired him. Discolored nails, losing your hair and even your breast(s) are obvious and notable side effects. “When you go through chemotherapy, you’re in a big room with other people that are in your same situation. There’s a sense of community and mutual support,” he said. “This pays tribute to the courage that women go through in their quest to maintain their femininity during breast cancer.” The all-female piece has the dancers clad in long, pink chiffon skirts, nude bras and 29″ wigs.

The 27-year-old choreographer tends to tackle social issues that have effected his life. And with all his recent success, it doesn’t look like he’ll be stopping any time soon. “People constantly ask me if this is where I thought I’d be at this point in my life. I always tell them no,” said McQueen. “I’ve completely exceeded my expectations of anything I thought I could do. This year has been a blessing. To really see these opportunities unfold has been incredible. I feel so blessed. I’m really trying to live in the moment and enjoy it.”

The Jacob’s Pillow performance will take place Friday, June 28 at 6 pm on the Henry J. Leir Stage and Marcia & Seymour Simon Performance Space, 358 George Carter Road, Becket, MA. Tickets are free.

Dancer Spotlight: Nigel Campbell

GöteborgsOperans Danskompani dancer Nigel Campbell.

A couple of weeks can make all the difference. Right after a well-received March performance of Luna Negra Dance Theater‘s Made in Spain, dancer Nigel Campbell found himself out of work. The company announced the dancers would be put on an extended hiatus effectively making the current dancers at least temporarily unemployed. Little did we know that Campbell was planning to leave at the end of the season and quickly convinced his new boss, GöteborgsOperans Dankompani Artistic Director Adolphe Binder, to let him join the Swedish contemporary company early. “Initially she told me no, because it was pretty much the end of the season” he said. “She wrote me back two days later and said I could come on as a cover and start learning things for next season. I’ll always be indebted to her.” After a quick pit stop home in New York, Campbell moved to Sweden and just danced in his first performance with the company earlier this month as a replacement for dance/choreographer/rehearsal director Fernando Melo who is on paternity leave (yes, they get that!).

RB spoke with Campbell via Skype on a Sunday evening after he got settle in Sweden. Here are excerpts from our conversation:

Alright, I’m recording this shit. Hi! How are you? What time is it there?

12:30. I had kind of an easy day and I have tomorrow off since they had the show today. I just went to see it. It was absolutely incredible. I’ve only been here two weeks. Everything has happened so fast that I haven’t had time to process it. I’m waiting for the moment to hit me. It’s kind of a blessing.

Why that company? How did you get there?

I was going to join the company next season. It wasn’t official yet and I had just spoken to Gustavo [Ramirez Sansano] about it a few days before everything happened, so I hadn’t made it public yet. I had been aware of the company for quite some time and it has a really good reputation and recently has shifted its focus to very contemporary work and creation and lots of risk taking. Of course at Luna we worked with Fernando [Melo] twice. I had a good rapport and relationship with him. The opportunity presented itself for me to be here and I thought it was a really good opportunity and new information, because it’s really different. It’s an institution. It’s an opera house and there are 40 dancers. It’s completely different from the way I was working at Luna. I was very happy, but I’ve always had this idea for my life where I have lots of different experiences and try on lots of different hats and live in different places. What I’ve always liked about dance is that you get to have so many lives. I’m young and I want to try on lots of different hats. This hat presented itself and it was something I needed to take advantage of. I’m still processing everything. It happened so fast.

How is your body?

Ohhhh. My body is in a bit of shock. I had two weeks to get everything in order to move here. There was a move from Chicago to New York and then New York to Sweden. I didn’t really have time to dance during those two weeks and I was lugging around suitcases and boxes and I’m jet lagged. I jumped into rehearsals here and it’s a very physical piece as well and completely different way of moving from what I’ve been focusing on for the past three years. My body is quite in shock. It hurts, but it’s good. We have physical therapy and massage therapy every day. My body is starting to get used to things. Everything is starting to settle, which is nice.

Talk about Mr. Nigel. Where did you grow up? When did you start dancing?

I’m from the Bronx. I started dancing at a studio in Brooklyn, because my mother’s family is from Brooklyn and we went to church in Brooklyn. This school was affiliated with the church that I went to. I was about 12, which is quite late to start dancing.  They trained me to get into LaGuardia High School for the Performing Arts which is the ‘Fame’ school. The school the movie was based on. That was my introduction to formal training. I was taking ballet every day and the Graham technique. That was when I started to become a bit more serious about my training. I felt like I had a lot of catching up to do, so I really pushed myself. It was dancing all the time and taking four or five classes a day. Also, because I don’t have a natural body for dance. I’m not very flexible. I worked really hard and I graduated from La Guardia and went to Juilliard. That was a very intense experience. I call it the best/worst experience of my life. It’s everything. It’s so full. When people ask, ‘how was it at Juilliard? Was it amazing?’ It was amazing. I cried and I laughed and I met people who are my closest friends in the world. I learned so much, but it’s difficult. They’re pushing you to be incredible. It takes a lot of work and dedication. There are a lot of big fish from small ponds all coming together and you’re all really talented and different. It can be difficult. This is also really beautiful. I went there for four years. It has informed a lot of my choices throughout my life.

And after you graduated?

I graduated in 2008 and moved to Germany. I danced for Marguerite Donlon for two years. That was my first job out of college. Maggie was awesome. I’d lived my entire life in NYC. It’s such a fast pace. I love the energy and fast pace, so when I moved to this small town in Germany, my whole life was flipped upside down in the most amazing way. Everything was new. I didn’t know anyone. I don’t know the culture. I don’t speak the language. I’ve never worked professionally. For the first time, I’m very far away from my family and friends. This was exciting. It was a chance for me to reinvent myself and decide who I was at that moment. At Juilliard, there’s an encouragement to explore Europe. There’s a lot of dancers from the school who are dancing in Europe. I spent all of this time worrying that no one would want me, but taking classes in Europe, I thought I could actually do this. I could be a professional. It was really fresh and new and amazing. Maggie nurtured me and built my confidence. I got to dance a lot when I was there. There were 20 of us. She believed in me. She put me on stage. I grew a lot in those two years. I had to discover my own identity.

What brought you to Chicago?

I heard about Gustavo while I was dancing in Europe. He was already quite famous in Europe. I was on my first summer holiday, my first vacation. I went to visit my friend in Madrid, he was dancing for Nacho Duato. I went to a show. It was a two-billed program. One by Nacho and one by Gustavo. I saw this and immediately fell madly in love with him. I didn’t know him. I didn’t know anything about him. I thought why don’t I know him? This is everything I love about dance and nothing that I hate. I went home to New Yrok and talked to my friend Sarah, who was dancing with Luna Negra under Eduardo Vilaro. She said she thought Gustavo was taking over and in the fall it was announced that he was taking over the company. I didn’t have his email or anything, so I sent him a message on Facebook. I was apprehensive, because it seemed so unorthodox. I told him I’d been following his work and I’d love the opportunity to physicalize his work on my body. I sent him a link to some video clips, but I didn’t expect anything from him. I felt in my spirit that I needed to let him know how I felt. He wrote back quickly. I worked with TitoYaya [Sansano's Project in Spain] for a week. It was really difficult. After the audition in Chicago in April I was 100% down with him and ready to be a part. I finished the season in Germany and moved to Chicago to dance for Gustavo at Luna Negra. He delivered everything that I ever dreamed and expected and wanted him to deliver. He pushed me further that I thought anyone could push me. He demanded a lot of me. It was difficult and frustrating at times. It was scary. It was a different system. I’d never worked professionally in the States. I didn’t understand the complicated health care system. I didn’t understand the lay off system. There was a thing about the way he was working and creating and about his work that felt very much a part of who I am. It was difficult. Gustavo’s body can do these crazy things. My body can’t do that. It was a struggle to get inside of the work in my body. He gave us the freedom to discover his work in your own body. I connected to his physicality, to his musicality, his speed. Some of the actual physical things I had to figure out. There was an intellectual process behind it as well.  In looking at his work, there’s something so architectural. It’s so structural and everything fits together.  He sees it in his head. You can see it working in his head. I was 23 when I started with him. To work with someone that I really believed in and considered a genius…he opened me. He never allowed me to excuse myself. He would say, ‘I’m not going to let you say that you can’t do it. You have to figure it out. I believe that you are talented and intelligent enough to find out how to make it work.’ It was harsh, but always with a cushion of love and support. In that way, he pushed me further than anyone else ever has.

Is there anything you’d like to say “one the record” about what happened at Luna?

It was rough. I don’t think anyone planned it or wanted it to happen. It wasn’t a great situation for anyone. I don’t have any ill will toward the company. I wish Luna Negra all the best in the future. What I take from it is three years of really incredible work and really incredible people. I think we created something special.  I’m honored that I got to be part of something so special. I stand behind Gustavo 100%. I believe in his work and his vision and his artistic direction. That is always where my loyalty and where my conviction has been. I feel that my relationship with him is stronger and I’m thankful that he’s been so supportive of me and that he’s been so understanding. He’s been in my corner this entire time. I will always be part of the Luna Negra family and it will always be a part of my life. I really do wish them the best. I stand by Gustavo. It was time for me to move on and make a change. That was my personal decision. I think I’m a very positive person. I always try to look on the bright side of things. We all falter sometimes and our emotions get the best of us. After some time to think, I’m such a better person, a better dancer, a better artist three years later after having my experience in Chicago with Luna Negra. I’m really grateful for that. My love and loyalty and devotion is with Gustavo. I think he’s brilliant,. I think he’s the voice of a generation. He has the talent and intelligence to move the art form forward. I’m grateful that I got to have that experience. I’m really blessed. All I can do is be thankful for my life.

 

 

 

 

 

Joffrey’s Fabrice Calmels on being Othello

Joffrey Ballet's Fabrice Calmels and April Daly in "Othello". Photo by Herbert Migdoll.

At 6’6″ and 216 lbs, this 32-year-old Joffrey Ballet dancer stands out on stage…or anywhere. In 2009, landing the lead role in Lar Lubovitch’s Othello solidified him as a star. “It’s the ultimate role,” said Fabrice Calmels*. This week he revises this life-changing role as Joffrey presents the three-act ballet for a two-week run at the Auditorium Theatre before it is retired from the active repertory.

Calmels grew up outside Paris, France and began dancing at age three at a small school in Magnanville. By 10, he was studying at the Paris Opera Ballet School and by 16 things really began to change. “I became very tall and it became an issue,” he told me over tea last week. “They told me I wouldn’t do very well in the company, that I wouldn’t be dancing very much.” He came to the States to study and dance at The Rock School in Philadelphia, then traveled across the country auditioning. After a year dancing with Boston Ballet II, he accepted a spot with Joffrey in 2002. He’s now finishing his 11th season here in Chicago.

Being plagued with a back injury (two bulging discs) for almost a year hasn’t slowed him down much. He’s hard at work preparing for the Othello run, bulking up and building stamina. Calmels spoke with RB about dancing this signature role.

You’re almost a week before opening. What was your schedule like today?

We’ve been very meticulously working on the first act now for a few weeks trying to really get all the dancers to understand Lar Lubovitch’s style. Lar has a very specific style that’s very circular and grounded. When you’re dealing with younger dancers who’ve been training in mostly ballet, they’re up, up, up and he wants down, down, down. To get his style ingrained in your brain and to really feel confident takes a while. When you understand, it becomes easier. The second act came together really quick. Now we’re working on the third act. Today we ran the first and second act…not right away. We ran one, then had notes and then the second act and notes. I think tomorrow we’ll run all three acts and start getting momentum, because we need it.

This role made you a big star here. What are you doing to take it to the next level?

I follow different training. I want my body to be very strong and tense. I need that frame to be really solid, so I don’t hurt myself. I needed to gain weight. In a long run, you tend to lose weight because you’re so tired and overburning. I bulk up to become the character, one, and so I have the structure that I can handle the ballet. I’m working out a lot more. I’m working out my legs more. I run more. I do like ten miles every other day to build stamina in my legs. The last production my upper body was strong, but by the middle of the third act, my legs were burning. In terms of character, I want to completely submerge myself in the character and be able to be the character through the three acts. My goal this time is to stay in character, even though there’s intermissions, and see where it leads to. I want to be able to produce that all the way through. The character and the role is as important as the dancing. Otherwise, you lose the audience very quickly. They want to hear the story, they want to care, they want to hate you, the want to feel emotion. What will make a huge difference is what reads. It’s not a battement. It’s the emotion and the acting.

What does dancing the role of Othello mean to you?

The role Othello is really magic. It’s magic. I saw “Othello” when I was younger. Desmond (Richardson)…he’s a legend. There aren’t many that have done the role. To be asked to do it, at first it was a lot of weight. It’s huge. I feel really fulfilled. Thank you Lar. He’s a master to create such a piece. It’s a difficult role physically. It’s tense. It’s a marathon. You have to be powerful all the way to the end. 

You’re dancing with April Daly again. Do you find you’ve evolve as partners in these roles?

Of course. There’s the experience. The second shot. It’s the big problem in ballet, you get that one first shot. Now we can look back and see that we were able to do it, but the first time, it was a challenge for us. They were big roles for us. I think we were taking it a little bit too tense even though it was a good run. It was a huge risk for the Joffrey and it was a big deal. The second time around, we know we can deliver. We know what to do. We know how people reacted the first time, so we can do better. It can only go up. She knows she can trust me.

Are you nervous? Do you get nervous?

I’m a perfectionist. When I do well, I expect to do better. When I don’t get this, sometimes it really pisses me off. I want consistency. I hate roller coaster seasons. I hate roller coaster performances. I think they are the worst. I want to deliver great and above. That’s my only concern. It’s myself. I want to have always great, better, better.

Joffrey Ballet presents Lar Lubovitch’s Othello at the Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress Pkwy. Wednesday, April 24 – Sunday, May 5. Tickets are $31-$152. Call 800.982.2787 or visit joffrey.org/othello.

*Calmels performance schedule:

Wednesday, April 24 at 7:30 pm

Friday, April 26 at 7:30 pm

Saturday, April 27 at 7:30 pm

Saturday, May 4 at 2 pm

Sunday, May 5 at 2 pm

Dancer Spotlight: River North’s Ethan Kirschbaum

River North dancer Ethan Kirschbaum in Adam Barruch's "I Close My Eyes Until the End". Photo by Cheryl Mann.

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.

HS2′s Taryn Kaschock Russell: The Exit Interview

Hubbard Street 2 Director Taryn Kaschock Russell. Photo by Cheryl Mann.

On January 17th, Hubbard Street 2′s Artistic Director Taryn Kaschock Russell, rocked the Chicago dance world with this Facebook post: “After 17 amazing years in Chicago…I will be moving back to the east coast…”. You may think I’m being hyperbolic, but this petite powerhouse made a huge impact on the local dance scene. She will be missed. The impetus of the move comes via her husband Greg, who was recently named the new Company Manager for the New York City Ballet. “He started out at SAB (The School of American Ballet),” Kaschock Russell tells me over the phone from her West Loop HSDC office. “To be back managing the building that he learned in, some parts seem full circle.” The couple met while dancing with the Joffrey Ballet soon after the company made the transition to Chicago from New York in 1995.

Kaschock Russell grew up on the East Coast. She graduated high school early and planned on joining Boston Ballet II, but ended up at the Joffrey School in New York right before they declared bankruptcy – “It was a really amusing situation.” – and spent a year in NYC with her brother (dancing with David Parsons) and sister (on scholarship at Ailey). During her seven years at Joffrey, she made quite a name for herself in principal roles including the “Cowgirl” in Agnes de Mille’s Rodeo and as the first female outside of David Parson’s company to perform his six-minute, jump-laden solo Caught. In 2002, she joined Hubbard Street and was soon recognized as a “25 To Watch” in 2003 by Dance Magazine. After retiring from the stage, she began teaching and setting works for Hubbard St as part of the artistic staff – had a baby! – and in 2008, took over as director of the second company, HS2.

RB spoke with Kaschock Russell earlier this month about her career, leaving Chicago at the end of April and what’s next. Here are excerpts of our conversation:

First of all, I’m very sad, but happy for you too.

I know. It’s the same type of emotions I’m having too.

I know you from your Joffrey days. Let’s talk about Caught. Did your brother dancing for David Parsons have anything to do with you getting the part?

Yes and no. David knew me beforehand. I used to sit there and watch when it was only David doing the role. I remember sitting at City Center in the front wing when I was 15, watching David. I’m very proud of this story. I never went in and asked for anything, I didn’t believe in that. I believed in hard work and that should be acknowledged. But when I found great out that David was coming and that they were doing “Caught” that it was one of those opportunities in a career.  So I said, I’m going to get my shit together and I’m going to go in during my lay off and I’m going to tell Mr. Arpino that I just want to learn it. I want to be in the room. I know that women can’t do it, but I want to be in the room and learn it. I walked in and they had the schedule up during lay off, before I went to talk to him, and there were three names on the list to learn it. It was Davis Robertson, Harris Jones and me. I never said anything! He just put me in there.

I have to say, seeing you do that solo was one of the coolest things I’ve seen in Chicago dancing. It was so awesome to see a girl do it. How hard was it? It was all jumps! 

Thank you. It kicked my ass. Basically you have to keep jumping because you don’t know the timing of how the strobe works. It was a ton of trial and error. It is all jumping. After the first or second day, I’d blown out my quads. I had no idea what that was. I couldn’t walk up stairs. My legs kept giving out and then I’d have to go to rehearsal and they were like three-hour-a-day rehearsals. We would do it over and over again. I remember very vividly, he (David) pulled me aside after having me do something like ten more times than the guys did it and he said, “You just bought yourself a matinee missy, if this company will let me put a woman on”. It was really hard. First of all, it took a while to even have the stamina to do it. Still when I was in the wings before I went on, I would feel almost physically sick, because I knew how tired I would be at the end. At the same time, the audience experience is unreal. It’s like a rock performance. I knew that from watching him, but when you feel that and you’re on the stage and the whole audience freaks out that certainly ups the adrenaline. There’s that perseverance of I’m going to get through this.

You came to Hubbard Street in 2002. What made you switch?

I can’t believe I haven’t told you this story. One of the things I loved and was fortunate enough to grow up with was original creations, original choreography. At Joffrey, I got to do that a small amount, but it wasn’t happening quite as often. I had been watching Hubbard Street for years. We always traded tickets. The first inkling when I considered Hubbard Street was after I had just seen NDT’s (Nederlands Dans Theatre) performance of “Petite Mort” on an arts channel. It was the very first piece of choreography on television that made me cry. It was so beautiful and so unexpected and musical. I swear within a week of me seeing it, we got a newsletter at Joffrey saying that Hubbard Street had acquired “Petite Mort”! I remember freaking out. I went to see it and it was right after they’d learned it, so I think the company was still settling in to that kind of partnering, so the experience of watching it from the third balcony at the Shubert didn’t match how I felt watching NDT do it. I thought,ok, I’m still where I’m supposed to be right now. I was kind of getting a bug where I wanted to do more contemporary work, but I wasn’t there yet. Then I had a life-changing experience at Joffrey dancing “Appalachian Spring”. Yuriko Kikuchi came in to set it. The entire experience for me changed a lot of how I was viewing performance or what I get out when I’m learning. She was so giving. She’s very demanding, but so rich with information and not any part of that information felt selfish. She just wanted it to be ours and to watch it grow. It really was profound, the entire exchange and getting to dance that role and working with her. By the time I got to the stage, all I wanted to do was live in it and perform it in that way. I don’t think I’d experienced anything to that point. The process of learning it and putting it on stage was perfect in so many ways. At the same time, I was at a party with Cheryl Mann. She was going through the exact same kind of profound experience (at Hubbard Street). She said, “There’s this man, Ohad Naharin.” She started to describing the initial time he was there for “Minus 16″.  The improvisation, pushing them outside their envelopes, telling stories, how he was using their vocals and everything that went into mounting that first “Minus 16″. So she and I made a pact. She was going to come see “Appalachian Spring” and I would go to see “Minus 16″. They had done “Petite Mort” in that program and then the last thing was “Minus 16″. That time “Petite Mort” floored me. I was in tears. The way they were dancing together was seamless. And “Minus 16″ sealed everything. I think I looked at Patrick Simonello, who was with me, and said, “What am I doing with my life? And why am I not doing this?” It changed everything. I certainly had never thought of staying in Chicago. When you change companies, you normally move cities. I thought I’d go to Europe, or San Francisco or another ballet company. That performance just did it. That’s what I want to do with my life. I wanted to do the work, which made a huge difference and why I’m still here.

HS2 ladies: Emilie Leriche, Alicia Delgadillo, Taryn Kaschock Russell, Felicia McBride and Lissa Smith. Photo by Todd Rosenberg.

Tell me about the transition from dancing to artistic staff.

One of the reasons I stopped dancing specifically is that we were touring so much and I wanted to have a family and that wasn’t working out. It just wasn’t happening. I stopped dancing in December and within a month, Jim (Vincent) asked me to come back to set a piece. Julie (Nakagawa) and Andreas (Böttcher) had just resigned, so there was an interim year where HS2 had a rehearsal director and trying to figure out what to do. I set one piece on second company and shortly after they named me rehearsal director. It wasn’t a full-time contract. I didn’t go on tour, but when the company was here, I was here. Two months after I stopped dancing, I got pregnant. So I was rehearsal director and going back to school (studying Psychology at Northwestern) and pregnant. I really was crazy. I was responsible for remounting works from scratch. I started teaching class for the company. The transition was really smooth. Right after I had Donovan, they had a conversation with me about working with the second company. Basically, from the second I started working with the second company, it was history, because I just fell so in love. I came in the first day. My first group was with Jacqueline (Burnett, Hubbard St.) and Eduardo (Zuniga, Luna Negra) and Ethan (Kirchbaum, River North) How could you not fall in love with them? They were so hungry for information. I started giving corrections on a piece I already knew and the amount that it impacted them within 24 hours was so profound that I was floored. It was two things. It was exhilarating and beautiful and it was scary as hell. They will take what I say and it will mean this much to them. It will make an impact in their lives. The responsibility of it was overwhelming. It was the same way with becoming a new parent. The opportunity to impact lives in that way and help produce change that was meaningful for them. And to just give, in the same way, strangely enough, that I feel Yuriko had given to me. The way she gave to me made me want to give the same way to other people.

What is your teaching/mentoring philosophy?

I’m a little bit crazy. I’m not kidding. I make a fool out of myself every single day, multiple times a day. I’m so not self-conscious about who I am that they feel more comfortable being who they are and I make sure that can happen. I really, truly believe that HS2 needs to be a safe environment for exploration. I give this lecture every single year. You walk into that room and you are there to support each other. You support each others’ failures and successes. You root for everyone to succeed. Not everywhere is like that. I feel that the second company’s experience needs to be a place where they can try and fail in order to get to where they’re going to get to next. You have to fail. You have to fail in big ways and small ways and be able to try things that are ridiculous. The room is a safe room. I really look at everyone individually and try to develop groups that will work to feed off each other’s strengths and weaknesses. I would never want a group of individuals that is very similar, because there’s not enough diversity in the room to add. Everyone comes in with their own experiences and it adds to how everyone grows. They see each other change and I think it helps them. Nobody should want to leave two years later as the same person. They want to be transformed. My directing is trial and error. I’m trying things out. If it doesn’t work, I try other things. I don’t walk in with the answers. I walk in with every bit of information that I have and I give them everything that I have. Even if it’s “I don’t know”. I’m very honest. I try to be extremely honest about what their strengths and weaknesses are even when it’s hard. There are always difficult moments. It takes a lot of confidence on my own part to sit down and know that I’m not going to make someone hate me by saying something difficult. That’s growing up on my part. Laughter. Laughter is enormous. It’s allowing emotion to be shown. Our pieces are set up that they’re theatrical. They’re contemporary internal. They’re always asking for “you” to be in there. Your personality has to be in there. Especially for 18 to 25-year-olds, that can be super uncomfortable. Allowing the time to be ridiculous and silly in that safe atmosphere. You need to be somewhere where you aren’t judged for trying.

What advice would you give to the next director of HS2? 

Allow yourself to be changed. Observe and learn from the people you’re directing. People learn from example. I love the education outreach we do. I believe in it so wholeheartedly. My love for those things goes to my dancers. My willingness to think outside the box in situations and create site-specific improves so they look the best. As I open my mind to things, their minds are open as well, because they see the person in front of the room be excited and inspired. Also, believing the dancers are really special. They are special and they are worth serious investment. Each group of them will change. Adapt to your companies and leading them with strong examples without fear. If you’re asking them to give all of that to you and to create a safe environment, then you have to do it too. You have to lead by example.

What’s in your future in New York?

One of the things I’d like to do is stop touring. He’ll be touring some, so I want to take the opportunity to be the one not leaving. I’ve been fortunate to be able to have worked with a lot of choreographers and NYC isn’t a small dance town. I’ve developed some friendships. I’ve put out some feelers at university programs. That age group fascinates me because they want to learn. But I would be lying if I didn’t say some of the companies there would be interesting to work with. I’m not going towards one thing there. I’m looking forward to spending a little time and teaching in different places and figuring out what might make the most sense. I’m pretty non-committal. My first priority is getting settled and finding where we want Donovan to be in Kindergarten.

 

Tutu Talk with Jennifer Goodman

She’s sweet like the Sugar Plum Fairy she will portray in the Ruth Page Civic Ballet‘s The Nutcracker starting this weekend. Local audiences know Jennifer Goodman, 38, from her 16-year tenure at Joffrey Ballet, 13 of it here in the Windy City, where she made a memorable impression in Nutcrackers past as Clara, a variety of variations and, yes, the Sugar Plum Fairy. Since leaving Joffrey in 2009, the Michigan native has enjoyed a lush freelance career dancing for Ballet NY, Ballet X, The Met, Lyric Opera, Chicago Opera Theater, Dallas Opera and will be dancing at the San Diego Opera next year. But first, it’s Nutcracker time. Goodman’s cavalier will be former Joffrey dancer Calvin Kitten (Hi Calvin!) this weekend, former River North Dance Chicago dancers Luke Manley next weekend, then she heads to Minnesota to dance with another former Joffrey-ite Matthew Prescott (Hi Romeo!).

RB sat down with the petite ballerina to talk pointe shoes (Freed), freelancing, yoga (she trained at Core Power Yoga) and, of course Nutcracker.

Since you’ve done The Nut a billion times, how do you keep it fresh?

Being Sugar Plum as a freelancer, it’s easier to keep it fresh. I pretty much do my version, a pretty classic version. Each show is new. Sugar Plum is easy because it’s technically challenging and the music is so beautiful. I enjoy it so much that every time I go out there; I feel it. Clara was more difficult. The last time I did it I was 34. I love doing story ballets. It takes you out of being just you. It’s fun to go somewhere else and become a character. Definitely as I’ve gotten older I’ve enjoyed taking on those roles. That helps keep it fresh.

What’s a typical performance day for you? Do you have any routines or superstitions?

I try to stay away from superstitions. I try to catch myself. As far as routine, especially if I’m guesting and there isn’t class offered, I have an order of how I get ready. I do my make up, then my hair and then I go warm up. I have a routine I do. I’ve noticed, because there is so much time to wait during the second act before you go on…with that anticipation, you go crazy, so I end up going over the whole thing with just my arms. Calvin and I have a routine for Ruth Page. We do our opening, we go off to the side, we sit, we chat, we stretch. Sometime around Russian, we stand up and move around a bit. At Flowers we stretch a bit more and then at a certain point in the music, we part. I go to my side of the stage, he goes to his. I’ll go over the pas de deux with my arms right up until we need to go and then we blow each other kisses.

 

Jennifer Goodman and Calvin Kitten in Joffrey Ballet's The Nutcracker. Photo by Herbert Migdoll.

You’ve been dancing with him for almost 20 years.

One year he came in the morning of the first show. We didn’t even touch each other. It was one of our best shows. He knows me. He knows my movement. It’s pretty cool.

How is it switching partners from week to week?

It’s definitely different. We’re all professionals, so it’s not that hard. Especially with Calvin and Matthew. I have to do a little more with Calvin just because of the height.

When did you start to get certified in yoga and how have you incorporated that into your dance life? How has it changed your dancing?

Last summer, I did a week intensive teacher training. Prior to that, in New York, I started taking more classes. What drew me into it even more than just the physicality was dealing with problems personally and wanting to heal what I’d been going through. Yoga is so good for that because there is so much positivity and self-love it really touched me and helped me get through. When I came here and did the week of training, I just loved it. It built my confidence up so much more. After the training, I went to teach a ballet class and I noticed I was calmer when I taught and I was a lot more positive and confident.  I’m not going to worry about whether people are liking it or not or that I’m not doing the right thing. People have noticed, even doing Sugar Plum since last year, my confidence in the dancing and expressiveness I was giving out, not just worrying about the technical, was a lot freer.

Ruth Page Civic Ballet’s The Nutcracker at Northeastern Illinois University Auditorium, 3701 W. Bryn Mawr, Saturday, Dec. 1 at 7 pm and Sunday, Dec. 2 at 1 pm. Tickets are $18-$25. Call 773.442.4636 or visit www.boxoffice.neiu.edu/civic_ballet.

Performances on Saturday, Dec. 8 & 9 at 3 pm presented at Elgin Community College Arts Center, 1700 Spartan Dr, Elgin. Tickets are $20-$32. Call 847.622.0300.

 

Wunderkind Whittenburg

Zachary Whittenburg - photo by Todd Rosenberg.

If you’re at all familiar with the Chicago dance scene, you know his name.  He’s been a dancer, choreographer, teacher, student, panel moderator, writer, critic and “insatiable audience member.” Locally, he’s danced with Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, Lucky Plush Productions, Same Planet Different World Dance Theatre and Molly Shanahan/Mad Shak. After graduating high school two years early at age 16, he moved to Seattle to train at Pacific Northwest Ballet School and joined the company at 18. After three years at PNB performing works by choreographers ranging from George Balanchine to William Forsythe, he moved cross-country to dance with North Carolina Dance Theatre, where he was a soloist for a season before coming to Chicago to dance with Hubbard Street for two years.

He then traveled for a year performing Crystal Pite’s choreography with Les Ballets jazz de Montréal. He’s also written for many publications and websites including Flavorpill, See Chicago Dance, Windy City Times, Hoy Chicago, Time Out Chicago, Dance Magazine, Pointe Magazine, Dance International magazine (where he recently got the cover story!), Dance Teacher magazine, Dance Spirit magazine as well as his own blog, trailerpilot. Zac Whittenburg: wunderkind, indeed.

Now, Whittenburg is taking his career in a new direction. Almost a decade after dancing with Hubbard Street, he returns to join the external affairs team at the beginning of an exciting landmark season that will include a full-length world premiere by resident choreographer Alejandro Cerrudo, a work by Swedish choreographer Mats Ek and a collaboration with Alonzo King LINES Ballet.

I spoke with him over Labor Day weekend, just before he started in his new position.

When you danced with Hubbard Street, which choreographer or pieces were your favorites or that you had a deep experience with?


I’ll never forget the experience of learning “Minus 16″ [by Ohad Naharin]. It’s probably the piece I performed most when I was in the company. I might’ve done over 100 performances of it in two years. It’s such an extraordinary piece. It asks so much of the dancers as artists. We did a piece by Jirí Kylían for five dancers called “No More Play.” It runs like a wristwatch, the way the characters and the vocabulary intersect with each other, and how the sections turn from one into the next. I’d never been so close to something that was built that way. I learned so much about choreography just by being involved with that.

Why did you leave Hubbard Street?


Well, there are two answers to that question. A dancer’s career is very short, and things run their course. And it was around the time that I became aware of Crystal Pite’s choreography. I saw a video of “Short Works: 24,” which I think was the first piece she made while she was in residence [at Les Ballets jazz de] Montréal. I was aware of her when she was a member of Frankfurt Ballet, which sort of became today’s Forsythe Company, but hadn’t seen her choreography before. I wasn’t aware of the things she was doing using Forsythe’s movement vocabulary in a dance theater context. I thought that was really fascinating, and that she was doing it with a lot of intelligence and humor. I wanted to work with her. I had the wonderful fortune of doing Crystal’s evening-length work ["The Stolen Show"] all over Canada and in Asia and in the United States. To get to see so much of the world, and to have the reason for that travel be that you’re bringing this work to audiences all over…it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. There was a sense of purpose. A feeling that we were a company of ambassadors for contemporary dance.

Let’s talk about your new gig at Hubbard Street. What is your official job title and what will you be doing?


I’m going to be the company’s manager of communication. I have a pretty good understanding of what I’ll be doing, but of course, I’m not in the chair yet. It’s a great position because there are a lot of different angles to it. A large part of it is press relations and working with media outlets to get the word out about what the company is doing. That said, that comes in a variety of flavors. The conversations that I had in the interview process…we were talking about how the media landscape is changing. Part of this job is going to be working on getting the word out about a company when the channels about how the word gets out about a contemporary dance company like Hubbard Street are changing. There are new channels opening, old channels closing, a whole new landscape of how people receive information. I’m thrilled to walk into the challenge of, how do you work with that, and how do you get the most out of what the current media landscape is, anticipate how it’s going to change in the future and use all of that to your advantage, to make sure people know what Hubbard Street is doing, make sure they are aware of the variety of things we do in addition to the production and stage work, and how those things relate to one another. I’m excited to talk about our partnerships with other institutions and put stories in places where the company hasn’t been covered before.

You’re coming in right at the beginning of the 35th Anniversary Season, which is a big deal. What do you expect to be doing on day one?


I know I have a meeting on Tuesday morning with some other managers. It’s great that literally the first thing I’ll do is touch base with people in other departments to see what they’re doing and what they have planned for the near future. I haven’t been in that building very much in the last eight years. I have a lot of catching up to do, not only meeting the people that make the magic happen, but what the company’s overall strategies are. There are a lot of things that I’ve already learned about the 35th Anniversary season and there’s a lot more that I don’t know yet, so I imagine a lot of it will be about finding my place in relation to all those initiatives, cooperating with the other team members and figuring out how I can help them.

You know I like to joke around about how we’re arch nemeses, but I hope you really know that I’m a huge fan. Your voice, not only in the Chicago dance scene, but nationally, is really important and you have a big fan base, so what does your new job mean for trailerpilot?

The blog still exists. When I was full-time at Time Out Chicago, I wasn’t posting a lot. At this point, I’ve got 426 posts on the blog. It’s a big archive and I will continue to make the annual payments to make sure people can find it. I’ve always been interested in things other than just dance and choreography. I’m glad I’ll still have a place, where, if I go see a film and really have something to say about it, I can. My voice will still be out there, I’m still on Twitter, although long form writing about dance isn’t appropriate while I’m manager of communication for a dance company. I think, just in going back over my career with you, over the phone this morning, it’s just been one episode after another of all of these different things I’ve done, and all of my various experiences constantly coming back around and intersecting and sort of morphing together in new ways. Writing is one of those things. I’m certain that will continue. I don’t have my mouth stapled shut, but Hubbard Street is going to be the star in my sky. I love the company. I love where it’s been and where it’s going. I’m really looking forward to helping them get in front of more people and new audiences.


Dance For Life Artist Spotlight: Lizzie MacKenzie

Dance For Life performer Lizzie MacKenzie.

“I love dance,” she said, eyes glistening with tears.  Meet Lizzie MacKenzie – a petite, blonde whose energy and blue eyes light up the room.  At 33 she has already lived lifetimes in the dance world.  When she was 12, she joined a friend for “Bring a Friend to Dance Day” in Toronto, Ontario and was hooked. “It was immediate,” MacKenzie said. “I got to kick my legs and spin around the room.  I didn’t know what I was doing, but I loved it.  From the first class I took, I knew it was what I was going to do forever.”

Since that fateful day, she graduated from Interlochen Center for the Arts, danced on scholarship and as an apprentice for Giordano Jazz Dance Chicago (now Giordano Dance Chicago – GDC) before joining the company for five seasons, studied in New York City and Los Angeles, danced with River North Dance Chicago (RNDC) for six years.  She started Extensions Dance Company while still dancing with RNDC and after “retiring” opened Extensions Dance Center.  She is also on staff at Chicago High School for the Arts, Visceral Dance Studio and Steps Dance Center (Naperville), and choreographs and performs as a freelance/independent artist.  If you’ve seen dance in Chicago in the last decade or so, you’ve seen her.  And, if you have seen her, you won’t soon forget it.  She radiates joy from the stage.

This Saturday, MacKenzie joins fellow Chicago dancers to perform in the 21st annual Dance For Life (DFL) at the Auditorium Theatre.  Dance For Life is a benefit dance performance bringing together local companies and artists for a one-night-only show to raise funding for the AIDS Foundation of Chicago and the Dancer’s Fund.  She’s performed in so many past DFL shows that she honestly can’t remember how many.  We settled on at least ten, where she participated in the finale choreographed by Randy Duncan (and one by Harrison McEldowney).  This year is no exception. MacKenzie dances in one of Duncan’s infamously difficult closing numbers and will be performing with Ron De Jesús DanceRB met MacKenzie at her studio to discuss her career and this year’s show.

What brought you to Chicago?

Nan Giordano came to Interlochen and taught a Master Class.  She offered me a scholarship for the school in Chicago.  I told my parents that I wasn’t going to go to college. They were always good about that, but they told me if I was going to be a big girl, then I was going to be a big girl and they were cutting me off.  ‘If you’re not going to do college, you’re going to support yourself.’  Literally two weeks out of high school I moved to Chicago.  I went on scholarship at Giordano Dance Center, lived in somebody’s attic without a kitchen and worked two jobs.  I wouldn’t recommend it, but it’s definitely helped form who I am. It worked for me.

Since you’re “retired”, how do you stay in fighting shape?

I use the term very loosely. I’m not retired, but I felt like it was time to retire from full-time work.  Sustaining a relationship isn’t easy.  (She’s newly engaged to chiropractor Michael Pontarelli – “Dr. Mike”.)  Not that I have that much time now, but I have more.   I’ve been freelancing.  I’m dancing with Ron (de Jesús), dancing in the finale, in Wade Schaaf’s new company Chicago Repertory Ballet, I’m going to do some work with Ahmad (Simmons) and Brandon DiCriscio. I manage to fill my time up.  I commit myself to two classes a week.  I try for three.   I try to get in whenever I can.  I teach a lot. 

You started the youth company while you were still in Rivno.  Have you always wanted to have a company?

I definitely always wanted to have a youth company. If you’d asked me a few years ago, I would’ve told you that I wanted to have a dance studio.  That changed when I was teaching so much and realized how much stuff comes along with that.  So I started the youth company, because I left a studio and a couple of kids came with me and they wanted to perform.  We needed a name and I said, “It has to be Extensions”, because that was what I was going to name my youth company, I just didn’t think it was going to happen now. I thought that would be when I was done dancing.  It started out with four girls in 2005.  I just started “Extensions Too!” And that’s for ages 8 to 11.  That was a new experience this year.  That’s why we opened the studio.  It was just a natural progression.  There was no way I could do the things I wanted to do.  I was renting space.  This is great – now I have constant access. 

 You have such a wonderful stage presence.  How do you teach that – or can you?

I have a really genuine and innate love for the art form.  I love what it has done for me.  I feel it has really brought me out of my shell.  I believe in dance as a means to communicate and movement as a means to communicate.  I’d say some really important things I try to instill in the kids to help them understand that is the love of the art form and a really open state of mind.  We work a lot on being open. We improv a lot.  We do a lot of things that allow them to really open their minds and see more. Harriet Ross once told me that every time she saw me dance it seemed new.  It always looks new.  And it always feels new.  Even today in ballet class, every thing feels new.  It’s not just another plie to me.  It’s the investigation.  A simple plie to me is amazing.  The body is so amazing and the possibilities are amazing.  From feeling the air around my skin to seeing the space with my eyes or feeling my back…the investigation of movement is fascinating to me and brings me a lot of joy. 

How is working with Ron?

I love being in process with him.  This is my third time – once w/ GDC, but twice as an independent dancer and older artist.  I love working with him.  I feel like there’s a nice balance between him appreciating who I am or who each artist in the room is as an individual, but still having a clear enough vision of what he wants that he’s able to mix them nicely.   He doesn’t down you if you make a choice that he wasn’t thinking.  He’s able to appreciate your choices, but make sure you’re meeting his vision too.

The show itself is such a community effort.  What’s dancing in the finale like?

It’s great.  I’ve never felt any stress.  This year is definitely my hardest.  The finale might be the hardest thing I’ve done in my whole life. The thing is, when you go on stage for “Dance For Life”, it’s a different feeling.  You know what the audience’s intention is for being there.  Of course, you’re a little nervous because you put an expectation on yourself, but for some reason when you step on stage, you know that even if you mess up, it’s ok.   When I’m on stage at “Dance For Life” I feel warm. I feel good.  The process is always a little daunting, because it isn’t a lot of time.

I’ve heard many dancers over the years say that Randy’s finales are always the hardest things they’ve ever done.  Why?

I think he really likes to challenge his dancers.  He has a lot of respect for the dancers he chooses and he really likes to push them, particularly physically.  It’s all in a deep, deep plié and a deep contraction.  Honestly, you don’t a lot of work like that these days.  And the cardio of it all, that’s the killer.  I literally thought I was going to throw up.

What’s in your future?

It’s always worked out for me that my future becomes very clear as I continue on my path.  Of course, I look back and think, I could’ve done this.  But I’m happy with my path.  There’s only “x” amount of years to live.  You can’t do everything.  I think I’m just going to keep doing what I’m doing.  Hopefully things will continue to grow.  I don’t want the youth company to get too much bigger.  I think we’re able to produce the quality we have, because it’s small.  The open classes have been going well.  I’ll keep dancing until I can’t anymore.  Maybe have a kid.  I really want to have babies, so that will happen sooner or later. 

Dance For Life at the Auditorium Theatre at Roosevelt Universtity, 50 E. Congress Pkwy. Saturday, August 18 at 8 pm.  For ticket information, visit www.danceforlifechicago.com.