Artist Profile: River North’s Lauren Kias

RNDC's Lauren Kias. Photo by Bob Gallagher.

This weekend River North Dance Chicago (RNDC) takes the Harris Theater stage for its annual Valentine’s weekend engagement. Love is… features six pieces including two world premieres, Contact-Me by Italian choreographer and director of Spellbound Dance Company Mauro Astolfi and The Good Goodbyes by RNDC director Frank Chavez.  Revivals of audience favorites Ella, Risoluta, Sentir em Nós and Al Sur Del Sur round out the program.

The company returned from an extended tour of Virginia last week and went right into rehearsals for the Valentine show.  After a few failed attempts at scheduling an interview with veteran dancer Lauren Kias, we ended up doing a quick Q&A via email.  Here is an edited version of our “chat”.

How was the tour?

One of the many things I love about this job is the national and international traveling we are asked to do. Touring with the company is much like traveling with the circus.  You have a group of dancers very diverse with big personalities performing on the road together for up to a month at a time.  You can be on the road so long and travel to so many places you often will wake up and not know what city you are in.  We were just in Virginia for about 10 days. We had performances in Lexington, Fairfax and Richmond.  On this particular tour I was responsible for warming up the company before the shows.  This usually entails teaching a ballet class that will get the dancers on their leg and help set them up for a long day in the theater.  This responsibility comes with a fair amount of stress because dancers are very particular on what they like to do before a show. I was up for the challenge and did the best I could.

You’re in your seventh year with RNDC.  Was the company always on your radar?

I first saw River North in high school when they were on tour in my home town of Indianapolis. I remember loving the company immediately and keeping them in my radar from that moment on.  While attending Butler University, I participated in their summer intensive program. I had such a positive experience that I made it a goal of mine to become a member of the company. After that summer I moved to Chicago and Frank asked me to be a company apprentice. After two years as an apprentice I was given a spot in the company.

Why is it a good fit for you?

River North is a good fit for me because the rep is so versatile. I love to dance as many different styles as I can.  We get to work with a number of different choreographers every year that create very diverse pieces.  The variety that we experience keeps our minds and body’s fresh and growing in this ever changing art form.

What is the most exciting part of dancing with RNDC and what is the most challenging?

It’s an exciting time to be in River North. There has and continues to be a lot of international touring gigs for the company. In the last couple years we have traveled to Germany and Switzerland twice for three weeks of touring.  Last summer we performed on an ocean front stage at an International dance festival in Busan, South Korea.  We are currently in the process of organizing a month long tour to Russia with as many as twenty shows. I love to travel and see the world and I am very fortunate that my job can take me on so many adventures.  The most challenging part of being in this company, or any company for that matter, is staying injury free and staying in the best shape that you can. While at home we have all of the resources to help us stay healthy and injury free.  Most of the time when we travel we don’t have access to physical therapists or a proper gym. You have to rely on yourself and the support of your fellow dancers to maintain good habits and injury prevention to stay as healthy as we can.

What will you be dancing in the upcoming show?

In this weekend’s ‘Love Is…’ Valentine’s performance I will be performing four very different pieces.  The first is a solo choreographed by Robert Battle entitled ‘Ella’. The second is the world premier of ‘Contact-Me’, choreographed by Mauro Astolfi artistic director of Spellbound Dance Company in Rome, Italy. ‘Contact-Me’ connects the dancers in intense relationships of intertwining movements to the music of Jon Hopkins and the Italian Cellist Giovanni Sollima. I will also be performing in another premiere, this one by our very own artistic director Frank Chaves entitled ‘The Good Goodbyes’. Mr. Chaves has teamed up with Josephine Lee, Artistic Director of the Chicago Children’s Choir, who has written an original composition for the new work.  Lee will be performing live with the company on the Friday and Sunday performances. Finally, we are closing the show with a sultry suite of Argentinean tangos choreographed by Sabrina and Ruben Veliz entitled ‘Al Sur Del Sur’.

Tell me about your solo Ella.  What was it like working with Robert Battle?

‘Ella’ is a high energy comical solo set to Ella Fitzgerald scatting.  This piece is by far the fastest movement I have ever done that has everything and the kitchen sink.  Complete with quick articulated movements, a little tumbling, and Battle’s legendary “falls” that make your bones ache.  A couple of us in the company have come up with the term “Battle wounds” which is something you require from doing Robert Battles movement.  I love working with Robert Battle.  He has a wonderful sense of humor and it takes center stage in this solo.  He makes you want to push yourself beyond your limits and at the end of the day you end up surprising yourself.

Ok, Charles Moulton’s ball piece: really hard, fun or a just a pain in the ass?

Hahahaha!  All three! Charles Moulton’s ball piece was about as fun as a ten car pileup on the way to a wedding where you rear ended the bridal party.  In all seriousness, I had a great time with this challenge.  We had a little less than two weeks of learning patterns different types of passes, as well as run drills for what to do when you’ve dropped your ball. If you happened to fumble a ball, you had two spare behind your back secured by a cummerbund that you would whip out in a Billy-the-Kid fashion. I am happy to say that River North was up for Charles Moulton’s challenge and answered by not dropping a single ball at our first attempt on the Harris stage under the hot lights.

River North Dance Chicago presents Love is… Feb 10 & 11 at 8pm, Feb 12 at 3pm

Harris Theater, 205 E. Randolph. Tickets are $30-$75. Call 312.334.7777 or visit

Saturday, Feb 11 there is a post-show party with drinks and desserts, where you can mingle with the dancers.  Tickets are $25.


Review: River North Revamps

River North Dance Chicago (RNDC) performed their fall engagement at the Harris Theater over the weekend with a rep of seven diverse dances.  The company opened with what has become its signature piece, Sherry Zunker’s Evolution of a Dream.  Strong and consistent, it was the perfect opener for the show.  If you’re familiar with RNDC, you noticed quite a few unfamiliar faces.  Four new company dancers took the stage on Friday night with another one out due to a broken foot.  Dream and the ball piece (Charles Moulton’s Nine Person Precision Ball Passing), which since they don’t move from the waste down borderlines on dance for me, were the cleanest pieces in the show.  A lovely trio in Al Sur Del Sur featuring Jessica Wolfrum, Tucker Knox and Ahmad Simmons and the ever-stunning Train solo by Hanna Brictson were other stand outs.  Spotty unison, stumbles, wobbles and a handful of missed lifts had me witnessing an extreme rarity:  RNDC had an off night.

I’ve been watching RNDC deliver strong, solid seemingly perfect performances for almost 15 years, so the small flubs took me by surprise.  This is no condemnation of their talents – they are multitude – but this wasn’t their best showing.  The much-anticipated company premiere of Daniel Ezralow’s SUPER STRAIGHT is coming down opened the second half of the show (the perfect spot for it).  For those of us in the audience that had seen the original, and there were many, just hearing the opening note and seeing the hanging bags with the dancers inside brought back a flood of memories.  Fair or not, the RNDC dancers were dancing with the ghosts of the original cast with them on the stage.  A dapper Michael Gross in his suit brought Ron De Jesús (who was in the audience) rolling across the stage.  Wolfrum in her black dress had Sandi Cooksey defying gravity, hovering inches above the floor.  Twenty two years after the premiere, these five dancers were bringing back a beloved (by many, especially me) piece and I wanted them to BRING IT!  On Friday, it seemed they brought a little and saved some for later.  Perhaps the excitement of seeing it for the very first time back in ’89 helped to create the illusion that vaulted the original cast to rock star status in the dance scene?  Maybe it was the difference between learning it fresh and resetting it?  It could any number of reasons that it didn’t hold the same sway with me this time.  I have no doubt that RNDC will continue to grow and evolve with this work, but this time out, it didn’t live up to the hype.  Especially my own.


Preview: River North Opens Fall Season

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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