SHINE: Dance Doc to premiere on WTTW

Photo by Kai Harding.

This Sunday September 8, go from behind the scenes to on stage with Thodos Dance Chicago (TDC). Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Christopher Kai Olsen of Kai/Harding followed the company as they prepared for the world premiere of a new story ballet earlier this year. Partners in crime TDC artistic director Melissa Thodos and Broadway legend Ann Reinking teamed up once again to create an original work set in historical fact. This time, the two decided to tell the story of Anne Sullivan and Helen Keller’s unique relationship through dance.

When A Light in the Dark* premiered in March 2013 at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie, Olsen was there to document the premiere in delicious HD detail. With his keen editing eye, he also filmed the creative process and put together an impressive dance documentary with behind-the-scenes rehearsal footage as well as one-on-one interviews with Reinking, Thodos and TDC lead dancers. The prelude of Shine – Making “A Light in the Dark debuts on Chicago’s PBS station WTTW this Sunday at 1:30 pm with A Light in the Dark showcasing the final production and performance immediately following at 2:00 pm.

I got to preview both films (so I can not feel guilty if I flip back and forth between the Bears game – Go Bears!) and the footage and editing is quite remarkable. I sat in on the interviews and rehearsals, but the way they come together in the film, incorporating Bruce Wolosoff’s original score and perfectly dropped quotes, takes it to another level. Watching what the dancers are creators go through to make the show and then to watch the entire performance makes it more believable and will make for a very entertaining afternoon of television.

“Shine” debuts Sunday, September 8 at 1:30 pm on WTTW followed by “A Light in the Dark” at 2:00 pm CST. 

*You can see A Light in the Dark live in Thodos Dance Chicago’s 2014 Winter Concert February 22, 2014 at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts and on March 8 and 9 at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance. Visit for more information.

Thodos’ A Light in the Dark premieres

Thodos dancers Jessica Miller Tomlinson and Alissa Tollefson in "A Light in the Dark". Photo by Cheryl Mann.

The Chicago premiere of A Light in the Dark: The Story of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan opens this weekend at the Harris Theater. Thodos Dance Chicago (TDC) founder Melissa Thodos teamed up once again with Broadway legend Ann Reinking and dance/acting coach Gary Chryst to co-create this new story ballet about the beginning of a lifelong friendship.

A few weeks ago, I sat in on interviews with Thodos and Reinking by Emmy-nominated filmmaker Chris Olsen of Kai Harding who is filming a documentary, Touch, about the process of making the ballet. You can watch excerpts and clips of the doc here. The thing that struck me most was the passion behind the project from all involved.

After the success of their first collaboration, The White City, Thodos and Reinking knew they had something special. “We knew we weren’t finished, We had more stories to tell,” Thodos said during the Olsen interview. “It was just a matter of finding what story we wanted to tell.” She credits Chryst for suggesting the idea at a White City post-party in 2011. Read my interview with Chryst for Windy City Times here. Reinking said, “It was a precipe of a new age. Once they cracked the code with the alphabet, Helen was brilliant. They became quite famous.” The ballet focuses on a short period of time when Keller first meets Sullivan and they learn how to communicate. Incorporating spoken word and sign language with the dance steps TDC has created a truly special piece that pulls an emotional response. The evening is rounded out with a world premiere from Thodos, a world premiere from KT Nelson of ODC Dance Company and a repertory work from local choreographer Brain Enos.

Thodos Dance Chicago’s Winter Concert at the Harris Theater, 205 E. Randolph St., Saturday, March 2 at 8 pm and Sunday, March 3 at 2 pm. Tickets are $30-$60. Call 312.334.7777 or visit


B.T. Dubs

I’m introducing a new series of updates on happenings on the Chicago dance scene and various Rogueness. By the way…Btw…B.T. Dubs…get it? Anywho, from time to time I will list things that I’ve been doing, seeing and hearing that I think are interesting or relevant.

Next Thursday, Feb. 14th Valentine’s Day, The Women’s Board of the Joffrey Ballet hosts What Is This Thing Called Love, an evening with singer Shelley McArthur with a pre-performance hors d’oeuvre reception and champagne and desserts after the show. The event begins at 6 pm and will be held at The Murphy, 50 E. Erie. Tickets can be purchased at or by calling 312.386.8921.

I popped in on Thodos Dance Chicago rehearsals last week to watch them work on the new story ballet about Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan, A Light in the Dark. The day I was there, film maker Chris Olsen of Kai Harding Productions was filming interviews with artistic director Melissa Thodos and Ann Reinking, as well as rehearsal. Things were a bit crazy, since they were finishing up setting the new work and getting ready for their gala the next night (I went. It was fun!), but I got to hear a little about the impetus and process of making the new ballet and really, who wouldn’t like just hanging out with Ann Reinking?

Oh, and I’ve started selling ads on the blog. *Look right! A special shout out and big thank you to my first advertisers Chicago Dance Supply. If you’re interested in advertising rates, please email me for more information:



An Evening of Dance Films

Chris Olsen, Melissa Thodos and Ann Reinking.

Like dance on film? Emmy-nominated Chicago Filmmaker Chris Olsen of Kai Harding is showing five of his shorts and a sneak preview of his new film TOUCH next Wednesday, January 9th at the Film Row Cinema Theater at Columbia College. An Evening Of Dance Films presented by Thodos Dance Chicago and Columbia College Chicago serves as a fundraiser. All proceeds will go to the production of the new film.

TOUCH documents the creation of Melissa Thodos and Ann Reinking’s newest collaboration, A Light in the Dark, inspired by the life of Helen Keller. Much like his Emmy-nominated film, Beneath the White City Lights, which followed the making of The White City, TOUCH goes into the studio capturing the choreographers and dancers in the middle of the artistic process.

The evening opens with a wine/champagne reception at 5:30 pm., followed by the showing of the six films at 6:30 pm. A discussion with Olsen, Thodos and a panel of dancers will commence after the films.

Tickets for An Evening of Dance Films are $25 (students $10). Call Thodos Dance Chicago at 312.266.6255 or visit Tickets are also available at the door.

Wenesday, January 9 at Film Row Cinema Theater at Columbia College, 1104 S. Wabash, 8th floor.


Spotlight Shines on White City Doc

Thodos dancers in "The White City". Photo by Kai Harding, Inc.

This Thursday night, instead of watching Leno or Letterman or Colbert, at 10:30 pm turn on WTTW Channel 11.  You won’t be sorry.  Our local PBS affiliate will premiere Christopher Kai Olsen’s Beneath the White City Lights: The Making of an American Story Ballet.  This new dance documentary offers a behind-the-scenes look at rehearsals and preparation for Thodos Dance Chicago‘s (TDC) choreographic take on the 1893 Columbian Exposition, which premiered at the Harris Theater in 2011.  Inspired by historical events surrounding the fair and Chicago’s architecture, Thodos founder Melissa Thodos and gal pal, Broadway star Ann Reinking developed a story board and the project took off from there.  To create a multimedia experience, they enlisted the help of Emmy-winning filmmaker Chris Olsen to produce a series of short, video projections to aid in moving the plot along.  (Olsen previously worked with Thodos, Reinking and company for the documentary Fosse: A Prelude.)  Once immersed in rehearsals, Olsen found he didn’t want to stop.  “I wanted to understand the process,” he says.  “I wanted to make sure I was fully ingesting it.  Rehearsals would end and I’d keep shooting. I just wouldn’t leave.”  He ended up with almost 100 hours of footage.

Olsen decided to take what he’d seen and piece it together.  The result is a wonderful 30-minute film showing the dancing, directing and dedication behind the creation of The White City: Chicago’s Columbian Exposition of 1893.  I spoke with Olsen (in sleep-deprived, post-production mode) over the phone about the project and the PBS premiere.

 Are you excited about the premiere?

Heck yes!

This isn’t your first premiere, so what makes this one so special?

From the very first meeting about this project all the way to now was a big adventure.  It’s been an exciting year. This is true independent cinema.  It’s rewarding to get to this point and have the support of PBS or, in this case, WTTW to be able to air it is remarkable.  For it to be received by the audience you were hoping to show it to is really important.    I want people to see the (live) show, but if they can’t…I at least want them to see parts of it. 

You’ve worked with Melissa and Ann before.  How did this project come about?

Melissa reached out and said she had another project. No matter what it had been, I wanted to be on board. I have a love of that specific time period.  I’m a huge Chicago architecture buff.  My Dad’s an architect.  And, the stories surrounding the Chicago World’s Fair were phenomenal, so when she said she had an idea about doing a story ballet about the Columbian Exposition, before she could finish the sentence, I said, ‘I’m in!’

Is it difficult to shoot dance, or is there just a learning curve?

I don’t know if it’s hard.  I’ve always been sort of a portrait person…portraits in motion, if you will.  I love being able to capture someone in the lens, but I’ve never been happy with just a single frame.  It goes to my appreciation for animation –the idea of motion over time with design.  The same eye, I apply with dancing.  I look for what’s cool, that moment that captures the soul of the moment.  That’s how I shoot.  Dance gave me a subject that matched better for how I liked to shoot.  It was fun to be able to find that.


Chris Olsen, Melissa Thodos & Ann Reinking at Thodos Dance Chicago's 20th Anniversary Gala. Photo by Bob Mihlfried.

With White City, you were originally on board, but was it just for the projections or were you always going to be filming a documentary?

No, I didn’t set out to make a documentary.  I set out to document. The result is a documentary.  Honestly, that’s how almost every project I do starts.  I’m not necessarily aiming towards any one end goal, the art for me is the process of capturing and creating, coordinating and working with the other artists is the art.  Everything I’m capturing is the evidence.  I loved the idea from the very first second, it was exciting and interesting and you knew it was special.  The whole process was like that.  I was in the rehearsals, because I wanted to understand the process to help me with the 14 short films I produced.  To be able to be there and immerse myself was a huge part of my creative process…and that doesn’t require a camera, but I brought one anyway.   I wanted to record it. I wanted to make sure I was fully ingesting it.  I like being able to absorb thing through the camera.  I’m sort of fixing my perspective and be able to refer to it later, like taking visual notes.  That was all part of my process, my creative approach.  The whole time I was gathering information.  Towards the end, I knew I had the potential with all this material, there was a storyline in my head that was evolving in a way I could piece it together. 

Can you walk me through your thought process while making the documentary?

My original hope was that you’d have a mix of footage that gave you a good idea of the scope of the work showing you what went into it.  A peek behind.  A place only dancers ever see.  I think people have a fixed idea of what a documentary is.  And I’m not a very traditional documentary filmmaker, but the enjoyment I get out of interpreting portraits and trying to capture that moment of light or that spark of energy, that creativity…it’s about a perspective on an event.  The trick is how do you create something that is compelling without giving away the farm.

 When it airs on the 23rd, are you going to watch it?

Yes! I’m very excited to be able to TiVo my own show. I’ll still watch it live, but I’m going to record it.

Are you nervous?

Yeah, but it’s a good nervous.  Every since we got the air date confirmed, I’ve been absolutely nervous and giddy.  The whole reason why we do what we do as artists is to connect with other people and to share ideas.  Finding that path with your audience is sometimes the hardest challenge.  How do you speak to the people that you’re hoping to reach in a way that’s easy for them to see?  I love PBS’ mission.  I love that arts outreach is part of who I am.  There is no better vehicle I could’ve asked for.  You’ve gotta be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it – and I got it! 

Beneath the White City Lights: The Making of an American Story Ballet airs Thursday, Feb 23rd at 10:30 pm on WTTW Channel 11

Happy Birthday to Ann!

Birthday gal!

Broadway legend, dancer, singer, actress and choreographer Ann Reinking turns 62 today.  Reinking is in town helping Thodos Dance Chicago (TDC) rehearse for the return of last season’s premiere The White City:  Chicago’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, which they are performing this Saturday at the McAninch Arts Center at the College of Du Page (tickets: 630.942.4000).

Last night I had the unbelievable luck and privilege of being invited (thinks to Jay Kelly of LC Williams and Assoc who handles PR for TDC) to a private gathering at Artistic Director Melissa Thodos and her husband Rick Johnston’s home in the Gold Coast in honor of Ms. Reinking.  The small gathering of twenty or so people included a few TDC board members, Emmy-winning filmaker Chris Olsen and an array of Chicago dance legends:  Ron De Jesús, Cheryl Mann, Michael Anderson, Stephanie Martinez Bennit and Broadway and Chicago theater veteran Mitzi Hamilton.  I especially enjoyed having a fun, “off the record” conversation over wine with Hubbard Street director Glenn Edgerton and was honored to sing Happy Birthday to Ms. Reinking (we joked that she was cringing inside at the group being so off key).

Many thanks to Melissa, Rick and Jay – and a happy birthday to Ann!