Stephen Petrionio Co’s Underland

Stephen Petronio Company dancers.

Tonight is your last chance to see the Stephen Petronio Company perform Underland at the Dance Center of Columbia College. And see it, you should. Lovely dancing, brave choreography, great music.

Petronio’s 2011 work set to the music of Australian singer/songwriter Nick Cave was originally made for the Sydney Dance Company.  In program notes, Petronio describes Underland “as a ‘place’, a kind of subconscious world ‘beneath the surface’, that locates the heart of Cave’s music”. The 14-section work succeeds in creating a dark, emotional world perfectly matched by Cave’s somber tones especially in ‘The Weeping Song’ and ‘The Ship Song’ sections. Petronio himself makes an appearance opening the piece by slowly crawling down an inclined ladder with a pen in his mouth, measuring time or distance by making marks on his arm. The “Descent” sets the stage for the hour-long world he has created.

Too many costume changes and a lackluster ending are the only downsides to this show. The choreography is smart, tight and interesting with solos, duets, trios and group work meshing so that your eyes and mind never get bored. The wildly off dancing in short tutus and garters in The Carny section deserve special mention. All the dancers were strong, yet distict, allowing their personalities and individual styles show through. Two that stood out were the petite Jaqlin Medlock, fierce technique and stunning attention to detail, and Joshua Green, powerhouse legwork set off with beautiful arms. The technique is what sets this group apart. Solid ballet training sets the base so they could do anything Petronio asks of them. With more experimental works, the technique sometimes gets lost. Not here. Gorgeous extensions (a la-besque?), a torqued jets, deconstructed fouette turns and a perky little parallel brise all make appearances. Slicing arms, a hip or head swirl, a bun askew all lend to the feel of a ballet gone beautifully wild.

Stephen Petronio Company presents Underland at the Dance Center, 1306 S. Michigan Ave. Final performance Saturday, March  at 8 pm. Tickets are $ 30.

Moving Dialogs Series

Moving Dialogs curator Baracka de Soleil. Photo by Jacob Bell.

Diversity seems to be the word on everyone’s lips these days. Shirley Mordine, director of Mordine & Co., spoke about the need to diversify by asking other companies to perform with her company at last week’s performances. Numerous small companies across Chicago are sharing shows with other artists in alternative spaces in increasing frequency. Rumors have the Dance Center of Columbia College looking to diversify their academic programming to include a broader spectrum of styles including African and hip hop. Local dance service organization Audience Architects held several convenings gathering artists opinions and data on diversity of dance in Chicago. And then there is the Chicago Cultural Plan – the big daddy study on arts and diversity in the Windy City.

But it was a conversation with Audience Architects Executive Director Heather Hartley and artist/teacher/consultant Baraka de Soleil that sparked the idea for a new, six-part series called Moving Dialogs: Diversity + Dance. de Soleil said the community convenings came out of the fact that local artists who attended the 2012 Dance/USA conference weren’t satisfied with the conversation about diversity. “We were either trying to be too nice or it was being diluted,” he said. “There are things we didn’t want to talk about. It’s very challenging. Through the genius of Audience Architects, bridging the conversations between audiences and those who construct the work is a wonderful way to begin to make the conversation larger.” The free series opens this Sunday, March 10 with Diversity: Then/Now at the Old Town School of Folk Music.

de Soleil, who grew up on the South Side and has performed as an interdisciplinary artist in Minnesota, San Francisco and New York, will be the curator for the entire series. The inaugural Spring Series will focus on Chicago’s history and the current cultural climate of the local and national dance scene. A panel of artists – Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre‘s artistic director Robert Battle, Columbia College chair Onye Ozuzu, dance critic Lucia Mauro, dance education director for Old Town School Sarah Dandelles, Cerqua Rivera artistic director Wilfredo Rivera, DanceWorks Chicago artistic director Julie Nakagawa and emerging artists NIC K and Dorian Rhea -  will participate in the discussion, bringing their expertise to the table.

I spoke with de Soleil over the phone last week about Moving Dialogs and the opening series.

How did you decide who would be on the panel?

Timelines, relevance and cultivating relationships. The people who are a part of this opening forum are people I’ve had time to get to know and have conversations and hear where they’re at. This came out of conversations, not necessarily about diversity, but what are the ways we can come together and strategize. The representation of emerging artists is important. They’re beginning to think about ways of diverstiy that are multi-layered. They’re just doing it. They aren’t talking about it. We need to hear these voices and they’ll teach us something. It’s important that the experience is somewhat multi-generational, but that it’s a coalition of the multiple voices, multiple ages and multiple experiences all looking towards discovering this language about how we can think and break open the notion of diversity. It was synergy. It was timing. It was relevance.

What kind of information are you hoping to get and what will you do with that information?

We want to begin to discover, as a community, the best language that supports moving this conversation about diversity along and that it moves us beyond the notion of diversity as a deficit, as something marginalized, as something now that has been relegated to our legacies. We need something to move us out of that place and that there is a co-existence of these diverse thoughts. It’s a big challenge. Above and beyond just representation of having different people in the room is the line their diverse and distinctive bodies to co-exist and to speak from that place of co-existence. You can be there and I can be there. We can both have our opinions, but a new language that allows us to both be there. This first one is an inroads of how we can begin to talk about diversity. It’s not attainable; it’s already there. We’re just beginning to name it and allow it to co-exist and to allow the diverse voices to co-exist in a new way that everyone can share and be their true selves, adding to the conversation. Who is in the room will inform the conversation. I have a legacy and a past that reflects who I am culturally. I’m going to allow myself to be deeply present in this moment and ask others to be deeply present in themselves and that is what is going to inform it. There is this conversation, but there will be iterations that move it and propel it forward, so we won’t be stuck in this conversation.

Read more about Moving Dialogs with a Moving Reflections blog entry by Hubbard Street Communications Manager Zac Whittenburg.

Moving Dialogs Diversity: Then/Now, Sunday, March 10 from 6:30-8 pm at the Old Town School of Folk Music, 4545 N. Lincoln Ave in the Myron R. Szold Music and Dance Hall. Admission is free. RSVP IS REQUIRED.

Fun with Snow Globes (and #sassy pancakes)

The Seldoms. Photo by Brian Kuhlmann.

Leave it to Carrie Hanson – a 2012 Dance Magazine “25 To Watch” -  to get an assist from Mother Nature who brought a 20-degree temperature drop and torrential downpour for opening night of Hanson’s new work about the argument around climate change. The drastic weather change was the perfect prelude to opening night of The SeldomsExit Disclaimer: Science and Fiction Ahead at the Dance Center of Columbia College.

As she did in her 2011 hit STUPORMARKET about the financial crisis, Hanson again incorporates voice overs of lectures and debate points from scientists and politicians to make her points with clarity and humor. (I have to admit hearing Newt Gingrich repeat the line – “I’m an amateur paleontologist” – creeped me out.) The dancers verbally add their own twisted talking points to show the absurdity of the extremes in this debate.

Hanson is lucky to have a small, but tight and strong ensemble of six dancers that have worked with her for a number of years. Philip Elson, Damon Green, Amanda McAlister, Javier Marchan Ramos, Bruce Ortiz and Cara Sabin “get” her and are excellent purveyors of her vision. They are fearless – and they need to be considering some of the death-defying partnering Hanson asks them to perform. In colorful pedestrian clothes, they ran, dove, slid and spun with full abandon. An opening duet in, on and around an old-school elementary desk let the audience know they were in for something abstract and unique. Hanson’s intelligence and playful style was also on full display as she included cigarettes, bananas, chocolate eclairs, garbage, snow globes and recurring references to Malibu Barbie and “big ass lettuce”. A clever turn where the dancers peel each others feet off of the stage with metal spatulas grows into actually cooking and eating gluten-free, organic pancakes on stage! (McAlister got the brunt of the feeding and had to hoard away pancakes squirrel-like in her cheeks to continue dancing.)

Hilarious, fun, dangerous, exciting, thoughtful and well done. The Seldoms, and Hanson,  seem to have another hit on their hands.

 

Dances Made To Order: Chicago Edition Premieres TODAY!

Three films from Chicago dance artists premiere online today for the Chicago series of Dances Made To OrderThe Dance Center of Columbia College curated the May round of the film series created by Dances Made To Order co-founders Kingsley Irons and Bryan Koch.  Local artists Kaitlin Fox, Atalee Judy and Nadia Oussenko had about two weeks to create dance films utilizing three concepts (clocks and paint, struggle against biology, repulsion/desire) voted on by members.  Fox’s Origin features one dancer (Gretchen Soechting), covered in what looks like mud, in a black and white setting of shadows and boxes set to New Age music.  Judy’s Wasteland shows off her trademark punk style as she adorns and destroys alarm clocks (is the clock belt a reference to her biological clock?) to Barry Bennett’s frantic drums.  Oussenko’s Dance of the Queer Tide Faeries takes a fun turn with three dancers (Oussenko, Rachel Damon, Christopher Knowlton) clad in primary colored crinolines playing on the lakefront.

You can watch all three films online for $10.  For more information, visit: dancesmadetoorder.com.

Read my preview here.

Girls On Film

Dancer/choreographer/filmmaker Kailtin Fox.
Dancer/choreographer/filmmake Nadia Oussenko.  Photo by Daniel Kullman.
Atalee Judy.  Photo by Carl Wiedemann.

Three local dance artists are taking their talent to the screen.  The Dance Center of Columbia College is curating this month’s edition of Dances Made To Order, an online film series created in 2011 by LA team Kingsley Irons (dance maker/producer) and Bryan Kock (filmmaker) that features a different city’s artists each month.  Columbia College peeps Colleen Halloran, Richard Woodbury and Bruce Sheridan chose Kaitlin Fox, Atalee Judy and Nadia Oussenko as the three artists to represent Chicago.

Here’s how it works:  pay a one-time membership fee, $10 for one month (if you only want to see the Chicago films) or $50 to see all the films created this season online.  Once you sign up, you can vote on the themes the filmmakers will be required to use.  Voting – which is FREE – for the Chicago series started yesterday and runs through May 10th at midnight. (I just voted and can’t wait to see what these lovely ladies come up with!) 65% of the revenue raised goes back to the artists.

Besides dance, choreography and filmmaking, Fox, Judy and Oussenko have something else in common.  All three received an email from Columbia College Dance Department Chair, Onye Ozuzu.  “Onye sent me a cryptic email,” Judy said.  “I was a little cautious, because I’d never heard of it.  They’ve got a Netflix kind of thing going on, but with a different concept.”  Fox and Oussenko had never heard of the series either, but all three warmed to the idea quickly.  These lovely ladies have dabbled in filmmaking before, so the process isn’t new, but new challenges will be thrown at them.  For one, it’s difficult to plan a shoot if you don’t know what the film will be about.  Five themes will be voted on taken from questionnaires the artists and their collaborators filled out earlier in the year.  Three of those five themes will be incorporated into each film.  “We can start to plan, but we really don’t know,” said Oussenko.   Fox said she’d been trying to make a dance that would incorporate all five themes, but that plan has been put on hold.  Since graduating from Columbia in 2010, she admits it takes a bit longer to get that “creative kick”.  “I’ve been trying to find ways to expand creatively,” she said.  “This should be a good learning experience.” And Judy said, “I’ve been thinking about it, but it’s futile.  There are certain things you can’t prepare for.  We’re going to wing it and hope to be inspired.”

While, the trio is concerned about the time limit of two weeks for filming, production and editing, some of the rules may help with the process.  “It helped simplify,” said Fox.  “It allows us to scale back.”  Oussenko worries about scheduling.  “You have no idea how hard it is to just get five people together,” she said.  Judy thinks the time frame is “doable” since she’s done a series of film shorts called Danse Skitz for her company BONEdanse, but she’s clearing her schedule for those two weeks, just in case.  The range of freak out is “kind of scary” to “half excited, half nervous” to “I’m terrified”.

For dancer bios and more information or to sign up and vote, go to DancesMadeToOrder.com.

 

Ballet Hispanico Comes to the Dance Center

Ballet Hispanico in "Mad'moiselle". Photo by Eduardo Patino.

This weekend, March 22-24, Ballet Hispanico (BH) under the direction of Eduardo Vilaro, Columbia College alumni, former Dance Center artist-in-residence and founder and former artistic director of Luna Negra Dance Theater, takes the stage at the Dance Center of Columbia College Chicago.  Vilaro’s newest work Asuka, set to salsa music by the legendary Celia Cruz, will make its Chicago debut on the mixed repertory program.  “It is thrilling to be back,” said Vilaro.  “The Dance Center was home for me for almost four years…and has been a major dance force in the national community since its inception.”  BH has been busy touring the past few weeks, so I corresponded with Vilaro and dancer Jamal Callender (graduate of The Julliard School and former member of Hubbard Street 2) via email.  Callender told me the best thing about being back in New York after his season in Chicago with HS2 is getting to see his family and his many friends and Julliard peeps dancing on Broadway and on the movie screen. He’s enjoying his time at BH.  “Mr. V is very forward-thinking and I like the relationship I have with him.  I appreciate his advice and the way he looks out for me and all the artists,” said Callender, who is dancing in three of the four pieces. “The repertory catered to me so well. It’s beyond diverse. It’s eclectic, like me.  I feel like an artist here!”

Vilaro, who began dancing with BH in 1985, talked about how the company has changed since he was a dancer there.  “When I started dancing there, it was a modern dance company with some neo-classical ballets.  Our founder, Tina Ramirez had a strong theatrical background, having had a career in Flamenco and Broadway.  The repertory reflected that.”  Now as artistic director, he wants to work with choreographers that explore Latino culture…so the work is more contemporary without losing sight of its heritage.  As an example, his Asuka celebrates a Latin American music icon, but focuses on how her music impacted the Latin community rather than a narrative of her life.  Alongside Vilaro’s piece is Andrea Miller’s Moor-influenced Naci and a duet about human struggle titled Locked Up Laura by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa.

Also on the program is a commission work from African American choreographer Ron Brown.  Set to songs by Peruvian singer Susana Baca, Espiritu Vivo deals with personal loss and recovery.  “His work is a direct connection to the African influence in the Latino world,” said Vilaro.  “There is a deep connection that can be seen in the seamless harmony of his movement with the music.  It can also be seen in the articulated hips and torso found in Latin social dances.  Ron is a special human being and his gentle strength embraced by the dancers helped lead them to fully understand his work.”  For Callender, dancing in Brown’s piece is a full-circle moment.  “When I was younger, I remember watching Ron in the dance studio working with his company.  I used to it by the door in awe and just admire everyone in the company.I remember going with my Mom every year to the Joyce to see them perform.”

Aside from touring, the company was recently asked to perform at the victory parade for the Super Bowl Champion New York Giants.  After dancing for the crowd Vilaro and crew taught the fans a simple salsa step in honor of wide receiver Victor Cruz, who claims this as his touchdown dance.  “I was thrilled that dance was represented alongside such a beloved American sport,” Vilaro said.  “There is a large world out there that needs to have more dance in their loves and I hope we gained some new friends.”  Callender added simply, “It was a blast.”

Ballet Hispanico, Thursday-Saturday, March 22-24 at 8 pm

Dance Center at Columbia College, 1306 S. Michigan Ave. Tickets are $26-$30. Call 312.369.8330 or visit colum.edu/dancecenter.

*There is a post-show discussion on Thursday, March 22 and a pre-show talk at 7 pm on Friday, March 23.

Out of Mosh Pits & Mash Ups

BONEdanse. Photo by Chrystyne.com.

Under the muscle and punk rock exterior, Atalee Judy is a true beauty.  Piercing pale blue eyes, refreshing honesty and self-awareness tinted with humor are what you get one-on-one.  She’s fierce, cool and definitely one-of-a-kind.  Her background is as interesting as her look.  Judy grew up on a horse ranch in Mansfield, Texas.  After her father died when she was 12, she ran away to New York and lived with three punk bands, serving as a techie and housekeeper. Her uncle, a rich Republican that lived in the Chicago suburbs adopted her and she ended up in an all-girl Catholic high school which happened to have a terrific dance program.  “I was on the basketball team…and the basketball coach was inspired by the football players taking ballet and dance to get better coordination.  We got thrown into dance class and I pitched a fit about not wanting to wear pink tights.  I didn’t want to take ballet, so she put me in this modern dance class.  I insisted on wearing my basketball jersey.  I was such a fucking tomboy.  I fell in love.  From that point on, I was doing talent shows.  The nuns loved me.  I had the shaved head, Sinead O’Connor look with my combat boots and little Catholic girl uniform.”  A brief stint as a bio chem major led her to realize that dance was her passion.

As Artistic Director of BONEdanse, the new incarnation of  her brainchild Breakbone Dance Co, which she started in 1997 after graduating from Columbia College’s dance program, she’s tackled social and political issues with tenacity and creativity.  She’s also codified her own technique – the Bodyslam Technique – that she teaches in the Chicago area dance scene.  “At Columbia, I realized that this whole falling stuff that I’d been working on was very interesting to them, but also confusing,” Judy says over coffee and some very hot tea.  “They didn’t know what to do with me.  When given a choice to improvise, instead of using classical technique stuff which I didn’t have an interest or want to do, I’d be doing prat falls and things I thought were exciting or energetic.”

For This is a DAMAGE MANUAL, four dancers (including Judy) and a sock puppet named Earl take the stage for a two-week run at Theater Wit starting Thursday.  The evening-length work takes its cues from 1950s self-help records mixed with some 80s themes and a little psycho-analysis and self-reflection.  Characters (a stressed out housewife, a dysfunctional ballerina, a Hitler-esque figure with a cold that under hypnosis becomes an Elvis impersonator) born out of last summer’s 12-week video project Danse Skitz are brought to life in problematic glory while trying to “fix” their damage via hypnosis and outdated advice.  I sat down with Judy in mid-January to talk about the show.

From punk bands to dance, it seems an unlikely transition. 

I was choreographing early on.  It felt like something that I needed to get out.  I’m a doer.  I’d just do, not knowing what I was doing.  When I was a kid, I would sketch the horses an try to make them move as opposed to static pictures.  I was always watching them, how graceful and gorgeous they are.  When you’re up on a balcony and looking down on a mosh pit, that kinetic energy going on and the whirlpool that happens…I’ve always wanted to bring that to the stage.  I want a mosh pit on stage.  I’ve always said there’s a lot of fall and recovery in the mosh pit.  You really have to know where your weight is or else you’re going down to the ground and get a boot in your face. 

Why the name change?

A lot of cumulative things.  Some are kind of trivial, some are deeper, but I really feel personally trapped when I get categorized too much or defined…even when I feel obligated to be something that I don’t want to be or I’m not all the time.  I think Breakbone started defining itself and me as this one thing and that’s all I did.  I wanted to fold and just create something else that had a little more leeway and a little more play with it to where I could do anything I want, so I wouldn’t be defined by it.  Oh, she falls a lot.  I didn’t want to be the one-trick pony.  It started getting to get to where I was demanding this of all my dancers.   A lot of dancers don’t think they are athletes. I couldn’t keep working on the psychology of their issues.  Either you’re an athlete and you believe it and you go to the gym and work out and build your muscles or you atrophy.  It’s not enough just to do the movement.  I was projecting a lot of my values onto them and I hate when people do that.  I dwindled it down to people I really wanted to work with, because they offered different skill sets.  And the other thing is the trust issue, making sure that I trusted their skill sets to be more collaborative.  I used to come in with all the movement, all the concepts, all the answers – not in a control freak way, well they may have thought it was – they wanted to be fed and I would have all the answers for them.  They just had to implement.  Things have changed the trajectory.  It feels more open, a little bit freer…less defining.  One of the other elements is I feel like I said everything I wanted to say with Breakbone.  We had a lot of social issues, political stuff that was very ragey, some controversial.  I’m not going to top any of that.  I think I’m done talking about that.  The new trajectory it’s getting into a more psychological level of evaluating my own issues as well as things that I’m sharing with the company right now.  It’s deeper versus reactionary. 

Tell me about DAMAGE MANUAL.

I don’t know what I’m sitting on with this show.  There’s a solo I do that’s so fucked up that I don’t even know if it’s funny.  It’s just wrong.  The whole show has a mash up feel.  I saw Jyl Fehrenkamp perform this solo once for a show with Winifred Haun and it blew me away.  It was about Women’s Stress Disorder. When we were working on this show, that idea kept coming up.  I commissioned that from her.  We’ve been working on a ten-minute chunk from last spring that we did it for the Other Dance Festival.  My partner Karl has an old collection of self-help records from the 50s.  Oh my, are they creepy.  The records have all the glitches and skips.  Somehow the 80s was coming in so I just went with it.  There’s a therapist’s office, a ballet studio, a bathing suit section with a Crisco can, bathing caps and tanning bed goggles, a bullet bra…a mash up. 

WHAT’S YOUR DAMAGE?

BONEdanse presents This is a DAMAGE MANUAL, Feb 2-5 & Feb 9-12, Thurs-Sat at 8pm, Sundays at 3pm

Theater Wit, 1229 W Blemont, 773.975.8150, $15-$24 

Pina!

If you have the chance, go see this incredibly beautiful movie.  Pina, the 3D documentary of legendary German choreographer Pina Bausch is a visually stunning, inspirational homage/memorial that is a work of art in its own right.  I saw a screening on Wednesday and, even though I didn’t know much about her work going in, was struck by her artistry and career-long loyalty she inspired in her dancers.  The film by Wim Wenders is the first 3D art house film.  At first, the 3D seemed awkward as if the dancers were cut-outs in a doll house, but as you get used to it, you become part of the art happening on-screen.

Pina opens today in two Chicago theaters:  River East 21 at 322 East Illinois and Century 12 at 1715 Maple Avenue in Evanston.  Columbia College Dance Center‘s Bonnie Brooks and Phil Reynolds will lead a post-screening discussion after the 7:00 pm showing at River East.

The Legacy Tour

MCDC dancers Rashaun Mitchell & Andrea Webber in "Antic Meet". Photo by Yi-Chun Wu.

This weekend, Merce Cunningham Dance Company (MCDC) comes to Chicago.  The two shows, co-presented by the Dance Center at Columbia College and the Harris Theater, mark the second to last stop on the company’s two-year Legacy Tour performing works from Cunningham’s 70-year career.  Bonnie Brooks, former chair and current faculty member (on sabbatical) at Columbia College’s Dance Department, has been traveling with the company and will be documenting the company’s experience for the Legacy Plan.  Her background and extensive knowledge of his work make her the perfect person for the job.  I spoke with Brooks via phone last week about the tour, his legacy and the upcoming performances.

How did you get involved with the Legacy Tour?

I have a long history with Merce and the company.  I first met Merce in the 1980s when I was working with the National Endowment for the Arts.  I’ve kept up with the company in various ways over the years.  When I came to Chicago and we began to present them, that sort of furthered the relationship and I started writing and lecturing on Merce’s work and they started inviting me to go to different engagements with them and do pre-performance talks, interview Merce, help out with various things.  After Merce died (2009) and they determined they were going to go on the Legacy Tour, they realized part of what they needed to do was document it, document the whole story of the Legacy Plan. They felt that because of my history with the company, my friendship with Merce and something of the distance that I had because I wasn’t immediately employed by the company, that I would be a good choice to do that.  So they invited me to join.

Is this directly related to why you took a sabbatical?  Did you take time off so you could be on the tour?

No.  Actually, that was another piece of the story that was one of those marvelous coincidences in life.  I made the decision in 2008 when I renewed my contract to chair the dept at the Dance Center, that was going to be my final three years as chair.  At that time Merce was still living and there was no influence at all between my decision and what has happened.  Since then, the college decided to give me a year-long sabbatical when I stepped down and that very neatly coincided with when the company wanted me to start traveling with them on a regular basis. It’s one of those wonderful accidents.

What exactly are you doing on the tour? 

It varies from engagement to engagement.  Sometimes they ask me to pre or post-performance talks or introduce open rehearsals, things like that.  Sometimes I’m just there to observe what’s happening.  I’ve taken pictures.  It really depends on what the presenter has asked, what residency activities have been put together.  One of the things that has happened as a result of me traveling with them, which I think was an intention on their part, it has given me a chance to get the perspective of many, many people on the Legacy Tour, the Legacy Plan, the kind of radical decision the company has made to close its doors…that’s given me a lot to work with in terms of what I’ll be writing after the tour.

Were you instrumental in getting them here?

Yes.  When I was chair of the department,  I was very actively involved with the program.  We had negotiated that they would come two years ago.  We negotiated it before Merce died that they would come and do events at our theater, previous to that we’d always presented them at the Harris Theater…and then Merce died.  They began to book the Legacy Tour and I said we have to bring them back one more time.  We were going to have them in November, but decided to have them in the second part of the tour, which is wonderful because they’re very near the end of the almost 40-city, two-year tour.

Now that it’s so close the end of the tour, are people getting more emotional? 

Yes.  It’s becoming much more real to everyone now that we’re close to the end.  I think the place that hit us the most vividly was in London.  We were in London about a month ago and the final night, I think everybody in the entire theater – in the audience and on stage – was in tears.  We realized this was the last appearance in a city that historically has been very hospitable to Merce’s work.  The audience was on its feet shouting “thank you!” It just really hit us that we wouldn’t be back again, at least not as the Merce Cunningham Dance Company.  The thing that’s been so profound about this is realizing that this is the final generation of dancers that Merce trained and chose himself.  These are the people, in my opinion, that are finishing his long, artistic project.  There’s such a poignancy and a beauty to that and I think in London we realized, we’re beyond seeing the work, this is now really the goodbyes.

Since you’re so familiar with his work, can you tell me about the pieces that are going to be presented here in Chicago?

Friday night, we’re doing a repertory evening…a piece called “Squaregame”, “Quartet”, which has five people in it, and then “Antic Meet”, which is a piece from 1958 that Merce made.  “Squaregame” is a very playful piece.  There are beautiful sections, but it’s almost like you’re on a playground with mischievous children in terms of the fun that occurs and there are big duffel bags on the stage that they throw around and hide behind.  It’s really a delightful piece.  Then you go to a completely different end of the spectrum with “Quartet”, which is kind of dark and moody.  There’s a male part in it that Merce danced originally and two other males and two females.  You’re watching the interaction between this group of dancers and this individual character.  It’s very lyrical, but in a very dark way, but it’s beautiful.  It’s easy, because of the complexities of Merce’s work, its easy to lose the fact that there is enormous beauty in it. And this is one of his more beautiful pieces, in my opinion.  The last piece on the rep is “Antic Meet”, sort of a spoof.  In it’s eight different sections.  There’s a central character.  It’s an anomaly in Merce’s body of work in some ways because there is some acting involved.  There are references to Vaudeville, to every day life, to tap, to ballet…there are fairly clear references to his period with Martha Graham.  

The second evening is one of my very favorites of Merce’s piece.  It’s called Roaratorio.  It’s an  hour-long work that was originally envisioned by John Cage.  Cage created a soundscape that was an homage to James Joyce and his final works…Finnigan’s Wake.  One of the things Cage did was go to Ireland and sample sounds from places that were referenced in Finnigan’s Wake.  So this was a rare occasion where the sound information pre-dated everything else.  John had hoped Merce would eventually make some kind of dance using the score.  For several years, Merce didn’t think that was possible. He has built in a number of what appear to be Irish jigs.  There are a lot of relational information in it, couples and groups relating to one another.  He described one as a group or family traveling from one place to another, which is what they do if you watch the full arc of the piece.  I think it’s the best example of Merce’s sheer love for dancing.  It ‘s a joy to watch from start to finish.

In your mind, what is it or was it about Merce and his work that made him such an icon?

I think that Merce represents and, in fact, literally is the single most turning point in 20th century modern dance.  Merce took a lot of the existing conventions that were handed to him in both the modern and ballet world…and because of the combination of existing things that he did, he stayed in modern dance, he stayed in a concert dance format, he put together an ensemble of dancers, he trained them and he worked with them consistently for many decades…those are all sort of conventions.  In terms of the content of the work itself, he just broke so many rules.  He advanced narratives, he separated the dance from the music, he choreographed in silence, he and John (Cage) created this whole new approach  to put dance, music and visual information together in a performance context.  He just did so much that was inconoclastic.  He turned the use of space on its head.  He created an egalitarian circumstance for dancers instead of a hierarchy of some kind where there were special people and less special people and the back up people.  The list goes on and on.  The bottom line is that Merce set a whole new direction of what was possible.  It was through him and the gateway of his work that the whole postmodern movement came through.  If there hadn’t been a Merce, I don’t know what postmoderism in dance would’ve been.  He opened a whole new direction for dance.

Merce Cunningham Dance Company – The Legacy Tour

November 18 & 19, Harris Theater, 205 E. Randolph, 312.334.7777

Tickets start at $25

 

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!