Throwback Thursday: Peep edition #tbt

RB and Todd Michael Kiech at ACDF circa 1987.

Oh, the 80s. Picture it. Central Illinois – 1986 – a girl from Decatur meets a guy from the Chicago suburbs at a dance rehearsal. There is laughing, lots of laughing. A friendship is born amid leotards and leg warmers.

Todd Kiech is many things: a dancer, choreographer, teacher, actor, psychic, burlesque star, bartender, but most of all he’s my dear friend. He has the most infectious, boisterous laugh around. He makes me giggle every time I see him. He’s my original peep.

We’ve done hundreds of shows together over the years. I will never forget the sage advice he once gave me in rehearsal. “Vicki, do…something!” Back in the day, I had big hair and he had hair. I love my Todd Kiech. Happy 27 years, my friend.

Dancer Spotlight: Abigail Simon, Dance For Life

Dancer Abigail Simon. Photo by Gina Uhlmann.

This Saturday, Aug. 18, marks the annual dance performance, Dance For Life, that raises money and awareness for HIV/AIDS prevention. Proceeds from this year’s benefit will go to the AIDS Foundation of Chicago, the Dancer’s Fund and Chicago House. Always a highlight of the show are two world premiere finales, Act I by Harrison McEldowney and Jeremy Plummer/C5 and an Act II finale by Randy Duncan. Participating companies include DanceWorks Chicago, Giordano Dance Chicago, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, River North Dance Chicago and Thodos Dance Chicago. Also performing this weekend are independent artists Mauro Villanueva and Abigail Simon.

Simon, 27, was born in New York to a director/actor father and an opera singer mother. The family was bi-coastal spending time split between NY and Los Angeles, where she started dancing at age three. At seven, back in NYC, she studied for three years at Ballet Hispanico and at ten, was accepted to the School of American Ballet (SAB), where she studied for ten years. She danced with American Ballet Theatre‘s second company (ABT II) for two years and with the main company for another two years. “I learned so much there,” she said. “I knew that because I came from SAB and because I hadn’t had much classical training that I needed to go to a smaller company to get my wings.” Joffrey was holding auditions in NYC, she auditioned and spent the next seven years dancing with them here in Chicago.

Some may recognize her from her extremely perky performances as Clara in The Nutcracker, but some of her favorite roles from her time at Joffrey are the virtuoso pas Balanchine’s Tarantella and Valencienne in Ronald Hynd’s The Merry Widow. Simon has only performed in Dance for Life one other time when she was part of Harrison McEldowney’s finale in 2011. This year, she partners with former Joffrey dancer Villanueva for the pas de deux from Le Corsaire, a gala favorite. “We’re excited,” Simon said. “It’s pure classical. It’s got tricks!”

Simon recently left Joffrey to pursue a freelance career. “I’m going to miss that family feel and being on the road,” she said, “but when I told them I was leaving, it felt like the chains coming off. You’ve got to trust your instincts and follow your heart.” So far, she’s kept busy dancing with Ballet Next, coaching students for the Youth America Grand Prix, modeling for Bloch and Revolution Dancewear. She has modeling gigs set with Capezio and Custom Barre and auditioned for Christopher Wheeldon’s new Broadway project An American in Paris. She’s also up for a lead role in an upcoming movie with actress Sean Young set to film next year in Venice, Italy. (Rumor has it people affiliated with the film will be at the show on Saturday. Perhaps if we clap extra loud, she’ll get the part!)

Simon said it is easier to find consistent work as a freelance dancer in New York, so she and her boyfriend are getting a place there too and will be splitting their time. “I’m excited,” she said. “I’m very open. It took me a couple of years to figure out, but if you’re positive and open to change, good things can happen. Just get on the horse and start riding. I’m so happy.”

Dance for Life at the Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress Pkwy., Saturday, Aug. 17 at 8 pm. Tickets for the performance only are $50-$75.

A pre-performance gala reception will be held in the International Ballroom of the Hilton Chicago, 720 S. Michigan Ave., at 5 pm. Gala tickets (which include a ticket to the performance) are $200-$500.

For more information, call 312-922-5812 or visit danceforlifechicago.com.

Chicago Dance 2012 Highlights

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

CDF12 is Here!

Joffrey Ballet's Victoria Jaiani & Fabrice Calmels in William Forsythe's "In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated". Photo by Herbert Migdoll.

Today kicks off the sixth annual Chicago Dancing Festival (CDF) with an all-Chicago show tonight at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance. Chicago Dancing will feature local companies Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, The Joffrey Ballet and Giordano Dance Chicago (making its festival debut).  Also on the program, a new work by Nicholas Leichter showcasing the After School Matters dance ensemble and a new work by Larry Keigwin incorporating “everyday Chicagoans” set to Ravel’s Bolero.

As a dance lover, this is my favorite week of the year.  The fest comes right after the feel-good dance event of the season, Dance For Life, and builds on the positive energy the dance community is still thriving on from this past Saturday’s show.

Here’s a round up of my preview coverage.  Check back throughout the week to read about festival events and performances.

CDF12

Bolero Chicago

Giordano sneak peek

Artist Spotlight: Amber Neumann

Artist Spotlight: Jesse Bechard

For more information on CDF12, please visit chicagodancingfestival.com

 

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.

 

 

CDF12 Artist Spotlight: Joffrey’s Amber Neumann

Joffrey's Amber Neumann & Graham Maverick in William Forsythe's "In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated". Photo by Herbert Migdoll.

On a sunny morning in July, a perky little ray of sunshine walks toward me clad in a yellow sundress.  ”I made this,” she says, referring to the dress, her smile lighting up the sidewalk.  Amber Neumann, 21, has a lot to smile about.  Now entering her third season with the Joffrey Ballet (after 6 weeks off, rehearsals for the 2012-2013 season started yesterday), her list of accomplishments keeps growing.

She’s worked with well-known choreographers like Julia Adam, Yuri Possokhov, Val Caniparoli and Edwaard Liang.  She danced the lead role of Kitri in Possokhov’s Don Quixote to rave reviews after an injury shook up the cast.  She learned the part in a day (“four hours of rehearsal and a dress rehearsal”).  She proved her acting chops last season in Wayne MacGregor’s Infra depicting an emotional breakdown center stage.   She showed fearlessness in William Forsythe’s “In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated”, where she explosively danced what is known as the “jeté pas” (her entrance is three ball-to-the-walls jetés across the stage partnered by Graham Maverick).  She recently purchased her first home and is enjoying nesting, gardening and making clothes.  “It’s been the summer of experimenting,” says Neumann.  “It’s been busy.  I just started taking Krav Maga (an Israeli fighting technique).  I took a trip to Canada with my Mom to the Shakespeare Festival in Stratford.  I went to a lot of weddings.”

This season, Neumann is looking forward to learning and performing Kurt Jooss’ The Green Table, Jiri Kylían’s Forgotten Land and is excited to be dancing for the first time at Dance For Life as well as participating again in the Chicago Dancing Festival (CDF).   In last year’s fest, she  performed in George Balanchine’s Stravinsky Violin Concert on the Pritzker Pavilion stage.  This year at CDF, she will be performing Forsythe’s In the Middle in the Chicago Dancing program on Monday, August 20th at the Harris TheaterRB sat down over coffee with Neumann at the end of her summer break.

 Tell me about learning the Forsythe piece.

Working with Glen (Tuggle, répétiteur) was a blast.  He was so much fun, but kept us all focused at the same time, which is not easy.  He had this way of giving us just enough free reign so we could play with the timing and the steps.  There’s a lot of improv, so you could change it up.  You could do something a little different every time.  There’s a certain amount of “ooh, what’s going to happen now?” and that’s always exciting.

And the jeté pas?

There are a lot of arms and things that are really intricate and you have to be really together with your partner.  This is not on your leg.  This is get off of your leg and twist your arms around your head and try not to choke each other.  We had a really good time.  It was hard, but once you get into it, it starts to flow.

Is it difficult to count?

It was at first.  It was really difficult.  There are some parts you absolutely have to count.  If you don’t count, you’re screwed.  It is hard to count unless you really listen and understand the music.  Once you do that, its a solid meter.  If you can find the meter, you’re fine.  There’s the second pirouette section in the back, where everyone is going at a different time…that took us longer than I care to admit for us to get that.  And the sets are minimalist, there aren’t really wings, so you really have to know your counts.  It’s a little bit of flying without a net.

Have you started putting it back together yet?

No. Right when we start back we’ll start putting it back together.  There’s not a lot of time.  Stamina-wise, it’s so incredibly difficult.  It really doesn’t matter if you run and exercise; it’s a different kind of stamina. 

For more information on the Chicago Dancing Festival 2012, click here.

Read more about Amber here.

Straight Guy Talking

Scott Silberstein of HMS Media.

Even if you’ve never heard of HMS Media, if you’ve watched Chicago dance footage in the last 20 or so years, you’ve definitely seen their work. With 15 Emmy Awards and 23 Emmy nominations for their work creating arts-based, engaging programs for public tv, these media gurus have shown an instinctual talent for theatrical production and an affinity for filming dance. Lucky us. Their first project, the PBS documentary Why Am I Hiding, a barrier-breaking inside look at Rape Victim Advocates, won them their first Emmy Award (1989) and even had Oprah calling for a copy. Co-founder Scott Silberstein — writer, producer, composer, director, musician, blogger, dance-lover, music aficionado and straight guy — is the S in HMS.

A classically trained pianist, Silberstein has always had the arts in his blood. Passion, compassion and a bit of genius led him and HMS co-founder (and band mate – they met at summer camp!) Matt Hoffman to film dance. “I got fixed up with a dancer in the Lynda Martha Dance Company,” Silberstein remembers. He went to see her in a show and fell in love. “The date didn’t go well, but I like to think of it as I got fixed up with dance.” Much like their experience with the rape documentary, pretty much everything they did struck gold. Starting out with clients like Mordine & Co, Hubbard Street and Joseph Holmes Dance Theatre and after winning two Ruth Page awards (and two more nominations) they quickly became the go-to guys for the Chicago dance community.

The next big project was another PBS documentary on a small, new company called River North. With a show quickly approaching, they were struggling to sell tickets. HMS convinced PBS to air the special a few days prior to the show as advertising and by the next morning they had sold out. “That was two shows in a row that we’d been able to make and team up with WTTW and see the world change a little bit,” says Silberstein. “The first, I really think some people got help and the second, a dance company survived. You start to feel a little powerful, like you can do something to help. It was powerful, but humble. It always needs to be about their work or cause first.”

Around this time, Dance for Life (DFL) was in its third year and really starting to take off. The brainchild of dancers Keith Elliott and Todd Keich, DFL is an annual one-night gathering of the top local dance companies for a performance to raise money for HIV/AIDS awareness, care and prevention. Silberstein got together with Elliott and Harriet Ross to talk about making a documentary for DFL. The same conversation continued for 15 years, but the stars never aligned. Fast forward to present. For the 20th anniversary of DFL, HMS Media’s Dance For Life: The Documentarywill air on WTTW 11 tomorrow night (details below). “This is exactly the right time, because it fell into place so easily and so quickly,” he says. “Going into the 20th, a great milestone, and giving an opportunity to tell their story again through the eyes of survivors, beneficiaries, and people that have lost someone…it was the right time. Almost now more than ever. With all the advances in treatment and medication, now no one is talking about it. The gay community is finally getting some recognition and receiving rights that are long overdue, but there is some push back. It’s subtle and that’s what is scary. Maybe now the need is stronger than ever.”

The will, the need, the funding and the desire was there. Now came time to film. “All of the dance had to be shot in one day at the Harris,” says Silberstein. “Instead of a half hour to space and check lighting, we’re going to dedicate that half hour to a full out performance and then we’re going to do it exactly the same way in a few hours. One day of live performance. No camera rehearsal. It was an intense day.” That intensity paid off. The documentary is a stunningly accurate presentation of last year’s live performance (I was there) technically and emotionally. It opens with shots cutting from Joffrey Artistic Director Ashley Wheater teaching warm-up on stage to people standing in line to get into the Harris Theatre to dancers rehearsing backstage to the audience finding their seats. The effect is an insider’s look to everything that is happening in real time. The into ends with Margaret Nelson calling the first cues, a quick peek at the dancers taking their places for the first number and the opening announcement. It’s like you’re there.

Then the show starts. While you do get to see a majority of the beautiful dancing, it is the interspersed interviews that really steal the spotlight. Personal accounts and memories tell the story of the devastating disease and the impact it has had on the dance community. “We wanted to make it look like the dances were created to tell the story,” Silberstein says. “The movement would complement the story. We got chills in the edit room, when we would line a shot up that would fit perfectly. I knew Matt Hoffman was doing some genius editing. He’s the best there is.” Gorgeous, heart-wrenching, poignant, hopeful, joyous and brilliant. I smell another Emmy.

Dance For Life documentary broadcast premiere: Thurs, Aug 11 at 10pm on WTTW11 with a rebroadcast on Sat, Aug 13th at 4am and on WTTWPRime on Fri, Aug 12th at 4pm. The program will also be available through Aug 31st at Comcast OnDemand. You can watch preview clips on the Dance For Life Facebook page.