CDF13 Recap

Joffrey's Victoria Jaiani and Fabrice Calmels in
Tamako Miyazaki and Brooklyn Mack in
Giordano Dance Chicago in
Chicago Human Rhythm Project in
Brooklyn Mack and Tamako Miyazaki in
Hubbard Street Dance Chicago in
Joffrey Ballet in
Joffrey Ballet in
Joffrey Ballet in
Joffrey Ballet in
Joffrey Ballet in
Philadanco in
Hubbard Street's Johnny McMillan and Alice Klock in
Brian Brooks in
Chicago Human Rhythm Project in
 
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Last week Chicagoans were treated to five free dance concerts courtesy of the 2013 Chicago Dancing Festival (CDF). For the third year, I was one of CDF’s official bloggers covering the performances. Here’s a recap of the events as well as some awesome performance photos by the lovely Cheryl Mann*.

The Harris at 10! Anniversary Special at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance.

Solitaire – A Game of Dance at the Museum of Contemporary Art/MCA Stage.

Dancing in Chicago at the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University.

Celebration of Dance at the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park.

Huge THANKS to Lar Lubovitch, Jay Franke, David Herro, Evin Eubanks, The Silverman Group, venues, sponsors and all the artists who shared their beauty and talent. It was another great fest packed full of amazing performances. It is one of my favorite, most exciting, exhausting and inspiring week of the year. I’m looking forward to seeing what they do to top it next year.

*Photo credits: all photos by Cheryl Mann.

1. Joffrey Ballet’s Victoria Jaiani and Fabrice Calmels in “Son of Chamber Symphony.”

2. Tamako Miyazaki and Brooklyn Mack in “Diana and Actaeon” pas.

3. Giordano Dance Chicago’s Maeghan McHale and Martin Ortiz Tapia in “Two Become Three.”

4. Chicago Human Rhythm Project in “In the Beginning…”.

5. Tamako Miyazaki and Brooklyn Mack in “Diana and Actaeon” pas.

6. Hubbard Street Dance Chicago dancers Jesse Bechard, Johnny McMillan and David Schultz in “Casi-Casa”.

7. Joffrey Ballet in “Episode 31″.

8. Joffrey Ballet in “Interplay”.

9 & 10. Joffrey Ballet in “Episode 31″.

11. Joffrey Ballet dancers John Mark Giragosian and Anastacia Holden in “Tarantella”.

12. Philadanco in “Wake Up”.

13. Hubbard Street Dance Chicago dancers Johnny McMillan and Alice Klock in “Little mortal jump”.

14. Brian Brooks in “I’m Going to Explode”.

15. Chicago Human Rhythm Project in “In the Beginning…”.

CDF13: Solitaire – A Game of Dance (gala)

Alvin Ailey dancer Samuel Lee Roberts in "IN/SIDE". Photo by Paul Kolnik.

Last night the Chicago Dancing Festival (CDF) hosted a benefit gala at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) and premiered the Solitaire – A Game of Dance performance that will be repeated this Friday at 6 and 8 pm. Guests mingled in the lobby with wine and passed hors d’oeuvres while perusing silent auction items. MCA Director of Performance Programs Peter Taub introduced CDF co-founders Jay Franke (in the cutest shorts suit!) and Lar Lubovitch, who in turn introduced our favorite local dance fan, Mayor Rahm Emanuel. After telling the dancers backstage to “break a leg” (Eek!), he proceeded to boast about “the largest free dance fest anywhere in the country”. He brought his family along including his parents who were celebrating their 58th wedding anniversary (aww). He talked about the 750 free events that have taken place in Chicago this summer and said that next year the hope is to take CDF around the city and “break out to all the neighborhoods”.

Franke graciously thanked everyone that helped to make CDF13 possible and Lubovitch, a man as eloquent with words as he is with choreography, gave us a history of the game solitaire (“the game of patience”) and a brief essay on how hard it is dancing and creating a solo. But he promised the performance would show just “how vast and varied the art of dancing alone is”. The show indeed did just that. A hand of cards projected on the back wall served as program notes and transitions. Before each solo a card was flipped with the picture and name of the artist about to perform.

First, the exquisite Victoria Jaiani of the Joffrey Ballet danced a breathtaking and heart-wrenching (yes, I cried) Dying Swan variation from 1905. She seemed to float across the stage in her entrance. From her delicate death, we jump to the dramatic, super strong solo In/Side (2008) performed by Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre‘s Samuel Lee Roberts. His sheer physicality was expertly matched by Robert Battle’s intense choreography. Ensemble Español‘s Julia Hinojosa danced a beautiful ode to Cuba in this flirtatious, percussive solo complete with a gorgeous long ruffled skirt and a large white fan. Ensueños de mi Caribe (2012), inspired by the city of Havana, showcases the traditions of flamenco. The petite Camille A. Brown commanded the stage in a powerful, puppet-like excerpt from her 2012 work Mr. Tol E. RAncE celebrating black performers and challenging stereotypes.

Natya Dance Theatre dancer Krithika Rajagopalan. Photo by Amitava Sarkar.

Things lightened up as Hubbard Street Dance Chicago dancers Johnny McMillan, David Schultz and Jonathan Fredrickson took the stage in Alejandro Cerrudo’s charming PACOPEPEPLUTO (2011), a fun, technically challenging and “cheeky” trio of solos set to Dean Martin songs. Krithika Rajagopalan of Natya Dance Theatre, wearing a stunning orange and red sari, was a study of intricate detail and expression in Sthithihi – In the Stillness (2013). The placement of each finger or the raising of an eyebrow telling an entire story. The performance went from stillness to the extreme with Brian Brooks’ frenetic 2007 solo I’m Going to Explode. Towards the end of the solo, he spirals down onto his knees leaving one arm extended up to the ceiling reminding me of the swan dying at the beginning of the show.

The evening ended with guests gathering in the upstairs galleries for drinks, dinner, dancing and a live auction. Once again, CDF did what it does best, which is bring a wide range of dance forms together on one stage performed by some of the best dancers around. You may not enjoy every style of dance you see here, but you can’t deny the talent, commitment and artistry involved.

PRODUCE: What is it?

McCurdy and Zerang.

So, what is PRODUCE? “It’s hard to explain,” said Lauren Warnecke of Art Intercepts. She’s the creator and co-host of the annual artistic mash-up program called PRODUCE.  “I’ve yet to come up with a catchphrase. I usually call it a dance/music experiment or a choose-your-own-adventure novel for experimental dance and music.”

This is the third year for this funky collab show which mixes and matches local artists/groups so that every performance out of the four is unique. ”I’m looking for a reality t.v. show in a live performance,” Warnecke said. “I want conflicting aesthetics, conflicting creative processes, conflicting ideas, conflicting personalities. It’s super trad dancing all the way to playing a drum with a dildo. It’s putting people together who wouldn’t normally be.” Past performers have teamed up for subsequent projects after meeting here.

The Ensemble Project and Signal Ensemble Theatre‘s Julie Ballard (lighting) and Anthony Ingram (sound) are presenting this season of PRODUCE. Ingram also serves as co-host with Warnecke. The performance is broken down into sections. After each section, the audience gives feedback and the co-hosts, acting as “producers”, decide what changes to make with the music, sound, arrangement, pairings, etc. before the next session begins.  “We’re pulling as many manipulations out of these set works as possible. That helps the artists grow and let’s the audience into the process,” said Warnecke. “It’s about wanting to let the audience have a little bit better point of entry in this type of performance (experimental), so they can feel more comfortable with it.”

Performers this year include Country Death Trip, Mark Hardy/Celestial Architecture, Carol McCurdy and Michael Zerang, Philip Elson, The Nexus Project, crawlspace, Newman and Newman and hey girl hey omg girl real life.

Let me get this straight. A mash-up, choose-your-own-adventure, interactive, inclusive, evolving, unique, hosted mix-and-match performance with dancers, musicians, performance artists, a psycho-billy/goth country band, constellation projections, sisters and a drag queen? And you get a drink! All for $8?

Count me in!

The Ensemble Project & Signal Ensemble Theatre’s Julie Ballard and Anthony Ingram present PRODUCE, Friday-Saturday, July 26-27 and Friday-Saturday, Aug. 9-10 at 7:30 pm at Signal Ensemble Theatre, 1802 W. Berenice. Tickets are $7; call 773.341.8940 or visit www.artintercepts.org/upcoming/.

Thodos New Dances 2013

Brian Hare and Jessica Miller-Tomlinson in Panem nostrum quoditianum, choreographed by New Dances 2013 guest choreographer Ahmad Simmons. Photo credit: ©Cheryl Mann

For 13 years, Thodos Dance Chicago (TDC), once a year, lets the dancers become the boss. New Dances showcases TDC dancers’ voices by giving them the chance to cast, choreograph, design, manage and create. With a panel of experts from the Chicago dance field offering impressions and advice, New Dances 2013 turned out nine new premieres in a range of styles, lengths and talents.

As with any all, in-house choreographic show, there were hits and misses. The only way to learn is to try and see if it works. Kudos to the dancer/choreographers for putting their voices on the stage with audible rain storms, prayer, a sandbox and even cartwheels.

Stand out pieces, for me, were Relativity by Carrie Patterson and Alissa Tollefson (short and sweet, good dancing), Sudden Throws by Cara Carper Balcer and Brian Hare (great difficult dancing), Weights of Being by Ray Doñes and Jon Sloven (nice, smooth partnering) and guest choreographer Ahmad Simmons’ Panem Nostrum Quoditianum (strong, cohesive work incorporating all stage elements – dance, costumes, lighting, sound with stellar dancing). Dancer shout outs to Brian Hare, Ricky Ruiz, Jessica Miller Tomlinson, Annie Deutz, Joshua Manculich,Carrie Patterson, Jon Sloven and Rebecca McLindon! Plus major props to lighting designer Jacob Snodgrass and sound designer Johnnie Nevin.

There is one more performance left – today at 5 pm. Check it out! You’ll get a little taste of everything and will definitely be entertained.

Thodos Dance Chicago presents New Dances 2013, Sunday, July 21 at 5 pm at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts, 1016 N. Dearborn. Tickets are still available ($10-$38) at the theater box office.

2013 Chicago Dancing Festival

Chicago Dancing Festival at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion. Photo by Todd Rosenberg.

It’s almost that time of year again. In late August (20th-24th), the seventh annual Chicago Dancing Festival (CDF) hits Chicago stages for another year of fantastic FREE dance concerts. Once again, for the third year, I will be part of CDF’s blogger initiative covering the performances and providing dancer/choreographer interviews and behind-the-scenes rehearsal sneak peeks. Woot!

This year’s line up of performers is fantastic. Local companies Chicago Human Rhythm Project, Giordano Dance Chicago, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago and The Joffrey Ballet as well as NY-based companies Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Brian Brooks Moving Company, Camille A. Brown & Dancers and Lar Lubovitch Dance Company all return to the fest. CDF newcomers include Chicago’s Ensemble Español and Natya Dance Theatre and Philadelphia’s Philadanco, plus artists Brooklyn Mack of Washington Ballet and Tamako Miyazaki of Columbia Classical Ballet and Dortmund Ballet.

2013 Chicago Dancing Festival will also have two commissions: a new piece by Chi-town tappers Lane Alexander and Bril Barrett and the Chicago premiere of Alexander Ekman’s Episode 31 by Joffrey (this work will also appear on their Winter program in Feb 2014). Live music will accompany the Lubovitch company and Ensemble Español. Tuesday (Aug. 20) opens the festival with a celebration for the Harris Theater‘s 10th anniversary. Wednesday (Aug. 21) is the CDF gala performance and benefit at the Museum of Contemporary Art/MCA Stage. It’s the only event in which you need to purchase a ticket ($250). Thursday (Aug. 22) showcases Dancing in Chicago with an all-local show at the Auditorium Theatre. Friday is a free repeat of the gala performance, Solitaire – A Game of Dance, featuring all solo works. And, Saturday is the much-loved, highly-attended Celebration of Dance at the outdoor Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park.

All performances – except the gala – are free. Tickets for indoor events need to be reserved, but the outdoor Pritzker show is open to the public. The ticket release for the performances is staggered and there is a limit of two (2) tickets per order. Stay tuned for a post with the ticket release dates and performance times.

Shh…It’s a Secret!

Dancer/choreographer Emily Stein. Photo by Nadia Oussenko.

What do you get when you put 15 dancers from diverse backgrounds in a large dance center with live piano and an explicit interest in re-learning ballet via improv and manipulation? Secret Experiments in Ballet #2, a collaborative experience of three performances this weekend at Visceral Dance Center. The mad professor leading this experiment, ”playing in the intersection of ballet vocabulary and improvisation”, is dancer/teacher/choreographer Emily Stein.

Most local dancers know her as the petite ballet teacher with articulate feet and impeccable technique and as a performer and Associate Artistic Director of Zephyr Dance, the company she left amicably in 2011. Since retiring, or “redirecting”, Stein has been teaching – a lot! – and taking classes (with Peff Modelski). In February 2012, she attended a three-week residency at the Atlantic Center for the Arts where she had the opportunity to take time to think about what she wanted to do next and the ideas for Secrets began to percolate. The entire concept finally hit her while on a much-needed vacation with her husband. ”I really wanted to play with ballet,” she told me over tea and coffee in late April. “A lot of what I’d been working with in the studio were the seeds of ballet language that you learn when you’re a kid. What you think it means and what you think it is, then exploring it through the improvisational techniques and things I’d learned working in the other side of the dance world. In particular, what I learned when working with Deborah Hay. They couldn’t possibly be further apart. I love ballet, but rarely do I go to the ballet and say, ‘Wow!’ There are people doing interesting stuff, but what else? What else that’s not about just extrapolating the vocabulary and taking it out to a really extreme place. I wanted to see what else is there in the vocabulary that we know. ”

Using the Cechetti seven movements of dance (plié, relever, sauté, etc.) as a base, she set out to see “what else?”. Taking the Cechetti definition, the French definition and the English translation of the word and having the dancers create movement phrases was a jumping off point. Adding in her own combinations and manipulations, Stein constructed a six section work that is sure to entertain and perhaps educate. “I’m trying to develop the dance from the inside out,” she said. “I want something based on glissade. How many different ways can you think of glissade or do glissade? How far away from glissade can you get and still have some semblance of it? The meanings re-learned. When you actually translate the words in the correct context, the meanings are myriad and more complicated. I’m taking those translations to create movement. I think part of it is coming to improv later in my career and having people say ‘that looks like an arabesque; take that out’. But that’s in me. That’s not something that I do, that’s something that’s in me, because I’ve done it for such a long time. You speak with an accent and you move with that accent. Some people can learn another language in life and not have an accent, but some can’t. That’s an interesting continuum to create in.”

Another essential part of the project is that it moves throughout the entire Visceral space using dressing rooms and corners in the hallway as the stage. “It’s not an installation; it’s definitely sequential,” Stein said. “I didn’t want to have a studio showing, but wanted the stage magic and quality of performance into these spaces. When we take class, there’s a performance quality and certainly when you’re teaching. I wanted to bring the audience into the space and have them be close to the dancers…to be this far apart from the dancers and hear them breathing and see the details. That’s what I love about teaching. I get really involved in someone’s foot. Ok, maybe I’m just a geek, but I think there’s something there. Other geeks will appreciate it.”

Emily Stein presents Secret Experiments in Ballet #2 at Visceral Dance Center, 2820 N. Elston Ave., Saturday, May 4 at 8 pm and Sunday, May 5 at 2 and 6 pm. Tickets are $25 ($15 for students and seniors); call 773.844.8988 or visit www.emilysteindance.com. *Cash and checks only at the door. May pay by credit card online.

 

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.

 

 

Rivno’s Ahmad Simmons Takes Center Stage

River North dancer Ahmad Simmons. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Tomorrow night – Tuesday, June 5th – River North Dance Chicago gives a free concert in Millennium Park on the Pritzker Pavilion stage.  The company just finished a five-week tour of Russia and concludes its 2011-2012 season on a hometown stage.  Read my preview in Time Out Chicago here.

Look for dancer Ahmad Simmons, wrapping up his first season with RNDC,  to take center stage in a solo role local audiences are used to seeing someone else perform.  Former RNDC dancer Christian Denice wowed audiences with his athletic style in Ashley Roland’s Beat, a heavily improvised solo to a fast, percussive score.  Rumor has it, Simmons reached rock-star status in Russia with his interpretation of the piece.

Between traveling back to the States and rehearsals, RB caught up with Simmons via Facebook for a few questions about the recent tour of Russia and the upcoming show.

Tell me about the Russia tour – best parts, hardest parts?

I would say the best part of the tour was the incredible response we got from every one of our audiences. Be it bigger city or small country town, all of the Russian audiences came to our shows with a great sense of excitement and anticipation that we could feel from behind the curtain. One of my favorites being the huge arena in Habarovsk packed with people roaring after every piece. It felt like a rock concert! That said, the hardest part of the tour was getting to the performances. We endured some tough travel days with long bumpy bus rides, exhausting flights, and overnight trains.

What will RNDC be performing for the concert in the park?

In this particular show we will be presenting some of the pieces we toured including “Evolution of a Dream”, “At Last”, “Ella”, “Beat”, “Risoluta”, “The Mourning” and “Habaneras”, with the addition of Mauro Astolfi’s “Contact-Me”. I can honestly say there will be something for everyone. “Evolution”, “At Last” and “Ella” provide a sort of familiarity with music by some well-loved artists. “Beat” shakes it up with improvisation to a fierce drum track. The audience will surely go on an intellectual ride in Sidra Bell’s “Risoluta” and be challenged by the variety of relationships in “Contact-Me”. We are all beyond excited to be making our full evening debut at the Pritzker. First of all is absolutely gorgeous!! It also seats something like 4, 000 people and to be able to reach that many spirits in such a magical setting with be more than fulfilling.

You’re dancing Beat, which local audiences have come to think of as synonymous with Christian (Denice).  I know it incorporates a good deal of improv, but how do you make it your own?

Yes! I’m thrilled to make my Chicago debut of “Beat”. Christian was the only dancer I had seen perform the solo prior to my joining the company. I was in complete awe of his power and command and I remember saying to myself, ‘how would you do that?’ The key for me is continuing to explore my own nuance and essence. The only thing we truly own as dancers is our unique voice. I’m using his footsteps as more of a guide than a formula.

What makes RNDC unique?

River North is so unique because it really does welcome individuality. We all have such different voices that come together to compliment each other. As a newbie, I have to say that it’s a wonderful place to grow. I learn so many new things by watching the seasoned artists work. It also doesn’t hurt that we laugh a lot! Watch out, there are some comedians in Rivno.

River North Dance Chicago at Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park, Tuesday, June 5 at 6:30 p.m.  This is a FREE concert.

*Tuesday’s show will be the last performance with the company for Hanna Brictson.

Preview: Lucky Plush’s The Better Half

The cast of "The Better Half". Photo by Cheryl Mann.

Tonight at the MCA Stage, Lucky Plush Productions (LPP) opens a two weekend run of its new production The Better Half.  A 75-minute collaboration between LLP Artistic Director Julia Rhoads and physical theater troupe 500 Clown Co-Founder Leslie Buxbaum Danzig, this new work puts a modern, interactive twist on the psychological thriller Gaslight (1944 movie based on the Patrick Hamilton play Angel Street) where a husband tries to make his wife believe she’s losing her mind.  The Better Half incorporates characters, text, lighting (Heather Gilbert) and sound (Mikhail Fiksel) cues and a heave dose of reality to keep the story evolving in real time on stage.  Add in costumes by Jeff Hancock and you have the setting for a fun, creative collaboration living inside a live, artistic whodunit?

I spoke with Rhoads earlier this week about her process and the new work.

I’m embarrassed to say, I think the last thing I saw Lucky Plush perform was Lulu Sleeps (2005). (*Side note:  After viewing the repertoire on LPP’s website, I’m happy to say I have seen most of the recent work, although I did miss last year’s hit Punk Yankees.)    Back then, you were incorporating theatrical elements, but recently you seem to be adding even more theatrics and humor.  Is that a different direction you’ve taken over the years, or is it just because I’ve missed some of your work?

I think it’s both.  One of our first works has been our longest standing work which we’ve done over and over is Endplay (2003).  That work has a (Samuel) Beckett play inside of it and is very much about human relationships and about the performers on stage and how they’re interacting and negotiating with each other.  I think that piece had a real liveliness to it that I’m interested in now in my work.  One thing that was a big game-changer for me was Cinderbox 18 (2007).  It just was kind of a magical process.  That was a process in which I started to think more about the liveness, the immediacy of being in performance and having the performers be in a state of response to each other, so it’s less like every move and detail is set and choreographed…there was a real openness.  I did this thing back then where I’d write a little note down for each of them some unknown element that they had to accomplish during the run.  Some of them ended up being in the show in a fantastic way and some of them miserably failed, but the best thing is it wasn’t really meant to find new things to add to the show, it was just a bonus if something really landed.  What it did was put the performers in a constant state of presence because they had no idea what the changes were going to be and what someone might do to change the game.  Even though the sections and the structure and the movement was set, there were things that would happen that they would have to deal with and respond in a very real-time way.  It was just such an exciting process for me.  Since 2007, and really going back to Endplay, I really want the audience to feel like they are knowing the performer, that it was really about the people and not just the dancers being sort of a non-subjective entity. 

This process in The Better Half is even going more in that direction.  Accessibility is really important.  I think it’s sometimes perceived as a dirty word.  I think accessibility is great.  You can be incredibly intelligent and accessible.  It doesn’t mean you’re diluting the content, it just means you’re allowing the audience to enter into it and to maybe laugh or maybe feel like they’re included.  This process has moved more into the dialogue…it’s more narrative.  The dialogue is in service to character development. Narrative, at the same time, we’re doing something very familiar to LPP’s body of work.  We’re also the performers that arrive at the MCA when we start.  We all show up and we get a name of a character.  We get character descriptions.  We hear this vague synopsis of a play.  My character, Mrs. Manningham hears that another person is called Mr. Manningham, so really all we know is presumably, we’re married, so we start to negotiate having a relationship in real time.  Things start to happen.  There’s kind of a loop structure, like reset button, but each time, the consequences change…grows more into the Gaslight story.  The way we hope the work is going to land is kind of fun look at contemporary domestic relationships.  It’s about the five of us being in the space together and negotiating roles that we’ve taken on or that have been imposed on us…how we grow into them.  The loop structure is about routinization that happens in relationships, sometimes how we bring our habits and our role to a relationship and then it’s like that forever.  You can recast yourself in a relationship, but it’s going to take a lot of work.  The piece wants to speak to all of those things, how you want to jump script sometimes and how you find the resilience within a marriage or a domestic relationship.  It’s fun and it’s funny and it has all of those elements, but it also lands with a real resonance about the question of can two people spend their lives together?

When the characters are getting the descriptions, is someone on stage telling them? How is that interacting happening?

In the beginning we’re sort of being directed by light.  Light plays a really important role, light and sound, and we’re directed to a place on stage and one of the characters is directed to a place in the audience where there’s a podium with a binder that has the Gaslight synopsis.  He’s privy to information that he’s one of us too.  It says there’s another character and he gives himself the role of detective.  He comes into the story and is in it for the remaining…being with us on stage as new narratives are proposed.  There are about five or six scripts that we’re sort of navigating through.  There are real time consequences for introducing those scripts and being inside of them and how it ultimately lands back in this central marriage.

How did the collaboration with Leslie come about?  Have you worked together before?

We’ve known each other for a while.  The thing that really drew us to each other is that she’s also interested in the immediacy of presence with the audience and having a real time experience.  She’s also interested in humor.  We’re a really good fit for each other.  She came in during Cinderbox 18.  I asked her to come in to give feedback to the process.  I liked her language and I was really excited by her point of view.  She had seen my work and I think she felt the same way.  She’s really drawn to physicality.  Her work is physical theater and she’s really drawn to dance and physical vocabulary as a way to move a story forward.  We started talking about doing something together a couple of years ago. We’re both really excited about this work.

Lucky Plush Productions’ The Better Half, Oct 27-29 & Nov 3, 5, 6

MCA Stage, 220 E. Chicago, 312.397.4010

Proud Mary

Inaside dancer Mary Williams. Photo by Eddie Eng.

Mary Williams will take her final bow this Saturday night after performing in the one-night-only show Constant Motion at the Harris Theater.  This show is the first in a series of shared performances of Chicago dance companies funded in part by the New Stages for Dance Initiative, a program brought to Chicago through the local dance service organization Audience Architects in partnership with Dance USA and MetLife.   Constant Motion pairs Inaside Chicago Dance* (ICD), where Williams is a dancer and Marketing Director, and  Cerqua Rivera Dance Theatre (CRDT) for the evening-length program.

ICD starts the show with four numbers, plus a piece by their Youth Training Program dancers, then CRDT takes the stage with their signature live musicians and both groups participate in a collaborative finale choreographed by Artistic Directors Richard Smith (ICD) and Wilfredo Rivera (CRDT).  Although stylistically different, the two companies come together (with the help of the initiative) to bring their talents to a larger venue than either one could secure alone:  the Harris Theater.  For Williams, it’s a pinnacle moment in her career.

Growing up in a small Michigan town, she started taking ballet class at age three and then got into Jazzersize (hilarious, but no joke).  When a new dance school opened in town, she began taking classes and eventually danced competitively.  College studies followed at Western Michigan University, with a double major in Dance and English.  Williams had her heart set on moving to New York City, but landed a scholarship at Giordano Jazz Dance Chicago and moved here instead.  During that first summer on scholarship, a fellow dancer asked her if she wanted to come with her to an audition.  Of course, the energetic 23-year-old said yes and was asked to be an apprentice with Inaside.  She’s been there ever since.  Now, at 30, she’s decided it’s time to take a break from dancing and focus on other aspects of her career.  I chatted with Williams last week around 10:30 pm, after she spent a long day (12 hours to be exact) rehearsing and teaching.

Inaside dancer Mary Williams. Photo by Eddie Eng.

Tell me about the show and the collaboration. 

Some of the great things about this collaboration, from a marketing aspect and as a behind-the-scenes person, we’ve been able to see a whole other group just like us…their system…how they do it, how they work together compared to how we work together…tricks of the trade.  I know a lot of their dancers, so it’s been fun.  It’s hard because we’re putting together two companies.  I think we’ve had four rehearsals.  It’s so fun when we get to do Wilfredo’s choreography.  I think the dancers on both sides really liked it.  It’s like having a guest artist come in.

CRDT dances to live music.  How was it adjusting to dancing to live music for the final piece?

We have our first rehearsal with live music on Sunday!  We’ve been working off of a recording.  I think it will be exciting.  It brings an element of surprise and almost improv into it.

Why did you decide to retire now?

I feel like dancing-wise I’m doing really great.  I know the young talent that is coming up is exceptional.  Right now, when I’m at my peak is a great time to stop dancing.  Other than that, it’s very consuming.  It consumes your life.  Especially with the marketing…having these twelve hour days…they’re brutal and you start to feel it after a while.  It’s been a hard decision to make, but I’m kind of excited to take the next step in my life and career.

What’s next?

I’m staying on as Marketing Director and I hope I can still come take class and keep up with my craft.  I’m still teaching kids, but I want to be able to take class.  I was recently named Dance Coordinator at Des Plaines Park District.  I’ll be working in the dance office, getting to know the program, talking to parents, etc…kind of like my office job.  I just won’t be a dancer on stage.

Since your last show is next week, what are you feeling? 

I have so many different things going on.  I’m excited about the show.  It’s this huge, awesome event.  It’s not going to hit me that I’m not going to be dancing with the company anymore until I sit in the audience and watch them perform.  I feel like I should be focusing on the show more now, but you’ve gotta work, do the marketing…all this other stuff in life.  Right now, I’m being pulled in a lot of different directions, which I think is distracting me from the reality that I’m not going to be a dancer any more.

The day after the show might not be so fun.

I’m probably going to cry a lot.  I’m very emotional.

But, what a way to go out!

I can leave with a great sense of accomplishment.  I set out to be a dancer and I did it!  I followed my dreams.  It’s so cheesy, but it’s true.

Are you looking forward to a little bit of a break?

Yes.  I’ll get to eat.  I’m kind of excited about that.  I never starve myself, but you watch what you do.  I’m looking forward to some free time and spending time with my husband.  That will be nice.

Constant Motion: Inaside Chicago Dance & Cerqua Rivera Dance Theatre – Saturday, September 24th, featuring choreography by Harrison McEldowney and Tony Savino, Autumn Eckman, Eddy O’Campo, Richard Smith and Wilfredo Rivera.

Harris Theater, 205 E. Randolph, 312.334.2400, Tickets: $25-40,

*Disclosure:  I’m a former board member for ICD and currently serve in an advisory capacity and with special projects.