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!

 

Rebirth at River North

RNDC dancer Jessica Wolfrum in Nejla Yatkin's "Renatus". Photo by Cheryl Mann.

“It’s a beast,” she says, referring to the costume she will be wearing this weekend at the Harris Theater. River North Dance Chicago (RNDC) veteran dancer, Jessica Wolfrum, dons “the dress” for a world premiere solo work created by German (now Chicago-based) choreographer Nejla Yatkin and artistic director of NY2 Dance as part of Momentum. Set to the aria from Puccinni’s Tosca, the piece is an emotional, dramatic tour de force.

In her 11th season with the company, Wolfrum, 32, is ready for the challenge. After considering retiring from RNDC last season – “I didn’t feel like it was time and I didn’t want to regret anything.” – she’s back in full concentration mode and ready to go. The solo’s title Renatus means rebirth and explores life’s transformations. “My solo work is very personal, from a personal place,” Yatkin told me over the phone earlier this month. “It’s about transformation, transcendence, letting go of the old and stepping into the new.” She chose Wolfrum for her strength, passion, maturity and subtlety. As for Wolfrum, she’s inspired by Yatkin and enjoyed the intense, intimate and awesome experience in rehearsals.

The piece is a dance for one, but Wolfrum feels its more a duet with the huge, taffeta dress being her partner. Learning to dance in it was difficult. “It took a lot of time to allow it to move and to listen to it,” she said. “Now, I can hear the rhythm of it moving. It’s like a second skin.”

Also on the program, a full-company world premiere by New York choreographer Adam Barruch some audience favorites including maniacally upbeat Three (Robert Battle) and Beat (Ashley Roland), excerpts from Sabrina and Ruben Veliz’s Al Sur del Sur with artistic director Frank Chaves’ works Forbidden Boundaries and The Good Goodbyes.

River North Dance Chicago presents Momentum at the Harris Theater, 205 E. Randolph, Friday-Saturday, Nov. 16-17 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $30-$75; call 312.334.7777 or visit harristheaterchicago.org.

Wunderkind Whittenburg

Zachary Whittenburg - photo by Todd Rosenberg.

If you’re at all familiar with the Chicago dance scene, you know his name.  He’s been a dancer, choreographer, teacher, student, panel moderator, writer, critic and “insatiable audience member.” Locally, he’s danced with Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, Lucky Plush Productions, Same Planet Different World Dance Theatre and Molly Shanahan/Mad Shak. After graduating high school two years early at age 16, he moved to Seattle to train at Pacific Northwest Ballet School and joined the company at 18. After three years at PNB performing works by choreographers ranging from George Balanchine to William Forsythe, he moved cross-country to dance with North Carolina Dance Theatre, where he was a soloist for a season before coming to Chicago to dance with Hubbard Street for two years.

He then traveled for a year performing Crystal Pite’s choreography with Les Ballets jazz de Montréal. He’s also written for many publications and websites including Flavorpill, See Chicago Dance, Windy City Times, Hoy Chicago, Time Out Chicago, Dance Magazine, Pointe Magazine, Dance International magazine (where he recently got the cover story!), Dance Teacher magazine, Dance Spirit magazine as well as his own blog, trailerpilot. Zac Whittenburg: wunderkind, indeed.

Now, Whittenburg is taking his career in a new direction. Almost a decade after dancing with Hubbard Street, he returns to join the external affairs team at the beginning of an exciting landmark season that will include a full-length world premiere by resident choreographer Alejandro Cerrudo, a work by Swedish choreographer Mats Ek and a collaboration with Alonzo King LINES Ballet.

I spoke with him over Labor Day weekend, just before he started in his new position.

When you danced with Hubbard Street, which choreographer or pieces were your favorites or that you had a deep experience with?


I’ll never forget the experience of learning “Minus 16” [by Ohad Naharin]. It’s probably the piece I performed most when I was in the company. I might’ve done over 100 performances of it in two years. It’s such an extraordinary piece. It asks so much of the dancers as artists. We did a piece by Jirí Kylían for five dancers called “No More Play.” It runs like a wristwatch, the way the characters and the vocabulary intersect with each other, and how the sections turn from one into the next. I’d never been so close to something that was built that way. I learned so much about choreography just by being involved with that.

Why did you leave Hubbard Street?


Well, there are two answers to that question. A dancer’s career is very short, and things run their course. And it was around the time that I became aware of Crystal Pite’s choreography. I saw a video of “Short Works: 24,” which I think was the first piece she made while she was in residence [at Les Ballets jazz de] Montréal. I was aware of her when she was a member of Frankfurt Ballet, which sort of became today’s Forsythe Company, but hadn’t seen her choreography before. I wasn’t aware of the things she was doing using Forsythe’s movement vocabulary in a dance theater context. I thought that was really fascinating, and that she was doing it with a lot of intelligence and humor. I wanted to work with her. I had the wonderful fortune of doing Crystal’s evening-length work [“The Stolen Show”] all over Canada and in Asia and in the United States. To get to see so much of the world, and to have the reason for that travel be that you’re bringing this work to audiences all over…it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. There was a sense of purpose. A feeling that we were a company of ambassadors for contemporary dance.

Let’s talk about your new gig at Hubbard Street. What is your official job title and what will you be doing?


I’m going to be the company’s manager of communication. I have a pretty good understanding of what I’ll be doing, but of course, I’m not in the chair yet. It’s a great position because there are a lot of different angles to it. A large part of it is press relations and working with media outlets to get the word out about what the company is doing. That said, that comes in a variety of flavors. The conversations that I had in the interview process…we were talking about how the media landscape is changing. Part of this job is going to be working on getting the word out about a company when the channels about how the word gets out about a contemporary dance company like Hubbard Street are changing. There are new channels opening, old channels closing, a whole new landscape of how people receive information. I’m thrilled to walk into the challenge of, how do you work with that, and how do you get the most out of what the current media landscape is, anticipate how it’s going to change in the future and use all of that to your advantage, to make sure people know what Hubbard Street is doing, make sure they are aware of the variety of things we do in addition to the production and stage work, and how those things relate to one another. I’m excited to talk about our partnerships with other institutions and put stories in places where the company hasn’t been covered before.

You’re coming in right at the beginning of the 35th Anniversary Season, which is a big deal. What do you expect to be doing on day one?


I know I have a meeting on Tuesday morning with some other managers. It’s great that literally the first thing I’ll do is touch base with people in other departments to see what they’re doing and what they have planned for the near future. I haven’t been in that building very much in the last eight years. I have a lot of catching up to do, not only meeting the people that make the magic happen, but what the company’s overall strategies are. There are a lot of things that I’ve already learned about the 35th Anniversary season and there’s a lot more that I don’t know yet, so I imagine a lot of it will be about finding my place in relation to all those initiatives, cooperating with the other team members and figuring out how I can help them.

You know I like to joke around about how we’re arch nemeses, but I hope you really know that I’m a huge fan. Your voice, not only in the Chicago dance scene, but nationally, is really important and you have a big fan base, so what does your new job mean for trailerpilot?

The blog still exists. When I was full-time at Time Out Chicago, I wasn’t posting a lot. At this point, I’ve got 426 posts on the blog. It’s a big archive and I will continue to make the annual payments to make sure people can find it. I’ve always been interested in things other than just dance and choreography. I’m glad I’ll still have a place, where, if I go see a film and really have something to say about it, I can. My voice will still be out there, I’m still on Twitter, although long form writing about dance isn’t appropriate while I’m manager of communication for a dance company. I think, just in going back over my career with you, over the phone this morning, it’s just been one episode after another of all of these different things I’ve done, and all of my various experiences constantly coming back around and intersecting and sort of morphing together in new ways. Writing is one of those things. I’m certain that will continue. I don’t have my mouth stapled shut, but Hubbard Street is going to be the star in my sky. I love the company. I love where it’s been and where it’s going. I’m really looking forward to helping them get in front of more people and new audiences.


CDF 12: Opening Night slideshow

After School Matters #CDF12
After School Matters CDF 2012
Bolero Chicago CDF 2012
Bolero Chicago CDF 2012
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Joffrey CDF 2012
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View some great photos taken of the Chicago Dancing Festival‘s opening night program Chicago Dancing taken by the ever-lovely Cheryl Mann.

1 & 2: After School Matters in Touch of Soul by Nicholas Leichter

3 – 6: Bolero Chicago by Larry Keigwin

7 & 8: Giordano Dance Chicago dancers Maeghan McHale & Martin Ortiz Tapia in Two Become Three by Alexander Ekman

9-11: Hubbard Street Dance Chicago dancers Kellie Epperheimer, Johnny McMillan, Garrett Anderson & Pablo Piantino in Scarlatti by Twyla Tharp

12-14: Joffrey Ballet dancers Victoria Jaiani & Rory Hohenstein in In The Middle, Somewhat Elevated by William Forsythe

CDF12: Chicago Dancing

The Chicago Dancing Festival (CDF) kicked off its sixth year with a performance showcasing local talent.  CDF Board Chair David Herro welcomed the audience and took a few minutes to talk about the origins of the fest and its mission.  He said it’s threefold: 1) to make Chicago a national and international dance destination, 2) to keep elevating the dance form and building an audience by providing the best dance at the lowest possible cost – free!, and 3) to provide a forum, a place where these dancers can come together and watch each other perform.  Mission accomplished.

Our dance-loving Mayor was up next, introduced by Herro as “probably the only Mayor in the United States that can do a proper plié”.  (True and something I’m not ashamed to say I’m particularly proud of.)  Rahm Emanuel took the mic, quipping that his plié talent came in handy in the City budget meetings.  While introducing the opener of the show – a performance by After School Matters Hip Hop Culture Dance Ensemble, a program started by the late First Lady Maggie Daley – the current Mayor acknowledged the Daley family in the audience and said the work’s title Touch of Soul was perfect because “dance is the hidden language of the soul.  I can’t think of a better tribute to the soul of our city, Maggie Daley”.  Mayor Emanuel finished by thanking the family – “from the entire city, thank you for sharing her with us”. (Tear.)  That beautiful, but melancholy moment was short lived, because seconds later, 31 young dancers dressed in white took the stage in a world premiere by choreographer Nicholas Leichter with such energy and enthusiasm that the audience was whooping with joy.

Hometown heavy-hitters Hubbard Street Dance Chicago (HSDC) technically tantalized in the epic, exhaustive Scarlatti.  Choreographed for HSDC by Twyla Tharp in 2011, this work for twelve dancers is a testament to speed and stamina.  In their CDF debut, Giordano Dance Chicago (GDC) paired up with Swedish choreographer Alexander Ekman for a humorous duet featuring lead dancers Maeghan McHale and Martin Ortiz Tapia about life and love, but not necessarily a happy ending.  (Great job Maeghan and Martin!)  Intermission was abuzz with conversation, the packed theater a mass of movement, hand shakes and hugs.

The Joffrey Ballet opened Act II with William Forsythe’s In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated.  This contemporary masterpiece from 1987 changed the way people thought of ballet.  The stark set, the off-center partnering, the hyper-flexibility and “I don’t care” attitude wowed audiences then and continue to now.  Dancer Rory Hohenstein’s multiple, multiple pirouettes amazed.  (He later attributed them to a slippery stage.)  The finale of the show was a collaboration with choreographer Larry Keigwin, a few of his dancers and everyday Chicagoans.  Introduced by CDF co-founders Jay Franke and Lar Lubovitch, Bolero Chicago was a tribute to our city.  Big and small, short and tall, the dancers in this piece represented everyone.  A lady reading a newspaper, a woman walking her dog, a passerby smoking a cigarette, a commuter biking to work, a cluster holding on for balance on a bumpy el ride, and a man in drag losing a battle with his umbrella and the wind.  Bears, Bulls, Cubs and Sox tees – even Benny the Bull merrily flipping around the stage.  Illuminated cell phones lit the stage before bows were replaced by the “everyday” contingent jamming out on stage.

Chicago Dancing had something for everyone and everyone liked something different. Perfect.

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 Sneak Peek: Giordano Dance Chicago

Giordano dancers Martin Ortiz & Maeghan McHale work with choreographer Alexander Ekman. Photo by Joel Solari.

A whimsically humorous contemporary duet by Swedish phenom choreographer Alexander Ekman will mark Giordano Dance Chicago‘s (GDC) debut performance at the Chicago Dancing Festival (CDF) this August.  A small group was given a preview yesterday afternoon at Columbia College’s studios on South Wabash.  Ekman, 28, danced with the Royal Swedish Ballet, Nederlands Dans Theater (NDT), Cullberg Ballet and Ballet du Rhin before embarking on his choreographic career, which started in 2006 with a piece created for NDT II.  Since then, he has made new works for companies around the world.  His work, Two Become Three, was originally created last year on dancers at Julliard where CDF co-founder Lar Lubovitch saw the piece and commissioned it for the opening night of this year’s festival.

Ekman has been in town since Monday and set the piece on GDC dancers Maeghan McHale and Martin Ortiz Tapia in about three days.  Ekman recorded a voice over that plays on top of the score providing an audible inner monologue of the characters on stage.  A “surprise” prop at the end of the piece provides another layer of humor to the tongue-in-cheek piece that garnered laughter from the viewers at rehearsal.  The piece is lighthearted and fun, but the dancing is anything but simple.  These two seasoned dancers take the physical and theatrical demands in stride.  An obvious respect and rapport grew out of the intense few days in the studio and the result will delight the audience at Chicago Dancing on Monday, August 20 at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance.

Debuting at CDF12 isn’t the only exciting things happening for GDC.  Kicking off their 50th anniversary season, the company changed its name (notice the “Jazz” is gone), has a brand new website and logo, as well as new administrative offices (1509 S Michigan Ave, 2nd floor) and is a resident company at the new American Rhythm Center* (ARC) which will open new studio space later this month. If good things come in three’s, they’ve overshot by a few and I see only more good things in the future for GDC.

Chicago Dancing Festival presents Chicago Dancing at the Harris Theater, 205 E. Randolph, Monday, August 20 at 7 pm.  Tickets will be released Tuesday, July 17 at noon.  For more information, visit www.chicagodancingfestival.com

*More information on ARC here.

 

American Rhythm Center to Open Doors Soon

Rendering of the American Rhythm Center's reception area.

Lane Alexander’s dream of a shared-space, communal arts building is finally coming true.  The American Rhythm Center (ARC), located in Chicago’s Fine Arts Building at 410 S. Michigan Avenue – former space of the Boitsov Ballet – will launch its first stage in a few weeks.  On the third floor of this cultural institution will be three new multi-use studios to be shared by nine local mid-sized arts organizations.  Alexander’s Chicago Human Rhythm Project (CHRP) will be the first to use the space for the upcoming Rhythm World Festival 2012 later this month with a grand opening with the resident partners coming this fall in September.

The collaborative space will be shared by community partners Cerqua Rivera Dance Theatre, Chicago Chinese Cultural Institute, Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra, Giordano Dance Chicago, Kalapriya, Luna Negra Dance Theater, Ping Pong Productions and River North Dance Chicago.  “One of the things that’s appealing about ARC is that we’re helping to build cultural infrastructure,” said CHRP’s new Executive Director Frank Sonntag.  “To have a healthy ecosystem, you can’t just pay attention to the top, you have to pay attention to the middle and create entry points for artists.  That’s what we’re doing and I think it’s important.”  Sonntag, 50, boasts a long career in arts administration with stints at the Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts, Dance St. Louis, David Parsons Project, New York Foundation for the Arts, Broadway Cares, Brooklyn Center for the Performing Arts as well as helping open the Cowles Center for Dance and the Performing Arts in Minneapolis last fall.  He’s only been in town a month and is already in love with the city and excited about this new venture. “It’s very much born out of the idea of collaboration,” Sonntag said.  “What is going to make it work is that collectively the offerings we’ll have are much greater than any one of us are and that will give us market penetration that all of us will have.”

The plan for ARC came out of CHRP’s strategic planning process and with Alexander on board it was only a matter of time before it became a reality.  Approximately $1 million has already been raised and a capital campaign is in the works to raise the estimated $2.5 million needed to complete the other two phases of the project which include administrative facilities, additional space for programming and a black box theater.  Shared performances have gained ground in recent years with many smaller experimental companies presenting together at independent venues and with Audience Architects’ MetLife Fund New Stages for Dance Initiative pairing mid-sized companies at larger venues.  This shared-space facility takes sharing to a whole new level.  “It’s a new model based on the strength of collaboration,” said Sonntag.  “Medium-sized dance companies in particular are under-capitalized, not just here, but all over the country.  What happens when resources are tight is organizations cut programs, the cut marketing budgets, they cut educational outreach and the audiences dwindle.  It’s a downward spiral that can be debilitating.  What ARC will do is to enable these companies to expand their community outreach, be more financially stable through earned income sources and potentially grow their audience.”

As contractors race to make sure the three studios are ready for class by the end of the month, Sonntag feels they are in a good place and is ready for the challenges ahead.  “We’re going to take baby steps.  We’re going to share a copier,” he said.  “The real goal is taking advantage of the synergy that you create when you put that many arts organizations in such close proximity.  That will cut down on some of the barriers that exist.  It’s the wave of the future.”

Chicago Dancing Festival 2012

Martha Graham Dance Co dancer Xiaochuan Xie on the Pritzker stage.

The Chicago Dancing Festival (CDF) hits Chicago stages for a week of free dance performances again this August.  Now in its sixth year, CDF – the brainchild of Lar Lubovitch and Jay Franke – is expanding (again) to six days of events with new programs and a couple of commissioned world premieres to boot!  RB will be part of CDF’s blogger initiative for the second year, bringing you sneak peeks, dancer/choreographer interviews, event coverage, reviews and wrap ups.  I’ll also be live-Tweeting pre- and post-event coverage for the Fest complete with photos, behind-the-scenes happenings and audience quotes.

New to the fest this year is an all-Chicago program, Chicago Dancing, featuring local faves Hubbard Street Dance Chicago (HSDC) and Joffrey Ballet and three CDF commissioned works.  Giordano Dance Chicago (note the new name!) makes its CDF debut in a work by Swedish choreographer Alexander Ekman.  New York-based choreographer Nicholas Leichter will work with the After School Matters students to create a world premiere honoring the memory of Maggie Daley, former first lady of Chicago, who started the program in 1991.  A two-week residency led by Larry Keigwin blends dancers and non-dancers from Chicago into a world premiere, Bolero Chicago.  Keigwin’s new work, set to Ravel’s most famous score, will incorporate local movement traits for a uniquely Chicago piece.  New groups performing at the fest this year include Pacific Northwest Ballet and Ballet Arizona, along with returning companies San Francisco Ballet, Houston Ballet, New York City Ballet, Martha Graham Dance Company and Brian Brooks Moving Company.

A partnership with Chicago SummerDance, the city’s outdoor dancing series, for Dancing Under the Stars and prolific local dance writer Zac Whittenburg leads a lecture demonstration, Chicago Now, with local companies at the MCA Stage.  Programming for both of these event to be announced at a later date.   A day of Dancing Movies also takes place at the MCA with films including PINA, All Is Not Lost, Two Seconds After the Laughter and Fanfare for Marching Band curated by local artist Sarah Best.  The fest always ends with a Celebration of Dance at the outdoor Pritzker Pavilion stage in Millennium Park showcasing a number of artists that have performed throughout the week.

Tickets for all of the events are free, however, you do need to reserve seating for the indoor theaters in advance.  These will “sell out” very fast!  More information on tickets will be available the week of July 16th.

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.