Moving Dialogs Series

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

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

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

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

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

How did you decide who would be on the panel?

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Interview with Dance/USA Board Member – Julie Nakagawa

Don’t let her small stature and soft-spoken, polite nature fool you.  She is highly intelligent and a fiercely passionate advocate for dance.  Julie Nakagawa, Co-founder and Artistic Director of DanceWorks Chicago (DWC) and an officer on the Board of Trustees for Dance/USA, is an artist, teacher, mentor and director that focuses on nurturing not only the individual artist, but the global dance community as a whole.  There is no ego here.

A native of Evanston, IL, Nakagawa moved away for a dance career with Off Center Ballet, Cleveland Ballet and Twyla Tharp Dance before returning to Chicago to be with Ballet Chicago dancer, husband Andreas Böttcher.  “We just wanted to be in the same area code,” she says from her River North office inside the Ruth Page Center.  At a crossroads in her career, a social dinner with Lou Conte offered her a surprising opportunity and she wound up managing the Lou Conte Dance Studio.  More opportunities came in the form of directing the Hubbard Street Training Ensemble (now Hubbard Street 2) which she nurtured for the first decade of its existence.  Böttcher joined the organization and an unstoppable team was formed.  With mentors like Conte and Gail Kalver, there really wasn’t any other outcome.  “That was a great place for us to learn separately and collectively and grow together,” Nakagawa says.  “Those two are the best in the business.”

When it was time for them to leave the organization, they took some time off to travel and really focus on what they wanted to do.  Eventually their brainchild DWC was born, which they announced at that year’s Dance/USA conference.  DWC just celebrated its 4-year anniversary in June.  RB sat down with Nakagawa earlier this summer to talk about DanceWorks, Dance/USA and the dance community.

How did the idea of DanceWorks Chicago come about?

The community was already showing signs of strain in resources.  The most obvious resource is money, but for dance, space (which is associated with money), time (which is associated with money) and just the pressure to produce too.  What seemed like a potential danger was that these young dancers that were coming up weren’t…their directors and the companies were at risk of losing the valuable time of investment.  To bridge the gap between student or BFA graduate or conservatory grad or first job, second job thing, because there wasn’t an extra studio space or ballet master to kind of help you along.  Or the idea that yes, we can hire a dancer that we need to put an investment year in…those things weren’t happening.  Directors were saying to me that they can’t renew them because there’s some resource that they are lacking and each company handles that differently, but for the dancer that’s devastating.  Psychologically, that’s devastating.  You don’t get prepared for that in school.  You get prepared for success, but what about the many different ways success can look?  What about things that look or seem like failure, how do you turn those around?  I don’t think that’s necessarily overattended to.  In talking to dancers…they were the ones that said to us that it’s important.  This contribution is important.  The emphasis on companies is constantly to produce the dances.  Our concern has always been to produce the dancers.  That is the difference.  And we need both.  We decided to found DanceWorks Chicago to fulfill that need in the community to continue to have this laboratory or this research and development time to invest in the dancers, because a really courageous and equipped dancer can really do something in these companies.  Where the companies themselves…that might not be their priority.  That’s not a criticism.  They need to produce dances, but the dancers need to be ready to do whatever it is they need to do to help those companies reach their goals. 

We’ve been committed to 30-week contracts for the dancers annually, on salary and with health insurance.  That’s been a push and will continue to be a push, but we’re committed to that because we feel that’s the right thing to do.  We’re committed to building that relationship with them.  To build any relationship you need time.   It can’t be a two-week project and a one-week project and a gig.  That’s not a relationship, that’s two projects and a gig.  Again, that’s not a criticism; it’s just a different rhythm.  Our rhythm needs to be that we’re with each other on a daily basis for full days (9:30 – 4:30).  Time is the most precious commodity.  Money, if  you don’t have it or if you lose it, you can get it back.  You might not, but it’s in the realm of possibility.  Time, you won’t get it back.  We take that very seriously.  The artists’ time, the audience’s time, funders’ time…it’s really important.  From little things like trying to start and end on time, to reconfiguring performances into these dance flights, which are two 45-min segments back-to-back separated by 15 minutes.  That total time is like a regular performance, but the audience has more of a say in how they want to spend their time or their resources.  Trying to do things like that has also been important to us, as well as this laboratory for dancers to explore who they are and test that muscle of courage. That’s a muscle that’s really, really important.  Confidence besides the technical tools, the intellectual capacity and the emotional availability to really be a compelling artist.  We try to give them experience so they can make the best choices.  Do I want to be in a touring company?  Maybe that’s not for me.  If it’s not for you, then you can eliminate certain situations and save you and the company time and discomfort.  It’s a broad dance world out there, but it’s got to be about the relationship and the fit.  Hopefully having these experiences helps them identify a better next step, a better fit for them.

How did you get involved with Dance/USA?

When I retired from dancing, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do.  It was more of a personal/professional decision.  I felt I’d had a great decade-long career and felt very grateful about my career and my dancing.  I enjoyed it.  I still was enjoying it, but felt like I needed to make a life choice..a life change.
I talked with my director Dennis Nahad at Cleveland Ballet and he suggested I go to Dance/USA.  Cleveland Ballet were a member organization.  So I went (Minneapolis) and I went to the dancers forum.  There was like seven of us, but it was a really great opportunity that there was a much broader dance community out there and that there were all these people working on all different levels and in all different areas.  To come to a national convening was something I’d never done.  It was really important.  That was my first connection with Dance/USA.  Then, Hubbard Street was a member organization, so I went again.  There’s a lot of value in it.  If you want to play on a national or international level, I think it’s a mistake to think you can do it just in your own backyard.  It doesn’t really matter where your backyard is, even with the internet and technology, it’s a people business.  While you can’t always jet around, you can go to Pittsburgh or Portland or…if you plan ahead, you can make that happen.  Seeing who was at Dance/USA, seeing who wasn’t at Dance/USA, seeing who was making things happen for themselves…there’s definitely a connection there.  The panels, the forums, the speakers, that’s all really important.  The time in the elevator, the time between sessions, even lunch is equally important.  There are so many connections made, deals done, business cards exchanged, synergies discovered that makes it exhausting.  But hopefully you’re exhausted in the right way.  We’re looking for that inside information, that extra edge.  One of the first things we did as a young organization (DWC) was join it.  We felt it was important.  Joining Dance/USA and having 30-week contracts with insurance…it’s not the norm, but if we can do it, it can be done.

…and joining the Board?

Someone nominated me, which was very generous and gracious.  I have some big shoes to fill.  Eduardo Vilaro (former Artistic Director of Luna Negra, currently Artistic Director at Ballet Hispanico) was the most recent Chicago representative on the board.  I think Eduardo is an example of someone who really was a great board member for Dance/USA and translated that into success for Luna Negra…and rightfully so.  I was honored to accept and was subsequently nominated to be Secretary.  I had to ponder that for logistical reasons.  I feel it’s really important to give back.

What do you think having the conference here this summer will do for the Chicago dance community?

We’re all really excited about it coming to Chicago.  It’s the center of the country, so hopefully it’s easy for everyone to get here.  It would be great to have more Dance/USA members in Chicago.  I think it’s such a vibrant community.  Sometimes there’s a perception that there’s New York and then the rest of the country.  I think that has been true.  I don’t think it needs to be true.  Does there need to be one destination for dance in the country?  No.  The math just doesn’t add up any more for lots of folks.  I think Dance/USA is navigating a broad spectrum of dance in terms of their constituency and a broad geographic range on an on-going basis.  I think Chicago is such a great destination for dance.  If you want people to come, it’s not enough just to be here.  Part of it is connecting with them where they are…it’s audience outreach.  I think that one of the things is that it has provided an opportunity for the dance community to convene.  As wonderfully diverse and dynamic as the community is, it’s not difficult to stay in your own area.  Sometimes it’s their geographic area, sometimes their genre…whatever it is.  We had a community breakfast, which drew a really great cross-section of people from the local artistic community.  Artists, presenters, press, agents…it was great.  The opportunity for the community is to come together around dance and around the conference and to represent Chicago.  I think the challenge for the community is what’s going to happen after this?  Are we all going to go back to business as usual?  Your energized and refreshed, and that’s not without value, but what is tangible?  That needs to be attended to.  I would love to suggest a post-Dance/USA community convening to share experiences.  There are so many things to select, there are so many session to attend…it might be beneficial to tag team, so you’re not all at the same meeting.  Can we do that at a broader level?  Can we have the community get together and share for the people that couldn’t come or selected not to come…so that they can still get something out of it.  Just sit down and talk.  I think that would be a great follow up.  And again, I’m a believer in personal responsibility.  Maybe there’s a group that wants to talk about national touring and they identify themselves at the follow-up meeting and then they start meeting bi-monthly.  It would be great to have some really honest, passionate, respectful conversation.

My hope is that the Chicago community really uses this as an opportunity to really shine a light on dance in Chicago in some way. Even if they can’t be there or don’t understand, they understand that the opportunity is out there and they made a choice to attend or not to attend and they stand by that choice.  We’re going to throw a big party – what’s going to happen after it?  That’s the place where there’s a potential to maximize the opportunity for each individual or organization.  There is a way that we can maybe do that as a community.

Dance/USA hits town this week!

The national conference for Dance/USA hits Chicago this week with an opening night reception on Wednesday at the Harris Theater.  So, I asked some top dance folk what makes Chicago one of the top destinations for dance?

What’s not to love about dance in Chicago?  We are growing and developing a stronger international presence by the many versatile dance companies our community supports.  I have found that since I first moved to Chicago in 1999 to dance with Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, the dance environment has changed so much with the addition of so many new voices.  It’s been exciting to watch this grow.  ~Jay Franke, co-founder Chicago Dancing Festival

I believe it is the presence and balance of presenting locations, studios and schools, performance opportunities and many genres of dance that take part.  ~Shirley Mordine, artistic director Mordine & Co Dance Theater

There’s a strong symbiosis between internal momentum and external recognition, especially in today’s connected age.  Chicagoans are increasingly aware of the riches available to them at dance performances, which in turn is increasing those performances’ reach, which in turn elevates Chicago on the global stage.  (Mayor) Rahm Emanuel hasn’t been shy about his advocacy for dance, during the election and since taking office on May 16.  The Chicago Dancing Festival, which marks its fifth annual just weeks after the conference concludes, has, as a cornerstone of its identity, the idea that dance is an art form that can reach all people, of all backgrounds and circumstances.  It plans in the years ahead to bring programming to Chicago’s neighborhoods, including those geographically and/or financially distant from dance’s traditional core demographics.  Issues of relevance and accessibility affect all dance artists today, and I think Chicago has, through these and other examples, shown leadership in finding new ways to expand dance’s reach.  ~Zachary Whittenburg, dance editor Time Out Chicago

Chicago has a rich variety of dance companies, offering many different dance styles, showcasing specific cultures, performing in so many different types of venues.  On any given weekend you can see at least three or four different performances throughout the city.  ~Gustavo Ramirez Sansano, artistic director Luna Negra Dance Theater

When the Joffrey came to Chicago in 1995, it found a community with an appetite for ballet and the foundations of a vibrant dance scene.  We have participated in and benefited from the growth of dance awareness in the Midwest.  If you consider, also, the excellent work of the Chicago Dancing Festival, Hubbard Street, River North, Luna Negra, Giordano, to name a few, you have a network that nurtures a growing interest in the art form.  ~Ashley Wheater, artistic director Joffrey Ballet

Dance/USA Honors Lubovitch

Lar Lubovitch, founder and artistic director of Lar Lubovitch Dance Company and co-founder of Chicago Dancing Festival will receive Dance/USA‘s Honor Award at the annual conference this July:

Considering past recipients of the Dance/USA Honor Award is both an inspiring and humbling reminder to cherish the standards that have been set by my predecessors. Being acknowledged by an association of individuals who have committed themselves to the impossible task of maintaining a place for dance in the world means being honored by the true believers which imbues this moment with a special depth. ~Lar Lubovitch