Sneak Peek: Giordano Dance Chicago

Giordano dancers Maeghan McHale and Sean Rozanski in "Exit 4". Photo by Gorman Cook.

Giordano Dance Chicago (GDC) opens the first Chicago engagement in their 51st season this weekend at the Harris Theater. The program boasts a world premiere by Israeli choreographer Roni Koresh, Artistic Director of Philadelphia’s Koresh Dance Company, a world premiere for GDC II from GDC Assistant Artistic Director Autumn Eckman, plus three full-company works and audience favorites Brock Clawson’s Give and Take, Kiesha Lalama’s Alegría and Liz Imperio’s La Belleza de Cuba and a revival of Eckman’s Commonthread.

RB stopped by rehearsal back in August when Koresh was in town working with the dancers on his new work Exit 4. Set to Israeli music with a tribal feel, Koresh’s work is intense. That is an understatement. “There should be danger in this piece,” he said to the dancers. “I want to see who you are. It’s more valuable to me than your movement.” For a company known for its solid technique and upbeat vibe, he was asking them to go deeper. Much deeper.

A fun group section breaks into strong and fierce men’s and women’s sections respectively. The fourth section is, well…intense. After working on the last section, which they had just finished, the dancers looked physically and emotionally spent. Not one to mince words, Koresh did not let up. In fact, at times he was downright mean. But in a final full run of the entire work, what he got out of the dancers was amazing. Perhaps it was the week-long process, the “audience” of friends, board members and press, or just pure exhaustion, but the dancers brought an honest, raw energy to it that blew me away. (Don’t tell anyone, but I had to fight back tears. It was – again – intense.)

“Your last interaction with the audience will determine your strength. Make the audience uncomfortable,” he said. “I am. Just be. Connect.” If (and it will be hard to do), but if they can recreate that final run and make it read from the vast Harris stage, they will have accomplished something really spectacular. I think they can and I hope they do.

Giordano Dance Chicago in their Fall Engagement at the Harris Theater, 205 E. Randolph Dr., Friday-Saturday, Oct. 25-26 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $15-$60; call 312.334.7777 or visit harristheaterchicago.org. 

Harris Theater’s Eat to the Beat: Giordano Dance Chicago

Giordano Dance Chicago in Autumn Eckman's
Harris Theater for Music and Dance.
Food trucks at Harris Theater for
Lunch from Bombay Wraps at
Ready for the show!

What a fun lunch! Today I went to the Harris Theater‘s Eat to the Beat series, a lunchtime $5 dance performance where you can take your lunch or partake in the fantastic food truck offerings on the lower level of Randolph Dr. and enjoy a show. Giordano Dance Chicago (GDC), celebrating 50 years with performances at the theater this weekend, took the stage to a scattered, but substantial house at noon. I got there early to stake my claim, since it was open seating, and grabbed a delicious Paneer Wrap from Bombay Wraps, a glass of wine – don’t judge, it’s Friday! – and a cupcake from Gigi’s Bake Shop for the road. Unfortunately, I didn’t have stomach room or time for a tamale from the Tamale Spaceship…next time, for sure.

The show opened with Giordano Moves, a retrospective of Gus Giordano’s famous jazz style, set by his daughter Nan and former GDC dancer John Lehrer in 2005. Although the style is a bit antiquated by today’s standards, it is a lovely historical look back and it’s nice to see the tradition carried on. The old school jazz moves (lots of triple turns, double stag jumps and “Gus” arms) look way different on these younger dancers bodies. The second company performed River, by former dancer Cesar Salinas. Wow! These five ladies are the future. Tons of energy and beautiful technique. You can tell they are young and hungry (in an artistic way, not like me…still eating my paneer).

The main company followed with a 2012 work by Artistic Associate Autumn Eckman. G-Force is a fun look at what dance might be in the future. Hints of jazz, lyrical, contact improv, street with inventive partnering show off these eight dancers talents well. Funky! I had to leave early to make it to work on time, but GDC closed the mid-day show with a world premiere by L.A. choreographer Liz Imperio titled La Balleza De Cuba (The Beauty of Cuba). Luckily, I will get a chance to see it at tomorrow night’s performance.

Giordano Dance Chicago has two performances left this weekend, Friday-Saturday, March 22-23 at 7:30 pm. Tickets are available by calling 312.334.7777 or at www.harristheaterchicago.org.

 

Benjamin Wardell/The Nexus Project: It’s Complicated

Benjamin Wardell and Michel Cintra.

It starts with two men working with 12 different choreographers separately, then they take the material and remix it. In the meantime, funds need to be raised, a venue found and confirmed and the final product created. Much like the mind behind The Nexus Project – it’s complicated. Benjamin Wardell is not new to the Chicago dance world. He danced with Hubbard Street Dance Chicago for four seasons in a wide range of works by Nacho Duato, Alonzo King and many by resident choreographer Alejandro Cerrudo, among others. After he left Hubbard Street, most thought he’d retired from dance and/or moved away. Lucky for us, he didn’t.

Before coming to Chicago, the Memphis-native danced for the Cincinnati Ballet and Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet. Now a freelance dancer (a touring stint with Azure Barton and Artists and currently with Lucky Plush Productions), he’s also teaching at Extensions Dance Center, Visceral Dance Center and occasionally at Lou Conte Dance Center. He’s the official videographer for Luna Negra Dance Theater and River North Dance Chicago as well as a freelance photographer. He also does repetiteur work setting piece from the Hubbard Street rep around the country and is in charge of the company’s summer intensive program in Iowa. “I’m all over the place,” he said. “For me, that’s great. My brain is in 20 places at once. Whenever I would get into a company, I would eventually feel compressed by the lack of variety. Even just going in the same building every day. Now, I’m in so may place that I stay calm to make sure I don’t forget anything. That lifestyle works better for my internal make-up.”  For the upcoming project he’s teaming up with dancer Michel Rodriguez Cintro (of Hedwig Dances) and a dozen local choreographers for an exciting and ambitious project tentatively scheduled to premiere later this fall.

RB sat down with Wardell earlier this year to talk about his career, past and present.

Hubbard Street is currently in collaboration with Alonzo King/LINES Ballet. You’ve previously said that working with Alonzo for a long period of time is transformative and that it changes the way you dance. Is it also emotionally taxing?

Yes. He pushes really hard. The work is not particularly emotive, but it’s emotionally taxing because you’re always pushing really hard. He expects you to always be generating thought. In a way, your creativity with your movement maxes out, because he always wants it to be different every time and you perform the same piece like 130 times, but if you do it the same 2 or 3 times, he’ll call you out on it. “You need to explore that section of movement in a different way.” Part of the transformation was how to get creative doing the same movements and embracing the constant change. One of the good things is it prevents that subtle death of the choreography where it starts to look comfortable.

When you decided to leave Hubbard Street, what was going through your head?

I started to realize I wasn’t built for companies. It’s becoming easier to freelance and the sound of being in control of what I was doing was appealing. I thought it was pliable for me to do. I got to the point where I’d achieved all my institutional goals. At this point, I’d rather make something new that’s a “swing and a miss” than do a masterpiece that was made for someone else. I found myself at this place where I wanted to be generating stuff rather than learning choreography. That combined with I was getting into video and photo work and wanted to explore those avenues. I needed to be on my own in a way that I could do a lot of things. I had a vague thought about wanting to produce work, but that was the least part of my original plans. 

Why did you call the new project The Nexus Project?

I’d been calling it the “Two Man Show” since it’s inception, but I though that was a little generic for product packaging. I talked to a friend of mine that does marketing and he said I should have an overarching name. “The Nexus Project” was the first thing I came up with. The idea for the project, having all the choreographers and an open rehearsal process for the second half, is that the two of us, rather than being in a bubble, are the crossing point for all the spokes.

How did you pick Michel?

He choreographed for The A.W.A.R.D.S. Show and I was like “who the fuck is this guy and how have I lived here for two years and not know him?” I saw Chino (Michel’s nickname) dance and was shocked that he would be in this city and I had no idea. So I introduced myself. I need to find another guy that I can share the stage with for an hour and be on even ground with and who is available to do the amount of rehearsals needed. That list was short, because of all the demands.

How did you pick the choreographers (*listed below)?

It took me three or four months to hash out the project, it was a pretty slow process. It started off with just wanting to explore male duets. So a two-man show, then I started to think about my particular strengths and weaknesses. I’m not good with or particularly good at generating movement. That was a bit tricky. So what if I work with other choreographers? What am I good at? Outside of dancing, my secondary talent or other interest is coordinating people and finding connections between disparate parts, partly because my brain exists in that place. The way that things connect is how I see thing. I love complexity, so I should make a complicated process, because I’m going to feel at home in it. It’s going to tap into my capacity spectrum. Part of it was wanting to deal with the hierarchy of dance. Every choreography has a different methodology, but the way dance gets made is essentially the same in terms of the choreographer coming into the room and being in charge and making a piece and then leaving. That basic structure doesn’t really change. I’ve never been in a process that has more choreographers than dancers. Let’s try that. And, frankly, I just like the number 12.

Is there a choreographic theme to the show?

No. This is one of the aspects of the show that I’m most proud of – the process. It wasn’t one of my goals, it’s something I realized had happened once the process was set. The 12 choreographers have that truly rare consequence-free environment. That have two dancers who can do pretty much anything they can come up with, who are willing to try whatever, from the most risky to the most strange. We will do whatever you ask us with zero judgment. They get 12 hours of rehearsal each and they get to keep the work, but they’ve given us permission to use them. The choreographers came from wanting to represent the community, to give credit to all the stuff going on. I want people to have total freedom. At the end of February, whether they’ve finished their piece or not, I’m done with that phase of the project and need to move onto the second, which is the remixing process, an open rehearsal process (for donors) and putting the show together. A big part of why the second part is open is that studio time is our favorite time as dancers and yet we never let anyone in. 

What are your hopes for The Nexus Project?

In terms of the final show and guaranteeing it being not terrible, priority number one is “Don’t Suck!” Especially if you’re trying something new. It’s terrifying because this is all my little new idea and I haven’t had any experience with it aside from having a choreographer set work on me. The basis of the show that will make it at the very least not a waste of time, is that they’re going to come see some good damn dancing. You’re going to see two real good male dancers who are real good at dancing with each other and can hold a 60-70 minute show no matter what we’re doing. I felt like we would get better at dancing together more quickly if we had to work with a bunch of different choreographers than if we were spending the same number of hours just doing our own thing. It’s hard to avoid self-indulgence when you’re totally in charge. Having to go from style to style, I feel like we’ve gotten to know each other’s dancing fairly quickly.

For more details on The Nexus Project and to donate to the Kickstarter campaign (ends Wednesday, Jan. 23!) click here.

*Choreographers include: Harrison McEldowney, Francisco Avina, Autumn Eckman, Robyn Mineko Williams, Julia Rhoads, Penny Saunders, Ron De Jesus, Jonathan Meyer and Julia Rae Antonick (Kechari), Nicolas Blanc, Jonathan Fredrickson, Matthew McMunn and Daniel “Brave Monk” Haywood.

 

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!

 

Autumn in the City

Autumn Eckman in the studio. Photo by Mike Canale.

I’m not talking about the turning leaves, chilly weather and shorter days, but dancer/choreographer Autumn Eckman.  An artist that has danced with Giordano Jazz Dance Chicago (GJDC), Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, Luna Negra Dance Theater, Lucky Plush Productions, Ron De Jesús Dance, as well as choreographed for Instruments of Movement, Inaside Chicago Dance, Northwest Ballet Ensemble, Indiana Ballet Theatre, just to name a few.  She’s also on faculty at Northern Illinois University, teaches at a number of area studios and serves as Artistic Associate and Rehearsal Director for GJDC and Director of Giordano II.  To put it mildly – Autumn, 34, is everywhere these days.

This weekend at the Harris Theater, Eckman will premiere a new work, Alloy, as GJDC takes the stage for its fall engagement.  The first performance of the 2011-2012 season titled Passion and Fire will showcase seven numbers including two premiere, one of which is Eckman’s.  Other pieces include Gus Giordano’s signature work Sing, Sing, Sing (1983),  last season’s ballroom hit Sabroso (2010), former GJDC dancer Jon Lehrer’s Like 100 Men (2002), a restaging of Davis Robertson’s 2005 work Being One, a world premiere by Kiesha Lalama and Eckman’s Yes, and…! from 2010.

I talked with Eckman over the phone last week as she was walking to rehearsal about her process and her inspiration.

You’re a busy lady.  What is a typical day for you?

A regular Giordano day?  They start class at 9:30 and we rehearse until 4:00pm.  Usually I’m off teaching class somewhere in the evenings.  In addition to choreographing, rehearsal directing, mentoring and guiding the second company, I’ve also been rehearsal directing the first company in preparation for the upcoming shows and tours.  For this concert, I’m helping get six pieces up and running, cleaned and polished and rehearsed.  It’s a big task, but fun.  

Who are your choreographic influences?

I take a lot of inspiration from books.  I draw my influence off of the vocabulary of the dances that I’ve done with each different company.  It’s so ingrained in my body that I try to make it my own and formulate my own style.  I love all the choreographers from my time at Hubbard Street -  Nacho (Duato), Ohad (Naharin), (William) Forsythe, but I also love jazz choreographers.  Randy Duncan has been a big influence.  I love Harrison McEldowney.  I have been inspired by the work and working with Robert Battle. Other dancers include the great entertainers of our time: Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire. I grew up watching their films along with the works of Busby Berkley. I was obsessed with his pattern making for film and dance.  In terms of the dance itself, I am often inspired by the way a writer would write or compose a song for start to finish: the verse, the chorus, the bridge, etc. I aspire to make dance the way a good song takes you on a journey.

When you choreograph something, what is your process or does it change?

I write everything down.  I could own stock in Post-It notes.  Everything is kind of disorganized, but if I have an idea, I grab a pen and write it down or if I see something, I’ll write down something…like a couple walking in the park.  Then I’ll hear a piece of music that will, in my mind, fit the idea.  It’s kind of like playing match up.  I have these really diverse ranges of music that I know I want to eventually use and finding what matches it and trying to build a story to it.  Sometimes it’s about the movement.  I like moving for movement’s sake as well.

For your premiere, Alloy, what was the impetus for it?

KRESA (Kalamazoo Regional Educational Service Agency) had asked me to choreograph a piece.  They asked for a duet.  I was really excited.  I hadn’t pushed myself to see how strong my work was in that aspect.  It’s a mixture.  I researched the word alloy and then it took on this metallicy, liquid kind of tone.  Two people that will do anything to be with each other, be one…a blend.

So the idea, the word and the concept came first and then you added music?

Yeah.  I wanted to try classical piano…listened to a simple score and see how that worked.  I knew I wanted to use soft, simple music.  Sometimes I think less is more.

You reworked it for GJDC.  How has it changed – or has it?

Nan (Giordano) had seen the dancers rehearsing.  She approached me and said she wanted it for the fall concert.  Can we add this to it?  Can we have these two dancers (Devin Buchanan and Ashley Lauren Smith)?  She loved the look of their body types together and thought they’d be a great partnering. Turns out, they are great together. They have great chemistry and it took on a sexier, really stripped down tone.   It really came all about their sensuality, their body and their movement and how they…even one touch, how that reacts to each other.  It took on a deeper, more personal tone when I worked on it the second time.  I’m extremely happy with the results.  It’s always my goal to see where jazz dance is going and how to push boundaries of what jazz dance is.  I think this is just another direction – for the company as well.  Another boundary being pushed.

Giordano Jazz Dance Chicago, Oct 21 & 22 at 8pm

Harris Theater, 205 E. Randolph, 312.334.7777

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.