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.

Hubbard Street’s danc(e)volve 2013: Review

Hubbard Street 2 dancers Emilie Leriche and Felicia McBride.
Hubbard St 2 dancers Brandon Lee Alley and Emilie Leriche.
Hubbard St dancers Quinn B Wharton and Jessica Tong.
Hubbard St dancers Jonny McMillian and Jesse Bechard.
Hubbard St dancers Alice Klock and Jonny McMillan.
HS 2 dancers Richard Walters and Lissa Smith.
Hubbard St dancers Garrett Anderson and Alice Klock.

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago is known for taking choreographic risks. From bringing top European choreographers like Mats Ek to the Chicago stage to commissioning works from emerging artists to cultivating in-house talent with danc(e)volve: New Works Festival 2013. Some risks are bigger than others. Some pay off, while some get chalked up to a learning experience. This “risk” showcased in the two-week run of performances at the MCA Stage, pays off big time. Usually, there is one piece that sticks with you, one that stands out – a favorite. Not here, all six new works are sharp, unique and satisfying.

The choreographers range from the more experienced – HS2 director Terence Marling, former Hubbard Street dancer Robyn Mineko Williams and soon-to-depart, new Mom Penny Saunders to the younger, just-starting-out HS2′s Andrew Wright. Wright proves he has a bright future as a choreographer opening the show with Agape. Utilizing his fellow HS2-ers, he goes from a twitchy opening female solo with dancers running and reaching for something unattainable to a freeing second section where the dancers run in abandon with their arms and heads flung back. The second company commands the stage in this opening piece, especially Emile Leriche, who will join the main company this fall. She’s strong, subtle and stunning. When she’s on stage, you simply can’t take your eyes off her. At times, she seems to dissipate like a puff of smoke.

With a packed touring schedule, we rarely get to see HS2 perform alongside the main company. It was nice to see the younger dancers mixed in with the more seasoned dancers. Marling’s ditto, a trio with HS2′s Leriche and Brandon Lee Alley dancing with Ana Lopez, blurred the lines between first and second company. Alley showed considerable skill partnering the always stunning Lopez. Saunders’ Adalea featuring six dancers from the main company had some fun with chairs, ending with a tumbling, tossing, physical duet with Jesse Bechard and Johnny McMillan. As a lovely extra, at the end of the first act, a video made by the dancers of their trip with DanceMotion USA was shown giving us a glimpse into some of the adventures they had while in North Africa and Spain. Pictures and video from the trip with voice over from the dancers reveal an inspiring once-in-a-lifetime adventure.

Jonathan Fredrickson’s Límon-esque For the Wandered was a meditation in white for five dancers incorporating text via hidden microphones inside movable starched white mounds of material. Most of the new works were somber, focusing on the complex construction and the dancing, but Marling’s stop…stop…stop. was a lighter, humorous romp set to a mambo with the dancer’s voices remixed on top like an audio thought bubble. HS2′s Lissa Smith and Richard Walters were perfect as a shy, awkward potential couple manipulated by the dashing Quinn B Wharton as a mentor/matchmaker. Wharton’s intermittent sly solos a fun, quirky interlude to the actions of the couple. Mineko William’s Grey Horses closed the show with the black brick back wall exposed creating a darker, starker stage.  Again mixing dancers from both companies (props to Leriche – again – and Walters!), she used the stark setting to create another dance of shadows across the back wall with beautiful solo work by Alice Klock. Set to music titled Ghost Come Morning by Robert G. Haynes, the final image of Klock and her shadow fading in to the dark brought an otherworldly feel.

Most performances are already sold out, but there are ticket still available for the Sunday, June 16 shows. Get them here now!

Slideshow Photo Captions: All photography by Todd Rosenberg.

Emilie Leriche and Felicia McBride in “Agape” by Andrew Wright.

Brandon Lee Alley and Emilie Leriche in “ditto” by Terence Marling.

Quinn B Wharton and Jessica Tong in “Adalea” by Penny Saunders.

Johnny McMillan and Jesse Bechard in “Adalea” by Penny Saunders.

Alice Klock and Johnny McMillan in “For the Wandered” by Jonathan Fredrickson.

Richard Walters and LIssa Smith in “stop…stop…stop.” by Terence Marling.

Garrett Anderson and Alice Klock in “Grey Horses” by Robyn Mineko Williams.

 

 

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.