Dancer Spotlight: Hubbard Street’s Emilie Leriche

Hubbard Street dancer Emilie Leriche. Photo on left by Quinn B Wharton. Photo on right by Todd Rosenberg.

“I’m an old soul,” Emilie Leriche said. At 20, she’s the youngest main company dancer at Hubbard Street Dance Chicago. She’s also the first dancer to come up through the Hubbard Street ranks entirely from attending Youth Summer Intensives all the way to joining the main company earlier this year. “I’ve done every step on the ladder.” If you haven’t seen her dance, you should. She’s stunning.

Leriche took her first dance class in Santa Fe, NM “because my babysitter danced”. As a self-proclaimed tomboy, soccer was more her style, but she quickly found a love for the art. “I didn’t want to go to ballet class, ” she said. ” She [Mom] forced me into a leotard and kicked me into dance class and, I don’t know, I just liked it.” Proving a natural, she auditioned and was accepted into the Walnut Hill School for the Arts, leaving home at 14 to attend the school full-time for three years. “I had to go,” said Leriche. “This is what I had to do.”

She attended workshop intensives on her summers off including Hubbard Street’s for younger dancers in Los Angeles. The summer before her senior year, she came to the older/advanced dancer intensive in Chicago and was offered an apprenticeship with the second company at age 17. “It was another situation where I had do.” Leriche finished her high school courses online and danced with the second company, HS2, for two years before being promoted to the main company this year. “It’s been really crazy and whirlwindy,” she said.

As a member of HS2, Leriche had to chance last year to perform with the main company in the premiere of resident choreographer Alejandro Cerrudo’s evening-length One Thousand Pieces inspired by Chagall’s America Windows, which the company revisits “by popular demand” this weekend at the Harris Theater. She credits being in the same room with the main company as a learning experience that taught her about professionalism and productivity. “Resetting it has given us the chance to set everything and fix things. It’s given us the chance to beautify it. At this point, we’re excited to get into the theater,” she said. “You hit that point where you say, ‘We’re ready. Let’s do it!’”

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago presents Alejandro Cerrudo’s One Thousand Pieces at the Harris Theater, 205 E. Randolph Dr., December 12-15. Performance times vary. Tickets are $25-$99; call 312.850.9744 or visit hubbardstreetdance.com/winter.

CDF13 Recap

Joffrey's Victoria Jaiani and Fabrice Calmels in
Tamako Miyazaki and Brooklyn Mack in
Giordano Dance Chicago in
Chicago Human Rhythm Project in
Brooklyn Mack and Tamako Miyazaki in
Hubbard Street Dance Chicago in
Joffrey Ballet in
Joffrey Ballet in
Joffrey Ballet in
Joffrey Ballet in
Joffrey Ballet in
Philadanco in
Hubbard Street's Johnny McMillan and Alice Klock in
Brian Brooks in
Chicago Human Rhythm Project in
 
1/15
 

Last week Chicagoans were treated to five free dance concerts courtesy of the 2013 Chicago Dancing Festival (CDF). For the third year, I was one of CDF’s official bloggers covering the performances. Here’s a recap of the events as well as some awesome performance photos by the lovely Cheryl Mann*.

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

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

Dancing in Chicago at the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University.

Celebration of Dance at the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park.

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

*Photo credits: all photos by Cheryl Mann.

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

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

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

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

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

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

7. Joffrey Ballet in “Episode 31″.

8. Joffrey Ballet in “Interplay”.

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

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

12. Philadanco in “Wake Up”.

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

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

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

CDF13: Solitaire – A Game of Dance (gala)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

 

 

All Chicago Dance Shoot #ACDS

All Chicago Dance Shoot. Photo by Quinn B Wharton.

What would happen if dancers from all over Chicago were invited to get together for a one-day photo shoot? Hubbard Street dancer and professional photographer Quinn B Wharton and Chicago native/dancer Jonathan “Jojo” Alsberry decided to find out. By creating a Facebook event page, the pair invited as many dancers as they could to participate in this uniquely awesome artistic feat.  On Easter Sunday a couple dozen dancers from companies like River North Dance Chicago, Giordano Dance Chicago, Luna Negra Dance Theater (now defunct), Hedwig Dances, Joffrey Ballet,  and more, as well as local independent artists gathered at the Intuit Gallery to get their creativity on with direction from Wharton. The result: the cool-ass photo above that captures the energy, vibrancy and diversity of Chicago’s dance scene.

A statement about the project from Wharton:

“This project was about community more than anything else. Having moved to Chicago not so long ago I was struck by the city’s vibrant and close-knit dance scene. The dancers here know each other, support each other, and work together whenever possible. Coming from a different environment, I was touched and inspired by this community. Trying to get a number of dancers together for a shoot was an early thought that I wanted to pursue. With the closing of Luna Negra, and its shock to the dance community, it seemed like a perfect time to attempt to get a group together. With a strict timeline set we worked to find a location, develop a concept, and pull all the dancers together. The day became a testament to that, a gathering of dancers from a number of companies in the city. Everyone pitching in, lending support, and hopefully making new connections that will last. The dynamic of an art community in a city is fostered by these cross interactions and educations, positive sit downs where everyone builds real face-to-face relationships. This photo is the first like it that I have ever attempted, a large panoramic that involves a significant amount of photoshop work. It taught me so many things about how to prep, build, and execute a work like this; something that I will carry with me for as long as I take pictures. So thank you to everyone involved, I hope that the process has affected you in some way, and that you will continue to carry that community out into the world.”

To see the photo larger or order a print, go here.

Hubbard Street + LINES Ballet: Review

Hubbard Street & LINES Ballet dancers in Alonzo King's "Azimuth". Photo by Margo Moritz.

What happens when two very different top contemporary companies combine talents for a much-anticipated joint appearance including a premiere commissioned by the Harris Theater in honor of its 10th anniversary and funded in part by a grant from the Joyce Foundation? You get an amazingly danced, slightly overwhelming, long-ass show. Last night Hubbard Street Dance Chicago and San Fransisco-based Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet took the stage for the Chicago premiere of a new collaborative work by King presented with an older work (Rasa) from King and a work by Hubbard Street resident choreographer Alejandro Cerrudo. As the culmination of a years-long process that included a three-week residency at the University of Irvine and the world premiere collaboration of Azimuth, it is a historical dance feat, for sure, but this felt like a LINES Ballet show with Hubbard Street as mere guest artists.

King has a unique approach to choreographing, pushing the dancers to always investigate and make choices with their movement. This makes for interesting, ever-changing dancing, but at times proves tiring for the audience and with works pushing 40-minutes a piece, a little editing would go a long way. His philosophical base of construction is a bit too heady for my taste, but what he gets out of the dancers is astounding. His dancers are beautiful creatures with legs, arms and technique for days that move in a way that is uniquely King-created. There is something in the way they move their arms that is breathtaking. Courtney Henry, Keelan Whitmore and Michael Montgomery were stand outs in this super talented group.

As if thrown in as a quirky palette cleanser between King pieces, Cerrudo’s Little mortal jump offered lighter fare with its whimsical, theatrical humor. The ending duet between Jesse Bechard and Ana Lopez (my favorite part) is usually clouded in dark, foggy lighting that adds to the ethereal quality of the slow-motion duet. Last night’s lighting was much brighter (showing dancers behind boxes, the couple exiting upstage, etc.) losing some of its magic.

Obviously, with King choreographing the new work, the LINES dancers were at an advantage, but the fact that Azimuth looked like another all-LINES piece is a testament to the Hubbard Street dancers’ chameleon-like talent to assimilate. Some adapted quicker than others – Jacqueline Burnett, Johnny McMillan and Kellie Epperheimer were all featured in solos.  Epperheimer was also featured in a soaring quintet aided by Hubbard Street men (Jonathan Fredrickson, Garrett Anderson, Bechard and David Schultz) that had her diving, floating, skimming, jumping and climbing around the entire stage. Yet, when all 26 dancers were on stage moving together, it was a lot to take in. The dancers I’ve spoken with all say it was an inspiring process and I’m sure they have all grown from it, while gaining new friends as an added perk.

Hubbard Street + LINES Ballet at the Harris Theater, 205 E. Randolph, through Sunday, March 17. Tickets are $25-$99; visit www.hubbardstreet.com or call 312.334.7777.

 

 

Alvin Ailey’s Ghrai DeVore

Alvin Ailey dancer Ghrai DeVore (front) in Jiri Kylian's "Petite Mort". Photo by Paul Kolnick.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is making headlines this week with great reviews for their run at the Auditorium Theatre. This year marks the first time the company performs ten shows over two weeks to the delight of Chicago audiences. The main staple, Ailey’s 1960 Revelations never fails to get the audience on its feet and is looking as strong and fresh as ever. Newer works, such as Kyle Abraham’s 2012 Another Night and European contemporary works fill out the repertory showcasing the dancers formidable technique and physical talents.

One of the dancers with Chicago ties is the lovely Ghrai DeVore. Ghrai – pronounced “gray” – started dancing in Washington, D.C., but moved to Chicago when her mother joined Deeply Rooted Dance Theater. Miss DeVore  trained at the Chicago Multicultural Dance Center, then danced with Deeply Rooted 2, Hubbard Street 2 and DanceWorks Chicago before heading to New York where she was in the fellowship program at The Ailey School. She quickly obtained a position in Ailey II and after two years, she was picked by Judith Jameson to join the main company. She’s now in her third season.

RB had a quick phone chat with DeVore, who was getting over a bout of food poisoning and preparing for the second week of performances.  Here are her thoughts…

On her unique first name: My Mom told me it means “happy medium”, so when she was pregnant, she would be happy if the baby was a boy or a girl.

On working with Julie Nakagawa at HS2 and DWC: I wanted to be a part of whatever she was doing.

On a typical performance day on tour: We have rehearsals starting at 2:00 pm; an hour class at 5:30 pm, followed by an hour break; at 7:00 pm we are in the theater, putting on make-up and ready to go; show at 7:30 pm. If it is a matinee day, we have to be there at 10:00 am.

On dancing Jirí Kylían’s Petite Mort and Ohad Naharin’s Minus 16: I’m really interested in what’s going on overseas. With these works, I’m getting a taste of that.

On Ronald Brown’s Grace: It’s about your particular connection with God or whatever higher being you believe in and dancing for that higher being, because you were created for a purpose. It’s very spiritual, but I wouldn’t say it’s religious.

On dancing Kyle Abraham’s Another Night: It’s nice to have pieces you can really connect with. We can look at each other on stage and really express our love.

On performing the iconic work Revelations: Humbling. It’s amazing to do what so many people before me have done. We have to keep up the integrity. Every time I do it, it feels new.

On dancing the super-controlled “Fix Me, Jesus” duet in Revelations: Actually, it’s one of the easier roles, for me. I feel like I have more control when I move slower. I can give more value to each movement. It’s nice to come off stage and think, ‘Yeah, that’s what I trained for’.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performs at the Auditorium Theatre (50 E. Congress Pkwy.) through Sunday, March 17. Tickets are $32-$92; call 800.982.2787.

HS2′s Taryn Kaschock Russell: The Exit Interview

Hubbard Street 2 Director Taryn Kaschock Russell. Photo by Cheryl Mann.

On January 17th, Hubbard Street 2′s Artistic Director Taryn Kaschock Russell, rocked the Chicago dance world with this Facebook post: “After 17 amazing years in Chicago…I will be moving back to the east coast…”. You may think I’m being hyperbolic, but this petite powerhouse made a huge impact on the local dance scene. She will be missed. The impetus of the move comes via her husband Greg, who was recently named the new Company Manager for the New York City Ballet. “He started out at SAB (The School of American Ballet),” Kaschock Russell tells me over the phone from her West Loop HSDC office. “To be back managing the building that he learned in, some parts seem full circle.” The couple met while dancing with the Joffrey Ballet soon after the company made the transition to Chicago from New York in 1995.

Kaschock Russell grew up on the East Coast. She graduated high school early and planned on joining Boston Ballet II, but ended up at the Joffrey School in New York right before they declared bankruptcy – “It was a really amusing situation.” – and spent a year in NYC with her brother (dancing with David Parsons) and sister (on scholarship at Ailey). During her seven years at Joffrey, she made quite a name for herself in principal roles including the “Cowgirl” in Agnes de Mille’s Rodeo and as the first female outside of David Parson’s company to perform his six-minute, jump-laden solo Caught. In 2002, she joined Hubbard Street and was soon recognized as a “25 To Watch” in 2003 by Dance Magazine. After retiring from the stage, she began teaching and setting works for Hubbard St as part of the artistic staff – had a baby! – and in 2008, took over as director of the second company, HS2.

RB spoke with Kaschock Russell earlier this month about her career, leaving Chicago at the end of April and what’s next. Here are excerpts of our conversation:

First of all, I’m very sad, but happy for you too.

I know. It’s the same type of emotions I’m having too.

I know you from your Joffrey days. Let’s talk about Caught. Did your brother dancing for David Parsons have anything to do with you getting the part?

Yes and no. David knew me beforehand. I used to sit there and watch when it was only David doing the role. I remember sitting at City Center in the front wing when I was 15, watching David. I’m very proud of this story. I never went in and asked for anything, I didn’t believe in that. I believed in hard work and that should be acknowledged. But when I found great out that David was coming and that they were doing “Caught” that it was one of those opportunities in a career.  So I said, I’m going to get my shit together and I’m going to go in during my lay off and I’m going to tell Mr. Arpino that I just want to learn it. I want to be in the room. I know that women can’t do it, but I want to be in the room and learn it. I walked in and they had the schedule up during lay off, before I went to talk to him, and there were three names on the list to learn it. It was Davis Robertson, Harris Jones and me. I never said anything! He just put me in there.

I have to say, seeing you do that solo was one of the coolest things I’ve seen in Chicago dancing. It was so awesome to see a girl do it. How hard was it? It was all jumps! 

Thank you. It kicked my ass. Basically you have to keep jumping because you don’t know the timing of how the strobe works. It was a ton of trial and error. It is all jumping. After the first or second day, I’d blown out my quads. I had no idea what that was. I couldn’t walk up stairs. My legs kept giving out and then I’d have to go to rehearsal and they were like three-hour-a-day rehearsals. We would do it over and over again. I remember very vividly, he (David) pulled me aside after having me do something like ten more times than the guys did it and he said, “You just bought yourself a matinee missy, if this company will let me put a woman on”. It was really hard. First of all, it took a while to even have the stamina to do it. Still when I was in the wings before I went on, I would feel almost physically sick, because I knew how tired I would be at the end. At the same time, the audience experience is unreal. It’s like a rock performance. I knew that from watching him, but when you feel that and you’re on the stage and the whole audience freaks out that certainly ups the adrenaline. There’s that perseverance of I’m going to get through this.

You came to Hubbard Street in 2002. What made you switch?

I can’t believe I haven’t told you this story. One of the things I loved and was fortunate enough to grow up with was original creations, original choreography. At Joffrey, I got to do that a small amount, but it wasn’t happening quite as often. I had been watching Hubbard Street for years. We always traded tickets. The first inkling when I considered Hubbard Street was after I had just seen NDT’s (Nederlands Dans Theatre) performance of “Petite Mort” on an arts channel. It was the very first piece of choreography on television that made me cry. It was so beautiful and so unexpected and musical. I swear within a week of me seeing it, we got a newsletter at Joffrey saying that Hubbard Street had acquired “Petite Mort”! I remember freaking out. I went to see it and it was right after they’d learned it, so I think the company was still settling in to that kind of partnering, so the experience of watching it from the third balcony at the Shubert didn’t match how I felt watching NDT do it. I thought,ok, I’m still where I’m supposed to be right now. I was kind of getting a bug where I wanted to do more contemporary work, but I wasn’t there yet. Then I had a life-changing experience at Joffrey dancing “Appalachian Spring”. Yuriko Kikuchi came in to set it. The entire experience for me changed a lot of how I was viewing performance or what I get out when I’m learning. She was so giving. She’s very demanding, but so rich with information and not any part of that information felt selfish. She just wanted it to be ours and to watch it grow. It really was profound, the entire exchange and getting to dance that role and working with her. By the time I got to the stage, all I wanted to do was live in it and perform it in that way. I don’t think I’d experienced anything to that point. The process of learning it and putting it on stage was perfect in so many ways. At the same time, I was at a party with Cheryl Mann. She was going through the exact same kind of profound experience (at Hubbard Street). She said, “There’s this man, Ohad Naharin.” She started to describing the initial time he was there for “Minus 16″.  The improvisation, pushing them outside their envelopes, telling stories, how he was using their vocals and everything that went into mounting that first “Minus 16″. So she and I made a pact. She was going to come see “Appalachian Spring” and I would go to see “Minus 16″. They had done “Petite Mort” in that program and then the last thing was “Minus 16″. That time “Petite Mort” floored me. I was in tears. The way they were dancing together was seamless. And “Minus 16″ sealed everything. I think I looked at Patrick Simonello, who was with me, and said, “What am I doing with my life? And why am I not doing this?” It changed everything. I certainly had never thought of staying in Chicago. When you change companies, you normally move cities. I thought I’d go to Europe, or San Francisco or another ballet company. That performance just did it. That’s what I want to do with my life. I wanted to do the work, which made a huge difference and why I’m still here.

HS2 ladies: Emilie Leriche, Alicia Delgadillo, Taryn Kaschock Russell, Felicia McBride and Lissa Smith. Photo by Todd Rosenberg.

Tell me about the transition from dancing to artistic staff.

One of the reasons I stopped dancing specifically is that we were touring so much and I wanted to have a family and that wasn’t working out. It just wasn’t happening. I stopped dancing in December and within a month, Jim (Vincent) asked me to come back to set a piece. Julie (Nakagawa) and Andreas (Böttcher) had just resigned, so there was an interim year where HS2 had a rehearsal director and trying to figure out what to do. I set one piece on second company and shortly after they named me rehearsal director. It wasn’t a full-time contract. I didn’t go on tour, but when the company was here, I was here. Two months after I stopped dancing, I got pregnant. So I was rehearsal director and going back to school (studying Psychology at Northwestern) and pregnant. I really was crazy. I was responsible for remounting works from scratch. I started teaching class for the company. The transition was really smooth. Right after I had Donovan, they had a conversation with me about working with the second company. Basically, from the second I started working with the second company, it was history, because I just fell so in love. I came in the first day. My first group was with Jacqueline (Burnett, Hubbard St.) and Eduardo (Zuniga, Luna Negra) and Ethan (Kirchbaum, River North) How could you not fall in love with them? They were so hungry for information. I started giving corrections on a piece I already knew and the amount that it impacted them within 24 hours was so profound that I was floored. It was two things. It was exhilarating and beautiful and it was scary as hell. They will take what I say and it will mean this much to them. It will make an impact in their lives. The responsibility of it was overwhelming. It was the same way with becoming a new parent. The opportunity to impact lives in that way and help produce change that was meaningful for them. And to just give, in the same way, strangely enough, that I feel Yuriko had given to me. The way she gave to me made me want to give the same way to other people.

What is your teaching/mentoring philosophy?

I’m a little bit crazy. I’m not kidding. I make a fool out of myself every single day, multiple times a day. I’m so not self-conscious about who I am that they feel more comfortable being who they are and I make sure that can happen. I really, truly believe that HS2 needs to be a safe environment for exploration. I give this lecture every single year. You walk into that room and you are there to support each other. You support each others’ failures and successes. You root for everyone to succeed. Not everywhere is like that. I feel that the second company’s experience needs to be a place where they can try and fail in order to get to where they’re going to get to next. You have to fail. You have to fail in big ways and small ways and be able to try things that are ridiculous. The room is a safe room. I really look at everyone individually and try to develop groups that will work to feed off each other’s strengths and weaknesses. I would never want a group of individuals that is very similar, because there’s not enough diversity in the room to add. Everyone comes in with their own experiences and it adds to how everyone grows. They see each other change and I think it helps them. Nobody should want to leave two years later as the same person. They want to be transformed. My directing is trial and error. I’m trying things out. If it doesn’t work, I try other things. I don’t walk in with the answers. I walk in with every bit of information that I have and I give them everything that I have. Even if it’s “I don’t know”. I’m very honest. I try to be extremely honest about what their strengths and weaknesses are even when it’s hard. There are always difficult moments. It takes a lot of confidence on my own part to sit down and know that I’m not going to make someone hate me by saying something difficult. That’s growing up on my part. Laughter. Laughter is enormous. It’s allowing emotion to be shown. Our pieces are set up that they’re theatrical. They’re contemporary internal. They’re always asking for “you” to be in there. Your personality has to be in there. Especially for 18 to 25-year-olds, that can be super uncomfortable. Allowing the time to be ridiculous and silly in that safe atmosphere. You need to be somewhere where you aren’t judged for trying.

What advice would you give to the next director of HS2? 

Allow yourself to be changed. Observe and learn from the people you’re directing. People learn from example. I love the education outreach we do. I believe in it so wholeheartedly. My love for those things goes to my dancers. My willingness to think outside the box in situations and create site-specific improves so they look the best. As I open my mind to things, their minds are open as well, because they see the person in front of the room be excited and inspired. Also, believing the dancers are really special. They are special and they are worth serious investment. Each group of them will change. Adapt to your companies and leading them with strong examples without fear. If you’re asking them to give all of that to you and to create a safe environment, then you have to do it too. You have to lead by example.

What’s in your future in New York?

One of the things I’d like to do is stop touring. He’ll be touring some, so I want to take the opportunity to be the one not leaving. I’ve been fortunate to be able to have worked with a lot of choreographers and NYC isn’t a small dance town. I’ve developed some friendships. I’ve put out some feelers at university programs. That age group fascinates me because they want to learn. But I would be lying if I didn’t say some of the companies there would be interesting to work with. I’m not going towards one thing there. I’m looking forward to spending a little time and teaching in different places and figuring out what might make the most sense. I’m pretty non-committal. My first priority is getting settled and finding where we want Donovan to be in Kindergarten.

 

Hubbard Street Shines in Ek’s Work

Hubbard Street dancers Ana Lopez and Alejandro Cerrudo in Mats Ek's "Casi-Casa". Photo by Todd Rosenberg.

Opening night of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago‘s Winter Series at the Harris Theater last night marked the first time a U.S. company has presented the work of Swedish master choreographer Mats Ek. Well-known in Europe for his theatrical creations for stage and film, Ek has worked with acclaimed dancers like Sylvie Guillem and Mikhail Baryshnikov. Now, with the help of dancers Ana Laguna and Mariko Aoyama, he takes our very own Hubbard Street dancers to new, extraordinary heights in his 2009 work Casi-Casa. A mash-up of two of his previous works, Appartement and Fluke, Casi was originally created for Danza Contemporánea de Cuba in 2009. Also on the program, Aszure Barton’s grand Untouched and two works by resident choreographer Alejandro Cerrudo.

Although last on the evening’s program, Ek’s Casi is what everyone came to see. Even founder Lou Conte was there to witness his company make history. And make history they did, for once they raised the bar for themselves, the audience, the city and the country by excelling in this work, they can never go back. The cast of 12 dancers was stellar, but it was the staging and choreography that transfixed. Casi-Casa was stunning, ugly, casual, urgent, funny, human, disturbing and wonderful. Ek’s way of taking a mundane gesture or activity and turning it into something alternately beautiful, endearing and disgusting is true brilliance. With a cast of misfit characters like TV Man, Vacuum Woman, Stove Couple and Door Couple, the 40-minute piece flies by and leaves you wondering just what the hell happened. No, really…WTF just happened? Poking, sniffing, sighing, spitting, grabbing and whistling mix easily with insanely difficult, breathtaking dancing set to a score as schizophrenic as the characters. Vacuum cleaner-wielding women dance an OCD-frenzied jig, a couple struggles to stay together while tragedy roasts in an oven, and a man makes being a couch potato an art form. The work has everything you never thought you’d see on stage in a dance and then some. There is a sexual undercurrent throughout – a hand to the breast, a foot to the crotch, a groping embrace – that is sometimes nonchalant, purposeful, sad and almost crude. One of the most beautiful moments was a delicate, loving duet between Jesse Bechard and David Schultz. A section with no dancing had yellow and black caution tape zig-zagged across the stage as Hitchcockianly dangerous music blared as if to say, what happens in between these walls should not be seen. But Ek lets us look anyway.

Barton’s Untouched is a beautiful work that brilliantly showcases these dancers talents. Originally created on Hubbard Street in 2010, Barton incorporated bits of the dancers personalities into the movement. Even though a few of the performers have changed, the delicate intimacy of the gestures remain, punctuated by strong technique and creative partnering. With a lush red curtain pulled back on stage right as a backdrop and an almost formal informality to the structure, it is reminiscent of Edwaard Liang’s Age of Innocence, but on LSD. It’s just a little off. Where Liang’s duets are pristine with a feminine sense of longing, Barton’s transforms the women – Ana Lopez and Kellie Epperheimer – into wounded birds seeking freedom. Where Liang works within the structured lines of Victorian court dances, Barton takes that framework and alters it with syncopation and weight. Unexpected moments of impatience – a fast hip bounce, a dancer frantically running in place – dot the more serene essence of the dance. The dancers are at home in this piece. Plus, anything that begins with the gorgeous Meredith Dincolo in a floor length dress is assured to be spectacular.

In between Barton and Ek was a suite of dances by Cerrudo. Both have his penchant for dark lighting and mood, but to different ends. Blanco, a study in minimalist movement for four women, and PACOPEPEPLUTO, a tongue-in-cheek romp for three men to Dean Martin songs, highlight the rising choreographer’s serious and light sides. Both used similar movement vocabulary with results at the opposite ends of the dance spectrum. The audience seemed in awe of the raw physical beauty of the women, but the charming men – Johnny McMillan, Schultz and Pablo Piantino – captured their hearts wearing nothing but dance belts. Recently named to Crain’s Chicago Business’ “40 Under 40″ list, Cerrudo shows what he can do with just music, lighting and bodies. While all the dancers deserve high praise, Cerrudo gets a special mention. With his busy schedule traveling the world setting his work, he hasn’t graced the Harris stage – aside from choreographic bows – since last March. He showed that he still has the chops to hang with and stand out in this amazing group of dancers. Bravo!

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago’s Winter Series runs through Sunday, Dec. 9 at the Harris Theater, 205 E. Randolph. For a 20% discount on tickets use the code: CASI at www.hubbardstreetdance.com/winter.

Hubbard Street’s Quinn B Wharton: Man of Mystery

Hubbard Street dancer Quinn B Wharton. Photo by Cheryl Mann.

Her: What’s the B. stand for?

Him: It’s a good question, isn’t it? I’ll never tell.

Her: Ooh, it’s top secret!

Him: It’s more interesting that way, right? There’s no period.

Her: Is that an artistic statement?

Him: It’s like that on my birth certificate, Quinn B Wharton. There’s a reason.

Her: Do you want to tell me?

Him: Then you’d know and it would be no fun. Maybe I’ll tell you someday.

That’s how my conversation began with the tall, lean, talented dancer at Hubbard Street Dance Chicago. Quinn B – no period – Wharton was bright, blithe and downright bewitching when we met over tea (for him, he was recovering from a cold) and decaf (for me, ’nuff said) two weeks ago. Who is this man with the mysterious initial and missing punctuation? I did my best to find out.

Wharton grew up in Seattle and began taking hip hop classes with a friend through an inner city outreach program. Pacific Northwest Ballet School‘s Dance Chance program took notice and offered him a scholarship. After a five-year “drought” in his training when his family moved to Hawaii, he relied on the wisdom of his ballet-teaching grandmothers to find him a teacher to get him back in shape. A summer program at San Francisco Ballet (SFB) led to three years at the North Carolina School of the Arts before he returned to San Fran to join the ballet company’s trainee program, or second company, while completing his degree via correspondence. Wharton danced with SFB, under the direction of Helgi Tomasson, for seven years before joining Hubbard Street in the summer of 2012.

In 2008, during SFB’s 75th Anniversary season, Wharton sustained a lower back injury that kept him from dancing. He used his down time to develop an impressive talent in photography. After “working like hell” on his ballet come back, he started traveling and auditioning to see what else was out there in the dance world. Now, he joins fellow SFB alums Garrett Anderson and Pablo Piantino at Hubbard Street.

Wharton, 25, will be dancing the opening “TV Man” solo in Swedish choreographer Mats Ek’s Casi-Casa this weekend at the Harris Theater. Hubbard Street’s Winter Series will be the first time an American company has presented this work. Also on the program, Canadian choreographic phenom Aszure Barton’s Untouched, a dense and grand work make for the company in 2010, and a coupling of short works by resident choreographer Alejandro Cerrudo. One is a quartet for women, the other a trio for men.

Ek has been in and out of town working with the dancers for a while, but is aided by his wife/muse Ana Laguna, who notably danced a duet with Mikhail Baryshnikov at the Harris Theater in 2009, and repetiteur Mariko Aoyama, who is well-known for her work with Pina Bausch. A rehearsal earlier this fall for the “TV Man” solo had Laguna riffing on the finer points of chair slumping and nose picking. Here is a peak into the rehearsal process filmed by HMS Media:

Wharton (also a gifted videographer) started his Hubbard Street career with a bang. Only two weeks in, he found himself learning Twyla Tharp’s SCARLATTI to replace an injured dancer the next night at the Chicago Dancing Festival. Welcome to Chicago! Here’s a bit of our chat on working with Ek.

I’ve read a lot of articles and interviews in the past few years and most of the dancers say they want to work with Ek. Is he someone you aspired to work with?

He wasn’t, actually…until now.

Since he wasn’t on your list, what makes it…

Amazing? It’s watching someone that’s been so thoroughly in his craft for so long, so specifically. It’s very different from how most dance is portrayed. It’s almost like from a theater background. You can tell from what he makes for film. I don’t know what it’s like when he creates, but it seems like he comes into the room with these characters and bases dances on them as opposed to creating movement and infusing it with character, which is what most people do, if at all. He’s a little soft-spoken. He’s tall. He wants really big movement. He’s not irrational with what he expects, but he does demand a lot. He’s respectful, which is nice. When he came back this past week, we were working on the TV solo. Watching it is really weird, but hearing him talk about it, makes complete sense. At first it seemed really obscure. The TV Man is in love with this game show hostess on tv and you write her a bunch of letters and she doesn’t respond to you. You love her, but you hate her and this couch is always here for you and it’s your friend you love it. There are people out there like that and it allowed me to relate to what I was doing.

What was it like working with Ana and Mariko?

I can see why Mariko was here first. She’s super sweet. She’s very detail-focused. She gave us a lot of information very quickly. She’s fast and she pushes. She’s quirky and she’s worked in very contemporary dance for years with Pina Bausch. They both just give us a base, because they know Mats will come in later. Ana is a sweetheart, beyond sweet. Obviously she knows Mats work inside and out.

In rehearsals you were playing with a black bowler hat. What’s with the hat?

What IS with the hat? I like hats. I am the hat man, as well. I die at the end of my solo. I turn the tv off and I die, because that is my world. “Vacuum Lady” comes on and has a hat. I go for it and she takes it away. I put it on and she sends me somewhere. It’s very conceptual. Either it’s another world or I’m a spirit. I provide transition and “slight leadership”. Every time I come in to change a scene, I’m wearing the hat…except for the finale.

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago presents its Winter Series at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance, 205 E. Randolph, on Thurs., Dec. 6 at 730 pm, Friday-Saturday, Dec. 7-8 at 8 pm and Sunday, Dec. 9 at 3 pm. Tickets are $25-$99. Call 312.850.9744 or visit hubbardstreetdance.com.