Joffrey Goes Deep

Joffrey Ballet dancers in James Kudelka's "Pretty BALLET". Photo by Herbert Migdoll.

“To express your human spirit is a beautiful thing,” Ashley Wheater said in a pre-taped, pre-show video last night before the opening curtain of The Joffrey Ballet‘s fall program at the Auditorium Theatre. As artistic director of the company, he’s tasked with creating an environment for the dancers and audience to grow, learn and thrive. With Human Landscapes, he succeeded immeasurably. The three works on the program span nine decades and range from minimalist German expressionism to modern contemporary ballet and pushed the dancers and audience beyond their comfort zones with resounding success. The Chicago Philharmonic, under the direction of Joffrey Musical Director Scott Speck, added pitch perfect timbre to the contemplative tone of the evening.

As the curtain opens on Jirí Kylián’s Forgotten Land the dancers all face upstage looking out over a dark, but beautiful set designed by John F. Macfarlane, inspired in part by an Edvard Munch painting of women on a beach. The sound of wind, which is actually Kylián blowing into a microphone, alludes to turbulent times and the turmoil of loss.  Couples in muted colors (black, red, gray, biege, pink and white) ebb and flow in duets, trios and sextets to music from British composer Benjamin Britten. Each color has its own mood and tempo for movement. A beautiful trio of women end the piece on a somber note.

James Kudelka’s Pretty BALLET, orginally created for the Joffrey dancers in 2010, elicited audible wonder from the audience with its opening tableau. amidst a white fog, Miguel Angel Blanco holds Victoria Jaiani in a horizontal overhead lift as if she’s a puppet waiting to be set free. The long, white tulle skirts on the women are a nod to classical “white” ballets, and aside from a lovely pas de deux by Jaiani and Blanco (where Jaiani, again puppet-like, exits walking en pointe as if a blind or in a trance), that’s all that is pretty here. Women run and circle like demented Wilis, while men march across the stage with forceful battements and fisted hands. Kudelka (on video) said that “ballet is going through an interestingly rough time”. His take in Pretty BALLET shows that ballet doesn’t have to be pretty as long as it’s good – and this is, although the group sections weren’t as tight as in 2010 and could use some cleaning.

Joffrey Ballet dancers Fabrice Calmels and Anastacia Holden in Kurt Jooss' "The Green Table". Photo by Herbert Migdoll.

The most exciting work on the program was Kurt Jooss’ 1932 anti-war ballet The Green Table: A Dance of Death in Eight Scenes. A green table surrounded by “the Gentlemen in Black”, diplomats and politicians, argue about the prospect of going to war. The answer comes as the ten “men” pull out pistols (loaded with blanks) and fire them into the air. In the following six scenes “Death” – in a stellar performance by Fabrice Calmels – is a foreboding, always present presence. He lurks in the background only to swoop onto a battlefield or village and take life, casually, violently and compassionately. The scene where he takes the life of “The Young Girl”, the wonderful Anastacia Holden, was both heart-wrenching and beautiful. Interwoven through the scenes is the Charlie Chaplin-esque character “The Profiteer”, danced brilliantly by Temur Suluashvili. The ballet ends as it began with another meeting at the table, a nod to seemingly perpetual war. Dancer Erica Lynette Edwards said it best (again, from the video), “stillness speaks volumes”. The moments of stillness, of holding a simple gesture, were the most powerful.

Sneak Peek: Hubbard Street’s One Thousand Pieces

Hubbard Street dancers Ana Lopez and Garrett Anderson in front of "America Windows". Photo by Todd Rosenberg. Marc Chagall © 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris.

Yesterday morning I popped in on rehearsals at Hubbard Street for Alejandro Cerrudo’s much-anticipated new full-length work, One Thousand Pieces,  inspired by Marc Chagall’s America Windows housed at the Art Institute of Chicago. This was the first rehearsal with the mirrors covered and with the dancers getting used to new elements (which I’ve been asked not to reveal), so there was some experimentation with aspects of the movements and a lot of starting/stopping as is necessary in a cleaning rehearsal. With that in mind, what I saw was a company fresh, focused and on the verge of something big.

Preparing for next week’s world premiere celebrating the company’s 35th anniversary at the Harris Theater (Oct. 18 – 21) is a collaborative effort engaging all Hubbard Street dancers – main company and HS2 – with all artistic staff hands on deck. Hubbard Street rehearsal director Terry Marling, HS2 director Taryn Kaschock Russell and dancer Penny Saunders (who is expecting a baby – congrats Penny and Pablo!) take turns running rehearsals and helping Cerrudo mold his new masterpiece.

The little bits I saw – and, frankly I wanted to stay and watch all day – were enough to make me believe this work will be something spectacular. Here’s a little glimpse into the process filmed by HMS Media:

Hubbard Street Inside the Studio: One Thousand Pieces

 

 

Another Daley in Chicago

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre dancers in "Revelations". Photo by Christopher Duggan.

In middle school, Sarah Daley came to Chicago’s Auditorium Theatre (ATRU) to see Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (AAADT) perform.  She left inspired, but never anticipating that a few years later, at 25, she would be getting ready to perform on that very stage as part of the acclaimed company.  “It’s so crazy.  It’s very surreal the closer I get to it,” she said.  “Especially dancing at the Auditorium, because that’s where growing up I got to see all these amazing companies.  To be on that stage is going to be great.”  Tomorrow night, Daley will take the stage with her fellow AAADT dancers for opening night of a six performance run.  Dreams – with a lot of hard work – really do come true.

Daley grew up in up in South Elgin and started dancing at the Faubourg School of Ballet in Hanover Park.  When looking for colleges (her Mom said not going to college was not an option), a dance program was paramount.  She ended up at Fordham University which has a partnership with AAADT.  After two years dancing with Ailey II,  she’s now in her first season with the main company.  This is also the first season under new artistic director Robert Battle.   While traditional Ailey pieces like Revelations are still in the rep, Battle includes his choreography but is also bringing in different styles of work to challenge the dancers and the audience.  On the Chicago programs are works from Ailey, Battle, Rennie Harris, Paul Taylor and Ohad Naharin.

I spoke with Daley over the phone earlier this week.  The company arrives in Chicago today.

Did you always want to be in Ailey? Was this your goal?

It was definitely a goal.  I wasn’t sure how realistic it was…it seemed like a long shot, but it was always something that I really wanted to do.  I was going to do everything I could do to make that happen.  

It’s an exciting time with the company going in a new direction.  What’s it been like for you?

Like you said, it’s really exciting.  There’s this air around Ailey everywhere we tour, everybody knows it’s the beginning of a new chapter.  Everyone is excited to see what Mr. Battle is bringing.  He’s a great person to be around. He has a really great energy that’s trickled down into the company and how we work with each other.  It’s good to be a part of it.

Has it been challenging changing the rep to include a Paul Taylor or Ohad Naharin piece?  For instance, Ohad’s work is so particular. Was it hard for your body, since you aren’t used to his technique?

It was difficult in the rehearsal process.  Some things came easier for some people.  “Arden Court” was a bit more natural for me.  It seemed more familiar than “Home”.  I’ve never been a hop hop dancer.  I love that whole genre of dance, but I’d never done it.  “Minus 16″ was just totally new for everybody.  It was research – a total investigation, pare down of everything you know and start from the beginning with a new language.  It was definitely something to get used to, but it was a lot of fun.  It made “Minus 16″ a lot easier to transition into once we’d started learning his way of moving.

Tell me about the Rennie Harris piece, Home.

We had a three-week workshop when he came in to set the piece.  A lot of people weren’t hip hop/house dancers and he wanted it to be authentic and not us just mimicking the moves he would teach us.  We learned the basic house language for the whole time he was there.  It was inspired by people living with or affected by HIV/AIDS.  I think it’s more of a celebration of life and music and dance than it is anything else.  When you’re inspired by a topic like that, it can get really dark and heavy, but he wanted it to be about the music and the dance.  It’s a club setting, so we’re almost in a trance at times.  I really enjoy doing it.  It’s so much fun and you get to relax on stage.  The audiences everywhere we’ve gone really love it.  

Can you describe to me what it feels like to do Revelations.  It’s such an iconic work.  What’s it like to actually be doing it?

It’s definitely an experience, especially the first few times you do it.  You’re excited and thinking about the history of the piece and how many people have done it before.  I pretty much do it every night, so there’s always another chance to investigate and get deeper into it.  Sometimes it’s good to take a break and watch it from the audience, so you remember why everyone loves it so much.  You get the full effect of it, so when you go back, you have something to work with.  It’s really an experience to do such an historical work. 

Recently on the Ailey Facebook page, they asked the question: what is your favorite section of Revelations?  What’s yours?

My favorite section to do is “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel”.  It’s short and gets right to the point.  It’s high energy.  I don’t know why – out of all the sections – when I do it, I really feel like I’ve made an impact on the audience when I do it.  I really enjoy doing it. My favorite to watch is “I Wanna Be Ready”.  It has a lot to do with the people I get to watch do it.  Being able to watch Matthew Rushing from off stage do this piece is ridiculous. 

Your bio includes this quote:  “Dance for me is becoming more and more about discovery and imagination.”  Can you explain that?

I started to think about this in Ailey II when we started to tour and perform a lot…to think of ways to keep what I’m doing fresh, not just for me but for the audience. If a dancer is over what they’re doing, the audience totally feels that.  I’ve been trying to go a little deeper with everything I do.  I can focus on something different in “Minus 16″, every time I do it.  That’s been my discovery and revelation in a way.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre – April 11 – 15 at the Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress Pkwy

Tickets are $30-$90. Call 800.982.2787 or visit ticketmaster.com/auditorium.

 

 

 

 

Hubbard St to open 35th Anniversary Season with World Premiere

Hubbard St's Alejandro Cerrudo speaking at the Art Institute of Chicago in front of Marc Chagall's "America Windows".

Chicago’s own Hubbard Street Dance Chicago (HSDC) hits the 35-year mark next fall.  At a press conference this morning at the Art Institute of Chicago (AIC), HSDC Executive Director Jason Palmquist, Artistic Director Glenn Edgerton, along with AIC’s Associate Director of Performance Programs Mary Sue Glosser told a small gaggle of press about the exciting collaboration that will open the anniversary season next fall.  HSDC Resident Choreographer Alejandro Cerrudo, a rising international choreographic star, will create the company’s first evening-length work on a central theme inspired by Marc Chagall‘s permanent exhibit, America Windows.  Glosser talking about the seven-year partnership with HSDC says, “seeing works of art come to life in their choreography…is a joy beyond measure”.

Chagall’s stained glass masterpiece imbeds themes of music, painting, literature, architecture, theater and dance in a royal and cerulean blue swirl celebrating freedom of expression.  The work made to commemorate the Bicentennial was given to the City of Chicago in 1977, the same year Lou Conte started HSDC, in honor of the memory Mayor Richard J. Daley.  In turn, this new work will be given to the City of Chicago in honor of Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his commitment to making Chicago “a worldwide destination for dance”.  Commissioner for the City’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, Michelle Boone accepted the honor on the Mayor’s behalf joking that everyone knows he’s “crazy about dance”.  Edgerton took the mic telling us how all the connections came together to make this “a monumental season”.

Cerrudo’s new piece, set to music by Philip Glass, will premiere during the company’s fall series at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance, October 18 – 21, 2012.  The shy Spaniard took the opportunity say how grateful he was for the honor of creating this new work “in honor of the city that has become my home” and declared it a big challenge.  Taking inspiration from Chagall, he will take the “magic, colors and emotions” from the windows to create a non-literal interpretation focusing on how all the pieces and people (dancers) come together.  He suggested a working title of “A Thousand Pieces” for the full-company piece.

The rest of the 35th Anniversary season will be announced later. Subscription tickets go on sale in May.

Artist Profile: Joffrey’s Michael Smith

Smith as Drosselmeyer in Joffrey's "Nutcracker". Photo by Herbert Migdoll.

“I’m very thankful,” Michael Smith told me over cocktails this summer.  ”The Joffrey chapter of my life has been going on for a while.  I’m lucky because I never really planned on it being this way.”  A Chicago native, he lived for a short time in Gary, Indiana with his teacher/social worker mother before moving back to the city.  That is where he got his first taste of dance at school.  ”My grandma would say that I watched The Nutcracker in her living room and just dance around.  She’d say, ‘ok, you need to stop it before you knock something over!’”   Smith, now in his 11th season with the Joffrey Ballet, is finishing this year’s run of Nutcracker performances (only two matinees left!).  This season he’s dancing multiple parts:  a parent in the Party Scene, a soldier, the Mouse King, in snow scene, two parts in Waltz of the Flowers and Russian nougat and Dr. Drosselmeyer, his favorite part.  “There’s nothing like it.  It’s an acting role, but it really gives you a chance to tell the story with Clara and have a great time with the audience,” says Smith.  “You are the storyteller and you get to make all the magic happen.  It’s hard because if it’s not done well, the story is lost.”

Here’s my Q&A with a man that literally grew up within the Joffrey and who I’m happy to call friend.

So, what’s your story?

(Laughing) I’m a child of the 80′s.  Imagination was really pushed with me and my sister.  When I was going to be a freshman in high school, my Mom thought I should audition for this private school…Chicago Academy for the Arts.  I wanted to just go to school and be a teenager, but she convinced me.  I went to the audition and I got in…then I freaked out.  I had no idea what that really meant.  Most kids know that they want to dance and have been dancing since they were three.  For me, it was more like a hobby.  At school. I was taking three hours of ballet, jazz, modern classes and learning about the art form.  It wasn’t until my junior year that I thought maybe I should do this…maybe I should start taking this seriously.

How did you go from hobby to Joffrey?

The secretary of the school told me the Joffrey was looking for boys to fill in the background in The Nutcracker and I was like, “no, I don’t do ballet”…but she convinced me.  The school sent four of us over and we had to take class.  Mr. Arpino came and watched.  The asked me and a friend (David Gombert) to come back and take another class, then asked if we were interested in doing Nutcracker.  So for a few months, we would go to school in the morning, then head over to Joffrey to take company class at 10:00 am.  We were there all day rehearsing.  We did Nutcracker season and started getting to know a few people in the company that we weren’t scared of.  I was terrified of everyone, but Calvin (Kitten).  He’s the cutest little nugget ever.  I was a soldier.  I still am!  I did the same soldier spot for like 12 years. (laughing) That’s sad.  Now, I help teach it.  

Were you hooked?  Was Joffrey it for you?

My goal since my junior year was I want to go to New York.  I’m going to dance for Ailey.  Period – end of story.  My email address used to be Ailey2000!  Being at Joffrey…we were in this fantasy bubble where dance was our life for a few months, it was weird transitioning back into school life again.  Joffrey was starting a new apprentice program for six dancers and asked if we (Smith and Gombert) were interested.  I’d just started taking it seriously, meaning, ok I’m not going to skip my ballet class and go take another modern class.  I knew that I didn’t want to go to college.  I thought ‘you need something.  You can’t be poor!’  I agreed to it and signed the contract.  Literally a week later I got offered a contract with Hubbard Street 2 and had to turn it down.  I graduated in 200 and started the apprenticeship in the fall.

Over the years, how has the company changed?

Technically, the company has always had its technical people in it, but now it is really emphasized.  The company is a lot younger than it used to be.  There’s a huge age gap.  There’s a small group of us that are about to turn 30 and a few at 25, then the babies…19, 20, 21.  Over the years, the emphasis on rep has changed…the things being brought in and what is being demanded of us.  I kind of miss doing some of the historic works.  There’s nothing better than to be choreographed on, being that vehicle to produce art.  At the same time, there’s something very interesting and a lot of growth can happen by doing older, historic works.  I go to do the horse in ‘Parade’.  Who wants to do that?  The experience was amazing.  I miss doing Arpino stuff a little.  I guess that’s a change as well.  I got to dance while he was still alive in his company.  To have that greatly influenced how I viewed and still view dance and this company.  

Do you have a favorite Mr. A story or memory?

Some of my favorite memories are just random moments.  I miss seeing him sitting in front of the room or seeing him in the back giving you a thumbs up or an ‘ok’ sign.  As apprentices, we would get gifts from him every once in a while.  One of them was this huge, oversized knit scarf that,I assume, someone had made for him.  The first couple of years, I only wore it every once in a while, but now it is a saving grace come wintertime.  I need that big, chunky scarf.  I need Mr. A’s scarf.  Getting to dance for him at the opening of the new building (Joffrey Tower), that was a really special moment.  He’d always say, ‘This company is going to have a home.”  To see him walk into that building was such a special time.  His dream just came true.  That was pretty kick ass.

How have you changed?

I’m a lot calmer with age.  Outside of work, I try to be really chill.  In the studio, in my early 20′s, I tried to be a bad ass and talk back.  You’re still trying to figure out who you are at that age and my nature was to be more aggressive about it.  You have to find where you’re going to put your energy.  Life is too short.  I’m here to dance.  I want to be art.  I want to express myself through art.  I want to exchange art and discuss it with other people.  I’m the most senior boy in the company now and I know what it’s like to be that little punk kid in high school.  Now I have all this experience under my belt.  There is nothing more humbling than to have someone new in the company and to go and help them.  I learn things and help teach it to others.  I’ve been here a long time.  I’m dedicated to it.  It’s home to me.  

What have been some of your favorite pieces to perform?

(Jiri) Kylían’s ‘Return to a Strange Land’, hands down.  I got to do it with Maia (Wilkins) and Willy (Shives).   That was beyond a dream come true on so many levels.  Kylían is one of my all-time favorite choreographers.  It just feels good to do his movement.  Having the chance to dance with two people that are such great partners and to be the third in the trio…that’s a lot to live up to. That was a super highlight.  The Pilobulus piece ‘Untitled’, ‘Suite Saint Sans’.  ’Inner Space’ was three dancers in a 4×4 Plexiglass box.  Loved it!  Everyone wants to go out and be the prince or the lead, but there is something to be gained from doing the more abstract stuff too.  Finding your own story in it or how you can get through this to make it entertaining and find growth within yourself.  You’ve never had to do some self-examination until you’ve been put in a 4×4 box with two other people for seven minutes!  Getting to do one of the stepsisters in ‘Cinderella’ with one of my best friends (Gombert).  We were playing ourselves pretty much only in women’s clothing.  I don’t know if anything that silly will enter my life again.  It was pretty fantastic.  And ‘Nutcracker’ is always something special.  I do love it.  It’s the one time of year where you are performing constantly.  It’s like, should I even take this make-up off? I’m going to be right back.

You also have talents in a vast range of hobbies:  photography, videography, choreography and teaching.  What are your goals?

To take whatever comes and see what happens.  When Jessica Lang came and set ‘Crossed’…that was a great experience.  Really inspiring.  You truly just have to be the vessel and let the art come through you.  She told me to never say no to anything.  Go do it and see what happens.  Try to make all these things happen and see what comes out of it.  It was a great piece of advice.  Not that you can’t say no, but if you can do it…why not?  My goal wold be to keep experiencing everything I can possibly experience.  If you allow yourself to be open to just experience it, you’ll learn a lot.  I’ve auditioned for Hubbard Street like five or six times now.  I love them.  I’d love to dance for Hubbard Street.  

Preview: River North Opens Fall Season

Jessica Wolfrum & Michael Gross in "Al Sur del Sur". Photo by Sandro.

This weekend at the Harris Theater, River North Dance Chicago (RNDC) opens it’s fall season. Just off a successful international tour (US, Korea, Germany, Switzerland), RNDC is warmed up, employing five new dancers and ready to take the stage with a mixed rep that is sure to dazzle. Signature group piece by Sherry Zunker, Evolution of a Dream (2009), is joined by last season hits Al Sur Del Sur choreographed by Sabrina and Rubin Veliz and Artistic Director Frank Chavez’s jazz tribute Simply Miles, Simply Us. Charles Moulton’s postmodern Nine Person Precision Ball Passing (1980), which the company performed over the summer during the Chicago Dancing Festival (and shall heretofore be known as “the ball piece”), makes it’s Harris stage debut. Add in an intense solo by Robert Battle from his work Train (2008) and the first duet Chavez every choreographed in 1994, Fixé, and you have the makings for a fantastic and entertaining evening of dance. But it is the company premiere of Daniel Ezralow’s SUPER STRAIGHT is coming down that is getting all the buzz – and rightly so.

Originally commissioned by Hubbard Street Dance Chicago (HSDC) founder Lou Conte in 1989, SUPER STRAIGHT was a cutting-edge, athletic, dynamic piece that helped change the trajectory of the company from a strong, stellar troupe with a jazz/Broadway-based rep to one of the pioneers of contemporary dance. Ezralow, an emerging choreographer at the time, took inspiration from a book of black and white photographs by Robert Longo titled Men in the Cities and set it to an original score by Dutch composer Thom Willems. What came out was a quirky, desperate, intriguing, hyper-physical, 15-minute dance that was like nothing the audience had seen before. Revolutionary seems trite, but it was. Five dancers dressed in black and white appear in what look like plastic garment bags hanging from the ceiling. That image, along with the darkly eerie, industrial score, set the mood for a wonderful and strange adventure. The original cast of Chavez, Sandi Cooksey, Ron De Jesús, Alberto Arias and Lynn Shepard brought a fierce energy to their talented technical skills and took the stage by storm. I saw it on tour that season and it blew me away! (It was one of the reasons I wanted to move to Chicago and why I’m a huge HSDC fan.) I am so completely STOKED that RNDC is reviving it this weekend. I spoke with Chavez by phone earlier this week about their upcoming program.

You’ve set quite an eclectic program…Miles, Balls, Tango…

This is our “Tour de Force” program (also the title of the Thursday night gala). To be able to go from an authentic Argentinian tango to “SUPER STRAIGHT” with a contemporary edge and then go to Miles Davis, as jazzy as you can get…it shows so many different facets of the company and that we can do all of those things really well.

Jessica Wolfrum in Ezralow's "SUPER STRAIGHT is coming down". Photo by Jenifer Girard.

I’m going to cut to the chase. I really want to focus on SUPER STRAIGHT because it is my favorite piece ever! I love it, I love it, I love it! I always wondered when/if Hubbard would bring it back.

(Laughing) We feel the same way. It’s my favorite Daniel Ezralow piece. Not just because I had the great opportunity to perform it, but I’ve been thinking about it for quite a while. I’m always concerned with something that was related to HSDC, that enough time has gone by…we’re careful with all that. We thought it was such a good fit and it’s such a good piece that it just made sense. As you say, it’s my favorite piece of Danny’s and it’s been sitting on a shelf for a long time. It’s so perfect for us. I honestly didn’t think I’d see HSDC do it again. It just isn’t them any more. I felt truly it was more appropriate for us these days, so I went for it.

Are there things he told you, that maybe the audience doesn’t know, that you get to pass down now that you’re resetting it?

As I did it, I brought Sandi and Berto in to help with rehearsal and some tidbits here and there. It was really based on a book of photographs by Robert Longo. The costumes, the look of the piece…everything came from this book. It was very interesting. He took a bunch of pictures of men and women in cityscapes. The idea behind it was that they were having things thrown at them and they were dodging. They were all sort of action/motion shots, but very quirky. They were pedestrians. There were a lot of images that ended up being translated off the page and into the piece. That was the initial jist of it. I’ve described it as sort of an urban meltdown. It’s like these people have been dropped down from some other space. The bags…do you remember? These big huge ice cubes that they melt out of. I remember Danny saying things like, “Your first step out of that bag is like you’re stepping on to black ice.” You can’t see it. You don’t know if it’s going to hold you. There’s so much uncertainty in the piece, which created a great deal of tension. There was a lot of tension in the creative process too. Danny likes to stir the pit a little bit. He does a lot of improv and then puts the piece together. That’s his process. He feeds off of whatever is happening. If somebody is pissed off and walking around a corner, he’ll use that in the piece. He really wanted to shock the audience. I remember this original composition, he wanted that first note to come in really strong and jolt the audience. You’d hear a collective “ah” – it scared them. It transcends you to another place and you’re not sure what’s going on. He said that it was very abstract for him. There was no real meaning behind it for him. There was no story behind it. He wanted to create this tense atmosphere that kept people on the edge of their seats and uncertain. It does that well. So many people wrote it was about AIDS, disease, a takeover, aliens…it had a million different interpretations of what it was. Danny likes to do that. He likes to leave it up to the audience, however they see it, whatever they’re feeling…that was a big part of it.

I definitely got an alien vibe and just kept wonder what was up with the bags?

He likes to make people question a lot. Are they aliens? Are they just arriving here? Were they quarantined? All these speculations came about where these bags came from and then they just float off the stage. These five people are just dropped off somewhere. They have no idea where they are. You can say they’re from a different planet. They don’t even know why they’re there, but they need to go explore. If they are to go on in any way, they need to get out of those bags and find out where they are. It’s a bit of a discovery. The silent section in the middle was very interesting. There are two musical cues in the musical section and other than that it was timing and breath and feeling each other, commanding and finding the silence and doing something with it and translating that into a very tense atmosphere. Again, the uncertainty is what creates this tension. Initially the piece wasn’t counted at all. We just followed each other. For dancers…everybody wants to know what they’re doing at every moment. That was a really interesting part about the piece. I think it keeps it really interesting and relevant. There’s nothing to me that’s dated to me about the piece. It’s still so relevant in so many ways.

The silent section, the improv and keeping it real on stage…was that a new way of working for you guys back then? Or had you already been through that type of process before?

No. I think it was new for a lot of us. Danny was just starting out as a choreographer at that time, aside from what he did for his own company. I think for us, and for that time at HSDC, it was pretty new. It was fantastic. What came out of that process was pretty special. Sometimes it all just works. I think “SUPER STRAIGHT” is a great example of when everything really comes together.

River North Dance Chicago, Nov 4&5 at 8pm

Tickets: $30-$75, Harris Theater, 205 E. Randolph, 312.334.7777

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

Thoughts on Luna Negra ¡Mujeres!

Luna Negra dancers in "Naked Ape". Photo by Cheryl Mann.

Saturday night at the Harris Theater, Luna Negra Dance Theater presented ¡Mujeres!, a one night only show celebrating influential Latina women.  Since installing Gustavo Ramírez Sansano as Artistic Director in 2009, Luna Negra has quickly become one of my favorite companies to watch.  The new artistic vision and technical ability of the dancers are similar to the style of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago (It was nice to see many HSDC-ers in the audience!) and is a decidedly different direction from the former Luna.  For the performance, I think I had the best seat in the house (V 106). It was the “center stage” spot in the audience. I normally sit closer and did miss seeing more of the facial expressions (I didn’t have my glasses), but this seat provided the perfect perch to view the complex patterns and minimal sets.  I was excited to see the first piece, Sansano’s world premiere Not Everything, which I’d seen earlier in the month in rehearsals.  It not only did not disappoint, but was the best number in the show.

Not Everything was inspired by a photograph by Graciala Iturbide that caught Sansano’s attention at an exhibit in Spain.  Opening with a powerful female duet by Renée Adams (in all black) and Mónica Cervantes (in all white), he sets the mood and stage by having Adams intermittently carry a large bucket across and upstage following the path of white linoleum strips laid in an L shape.  The weight of the bucket, which we find out at the end of the duet, is loaded with red paint alludes to the heavy internal burden the woman in white (Cervantes) is carrying.  Adams pours the paint onto the white strip in a big puddle, unburdening herself before she leaves the stage.  The second section, much faster and frenetic, adds in the rest of the company dressed all in black.  The dark costumes and dark lighten sometimes made it difficult to see all of the movement.  This energetic section personified the flux the woman in white is feeling.  The choreography seemed to be controlled chaos with an underlying back and forth swaying that carries over into the final section.  That subtle, lulling, repetitive movement assures that the chaos will come to an end.  The dancing is so unique and interesting, you barely notice the white panel being slowly lifted to the left, causing the paint to run.  The third section is performed in a vertical line moving from stage left to stage right.  Cervantes, second from the front, slowly walks undeterred across the front white panel.  All the other dancers, in black, dance in front of and behind her pace in a continuous cannon reminding us of the chaos in her mind as she slowly and steadily walks forward.  The final image has Cervantes walking in front of the white panel that is now fully vertical with the paint running down recreating the picture that inspired the work.  The music, sets and dancing were all beautiful.  The final image – stunning.  Congrats to Sansano for achieving another remarkable choreographic feat.  I, for one, look forward to watching his work for many years.

The second piece, another world premiere, is inspired by the first queen of pre-modern Spain.  Asun Noales’ Juana is another dramatic, black and white dance showing the female lead’s decent into insanity.  White fabric pieces hanging from the ceiling move up and down ultimately creating the tower in which the queen is locked in by her people.  Veronica Guadalupe‘s interpretation of the mad queen was dramatic, strong and heartfelt.  Even though she doesn’t leave the stage for the entire piece, it is ther final solo that drives and haunts.  The other dancers almost seemed a distraction.  The look and feel of the work was too similar to the first piece, that my companions and I questioned whether they should’ve been back to back.  The consensus of the group I was with during the second intermission was that the two pieces were so much alike that it almost seemed as if Juana was part two of Not Everything.

The third work was a restaging of work by Michelle Mazanales about the life of Frida Kahlo.  Paloma Querida was a big hit with the Luna Negra audience when it premiered in 2010 and the work holds up.  Splashes of red and vibrant music lightened the mood created by the first two works, but there was plenty of drama and strong female dancing.  Compared to the other pieces that had a more European contemporary feel, Paloma stylistically felt like old Luna.  The company is strong and focused and heading in a really interesting, new direction.  I’m all for keeping your roots and acknowledging where you came from, but maybe it’s time for Sansano to forge ahead with his own vision.  I think the company and the audience is ready.

I want to note a few problems I had with the show.   1.  With a one-night-only show, you can’t go back to see it again and this program warrants a second viewing.  I want to see it again (especially Sansano’s work).  2.  Dedicating the season to women naturally tends to highlight the spectacular women in the company – and that is all of them! – but, the men, who are just as fascinating to watch seemed to be overlooked.  Aside from a sassy little solo by Eduardo Zuñiga in the final piece (where he literally almost danced out of his pants), the men didn’t stand out.  That’s a shame.

Preview: Luna Negra ¡Mujeres!

"Los Pollos, Juchitan, Qaxaca" (1979) by Mexican photographer Graciela Itrubide.

Luna Negra Dance Theater presents ¡Mujeres! this Saturday, October 1st at the Harris Theater.  Mujeres, or woman, is the driving force of an evening showcasing the Latina woman in various forms:  a premiere by a female Spanish choreographer about the first queen of pre-modern Spain, a reworking by a Mexican-American female choreographer about a Mexican female painter, and a premiere of a new work inspired by a female Mexican photographer.  Touted as “a celebration of globally influential Latinas”, the one-night-only show kicking off Luna’s 2011-2012 season, comes in the middle of Hispanic Heritage Month.  Featuring choreography from Artistic Director of Otra Danza, Asun Noales, former Luna dancer and Rehearsal Director of Ballet Hispanico, Michelle Manzanales as well as a world premiere from Luna Negra Artistic Director Gustavo Ramírez Sansano, the seasons opens with a bang!

Earlier this month, I sat in on rehearsal for Sansano’s new work inspired by the photograph Los Pollos, Juchitan, Qaxaca (1979) – or The Chickens – by Graciela Iturbide (shown above).  The picture captured his attention because it is her only photo in which the subject is blurred, like she’s running or trying to get somewhere.  He wanted to know why.  In Not Everything, set to music by Arvo Pärt, Sansano recreates the picture and adds context for the mood or actions that happen in the five seconds before she runs.  An ambitious goal.  “It’s like everything is good, then you get bad information and it goes from your head or brain to your heart and then your gut, then you decide to do something about it,” he explains from their State Street rehearsal studio.   “I want it to have the quality of taking you on a trip.”  It’s the moment the picture is taken that closes the dance.  Add in linoleum set pieces that will be raised to frame the stage with liquid running down in patterns and you literally have art imitating art on the stage.

Sansano is ambitious with his choreography too.  At the beginning of rehearsal, he’s cleaning a section that has at least one gesture for every count.  ”More legatto…a softer moment”, he says, working the nuance of every detail, squeezing emphasis into a phrase that seems to have no more room.  With verbal counts, the movements seem quick and hard to place together.  Run with music, it’s faster, but flows together organically.  The dancers seem to take it in stride.  Now on to the fast section, which dancer and co-rehearsal director  (she shares duties with Mónica Cervantes) Veronica Guadalupe says is “the hardest think I’ve ever done before”.  She nods to indicate that this is it.  Complex patterns, high energy movement, split-second drops to the floor with seemingly effortless recoveries, singular moments of pause only to join back into the group a few seconds later like nothing happened all to driving, dramatic music.  With the music off, you can hear the heavy breathing and almost forget how easy they made it look.  Almost.  My response was “holy s*^t!”

And that’s just the opener.  Asun Noales, in her Luna Negra debut, created a full company piece inspired by Juana la Loca (Juana the Mad).  The dramatic story of the first queen of pre-modern Spain, danced by Guadalupe, incorporates intense love, grief, richness and madness to a score by Tomás San Miguel.  Rounding out the show is a revamped version of Paloma Querida (Beloved Dove), which Luna performed right before Sansano took over directorial control from Eduardo Vilaro.  Michelle Manzanales came back to set her piece based on the work of painter Frida Kahlo on the new Luna dancers.  The was a huge hit with the audience back in 2010.  I’m curious to see it set on a different group of dancers.

I’ve been telling pretty much anyone who will listen that they need to go see Luna Negra since Sansano’s debut last fall (his Toda Una Vida was simply stunning).  Nothing against the former company, but this group of dancers under his direction is fresh, unique, surprising and super talented.  Get your tickets for Saturday’s performance before they are sold out.  I promise, it will be worth it.

¡Mujeres! – Luna Negra Dance Theater, Saturday, October 1 at 6:30 pm, Harris Theater, 205 E Randolph, $25-$65, 312.334.7777

Lar On Duets

Joffrey Ballet's Victoria Jaiani & Temur Suluashvili in "Bells". Photo by Herbert Migdoll.

At the opening night gala performance for Chicago Dancing Festival on Monday, co-founder/co-artistic director Lar Lubovitch spoke so beautifully about dance and the art of the duet. I asked his PR firm if I could obtain a copy of the poem or essay he read from only to find out that Mr. Lubovitch wrote it himself.  Here is an excerpt from his speech:

For all of the effort to do so, one cannot authentically describe dance in words, no matter how eloquent the speaker.  In fact, only dance in action can describe itself.  It’s a language for the eyes, for those who can see, and a sensation of the heart, for those who can feel.  By the same token, it is useless to attempt to sum up in words the essence of a duet.  Its meaning is embodied by its action.

Of course, language is indispensable before the act of dance can be committed.  Through hours of practice two dancers in a duet become sublimely sensitive to the transmission of the subtlest physical sensation.  And to arrive at that destination, a deluge of language has been employed, parsing words to the nth degree in order to reach their objective.  But when the resulting movement illuminates what many words have contrived to describe, no further language is necessary – or even possible.  It is then that the dancers have established the bond of trust that enables them to be free to risk everything in the hands of the other with wordless abandon.

But when the performance arrives, at the end of all the words and all the work, all former understandings fly out the door and the reality of the stage steps in.  Now the air is charged with an unfamiliar energy.  A black void exists where a mirror once stood.  The heart rate is altered and powerful shafts of light press on their bodies.  Now is the moment when speech is useless and only action counts, when the dancers minds and therefore their bodies must meet in perfect synchrony.  Once the curtain goes up and the journey has begun, they must negotiate the thicket of possibilities without a word.

This tension – this energy – this profound act of trust between two beings has been at the heart and soul of nearly every dance ever choreographed.  It is the moment when all the frenzied group action subsides and two dancers become one in a profound exhibition of freedom through trust that the human spirit is revealed and the essence of dance is made apparent.  It would not be incorrect to say that the essence of dance, and in fact all of art, is inherently love, but it would be even more accurate to say it is about belief.  The belief that all artists share, that through acts of dedication and imagination there is the possibility of a better way and therefore, a better world.