Hubbard Street Does Kylian (x 4)

Jiří Kylián repetiteur Roslyn Anderson, former dancer and rehearsal director at Nederlands Dans Theater, rehearses Petite Mort with Hubbard Street Dancers Andrew Murdock, foreground, and Jason Hortin. Photo by Quinn B Wharton.

This weekend my favorite contemporary company takes on the Czech master choreographer Jiří Kylián. In their first-ever program dedicated to one artist’s work, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago presents four of Kylián’s works in their Spring Series at the Harris Theater.  Two of the works – 27″52′ and Petite Mort – will be familiar to local audiences and two are Hubbard Street premieres.

Répétiteur Roslyn Anderson, former dancer and rehearsal director at Nederlands Dans Theater (NDT), is no stranger to Chicago. She’s been coming here to set Kylián’s work on Hubbard St. – his work has been in their rep since 1998 – and The Joffrey Ballet for many years. In all, she sets about 16 of his works around the world and has worked with him, in one capacity or another, since the mid 70′s. “I told him I was interested to rehearse,” Anderson said from Hubbard Street’s West Loop studios. “I knew that from a young age that I wanted to rehearse.” Her first staging was Forgotten Land for San Francisco Ballet in the mid 80′s.

Joining Anderson to recreate these contemporary masterpieces are fellow “Kylián authorities” Urtzi Aranburu (staging), Dick Schuttel (sound design and effects), Joost Biegelaar (lighting) and Hubbard Street artistic director Glenn Edgerton, a former director of NDT. Stopping by the studios to catch Edgerton rehearsing the company’s men in Sarabande proved enlightening. As the artistic head of the company, you know he’s the brain behind the rep, but you don’t normally see him in action in the studio. He danced two roles in the work and gave insights to the dancers from a performer’s perspective.

Sarabande, a piece for 6 men, is about “exploring all aspects of masculinity”, said dancer Jesse Bechard. Grunting, shouting and crawling take a beautiful, human edge when set to Bach music. The all-female piece, Falling Angels, a throbbing, tight ensemble piece performed to live music by Third Coast Percussion, immediately follows providing the perfect compliment. The beautiful Petite Mort, set to Mozart, and the abstract, improv-driven 27’52″ round out the program although the works are presented chronologically backwards, a choreographic timeline in retrograde. “His work is so unique,” said Anderson. “The structure of this program, starting with the more recent and going backwards in time is just such a beautiful arc that people are going to see.”

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago presents their Spring Series, an All-Kylián program, at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance, Thursday, March 13 through Sunday, March16. Tickets are $25-$99; call 312.850.9744 or visit hubbardstreetdance.com/spring.

 

Hubbard Street’s 2013-2014 Season

Hubbard Street dancers Jessica Tong and Jesse Bechard in Alejandro Cerrudo's "One Thousand Pieces". Photo by Todd Rosenberg.

Kylián, Naharin, Ek, Duato, Forsythe. Five big names – perhaps the biggest – in European-based choreography will be represented by Hubbard Street Dance Chicago in the 2013-2014 season. Add in a reprise of resident choreographer Alejandro Cerrudo’s full company, Chagall-inspired One Thousand Pieces, plus a world premiere from him next June and it looks to be another amazing season for the 36-year-old troupe. All performance will be held at the Harris Theater (205 E. Randolph).

I’m super stoked about getting to see One Thousand Pieces again. I was very melancholy leaving the theater last year, after seeing it for the second time. I didn’t want it to be over. Set to music by Philip Glass, Cerrudo creates a vivid, beautifully surreal world in water, glass and blue.

Over the years, Hubbard Street has challenged me to expand and/or change my perception and likes/dislikes of choreography. Some of my favorite works now are from choreographers I had never heard of growing up in Central Illinois. It will be interesting (and fun!) to see which of the five superstar international choreographers will come out on top at the end of next season. (Front runner: Forsythe, by a hair.)

Former Hubbard Street dancer Robyn Mineko Williams, now making quite a name for herself as a choreographer, will also create a new work for the company to premiere in October. Also of note, Terence Marling will succeed Taryn Kaschock Russell as the new director of HS2 – congrats!! – and Lucas Crandall returns to Chicago to fill Marling’s former role as Hubbard Street’s rehearsal director.

Fall Series – October 10-13, 2013: Passomezzo (Ohad Naharin), new work (Robyn Mineko Williams), Casi-Casa (Mats Ek), and the Compass quintet from AZIMUTH (Alonzo King).

Winter Series - December 12-15, 2013: One Thousand Pieces (Alejandro Cerrudo).

Spring Series – March 13-16, 2014: All Kylián! Sarabande, Falling Angels, 27’52″, and Petite Mort.

Summer SeriesGnawa (Nacho Duato), Quintett (William Forsythe), world premiere (Cerrudo).

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.

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.

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.

Joffrey Sneak Peek: The Green Table

Kurt Jooss' "The Green Table". Photo by Herbert Migdoll.

This Wednesday, The Joffrey Ballet presents its fall program at The Auditorium Theatre (through Sunday, October 28). Human Landscapes delves into the human spirit with offerings from three distinctively different choreographic voices from three different eras. James Kudelka’s Pretty BALLET was created for the Joffrey dancers in 2010, Jirí Kylián’s Forgotten Land in 1981 and Kurt Jooss’ anti-war ballet, The Green Table, was created  in 1932. While the first two show how ballet has grown in the contemporary realm in recent decades, the latter strips ballet down to the bare essentials.

 Kudelka has the dancers pushing limits of endurance and questioning the necessary beauty of ballet (much of Pretty BALLET isn’t traditionally pretty), while Kylián challenges dancers to push past safe classical style and to go for moves that are off-center. Jooss uses simple steps and gestures to create strong, human feelings. Artistic Director Ashley Wheater loves the juxtaposition of the three works and says the evening will take you on an emotional journey.

I spoke with Wheater and Jeanette Vondersaar, who is here working with the dancers and setting The Green Table: A Dance of Death in Eight Scenes at Joffrey Tower in late September. Vondersaar was a principal dancer with the Dutch National Ballet in Amsterdam for 21 years and has been restaging The Green Table (originally assisting Jooss’ oldest daughter Anna Markard) since 1995. The Joffrey has included Table in its repertoire since 1967. “I actually saw that performance in ’67 in New York,” said Vondersaar. “I was a trainee with the Harkness School for Ballet Arts. It impressed in my mind, especially the role of ‘Death’. I’ll never forget that.”

What is it about this ballet? Was it something no one had seen before?

AW: It goes back to the danse macabre. You go back culturally to how death…what’s the role it plays in our lives?

JV: It’s inevitable.

AW: It is. It doesn’t matter, you can be the richest person in the world, but we all have to go.

JV: Kurt Jooss was inspired by the medieval dances of death. How he (Death) took those victims from different walks of life and ages. He was fascinated with how he took victims, sometimes violently and sometimes more compassionately. At that time it was between two world wars and he was against the war and what happens after to the people who have suffered from the war. It shows that too. It depicts the whole story.

AW: It was very clear that even though the first World War was over that there was another war looming. And I think if you look at history, there’s always another war.

JV: It’s very relevant. The table scene is the diplomats and the politicians who decide to go to war, but they don’t participate themselves. But at the end, it repeats as if nothing happened, so it’s looming. They don’t learn anything from what happened and a lot of them don’t care.

AW: I would say that The Green Table is such an important piece of work. It has a very clear point of view and it’s not apologetic, yet it’s got so much clarity around it. It’s a very clear statement.

JV: It’s an anti-war statement.

Stylistically, what is different about this ballet?

JV: It’s based on classical ballet. In classical ballet you have a breath or an uplift before a movement and in his movements, they go direct with no preparation. It’s right to the point. The most simple movements…even just the focus of how you look using your eyes. Or your hands and how you open them. If you have your fingers bent, it changes the whole feeling of this openness and this reaching with an open hand an an open heart. This is the kind of thing he developed. It’s so simple and yet so beautiful in its simplicity.

AW: People try to say it’s German Expressionism. I think it’s expressive in that it’s choreographed. He has expressed everything about each character and it’s all done through movement. Movement that’s not complicated. It’s hard to do, but it’s not complicated. There’s no flourish. It is really condensing an emotion to a very straight-forward level.

JV: And within that shows the character.

The Joffrey Ballet presents Human Landscapes at the Auditorium Theatre at Roosevelt University, 50 E. Congress Pkwy., Wednesday, October 17 through Sunday, October 28 (dates and times vary). Tickets are $31 to $152. Call 800.982.2787 or visit ticketmaster.com

 

Wunderkind Whittenburg

Zachary Whittenburg - photo by Todd Rosenberg.

If you’re at all familiar with the Chicago dance scene, you know his name.  He’s been a dancer, choreographer, teacher, student, panel moderator, writer, critic and “insatiable audience member.” Locally, he’s danced with Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, Lucky Plush Productions, Same Planet Different World Dance Theatre and Molly Shanahan/Mad Shak. After graduating high school two years early at age 16, he moved to Seattle to train at Pacific Northwest Ballet School and joined the company at 18. After three years at PNB performing works by choreographers ranging from George Balanchine to William Forsythe, he moved cross-country to dance with North Carolina Dance Theatre, where he was a soloist for a season before coming to Chicago to dance with Hubbard Street for two years.

He then traveled for a year performing Crystal Pite’s choreography with Les Ballets jazz de Montréal. He’s also written for many publications and websites including Flavorpill, See Chicago Dance, Windy City Times, Hoy Chicago, Time Out Chicago, Dance Magazine, Pointe Magazine, Dance International magazine (where he recently got the cover story!), Dance Teacher magazine, Dance Spirit magazine as well as his own blog, trailerpilot. Zac Whittenburg: wunderkind, indeed.

Now, Whittenburg is taking his career in a new direction. Almost a decade after dancing with Hubbard Street, he returns to join the external affairs team at the beginning of an exciting landmark season that will include a full-length world premiere by resident choreographer Alejandro Cerrudo, a work by Swedish choreographer Mats Ek and a collaboration with Alonzo King LINES Ballet.

I spoke with him over Labor Day weekend, just before he started in his new position.

When you danced with Hubbard Street, which choreographer or pieces were your favorites or that you had a deep experience with?


I’ll never forget the experience of learning “Minus 16″ [by Ohad Naharin]. It’s probably the piece I performed most when I was in the company. I might’ve done over 100 performances of it in two years. It’s such an extraordinary piece. It asks so much of the dancers as artists. We did a piece by Jirí Kylían for five dancers called “No More Play.” It runs like a wristwatch, the way the characters and the vocabulary intersect with each other, and how the sections turn from one into the next. I’d never been so close to something that was built that way. I learned so much about choreography just by being involved with that.

Why did you leave Hubbard Street?


Well, there are two answers to that question. A dancer’s career is very short, and things run their course. And it was around the time that I became aware of Crystal Pite’s choreography. I saw a video of “Short Works: 24,” which I think was the first piece she made while she was in residence [at Les Ballets jazz de] Montréal. I was aware of her when she was a member of Frankfurt Ballet, which sort of became today’s Forsythe Company, but hadn’t seen her choreography before. I wasn’t aware of the things she was doing using Forsythe’s movement vocabulary in a dance theater context. I thought that was really fascinating, and that she was doing it with a lot of intelligence and humor. I wanted to work with her. I had the wonderful fortune of doing Crystal’s evening-length work ["The Stolen Show"] all over Canada and in Asia and in the United States. To get to see so much of the world, and to have the reason for that travel be that you’re bringing this work to audiences all over…it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. There was a sense of purpose. A feeling that we were a company of ambassadors for contemporary dance.

Let’s talk about your new gig at Hubbard Street. What is your official job title and what will you be doing?


I’m going to be the company’s manager of communication. I have a pretty good understanding of what I’ll be doing, but of course, I’m not in the chair yet. It’s a great position because there are a lot of different angles to it. A large part of it is press relations and working with media outlets to get the word out about what the company is doing. That said, that comes in a variety of flavors. The conversations that I had in the interview process…we were talking about how the media landscape is changing. Part of this job is going to be working on getting the word out about a company when the channels about how the word gets out about a contemporary dance company like Hubbard Street are changing. There are new channels opening, old channels closing, a whole new landscape of how people receive information. I’m thrilled to walk into the challenge of, how do you work with that, and how do you get the most out of what the current media landscape is, anticipate how it’s going to change in the future and use all of that to your advantage, to make sure people know what Hubbard Street is doing, make sure they are aware of the variety of things we do in addition to the production and stage work, and how those things relate to one another. I’m excited to talk about our partnerships with other institutions and put stories in places where the company hasn’t been covered before.

You’re coming in right at the beginning of the 35th Anniversary Season, which is a big deal. What do you expect to be doing on day one?


I know I have a meeting on Tuesday morning with some other managers. It’s great that literally the first thing I’ll do is touch base with people in other departments to see what they’re doing and what they have planned for the near future. I haven’t been in that building very much in the last eight years. I have a lot of catching up to do, not only meeting the people that make the magic happen, but what the company’s overall strategies are. There are a lot of things that I’ve already learned about the 35th Anniversary season and there’s a lot more that I don’t know yet, so I imagine a lot of it will be about finding my place in relation to all those initiatives, cooperating with the other team members and figuring out how I can help them.

You know I like to joke around about how we’re arch nemeses, but I hope you really know that I’m a huge fan. Your voice, not only in the Chicago dance scene, but nationally, is really important and you have a big fan base, so what does your new job mean for trailerpilot?

The blog still exists. When I was full-time at Time Out Chicago, I wasn’t posting a lot. At this point, I’ve got 426 posts on the blog. It’s a big archive and I will continue to make the annual payments to make sure people can find it. I’ve always been interested in things other than just dance and choreography. I’m glad I’ll still have a place, where, if I go see a film and really have something to say about it, I can. My voice will still be out there, I’m still on Twitter, although long form writing about dance isn’t appropriate while I’m manager of communication for a dance company. I think, just in going back over my career with you, over the phone this morning, it’s just been one episode after another of all of these different things I’ve done, and all of my various experiences constantly coming back around and intersecting and sort of morphing together in new ways. Writing is one of those things. I’m certain that will continue. I don’t have my mouth stapled shut, but Hubbard Street is going to be the star in my sky. I love the company. I love where it’s been and where it’s going. I’m really looking forward to helping them get in front of more people and new audiences.


CDF 12 Artist Spotlight: Hubbard Street’s Jesse Bechard

HSDC dancers Jesse Bechard & Ana Lopez in  Jirí Kylían's
HSDC dancers Jesse Bechard & Penny Saunders w/ Nacho Duato.  Photo by Igor Larin.
HSDC dancer Jesse Bechard.  Photo by Cheryl Mann.
HSDC
HSDC Penny Saunders & Jesse Bechard in
HSDC Jesse Bechard & Jacqueline Burnett in
HSDC Jesse Bechard & Ana Lopez in

The studios at Hubbard Street Dance Chicago (HSDC) were eerily quiet last week.  The dancers were on a well-deserved break and the staff was holed up in their offices busily preparing for the upcoming season (rehearsals started yesterday).  Fresh off a three-week trip to Costa Rica, dancer Jesse Bechard agreed to meet with me before taking an afternoon ballet class.  After spending an hour chatting with the 31-year-old, this is what I know. He’s smart, funny, loyal, curious, an avid reader, and a self-proclaimed news junkie. He plays drums, he loves kale – and, let’s be honest – he’s pretty easy on the eyes.

Bechard grew up in the Northeast (Connecticut, Massachusetts) and cites seeing Baryshnikov dance on tv as his impetus to start dancing.  Here’s the Cliff Notes of his early career:  danced in various Nutcrackers and recitals; quit dancing during the middle schools years to focus on academics and play sports like soccer, basketball and lacrosse; started dancing again at 16/junior year of high school; went to Walnut Hill School for the Arts for his senior year; attended Boston Ballet summer programs; quit dancing again to go to college (one year at University of Chicago); moved to New York City to dance (and wait tables); apprenticed with Ballet Austin for a year; joined Richmond Ballet in Virginia where he danced for eight years.  Whew!  “I didn’t have that much exposure when I was growing up dancing,” he said.  “The things that were put in front of me as goals were all these white tights things.  I didn’t know what was going on in Europe.  I’d seen Hubbard Street, but I didn’t know about NDT (Nederlands Dans Theater).  In the early 2000′s I went to see NDTII and that really changed my trajectory substantially.  ‘Well, there it is!  That’s what I’d like to do.’  I remember the next day in class, my whole motivation and what I was focusing on had really shifted overnight.  I never really had that much of a desire to be the prince at all.  You always idolize Baryshnikov.  He’s beautiful. He does incredible things.  But I don’t think I was built for that.  It’s an interesting point when you come to the realization of what you want to do and what your body is aesthetically built for.”

The “third time is a charm” adage rang true to for Bechard and his bumpy adventure to reach HSDC.  He auditioned for three times before everything worked out.  The beginning of the financial crisis, other contract obligations and lack off an opening in the company all delayed his debut with HSDC until August of 2010.  In 2011, Bechard performed at the Chicago Dancing Festival (CDF) for the Moderns (Sharon Eyal and Gai Behar’s Too Beaucoup) and Masters (Jiri Kylían’s Petite Mort) programs.  This year he’s scheduled to perform Twyla Tharp’s Scarlatti in the Chicago Dancing program on Monday, August 20, and Ohad Naharin’s Tabula Rasa in the closing night’s Celebration of Dance on Saturday, August 25.  (Casting may change.)  Here are some excerpts from our chat.

The first thing I remember seeing you in was Nacho Duato’s Arcangelo.  Since then, it seems like you’ve been in everything.  Who were some of your favorite choreographers to work with or favorite pieces?

Nacho was really fun to work with. It was really fun to work with Yoshi (Fumi Inao), who came to set Ohad’s  (Naharin) work.  ”Too Beaucoup” was a really difficult process for me.  I was new.  I’d only been in the company six months at that point and certain things, like Nacho’s piece were within my comfort zone.  Then we come in and have this crazy Israeli woman dancing around asking you what you got out of that.  You get to a point in this company where you get much better at learning the way that things operate.  It’s not often in a ballet company that someone will come in and do something and ask what you got from it, so you learn a lot more how to interpret what you do.  We do a massive amount of improvisation.  If you make it up and it looks convincing, it will probably work.  It’s true.  If you’re tentative and hesitant, that reads.  But if you’re like this is what I’m going to do, that’s a choice.  It really doesn’t have to be right, it just has to be what you intend to do.  You can take risks and something can happen that you didn’t intend, but you have to make it happen.  As you get more comfortable with that it becomes more enjoyable.  In her process, I was not quite used to that and her movement style is…insane.  The process was cool, but it wasn’t my favorite process, but now it is one of my favorite pieces to perform in terms of the visceral experience as a dancer.  You’re in this unitard, you have contacts on, you have a wig on, you’re dancing to this killer music with these awesome lights and you’re just one little cog in the wheel. It’s awesome for your brain.  You’re just in there, talking to yourself.  You have to count everything.  There’s 9 of these and 14 of these and 12 of these. I think that’s the piece with the biggest difference between how much I enjoy doing it and how much I enjoyed the process. I love Sharon and Gai, they were really cool, but the process was really hard.

“Petite Mort” (Jirí Kylían) – that’s another thing you want to check off the list in your dance career.  That’s one that for most dancers, you really, really want to do. It’s almost a perfect piece.  It’s concise, it’s short.  It’s not overdone.  It is so insanely musical and so simple.  The whole men’s section…getting six guys to breathe together.

When you all turn around that first time and swipe the sword…it’s such a great moment.

That’s definitely one of the most stressful things…walking down with it balanced on your finger.  Finding that balance point is difficult.  You get good at it, but when the curtain opens up, there is a shift in air and then you’re trying to walk backwards, downstage and find your mark and look at the other person, then lower your sword down and as you lower it, trying to keep it balanced on your finger. I love dancing in silence with only the sounds of the swords.  There’s such a cool internal rhythm to it. 

Alejandro’s (Cerrudo) stuff feels really good to do.  The movement feels really nice.

Does his work become shorthand after a while, since you’ve worked with him so much? 

It becomes much easier to know what he wants.  I think it’s like that with a lot of choreographers.  You know what they like to see.  Not even what they like to see, it’s not about ass-kissing or pleasing someone, but you kind of have an idea of what aesthetic they’re shooting for, so you can just get to it quicker.

The Forsythe piece in the Summer Series was amazing.  You were in both casts.  How did you get through that week?  

It was really difficult.  That was a hard program.  I drank a lot of Pedialyte.

What was the learning process like for Quintett?

The people that he sent – Thomas (McManus), Stephen (Galloway) and Dana (Caspersen) – they were fantastic.  None of us really knew what to expect when they came in.  That process was great.  I really enjoyed working with them. I think what Thomas was asking me to do and trying to get out of me and everybody felt massively different from the beginning to the end.  And then it felt massively different from when we did it here and at ADF. 

Did you get to meet William Forsythe at the American Dance Festival? 

Yeah, he worked with us.  He comes in wearing jean, sneakers and a tee shirt. He’s a totally quirky, awesome, incredibly laid-back guy.  I’ve heard that he can really not be that way, but anyone who is trying to create something can go a little crazy. He wasn’t like “Forsythe”.  He was joking about himself and totally mellow. He was super encouraging.  In that piece, because of the nature of the music and the movement, you really are supposed to go for it as much as you can.  And if something happens that didn’t happen before?  See where it goes.  

At the Harris, I’m pretty sure I saw you slide off the stage at one point.

I fell at one point.  I was running and sliding and hit a tape mark.  But honestly, that could be the movement. 

There was something different about that work.  Even in rehearsals, if was the first time I saw you guys laughing and having fun in rehearsal. Not that you don’t have fun, but everyone seemed really laid back and you seemed to be having such a good time, especially on stage.

It makes you smile.  We don’t have a lot of smiling pieces.  It feels like that when you’re doing it.  We weren’t putting that on.  In rehearsals, you’re kind of like – gasp! – dying, but on stage, it makes you smile. The fact that it was made right after his first wife passed away, you thought it was sort of memorial, but it’s a celebration of life and memory.  Working with them there was no stress.  There was so much respect.

So, Twyla. What was it like working with her? 

It’s another one of these “icon” people.  She was great.  She was super fun to work with.  She a little ball of energy.  She could power a city.  She 71 now. She was jumping on me and wrapping herself around me – totally off the floor.  I’m there with Twyla hanging off of me thinking ‘I can’t drop her. This is a lawsuit waiting to happen.’  She’s so professional and has such a specific style and procedure of working. She’s a workhorse.  She didn’t take lunch.  She would have lunch brought to her and stagger our lunches, so we could have lunch, but she could continue working throughout the day.  

How is dancing Scarlatti?  

It’s a fun piece to do.  It’s entirely different than “Quintett”.  In “Quintett”, you want to really throw yourself at it.  ”Scarlatti”, you throw yourself at it too, but there are parts that are much lighter on the floor.  It is super musical, so it’s fun to dance.  I think it’s exactly what she intended it to be.  It exactly fits the music. I’d like to work with her again.  

Chicago Dancing Festival 2012 runs August 20 – 25.  For more information, visit chicagodancingfestival.com.

Slideshow Photo Credits:

Bechard with Ana Lopez in Jirí Kylían’s “Petite Mort”.  Photo by Cheryl Mann.

Bechard in “Arcangelo” rehearsal with Penny Saunders and Nacho Duato.  Photo by Igor Larin.

Bechard headshot by Cheryl Mann.

Bechard in Jonathan Fredrickson’s “Untitled Landscape”. Photo by Todd Rosenberg.

Bechard and Penny Saunders in William Forsythe’s “Quintett”. Photo by Cheryl Mann.

Bechard and Jacqueline Burnett in Alejandro Cerrudo’s “Malditos”. Photo by Todd Rosenberg.

Bechard and Ana Lopez in Alejandro Cerrudo’s “Little Mortal Jump”. Photo by Todd Rosenberg.

 

 

 

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.  

Changing Scenes

Jonathan Dummar in "The Nutcracker". Photo by Herbert Migdoll.

“I’ll be home for Christmas this year,” said a happy Jonathan David Dummar over coffee this past summer.  After dancing with the Joffrey Ballet for six seasons, Dummar, 27, decided it was time for a change of scenery and moved to San Francisco in August to dance with Smuin Ballet.  He’s currently performing in their annual show The Christmas Ballet.  No  Nutcracker?  “I’m so thankful for that,” he laughs.  “Don’t get me wrong, I love Tchaikovsky…and, by the way Joffrey’s is the best!  Bob (Joffrey) and Jerry (Arpino) really knew what they were doing. I’m so proud to be a part of the legacy of the Joffrey.”

From Reno, Nevada, Dummar began taking dance classes after being invited into his sister’s class by her teacher.  She had seen him watching from the window and trying to do the moves.  The physical child, who participated in gymnastic, swimming and diving, was hooked.  To avoid competition, his mom enrolled the children in different dance schools.  His very first teacher, Ava Kerr, basically changed his life.  “She was so fundamental,” he says.  “She taught me so much.  She had me partnering within two weeks.”  From there he participated in dance competitions, spent summers in LA at the Edge Performing Arts Center on scholarship, Pacific Northwest Ballet‘s (PNB) summer program and on to The Harrid Conservatory to finish high school.  “The training at Harrid is rigorous.  It’s boarding/ballet school.  They really helped me hone a lot of things and gave me a good base.  I’m a completely different dancer now.”  After graduating valedictorian, Dummar danced with PNB’s professional division until an ankle injury ended in surgery.  After healing, he danced two years with Ballet Memphis, where he met choreographer Trey McIntyre and became a founding member of the Trey McIntyre Project.  Feeling that he wasn’t utilizing his ballet technique fully, he auditioned for the Joffrey and joined the company in 2005.

At the Joffrey A Starry Night party after the final show of the season, I approached Dummar having just found out at the performance that it would be his last with the troupe.  “You should interview me,” he said.  A few weeks later, we sat down to discuss his career.

So, why did you decide to leave Joffrey now?

I’ve been here for six years.  The company is skewing younger and more classical all the time and I’m going in the opposite direction.  I’m really thankful for the opportunities that I got.  My values are changing and they aren’t necessarily aligned with where Ashley is taking the company.  Ashley taught me a lot.  He gave me a lot of opportunities.  I’m really appreciative and grateful.  I feel really glad about what I did, but I can’t wait to start this next chapter.  There’s a lot of personal reasons too.   I’m from the West Coast.  I’ve been away from home for 11 years.  I’m ready to be closer to family.  San Francisco is like the promise land of the new age.  There’s organic produce on every corner, the yoga there is amazing, they compost, they have clean energy…I was so impressed with all of that.  It finally feels like I’m finally making a decision for me as a whole person.  It’s kind of selfish, but all of the things I’ve done to grow and learn and do what I wanted to do.  Now I can take it and share it with my family.

Well, I ‘m going to miss watching you dance.  What have been some of your favorite pieces at Joffrey?

“Round of Angels” has been one of my favorite things I’ve ever performed.  The Arpino rep is really fun.  You watch it and it’s easy to be critical, but when you do it, it’s so fun…fast and hard.  It’s part of dance history.  “Crossed” by Jessica Lang.  I really liked “Bells” (Yuri Possokhov).  When I first joined, Fabrice (Calmels), Val (Robin) and I did Kylían’s “Return To a Strange Land”.  We did the pas de trois.  It was a very emotional piece.  It was a fantastic opportunity.

Tell me about Smuin Ballet. 

Michael Smuin is the former Artistic Director of San Francisco Ballet.  He wanted some more artistic freedom and wanted to do some things the board wasn’t in to, so he left and started his own company.  He was a Broadway choreographer before he did ballet, so all of his works are more showy, more dancy.  He died about three years ago. It was horrifically tragic for the company.  He was very much the lifeblood.  He died in the studio teaching class of a heart attack.  Everyone talks about him with so much reverance.  The company is going in a new direction.  We’re doing Trey McIntyre, some Kylían, lots of premieres, and a few by Michael Smuin.  It’s a smaller company.  I know I’ll be more valuable.  Some of the ballerinas there deserve a really strong, attentive partner.  I have some friends in the company. It was just an overall feeling.  I went and auditioned and thought this is where I need to be.  It was perfect timing with the Joffrey lock out.

What’s in your future?

I want to direct.  I know that’s in my future.  I know there’s an intellectual side that I’ll need to cultivate, but I think you can do that with dance.  Absolutely.  I’ve been to some modern shows and the ideas they present are incredible.  Ballet doesn’t even come close to presenting these ideas and I think they can.  I think further integration of these disparate kinds of dance is completely possible.  I’d love to work with Alonzo (King) at some point.