Watch Out For Team McQueen!

Dancer/choreographer Jeremy McQueen. Photo by Eduardo Patino.

If you haven’t heard of Jeremy McQueen; you will. The New York-based dancer/choreographer has had quite a year – and it’s only June! McQueen was one of three choreographers to win Joffrey Ballet‘s Choreographers of Color Award (2013), culminating in the world premiere of his Black Iris at the Harris Theater this past March. Last week he wrapped up teaching a workshop for Motion 41 Dance in Omaha, Nebraska, while last Friday, his new work Au bord de l’eau (At the water’s edge) premiered at Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri. Later this summer, he’ll present a new commissioned work at the Fire Island Dance Festival along with nine other choreographers including Lar Lubovitch and Christopher Wheeldon. In August, he competes as a finalist (for the second year in a row) for Capezio’s Award for Choreographic Excellence (ACE).

McQueen grew up in San Diego, California and began studying music (violin, flute, piano) at an early age and by eight was active in children’s theater. It wasn’t until he was picked on and bullied in 6th grade P.E. class that he opted to take dance as an alternative. While attending a performing arts high school for music, his love of dance really took hold. He then attended the Ailey School/Fordham University, graduating in 2008 with a B.F.A. in Dance. “I just kind of threw myself into a professional career auditioning for whatever,” said McQueen. “I always talk about being well-rounded, so I do see myself as a dancer, but I also do music and theater. I kept my skills up in those areas, so that when I graduated I might have a better shot with different opportunities. I didn?t know what door would open first.” His musical theater background served him well. He was cast in Contact in a Boston-area theater, did two years of the Radio City Christmas Spectacular as well as the national tours of The Color Purple and Wicked. “I always tell people I know what it means to persevere and have patience and faith,” he said. “Wicked was always a show I wanted to be in. I auditioned about nine times over the course of four years before I got the job, but here I was at 23 and I was in the show.”

Leaving the cast without another job lined up was a leap of faith for McQueen, but he was ready to pursue other dreams and goals. Earlier, in 2008, while frustrated with the “audition grind” and missing concert dance, he had gathered a group of friends to “play” in the studio in between projects to see what he could do creating choreography. That turned into a project-based company affectionately called “Team McQueen” and proved to be a blessing after he left the touring circuit. This Friday, Team McQueen will dance (again, for the second year in a row) on the outdoor Inside/Out stage at Jacob’s Pillow. “Choreography was a creative outlet I wanted to explore. I knew that was a long-term goal of mine,” he said. “I really didn’t have a lot of expectations when I started. I wanted to see what I could say with it, not necessarily what I could do or get. I love seeing my vision come to life on stage. It’s been the greatest experience of my life to see my own voice develop through other people.”

For Jacob’s Pillow, McQueen and Team will be presenting three works. Black Iris, the classic, contemporary ballet piece (en pointe) McQueen created on the Joffrey Academy dancers earlier this year, was inspired by artist Georgia O’Keeffe’s painting Black Iris III and represents the strong black women in his life including his mother, godmother and aunt. Dancer Nardia Boodoo, who originated the role in Chicago, will again be the lead. Also dancing in the work, is former Joffrey dancer Brian Gephart, who danced for two seasons with the Atlantic Ballet Theatre of Canada and recently moved to New York City. Gephart and McQueen met in 2006 while attending the San Francisco Ballet summer program and reconnected in April. “It’s such a treat to get to work with someone with that uniquely Broadway-grounded eye for detail and precision and yet have the movement quality from Ailey in the same person,” Gephart said (via email). Gephart is also the lead in another work on the program, an excerpt from a full-length work titled What Lies Within. This piece for seven male dancers has six of them representing the lead dancer’s insecurities. “It’s been a fabulous creation process of letting me explore movement based on my ballet foundation, where I feel so at home, but ultimately working to strip it down to a more pedestrian, relatable place,” he said. “It’s one of those special opportunities where the role pushes you as an artist to something beyond just technique and turns. Making it be ‘human’ and not a ‘dancer’ has been delightfully a stretch for me.”

The final work on the program – the aforementioned Au bord de l’eau – was created in residency with the Ailey School and Stephen’s College and pays tribute to women fighting breast cancer. McQueen has a close friend that is going through this struggle and her beauty and strength inspired him. Discolored nails, losing your hair and even your breast(s) are obvious and notable side effects. “When you go through chemotherapy, you’re in a big room with other people that are in your same situation. There’s a sense of community and mutual support,” he said. “This pays tribute to the courage that women go through in their quest to maintain their femininity during breast cancer.” The all-female piece has the dancers clad in long, pink chiffon skirts, nude bras and 29″ wigs.

The 27-year-old choreographer tends to tackle social issues that have effected his life. And with all his recent success, it doesn’t look like he’ll be stopping any time soon. “People constantly ask me if this is where I thought I’d be at this point in my life. I always tell them no,” said McQueen. “I’ve completely exceeded my expectations of anything I thought I could do. This year has been a blessing. To really see these opportunities unfold has been incredible. I feel so blessed. I?m really trying to live in the moment and enjoy it.”

The Jacob’s Pillow performance will take place Friday, June 28 at 6 pm on the Henry J. Leir Stage and Marcia & Seymour Simon Performance Space, 358 George Carter Road, Becket, MA. Tickets are free.

CDF12: Chicago Dancing

The Chicago Dancing Festival (CDF) kicked off its sixth year with a performance showcasing local talent. ?CDF Board Chair David Herro welcomed the audience and took a few minutes to talk about the origins of the fest and its mission. ?He said it’s threefold: 1) to make Chicago a national and international dance destination, 2) to keep elevating the dance form and building an audience by providing the best dance at the lowest possible cost – free!, and 3) to provide a forum, a place where these dancers can come together and watch each other perform. ?Mission accomplished.

Our dance-loving Mayor was up next, introduced by Herro as “probably the only Mayor in the United States that can do a proper pli?”. ?(True and something I’m not ashamed to say I’m particularly proud of.) ?Rahm Emanuel took the mic, quipping that his pli? talent came in handy in the City budget meetings. ?While introducing the opener of the show – a performance by After School Matters Hip Hop Culture Dance Ensemble, a program started by the late First Lady Maggie Daley – the current Mayor acknowledged the Daley family in the audience and said the work’s title Touch of Soul was perfect because “dance is the hidden language of the soul. ?I can’t think of a better tribute to the soul of our city, Maggie Daley”. ?Mayor Emanuel finished by thanking the family – “from the entire city, thank you for sharing her with us”. (Tear.) ?That beautiful, but melancholy moment was short lived, because seconds later, 31 young dancers dressed in white took the stage in a world premiere by choreographer Nicholas Leichter with such energy and enthusiasm that the audience was whooping with joy.

Hometown heavy-hitters Hubbard Street Dance Chicago (HSDC) technically tantalized in the epic, exhaustive Scarlatti. ?Choreographed for HSDC by Twyla Tharp in 2011, this work for twelve dancers is a testament to speed and stamina. ?In their CDF debut, Giordano Dance Chicago (GDC) paired up with Swedish choreographer Alexander Ekman for a humorous duet featuring lead dancers Maeghan McHale and Martin Ortiz Tapia about life and love, but not necessarily a happy ending. ?(Great job Maeghan and Martin!) ?Intermission was abuzz with conversation, the packed theater a mass of movement, hand shakes and hugs.

The Joffrey Ballet opened Act II with William Forsythe’s In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated. ?This contemporary masterpiece from 1987 changed the way people thought of ballet. ?The stark set, the off-center partnering, the hyper-flexibility and “I don’t care” attitude wowed audiences then and continue to now. ?Dancer Rory Hohenstein’s multiple, multiple pirouettes amazed. ?(He later attributed them to a slippery stage.) ?The finale of the show was a collaboration with choreographer Larry Keigwin, a few of his dancers and everyday Chicagoans. ?Introduced by CDF co-founders Jay Franke and Lar Lubovitch, Bolero Chicago was a tribute to our city. ?Big and small, short and tall, the dancers in this piece represented everyone. ?A lady reading a newspaper, a woman walking her dog, a passerby smoking a cigarette, a commuter biking to work, a cluster holding on for balance on a bumpy el ride, and a man in drag losing a battle with his umbrella and the wind. ?Bears, Bulls, Cubs and Sox tees – even Benny the Bull merrily flipping around the stage. ?Illuminated cell phones lit the stage before bows were replaced by the “everyday” contingent jamming out on stage.

Chicago Dancing had something for everyone and everyone liked something different. Perfect.

Chicago Dancing Festival 2012

Martha Graham Dance Co dancer Xiaochuan Xie on the Pritzker stage.

The Chicago Dancing Festival (CDF) hits Chicago stages for a week of free dance performances again this August.? Now in its sixth year, CDF – the brainchild of Lar Lubovitch and Jay Franke – is expanding (again) to six days of events with new programs and a couple of commissioned world premieres to boot!? RB will be part of CDF’s blogger initiative for the second year, bringing you sneak peeks, dancer/choreographer interviews, event coverage, reviews and wrap ups.? I’ll also be live-Tweeting pre- and post-event coverage for the Fest complete with photos, behind-the-scenes happenings and audience quotes.

New to the fest this year is an all-Chicago program, Chicago Dancing, featuring local faves Hubbard Street Dance Chicago (HSDC) and Joffrey Ballet and three CDF commissioned works.? Giordano Dance Chicago (note the new name!) makes its CDF debut in a work by Swedish choreographer Alexander Ekman.? New York-based choreographer Nicholas Leichter will work with the After School Matters students to create a world premiere honoring the memory of Maggie Daley, former first lady of Chicago, who started the program in 1991.? A two-week residency led by Larry Keigwin blends dancers and non-dancers from Chicago into a world premiere, Bolero Chicago.? Keigwin’s new work, set to Ravel’s most famous score, will incorporate local movement traits for a uniquely Chicago piece.? New groups performing at the fest this year include Pacific Northwest Ballet and Ballet Arizona, along with returning companies San Francisco Ballet, Houston Ballet, New York City Ballet, Martha Graham Dance Company and Brian Brooks Moving Company.

A partnership with Chicago SummerDance, the city’s outdoor dancing series, for Dancing Under the Stars and prolific local dance writer Zac Whittenburg leads a lecture demonstration, Chicago Now, with local companies at the MCA Stage.? Programming for both of these event to be announced at a later date. ? A day of Dancing Movies also takes place at the MCA with films including PINA, All Is Not Lost, Two Seconds After the Laughter and Fanfare for Marching Band curated by local artist Sarah Best.? The fest always ends with a Celebration of Dance at the outdoor Pritzker Pavilion stage in Millennium Park showcasing a number of artists that have performed throughout the week.

Tickets for all of the events are free, however, you do need to reserve seating for the indoor theaters in advance.? These will “sell out” very fast!? More information on tickets will be available the week of July 16th.