Benjamin Wardell/The Nexus Project: It’s Complicated

Benjamin Wardell and Michel Cintra.

It starts with two men working with 12 different choreographers separately, then they take the material and remix it. In the meantime, funds need to be raised, a venue found and confirmed and the final product created. Much like the mind behind The Nexus Project – it’s complicated. Benjamin Wardell is not new to the Chicago dance world. He danced with Hubbard Street Dance Chicago for four seasons in a wide range of works by Nacho Duato, Alonzo King and many by resident choreographer Alejandro Cerrudo, among others. After he left Hubbard Street, most thought he’d retired from dance and/or moved away. Lucky for us, he didn’t.

Before coming to Chicago, the Memphis-native danced for the Cincinnati Ballet and Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet. Now a freelance dancer (a touring stint with Azure Barton and Artists and currently with Lucky Plush Productions), he’s also teaching at Extensions Dance Center, Visceral Dance Center and occasionally at Lou Conte Dance Center. He’s the official videographer for Luna Negra Dance Theater and River North Dance Chicago as well as a freelance photographer. He also does repetiteur work setting piece from the Hubbard Street rep around the country and is in charge of the company’s summer intensive program in Iowa. “I’m all over the place,” he said. “For me, that’s great. My brain is in 20 places at once. Whenever I would get into a company, I would eventually feel compressed by the lack of variety. Even just going in the same building every day. Now, I’m in so may place that I stay calm to make sure I don’t forget anything. That lifestyle works better for my internal make-up.”  For the upcoming project he’s teaming up with dancer Michel Rodriguez Cintro (of Hedwig Dances) and a dozen local choreographers for an exciting and ambitious project tentatively scheduled to premiere later this fall.

RB sat down with Wardell earlier this year to talk about his career, past and present.

Hubbard Street is currently in collaboration with Alonzo King/LINES Ballet. You’ve previously said that working with Alonzo for a long period of time is transformative and that it changes the way you dance. Is it also emotionally taxing?

Yes. He pushes really hard. The work is not particularly emotive, but it’s emotionally taxing because you’re always pushing really hard. He expects you to always be generating thought. In a way, your creativity with your movement maxes out, because he always wants it to be different every time and you perform the same piece like 130 times, but if you do it the same 2 or 3 times, he’ll call you out on it. “You need to explore that section of movement in a different way.” Part of the transformation was how to get creative doing the same movements and embracing the constant change. One of the good things is it prevents that subtle death of the choreography where it starts to look comfortable.

When you decided to leave Hubbard Street, what was going through your head?

I started to realize I wasn’t built for companies. It’s becoming easier to freelance and the sound of being in control of what I was doing was appealing. I thought it was pliable for me to do. I got to the point where I’d achieved all my institutional goals. At this point, I’d rather make something new that’s a “swing and a miss” than do a masterpiece that was made for someone else. I found myself at this place where I wanted to be generating stuff rather than learning choreography. That combined with I was getting into video and photo work and wanted to explore those avenues. I needed to be on my own in a way that I could do a lot of things. I had a vague thought about wanting to produce work, but that was the least part of my original plans. 

Why did you call the new project The Nexus Project?

I’d been calling it the “Two Man Show” since it’s inception, but I though that was a little generic for product packaging. I talked to a friend of mine that does marketing and he said I should have an overarching name. “The Nexus Project” was the first thing I came up with. The idea for the project, having all the choreographers and an open rehearsal process for the second half, is that the two of us, rather than being in a bubble, are the crossing point for all the spokes.

How did you pick Michel?

He choreographed for The A.W.A.R.D.S. Show and I was like “who the fuck is this guy and how have I lived here for two years and not know him?” I saw Chino (Michel’s nickname) dance and was shocked that he would be in this city and I had no idea. So I introduced myself. I need to find another guy that I can share the stage with for an hour and be on even ground with and who is available to do the amount of rehearsals needed. That list was short, because of all the demands.

How did you pick the choreographers (*listed below)?

It took me three or four months to hash out the project, it was a pretty slow process. It started off with just wanting to explore male duets. So a two-man show, then I started to think about my particular strengths and weaknesses. I’m not good with or particularly good at generating movement. That was a bit tricky. So what if I work with other choreographers? What am I good at? Outside of dancing, my secondary talent or other interest is coordinating people and finding connections between disparate parts, partly because my brain exists in that place. The way that things connect is how I see thing. I love complexity, so I should make a complicated process, because I’m going to feel at home in it. It’s going to tap into my capacity spectrum. Part of it was wanting to deal with the hierarchy of dance. Every choreography has a different methodology, but the way dance gets made is essentially the same in terms of the choreographer coming into the room and being in charge and making a piece and then leaving. That basic structure doesn’t really change. I’ve never been in a process that has more choreographers than dancers. Let’s try that. And, frankly, I just like the number 12.

Is there a choreographic theme to the show?

No. This is one of the aspects of the show that I’m most proud of – the process. It wasn’t one of my goals, it’s something I realized had happened once the process was set. The 12 choreographers have that truly rare consequence-free environment. That have two dancers who can do pretty much anything they can come up with, who are willing to try whatever, from the most risky to the most strange. We will do whatever you ask us with zero judgment. They get 12 hours of rehearsal each and they get to keep the work, but they’ve given us permission to use them. The choreographers came from wanting to represent the community, to give credit to all the stuff going on. I want people to have total freedom. At the end of February, whether they’ve finished their piece or not, I’m done with that phase of the project and need to move onto the second, which is the remixing process, an open rehearsal process (for donors) and putting the show together. A big part of why the second part is open is that studio time is our favorite time as dancers and yet we never let anyone in. 

What are your hopes for The Nexus Project?

In terms of the final show and guaranteeing it being not terrible, priority number one is “Don’t Suck!” Especially if you’re trying something new. It’s terrifying because this is all my little new idea and I haven’t had any experience with it aside from having a choreographer set work on me. The basis of the show that will make it at the very least not a waste of time, is that they’re going to come see some good damn dancing. You’re going to see two real good male dancers who are real good at dancing with each other and can hold a 60-70 minute show no matter what we’re doing. I felt like we would get better at dancing together more quickly if we had to work with a bunch of different choreographers than if we were spending the same number of hours just doing our own thing. It’s hard to avoid self-indulgence when you’re totally in charge. Having to go from style to style, I feel like we’ve gotten to know each other’s dancing fairly quickly.

For more details on The Nexus Project and to donate to the Kickstarter campaign (ends Wednesday, Jan. 23!) click here.

*Choreographers include: Harrison McEldowney, Francisco Avina, Autumn Eckman, Robyn Mineko Williams, Julia Rhoads, Penny Saunders, Ron De Jesus, Jonathan Meyer and Julia Rae Antonick (Kechari), Nicolas Blanc, Jonathan Fredrickson, Matthew McMunn and Daniel “Brave Monk” Haywood.


Dance For Life Artist Spotlight: Lizzie MacKenzie

Dance For Life performer Lizzie MacKenzie.

“I love dance,” she said, eyes glistening with tears.  Meet Lizzie MacKenzie – a petite, blonde whose energy and blue eyes light up the room.  At 33 she has already lived lifetimes in the dance world.  When she was 12, she joined a friend for “Bring a Friend to Dance Day” in Toronto, Ontario and was hooked. “It was immediate,” MacKenzie said. “I got to kick my legs and spin around the room.  I didn’t know what I was doing, but I loved it.  From the first class I took, I knew it was what I was going to do forever.”

Since that fateful day, she graduated from Interlochen Center for the Arts, danced on scholarship and as an apprentice for Giordano Jazz Dance Chicago (now Giordano Dance Chicago – GDC) before joining the company for five seasons, studied in New York City and Los Angeles, danced with River North Dance Chicago (RNDC) for six years.  She started Extensions Dance Company while still dancing with RNDC and after “retiring” opened Extensions Dance Center.  She is also on staff at Chicago High School for the Arts, Visceral Dance Studio and Steps Dance Center (Naperville), and choreographs and performs as a freelance/independent artist.  If you’ve seen dance in Chicago in the last decade or so, you’ve seen her.  And, if you have seen her, you won’t soon forget it.  She radiates joy from the stage.

This Saturday, MacKenzie joins fellow Chicago dancers to perform in the 21st annual Dance For Life (DFL) at the Auditorium Theatre.  Dance For Life is a benefit dance performance bringing together local companies and artists for a one-night-only show to raise funding for the AIDS Foundation of Chicago and the Dancer’s Fund.  She’s performed in so many past DFL shows that she honestly can’t remember how many.  We settled on at least ten, where she participated in the finale choreographed by Randy Duncan (and one by Harrison McEldowney).  This year is no exception. MacKenzie dances in one of Duncan’s infamously difficult closing numbers and will be performing with Ron De Jesús DanceRB met MacKenzie at her studio to discuss her career and this year’s show.

What brought you to Chicago?

Nan Giordano came to Interlochen and taught a Master Class.  She offered me a scholarship for the school in Chicago.  I told my parents that I wasn’t going to go to college. They were always good about that, but they told me if I was going to be a big girl, then I was going to be a big girl and they were cutting me off.  ‘If you’re not going to do college, you’re going to support yourself.’  Literally two weeks out of high school I moved to Chicago.  I went on scholarship at Giordano Dance Center, lived in somebody’s attic without a kitchen and worked two jobs.  I wouldn’t recommend it, but it’s definitely helped form who I am. It worked for me.

Since you’re “retired”, how do you stay in fighting shape?

I use the term very loosely. I’m not retired, but I felt like it was time to retire from full-time work.  Sustaining a relationship isn’t easy.  (She’s newly engaged to chiropractor Michael Pontarelli – “Dr. Mike”.)  Not that I have that much time now, but I have more.   I’ve been freelancing.  I’m dancing with Ron (de Jesús), dancing in the finale, in Wade Schaaf’s new company Chicago Repertory Ballet, I’m going to do some work with Ahmad (Simmons) and Brandon DiCriscio. I manage to fill my time up.  I commit myself to two classes a week.  I try for three.   I try to get in whenever I can.  I teach a lot. 

You started the youth company while you were still in Rivno.  Have you always wanted to have a company?

I definitely always wanted to have a youth company. If you’d asked me a few years ago, I would’ve told you that I wanted to have a dance studio.  That changed when I was teaching so much and realized how much stuff comes along with that.  So I started the youth company, because I left a studio and a couple of kids came with me and they wanted to perform.  We needed a name and I said, “It has to be Extensions”, because that was what I was going to name my youth company, I just didn’t think it was going to happen now. I thought that would be when I was done dancing.  It started out with four girls in 2005.  I just started “Extensions Too!” And that’s for ages 8 to 11.  That was a new experience this year.  That’s why we opened the studio.  It was just a natural progression.  There was no way I could do the things I wanted to do.  I was renting space.  This is great – now I have constant access. 

 You have such a wonderful stage presence.  How do you teach that – or can you?

I have a really genuine and innate love for the art form.  I love what it has done for me.  I feel it has really brought me out of my shell.  I believe in dance as a means to communicate and movement as a means to communicate.  I’d say some really important things I try to instill in the kids to help them understand that is the love of the art form and a really open state of mind.  We work a lot on being open. We improv a lot.  We do a lot of things that allow them to really open their minds and see more. Harriet Ross once told me that every time she saw me dance it seemed new.  It always looks new.  And it always feels new.  Even today in ballet class, every thing feels new.  It’s not just another plie to me.  It’s the investigation.  A simple plie to me is amazing.  The body is so amazing and the possibilities are amazing.  From feeling the air around my skin to seeing the space with my eyes or feeling my back…the investigation of movement is fascinating to me and brings me a lot of joy. 

How is working with Ron?

I love being in process with him.  This is my third time – once w/ GDC, but twice as an independent dancer and older artist.  I love working with him.  I feel like there’s a nice balance between him appreciating who I am or who each artist in the room is as an individual, but still having a clear enough vision of what he wants that he’s able to mix them nicely.   He doesn’t down you if you make a choice that he wasn’t thinking.  He’s able to appreciate your choices, but make sure you’re meeting his vision too.

The show itself is such a community effort.  What’s dancing in the finale like?

It’s great.  I’ve never felt any stress.  This year is definitely my hardest.  The finale might be the hardest thing I’ve done in my whole life. The thing is, when you go on stage for “Dance For Life”, it’s a different feeling.  You know what the audience’s intention is for being there.  Of course, you’re a little nervous because you put an expectation on yourself, but for some reason when you step on stage, you know that even if you mess up, it’s ok.   When I’m on stage at “Dance For Life” I feel warm. I feel good.  The process is always a little daunting, because it isn’t a lot of time.

I’ve heard many dancers over the years say that Randy’s finales are always the hardest things they’ve ever done.  Why?

I think he really likes to challenge his dancers.  He has a lot of respect for the dancers he chooses and he really likes to push them, particularly physically.  It’s all in a deep, deep plié and a deep contraction.  Honestly, you don’t a lot of work like that these days.  And the cardio of it all, that’s the killer.  I literally thought I was going to throw up.

What’s in your future?

It’s always worked out for me that my future becomes very clear as I continue on my path.  Of course, I look back and think, I could’ve done this.  But I’m happy with my path.  There’s only “x” amount of years to live.  You can’t do everything.  I think I’m just going to keep doing what I’m doing.  Hopefully things will continue to grow.  I don’t want the youth company to get too much bigger.  I think we’re able to produce the quality we have, because it’s small.  The open classes have been going well.  I’ll keep dancing until I can’t anymore.  Maybe have a kid.  I really want to have babies, so that will happen sooner or later. 

Dance For Life at the Auditorium Theatre at Roosevelt Universtity, 50 E. Congress Pkwy. Saturday, August 18 at 8 pm.  For ticket information, visit



Celebrate Tax Day with Dance

Lou Conte Dance Studio is celebrating Tax Day by offering all classes on Tuesday, April 17th at a “pay-what-you-can” rate.  Sweet.  A suggested donation of $5 helps cover working costs.

That day the studio offers classes in ballet, jazz, modern, hip hop, Pilates, Zumba and yoga.  Tuesday’s schedule is here. (I highly recommend Birute’s Intermediate/Advanced Ballet at 1:45. She is awesome!)

For more information call 312.850.9766

Holiday Gifts

If you need some last minute gift ideas for the dancer/dance lover in your midst, here are some great ideas!

Get your New Year’s resolutions off on the right foot by treating  yourself to a fun workout with BeMoved‘s first fitness DVD!  Dance Bollywood along with the fabulous Sherry Zunker – $24.99.

Expand your dance knowledge by signing up for the incomparable dance writer  Lucia Mauro‘s weekly dance history webinar series!  Each session is 35 minutes and only $5 – or you can buy the season pass for the entire series (52 weeks) and earn a certificate.  Past session are available online for $3.

Russian Pointe owner Aleksandra Efimova has a delightful line of ballet-themed children’s books available at Growing Through the Arts.  Stories like The Nutcracker and Sleeping Beauty range in price from $7.95 – $24.95.

Of course, pre-paid dance classes are always a hit!  Here are a few local studios to choose from:

Lou Conte Dance Studio

Joffrey Academy of Dance

Foster Dance Studio

Visceral Dance Center

Mazi Dance Fitness Center

Joel Hall Dance Center

The Tap Studio

Chicago Multi-Cultural Dance Center

Happy Holidays!  Keep dance in your life in 2012!