HS2′s Taryn Kaschock Russell: The Exit Interview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tell me about the transition from dancing to artistic staff.

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

What is your teaching/mentoring philosophy?

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

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

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

What’s in your future in New York?

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

 

Hubbard St Shatters Own Glass Ceiling

Hubbard St dancer Jonathan Fredrickson in Alejandro Cerrudo's "One Thousand Pieces". Photo by Todd Rosenberg.

The lights dim, the audience settles and music begins to play. The tone is set for an evening of wonder and Hubbard Street Dance Chicago does not disappoint. One Thousand Pieces, inspired by Marc Chagall’s America Windows at the Art Institute of Chicago, celebrates the company’s 35th anniversary season with the first full-length work for the company and the first full-evening work by one choreographer – resident choreographer Alejandro Cerrudo – around a central theme. Bringing both the main company and HS2 dancers on stage together for this world premiere, Cerrudo takes this world-renowned company to a new level of its ever-reaching creative heights.

The curtain opens at the Harris Theater to a lone dancer (Jonathan Fredrickson, hanging briefly on to the ascending curtain) in front of stunning visuals. Blue hues flood the stage highlighting moveable set pieces, some opaque, some clear, some reflective, that look like staggered pieces of glass. A special mirrored Marley floor adds to the reflection/glass theme. Costumes are subdued with dark sheer tunics with a hint of pink or blue underneath for the ladies and dark blue pants with sheer black shirts for the men. The score, a collage of music from Philip Glass and designed by Cerrudo, completes the mood. Once the awe of the scene takes hold. The audience is ready for the dance.

Dancers slide in and out of duets, trios and group work with control and ease. Cerrudo features some – Ana Lopez and Garrett Anderson in frequent, lovely duets threaded throughout, Fredrickson, Jacqueline Burnett, Jessica Tong, Meredith Dincolo and Jesse Bechard – but it’s the moments with all 24 dancers on stage together that really make an impact. The end of Part 1 has everyone doing the same movement, but in alternating directions off three vertical lines having a reflective effect – aided with the mirrors behind them – as if they are multiplying. An interlude between Parts 1 and 2 has Fredrickson floating above the audience like the spirit “Ariel” in The Tempest (from a way too visible harness) reciting a romantic text from an excerpt of Glass’ Einstein on the Beach: Knee Play 5 (*full text below). It could be a nod to the angel or literary figure from the Windows, but that seems to literal for Cerrudo. It’s more likely a love letter to art, to dance, to Glass, to his company, to his fellow dancers and to the audience.

Hubbard St dancers in Alejandro Cerrudo's "One Thousand Pieces". Photo by Todd Rosenberg.

Part 2 brings together the brilliance of the choreography, sets, costumes (both by Thomas Mika), lighting (Michael Korsch), special effects (fog courtesy of Big Shoulders Productions) and dancing in a perfect storm of magic. Shining sparkles dot the floor looking like someone scattered shattered glass across the stage. As dancers move across, the realization hits that it’s water. Three light/fog columns flow down like waterfalls and dancers appear through them from the darkened stage behind to dance in the water. Simply gorgeous.

With that visual still in mind, the shock of intermission was a disappointment and it was a bit difficult to get that vibe back for Part 3, which continued with fantastic dancing from the entire Hubbard Street crew. All the dancers brought their A-game (new company members Laura O’Malley and Quinn Wharton fit in seemlessly), but the true star of the show was Cerrudo himself.  If he’s thinking about topping this any time soon, he better get started now. Wow.

One of the dancers posted to “come get lost” on his Facebook page yesterday. It’s easy to get lost in this world Cerrudo creates completely. A program note quotes Chagall, “Stained glass has to be serious and passionate. It is something elevating and exhilarating.” Serious, passionate, elevating, exhilarating – the perfect description of One Thousand Pieces.

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago presents One Thousand Pieces at the Harris Theater, 205 E. Randolph St., through Sunday, October 21. Tickets are $25-$99. Call 312.850.9744 or visit hubbardstreetdance.com.

Harris Theater box office: 312.334.7777.

*Original text source: Samuel Johnson:

The day with its cares and perplexities is ended and the night is now upon us. The night should be a time of peace and tranquility, a time to relax and be calm. We have need of a soothing story to banish the disturbing thoughts of the day, to set at rest our troubled minds, and put at ease our ruffled spirits.

And what sort of story shall we hear ? Ah, it will be a familiar story, a story that is so very, very old, and yet it is so new. It is the old, old story of love.

Two lovers sat on a park bench with their bodies touching each other, holding hands in the moonlight.

There was silence between them. So profound was theire love for each other, they needed no words to express it. And so they sat in silence, on a park bench, with their bodies touching, holding hands in the moonlight.

Finally she spoke. “Do you love me, John ?” she asked. “You know I love you. darling,” he replied. “I love you more than tongue can tell. You are the light of my life. my sun. moon and stars. You are my everything. Without you I have no reason for being.”

Again there was silence as the two lovers sat on a park bench, their bodies touching, holding handls in the moonlight. Once more she spoke. “How much do you love me, John ?” she asked. He answered : “How’ much do I love you ? Count the stars in the sky. Measure the waters of the oceans with a teaspoon. Number the grains of sand on the sea shore. Impossible, you say. Yes and it is just as impossible for me to say how much I love you.

“My love for you is higher than the heavens, deeper than Hades, and broader than the earth. It has no limits, no bounds. Everything must have an ending except my love for you.”

There was more of silence as the two lovers sat on a park bench with their bodies touching, holding hands in the moonlight.

Once more her voice was heard. “Kiss me, John” she implored. And leaning over, he pressed his lips warmly to hers in fervent osculation…

Robyn Leaving The Nest

Robyn Mineko Williams. Photo by Cheryl Mann.

This weekend Hubbard Street Dance Chicago (HSDC) presents its Summer Series at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance (May 31-June 3).  The three-piece program concludes another stellar season for the group and sets the bar high for next season, their 35th.   Another conclusion this weekend is the tenure with the company of dancer Robyn Mineko Williams.  The matinee on Sunday, June 3rd will be her last Chicago performance with HSDC.  (She will dance with them this summer at the American Dance Festival – June 29-30 and on tour in Aspen, CO. – July 6-7.)  The three-piece, mixed program includes HSDC Resident Choreographer Alejandro Cerrudo’s cross-company collaboration with Nederlands Dans Theater (NDT) Malditos, the U.S. premiere of William Forsythe‘s lush, emotional Quintett and Ohad Naharin‘s choreographic mash-up THREE TO MAX.  Williams, always a stand out in Naharin’s works, will dance this final piece for her HSDC finale.  ”She’s done a lot of Ohad’s work.  It’s kind of her forte,” says HSDC Artistic Director Glenn Edgerton.  ”Robyn is a fantastic force of nature in everything she does.  I might start crying…I love her.  She’s a special lady.”  The feeling is mutual.  Williams tears up multiple times talking about leaving Edgerton and the dancers she adores.  Anyone witnessing her dance feels like they know her.  She’s a friend, a sister, a lover.  She dances with open, honest, heartfelt grace.  Her eyes sparkle with a sly, wickedness that intrigues, making you want to know all her secrets.

On this Memorial Day, along with celebrating those who serve our country and those who have sacrificed their lives serving, RB gives tribute  to Williams who has  danced in the Chicago-area her entire life, first in Lombard, as a scholarship student at Lou Conte Dance Studio, for four years with River North Dance Chicago and as a HSDC company member since 2000.  ”I’ve been here forever,” she says from the company’s West Loop studios.  ”This was my 12th season.  It’s been awesome.  When you’re dancing with the company so full-time, it’s all-encompassing.  I feel like I’m ready to take on new challenges.”  When asked what she’s going to to next, before answering, she shrugs and giggles.  ”I know I want to stay in the dance realm and I want to keep choreographing.  I’d love to perform still, just at a different intensity level.”  Her choreography will keep her connected to HSDC.  HS2 continues to perform Harold and the Purple Crayon:  A Dance Adventure, which she co-created with HSDC Rehearsal Director Terry Marling,  and they may be adding Recall, her piece from last season’s danc(e)volve to their rep.

RB sat down with Williams early one morning before company class.

What was the reaction when you told everyone?

Oh…(tears), I’m choked up just thinking about leaving the people.  Every week Glenn asks if I”m sure this is really what I want to do, so I have to be strong in my decision.  I adore him so much.  These small opportunities I’ve had over the last few years with “Harold’”, danc(e)volve and the Art Institute, I’ve realized that I love the challenges of making new things and collaborating with different artists in different mediums.  That’s something I’d love to be able to do more of.  It’s difficult when you’re in a company.

Are there artists you’d like to work with?

Aszure (Barton).  I’d love to work with her again.  I’ve gone to a couple of auditions…trying to put my feelers out.  It’s such a shockingly different world for me.  It’s such a different way of thinking.  I still love dance and I’m not ready to leave it.  I’m ready to see what else is out there and work on collaborations.  I feel like I’m being a little naive and risky taking this leap, but one day it all focused in for me and I thought “this is right”.  I’m open to change.  I’m hoping something comes my way.

You know, they’re auditioning for Disney princesses down the hall today.

Hmm…maybe I should break out my 16 bars.

What were some of your favorite pieces at HSDC?

“Minus 16″, because I grew up with that piece.  It’s the piece that’s in me the most – that I know the most.  I got to do it with so many different people.

Did Ohad come set it on you?

Yes, that’s why it has a special place.  Ohad and Mari (Kajiwara) came.  They were here for about a month and it was this intense workshop process.  It was the first big thing I did with the company.  It was really a game-changer for me.  

What else?

I loved doing “Passomezzo” (Naharin).  I felt like that was a chance that was given to me to hold some ground.  ”Walking Mad” (Johan Inger), “Gimme” (Lucas Crandall), “Lickety-Split” (Cerrudo).  These pieces are some of the pieces where I felt like someone was giving me a chance.  Jorma Elo (“From All Sides”, “Bitter Suite”), he really played a pivotal role for me in the way I approached movement.  His words, though sometimes few are very softly spoken, resonated strongly and allowed me to perceive and explore in ways I never had before.  Super cool experience.

Can you tell me a little something about each of the directors you’ve worked with at HSDC?  Something they taught you…

Lou (Conte)…I worked with him, technically, for like a month, but I grew up with him.  He taught me to be strong.  You have to have a certain level of confidence in yourself to be successful.  Jim (Vincent), in a similar vein, had the ability to make your attributes work for you, especially in your frame of dance.  Take advantage of what you have and explore those qualities, because that’s what makes you special.  Glenn…I’m not crying…he’s taught me so much.  He instilled such trust…(crying)…

So, your last show…

Chicago, then ADF and Aspen.  I think Aspen will be my last show.  My Mom will be there.  They’re doing “Harold”, so the second company will be there.  I’m excited about the Chicago show.  I have the opportunity to go out doing something I’m proud of and that represents what I do.  I’m excited.  I hope I don’t get too crazy and fall off the stage.

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago Summer Series, Harris Theater, 205 E. Randolph Dr., Thursday, May 31 – Sunday, June 3.  Tickets are $25-$94.  Call 312.850.9744 or visit www.hubbardstreetdance.com.

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.

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

Interview with Dance/USA Board Member – Julie Nakagawa

Don’t let her small stature and soft-spoken, polite nature fool you.  She is highly intelligent and a fiercely passionate advocate for dance.  Julie Nakagawa, Co-founder and Artistic Director of DanceWorks Chicago (DWC) and an officer on the Board of Trustees for Dance/USA, is an artist, teacher, mentor and director that focuses on nurturing not only the individual artist, but the global dance community as a whole.  There is no ego here.

A native of Evanston, IL, Nakagawa moved away for a dance career with Off Center Ballet, Cleveland Ballet and Twyla Tharp Dance before returning to Chicago to be with Ballet Chicago dancer, husband Andreas Böttcher.  “We just wanted to be in the same area code,” she says from her River North office inside the Ruth Page Center.  At a crossroads in her career, a social dinner with Lou Conte offered her a surprising opportunity and she wound up managing the Lou Conte Dance Studio.  More opportunities came in the form of directing the Hubbard Street Training Ensemble (now Hubbard Street 2) which she nurtured for the first decade of its existence.  Böttcher joined the organization and an unstoppable team was formed.  With mentors like Conte and Gail Kalver, there really wasn’t any other outcome.  “That was a great place for us to learn separately and collectively and grow together,” Nakagawa says.  “Those two are the best in the business.”

When it was time for them to leave the organization, they took some time off to travel and really focus on what they wanted to do.  Eventually their brainchild DWC was born, which they announced at that year’s Dance/USA conference.  DWC just celebrated its 4-year anniversary in June.  RB sat down with Nakagawa earlier this summer to talk about DanceWorks, Dance/USA and the dance community.

How did the idea of DanceWorks Chicago come about?

The community was already showing signs of strain in resources.  The most obvious resource is money, but for dance, space (which is associated with money), time (which is associated with money) and just the pressure to produce too.  What seemed like a potential danger was that these young dancers that were coming up weren’t…their directors and the companies were at risk of losing the valuable time of investment.  To bridge the gap between student or BFA graduate or conservatory grad or first job, second job thing, because there wasn’t an extra studio space or ballet master to kind of help you along.  Or the idea that yes, we can hire a dancer that we need to put an investment year in…those things weren’t happening.  Directors were saying to me that they can’t renew them because there’s some resource that they are lacking and each company handles that differently, but for the dancer that’s devastating.  Psychologically, that’s devastating.  You don’t get prepared for that in school.  You get prepared for success, but what about the many different ways success can look?  What about things that look or seem like failure, how do you turn those around?  I don’t think that’s necessarily overattended to.  In talking to dancers…they were the ones that said to us that it’s important.  This contribution is important.  The emphasis on companies is constantly to produce the dances.  Our concern has always been to produce the dancers.  That is the difference.  And we need both.  We decided to found DanceWorks Chicago to fulfill that need in the community to continue to have this laboratory or this research and development time to invest in the dancers, because a really courageous and equipped dancer can really do something in these companies.  Where the companies themselves…that might not be their priority.  That’s not a criticism.  They need to produce dances, but the dancers need to be ready to do whatever it is they need to do to help those companies reach their goals. 

We’ve been committed to 30-week contracts for the dancers annually, on salary and with health insurance.  That’s been a push and will continue to be a push, but we’re committed to that because we feel that’s the right thing to do.  We’re committed to building that relationship with them.  To build any relationship you need time.   It can’t be a two-week project and a one-week project and a gig.  That’s not a relationship, that’s two projects and a gig.  Again, that’s not a criticism; it’s just a different rhythm.  Our rhythm needs to be that we’re with each other on a daily basis for full days (9:30 – 4:30).  Time is the most precious commodity.  Money, if  you don’t have it or if you lose it, you can get it back.  You might not, but it’s in the realm of possibility.  Time, you won’t get it back.  We take that very seriously.  The artists’ time, the audience’s time, funders’ time…it’s really important.  From little things like trying to start and end on time, to reconfiguring performances into these dance flights, which are two 45-min segments back-to-back separated by 15 minutes.  That total time is like a regular performance, but the audience has more of a say in how they want to spend their time or their resources.  Trying to do things like that has also been important to us, as well as this laboratory for dancers to explore who they are and test that muscle of courage. That’s a muscle that’s really, really important.  Confidence besides the technical tools, the intellectual capacity and the emotional availability to really be a compelling artist.  We try to give them experience so they can make the best choices.  Do I want to be in a touring company?  Maybe that’s not for me.  If it’s not for you, then you can eliminate certain situations and save you and the company time and discomfort.  It’s a broad dance world out there, but it’s got to be about the relationship and the fit.  Hopefully having these experiences helps them identify a better next step, a better fit for them.

How did you get involved with Dance/USA?

When I retired from dancing, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do.  It was more of a personal/professional decision.  I felt I’d had a great decade-long career and felt very grateful about my career and my dancing.  I enjoyed it.  I still was enjoying it, but felt like I needed to make a life choice..a life change.
I talked with my director Dennis Nahad at Cleveland Ballet and he suggested I go to Dance/USA.  Cleveland Ballet were a member organization.  So I went (Minneapolis) and I went to the dancers forum.  There was like seven of us, but it was a really great opportunity that there was a much broader dance community out there and that there were all these people working on all different levels and in all different areas.  To come to a national convening was something I’d never done.  It was really important.  That was my first connection with Dance/USA.  Then, Hubbard Street was a member organization, so I went again.  There’s a lot of value in it.  If you want to play on a national or international level, I think it’s a mistake to think you can do it just in your own backyard.  It doesn’t really matter where your backyard is, even with the internet and technology, it’s a people business.  While you can’t always jet around, you can go to Pittsburgh or Portland or…if you plan ahead, you can make that happen.  Seeing who was at Dance/USA, seeing who wasn’t at Dance/USA, seeing who was making things happen for themselves…there’s definitely a connection there.  The panels, the forums, the speakers, that’s all really important.  The time in the elevator, the time between sessions, even lunch is equally important.  There are so many connections made, deals done, business cards exchanged, synergies discovered that makes it exhausting.  But hopefully you’re exhausted in the right way.  We’re looking for that inside information, that extra edge.  One of the first things we did as a young organization (DWC) was join it.  We felt it was important.  Joining Dance/USA and having 30-week contracts with insurance…it’s not the norm, but if we can do it, it can be done.

…and joining the Board?

Someone nominated me, which was very generous and gracious.  I have some big shoes to fill.  Eduardo Vilaro (former Artistic Director of Luna Negra, currently Artistic Director at Ballet Hispanico) was the most recent Chicago representative on the board.  I think Eduardo is an example of someone who really was a great board member for Dance/USA and translated that into success for Luna Negra…and rightfully so.  I was honored to accept and was subsequently nominated to be Secretary.  I had to ponder that for logistical reasons.  I feel it’s really important to give back.

What do you think having the conference here this summer will do for the Chicago dance community?

We’re all really excited about it coming to Chicago.  It’s the center of the country, so hopefully it’s easy for everyone to get here.  It would be great to have more Dance/USA members in Chicago.  I think it’s such a vibrant community.  Sometimes there’s a perception that there’s New York and then the rest of the country.  I think that has been true.  I don’t think it needs to be true.  Does there need to be one destination for dance in the country?  No.  The math just doesn’t add up any more for lots of folks.  I think Dance/USA is navigating a broad spectrum of dance in terms of their constituency and a broad geographic range on an on-going basis.  I think Chicago is such a great destination for dance.  If you want people to come, it’s not enough just to be here.  Part of it is connecting with them where they are…it’s audience outreach.  I think that one of the things is that it has provided an opportunity for the dance community to convene.  As wonderfully diverse and dynamic as the community is, it’s not difficult to stay in your own area.  Sometimes it’s their geographic area, sometimes their genre…whatever it is.  We had a community breakfast, which drew a really great cross-section of people from the local artistic community.  Artists, presenters, press, agents…it was great.  The opportunity for the community is to come together around dance and around the conference and to represent Chicago.  I think the challenge for the community is what’s going to happen after this?  Are we all going to go back to business as usual?  Your energized and refreshed, and that’s not without value, but what is tangible?  That needs to be attended to.  I would love to suggest a post-Dance/USA community convening to share experiences.  There are so many things to select, there are so many session to attend…it might be beneficial to tag team, so you’re not all at the same meeting.  Can we do that at a broader level?  Can we have the community get together and share for the people that couldn’t come or selected not to come…so that they can still get something out of it.  Just sit down and talk.  I think that would be a great follow up.  And again, I’m a believer in personal responsibility.  Maybe there’s a group that wants to talk about national touring and they identify themselves at the follow-up meeting and then they start meeting bi-monthly.  It would be great to have some really honest, passionate, respectful conversation.

My hope is that the Chicago community really uses this as an opportunity to really shine a light on dance in Chicago in some way. Even if they can’t be there or don’t understand, they understand that the opportunity is out there and they made a choice to attend or not to attend and they stand by that choice.  We’re going to throw a big party – what’s going to happen after it?  That’s the place where there’s a potential to maximize the opportunity for each individual or organization.  There is a way that we can maybe do that as a community.