SHINE: Dance Doc to premiere on WTTW

Photo by Kai Harding.

This Sunday September 8, go from behind the scenes to on stage with Thodos Dance Chicago (TDC). Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Christopher Kai Olsen of Kai/Harding followed the company as they prepared for the world premiere of a new story ballet earlier this year. Partners in crime TDC artistic director Melissa Thodos and Broadway legend Ann Reinking teamed up once again to create an original work set in historical fact. This time, the two decided to tell the story of Anne Sullivan and Helen Keller’s unique relationship through dance.

When A Light in the Dark* premiered in March 2013 at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie, Olsen was there to document the premiere in delicious HD detail. With his keen editing eye, he also filmed the creative process and put together an impressive dance documentary with behind-the-scenes rehearsal footage as well as one-on-one interviews with Reinking, Thodos and TDC lead dancers. The prelude of Shine – Making “A Light in the Dark debuts on Chicago’s PBS station WTTW this Sunday at 1:30 pm with A Light in the Dark showcasing the final production and performance immediately following at 2:00 pm.

I got to preview both films (so I can not feel guilty if I flip back and forth between the Bears game – Go Bears!) and the footage and editing is quite remarkable. I sat in on the interviews and rehearsals, but the way they come together in the film, incorporating Bruce Wolosoff’s original score and perfectly dropped quotes, takes it to another level. Watching what the dancers are creators go through to make the show and then to watch the entire performance makes it more believable and will make for a very entertaining afternoon of television.

“Shine” debuts Sunday, September 8 at 1:30 pm on WTTW followed by “A Light in the Dark” at 2:00 pm CST. 

*You can see A Light in the Dark live in Thodos Dance Chicago’s 2014 Winter Concert February 22, 2014 at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts and on March 8 and 9 at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance. Visit thodosdancechicago.org for more information.

CDF13 Sneak Peek: Alexander Ekman’s “Episode 31″

Choreographer Alexander Ekman. Photo by Urban Joren.

I stopped by to watch rehearsal earlier this month as the Joffrey Ballet gets ready for the Chicago premiere of Alexander Ekman‘s Episode 31 this week at the Chicago Dancing Festival (CDF). A CDF13 commission, the work was originally created for students at the Juilliard School in 2011 and incorporates a multi media/video element at the beginning of the piece. The young Swedish choreographer also had a commissioned work in last year’s festival. Giordano Dance Chicago performed his humorous relationship duet Two Becomes Three in CDF12 and will perform it again at CDF13.

On a sunny Friday afternoon, 28 Joffrey dancers headed out to film the into video and danced in the street, on the Brown line, across the Clark Street bridge, on the steps of the Vietnam Memorial Park under Wacker, under the “Bean” and in Crown Fountain. Clapping, stomping and yelling accompanied the choreography and caught a number of people off guard. A group of students gave the dancers an impromptu cheer to thank them and one woman waiting for her train said, “It’s better than the muggers on the Red Line”. Gotta love Chicagoans.

A few weeks later, back in the studio, the dancers prepped for a run-thru of Episode 31. The studio had random props (an empty lamp stand, tennis balls, a wooden box) and strips of marley strewn about the floor. I asked one dancer, “What’s this all about?” His reply, “Joffrey being Hubbard Street.” While it might not be in Hubbard’s rep, this piece is way more their style than what you normally see from the Joffrey. It’s outside their comfort zone. For some, I’d say way out. One girl stays in pointe shoes, randomly bourree-ing throughout the chaos. Most are in jazz shoes. One dancer comes out and does a quick, intense tap solo. Two men perform a loosely balletic, post-modern duet while a poem is read. The dancers drop suddenly to the floor and convulse like they are being electrocuted (frying bacon, anyone?), while a lone dancer slowly circles the stage, taking it all in.

Joffrey dancers in Crown Fountain at Millennium Park. Photo courtesy of The Joffrey Ballet.

Oh, and there is some coughing and sneezing. Yeah, not your typical Joffrey. Artistic Director Ashley Wheater is embracing the difference and think it will only enhance their artistry. “The way have to move in 31, the way they have to use their spine to instigate the movement…if they would take that into classical ballet, then ballet becomes that much more of an interesting, organic form as opposed to being two-dimensional and a little bit flat” he said. “It will be very fun to see how people respond to it.”

Episode 31 will also appear in Joffrey’s Winter program next February at the Auditorium Theatre.

The Joffrey Ballet performs Alexander Ekman’s “Episode 31″ at the Chicago Dancing Festival on Thursday, Aug. 22 at 7:30 pm at the Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress Pkwy. The performance is SOLD OUT, but any available stand-by tickets will be released at 7:15 pm.

For more information on the Chicago Dancing Festival, visit www.chicagodancingfestival.com.

 

PRODUCE: What is it?

McCurdy and Zerang.

So, what is PRODUCE? “It’s hard to explain,” said Lauren Warnecke of Art Intercepts. She’s the creator and co-host of the annual artistic mash-up program called PRODUCE.  “I’ve yet to come up with a catchphrase. I usually call it a dance/music experiment or a choose-your-own-adventure novel for experimental dance and music.”

This is the third year for this funky collab show which mixes and matches local artists/groups so that every performance out of the four is unique. ”I’m looking for a reality t.v. show in a live performance,” Warnecke said. “I want conflicting aesthetics, conflicting creative processes, conflicting ideas, conflicting personalities. It’s super trad dancing all the way to playing a drum with a dildo. It’s putting people together who wouldn’t normally be.” Past performers have teamed up for subsequent projects after meeting here.

The Ensemble Project and Signal Ensemble Theatre‘s Julie Ballard (lighting) and Anthony Ingram (sound) are presenting this season of PRODUCE. Ingram also serves as co-host with Warnecke. The performance is broken down into sections. After each section, the audience gives feedback and the co-hosts, acting as “producers”, decide what changes to make with the music, sound, arrangement, pairings, etc. before the next session begins.  “We’re pulling as many manipulations out of these set works as possible. That helps the artists grow and let’s the audience into the process,” said Warnecke. “It’s about wanting to let the audience have a little bit better point of entry in this type of performance (experimental), so they can feel more comfortable with it.”

Performers this year include Country Death Trip, Mark Hardy/Celestial Architecture, Carol McCurdy and Michael Zerang, Philip Elson, The Nexus Project, crawlspace, Newman and Newman and hey girl hey omg girl real life.

Let me get this straight. A mash-up, choose-your-own-adventure, interactive, inclusive, evolving, unique, hosted mix-and-match performance with dancers, musicians, performance artists, a psycho-billy/goth country band, constellation projections, sisters and a drag queen? And you get a drink! All for $8?

Count me in!

The Ensemble Project & Signal Ensemble Theatre’s Julie Ballard and Anthony Ingram present PRODUCE, Friday-Saturday, July 26-27 and Friday-Saturday, Aug. 9-10 at 7:30 pm at Signal Ensemble Theatre, 1802 W. Berenice. Tickets are $7; call 773.341.8940 or visit www.artintercepts.org/upcoming/.

BONEdanse’s bully.punk.riot: Preview

BONEdansers Cheryl Cornacchione and Nicole Scatchell in "bully.punk.riot." Photo by Carl Wiedemann.

A lesson in moshing, a debate on electronic equipment, a lecture on moral hypocrisy, a futball duet, a cattle-like corral and a urinal test. You get all that and more in BONEdanse‘s bully.punk.riot + REBELLION  EVENT running for two weekends at the new Links Hall/Constellation starting tonight. The fearless Atalee Judy teams up with choreographers Melissa Ganser and Megan Klein for this intelligent, intense trifecta of turbulent tension encased in fervent, physical, female fierceness. Come prepared for a riotous rebellion and some damn fine dancing.

Judy saw Ganser’s and Klein’s work while they were studying at Columbia College and thought they spoke the same language, so she asked them to collaborate on a show. “They’re smart, really athletic and very thoughtful without over-thinking,” Judy said. “They’re very physical in a visceral kind of way. We bonded immediately. I didn’t want to just do a show by myself, so it excited me to bring them in.” A book she was reading – Herd: How to Change Mass Behavior by Harnessing Our True Nature by Mark Earls – provided the impetus for the show’s theme. Klein chose to explore violence in gangs and riots, Ganser wanted to address bullying, while Judy went to her knowledge of the punk scene and mosh pits. Those three takes became bully.punk.riot. “Why not make it really transparent? It’s charged, It’s powerful,” Judy said of the title.

The three main theme sections are broken up by what Judy calls “herding transitions” inspired by tests in the book. One of these transitions is the futball duet which tackles (ha!) the herding mentality in sporting events complete with referee hand signals and wrestling take-downs.  Judy, who also did all of the costuming and sound design, has the two dancers clad in all-white costumes with football pads on their hips. (See pic.) “I’ve always liked how football players looked in their white pants and I thought girls would look great in them too,” she said. “It’s so perfect. They make this clapping, crashing sound. It’s definitely a commentary on the herding trends in football and wrestling, but the switch is the fashion industry. These are haute couture, even vogue-y kind of female divas. The put their shoes on their hands and do boxing things to get into that competition feel.”

While those costumes take things to the extreme, another costuming choice tacks simple. In the bully section, Judy has the dancers in plain white underwear (which as a recovering ballerina, I found terrifying). “I thought of the white underwear because they have this vulnerability to them. I wanted to show vulnerability without being stupid, sexy, girly,” she said. “The perfect icon, for me, is when men strip down, ‘are you wearing boxers or briefs’? It’s that iconic, vulnerable place. Everybody takes a shit sitting down. It makes a level player out of all of us. Later on in the piece, we do put pants on. Everybody puts pants on one leg at a time. It just brings us all to this level playing field. Plus, I really like tighty whities. It’s the most comfortable cotton.”

The super-charged, emotionally energetic show also boasts some great music – if you like punk rock. Dead Kennedys, FEAR, The Young Gods and Trent Reznor (head of Nine Inch Nails) are just some of the rebellious music you’ll hear throughout the soundscape. “This is not just a dance trance monster,” said Judy. “There’s a lot of really great music and really awesome energy to feel and get into. It’s a group of really strong women doing great stuff. It’s been a great process.”

BONEdanse presents bully.punk.riot at Links Hall/Constellation, 3111 N. Western Ave., Thursday-Sunday, June 20-23 and June 27-30 at 7 pm. Tickets are $18-$20 and can be purchased here.

 

 

 

 

Chicago Repertory Ballet’s The Rite of Spring” Preview

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the controversial performance in Paris of composer Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring with choreography by Ballet Russes’ Vaslav Nijinski. The dissonant musical chords combined with turned in, abstract, decidedly non-balletic movement famously  incited a riot at the theater. The desire to tackle this musical monster of a work choreographically is apparently irresistible as a number of companies across the world will be presenting myriad versions during 2013 in honor of the anniversary (including a recreation of Nijinsky’s original by The Joffrey Ballet in September). Add to the list of risk-takers, Wade Schaaf, Artistic Director of Chicago Repertory Ballet (CRB), now in its second season. His futuristic version blending ballet and contemporary vocabulary with sets and costumes by Nathan Rohrer uses 15 dancers and will serve as the second act of this weekend’s CRB performances. This is quite an undertaking for a small, young company, but when I talked with Schaaf last week, he seemed calm, cool and ready for the show.

I asked the obvious question first. Why? “I’ve had a few story ballets that I’ve been sitting on for the past four or five years that I just want to get to and ‘The Rite of Spring is at the top of the list,” he said. “I first saw The Rite of Spring about 15 years ago and it was the best thing I’d ever seen. It was so captivating I was in love with it. I’ve always wanted to do my own version of it. I did see the Nijinski version by the Joffrey first. Then I saw Salvatore Aiello’s version at Ohio Ballet. They did a version that was pretty darn awesome. To me, at the end of the day, I find [the story] to be about people…the sociology of the situation. I feel like I’m always hearing about how the world is going to end. I’ve been hearing that message and kind of inspired by that idea. This group of people we’re looking at is some time in the future, some time after the civilization we’re living in has passed away. Humanity has started over again and we’re looking at this group of people that all the rules and ideas and concepts we have as a society don’t apply to.” And that notoriously difficult music? He laughs, answering, “It is impossible to count. It’s really difficult. I just figured I’d do my best with it. I really listened to the score and it helped me build the story. I looked at the markings that Stravinsky put in the score and the titles he gave and that really helped me understand where he was and helped me build my story from that.”

The first half of the show is a mixed rep including world and company premieres. “All the work is new to the dancers,” Schaaf said. “It’s so awesome!” Along with Rite as a world premiere is a work from Chicago artist Monique Haley ( River North Dance Chicago, currently in The Jungle Book at the Goodman Theatre).  Company premieres include a duet from New York-based choreographer Manuel Vignoulle, a re-worked piece by Jacqueline Stewart as well as a work by Jessica Miller Tomlinson (Schaaf previously danced with both Stewart and Tomlinson at Thodos Dance Chicago).

Chicago Repertory Ballet presents The Rite of Spring and Contemporary Works Friday-Saturday, June 21-22 at 8 pm and Sunday, June 23 at 2 pm at the Vittum Theater, 1012 N. Noble St. Tickets are $25. Click here to purchase.

Preview: Striding Lion’s Dada Gert

Dancers Jeff Hancock and Annie Arnoult Beserra perform a "Sound Dance" inspired by Valeska Gert's variations on the Dada sound poem. Photo by Matthew Gregory Hollis.

A duo moves across the floor improvising with a chair and a serving tray. On the opposite side of the room is a trio similarly working with a tea kettle and cup. At the end of each phrase the first group looks center and says, “Danke” while the later turns to reply “Bitte”. This is repeated until the moving tea service lands on a set table, while a female singer begins to hum and play the accordion. Add in circus-esque black and white striped walls where vintage film clips play, poetry and a disjointed soundtrack that includes the dancers’ own soundscapes and Die Moritat von Mackie Messer (or Mack the Knife) and you have entered the surreal world of Expressionist/Dadaist art in pre-World War II Berlin. In particular, you’ve entered the world and work of dancer/film and cabaret artist/model and self-proclaimed artistic genius Valeska Gert, who is the inspiration for the upcoming performance of Striding Lion Performance Group‘s Dada Gert.

The group’s artistic director Annie Arnoult Beserra learned of Gert’s work (*short video below) while in grad school and has been intrigued ever since. “What drew me to her was her absolutely seamless integration of dance and theater,” Berserra said, “and she has a voracious, raw, aggressive energy.” Gert definitely pushed the boundaries of what was happening in her day by utilizing pieces of the Dada movement (although according to Beserra, she did not consider herself a Dadaist) and the influence of Bertolt Brecht to create her own unique artistic voice in the Weimar Era. Gert is perhaps an obscure choice to create an hour-length work about, but in this case – and with this cast that is fully committed – it works. The six dancers and one singer literally throw themselves into this crazy world of twitches, snorts, funny faces and lyric. Jeff Hancock (who also did the installation and costume design) leads the others in a puppet-like defense of Dada, while Beserra becomes Gert by perfecting and replicating the unusual faces and energy that made her famous in her day. One particularly impressive section has Beserra pulling these “faces” simulating normal/”Valeska”, “horrified”, “tough guy”, “bright idea” and “fat face” over and over with increasing speed while the singer and accordion play on.

I stopped by rehearsal yesterday, so I haven’t seen it run in the theater with production values, but from what I saw, this will be a uniquely entertaining, multi-media piece of historical dance theater.

Striding Lion Performance Group presents Dada Gert at the Hamlin Park Fieldhouse Theater, 3035 N. Hoyne, Thursday-Friday, May 23-24 and Thursday-Friday, May 30-31 at 7:30 pm. Tickets are $20 ($10 students and seniors) – half price rush tickets will also be available. Call 773.769.7540 or visit brownpapertickets.com/event/345021.

Preview: Studio Mangiameli’s Quejíos

Flamenco artist Chiara Mangiameli.

Aside from a two week workshop with Dame Libby Kamaiko about 20 years ago, I don’t know much about flamenco. So for this preview, I relied on the expertise  of flamenco dancer/singer/teacher Chiara Mangiameli of Studio Mangiameli to tell me about her upcoming show. We corresponded via email last week.

First, please tell me about your background. Where you grew up? When and why you started dancing?

I was born and grew up mostly in Milan, Italy but we moved often due to my father’s job so at a young age I spent time in the States and in Buenos Aires, Argentina. I started with ballet but didn’t stick with it for very long, I tried tap and realized at a young age that rhythm made sense to me. I could hear and replicate syncopated patterns pretty easily. I tried African dance as well in college but nothing really stuck until I discovered flamenco as an adult. That’s when I finally got serious about dance. I took my first flamenco class in Chicago with Michelle Nascimento who was my teacher for several years and with whom I traveled to Seville, Spain for the first time.

Tell me about your music Ensemble Idilio.

“Idilio” is a group I co-founded with my friends Diego Alonso and Kassandra Kocoshis. I had recently returned from a long stay in Seville where I had spent time studying and listening to the “cante” (flamenco singing). I had a great desire to sing at that time and work with people in Chicago that felt as passionately about that style of music as I did. I ended up incorporating my Italian background in a couple of the songs, one of which I co-wrote with my friend Carlo Basile. whom I had previously worked with in his group Las  Guitarras De España.

What brought you to Chicago?

I moved with my mother the summer going into my third year of high school. I ended up going to The Theater School at De Paul University and pursuing theater.

What made you decide to open your studio?

I had been teaching flamenco classes in a couple different studios in Chicago including the Flamenco Arts Center. I had a strong student basis and started for the first time choreographing dances that we would then showcase in a small theater. I found it was a great tool to motivate the students and also give them an opportunity to work with live musicians which is how flamenco is traditionally done. At the same time I was traveling to Seville regularly to continue my education and the more I learned, the hungrier I was to teach and push the students further. Opening  my own studio in June of 2011 gave me the freedom to add more classes, set my own schedule and establish my own environment and aesthetics. It also motivated me to become more creative with my student showcases starting with “A Través Del Espejo (Through The Mirror)” in 2012, and “Quejíos – Cries In The Air” which we will premier at the end of this month.

Tell me about the show. Where did the idea come from? Did you create all of the choreography and score the music?

The initial idea for the show was to showcase the “cante,” the expressive power and raw emotion of flamenco singing. Have every dance piece reflect its mood, its dynamics. I asked my friend and Madrid-based writer Luis Lorente if he would write a poem inspired by the word “Quejíos,” Andalusian slang for “cries.” Flamenco songs are often composed of small verses, poetry of the people expressing every day life. The poem seemed like a natural fit, a beautiful tool to further illustrate the soul of flamenco.

There are 32 students showcased in this new work, two Chicago based guitarists Carlo Basile and Diego Alonso who composed most of the music for the show and percussionist Bob Garrett. Our guest singer and Seville native Alfonso Cid, will lend his beautiful voice to this production. For the first time we will also be at times veering form flamenco’s tradition of live music and incorporating recorded compositions, including a  modern piece by a French composer which we use for our castanet choreography. I started working on the choreographies and staging in September of last year, and consider them all a  product of the teachers and dancers that have inspired me and taught me over the years. In particular, Madrid based dancer Paloma Gómez who introduced me to the beautiful language of castanets and Clasico Español.

Tell me about your new solo.

My new solo is  in the rhythmic structure of “seguiriya,” a form that I’ve wanted to perform for many years. The singing is very technically demanding and since the dance is entirely based on the song, I wanted to work with a strong singer whose energy I could feed off of. This new work ties back to the “Quejíos” poem and while it displays a lot of traditional elements belonging to this dance style, it also incorporates unexpected moments from Diego Alonso’s original guitar composition.

What is a “seguiriya”?

Seguiriya belongs to the “cante jondo” category of flamenco. Best translated as “deep song,” it is one of the most somber forms in flamenco. The rhythmic structure is complex and has, in my opinion, a kind of trance-like quality to it. It is said that while gypsy blacksmiths worked they would pound out its rhythm as they sang, The themes associated with seguiriya often deal with painful loss.

Studio Mangiameli presents Quejíos – Cries In The Air at the Vittum Theater, 1012 N. Noble St., Thursday, May 31 and Friday, June 1 at 8 pm. Tickets are $25 ($15 for kids 12 and under). Buy tickets here

 

 

Shh…It’s a Secret!

Dancer/choreographer Emily Stein. Photo by Nadia Oussenko.

What do you get when you put 15 dancers from diverse backgrounds in a large dance center with live piano and an explicit interest in re-learning ballet via improv and manipulation? Secret Experiments in Ballet #2, a collaborative experience of three performances this weekend at Visceral Dance Center. The mad professor leading this experiment, ”playing in the intersection of ballet vocabulary and improvisation”, is dancer/teacher/choreographer Emily Stein.

Most local dancers know her as the petite ballet teacher with articulate feet and impeccable technique and as a performer and Associate Artistic Director of Zephyr Dance, the company she left amicably in 2011. Since retiring, or “redirecting”, Stein has been teaching – a lot! – and taking classes (with Peff Modelski). In February 2012, she attended a three-week residency at the Atlantic Center for the Arts where she had the opportunity to take time to think about what she wanted to do next and the ideas for Secrets began to percolate. The entire concept finally hit her while on a much-needed vacation with her husband. ”I really wanted to play with ballet,” she told me over tea and coffee in late April. “A lot of what I’d been working with in the studio were the seeds of ballet language that you learn when you’re a kid. What you think it means and what you think it is, then exploring it through the improvisational techniques and things I’d learned working in the other side of the dance world. In particular, what I learned when working with Deborah Hay. They couldn’t possibly be further apart. I love ballet, but rarely do I go to the ballet and say, ‘Wow!’ There are people doing interesting stuff, but what else? What else that’s not about just extrapolating the vocabulary and taking it out to a really extreme place. I wanted to see what else is there in the vocabulary that we know. ”

Using the Cechetti seven movements of dance (plié, relever, sauté, etc.) as a base, she set out to see “what else?”. Taking the Cechetti definition, the French definition and the English translation of the word and having the dancers create movement phrases was a jumping off point. Adding in her own combinations and manipulations, Stein constructed a six section work that is sure to entertain and perhaps educate. “I’m trying to develop the dance from the inside out,” she said. “I want something based on glissade. How many different ways can you think of glissade or do glissade? How far away from glissade can you get and still have some semblance of it? The meanings re-learned. When you actually translate the words in the correct context, the meanings are myriad and more complicated. I’m taking those translations to create movement. I think part of it is coming to improv later in my career and having people say ‘that looks like an arabesque; take that out’. But that’s in me. That’s not something that I do, that’s something that’s in me, because I’ve done it for such a long time. You speak with an accent and you move with that accent. Some people can learn another language in life and not have an accent, but some can’t. That’s an interesting continuum to create in.”

Another essential part of the project is that it moves throughout the entire Visceral space using dressing rooms and corners in the hallway as the stage. “It’s not an installation; it’s definitely sequential,” Stein said. “I didn’t want to have a studio showing, but wanted the stage magic and quality of performance into these spaces. When we take class, there’s a performance quality and certainly when you’re teaching. I wanted to bring the audience into the space and have them be close to the dancers…to be this far apart from the dancers and hear them breathing and see the details. That’s what I love about teaching. I get really involved in someone’s foot. Ok, maybe I’m just a geek, but I think there’s something there. Other geeks will appreciate it.”

Emily Stein presents Secret Experiments in Ballet #2 at Visceral Dance Center, 2820 N. Elston Ave., Saturday, May 4 at 8 pm and Sunday, May 5 at 2 and 6 pm. Tickets are $25 ($15 for students and seniors); call 773.844.8988 or visit www.emilysteindance.com. *Cash and checks only at the door. May pay by credit card online.

 

Dancer Spotlight: River North’s Ethan Kirschbaum

River North dancer Ethan Kirschbaum in Adam Barruch's "I Close My Eyes Until the End". Photo by Cheryl Mann.

Monday night I stopped by the Ruth Page studios to peek in on the end of an adult jazz class. A group of women were dancing a short combination to a slow GLEE version of Florence + the Machine’s Shake It Out. Leading the combo was River North Dance Chicago (RNDC) dancer Ethan Kirschbaum, 25, who was sub teaching for a friend. Even though he was marking while demonstrating, emotion and easy enthusiasm oozed out of his body. You could feel how much he loves to dance.

Kirschbaum grew up in Oakland, California and began studying dance on a bet from his babysitter. He and his brother had to take a class and if they didn’t like it, she would buy them a Slurpee. “We went and pretended we hated it to get our free Slurpee,” he said. “But a week later, we were taking classes. We started out in jazz together and slowly started adding classes until I was basically living at the studio. My brother broke off into more hip hop and I went more classical.” His training took him to the San Francisco Ballet School and summer programs with Alonzo King LINES Ballet and the Juilliard School. He was also a performing apprentice with Reginald Ray-Savage’s Savage Jazz Dance Company.

He attended college at the Ailey School/Fordham University in New York where he had the chance to perform with the Ailey company in his sophomore year, travel to the Holland Dance Festival and perform a work by Spanish choreographer Nacho Duato. “I got a lot of great opportunities in school, but I felt like I wanted to get closer to contemporary work,” he said. “The summer of 2007, I was doing my first paid gig with the Santa Fe Opera and I had this epiphany. I should dance with Hubbard Street 2!” He auditioned, got the job and moved to Chicago with college friend Jacqueline Burnett, also joining HS2 (now in Hubbard Street’s main company) in January 2008.  After two and a half years, director Taryn Kaschock Russell suggested he audition for Marguerite Donlon’s company while they were touring in Germany. He did and, shockingly (snark), he got in and moved to Germany in 2010. “It was probably the hardest thing I’ve done to date,” he said. “I’d never lived alone. I’d never lived in another country. I had a boyfriend in Chicago at the time. My heart was here, but my career was there. My friends were here, but my future was there. It was rough, but it brought me a lot of self-awareness.”

Back in Chicago after a season with Donlon Dance Company, he auditioned around town and found a home at RNDC. He’s now concluding his second season. “I think I was intrigued by going back to my jazz roots,” Kirschbaum said. “I think River North has a good balance and a good rep. There was something familial about it. After being in a foreign country for a year, where I felt like I didn’t belong, I wanted to be somewhere that felt like home. It’s been a good fit so far. I love the people I work with. We just have fun every day. We laugh at each other. That’s one thing I’ve really learned. It’s not so much the job, but the people you work with. The day-to-day, in-the-studio is your life as a dancer. It’s not the two minutes on stage; it’s the hours in the studio.”

This weekend, Kirschbaum and his RNDC family perform at the Auditorium Theatre as part of the Music + Movement Festival with the world premiere of Havana Blue, a collaboration with Orbert Davis’ Chicago Jazz Philharmonic (CJP). Davis and RNDC artistic director Frank Chaves traveled to Havana together for a nine days of research, immersing themselves in Cuban music and culture. Also on the program for the one-night-only show are three pieces by CJP and Chaves’ Eva, which premiered earlier this month at the Annenburg Center for the Performing Arts in Philadelphia, coincidentally the same theater where he first auditioned for HS2 (“full circle moment!”). Kirschbaum said of the new work, “It’s very musical, very emotional, very expressive…quintessential Frank. It’s always amazing to have live music on stage next to you. There’s energy. You can make eye contact. You can play off of each other. It’s something special.”

Saturday’s performance is the last of the season for RNDC. Kirschbaum will spend the hiatus teaching – take his 11:30 am intermediate modern class at Conte’s on Saturdays! – before returning to rehearsals in July to start his third season. Eventually he may want to explore other contemporary avenues, but for now, he’s happy where he is. “I love my life,” he said. “Right now, I’m very content with where I’m at. I love my home environment. I love to connect with the community. I love the fluidity of the relationships and how quickly you can all become friends.”

River North Dance Chicago & Orbert Davis’ Chicago Jazz Philharmonic premiere Havana Blue at the Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress Pkwy., Saturday, April 13 at 8 pm. Tickets are $32-$76; call 800.982.2787 or visit auditoriumtheatre.org/musicandmovement.

The Seldoms’ Philip Elson Dishes on Mix With Six

The Seldoms dancers Amanda McAlister and Philip Elson in "Exit Disclaimer". Photo by Brian Kuhlmann.

“I’ve been a curious creature all my life,” Philip Elson told me last week. “Try everything once. That’s my thought process.” Elson, a graduate of Columbia College, dances with The Seldoms and serves as their Technology and Media Coordinator. Along with dancing for other groups and independent artists around Chicago, most recently guesting with Same Planet Different World for the opening of FlySpace Dance Series, he also is an Apple “Genius”, adept at video editing/archiving, sound scoring, filming dance and curating (Red Tape Theatre). Try everything once. It seems he’s good at everything he tries.

A Fort Worth, Texas native, Elson began taking dance and gymnastics at the age of three, eventually dropping the gymnastics to focus on jazz and ballet and perform on the competition/convention circuit, even appearing on Star Search with Arsenio Hall. After three semesters at New York University studying musical theater, he returned to Texas and got his first taste of modern dance at 19. “I kind of fell in love with it,” he said. “One of the things I really love about dancing is the exploration…that pureness, That rawness of just feeling movement. It felt like an opportunity to explore movement that I never felt possible before.”

Elson, 26, met Seldoms artistic director Carrie Hanson when he moved to Chicago in 2008 to study dance at Columbia where she was one of his professors. The first week of school, he went to see The Seldoms performance Convergence, which was set in a 17,000 square foot garage space. He was blown away. Shortly thereafter, he remembers her telling him to “Be on the lookout.” For what? He wasn’t sure until he saw a sign posted for male auditions for The Seldoms and thought, “This is it.” He’s now in his fifth season with the company. “What drew me to her work is twofold. The anatomical nature of it, because of her history with Laban and the way that she’d talk about it as you’re learning it. She was my anatomy teacher at the time and everything was clicking. The body exploration was really athletic. She was able to help me find the ease in my athleticism, a softness in that. It’s still powerful, but not spazzy. It’s really clear.”

Elson admits he made his first solo for himself (to Gloria Estefan’s Turn the Beat Around) at age seven. The interest in creating dances was there, but not the confidence. He felt he was stronger as a dancer, but wanted to learn more about choreography. When Hanson asked her dancers to make in-house works for the upcoming show Mix With Six, he took it as a challenge. “I hate making solos with a passion. I do,” he said. “I find it so much easier when there are relationships and bodies to work with.” So naturally, he decided to create a solo on fellow dancer Cara Sabin that will appear this weekend along with dances from Damon Green, Amanda McAlister, Bruce Ortiz and Javier Marchán-Ramos.

Elson’s Between Means and Ends, a work explores the relationship and space between chaos and stability, began with a introspective and unique process including writing about insecurities, staring in a mirror, and a theory of movement he created in college called “The Exhaustion Theory”. “The way it works is if you totally tax yourself physically and mentally, you have no choice but to move with ease and efficiency,” he said. “You don’t have the energy for all the extra stuff. That was my way to get people to find a certain physicality, but also vulnerability.” Elson and Sabin did a 45-minute boot camp followed by a disorientation exercise taking about an hour and a half before standing still with their hands over their heads for 10 minutes. “It’s hard, but movement, a motif, came out of that. I’ve always thought Cara has such an interesting body. I’m fascinated by the way she moves and her strength, her flow and her longness. I wanted there to be this mesh of my ideas with her interpretation.”

The Seldoms presents Mix With Six at Constellation/Link’s Hall, 3111 N. Western Ave., Friday-Saturday, April 12-13 at 8 pm and Sunday, April 14 at 7 pm. Tickets are $15; call 773.281.0824 or visit mixwithsixlh.eventbrite.com.