P/Review: River North’s Autumn Passions

River North dancers in Frank Chaves' "Eva". Photo by Cheryl Mann.

This weekend River North Dance Chicago (RNDC) takes the stage of the Harris Theater with their Autumn Passions program. RNDC opened the 2013-2014 season with a shortened gala program on Thursday, Nov. 14 featuring two world premieres, a company premiere and the Harris debut of a 2013 work by Artistic Director Frank Chaves and will perform a full program Saturday and Sunday, Nov. 16-17.

Thursday’s gala performance began with Chaves’ Eva, a suite of dances to jazzed up songs sung by Eva Cassidy. Gorgeous vocal mixed with Chaves’ talent for partnering and duets. Three couples swirled to Cassidy’s rendition of Sting’s Fields of Gold (one of my favorite songs) and although timing was off, it offered ?a perfect opening for the evening. A hot, hot, hot quintessentially RNDC, Vent-like duet?with Jessica Wolfrum and Ahnad Simmons and a lovely side-by-side duet for Lauren Kias (sassy haircut, btw) and Hank Hunter. Eva closed with a feel good, full company section to Wade in the Water – a jazz-meets-Ailey’s Revelations.

It was a gala, so speeches and donation pitches came before the world premiere of Ashley Roland’s Get Out the Ghost. Roland, co-artistic director of BodyVox?came to Chicago?in July to set the new work. When I popped in to rehearsals, it wasn’t complete, but after seven days was quickly taking shape. “I need to choreograph faster, otherwise my head gets in the way,” she said. Chaves had asked her to create something “ethereal”. The final section of the Americana work dealing with getting rid of personal baggage or “cleaning your own personal house” is ethereal, but as Roland said, you have to get there first.?The work began with the movement, although that’s not always how she works. “It comes through me. It’s not manufactured,” said Roland. “It’s definitely a gift.”

Dancers twitch and twist in angsty spurts while pulling shiny gold mylar pieces from their costumes throughout the first two sections. I get the idea, but it was too literal and while the dancers gave it their all, it seemed over-danced. A little less attack, a little more softness would have served the work better. Daring running dives and catches wowed, but overall, the work needed more subtly.

Dancer Drew Fountain is the first dancer other than choreographer Adam Barruch to perform his theatrical solo work The Worst Pies in London set to the song of the same title from the Broadway musical Sweeney Todd. Barruch himself performed it here at the Chicago Dancing Festival in 2011. Fountain was hilarious and charming in this quirky duet with a table. It’s a definite crowd-pleaser.

The world premiere of ?Dawn by Deeply Rooted Dance Theater‘s Kevin Iega Jeff closed the hour-long show and proved to be a stellar showcase of the dancers’ talents. Set to the driving beat of a version of Carmina Burana, Dawn depicts an intense, physical, ritualistic society with goddess overtones, or as Iega Jeff states in the program notes – “a new Age of Enlightenment”. All gold tones and biceps – and I’m talking about the ladies! – Iega Jeff makes these dancers WORK! It really is non-stop, balls-to-the-walls dancing – just what we’ve come to expect from RNDC. Wolfrum was fierce as a the head of the hierarchy, boldly commanding the stage.

My only regret not going to see the performances this weekend is I will miss the stunning Nejla Yatkin solo Renatus danced by diva Wolfrum and Daniel Ezralow’s SUPER STRAIGHT is coming down, which was originally created for Hubbard Street Dance Chicago (and one of my fave pieces EVER). RNDC’s first attempt at Ezralow’s work didn’t meet expectations (injuries, etc.), but I’m glad they are bringing it back with a different cast. My guess is they will knock it out of the theater this time around.

River North Dance Chicago’s Autumn Passions at the Harris Theater, 205 E. Randolph St., Saturday, Nov. 16 at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Nov. 17 at 3 p.m. Tickets are $30-$75; call 312.334.7777 or visit harristheaterchicago.org.?

 

All Chicago Dance Shoot #ACDS

All Chicago Dance Shoot. Photo by Quinn B Wharton.

What would happen if dancers from all over Chicago were invited to get together for a one-day photo shoot? Hubbard Street dancer and professional photographer Quinn B Wharton and Chicago native/dancer Jonathan “Jojo” Alsberry decided to find out. By creating a Facebook event page, the pair invited as many dancers as they could to participate in this uniquely awesome artistic feat.? On Easter Sunday a couple dozen dancers from companies like River North Dance Chicago, Giordano Dance Chicago, Luna Negra Dance Theater (now defunct), Hedwig Dances, Joffrey Ballet,? and more, as well as local independent artists gathered at the Intuit Gallery to get their creativity on with direction from Wharton. The result: the cool-ass photo above that captures the energy, vibrancy and diversity of Chicago’s dance scene.

A statement about the project from Wharton:

“This project was about community more than anything else. Having moved to Chicago not so long ago I was struck by the city’s vibrant and close-knit dance scene. The dancers here know each other, support each other, and work together whenever possible. Coming from a different environment, I was touched and inspired by this community. Trying to get a number of dancers together for a shoot was an early thought that I wanted to pursue. With the closing of Luna Negra, and its shock to the dance community, it seemed like a perfect time to attempt to get a group together. With a strict timeline set we worked to find a location, develop a concept, and pull all the dancers together. The day became a testament to that, a gathering of dancers from a number of companies in the city. Everyone pitching in, lending support, and hopefully making new connections that will last. The dynamic of an art community in a city is fostered by these cross interactions and educations, positive sit downs where everyone builds real face-to-face relationships. This photo is the first like it that I have ever attempted, a large panoramic that involves a significant amount of photoshop work. It taught me so many things about how to prep, build, and execute a work like this; something that I will carry with me for as long as I take pictures. So thank you to everyone involved, I hope that the process has affected you in some way, and that you will continue to carry that community out into the world.”

To see the photo larger or order a print, go here.

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.

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.

 

Rebirth at River North

RNDC dancer Jessica Wolfrum in Nejla Yatkin's "Renatus". Photo by Cheryl Mann.

“It’s a beast,” she says, referring to the costume she will be wearing this weekend at the Harris Theater. River North Dance Chicago (RNDC) veteran dancer, Jessica Wolfrum, dons “the dress” for a world premiere solo work created by?German (now Chicago-based) choreographer Nejla Yatkin and artistic director of NY2 Dance as part of Momentum. Set to the aria from Puccinni’s Tosca, the piece is an emotional, dramatic tour de force.

In her 11th season with the company, Wolfrum, 32, is ready for the challenge. After considering retiring from RNDC last season – “I didn’t feel like it was time and I didn’t want to regret anything.” – she’s back in full concentration mode and ready to go. The solo’s title Renatus means rebirth and explores life’s transformations. “My solo work is very personal, from a personal place,” Yatkin told me over the phone earlier this month. “It’s about transformation, transcendence, letting go of the old and stepping into the new.” She chose Wolfrum for her strength, passion, maturity and subtlety. As for Wolfrum, she’s inspired by Yatkin and enjoyed the intense, intimate and awesome experience in rehearsals.

The piece is a dance for one, but Wolfrum feels its more a duet with the huge, taffeta dress being her partner. Learning to dance in it was difficult. “It took a lot of time to allow it to move and to listen to it,” she said. “Now, I can hear the rhythm of it moving. It’s like a second skin.”

Also on the program, a full-company world premiere by New York choreographer Adam Barruch some audience favorites including maniacally upbeat Three (Robert Battle) and Beat (Ashley Roland), excerpts from Sabrina and Ruben Veliz’s Al Sur del Sur with artistic director Frank Chaves’ works Forbidden Boundaries and The Good Goodbyes.

River North Dance Chicago presents Momentum at the Harris Theater, 205 E. Randolph, Friday-Saturday, Nov. 16-17 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $30-$75; call 312.334.7777 or visit harristheaterchicago.org.

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 Jes?s Dance.? RB 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 Jes?s), 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 pli? 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 www.danceforlifechicago.com.

 

 

Rivno’s Ahmad Simmons Takes Center Stage

River North dancer Ahmad Simmons. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Tomorrow night – Tuesday, June 5th – River North Dance Chicago gives a free concert in Millennium Park on the Pritzker Pavilion stage. ?The company just finished a five-week tour of Russia and concludes its 2011-2012 season on a hometown stage. ?Read my preview in Time Out Chicago here.

Look for dancer Ahmad Simmons, wrapping up his first season with RNDC, ?to take center stage in a solo role local audiences are used to seeing someone else perform. ?Former RNDC dancer Christian Denice wowed audiences with his athletic style in Ashley Roland’s Beat, a heavily improvised solo to a fast, percussive score. ?Rumor has it, Simmons reached rock-star status in Russia with his interpretation of the piece.

Between traveling back to the States and rehearsals, RB caught up with Simmons via Facebook for a few questions about the recent tour of Russia and the upcoming show.

Tell me about the Russia tour – best parts, hardest parts?

I would say the best part of the tour was the incredible response we got from every one of our audiences. Be it bigger city or small country town, all of the Russian audiences came to our shows with a great sense of excitement and anticipation that we could feel from behind the curtain. One of my favorites being the huge arena in Habarovsk packed with people roaring after every piece. It felt like a rock concert! That said, the hardest part of the tour was getting to the performances. We endured some tough travel days with long bumpy bus rides, exhausting flights, and overnight trains.

What will RNDC be performing for the concert in the park?

In this particular show we will be presenting some of the pieces we toured including “Evolution of a Dream”, “At Last”, “Ella”, “Beat”, “Risoluta”, “The Mourning” and “Habaneras”, with the addition of Mauro Astolfi’s “Contact-Me”. I can honestly say there will be something for everyone. “Evolution”, “At Last” and “Ella” provide a sort of familiarity with music by some well-loved artists. “Beat” shakes it up with improvisation to a fierce drum track. The audience will surely go on an intellectual ride in Sidra Bell’s “Risoluta” and be challenged by the variety of relationships in “Contact-Me”. We are all beyond excited to be making our full evening debut at the Pritzker. First of all is absolutely gorgeous!! It also seats something like 4, 000 people and to be able to reach that many spirits in such a magical setting with be more than fulfilling.

You’re dancing?Beat, which local audiences have come to think of as synonymous with Christian (Denice). ?I know it incorporates a good deal of improv, but how do you make it your own?

Yes! I’m thrilled to make my Chicago debut of “Beat”. Christian was the only dancer I had seen perform the solo prior to my joining the company. I was in complete awe of his power and command and I remember saying to myself, ‘how would you do that?’ The key for me is continuing to explore my own nuance and essence. The only thing we truly own as dancers is our unique voice. I’m using his footsteps as more of a guide than a formula.

What makes RNDC unique?

River North is so unique because it really does welcome individuality. We all have such different voices that come together to compliment each other. As a newbie, I have to say that it’s a wonderful place to grow. I learn so many new things by watching the seasoned artists work. It also doesn’t hurt that we laugh a lot! Watch out, there are some comedians in Rivno.

River North Dance Chicago at Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park, Tuesday, June 5 at 6:30 p.m. ?This is a FREE concert.

*Tuesday’s show will be the last performance with the company for Hanna Brictson.

Artist Profile: River North’s Lauren Kias

RNDC's Lauren Kias. Photo by Bob Gallagher.

This weekend River North Dance Chicago (RNDC) takes the Harris Theater stage for its annual Valentine’s weekend engagement. Love is… features six pieces including two world premieres, Contact-Me by Italian choreographer and director of Spellbound Dance Company Mauro Astolfi and The Good Goodbyes by RNDC director Frank Chavez.? Revivals of audience favorites Ella, Risoluta, Sentir em N?s and Al Sur Del Sur round out the program.

The company returned from an extended tour of Virginia last week and went right into rehearsals for the Valentine show.? After a few failed attempts at scheduling an interview with veteran dancer Lauren Kias, we ended up doing a quick Q&A via email.? Here is an edited version of our “chat”.

How was the tour?

One of the many things I love about this job is the national and international traveling we are asked to do. Touring with the company is much like traveling with the circus.? You have a group of dancers very diverse with big personalities performing on the road together for up to a month at a time.? You can be on the road so long and travel to so many places you often will wake up and not know what city you are in.? We were just in Virginia for about 10 days. We had performances in Lexington, Fairfax and Richmond.? On this particular tour I was responsible for warming up the company before the shows.? This usually entails teaching a ballet class that will get the dancers on their leg and help set them up for a long day in the theater.? This responsibility comes with a fair amount of stress because dancers are very particular on what they like to do before a show. I was up for the challenge and did the best I could.

You’re in your seventh year with RNDC.? Was the company always on your radar?

I first saw River North in high school when they were on tour in my home town of Indianapolis. I remember loving the company immediately and keeping them in my radar from that moment on.? While attending Butler University, I participated in their summer intensive program. I had such a positive experience that I made it a goal of mine to become a member of the company. After that summer I moved to Chicago and Frank asked me to be a company apprentice. After two years as an apprentice I was given a spot in the company.

Why is it a good fit for you?

River North is a good fit for me because the rep is so versatile. I love to dance as many different styles as I can.? We get to work with a number of different choreographers every year that create very diverse pieces.? The variety that we experience keeps our minds and body?s fresh and growing in this ever changing art form.

What is the most exciting part of dancing with RNDC and what is the most challenging?

It’s an exciting time to be in River North. There has and continues to be a lot of international touring gigs for the company. In the last couple years we have traveled to Germany and Switzerland twice for three weeks of touring.? Last summer we performed on an ocean front stage at an International dance festival in Busan, South Korea.? We are currently in the process of organizing a month long tour to Russia with as many as twenty shows. I love to travel and see the world and I am very fortunate that my job can take me on so many adventures.? The most challenging part of being in this company, or any company for that matter, is staying injury free and staying in the best shape that you can. While at home we have all of the resources to help us stay healthy and injury free.? Most of the time when we travel we don’t have access to physical therapists or a proper gym. You have to rely on yourself and the support of your fellow dancers to maintain good habits and injury prevention to stay as healthy as we can.

What will you be dancing in the upcoming show?

In this weekend?s ‘Love Is…’ Valentine’s performance I will be performing four very different pieces.? The first is a solo choreographed by Robert Battle entitled ‘Ella’. The second is the world premier of ‘Contact-Me’, choreographed by Mauro Astolfi artistic director of Spellbound Dance Company in Rome, Italy. ‘Contact-Me’ connects the dancers in intense relationships of intertwining movements to the music of Jon Hopkins and the Italian Cellist Giovanni Sollima. I will also be performing in another premiere, this one by our very own artistic director Frank Chaves entitled ‘The Good Goodbyes’. Mr. Chaves has teamed up with Josephine Lee, Artistic Director of the Chicago Children’s Choir, who has written an original composition for the new work.? Lee will be performing live with the company on the Friday and Sunday performances. Finally, we are closing the show with a sultry suite of Argentinean tangos choreographed by Sabrina and Ruben Veliz entitled ‘Al Sur Del Sur’.

Tell me about your solo Ella.? What was it like working with Robert Battle?

‘Ella’ is a high energy comical solo set to Ella Fitzgerald scatting.? This piece is by far the fastest movement I have ever done that has everything and the kitchen sink.? Complete with quick articulated movements, a little tumbling, and Battle’s legendary “falls” that make your bones ache.? A couple of us in the company have come up with the term “Battle wounds” which is something you require from doing Robert Battles movement.? I love working with Robert Battle.? He has a wonderful sense of humor and it takes center stage in this solo.? He makes you want to push yourself beyond your limits and at the end of the day you end up surprising yourself.

Ok, Charles Moulton’s ball piece: really hard, fun or a just a pain in the ass?

Hahahaha!? All three! Charles Moulton’s ball piece was about as fun as a ten car pileup on the way to a wedding where you rear ended the bridal party.? In all seriousness, I had a great time with this challenge.? We had a little less than two weeks of learning patterns different types of passes, as well as run drills for what to do when you’ve dropped your ball. If you happened to fumble a ball, you had two spare behind your back secured by a cummerbund that you would whip out in a Billy-the-Kid fashion. I am happy to say that River North was up for Charles Moulton’s challenge and answered by not dropping a single ball at our first attempt on the Harris stage under the hot lights.

River North Dance Chicago presents Love is… Feb 10 & 11 at 8pm, Feb 12 at 3pm

Harris Theater, 205 E. Randolph. Tickets are $30-$75. Call 312.334.7777 or visit harristheaterchicago.org

Saturday, Feb 11 there is a post-show party with drinks and desserts, where you can mingle with the dancers.? Tickets are $25.

 

Review: River North Revamps

River North Dance Chicago (RNDC) performed their fall engagement at the Harris Theater over the weekend with a rep of seven diverse dances.? The company opened with what has become its signature piece, Sherry Zunker’s Evolution of a Dream.? Strong and consistent, it was the perfect opener for the show.? If you’re familiar with RNDC, you noticed quite a few unfamiliar faces.? Four new company dancers took the stage on Friday night with another one out due to a broken foot.? Dream and the ball piece (Charles Moulton’s Nine Person Precision Ball Passing), which since they don’t move from the waste down borderlines on dance for me, were the cleanest pieces in the show.? A lovely trio in Al Sur Del Sur featuring Jessica Wolfrum, Tucker Knox and Ahmad Simmons and the ever-stunning Train solo by Hanna Brictson were other stand outs.? Spotty unison, stumbles, wobbles and a handful of missed lifts had me witnessing an extreme rarity:? RNDC had an off night.

I’ve been watching RNDC deliver strong, solid seemingly perfect performances for almost 15 years, so the small flubs took me by surprise.? This is no condemnation of their talents – they are multitude – but this wasn’t their best showing.? The much-anticipated company premiere of Daniel Ezralow’s SUPER STRAIGHT is coming down opened the second half of the show (the perfect spot for it).? For those of us in the audience that had seen the original, and there were many, just hearing the opening note and seeing the hanging bags with the dancers inside brought back a flood of memories.? Fair or not, the RNDC dancers were dancing with the ghosts of the original cast with them on the stage.? A dapper Michael Gross in his suit brought Ron De Jes?s (who was in the audience) rolling across the stage.? Wolfrum in her black dress had Sandi Cooksey defying gravity, hovering inches above the floor.? Twenty two years after the premiere, these five dancers were bringing back a beloved (by many, especially me) piece and I wanted them to BRING IT!? On Friday, it seemed they brought a little and saved some for later.? Perhaps the excitement of seeing it for the very first time back in ’89 helped to create the illusion that vaulted the original cast to rock star status in the dance scene?? Maybe it was the difference between learning it fresh and resetting it?? It could any number of reasons that it didn’t hold the same sway with me this time.? I have no doubt that RNDC will continue to grow and evolve with this work, but this time out, it didn’t live up to the hype.? Especially my own.

 

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 Chaves’ 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 Chaves every choreographed in 1994, Fix?, 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 Chaves, Sandi Cooksey, Ron De Jes?s, 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