CDF 12: Chicago Now

The Seldoms. Photo by Brian Kuhlmann.

Two men one-up each other while riding cherry pickers, oblivious to the audience that’s entering the theater.  One laments he should have been Spiderman, then declares, “I’m sticky” and proceeds to crawl, spider-like off the apparatus and onto the stage.  One aids the other in walking perpendicularly across the back wall.  A costume rack with hangers offers another challenge of manship that ends with one becoming a hanger with the other hanging off of him, upside down like a dress.  This behind-the-scenes show is an excerpt from This is Not a Dance Concert performed by two members of The Seldoms.  The funny, inventive piece opened the fifth night of the Chicago Dancing Festival (CDF).  Chicago Now included three mini performances showing a range of dance styles and a panel discussion about the Chicago dance scene moderated by dance journalist (and all around swell guy) Zac Whittenburg on the MCA Stage.  The stellar panel featured local artistic directors:  Carrie Hanson, The Seldoms; Ron De Jesús, Ron de Jesús Dance; Julie Nakagawa, DanceWorks Chicago and Lane Alexander, Chicago Human Rhythm Project.

Whittenburg lead the discussion, first breaking the ice by letting each guest give a little background.   “What were you doing in August 2007 (the inaugural year of CDF) and what are you doing now?”  The audience quickly found out these artists have lived, learned and loved dance for a long time and were going to bring a breadth of knowledge from different perspectives to the discussion.  Provacative questions regarding operational structures, time, space and funding challenges, the “ecology of interest, the line between cooperation and competition” kept the talk lively.  A half-time dance break featured two dancers from Ron De Jesús Dance in a breathtaking pas de deux about the Myth of Isis and Osiris.  The talk wrapped up with another question of time.  ”What do you hope to be doing in five years?”  Alexander: dancing more, composing more.  Nakagawa: creating an environment that feels open to experiment and opportunity and that includes the audience. De Jesus: wants a mature company and adds that “we (the community) have to be more creative in finding resources”. Hanson: to have a denser performance schedule.

What I feared could be a heady, intellectual (can dancers be wonky?) conversation was an intelligent, humorous, honest talk about the good and bad challenges facing the Chicago dance community.  It turns out that no matter what genre you’re working in or how long you’ve been around, these artists and companies all face the same battles.  The evening ended with the audience being “danced out” by the Footworkingz, a local troupe that Whittenburg saw at an exhibition a few years ago. He’s a big fan.  Now, we are too.

Dance For Life Artist Spotlight: Lizzie MacKenzie

Dance For Life performer Lizzie MacKenzie.

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

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

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

What brought you to Chicago?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How is working with Ron?

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

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

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

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

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

What’s in your future?

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

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

 

 

CDF12 Programming Update

Dance writer/lecturer Zachary Whittenburg. Photo by Benjamin Wardell.

Today, the Chicago Dancing Festival (CDF) announced the programming for the Chicago Now lecture/demonstration at the Museum of Contemporary Art on Friday, August 24 at 6 pm.  A discussion on the current state of dance in Chicago will be moderated by journalist and former dancer Zac Whittenburg (go Zac!), featuring a panel of distinguished Chicago dance leaders, including Lane Alexander (Chicago Human Rhythm Project), Ron De Jesús (Ron De Jesús Dance), Carrie Hanson (The Seldoms) and Julie Nakagawa (DanceWorks Chicago). The program will include brief performances by The Seldoms, Ron De Jesús Dance and FootworKINGz.

Tickets for the Chicago Now program become available Thursday, July 18 at 12 pm in person at the MCA Stage Box Office, 220 E. Chicago Avenue, or by calling 312-397-4010.  Tickets will go fast!  Good luck – this is sure to be a great conversation.

Autumn in the City

Autumn Eckman in the studio. Photo by Mike Canale.

I’m not talking about the turning leaves, chilly weather and shorter days, but dancer/choreographer Autumn Eckman.  An artist that has danced with Giordano Jazz Dance Chicago (GJDC), Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, Luna Negra Dance Theater, Lucky Plush Productions, Ron De Jesús Dance, as well as choreographed for Instruments of Movement, Inaside Chicago Dance, Northwest Ballet Ensemble, Indiana Ballet Theatre, just to name a few.  She’s also on faculty at Northern Illinois University, teaches at a number of area studios and serves as Artistic Associate and Rehearsal Director for GJDC and Director of Giordano II.  To put it mildly – Autumn, 34, is everywhere these days.

This weekend at the Harris Theater, Eckman will premiere a new work, Alloy, as GJDC takes the stage for its fall engagement.  The first performance of the 2011-2012 season titled Passion and Fire will showcase seven numbers including two premiere, one of which is Eckman’s.  Other pieces include Gus Giordano’s signature work Sing, Sing, Sing (1983),  last season’s ballroom hit Sabroso (2010), former GJDC dancer Jon Lehrer’s Like 100 Men (2002), a restaging of Davis Robertson’s 2005 work Being One, a world premiere by Kiesha Lalama and Eckman’s Yes, and…! from 2010.

I talked with Eckman over the phone last week as she was walking to rehearsal about her process and her inspiration.

You’re a busy lady.  What is a typical day for you?

A regular Giordano day?  They start class at 9:30 and we rehearse until 4:00pm.  Usually I’m off teaching class somewhere in the evenings.  In addition to choreographing, rehearsal directing, mentoring and guiding the second company, I’ve also been rehearsal directing the first company in preparation for the upcoming shows and tours.  For this concert, I’m helping get six pieces up and running, cleaned and polished and rehearsed.  It’s a big task, but fun.  

Who are your choreographic influences?

I take a lot of inspiration from books.  I draw my influence off of the vocabulary of the dances that I’ve done with each different company.  It’s so ingrained in my body that I try to make it my own and formulate my own style.  I love all the choreographers from my time at Hubbard Street -  Nacho (Duato), Ohad (Naharin), (William) Forsythe, but I also love jazz choreographers.  Randy Duncan has been a big influence.  I love Harrison McEldowney.  I have been inspired by the work and working with Robert Battle. Other dancers include the great entertainers of our time: Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire. I grew up watching their films along with the works of Busby Berkley. I was obsessed with his pattern making for film and dance.  In terms of the dance itself, I am often inspired by the way a writer would write or compose a song for start to finish: the verse, the chorus, the bridge, etc. I aspire to make dance the way a good song takes you on a journey.

When you choreograph something, what is your process or does it change?

I write everything down.  I could own stock in Post-It notes.  Everything is kind of disorganized, but if I have an idea, I grab a pen and write it down or if I see something, I’ll write down something…like a couple walking in the park.  Then I’ll hear a piece of music that will, in my mind, fit the idea.  It’s kind of like playing match up.  I have these really diverse ranges of music that I know I want to eventually use and finding what matches it and trying to build a story to it.  Sometimes it’s about the movement.  I like moving for movement’s sake as well.

For your premiere, Alloy, what was the impetus for it?

KRESA (Kalamazoo Regional Educational Service Agency) had asked me to choreograph a piece.  They asked for a duet.  I was really excited.  I hadn’t pushed myself to see how strong my work was in that aspect.  It’s a mixture.  I researched the word alloy and then it took on this metallicy, liquid kind of tone.  Two people that will do anything to be with each other, be one…a blend.

So the idea, the word and the concept came first and then you added music?

Yeah.  I wanted to try classical piano…listened to a simple score and see how that worked.  I knew I wanted to use soft, simple music.  Sometimes I think less is more.

You reworked it for GJDC.  How has it changed – or has it?

Nan (Giordano) had seen the dancers rehearsing.  She approached me and said she wanted it for the fall concert.  Can we add this to it?  Can we have these two dancers (Devin Buchanan and Ashley Lauren Smith)?  She loved the look of their body types together and thought they’d be a great partnering. Turns out, they are great together. They have great chemistry and it took on a sexier, really stripped down tone.   It really came all about their sensuality, their body and their movement and how they…even one touch, how that reacts to each other.  It took on a deeper, more personal tone when I worked on it the second time.  I’m extremely happy with the results.  It’s always my goal to see where jazz dance is going and how to push boundaries of what jazz dance is.  I think this is just another direction – for the company as well.  Another boundary being pushed.

Giordano Jazz Dance Chicago, Oct 21 & 22 at 8pm

Harris Theater, 205 E. Randolph, 312.334.7777