On Philip Elson’s Terms

“Technology is challenging the way we experience life,” he said. “As a society, we are fascinated by its nonhuman capabilities while abusing it to learn more about how people live their lives.” In his first evening-length work, emerging choreographer Philip Elson explores life in the digital age using multiple disciplines to create a new dance-theater work. You may have seen him on stage performing with The Seldoms, Same Planet Different World, and Khecari, among others, but this weekend, he’s in charge and he’s taking the stage on his own terms.

One of his many jobs aside from dancer, choreographer, sound designer, Technology and Media Coordinator is Apple Genius, so aside from perhaps taking inspiration from his Seldoms’ director Carrie Hanson by creating an issue-based work, he’s an expert in tech and diving into how our digital lives have changed us seems like an inevitable subject for him. “We have become so accustomed to a certain type of living and relating to others,” Elson said. “These ways of life are being disrupted by concerns of privacy and it changes how we interact with each other.” (In fact, we even conducted this interview via email.)

For all the upsides of being “connected”, Elson is well aware of the down including identity theft, annoying pop-up ads or “blindly agreeing to something without understanding the consequences”. He uses spoken text, video projection and, of course, dance to investigate the balance of digital consumption. Are we consuming it or is it consuming us? The forward-thinking Elson is already toying with idea of taking this show viral. “I’m thinking about reworking it to fit on a digital platform, meaning the entire work would be consumed either through a computer, tablet, or smartphone and somehow be interactive.” That sounds super cool, but first go see it live.

Philip Elson presents Terms and Conditions, Friday-Sunday, March 14-16 at 7 pm at Links Hall at Constellation, 3111 N. Western Ave. Tickets are $10 and can be purchased here

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.

Dance Center Announces 40th Anniversary Season

Cloud Gate Dance Theatre dancer WANG Wei-ming in "Songs of the Wanderers". Photo by YU Hui-hung.

The Dance Center of Columbia College marks its 40th anniversary season with an exciting range of dance companies from around the world. Along with staple local and international modern companies, the season welcomes a number of hip hop and urban artists to the roster. Nods to the past, present and a look toward an interesting, if changing, future?

Notable touring company Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan returns to Chicago next March and will be co-presented with the Joffrey Ballet and the Auditorium Theatre. (*This performance will be at the Auditorium.) A French hip hop choreographer sets work on young dancers from Brazil for an explosive show by Compagnie Kafig performing in February 2014. Other traveling companies include multiple award-winning Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, Philadelphia-based choreographer Raphael Xavier, as well as New York-based Susan Marshall and Company. A co-commissioned by the Dance Center will feature a work about migration out of Africa through the “lens of Moses stories” by Reggie Wilson/Fist & Heel Performance Group.

Local troupes to hit the South Loop stage include Mordine & Company Dance Theater, Same Planet Different World and Peter Carpenter Performance Project (joint program), and Khecari and The Humans (joint program). Also look for Family Matinee performances throughout the season.

For more information on the 2013-2014 season, visit colum.edu/Dance_Center.

Flyspace: A Dance Consortium

Four women: founders, directors, choreographers, administrators and artists. Four women working together to elevate the visibility and grow audiences for their perspective modern dance companies. Four women: Jan Bartoszek, Margi Cole, Michelle Kranicke and Joanna Rosenthal. These four women are launching FLYSPACE, a strategic partnership and consortium, with two weekends of shared performances at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park. Hedwig Dances and Same Planet Different World share the closed-in, outdoor stage this weekend followed by The Dance COLEctive and Zephyr Dance next weekend.

FLYSPACE has been flying around the media recently, garnering tons of press for its unique approach to sharing resources. A meeting with Arts Work Fund director Marcia Festen between eight local female company leaders sparked the conversation and inspiration for the consortium. The discussion revolved around how to share resources and knowledge to help each other, which in turn would help each individual company. As mid-career, female, acclaimed artists, why are the economics not aligning with your accomplishments? Why are you still struggling? Obviously the economic downturn had a say, but a shift in funder focus to new and emerging artists added to the problem. “There’s a shift that happened, which kind of left us standing in the wind with our pants down,” said co-chair Cole.

Energized by the conversation, but realistic about the challenges, the group eventually shrank to four partners and FLYSPACE really took off. “To everyone’s credit, there was a real commitment,” said Kranicke, also a co-chair. “I think those that opted out did so because they realized they couldn’t give to the partnership the amount of energy that it was suddenly becoming clear it would need. It’s like taking on another job.” The group quickly discovered that technology would be a key factor in their success. “We recognized that our challenge is that we’re a one-man-show, for the most part,” said Cole. “Our audience walks up and buys a ticket. They don’t buy in advance, so it’s really difficult to get information. If we’re lucky enough to have them fill out a survey, who is going to enter all that data? I am. I’ve got grants to write and dances to make, so maybe technology is the way to solve the challenge.”

Cole and Kranicke make it clear that this is not an artistic collaboration, but a consortium with a shared interest. “The intention of the shared show and the launch is to showcase what we do,” said Cole. “We are dance companies. We are all different. Kranicke adds, “Our interests are strictly business. We operate to try to advance and extend our visibility and enhance our marketing, but we maintain our individual aesthetics.” The ladies of FLYSPACE have set goals with hopes of creating a national model for similar artistic entities and look to expand the FLYSPACE group in the future. “It is not an exclusive organization,” Kranicke said. “We are at a point where we’re still developing certain parts of the partnership, so we aren’t looking for new members at this time, but that won’t always be the case.” Cole said, “We want to have a solid structure before we bring more people in. We put an awful lot of time and energy into it and I’d like to see it sustain itself whether I’m sitting at the table or not.” A running joke between the partners is that between them they have over 100 years of arts administrative experience. With that kind of experience beneath them, other companies will look to them as inspiration and perhaps as future partners.

FLYSPACE Dance Series: Hedwig Dances and Same Planet Different World, Friday-Saturday, April 5-6 at 7 pm and Sunday, April 7 at 5 pm. The Dance COLEctive and Zephyr Dance, Friday-Saturday, April 12-13 at 7 pm and Sunday, April 14 at 5 pm at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, 201 E. Randolph St. Tickets are $15, visit flyspacechicago.brownpapertickets.com.

Wunderkind Whittenburg

Zachary Whittenburg - photo by Todd Rosenberg.

If you’re at all familiar with the Chicago dance scene, you know his name.  He’s been a dancer, choreographer, teacher, student, panel moderator, writer, critic and “insatiable audience member.” Locally, he’s danced with Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, Lucky Plush Productions, Same Planet Different World Dance Theatre and Molly Shanahan/Mad Shak. After graduating high school two years early at age 16, he moved to Seattle to train at Pacific Northwest Ballet School and joined the company at 18. After three years at PNB performing works by choreographers ranging from George Balanchine to William Forsythe, he moved cross-country to dance with North Carolina Dance Theatre, where he was a soloist for a season before coming to Chicago to dance with Hubbard Street for two years.

He then traveled for a year performing Crystal Pite’s choreography with Les Ballets jazz de Montréal. He’s also written for many publications and websites including Flavorpill, See Chicago Dance, Windy City Times, Hoy Chicago, Time Out Chicago, Dance Magazine, Pointe Magazine, Dance International magazine (where he recently got the cover story!), Dance Teacher magazine, Dance Spirit magazine as well as his own blog, trailerpilot. Zac Whittenburg: wunderkind, indeed.

Now, Whittenburg is taking his career in a new direction. Almost a decade after dancing with Hubbard Street, he returns to join the external affairs team at the beginning of an exciting landmark season that will include a full-length world premiere by resident choreographer Alejandro Cerrudo, a work by Swedish choreographer Mats Ek and a collaboration with Alonzo King LINES Ballet.

I spoke with him over Labor Day weekend, just before he started in his new position.

When you danced with Hubbard Street, which choreographer or pieces were your favorites or that you had a deep experience with?


I’ll never forget the experience of learning “Minus 16″ [by Ohad Naharin]. It’s probably the piece I performed most when I was in the company. I might’ve done over 100 performances of it in two years. It’s such an extraordinary piece. It asks so much of the dancers as artists. We did a piece by Jirí Kylían for five dancers called “No More Play.” It runs like a wristwatch, the way the characters and the vocabulary intersect with each other, and how the sections turn from one into the next. I’d never been so close to something that was built that way. I learned so much about choreography just by being involved with that.

Why did you leave Hubbard Street?


Well, there are two answers to that question. A dancer’s career is very short, and things run their course. And it was around the time that I became aware of Crystal Pite’s choreography. I saw a video of “Short Works: 24,” which I think was the first piece she made while she was in residence [at Les Ballets jazz de] Montréal. I was aware of her when she was a member of Frankfurt Ballet, which sort of became today’s Forsythe Company, but hadn’t seen her choreography before. I wasn’t aware of the things she was doing using Forsythe’s movement vocabulary in a dance theater context. I thought that was really fascinating, and that she was doing it with a lot of intelligence and humor. I wanted to work with her. I had the wonderful fortune of doing Crystal’s evening-length work ["The Stolen Show"] all over Canada and in Asia and in the United States. To get to see so much of the world, and to have the reason for that travel be that you’re bringing this work to audiences all over…it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. There was a sense of purpose. A feeling that we were a company of ambassadors for contemporary dance.

Let’s talk about your new gig at Hubbard Street. What is your official job title and what will you be doing?


I’m going to be the company’s manager of communication. I have a pretty good understanding of what I’ll be doing, but of course, I’m not in the chair yet. It’s a great position because there are a lot of different angles to it. A large part of it is press relations and working with media outlets to get the word out about what the company is doing. That said, that comes in a variety of flavors. The conversations that I had in the interview process…we were talking about how the media landscape is changing. Part of this job is going to be working on getting the word out about a company when the channels about how the word gets out about a contemporary dance company like Hubbard Street are changing. There are new channels opening, old channels closing, a whole new landscape of how people receive information. I’m thrilled to walk into the challenge of, how do you work with that, and how do you get the most out of what the current media landscape is, anticipate how it’s going to change in the future and use all of that to your advantage, to make sure people know what Hubbard Street is doing, make sure they are aware of the variety of things we do in addition to the production and stage work, and how those things relate to one another. I’m excited to talk about our partnerships with other institutions and put stories in places where the company hasn’t been covered before.

You’re coming in right at the beginning of the 35th Anniversary Season, which is a big deal. What do you expect to be doing on day one?


I know I have a meeting on Tuesday morning with some other managers. It’s great that literally the first thing I’ll do is touch base with people in other departments to see what they’re doing and what they have planned for the near future. I haven’t been in that building very much in the last eight years. I have a lot of catching up to do, not only meeting the people that make the magic happen, but what the company’s overall strategies are. There are a lot of things that I’ve already learned about the 35th Anniversary season and there’s a lot more that I don’t know yet, so I imagine a lot of it will be about finding my place in relation to all those initiatives, cooperating with the other team members and figuring out how I can help them.

You know I like to joke around about how we’re arch nemeses, but I hope you really know that I’m a huge fan. Your voice, not only in the Chicago dance scene, but nationally, is really important and you have a big fan base, so what does your new job mean for trailerpilot?

The blog still exists. When I was full-time at Time Out Chicago, I wasn’t posting a lot. At this point, I’ve got 426 posts on the blog. It’s a big archive and I will continue to make the annual payments to make sure people can find it. I’ve always been interested in things other than just dance and choreography. I’m glad I’ll still have a place, where, if I go see a film and really have something to say about it, I can. My voice will still be out there, I’m still on Twitter, although long form writing about dance isn’t appropriate while I’m manager of communication for a dance company. I think, just in going back over my career with you, over the phone this morning, it’s just been one episode after another of all of these different things I’ve done, and all of my various experiences constantly coming back around and intersecting and sort of morphing together in new ways. Writing is one of those things. I’m certain that will continue. I don’t have my mouth stapled shut, but Hubbard Street is going to be the star in my sky. I love the company. I love where it’s been and where it’s going. I’m really looking forward to helping them get in front of more people and new audiences.


A Little Bit of Color

Dancer Gal Mahzari. Photo by Herbert Migdoll.

I guess there really isn’t a good time during the height of the dance season to leave town, so my taking a road trip this weekend lends to missing some great shows (my apologies to all).  Gus Giordano Dance Chicago is at the Harris Theater, the Dance Center has a shared bill with Space/Movement Project, Rachel Damon/Synapse Arts and Erica Mott, and Same Planet Different World celebrate turning 15! at the Victory Gardens Theater.  However, there is another show happening this Sunday, March 11th, that I hope gets a good audience too.

The Joffrey Academy of Dance presents the Choreographers of Color Award winners works at the Harris with a 4 p.m. show titled Winning Works.  This is the second year for the contest that highlights the work of young, minority choreographers.  The three winners are Carlos dos Santos, Jr., Ray Mercer and Bennyroyce Royon.  Each winner received a $2,500 stipend, 30 rehearsal hours and the chance to work with Joffrey Ballet Artistic Director Ashley Wheater and Academy Directors Alexei Kremnev and Anna Reznik.

Here are the deets – hope you can make it!

Tickets for the Winning Works: Choreographers of Color Award 2012 at the Harris Theater are $15 in advance and $18 at the door, available in advance by calling the Harris Theater Box Office at 312-334-7777 or online at www.harristheaterchicago.org.

A NU Group

There’s a new dance group in town.  Made up of a group of Northwestern University alumni, the NU Group will be showcasing new and reworked pieces for two consecutive weekends starting this Friday.  This is the first performance for the group made up of dancers, choreographers, lighting designers, tech crew and marketing gurus…all with Wildcat cred.  The idea born from Jeff Hancock (River North, Same Planet Different World and NU dance professor) highlights the ever-growing presence of NU grads in the dance scene. “I was putting it all together in my head one day,” says Hancock.  “I thought, wouldn’t it be cool to have a post-college concert where it was curated pieces by everybody…created by them, designed by them and presented as the fruits of the program.”

Reaching out via the college’s network, he asked for choreographic contributions, held an audition and selected the artists represented in the show.  Aside from two dancers that are seniors in the dance program at NY, and Hancock himself, everyone is an alum.  With so many creative forces collaborating, it could’ve been a nightmare, but Hancock set a structure and everything fell into place.  “I wanted to keep it to recreating excerpts or refashioning pieces that already exist, because I knew we’d have a very low budget and not a lot of time,” he says.  “I was trying to set up a model that would be beneficial to everybody.  We divided time up into little islands where each choreographer was the director of that part of the show, so I’m really curating.”  Choreographers include Julia Rhoades (Artistic Director) and Meghann Wilkinson (dancer) of Lucky Plush, Peter Carpenter, Adam Gauzza of Same Planet Different World, Annie Beserra of Striding Lion, Michala Stock of New York’s Eyes of A Blue Dog and Hancock.  Incorporating text, singing, rhythm work, humor and ingenious theatrical and choreographic devices, this one-of-a-kind showcase will make you stop, think, laugh and enjoy.

The Building Stage, 1044 W Kinzie

April 22 & 23 at 8 pm

Marjorie Ward Marshall Ballroom Theater, 10 Arts Circle, Evanston

April 29 & 30 at 8 pm

Tickets:  brownpapertickets.com