I’m so excited to finally share the first episode of the Rogue Ballerina podcast! I chatted with the ever-charming Christopher Wheeldon about two of his “reimagined” ballets, his upcoming project on Broadway, and what has kept him busy and sane during the pandemic.
You can access the first episode on Apple Podcasts (which includes Overcast, Castro, Castbox, Pocketcasts, and Podfriend apps), Spotify, and PodcastAddict. It will be available soon on other platforms. Stay tuned for updates. Or, you can listen to it right here!
Welcome to the Rogue Ballerina podcast. My first guest is Christopher Wheeldon. If you haven’t heard of him, then you’ve been living under a rock for the past couple of decades. He studied and danced at The Royal Ballet, he was a soloist and the first resident choreographer at the New York City Ballet, he was on the cover of Dance Magazine, he founded his own company Morpheses, he choreographed the closing ceremony for the Olympics, and he has has created numerous ballets for companies and operas around the world.
His many awards include an O.B.E. designation from Queen Elizabeth II and a Tony Award for Best Choreography for An American In Paris. If I were to list all of his accolades, we would be here all day, so to learn more go to his website at christopherwheeldon.com. Aside from his many professional accomplishments, he is one of the nicest and most down-to-earth people I know. You can listen to our conversation here.
The Joffrey Ballet’s YouTube page offers many behind-the-scenes videos for Swan Lake and The Nutcracker. You can read the program from the 2016 world premiere here, and you can view the Emmy Award-winning documentary The Making of a New American Nutcracker at wttw.com/nutcracker. The Art on the Mart exhibition mentioned in the podcast was also featured in the Chicago Tribune.
HUGE thanks to Christopher Wheeldon for being such a gracious guinea pig and my brother – Michael Crain – for writing my theme music and sound editing. You can learn more about Ross Rayburn’s yoga classes at Peleton and follow him on Instagtram @rossrayburnyoga.
Don’t forget to subscribe and rate the podcast on your favorite platform, and follow me on social @rogueballerina.
Since we likely won’t be going to the theater to see a performance anytime soon, I’ve decided to start having a recurring “dinner and a show” segment to satiate my appetites for dance and food where I’ll cook a meal and pair it with a dance video – likely heavy on the ballet – for a relaxing evening of culinary culture. I will share recipes, information on the dance content, and some fun tips along the way: Cooking with Rogue!
I enjoy the process of cooking more than eating the finished product (usually). It’s similar to writing for me. You’re still using your brain and hands, but there are step-by-step instructions as a guideline in a recipe as opposed to creating the content from scratch. As much as I like having rules, I love breaking them! I like to play around with things when I cook to varying degrees of success. But since it’s usually only me, who cares.
I’ve been OBSESSED with Asian food and flavors for a while. I have two cabinet shelves dedicated to Asian sauces, spices, and ingredients. My favorite place to shop is Hong Kong Market (Park & Shop!) in Uptown. I tend to spend an hour at a time looking through the store because I find it fascinating and I don’t know what the hell I’m looking for most of the time (pictures help). Often I have a post-it with an ingredient list and just show someone who works there – again – with varying degrees of success. So expect a ton of Asian dishes. Leave it to me to come up with a good dance and wine pairing*.
For this inaugural “Dinner & a Show” we have the Sichuan classic Dan Dan Noodles paired with Alexander Ekman’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. The thought behind this is the noodles are really spicy and spicy food gives you nightmares – Act 2 of Midsummer is basically a crazy nightmare, and viola. Pair with Chardonnay…always. *This will be a running joke because I pair everything with Chardonnay.
I used this recipe from The Woks of Life. It uses a LOT of ingredients, is VERY labor intensive, and took me WAY longer than the recipe says to finish. First you make the chili oil (it makes more than needed so you have some leftover for everything else you put it on…like everything). Then comes the meat mixture, the sauce, and finally the noodles and veg.
Chili oil. This Sh*t is HOT!
I left out the star anise from the chili oil. I don’t like the taste of black licorice and there is already some in the Chinese 5 spice blend. I substituted ground turkey for the pork, because it’s leaner and that’s what I had in my fridge leftover from the Labor Day turkey burger fiasco (blergh). It has this strange, but delicious fermented vegetable stuff called sui mi ya cai (this was the pointing at a post-it moment). I chose bok choy as my leafy green and scallions – always! – for the garnish. Otherwise, I stuck close to the recipe. It calls for 1/2 cup of the chili oil in the sauce which also has more peppercorns. This is a “spicy, numbing” dish, so it be hot! It doesn’t seem so at first, then you start to feel it….and sweat…and your lips burn…and you need water…and holy crap! But it tastes so good, you keep going back for another bite. I like that 🙂
Now for the show portion of this culinary coupling: Ekman’s Midsummer. My first viewing was the BelAir Classiques dvd of the Royal Swedish Ballet, the company for which it was created. The marketing team at Joffrey watched it to prep for the 2017-2018 season and, honestly, I thought…WTF is that? It’s definitely not something “our” ballet dancers are used to performing. What will our audience think? It was a big risk – and it totally paid off. Everyone who saw it LOVED it! This peek into the mad genius mind of Ekman was an all-evening event, not just a show. Team Sweden: Marie-Louise Sid-Sylwander, Preston McBrain, and Joakim Stephenson made the process a joy. I love these people.
Or, you can also splurge like I did and purchase a subscription to Marquee TV (Thanks IDES!) and watch Midsummer and other Ekman works there. Bon Appetit and sweet dreams!
Creativity doesn’t stop just because there’s a pandemic. Joffrey dancers Xavier Nunez and Evan Boersma got together to make this awesome dance film short, Interval. Performance by Evan (Go Evan!), choreographed and filmed by Xavi, with an assist in sound editing (and maybe a few intro/outro beats) by Dylan Gutierrez.
Here’s a quick Q&A with the mastermind behind the film.
Rogue Ballerina: How/why did you do this project?
Xavi Nunez: It happened?spontaneously. I started playing with lighting early in the day for an idea I had. When I showed my roommate Evan the results, he said, “Let’s film it tonight.” So, out of boredom?and creativity,?we conceptualized, filmed, and choreographed it in one day.?
RB: What was your inspiration?
XN: I think the?past few months of monotony and feeling stuck in a loop inspired the idea.? However, the music provided the blueprint for movement and video/editing.?
RB: How did you get into video/editing?
XN: I used to be obsessed with watching people’s short films on YouTube. Then I decided to try and make something myself as a hobby. I think quarantine really brought the love back to me. There’s?so much to learn but its a way to get my creative mind flowing when we can’t be in our usual dance spaces.?
RB: Thanks for the behind-the-scenes pic. It really shows the “magic” of filmmaking.
XN: Our?space was funny considering how the video turned out. In the?film, it feels like a studio, but if you were on the other side you’d see a room that looked?like it had just been ransacked. My bed was flipped on its side. Windows covered in garbage bags to not allow light to enter. We had a prop tied to the ceiling fan to make it float. We just ran with it and fixed problems with duct tape.?
Definition of unpack: transitive verb 1a:?to remove the contents of unpack?a suitcase. b:?UNBURDEN,?REVEAL ??unpack?my heart with words? William Shakespeare. Yes, and…both.
The suitcase in the pic below holds the contents of seven years of my life. It has been sitting in my hallway for almost two months, ever since I cleaned out my cubicle at Joffrey. It haunts me. I am afraid of it. I know when I open and unload its contents that means my time at Joffrey is really over.
Dramatic and cliche, but it has been a rollercoaster of emotions. Extreme highs and lows: one of my best friends and mentor dressed up like a glittery princess and read my book for an LGBTQ family charity – I watched it on my way downtown to clean out my desk; I announced I’m launching a podcast – as I received my final paycheck; I had a really great, creative idea – then realized my insurance runs out on Tuesday. No way around the fact that losing your job fucking sucks. I count myself lucky to have worked with some truly amazing and compassionate people. I miss them daily.
As I dive into projects (freelance writing, blogging, launching the podcast, selling my children’s book, printing a coloring book – more to come on these things later!), I’m also navigating a mountain of paperwork (I hate adulting!) and the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. My job was quite literally my life for seven years and the grief of losing it is very real. At almost eight weeks out, I find myself bobbing between depression and acceptance. Perhaps unpacking that suitcase will be the closure I need.
Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, the Columbian-Belgian choreographer of international acclaim, brings her talents back to Chicago – virtually, of course. It Was All A Dream is the fifth in a series of video collaborations meant to give artists around the world a way to express themselves during the pandemic when most are confined close to or within their homes. “I wanted to make a diary…what are the artists doing?” said Lopez Ochoa. “These short videos give a stage to the dancers who have been ripped off their stages.”
For the most recent video (released today), Lopez Ochoa teamed up with some of our hometown favorites from The Joffrey Ballet. Jeraldine Mendoza and Dylan Gutierrez, along with their pup Kahlua, are featured in the video. Gutierrez also composed the music, and Xavier N??ez (another Joffrey dancer) edited the video. “The movie is about two dancers dreaming that they go outside,” Lopez Ochoa said. “Hopefully when we all look back at 2020, it will be like a distant, bad dream.”
“Even though it’s about the pandemic, it’s not sad,” said Mendoza. “It’s still light and hopeful.” Gutierrez agrees, “It’s meant to uplift and be fun. It’s a three-minute break.” While all are proud of the final product, the process of creating a short work via Zoom was a bit of a challenge, but one everybody was ready to overcome. Lopez Ochoa had some practice having worked with other artists on videos previously. Her first foray into filmmaking was a learning experience. She obtained a mentor – a Dutch cameraman – who was not impressed by her first effort. He told her to broaden her vision and think 360 degrees around the dancers.
Lopez Ochoa met Mendoza and Gutierrez in 2015 while in Chicago creating the world premiere Mammatus for the Joffrey. They suggested bringing N??ez on board and the process began in May. “At the point when she asked us, we hadn’t been doing anything,” Mendoza said. “We were obviously excited to work with Annabelle, but also excited to have a schedule and something to work towards.” Described by the choreographer as “contemporary classical with a pedestrian touch,” it really creates the feel of a day in the life of the couple. And aside from the cameos of Kahlua, the real star of the video is the city of Chicago.
The connecting of choreography, music, and video editing make it a true collaboration. One facet does not overtake the others. Gutierrez had worked with Lopez Ochoa previously on music for her piece Delicious Pesticides and their process was refined for this project. With N??ez coming on to edit, it was more of a journey. “I knew from editing the other films that you always have to translate,” Lopez Ochoa said. “He was very respectful of the choreography, but I told him that once you put it on video, it becomes something else. You have to remake the choreography. This is just material for you to play with.” N??ez accepted the challenge and the team worked together on the final product (which was changing up to the last minute). “It was evolving the whole time,” Gutierrez said. “We weren’t sure if the order should stay the same as how it was choreographed. It really speaks to Xavi’s creativity to take something he’d already finished and completely mix it up. It’s so cool and so hard to deconstruct something and make it better.”
Technical artistry aside, the real upside to the project was dancing…actually dancing. Like most companies, the Joffrey has been “off” since mid-March. There are daily classes offered, but that can get redundant and how many battements can you do holding on to your kitchen counter before you go crazy? (Can someone do this experiment? I’d really like to know.) “It was really nice,” said Mendoza. “The motivating factor was Annabelle watching us. To have someone watch us, direct us, tell us what to do, what intention we should have behind the steps…it keeps you going. You get lost in the moment. It was really reminiscent of going back to work.” Lopez Ochoa adds,”The most interesting part as a choreographer in the studio or on Zoom, is not making steps, but talking about intentions and seeing dancers transform and commit to the character or the situation they are playing. That’s when they can lose themselves. It’s beautiful to watch.” Well, watch for yourself.
We got to keep this world together, got to keep it moving straight
Love like we mean forever, so that people can relate
If you’re rolling to your left, don’t forget I’m on the right
Trust and forgive each other
A little love and we just might
Seal: Get It Together (lyrics)
Dance for Life (DFL), the annual fundraiser and performance that serves as the unofficial opening of Chicago’s fall dance season – much like everything else – is going online this year. Chicago Dancers United (CDU) presents Dance For Life 2020: United as One this week, culminating in a “virtual event” this Saturday evening at 6:30 PM CST. With social distancing guidelines still firmly in place and large indoor gatherings fodder for dreams, the 29th annual DFL will follow the path of most everyone and take to Zoom.
The 2020 line-up is bigger than usual too. Since everything is online, they can feature more companies works – 15 to be exact. You can access all the videos on the Chicago Dancers United (CDU) website and each day, they will feature three in a dedicated eblast and on social media. The week culminates with the final event (“not finale”) including a world premiere by Hanna Brictson to Get It Together by the artist Seal. “Hanna is a wonderfully talented and gifted dancer and choreographer,” said Randy Duncan, a CDU board member and frequent choreographer of DFL finales over the past 29 years. “Her work with large groups is astounding.” Michael Anderson, DFL’s artistic director agrees. “Hanna’s piece is lovely. She’s done such a great job. She’s the right generation and understands choreographing for the screen.”
Brictson admits the process wasn’t easy. “It was the hardest project I’ve done in my life,” she said. “I didn’t sleep for like two months, but I would do it again a million times.” Scheduling, casting, teaching choreography by video, lack of rehearsal time, structuring, oh – and social distancing created multiple roadblocks, but she persevered. With the aid of two dancers, she created 37 videos to teach 23 dancers the piece. They had one in-person rehearsal without everyone attending and an hour to rehearse and for HMS Media to film at the C5 studios. “The amount of situations to overcome was stressful, especially when you don’t have any bodies to create on. I did my best with imagining what might be cool, but when I choreographed it, I was still working with the limitation that the dancers couldn’t move outside of a box.”
The end result is a snapshot of our current reality. A group of dancers performing side-by-side, not touching, wearing masks in a large space, and still giving it their all. It is inspiring, heartwarming, and just a little sad at the same time. No costumes, no lighting, no Auditorium Theatre, no raucous crowd. It shows us what we have temporarily lost, while also proving that we still have each other. “I wanted it to be homey, inviting, and warm,” Brictson said. “It was very important to me to have dancers from different facets of the community. I really wanted to do something energetic and welcoming. I want people to have some joy.”
Remember CDU is a non-profit and DFL is a fundraiser, so while all of the videos showcasing companies from past years are available on the website, you do need to make a donation (I just did!) to access the final event, including Brictson’s world premiere. Your donation can be as small as $20 and the resources go to help The Dancers’ Fund and other CDU partners. “We are excited to continue our new partnership with the American Cancer Society and longtime partner the AIDS Foundation Chicago,” Anderson said.
Holding a fundraising event online has its own set of challenges, however there is a silver lining: an expanded audience. “It was definitely a benefit. that we can increase the number of companies we can showcase,” Anderson said. “It’s been wonderful for me to back into the archives and see all of these performances from the last 29 years.” And Duncan said, “The virtual gala and presentation gives us the opportunity to go nationwide, if not global! I have friends who will be watching from the Middle East and Europe.”
Dance For Life 2020: United as One, August 10-15. Donations of $20 or more provide exclusive access to the finale event hosted by NBC Chicago’s Cortney Hall and Matthew Rodrigues at 6:30 PM CST on Saturday, August 15. All programming is subject to change. All events are available at chicagodancersunited.org.
*Editor’s note: Like most other non-profit arts organizations, CDU had to make budget cuts (I have some first-hand experience in that arena). Earlier this year, they eliminated the Executive Director position. I know this decision created controversy in the Chicago dance community. I’m not discounting anyone’s views or concerns, but I am choosing not to address this here and instead focus on the positivity and community spirit that DFL brings each year. We need that now more than ever. I have a long history with DFL. I attended my first performance in 1998 when I first moved (back) to Chicago and months before that, I danced on the DFL/Roscoe’s float in the Pride Parade. It holds a special place in my little dancer heart ❤️ My unsolicited advice to DFL/CDU? Remember who you are…(said in a James Earl Jones as Mufasa voice).
Hiiiiieeeeee! It’s me. Rogue. It’s been a while…almost four years since my last post and since 2013 they have been few and far between. I suddenly find myself with a LOT of time on my hands, so look out. The Bitch Is Back.?(Sorry Mom, but it’s kind of my brand.)
For the last seven years, I worked in the Marketing department at The Joffrey Ballet. It was the most challenging, difficult, amazing, and rewarding experience of my professional work life. Some of those memories I hope to reflect on in this space. To have that suddenly gone is personally devastating, but hopefully soon, the grieving process will end and I will be left with only happy memories (read: unlimited viewings of The Nutcracker!).
I’ve spent most of my life in some way dedicated to dance as a dancer, teacher, administrator, writer, critic, marketer, and patron. It’s what I love. So, heads up! If you’re involved in the dance community in Chicago, the U.S. or abroad, I will be reaching out for interviews. I’m almost 52, and I have a lot of shit left to do. Let’s get to it. Go rogue.
Sansano in rehearsal at the Hubbard Street Dance Center. Photo by Todd Rosenberg.
It’s been a while since Chicago has seen Gustavo Ram?rez Sansano. In 2013, Luna Negra Dance Theatre, where he had been Artistic Director for three years, suddenly folded leaving an artistic hole in the Chicago dance community. His quick, quirky, dense choreography and innate musicality have been missed – as well as his smile, laugh and spirit, for those close to him. Now, almost two years after his abrupt departure, he’s back creating a world premiere for Hubbard Street Dance Chicago (HSDC), a powerhouse of contemporary dance in the U.S.
Since leaving Chicago, he has kept busy choreographing around the world for the likes of Ballet Met (The Rite of Spring premieres in May), Ballet BC and Ballet Hispanico (who will be performing Carmen.maquia in April at the Joyce Theater in NYC). He’s booked for the next two years with projects including a full-length Giselle, where his Giselle will be a nun. Pieces of Luna Negra still exists as he has enlisted the help of some of his former dancers, or “Lunatics”,? to help him reset favorites from the Luna Negra rep like 18 +1 and Flabbergast. His recent and brief appointment as Artistic Director at National Ballet of Wales made headlines and left just as quickly as it came. (The official story is too many outside scheduling conflicts.)
Sansano had five weeks working with the HSDC dancers to set his new work for 12 dancers, an ode to George Balanchine titled I Am Mr. B. He was inspired by Mr. B’s Theme and Variations, which Sansano first danced at age 19. “I didn’t dance until the end of the piece, so I had many, many times to see it. I couldn’t explain why, but it provoked this feeling of happiness in me,” he said at HSDC’s West Loop studios. “Balanchine took ballet from a story ballet to a more conceptual ballet, which is a more contemporary way of choreographing. I don’t like long ballets – they’re boring. He made it more interesting. He took the important stuff and put it in a shorter piece. Of all the classical choreographers, Balanchine made me see whole pieces.”
Sansano’s long-time collaborator, set designer Luis Crespo creates an on-stage world dressed, as the dancers are, like Mr. B. in a white shirt with a black tie. Former HSDC dancer Mario Zambrano adds text to layer the already intricate choreography. Balanchine’s famous quote – “See the music, hear the dance” – is also an inspiration for the choreographer.? “It’s so simple. Sometimes as a choreographer, we go so far…I like to remind the dancers that at the end of the day, you like to dance. The most important thing is the dance.”
At first, I was curious why they chose to bring this program considering Chicago audiences recently saw Robbins’ Fancy Free (Stars of the American Ballet) and Nine Sinatra Songs (The Joffrey Ballet) a few weeks ago at the Chicago Dancing Festival, but witnessing the audience reaction to these works left no doubt they made the right choice.?Opening with the piquantly performed Bach Partita set the tone, showing off the talent and breadth of the massive company right out of the gate…or curtain. ABT smartly used the fame juggernaut that is Misty Copeland in promoting the performances, but Gillian Murphy was the star of this piece. Tharp’s brisk and difficult choreography was a breeze for Murphy who never missed a beat and was expertly partnered by the handsome Marcelo Gomes (who just danced the lead in Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake in Japan).
Tippet’s breezy duet danced by Sarah Lane (dance double for Natalie Portman in Black Swan) and Sterling Baca was a delightful, if too long interlude before the other Tharp piece stole the show. Sinatra Suite uses five of the nine duets from her Nine Sinatra Songs to blockbuster effect with the famous and formidable coupling of Copeland and Gomes. The audience gasped as the two entered from the wings to Sinatra’s crooning voice. Having seen this work many times over the past decades, I was not expecting anything new, but the charisma and obvious fun they were having was truly infectious and made the overdone piece seem fresh.
By now, the touring troupe had the audience in its grip and closing with Robbins’ Fancy Free, in hindsight, seems perfect. The fun dance theater piece about three young sailors on leave looking for action took the audience on a sweet ride. It was a real treat to see long-time friend of the blog Daniil Simkin (now a principal dancer) as one of the sassy sailors. Special mention goes to the Chicago Philharmonic Orchestra – always fantastic – and, in particular, violinist Charles Yang, who played brilliant solos for the first two pieces of the evening.
American Ballet Theatre performs today at 2:00 PM at the Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress Pkwy. Tickets are $34-$129, call 800.982.2787. Use code: JOFFREY for 20% off tickets.?
*Disclosure: I work for The Joffrey Ballet and the Chicago Philharmonic Orchestra is our resident orchestra.?
PRODUCE, your favorite multi-disciplinary, sound/movement, moderated, improvy, avant garde, real-time mash-up is presenting its final season after continued success in its first three. Why? To borrow one cultural reference: Ain’t nobody got time for that! Host and producer Lauren Warnecke, along wither myriad other jobs, is going back to school for her doctorate starting this fall, leaving less time for projects as labor-intensive as PRODUCE.
Warnecke uses different cultural references to explain. “You know how in Saved By The Bell, everybody graduated and went to college and the show got really bad and awkward? The same thing is happening on GLEE and I want to cut it off before the ‘college years’, before I’m forced to,” she said. “I want to have it go out with a bang. I felt like last year people were just starting to know about it. So in some ways, it’s a major publicity stunt to get people to come. Obviously, it’s a one-time publicity stunt. I’m not saying I’ll never do it again, but I’m using this final season to promote the show. If you haven’t seen this yet, you should. It might be your last opportunity. I want to end it while it’s still good and the experiment is still interesting.”
The “experiment” takes artists chosen from an open call and presents them in a non-traditional format, mixing and matching partners, timing, spacing, music, etc. into a new, in-the-moment, live work with real-time feedback from the hosts and audience. While deciding whether or not to even go forward with Season 4, Warnecke says peer pressure made her do it. Everyone she talked to urged her to keep doing it, stating its importance. Co-producer Julie Ballard weighed in on why. “It’s important for the artists to not take themselves so seriously. To allow somebody else to manipulate it, they have the opportunity to see it fresh. I like the idea that other, full-show collaborations have come out of it. That’s really cool.” Warnecke agrees. “The opportunity to meet new people and to relinquish control of your work…I think that’s crucial. The opportunity for the audience to get inside more experimental, fringy work. This starts a conversation between the artist and the audience to build audiences for experimental performance. It’s also an opportunity to cross-pollinate our audience with the?Signal Theater Ensemble Project audience. I think it’s a model for an experiment that could go on indefinitely, because each show is so different. I’m not kicking it to the curb because I don’t think it has staying power, but there is so much good dance and there are so many people trying to have opportunities for performance that I don’t need to be eating up those resources.”
Performers this season include Ashley Deran and dancers, Erica Ricketts, Jessie Marsa and Ben Law, Jose A. Luis, The Space/Movement Project, Jason Javar Lawrence, Lucy Wieczorek and Lysha Hamm, and Those People Who Did That One Thing That One Time.
PRODUCE presented by The Ensemble Project’s Julie Ballard and Anthony Ingram, with Lauren Warnecke/Art Intercepts at Signal Ensemble Theatre, 1802 W. Berenice Ave., Friday-Saturday, August 8-9 at 7:30 pm. Tickets are $12.
After party with DJ Wak, Saturday only from 9 pm – midnight with a $10 suggested donation. Season passes for both shows and the after party are $25.