The Joffrey Ballet’s two-week run of Frankenstein performances at the Lyric Opera just ended. It was a success on all levels: seasonally, critically, financially, and artistically. It was one of their biggest productions to date and it was simply awesome. I was lucky enough to see it twice. Once as press, and the second time as a subscriber. I just can’t quit them.
My unofficial title, since I didn’t review it, is “Joffrey’s Young Artists Slay Frankenstein!” On opening night, José Pablo Castro Cuevas and Jonathan Dole danced Victor Frankenstein and the Creature (respectively) in breakout performances of their young careers. Joined by the phenom Amanda Assucena – all three came up through the Joffrey Academy – they formed the main trio of the ballet and brought down the house. The second cast I saw had Hyuma Kiyosawa (another youngin’) as the Creature, paired with Alberto Velazquez and Victoria Jaiani (who was celebrated as she starts her 20th season with the company – or is it 21?) as Victor and Elizabeth. Each cast had a different take on their roles which I always find interesting to watch. The supporting roles, corps, children, sets, costumes, projections, pyrotechnics, score, orchestra, and not the very least, the production crew were all performing at the top of their games. Bravo!
But, much like the Arpino Centennial Celebration last month, this was, for me, more about the choreographer and their legacy. Liam Scarlett was a supremely talented artist, highly creative person, beautiful human, and a friend. Their presence could be felt in every step, loving embrace, anguished look, and musical note of the ballet. And, if they were still with us, they would’ve been up dancing and demonstrating every single part in every rehearsal with more passion than the dancers. They were one-of-a-kind.
There are similarities with Frankenstein and Scarlett’s life. In the book by Mary Shelley, Victor is horrified by what he has created and that it has taken on a destructive life of its own, which could apply to Scarlett’s career. They became successful at a young age and got caught in a whirlwind of fame and continuous work. In the ballet, Victor can’t handle that what he has created has destroyed everything he loves and kills himself from the pain, much like Scarlett’s career ultimately ended their life. And, as a non-binary person, Scarlett also knew what it felt like to be “other,” not initially accepted for who they were by the masses. The creator and the creation. The god and the monster. As troubled as their life sometimes was, they were a kind soul. Cancel culture took away their career, their livelihood, and in the end, their life.
Thank you to Ashley Wheater for bringing their Frankenstein to Chicago and letting audiences experience their genius. Their memory and talent live on in the dancers and stagers who breath new life into their work.
Over the weekend, the Gerald Arpino Foundation hosted an event-packed celebration in honor of Arpino’s 100th birthday year. The Arpino Centennial Celebration, years in the works, was a spectacular, loved-filled, three-day extravaganza with performances, a panel discussion, and classes. Congrats to Kim Sagami, Michael Anderson, and all at the Foundation for pulling it off!
Note: this is NOT a review! I just wanted to get some thoughts out of my head. These are my takeaways from being at the Saturday night performance and my time working at the Joffrey/Arpino Foundation, and just being a big ‘ole ballet geek and fan.
First, I want to thank Kim and Michael for giving me a lifeline when my job at the Joffrey was eliminated during the pandemic. “Budget cuts.” They brought me onboard as a social media consultant and filled my need to be near dance and harbored my love for the Company. I have been a fan of the Joffrey since the 80s, when I would pore over my Dance Magazine when it came in the mail. I distinctly remember Tina LeBlanc being on the cover. I watched Billboards on PBS and memorized some of the choreography, eventually seeing it on tour when they came to Central Illinois. Later, after moving to Chicago, I worked as a receptionist for Joffrey during the 2001-2002 season (I think?), right when they started filming the movie The Company. It’s still one of my favorite dance films, likely because I knew everyone in it. I still gasp when Suzanna Lopez fake tears her achilles tendon, but then her real-life wedding was included in the movie so it all worked out. Ha.
I later worked in the marketing department at Joffrey for seven years. There was a giant framed poster of Arpino’s Reflections from the cover of Dance Magazine in the lunchroom. That was one of the works presented on Saturday. Oklahoma City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, San Francisco Ballet, Ballet West, and of course, Joffrey all performed some the Arpino’s greatest hits for the opening of the Centennial Celebration. Eugene Ballet and Complexions Contemporary Ballet with guest artist and former Joffrey dance Fabrice Calmels also joined in for the second performance on Sunday afternoon. The only thing I will say about the dancing is that it was electric, just as Mr. A intended. Zah, baby! For me, the shows were more about him as a person, artist, and director than it was about the dancers. His spirit filled the entirety of the Auditorium Theatre.
There were so many Joffrey Alumni attending that it was a little overwhelming…in a good way. Faces I haven’t seen in years were smiling and radiant. It had the feeling of Dance For Life, but for just Joffrey. Cool. For anyone I missed saying hello to or getting to give a long-awaited hug, I love you! The audience was THE perfect audience for the dancers, so generous with applause, yelling, standing ovations. They had been there and done that, the all-knowing and encouraging predecessors.
Mr. A’s box seats were left open and unseated, notable for everyone who knew him. While I never danced for him, I did work with him for a year. I first met him at a Nutcracker Children’s Luncheon on my first day. Cameron Basden introduced me to him (WHAT?) and he said I looked like a young Susan Jaffe. (Be still, my heart. I don’t think Cami agreed.) He would always say a friendly “Hi, Jackie!” when he passed the reception desk. Even though everyone reminded him my name was not Jackie, I didn’t care. Mr. A was acknowledging me.
At the end of the Saturday evening performance, Joffrey dancer Victoria Jaiani (who along with Christine Rocas are the only two current Joffrey dancers who were under his direction) carried one light/candle to the front of the stage and everyone turned and bowed at Mr. A’s empty seat, which was lit with a follow spotlight. Cheesy, maybe, but I teared up along with everyone else there who knew him. Calmels had the honor at the Sunday matinee. The candle was left center stage front – a nod to Arpino’s 1970 work Trinity – as the dancers left the stage, Jaiani trailing behind as the lights dimmed (pictured above). Tears.
I’m thankful for my years (8 total) with Joffrey and the Arpino Foundation (2+), as well as my decades of being a loyal fan. I even wrote a review for my journalism class in college! Even though I no longer work with them, I’m always part of the family, which was felt immensely in the ATRU lobby on Saturday.
In 1993, she graduated from Die Etage, a performing arts college in Berlin, Germany. Following this, she danced as a principal with numerous companies in Germany as well as the United States. She was critically acclaimed for her performance as “Firebird” in Stravinsky’s Firebird with the Denver Symphony choreographed by Cleo Parker Robinson.
Since 2000, she has been choreographing solo dances inspired by great female choreographers resulting in five evening-length solo works that have toured nationally and internationally to critical acclaim. In addition, she choreographs for her own project-based company NY2Dance and has been commissioned by many noted dance companies.
Chicago Repertory Ballet (CRB) celebrates its 10th anniversary this weekend with three performances of TEN at the Athenaeum Center for Thought and Culture (2936 N. Southport Ave.) featuring two CRB favorites and three world premieres. This will also be the company’s 10th main stage performance. I asked artistic director Wade Schaaf how it feels to have reached this milestone. “It’s fucking huge,” they said. Agreed.
It was at the end of their career with Thodos Dance Chicago (TDC) that they had the idea to start a company. TDC’s New Dances program gives dancers the tools to do just that. They have the opportunity to choreograph, have mentors, learn how to create in a safe environment with talented dancers and a bevy of other resources. The last piece Schaaf choreographed for New Dances became the “anchor piece” for the premiere performance of CRB. “It was time for me to be done. My back was done and I’d been thinking a lot about how I was going to keep doing choreography,” they said. “I wanted to be able to create what I wanted to create. To me, it just made sense to open a company.” After taking time to get the “nuts and bolts” together, including registering as a 501c3, CRB incorporated in November 2011 and had its first show in September 2012.
CRB is a small, tightly-run ship with 10 full company members, three performing apprentices, a guest artist, and one non-performing apprentice. One of the dancers helps Schaaf with social media and the five-member board assists with additional administrative work like marketing and donor management. The rest is up to them. Schaaf come out as non-binary in 2020 and reflected on how that affects their work. “I think understanding myself on a deeper level has reshaped or reframed the way I look at all of ballet: my work, storytelling, training…all of it.” they said. “In my work in the organization, I’m focusing on DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) because gender identity or gender expression is a facet of DEI as well as the issue of race. How can we make fundamental change to free up space for people of various gender orientations or racial makeup so they can walk in the studio like mine and say that’s a place where I belong or could belong.” One idea that was implemented is dancers have a choice of four different recommendations for attire. Schaaf doesn’t give “boy” or “girl” combinations in class and has been playing with the concept of partnerships. “I come from that ballet place where there is a pas de deux that is a male and a female,” they said. “I just try to make partnerships that work. Why should all partnerships be male and female? Anyone can be anyone. It starts to open your mind. There are many possibilities. It’s an evolution.”
TEN showcases two works by Schaaf, excerpts from The Four Seasons and Grand Pianola Music: On The Great Divide, as well as a new neoclassical ballet set to the presto section of Mendelssohn’s First Piano Concerto. Other world premieres on the program from LA’s Mike Tyus and South Chicago Dance Theater’s Kia Smith round out the show. “It’s going to be a feast lovers of CRB and a good entry point for people who haven’t experienced the company before,” said Schaaf. “It’s great for all ages. There’s going to be an exciting variety.”
Tickets are available here or by calling 773.935.6875. A limited amount of free tickets for each performance are available through CRB’s Ballet For All program by calling the Athenaeum box office.
Welcome to Episode 20 with my guest Annabelle Lopez Ochoa. This is the first repeat guest for the podcast. Why a repeat? Well, it’s Women’s History Month, she has a new full-length ballet based on the life historical political figure Eva Perón which is making its Chicago debut this weekend, she’s a badass female choreographer, and honestly, I just love talking with her. You can listen to her interview on Episode 9 here. Ticket for the performances of Ballet Hispánico in Doña Perón at the Auditorium Theatre (March 26 & 27) are available here.
Annabelle has been choreographing since 2003 following a 12-year career in various contemporary dance companies throughout Europe. She has created works for 60 dance companies worldwide. In 2012, her first full-length work, A Streetcar Named Desire, originally created for the Scottish Ballet, received the Critics’ Circle National Dance Award for “Best Classical Choreography” and was nominated for a prestigious Olivier Award for “Best New Dance Production” the following year. Annabelle was the recipient of the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Award in 2019. You can read her full bio here.
It’s that time of year again. Spring is almost here and as we anticipate longer, warmer days and the budding of new foliage, the Joffrey Academy of Dance presents their group of budding dancers paired with four emerging choreographers in their annual Winning Works (WW) program. After a covid cancelation in 2020 and move to digital in 2021, this year’s four world premieres will take place on the intimate stage at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) debuting this weekend over four performances March 18 – 20. I hope you have your tickets, because the shows are already sold out! That said, keep reading to meet one of the winning choreographers who you need to know. Pay attention: you will be hearing his name more and more.
Derick McKoy, Jr. is busy, talented, and ambitious. Currently he is in grad school studying performing arts administration at New York University (NYU), works full-time as the Individual Giving Assistant in the development department at Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, and runs his own company McKoy Dance Project. A natural choreographer who has been creating dances since he was a kid, he didn’t start his formal dance training until age 14, but earned a position in the second company of Jubilee Dance Theatre by age 15. “In middle school I thought I was going to be a t.v. actor, but my school started a dance team and I changed my mind – I’m going to do that,” McKoy said. “I quickly became dance captain and was choreographing routines with the coach. I was also student council president so I launched a talent show for the whole school.” This drive and quick rise continued through college.
He received a scholarship to the Ailey School BFA program at Fordham University. “I love ballet, Horton, and Graham. That’s the perfect place to get those three,” he said. “It was very intense. Burnout was real, but it made me strong.” He capitalized on many opportunities there including dancing in the Ailey Spirit Gala, the groundbreaking of Vessel on Hudson Yards, and on t.v. shows Conan and Pose. He then performed with Nimbus Dance for two years and freelanced with The Black Iris Project before incorporating his own company in 2020.
Photo by Mariah Gravelin.
McKoy is in Chicago this week for the premiere of his new work Road to Flames created on 20 dancers from the Joffrey Studio Company and Academy Trainees. We spoke via Zoom last week about his career and choreographic process. Here are excerpts of our conversation.
Why did you decide to start your own company?
I always wanted to have a company and be an artistic director. I just thought it would be later in mycareer. When the world shut down during Covid, I went home to Miami for a few months to recalibrate. When I came back George Floyd’s murder happened. It was the first time I self-reflected as a Black, Queer person – that could be me. It awoken something within me. I made a commitment. I can no longer use my choreography to not say something authentic about real issues. My work before that was performative. It was still dramatic and told a story, but now I can really get to authenticity and real human stories. Humanism, but also social justice. I was commissioned to do an evening-length work. Looking Out: A Stonewall Memorial incorporated two 45-minute pieces (Bloom and Pride). We performed it with the Opus 87 Piano Quartet in 2019. The dancers said they liked dancing under the name McKoy. The next year I incorporated.
How is being the leader, the artistic director?
It’s important to me. I’ve been frustrated by the lack of opportunities for people of color. Even theopportunities that do come are few and far between. You see the same choreographers getting the same opportunities. A mentor told me, “If you aren’t getting the opportunities you want, go make them.” I took that and ran with it. If no one is going to allow me to make dance, I’ll just do it. I expanded it to other people. I realized that dance is not my passion. Mentoring is my passion and dance is the vehicle in which I do it. I feel so confident in that intention. I mentor through dance. My company is big on allowing emerging choreographers the chance to work with professional dancers and dancers the option to explore other facets of their identities and talents. I like talkbacks. I like hearing the audience and the dancers conversate about the process and what they discovered about themselves. That’s the fulfilling part for me. I’m trying to create a nurturing environment.
How did you come to apply for Winning Works?
I was introduced to Winning Works fairly early. I wanted to apply when I was still in school, but couldn’t find the application. I haven’t told many people this, but when I pictured where my career track would go…Joffrey was one of the companies I was pulled to. The environment was like a company I wanted to be in, like a family. Now, I feel like I’m part of the family. I met everyone – Greg Cameron (CEO & President), the Board of Directors, the Executive Team…the Community Engagement department came and introduced themselves to me. I’ve never experienced that before. It’s usually mainly transactional. You come in, do your work, and leave. To have real conversations with people who are concerned with the field and where we’re going…it really spoke to the level of investment and wanting to do it the right way. It was apparent in the students, in the Studio Company, and the Trainees. That level of care was there from the top down. That breeded a very open and warm environment with the dancers. I think Joffrey created an environment where they can be their optimal best.
Talk about your piece Road to Flames.
It’s in three movements. I’m in a transition period in my life. A lot of my works texturally and sensationally go off of my emotions…how they feel physically in your body. How does passion feel? Your temperature rises and you feel hot, so that image of fire came up. Each section goes through a phase of fire. The first section is “Spark.” We played with the texture of combustion like the flicking of a match and then it fizzles out. There’s a lot of accented initiations with smoking or decay after. That section runs up the energy with speed. That goes in contrast to the second section “Ember,” a smoldering flame. The quality being like a candle flame that has this mesmerizing flicker or little dance that it does. The section has more partnering and romance. The last section is called “Wildfire,” It’s kind of crazy. The music is very fast and staccato, chaotic and dynamic. Then there is a pseudo fourth section (no title) that transitions to this airy, elongated sound that goes in and out like how the spark of a flame can grow into a fire and that fire can be destructive and bring chaos, but it can also bring change and rebirth. There’s always this glimmer of hope and change of good that can come out of hardship or drastic changes.
What do you want the audience to take away?
I really want them to feel the sense of energy and urgency that’s built on stage. I don’t want them to feel anxious but pressurized so that at the end they feel a sense of relief. To show that tension can build but you can also breathe. I want the audience at the end to exhale. The dancers are amazing. I’m really proud of the work they put in. I want the audience to see their power.
“I’m trying to show the world we are all human beings, that color is not important, that what is important is the quality of our work, of a culture in which the young are not afraid to take chances and can hold onto their values and self-esteem, especially in the arts and in dance. That’s what it’s all about to me.” ~Alvin Ailey
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in Alvin Ailey’s Revelations. Photo by Paul Kolnik.
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (AAADT) returned to Chicago’s Landmark Stage at the Auditorium Theatre this week after the pandemic forced a two-year break from touring. Their March 2020 performances were the last big dance show here before everything shut down. In hindsight, it was a blessing to watch Ailey’s trademark Revelations as the last dance viewed and enlightening to see it again now that we are finally, hopefully at the end of Covid-related restrictions. Although everyone was still masked at Ash Wednesday’s opening night, the mood in the audience felt lighter than it has since the last time they were here.
It was also my first time back to the gorgeous Auditorium Theatre, a bittersweet experience since, like myself, many of my former work partners lost their jobs due to the pandemic. A few friendly faces were still there with hugs to say we all made it through in some form or another. Being in the audience to review and not behind the scenes scrambling was an interesting change, one not completely comfortable for me. But…on to the show!
AAADT are performing three programs over their six days in Chicago (through Sunday, March 6). Ailey and Ellington and Rennie Harris’ Lazarus join staple Revelations in the second and third programs respectively. On Wednesday night, they opened with a celebration of Robert Battle’s 10th anniversary as artistic director. Seven of his choreographic works (or excerpts) showed his range, attention to detail, and musicality. Made over a span of decades, Battle has the versatility to move smoothly from slow, ritualistic groups of bodies forming statuesque tableaus (Mass) to intricate, quick and quirky stylized jazz (Ella) to balls-out, fast and frantic (Takademe). The music was a delightful journey of jazz with notes of Nina Simone, Ella Fitzgerald, and early Stevie Wonder. The Battle portion of the program served as an amuse bouche to the main course of Revelations.
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s James Gilmer in Alvin Ailey’s Revelations. Photo by Paul Kolnik.
This is what we came for and the AAADT dancers did not disappoint. I honestly can’t say how many times I’ve seen Revelations over the years (hint: it is a LOT), but I always find something different and refreshing whether it’s new faces in the familiar opening pose or a favorite, seasoned dancer further growing into the iconic choreography. Standout sections for me are always Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel; Fix Me, Jesus; Processional/Honor Honor (with that umbrella!); I Wanna Be Ready (Go Vernard!); and my favorite Sinner Man. Whether loose spacing, opening night nerves, or awkward height challenges in unison dancing, there were brief moments of uncharacteristic flaws that were just as quickly replaced by their beautiful artistry.
Missing on Wednesday was dancer Clifton Brown and the standard curtain call after bows when the company reprises the end of the final section Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham. That coda with the audience still standing and clapping along is the feel good moment that lingers with you long after the performance is over. I missed it.
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in Alvin Ailey’s Revelations. Photo by Christopher Duggan.
There are four performances left in the run. Tickets start at $40 and are available at auditoriumtheatre.org or by calling 312.341.2300.
Episode 18 marks the first episode of Season 2 of the Rogue Ballerina podcast. Who knew? Thanks for sticking with me. Or is you’re new, subscribe and catch up on Season 1. My guest today is Sara Bibik.
Sara Bibik was a founding member of River North Dance Chicago (RNDC) and danced with the company for 10 years.She was named Workshop Director and Artistic Administrator at RNDC, working in that capacity for another 16 years, transitioning seamlessly after retiring from the stage.
Sara is the Dance 360 Program Director at DanceWorks Chicago, producing holistic workshops for aspiring professional dancers. Working to normalize diversity in ballet, she created Skin Tones, a project that provides educational fine art prints and posters featuring dancers of all skin tones performing classical ballet positions. Sara is also the Producer and Owner of JOY: Ballet Coloring Pages celebrating all humanity for young dancers, which is featured on SaraBibikDance.com, the platform to distribute educational and joy-filled activities for dancers and their support teams.
a feeling that an emotional or traumatic experience has been resolved
(in writing) all texts have an end, a point at which the author stopped writing, a sense of an ending
This has been, at least what feels like to me, a long time coming. I wrote a post about “Unpacking” in August of 2020, and while I did unpack that suitcase full of emotions, I still haven’t put things away. That will happen in the new year. Feel free to come help. That said, I do feel like I’ve finally found some closure and wanted to write about it. That’s what I do now. That’s what I am now. That’s what I’ve always been…a writer.
Joffrey Artists Fernando Duarte & Stefan Goncalvez. Photo by Cheryl Mann.
Frankly, I was shocked by how long it took me to “get over” being let go from the Joffrey. A year-and-a-fucking half! WTF? While I went back to freelance writing almost immediately (huge thanks to Lauren Warnecke) and started a podcast (you should subscribe if you haven’t yet), I felt unmoored. And frankly, I thought as soon as they got back on their feet (literally and financially) and back in the theater, they surely would hire me back. Right? That didn’t happen. They hired a new full-time person in the Marketing Department…not me. That was a harsh reality to accept. At 15+ months since my last day, it was a punch in the gut and to my ego. They didn’t want or need me. Full stop.
As much as I’d like to say “Fuck ’em,” I can’t. I love the Joffrey and those dancers. They hold a special place in my heart and I wish them only success. So, after reassessing my life one more time, I took the assignment to review their first show back for SeeChicagoDance. This was also the first show at their new home at the Lyric Opera. A bittersweet moment for me, since I thought I would be there in an official capacity, but I was going to be there anyway. HOME had different meanings as the title of the performance as I said in my review, but Joffrey was my home too. Having to work, take notes, and rough draft the review in my head helped keep me focused – be professional! – but at the end of the opening piece, Arpino’s Birthday Variations, I cried. First, it was beautiful. But it was the look of happiness, relief, and amazement on the dancers’ faces (We did it!) that did me in. They did it! I wanted to run up and give them all a huge hug. Even though I hadn’t written a review since 2013 (pre-Joffrey), it was as they say, like riding a bike. But a bike I don’t enjoy riding. I hate writing reviews! They’re really difficult and stressful. Yet it was my way to be a part of their homecoming.
Joffrey Artists Amanda Assucena & Miguel Angel Blanco. Photo by Cheryl Mann.
True closure came when I went to see opening matinee of The Nutcracker. I interviewed Music Director Scott Speck for my podcast beforehand, but I was there as a “normal” human to just enjoy the show. Again, bittersweet, however I still love the magic of this “problematic” ballet and my holiday season always includes it. To not be at the Auditorium Theatre felt strange, more so than for the fall mixed rep. This production was built for that theatre and my only issue is that they kept the golden arches in the sets for Act 2. It didn’t feel right to me.
This past Tuesday marked two years from the night after coming home from The Nutcracker) that I fell and cracked my head open on the iron gate in front of my house. I woke up on the ground bleeding. A trip to the ER the next day confirmed a concussion and I was patched up with six staples in my head. I still have a dent in my skull, BUT I’m here. My mini tbi may have slowed me down for a bit, but I’m thankful to be healthy and ready to start new projects in the new year. I’ve got shit to do!
I know many of you lost loved ones over this last year+ and I mourn with you. I lost friends too (Liam, Sue, Christie) and it is especially difficult to process in these surreal pandemic times. At the risk of sounding cheesy, now is the time of year to reach out and tell everyone in your world that you love them. The world needs it.