American Rhythm Center to Open Doors Soon

Rendering of the American Rhythm Center's reception area.

Lane Alexander’s dream of a shared-space, communal arts building is finally coming true.  The American Rhythm Center (ARC), located in Chicago’s Fine Arts Building at 410 S. Michigan Avenue – former space of the Boitsov Ballet – will launch its first stage in a few weeks.  On the third floor of this cultural institution will be three new multi-use studios to be shared by nine local mid-sized arts organizations.  Alexander’s Chicago Human Rhythm Project (CHRP) will be the first to use the space for the upcoming Rhythm World Festival 2012 later this month with a grand opening with the resident partners coming this fall in September.

The collaborative space will be shared by community partners Cerqua Rivera Dance Theatre, Chicago Chinese Cultural Institute, Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra, Giordano Dance Chicago, Kalapriya, Luna Negra Dance Theater, Ping Pong Productions and River North Dance Chicago.  “One of the things that’s appealing about ARC is that we’re helping to build cultural infrastructure,” said CHRP’s new Executive Director Frank Sonntag.  “To have a healthy ecosystem, you can’t just pay attention to the top, you have to pay attention to the middle and create entry points for artists.  That’s what we’re doing and I think it’s important.”  Sonntag, 50, boasts a long career in arts administration with stints at the Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts, Dance St. Louis, David Parsons Project, New York Foundation for the Arts, Broadway Cares, Brooklyn Center for the Performing Arts as well as helping open the Cowles Center for Dance and the Performing Arts in Minneapolis last fall.  He’s only been in town a month and is already in love with the city and excited about this new venture. “It’s very much born out of the idea of collaboration,” Sonntag said.  “What is going to make it work is that collectively the offerings we’ll have are much greater than any one of us are and that will give us market penetration that all of us will have.”

The plan for ARC came out of CHRP’s strategic planning process and with Alexander on board it was only a matter of time before it became a reality.  Approximately $1 million has already been raised and a capital campaign is in the works to raise the estimated $2.5 million needed to complete the other two phases of the project which include administrative facilities, additional space for programming and a black box theater.  Shared performances have gained ground in recent years with many smaller experimental companies presenting together at independent venues and with Audience Architects’ MetLife Fund New Stages for Dance Initiative pairing mid-sized companies at larger venues.  This shared-space facility takes sharing to a whole new level.  “It’s a new model based on the strength of collaboration,” said Sonntag.  “Medium-sized dance companies in particular are under-capitalized, not just here, but all over the country.  What happens when resources are tight is organizations cut programs, the cut marketing budgets, they cut educational outreach and the audiences dwindle.  It’s a downward spiral that can be debilitating.  What ARC will do is to enable these companies to expand their community outreach, be more financially stable through earned income sources and potentially grow their audience.”

As contractors race to make sure the three studios are ready for class by the end of the month, Sonntag feels they are in a good place and is ready for the challenges ahead.  “We’re going to take baby steps.  We’re going to share a copier,” he said.  “The real goal is taking advantage of the synergy that you create when you put that many arts organizations in such close proximity.  That will cut down on some of the barriers that exist.  It’s the wave of the future.”

Cerqua Rivera New Works 2012

Cerqua Rivera dancers Joey Schuman, Christina Chen & Andrea Deline in "Pedestal".

For the third year, Cerqua Rivera Dance Theatre (CRDT) presents an intimate show of in-house choreography and musical compositions at the Hubbard Street Dance CenterNew Works 2012 features eight artistic collaborations with CRDT musicians, dancers, choreographers (and one guest choreographer) and two musical pieces.  The three-hour event will also include a reception with a silent auction CRDT founding member, artist Matt Lamb’s work, who passed away this year.  The dances will all be revised and performed in CRDT’s annual Fall Concert.  Artistic Director Wilfredo Rivera and Producing Director Joe Cerqua team up again for two pieces on dreams – a romantic duet Dreaming of Home and De Suenos Y Deseos (Of Dreams and Desires) exploring those dreams we have when we’re half asleep.  Via email, Rivera tells me about the process of New Works.  “CRDT develops works more like a theater.  We work as a team developing ideas for a piece.  Sometimes the idea comes from a choreographer and/or composer.  It’s my job to ‘team’ folks accordingly.”  Other choreographers include CRDT Rehearsal Director/dancer Raphaellle Ziemba, dancer Josh Pawelk, guest choreographer Mei-Kuang Chen and Benjamin Marshall a student at the Chicago High School for the Arts (CHIARTS).

Being a political junkie, I was immediately drawn to Pawelk’s work which includes a soundscape designed by CRDT Musical Director Stu Greenspan featuring Robert F. Kennedy’s post MLK assassination speech, The Mindless Menace of Violence, and quotes from President Obama’s 2008 race speech A More Perfect Union.  Dance, politics and Obama?  That’s like crack to me.  I corresponded with Pawelk, a four-year veteran of CRDT, via email from his home in Delano, Minnesota about his work 40 Years Later (originally created for New Works 2011 and for CRDT’s Jubilation Concert celebrating black history month).

Why did you want to make a piece with political themes?

When Wilfredo came and asked me if I would like to set a piece on the company, I wanted to create a piece that they could put in their repertoire that would breathe some new life and new perspective for their Jubilation Concerts.  I know and understand that black history is our history too, but to have a piece that is driven from a white person’s perspective that has so much power and thought and concern for everyone’s life in our country who lived through that tough and troublesome time in our nation’s history.

Why did you want to use RFK’s speech?

In 2006, there was a major motion picture titled “Bobby” that was released. It was about the assassination of Bobby at the Ambassador Hotel and how it affected the lives of 22 people who were in the hotel that day.  Towards the end of the movie, they have his speech playing as you see a montage of the devastation and sadness that people felt because of the tragic loss of his life.  Watching that while hearing his brilliantly spoken words struck a chord in me.  I was so moved by it I wanted to combine the emotional movement I felt with physical movement.

When did you decide to include comments from President Obama?

It was actually Stu’s idea to include the comments Obama made in his speech to illustrate how that even 40 years after Bobby gave his speech, we as people are still facing the same social issues in our country today.

Did you come up with the concept first and then ask him to do the sound design?

I did come up with the concept first of wanting to use only Bobby’s speech because even though it’s just his spoken word, I hear a definite rhythm and flow in the way he delivered that speech.  I had suggest to Stu that the music I was thinking for in the background be something light and ominous so it wouldn’t take away from the rhythm in his speech.  Stu came up with the idea of using Curtis Mayfield’s song “Hard times” in the background.  Since it was going to be a rep piece for the Jubilation Concert it was important for him to use a track by an African American musician who was around during that time period with music that definitely reflects the sign of the times. 

Did you go into the studio with just the idea or did you set the choreography first?

The majority of all the pieces I create starts with a concept.  When the concept, the music and the emotion are all figured out, I go into the studio and allow myself to surrender to the piece completely, letting the music and the story behind it to move me. 

Cerqua Rivera Dance Theatre presents New Works 2012 at the Hubbard Street Dance Center, 1147 W. Jackson Blvd on Saturday, June 23rd at 6 pm.  Tickets are $20 ($50 tickets will benefit the CRDT Youth Programs).  Reservations are required.  Call 312.243.9310 or email


Proud Mary

Inaside dancer Mary Williams. Photo by Eddie Eng.

Mary Williams will take her final bow this Saturday night after performing in the one-night-only show Constant Motion at the Harris Theater.  This show is the first in a series of shared performances of Chicago dance companies funded in part by the New Stages for Dance Initiative, a program brought to Chicago through the local dance service organization Audience Architects in partnership with Dance USA and MetLife.   Constant Motion pairs Inaside Chicago Dance* (ICD), where Williams is a dancer and Marketing Director, and  Cerqua Rivera Dance Theatre (CRDT) for the evening-length program.

ICD starts the show with four numbers, plus a piece by their Youth Training Program dancers, then CRDT takes the stage with their signature live musicians and both groups participate in a collaborative finale choreographed by Artistic Directors Richard Smith (ICD) and Wilfredo Rivera (CRDT).  Although stylistically different, the two companies come together (with the help of the initiative) to bring their talents to a larger venue than either one could secure alone:  the Harris Theater.  For Williams, it’s a pinnacle moment in her career.

Growing up in a small Michigan town, she started taking ballet class at age three and then got into Jazzersize (hilarious, but no joke).  When a new dance school opened in town, she began taking classes and eventually danced competitively.  College studies followed at Western Michigan University, with a double major in Dance and English.  Williams had her heart set on moving to New York City, but landed a scholarship at Giordano Jazz Dance Chicago and moved here instead.  During that first summer on scholarship, a fellow dancer asked her if she wanted to come with her to an audition.  Of course, the energetic 23-year-old said yes and was asked to be an apprentice with Inaside.  She’s been there ever since.  Now, at 30, she’s decided it’s time to take a break from dancing and focus on other aspects of her career.  I chatted with Williams last week around 10:30 pm, after she spent a long day (12 hours to be exact) rehearsing and teaching.

Inaside dancer Mary Williams. Photo by Eddie Eng.

Tell me about the show and the collaboration. 

Some of the great things about this collaboration, from a marketing aspect and as a behind-the-scenes person, we’ve been able to see a whole other group just like us…their system…how they do it, how they work together compared to how we work together…tricks of the trade.  I know a lot of their dancers, so it’s been fun.  It’s hard because we’re putting together two companies.  I think we’ve had four rehearsals.  It’s so fun when we get to do Wilfredo’s choreography.  I think the dancers on both sides really liked it.  It’s like having a guest artist come in.

CRDT dances to live music.  How was it adjusting to dancing to live music for the final piece?

We have our first rehearsal with live music on Sunday!  We’ve been working off of a recording.  I think it will be exciting.  It brings an element of surprise and almost improv into it.

Why did you decide to retire now?

I feel like dancing-wise I’m doing really great.  I know the young talent that is coming up is exceptional.  Right now, when I’m at my peak is a great time to stop dancing.  Other than that, it’s very consuming.  It consumes your life.  Especially with the marketing…having these twelve hour days…they’re brutal and you start to feel it after a while.  It’s been a hard decision to make, but I’m kind of excited to take the next step in my life and career.

What’s next?

I’m staying on as Marketing Director and I hope I can still come take class and keep up with my craft.  I’m still teaching kids, but I want to be able to take class.  I was recently named Dance Coordinator at Des Plaines Park District.  I’ll be working in the dance office, getting to know the program, talking to parents, etc…kind of like my office job.  I just won’t be a dancer on stage.

Since your last show is next week, what are you feeling? 

I have so many different things going on.  I’m excited about the show.  It’s this huge, awesome event.  It’s not going to hit me that I’m not going to be dancing with the company anymore until I sit in the audience and watch them perform.  I feel like I should be focusing on the show more now, but you’ve gotta work, do the marketing…all this other stuff in life.  Right now, I’m being pulled in a lot of different directions, which I think is distracting me from the reality that I’m not going to be a dancer any more.

The day after the show might not be so fun.

I’m probably going to cry a lot.  I’m very emotional.

But, what a way to go out!

I can leave with a great sense of accomplishment.  I set out to be a dancer and I did it!  I followed my dreams.  It’s so cheesy, but it’s true.

Are you looking forward to a little bit of a break?

Yes.  I’ll get to eat.  I’m kind of excited about that.  I never starve myself, but you watch what you do.  I’m looking forward to some free time and spending time with my husband.  That will be nice.

Constant Motion: Inaside Chicago Dance & Cerqua Rivera Dance Theatre – Saturday, September 24th, featuring choreography by Harrison McEldowney and Tony Savino, Autumn Eckman, Eddy O’Campo, Richard Smith and Wilfredo Rivera.

Harris Theater, 205 E. Randolph, 312.334.2400, Tickets: $25-40,

*Disclosure:  I’m a former board member for ICD and currently serve in an advisory capacity and with special projects.