SHINE: Dance Doc to premiere on WTTW

Photo by Kai Harding.

This Sunday September 8, go from behind the scenes to on stage with Thodos Dance Chicago (TDC). Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Christopher Kai Olsen of Kai/Harding followed the company as they prepared for the world premiere of a new story ballet earlier this year. Partners in crime TDC artistic director Melissa Thodos and Broadway legend Ann Reinking teamed up once again to create an original work set in historical fact. This time, the two decided to tell the story of Anne Sullivan and Helen Keller’s unique relationship through dance.

When A Light in the Dark* premiered in March 2013 at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie, Olsen was there to document the premiere in delicious HD detail. With his keen editing eye, he also filmed the creative process and put together an impressive dance documentary with behind-the-scenes rehearsal footage as well as one-on-one interviews with Reinking, Thodos and TDC lead dancers. The prelude of Shine – Making “A Light in the Dark debuts on Chicago’s PBS station WTTW this Sunday at 1:30 pm with A Light in the Dark showcasing the final production and performance immediately following at 2:00 pm.

I got to preview both films (so I can not feel guilty if I flip back and forth between the Bears game – Go Bears!) and the footage and editing is quite remarkable. I sat in on the interviews and rehearsals, but the way they come together in the film, incorporating Bruce Wolosoff’s original score and perfectly dropped quotes, takes it to another level. Watching what the dancers are creators go through to make the show and then to watch the entire performance makes it more believable and will make for a very entertaining afternoon of television.

“Shine” debuts Sunday, September 8 at 1:30 pm on WTTW followed by “A Light in the Dark” at 2:00 pm CST. 

*You can see A Light in the Dark live in Thodos Dance Chicago’s 2014 Winter Concert February 22, 2014 at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts and on March 8 and 9 at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance. Visit for more information.

Spotlight Shines on White City Doc

Thodos dancers in "The White City". Photo by Kai Harding, Inc.

This Thursday night, instead of watching Leno or Letterman or Colbert, at 10:30 pm turn on WTTW Channel 11.  You won’t be sorry.  Our local PBS affiliate will premiere Christopher Kai Olsen’s Beneath the White City Lights: The Making of an American Story Ballet.  This new dance documentary offers a behind-the-scenes look at rehearsals and preparation for Thodos Dance Chicago‘s (TDC) choreographic take on the 1893 Columbian Exposition, which premiered at the Harris Theater in 2011.  Inspired by historical events surrounding the fair and Chicago’s architecture, Thodos founder Melissa Thodos and gal pal, Broadway star Ann Reinking developed a story board and the project took off from there.  To create a multimedia experience, they enlisted the help of Emmy-winning filmmaker Chris Olsen to produce a series of short, video projections to aid in moving the plot along.  (Olsen previously worked with Thodos, Reinking and company for the documentary Fosse: A Prelude.)  Once immersed in rehearsals, Olsen found he didn’t want to stop.  “I wanted to understand the process,” he says.  “I wanted to make sure I was fully ingesting it.  Rehearsals would end and I’d keep shooting. I just wouldn’t leave.”  He ended up with almost 100 hours of footage.

Olsen decided to take what he’d seen and piece it together.  The result is a wonderful 30-minute film showing the dancing, directing and dedication behind the creation of The White City: Chicago’s Columbian Exposition of 1893.  I spoke with Olsen (in sleep-deprived, post-production mode) over the phone about the project and the PBS premiere.

 Are you excited about the premiere?

Heck yes!

This isn’t your first premiere, so what makes this one so special?

From the very first meeting about this project all the way to now was a big adventure.  It’s been an exciting year. This is true independent cinema.  It’s rewarding to get to this point and have the support of PBS or, in this case, WTTW to be able to air it is remarkable.  For it to be received by the audience you were hoping to show it to is really important.    I want people to see the (live) show, but if they can’t…I at least want them to see parts of it. 

You’ve worked with Melissa and Ann before.  How did this project come about?

Melissa reached out and said she had another project. No matter what it had been, I wanted to be on board. I have a love of that specific time period.  I’m a huge Chicago architecture buff.  My Dad’s an architect.  And, the stories surrounding the Chicago World’s Fair were phenomenal, so when she said she had an idea about doing a story ballet about the Columbian Exposition, before she could finish the sentence, I said, ‘I’m in!’

Is it difficult to shoot dance, or is there just a learning curve?

I don’t know if it’s hard.  I’ve always been sort of a portrait person…portraits in motion, if you will.  I love being able to capture someone in the lens, but I’ve never been happy with just a single frame.  It goes to my appreciation for animation –the idea of motion over time with design.  The same eye, I apply with dancing.  I look for what’s cool, that moment that captures the soul of the moment.  That’s how I shoot.  Dance gave me a subject that matched better for how I liked to shoot.  It was fun to be able to find that.


Chris Olsen, Melissa Thodos & Ann Reinking at Thodos Dance Chicago's 20th Anniversary Gala. Photo by Bob Mihlfried.

With White City, you were originally on board, but was it just for the projections or were you always going to be filming a documentary?

No, I didn’t set out to make a documentary.  I set out to document. The result is a documentary.  Honestly, that’s how almost every project I do starts.  I’m not necessarily aiming towards any one end goal, the art for me is the process of capturing and creating, coordinating and working with the other artists is the art.  Everything I’m capturing is the evidence.  I loved the idea from the very first second, it was exciting and interesting and you knew it was special.  The whole process was like that.  I was in the rehearsals, because I wanted to understand the process to help me with the 14 short films I produced.  To be able to be there and immerse myself was a huge part of my creative process…and that doesn’t require a camera, but I brought one anyway.   I wanted to record it. I wanted to make sure I was fully ingesting it.  I like being able to absorb thing through the camera.  I’m sort of fixing my perspective and be able to refer to it later, like taking visual notes.  That was all part of my process, my creative approach.  The whole time I was gathering information.  Towards the end, I knew I had the potential with all this material, there was a storyline in my head that was evolving in a way I could piece it together. 

Can you walk me through your thought process while making the documentary?

My original hope was that you’d have a mix of footage that gave you a good idea of the scope of the work showing you what went into it.  A peek behind.  A place only dancers ever see.  I think people have a fixed idea of what a documentary is.  And I’m not a very traditional documentary filmmaker, but the enjoyment I get out of interpreting portraits and trying to capture that moment of light or that spark of energy, that creativity…it’s about a perspective on an event.  The trick is how do you create something that is compelling without giving away the farm.

 When it airs on the 23rd, are you going to watch it?

Yes! I’m very excited to be able to TiVo my own show. I’ll still watch it live, but I’m going to record it.

Are you nervous?

Yeah, but it’s a good nervous.  Every since we got the air date confirmed, I’ve been absolutely nervous and giddy.  The whole reason why we do what we do as artists is to connect with other people and to share ideas.  Finding that path with your audience is sometimes the hardest challenge.  How do you speak to the people that you’re hoping to reach in a way that’s easy for them to see?  I love PBS’ mission.  I love that arts outreach is part of who I am.  There is no better vehicle I could’ve asked for.  You’ve gotta be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it – and I got it! 

Beneath the White City Lights: The Making of an American Story Ballet airs Thursday, Feb 23rd at 10:30 pm on WTTW Channel 11

Straight Guy Talking

Scott Silberstein of HMS Media.

Even if you’ve never heard of HMS Media, if you’ve watched Chicago dance footage in the last 20 or so years, you’ve definitely seen their work. With 15 Emmy Awards and 23 Emmy nominations for their work creating arts-based, engaging programs for public tv, these media gurus have shown an instinctual talent for theatrical production and an affinity for filming dance. Lucky us. Their first project, the PBS documentary Why Am I Hiding, a barrier-breaking inside look at Rape Victim Advocates, won them their first Emmy Award (1989) and even had Oprah calling for a copy. Co-founder Scott Silberstein — writer, producer, composer, director, musician, blogger, dance-lover, music aficionado and straight guy — is the S in HMS.

A classically trained pianist, Silberstein has always had the arts in his blood. Passion, compassion and a bit of genius led him and HMS co-founder (and band mate – they met at summer camp!) Matt Hoffman to film dance. “I got fixed up with a dancer in the Lynda Martha Dance Company,” Silberstein remembers. He went to see her in a show and fell in love. “The date didn’t go well, but I like to think of it as I got fixed up with dance.” Much like their experience with the rape documentary, pretty much everything they did struck gold. Starting out with clients like Mordine & Co, Hubbard Street and Joseph Holmes Dance Theatre and after winning two Ruth Page awards (and two more nominations) they quickly became the go-to guys for the Chicago dance community.

The next big project was another PBS documentary on a small, new company called River North. With a show quickly approaching, they were struggling to sell tickets. HMS convinced PBS to air the special a few days prior to the show as advertising and by the next morning they had sold out. “That was two shows in a row that we’d been able to make and team up with WTTW and see the world change a little bit,” says Silberstein. “The first, I really think some people got help and the second, a dance company survived. You start to feel a little powerful, like you can do something to help. It was powerful, but humble. It always needs to be about their work or cause first.”

Around this time, Dance for Life (DFL) was in its third year and really starting to take off. The brainchild of dancers Keith Elliott and Todd Keich, DFL is an annual one-night gathering of the top local dance companies for a performance to raise money for HIV/AIDS awareness, care and prevention. Silberstein got together with Elliott and Harriet Ross to talk about making a documentary for DFL. The same conversation continued for 15 years, but the stars never aligned. Fast forward to present. For the 20th anniversary of DFL, HMS Media’s Dance For Life: The Documentarywill air on WTTW 11 tomorrow night (details below). “This is exactly the right time, because it fell into place so easily and so quickly,” he says. “Going into the 20th, a great milestone, and giving an opportunity to tell their story again through the eyes of survivors, beneficiaries, and people that have lost someone…it was the right time. Almost now more than ever. With all the advances in treatment and medication, now no one is talking about it. The gay community is finally getting some recognition and receiving rights that are long overdue, but there is some push back. It’s subtle and that’s what is scary. Maybe now the need is stronger than ever.”

The will, the need, the funding and the desire was there. Now came time to film. “All of the dance had to be shot in one day at the Harris,” says Silberstein. “Instead of a half hour to space and check lighting, we’re going to dedicate that half hour to a full out performance and then we’re going to do it exactly the same way in a few hours. One day of live performance. No camera rehearsal. It was an intense day.” That intensity paid off. The documentary is a stunningly accurate presentation of last year’s live performance (I was there) technically and emotionally. It opens with shots cutting from Joffrey Artistic Director Ashley Wheater teaching warm-up on stage to people standing in line to get into the Harris Theatre to dancers rehearsing backstage to the audience finding their seats. The effect is an insider’s look to everything that is happening in real time. The into ends with Margaret Nelson calling the first cues, a quick peek at the dancers taking their places for the first number and the opening announcement. It’s like you’re there.

Then the show starts. While you do get to see a majority of the beautiful dancing, it is the interspersed interviews that really steal the spotlight. Personal accounts and memories tell the story of the devastating disease and the impact it has had on the dance community. “We wanted to make it look like the dances were created to tell the story,” Silberstein says. “The movement would complement the story. We got chills in the edit room, when we would line a shot up that would fit perfectly. I knew Matt Hoffman was doing some genius editing. He’s the best there is.” Gorgeous, heart-wrenching, poignant, hopeful, joyous and brilliant. I smell another Emmy.


Dance For Life documentary broadcast premiere: Thurs, Aug 11 at 10pm on WTTW11 with a rebroadcast on Sat, Aug 13th at 4am and on WTTWPRime on Fri, Aug 12th at 4pm. The program will also be available through Aug 31st at Comcast OnDemand. You can watch preview clips on the Dance For Life Facebook page.