Podcast Episode 12: Cheryl Mann

On episode 12 of the Rogue Ballerina podcast, I chat with dancer-turned-photographer (and one of my favorite people) Cheryl Mann. We hear about her career with Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, transition to photography, and the importance of never giving up on your dreams. 

Photo by Selena Moshell

Cheryl Mann began her professional career at the age of 17, dancing at Walt Disney World in Orlando, FL, and received her dance degree from Point Park College in Pittsburgh, PA. She performed with the Civic Light Opera in South Pacific as “Liat” under the direction of Robby Marshall in Pittsburgh. Upon moving to Chicago, she danced with River North Dance Chicago before joining Hubbard Street Dance Chicago. Fulfilling her childhood dream of becoming a Hubbard Street dancer in May of 1997, where she remained for over a decade, she has been fortunate in her career to travel to and perform in 17 countries, as well as countless cities in the U.S.

She served as the Artistic Associate of Visceral Dance Chicago until she moved to LA to with Ate9 under the directorship of Danielle Agami. LA credits include NBCUniversal’s Little Big Shots featuring Steve Harvey, Associate Choreographer of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory Live at the Hollywood Bowl, and Axis Connect led by the Barton Sisters. She also had the pleasure of casting and choreographing Moby’s latest music video Motherless Child.

She is the owner of Cheryl Mann Productions, where she travels the world setting dance works for world-renowned choreographers, as well as photographing companies such as Ate9, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, The Joffrey Ballet, Ballet Hispanico, Thodos Dance Chicago, among many more.

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 thodosdancechicago.org for more information.

Dancer Spotlight: Abigail Simon, Dance For Life

Dancer Abigail Simon. Photo by Gina Uhlmann.

This Saturday, Aug. 18, marks the annual dance performance, Dance For Life, that raises money and awareness for HIV/AIDS prevention. Proceeds from this year’s benefit will go to the AIDS Foundation of Chicago, the Dancer’s Fund and Chicago House. Always a highlight of the show are two world premiere finales, Act I by Harrison McEldowney and Jeremy Plummer/C5 and an Act II finale by Randy Duncan. Participating companies include DanceWorks Chicago, Giordano Dance Chicago, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, River North Dance Chicago and Thodos Dance Chicago. Also performing this weekend are independent artists Mauro Villanueva and Abigail Simon.

Simon, 27, was born in New York to a director/actor father and an opera singer mother. The family was bi-coastal spending time split between NY and Los Angeles, where she started dancing at age three. At seven, back in NYC, she studied for three years at Ballet Hispanico and at ten, was accepted to the School of American Ballet (SAB), where she studied for ten years. She danced with American Ballet Theatre‘s second company (ABT II) for two years and with the main company for another two years. “I learned so much there,” she said. “I knew that because I came from SAB and because I hadn’t had much classical training that I needed to go to a smaller company to get my wings.” Joffrey was holding auditions in NYC, she auditioned and spent the next seven years dancing with them here in Chicago.

Some may recognize her from her extremely perky performances as Clara in The Nutcracker, but some of her favorite roles from her time at Joffrey are the virtuoso pas Balanchine’s Tarantella and Valencienne in Ronald Hynd’s The Merry Widow. Simon has only performed in Dance for Life one other time when she was part of Harrison McEldowney’s finale in 2011. This year, she partners with former Joffrey dancer Villanueva for the pas de deux from Le Corsaire, a gala favorite. “We’re excited,” Simon said. “It’s pure classical. It’s got tricks!”

Simon recently left Joffrey to pursue a freelance career. “I’m going to miss that family feel and being on the road,” she said, “but when I told them I was leaving, it felt like the chains coming off. You’ve got to trust your instincts and follow your heart.” So far, she’s kept busy dancing with Ballet Next, coaching students for the Youth America Grand Prix, modeling for Bloch and Revolution Dancewear. She has modeling gigs set with Capezio and Custom Barre and auditioned for Christopher Wheeldon’s new Broadway project An American in Paris. She’s also up for a lead role in an upcoming movie with actress Sean Young set to film next year in Venice, Italy. (Rumor has it people affiliated with the film will be at the show on Saturday. Perhaps if we clap extra loud, she’ll get the part!)

Simon said it is easier to find consistent work as a freelance dancer in New York, so she and her boyfriend are getting a place there too and will be splitting their time. “I’m excited,” she said. “I’m very open. It took me a couple of years to figure out, but if you’re positive and open to change, good things can happen. Just get on the horse and start riding. I’m so happy.”

Dance for Life at the Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress Pkwy., Saturday, Aug. 17 at 8 pm. Tickets for the performance only are $50-$75.

A pre-performance gala reception will be held in the International Ballroom of the Hilton Chicago, 720 S. Michigan Ave., at 5 pm. Gala tickets (which include a ticket to the performance) are $200-$500.

For more information, call 312-922-5812 or visit danceforlifechicago.com.

Hamburg Ballet to return in 2014!

First of all, Happy National Dance Day! I hope you’ll be tapping, pointing, smacking, twerking, turning, jumping, stomping and shimmying the day away.

Big news! The Harris Theater has announced that Hamburg Ballet will return to Chicago to perform in February 2014. The company wowed audiences last season with the epic, overwhelming, evening-length ballet Nijinsky. This season they bring Director John Neumeier’s Third Symphony of Gustav Mahler for the only American performances. Tickets go on sale – today! Deets below.

Other touring dance highlights in the 2013-2014 season are Savion Glover‘s STePz (Jan 24, ’14) Alonzo King LINES Ballet (Feb 27-28, ’14), Trey McIntyre Project (April 3, ’14) and Ballet Preljocaj (May 2-4, ’14). That is on top of the regular season performances by local troupes /resident companies Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, Giordano Dance Chicago, River North Dance Chicago, Thodos Dance Chicago, Ballet Chicago and Deeply Rooted Dance Theater.

And, I’m super-duper stoked that Wendy Whelan: Restless Creature is coming (March 20). This project pairs the incomparable New York City Ballet ballerina with four contemporary choreographers including Hubbard Street’s Alejandro Cerrudo! The program has its world premiere this August at Jacob’s Pillow (“someone” couldn’t afford to go see it, so…yay!).

Tickets for the Hamburg Ballet’s “Third Symphony of Gustav Mahler” go on sale today – Saturday, July 27 – at 10 am. Tickets are available at the Harris Theater Box Office (205 E. Randolph); call 312.334.7777 or visit www.harristheaterchicago.org.

Thodos New Dances 2013

Brian Hare and Jessica Miller-Tomlinson in Panem nostrum quoditianum, choreographed by New Dances 2013 guest choreographer Ahmad Simmons. Photo credit: ©Cheryl Mann

For 13 years, Thodos Dance Chicago (TDC), once a year, lets the dancers become the boss. New Dances showcases TDC dancers’ voices by giving them the chance to cast, choreograph, design, manage and create. With a panel of experts from the Chicago dance field offering impressions and advice, New Dances 2013 turned out nine new premieres in a range of styles, lengths and talents.

As with any all, in-house choreographic show, there were hits and misses. The only way to learn is to try and see if it works. Kudos to the dancer/choreographers for putting their voices on the stage with audible rain storms, prayer, a sandbox and even cartwheels.

Stand out pieces, for me, were Relativity by Carrie Patterson and Alissa Tollefson (short and sweet, good dancing), Sudden Throws by Cara Carper Balcer and Brian Hare (great difficult dancing), Weights of Being by Ray Doñes and Jon Sloven (nice, smooth partnering) and guest choreographer Ahmad Simmons’ Panem Nostrum Quoditianum (strong, cohesive work incorporating all stage elements – dance, costumes, lighting, sound with stellar dancing). Dancer shout outs to Brian Hare, Ricky Ruiz, Jessica Miller Tomlinson, Annie Deutz, Joshua Manculich,Carrie Patterson, Jon Sloven and Rebecca McLindon! Plus major props to lighting designer Jacob Snodgrass and sound designer Johnnie Nevin.

There is one more performance left – today at 5 pm. Check it out! You’ll get a little taste of everything and will definitely be entertained.

Thodos Dance Chicago presents New Dances 2013, Sunday, July 21 at 5 pm at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts, 1016 N. Dearborn. Tickets are still available ($10-$38) at the theater box office.

Thodos’ A Light in the Dark premieres

Thodos dancers Jessica Miller Tomlinson and Alissa Tollefson in "A Light in the Dark". Photo by Cheryl Mann.

The Chicago premiere of A Light in the Dark: The Story of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan opens this weekend at the Harris Theater. Thodos Dance Chicago (TDC) founder Melissa Thodos teamed up once again with Broadway legend Ann Reinking and dance/acting coach Gary Chryst to co-create this new story ballet about the beginning of a lifelong friendship.

A few weeks ago, I sat in on interviews with Thodos and Reinking by Emmy-nominated filmmaker Chris Olsen of Kai Harding who is filming a documentary, Touch, about the process of making the ballet. You can watch excerpts and clips of the doc here. The thing that struck me most was the passion behind the project from all involved.

After the success of their first collaboration, The White City, Thodos and Reinking knew they had something special. “We knew we weren’t finished, We had more stories to tell,” Thodos said during the Olsen interview. “It was just a matter of finding what story we wanted to tell.” She credits Chryst for suggesting the idea at a White City post-party in 2011. Read my interview with Chryst for Windy City Times here. Reinking said, “It was a precipe of a new age. Once they cracked the code with the alphabet, Helen was brilliant. They became quite famous.” The ballet focuses on a short period of time when Keller first meets Sullivan and they learn how to communicate. Incorporating spoken word and sign language with the dance steps TDC has created a truly special piece that pulls an emotional response. The evening is rounded out with a world premiere from Thodos, a world premiere from KT Nelson of ODC Dance Company and a repertory work from local choreographer Brain Enos.

Thodos Dance Chicago’s Winter Concert at the Harris Theater, 205 E. Randolph St., Saturday, March 2 at 8 pm and Sunday, March 3 at 2 pm. Tickets are $30-$60. Call 312.334.7777 or visit harristheaterchicago.org.


B.T. Dubs

I’m introducing a new series of updates on happenings on the Chicago dance scene and various Rogueness. By the way…Btw…B.T. Dubs…get it? Anywho, from time to time I will list things that I’ve been doing, seeing and hearing that I think are interesting or relevant.

Next Thursday, Feb. 14th Valentine’s Day, The Women’s Board of the Joffrey Ballet hosts What Is This Thing Called Love, an evening with singer Shelley McArthur with a pre-performance hors d’oeuvre reception and champagne and desserts after the show. The event begins at 6 pm and will be held at The Murphy, 50 E. Erie. Tickets can be purchased at joffrey.org or by calling 312.386.8921.

I popped in on Thodos Dance Chicago rehearsals last week to watch them work on the new story ballet about Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan, A Light in the Dark. The day I was there, film maker Chris Olsen of Kai Harding Productions was filming interviews with artistic director Melissa Thodos and Ann Reinking, as well as rehearsal. Things were a bit crazy, since they were finishing up setting the new work and getting ready for their gala the next night (I went. It was fun!), but I got to hear a little about the impetus and process of making the new ballet and really, who wouldn’t like just hanging out with Ann Reinking?

Oh, and I’ve started selling ads on the blog. *Look right! A special shout out and big thank you to my first advertisers Chicago Dance Supply. If you’re interested in advertising rates, please email me for more information: rb@rogueballerina.com



An Evening of Dance Films

Chris Olsen, Melissa Thodos and Ann Reinking.

Like dance on film? Emmy-nominated Chicago Filmmaker Chris Olsen of Kai Harding is showing five of his shorts and a sneak preview of his new film TOUCH next Wednesday, January 9th at the Film Row Cinema Theater at Columbia College. An Evening Of Dance Films presented by Thodos Dance Chicago and Columbia College Chicago serves as a fundraiser. All proceeds will go to the production of the new film.

TOUCH documents the creation of Melissa Thodos and Ann Reinking’s newest collaboration, A Light in the Dark, inspired by the life of Helen Keller. Much like his Emmy-nominated film, Beneath the White City Lights, which followed the making of The White City, TOUCH goes into the studio capturing the choreographers and dancers in the middle of the artistic process.

The evening opens with a wine/champagne reception at 5:30 pm., followed by the showing of the six films at 6:30 pm. A discussion with Olsen, Thodos and a panel of dancers will commence after the films.

Tickets for An Evening of Dance Films are $25 (students $10). Call Thodos Dance Chicago at 312.266.6255 or visit www.thodosdancechicago.org. Tickets are also available at the door.

Wenesday, January 9 at Film Row Cinema Theater at Columbia College, 1104 S. Wabash, 8th floor.


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

Happy Birthday to Ann!

Birthday gal!

Broadway legend, dancer, singer, actress and choreographer Ann Reinking turns 62 today.  Reinking is in town helping Thodos Dance Chicago (TDC) rehearse for the return of last season’s premiere The White City:  Chicago’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, which they are performing this Saturday at the McAninch Arts Center at the College of Du Page (tickets: 630.942.4000).

Last night I had the unbelievable luck and privilege of being invited (thinks to Jay Kelly of LC Williams and Assoc who handles PR for TDC) to a private gathering at Artistic Director Melissa Thodos and her husband Rick Johnston’s home in the Gold Coast in honor of Ms. Reinking.  The small gathering of twenty or so people included a few TDC board members, Emmy-winning filmaker Chris Olsen and an array of Chicago dance legends:  Ron De Jesús, Cheryl Mann, Michael Anderson, Stephanie Martinez Bennit and Broadway and Chicago theater veteran Mitzi Hamilton.  I especially enjoyed having a fun, “off the record” conversation over wine with Hubbard Street director Glenn Edgerton and was honored to sing Happy Birthday to Ms. Reinking (we joked that she was cringing inside at the group being so off key).

Many thanks to Melissa, Rick and Jay – and a happy birthday to Ann!