“My Mother made me,” she says. “I’m not kidding.”
Being forced to go to ballet class once a week turned out to be a good thing for Cheryl Mann. Dancing not only saw her through a traumatic move from Knoxville, Tennessee to Orlando, Florida at age 11, but grew into a ten-and-a-half-year, critically-acclaimed career with Hubbard Street Dance Chicago (HSDC) and eventually opened a new creative door for her as a professional photographer. Ballet class wasn’t her thing, but once she opened her eyes to other styles, she was hooked and at 17 landed a job dancing at Disney World. Taking class from Chicago dance heavy-hitters Claire Bataille, Ginger Farley and Frank Chavez while still in school, Mann set her mind on a career in dance and after graduating early from Point Park University, set her sights on Chicago. “Since I was 14, I knew that I wanted to dance at Hubbard Street,” she says. “I moved here knowing I didn’t get the job…but I was committed to getting it.” Instead she landed a job with the up-and-coming River North Dance Chicago where she danced for three seasons and made strong, lasting friendships with the other company members. “We learned everything about who we wanted to be during that time,” says Mann. On the side she also did commercial gigs. For a Clairol hair show, they made her dye her hair bright red, which turned out to be the spark she needed to get her dream job in May of 1997. Lou Conte (founder of HSDC) noticed her hair.
Chicago audiences soon learned that to watch her dance was to fall a little bit in love with her. I sat down with Ms. Mann at the photography studio she shares with Todd Rosenberg for a “This Is Your Life”-style Q&A.
What are some of your favorite memories from HSDC? Favorite pieces?
“Rassemblement”. It means “The Gathering”. It was choreographed by Nacho Duato. We did it in ’99…? It was the first time Lou Conte brought me into his office and he had tears in his eyes and he said, “You’ve exceeded every expectation I’ve ever had.” And that was huge – it was sort of my breakthrough piece. It took that long for me to prove myself to him…to earn my place, and I think that’s what everyone wants to do. It takes him a long time to get used to you. I felt like I really achieved something special.
What I love about the company is that every piece is so different, so it’s hard for me to choose favorites because I didn’t want to dance for a company that had one choreographer. I grew up doing all kinds of different styles and that’s what I wanted to continue to do.
What I remember most about the company is not performing — it’s the people.
You were there with the “big guns”…Ron DeJesus, Shan Bai, David Gomez (we both giggled over having a huge crush on David)…
I did ”Georgia” with Ron…my first year in the company, he (Conte) cast me in “Georgia” for the 20th anniversary…and we performed at the Auditorium Theater, which was horrifying for me because…A) dancing with Ron, B) it was Claire Bataille’s signature piece, and C) it’s my first year and it’s the 20th anniversary at The Auditorium. It was a surreal experience.
What year did you win the Ruth Page award?
2002? I think. It was for “Cor Perdut” another Nacho Duato piece. That was the biggest moment, I remember thinking, because Shan had gotten one, Joe Mooridian had gotten one, Sara Bibik, Harrison McEldowney, Claire (Bataille)…all of these people that I had the highest respect for had been rewarded by the city…they’d been noticed. I always wanted to print two off because my partner was a huge part of that…Tobin Del Coure. I felt like he should’ve been recognized too. It was a duet. I’m in the air because of him. I felt like both of our names should have been on it. I can’t believe he was never recognized for all the roles he did.
Tell me about your back injury.
I herniated my disk. I had surgery in ’99. We were in rehearsal for “The 40’s”…and I was doing an around-the-world lift with Ron DeJesus and I slammed down 2 feet and I felt the compact happen. I didn’t really know what I had done, but my herniated disk broke off. It actually broke off from the spine. I kept dancing, so it worked its way down my spinal cord and strangulated a nerve. So, when I cooled down, I had this shooting pain…I couldn’t take my foot off the floor an inch…it was so debilitating…the most pain I’ve ever been in. And then five days later, I had surgery.
Weren’t you terrified?
Yes, I was terrified. It sounds so bad, but I was back on stage in 5 weeks…in “Rassemblement”. It was unbelievable. It only took 40 minutes for the surgery and they didn’t have to cut any muscle.
You were back on stage in five weeks?
Yeah, I’m really blessed with really amazing therapists…who are really good friends of mine today. Julie O’Connell with Athletico. She went in and watched my surgery, so she knew what was going on and she really got me back. I’ve been going to her ever since.
And you had a knee injury?
I tore my knee in Jan of 2006 in rehearsal for “Minus 16” in the studio. I saw my kneecap dislocate in the mirror and come back in. My whole leg turned to liquid and I fell flat on my back. I lay there and I remember…I shook my head and just knew it. It was never going to be the same. I had surgery. (Laughing) I can always tell when it’s going to rain.
A year later I tore it again on stage. A week after my surgery, I tore it again a year later in “Gimme”. Those combat boots…
I had an MRI and they couldn’t see anything because it was cloudy from the first surgery, so they didn’t know. So for 7 months I danced on a torn ACL and didn’t know it was torn, because I knew I was retiring in October.
You already knew?
Yeah. I knew I wanted to end in Chicago. It’s been over 10 years and I didn’t ever want to…I wanted to get back and be 100%, which I was, but when I hurt it again, I had no idea. In my mind I sort of knew I’d done it again. But I told myself I didn’t. I taped it every day, for every show and I just finished it off on my terms not because of my injuries.
You last show was amazing.
You know what…I was so happy. I felt so young and I felt like it was my first show. The best part is that once “Rassemblement” started – it was the last piece – I was so relieved to have gotten there and my knee didn’t go out or anything.
When “Rassemblement” started, the lights didn’t come on. There was a effect on the light board that got messed up. So it starts with a solo in a special and the special never came up. I did the whole beginning in darkness. Most of it I faced upstage, but I remember having a smile from here to here. It was so perfect that the lights didn’t come on because I’m so accident prone and I have so many stories of falling flat on my face…in that piece a lot…but I remember thinking “this is perfect”. It was my moment – I know what I’m doing – it was a very personal moment for me…and I had a huge smile on my face. But the lights came on right before everyone else joins and everything was fine.
When did photography come in?
The surgery. I started shooting in the wings. When I was off for the two weeks, I would just sit in the wings and take pictures. I got some great pictures. I started shooting pictures in the wings and I would give the dancers a photo and their reaction to it made me so happy. It made me feel so good to accomplish something that night – I wasn’t just out of commission. I could still do something worthwhile here. So the next night, I’d try a different wing or a different angle…try to do it better. It became this strange passion of mine.
Where you interested in photography before?
I took a photography class in high school and my mother…it’s because of my mother’s photo albums. They were these awesome black and white. My Mom used to sing in a band. She was this famous rock star in Vietnam and she had long hair and the costumes…flared arms, go go boots and short dresses. She was amazing. I remember just flipping through these photo albums almost every day. I used to love going through her albums. There are pictures of her that people had taken – I think a million guys were in love with her – and she has these amazing shots. I felt a certain connection to that. I was intrigued by them.
My first gallery show was at our first Inside/Out performance at the Arts Club. 2001? I did one portrait of each dancer, an intimate portrait of each dancer not dancing, but something involving HSDC props…something to tie it in to HSDC, but a more conceptual shot. I got to lay out the exhibit any way I wanted and I could use any prop and it just became this whole display showroom of my work. I didn’t really realize how that would impact me…for my future. I had no idea. One of the dancers wrote a poem for each photo, so we collaborated. Hedy Weiss bought two of my prints! They weren’t even priced. She made me price them…she gave me my first lesson in worth.
Then I met Todd Rosenberg, who is the photographer for HSDC – I share this studio with him now. In 2002, he took me under his wing and showed me how to use studio lights. I have this invaluable knowledge from really good people that invested in me. Ever since then, I’ve been getting more and more experience, more and more people call me. All dancers need headshots. All dance companies need promotional shots. They trust me for my eye and my timing, knowing how dance works and knowing what a preparation looks like…I’ve never seen the piece, but I know someone is about to jump, I someone is about to turn, I know something is going to happen, so my instincts are correct and I just shoot. That’s the advantage of being a dancer first. I don’t know how people shoot dance that have never danced. I’ve heard it’s the hardest thing to shoot, but for me it’s the most natural. If I could just shoot dance, I’d be happy.
Then it got more serious. I started getting galas and social events and then weddings; it’s become a full-time job now. I incorporated my business in 2008. I incorporated the name Cheryl Mann Production.
How do you like doing the weddings?
It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I never had stage fright dancing, but I now know what stage fright is. Before a ceremony, I feel it. You can’t reshoot it. It’s so unpredictable. There’s so much stress. You’re capturing someone’s day. Usually I know the people, so I’m emotionally invested too. No matter what, I’m going to be emotionally invested in all of my work. It’s an extension of who I am. For dancing, you get to a certain level of achievement. With photography, I don’t want to be a mediocre photographer. I want to be the best that I have to be now.
I work with a make up artist now. She is changing my life. She does make up for my clients and by the time they get to me they already feel beautiful. It makes the biggest difference in my editing. It’s even-toned. Normally, I can edit everything. I don’t just take your picture and hand you a cd. I crop it, tone it, we change the light, put your name on it, we make a composite – we do it all right here, that day. She helps me. She changes the make up for different outfits. We have a really good rapport. Rue DeBona, she has a company called Ruege, Inc. We’re going to open a studio together. She’s going to start her own make up line in a year. I’m so thankful to have her. Everything just kind of falls into place…
You sometimes perform with the Mature Dance Project (started by Sherry Zunker).
Yes. It’s very sporadic. It’s amazing. It’s therapeutic. It means something so much to all of us to have a place to go.
I feel like dance has gotten so serious…we should be reminding people there is so much joy that comes out of dance. And people’s relationships on stage…I’m missing that. I don’t see a lot of people making eye contact. I don’t believe people anymore. I would love to coach at some point.
Now for some fun questions. What are some of your favorite places you’ve traveled?
Jerusalem. I loved it there. I loved Poland too. We had a blast in Poland. We had an amazing tour in Italy. We were treated like rockstars there.
What’s your favorite dance step?
It’s like an inverted to an outverted passe’ pirouette. It runs in and then out and you sit into your hip. The movement is from “Strokes Through the Tail” (choreography, Marguerite Donlon).
If you could be a super hero, what would your super power be?
Flexigirl from “The Incredibles”. Is that her name? Then I wouldn’t have to bend down to pick anything up.