Frankenstein Slays

Joffrey Company Artist José Pablo Castro Cuevas as Victor Frankenstein. Photo by Cheryl Mann.

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!

Liam and I playing hooky from Nutcracker at the Palmer House. The photo is blurry…the wine made us blurry too!

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.

Liam Scarlett.

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.

Arpino Centennial Celebration

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!

Joffrey Company Artist Victoria Jaiani. Photo by Cheryl Mann.

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.

Podcast Episode 21: Nejla Yatkin

My guest for Episode 21 is Chicago-based artist Nejla Yatkin. You can read more about her career and company at

Nejla Yatkin is an award-winning and critically acclaimed choreographer and a recent 2018 Drama Desk Award nominee, a 3Arts Award fellow and a Princess Grace Choreography recipient. She hails originally from Germany, bringing a luminous and transcultural perspective to her creations. Her focus is regularly drawn to the role that memory and history serve in constructing identity, causing and resolving conflict, and transforming cultural tensions in to deep, authentic moments of human connections.

Photo by Enki Andrews.

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.

Photo by Enki Andrews.

Review: Alvin Ailey

“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 or by calling 312.341.2300.

Podcast Episode 19: Jeffrey Cirio

My special guest for this episode is English National Ballet Principal dancer Jeffrey Cirio.

Jeffrey grew up in Pennsylvania and trained at the Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, Boston Ballet School, and Orlando Ballet School. He went on to join Boston Ballet, American Ballet Theatre (ABT), and English National Ballet (ENB). After we recorded this episode, Cirio announced he will be returning to Boston Ballet next season.

Photo by Karolina Kuras

He has danced a vast repertory of classical works such as Frederick Ashton’s Cinderella, Rudolf Nureyev’s Don Quixote, John Cranko’s Romeo and Juliet, and numerous ballets by George Balanchine including A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Symphony in C, Jewels, Prodigal Son, Tarantella, and The Four Temperaments. He has also danced works by Alexander Ekman, Jorma Elo, William Forsythe, Jiří Kylián, Alex Ratmansky, and Christopher Wheeldon, among many others.

He competed in numerous competitions including Youth America Grand Prix (YAGP) and International Ballet Competition (IBC) winning medals and awards and was nominated for a Benois de la Danse Award in 2017.


  • an act or process of closing something
  • 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.

Podcast Episode 17: Scott Speck

Photo by Ben Harper

With performances in London, Paris, Moscow. Beijing, New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Washington, Scott Speck has inspired international acclaim as a conductor of passion, intelligence, and winning personality.

Scott led four performances for the Chicago Symphony in 2014-15 and was immediately re-engaged for four more concerts the next season, and the next. He was named Artistic Director of the Chicago Philharmonic Orchestra in June of 2013, and has been Music Director of The Joffrey Ballet since 2010. His concerts with the Moscow RTV Symphony Orchestra in Tchaikovsky Hall garnered unanimous praise. His gala performances with Yo-Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman, Joshua Bell, Renée Fleming, Midori, Evelyn Glennie, and Olga Kern have highlighted his recent and current seasons as Music Director of the Mobile Symphony. This season he also collaborates intensively with Carnegie Hall for the seventh time as Music Director of West Michigan Symphony. He was invited to the White House as former Music Director of the Washington Ballet.

In past seasons, Scott has conducted at London’s Royal Opera House at Covent Garden, the Paris Opera, New York’s Lincoln Center, Chicago’s Symphony Center, Washington’s Kennedy Center, San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House, and the Los Angeles Music Center. He has led numerous performances with the symphony orchestras of Chicago, Houston, Baltimore, Paris, Moscow, Shanghai, Beijing, Vancouver, Romania, Slovakia, Buffalo, Columbus (OH), Honolulu, Louisville, New Orleans, Oregon, Rochester, Florida, and Virginia, among many others. Previously he held positions as Conductor of the San Francisco Ballet; Music Advisor and Conductor of the Honolulu Symphony; and Associate Conductor of the Los Angeles Opera. During a tour of Asia he was named Principal Guest Conductor of the China Film Philharmonic in Beijing.

In addition, Scott is the co-author of two of the world’s best-selling books on classical music for a popular audience, Classical Music for Dummies and Opera for Dummies. These books have received stellar reviews in both the national and international press and have garnered enthusiastic endorsements from major American orchestras. They have been translated into 20 languages and are available around the world. His third book in the series, Ballet for Dummies, was released to great acclaim as well.

Scott has been a regular commentator on National Public Radio, the BBC, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, and Voice of Russia, broadcast throughout the world. He has been featured in TED talks and at the Aspen Ideas Festival. His writing has been featured in numerous magazines and journals.

Born in Boston, Scott graduated summa cum laude from Yale University. There he founded and directed the Berkeley Chamber Orchestra, which continues to perform to this day. He was a Fulbright Scholar in Berlin, where he founded Concerto Grosso Berlin, an orchestra dedicated to the performances of Baroque and Classical music in a historically informed style. He received his Master’s Degree with highest honors from the University of Southern California, served as a Conducting Fellow at the Aspen School of Music, and studied at the Tanglewood Music Center. He is fluent in English, German and French, has a diploma in Italian, speaks Spanish, and has a reading knowledge of Russian.

Podcast Episode 16: Robyn Mineko Williams

Robyn Mineko Williams is a director, multi-disciplinary artist and producer. Following a remarkable 17-year career as a dancer at River North Dance Chicago and Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, Chicago-native Williams shifted her focus to artistic creation and collaboration. As a dance maker, Robyn has choreographed commissions for Pacific Northwest Ballet, Royal New Zealand Ballet, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, Malpaso Dance Company, Charlotte Ballet, and others. She has created and coached movement for an array of projects including music videos, art installations, theater productions, film, and more. Named by Dance Magazine in 2014 as one of “25 To Watch” and “Best Choreographer” by Chicago Magazine‘s Best of Chicago 2016, Robyn is a Princess Grace Foundation USS grant recipient and has been recognized as on of NewCity‘s Players: 50 People Who Really Perform for Chicago. Her work has been presented at Kennedy Center, Harris Theater for Music and Dance, Jacob’s Pillow, American Dance Festival, The Joyce Theater, MCA Chicago, and more.

As a director and producer, Robyn believes in the power of making performance art accessible to all. She founded Robyn Mineko Williams and Artists (RMW&A) in 2015, with a mission to partner with a variety of dynamic artists including musicians, filmmakers, fashion designers, sketch comedians, puppeteers and more, to make and share a body of independent, immersive, and collaborative new works. Collaborations include projects with Manual Cinema, Califone, Ohmme, Verger, Kyle Vegter, The Second City, Mike Gibisser, Alicia Walter, Aitis Band, and more.

Through her work with RMW&A, Robyn uncovered her fascination with creating shows and happenings in unsuspecting places, public and private, reimagining the identity of the spaces and breathing new wonder into them with live art. She loves the element of surprise and the way the art itself gains new purpose and meaning from the different spaces and people engaging with it. Among her many spellbinding creations is Undercover Episodes, an on-going, site-sensitive performance series. Hailed as a “hidden gem” by the Chicago Tribune, these exclusive, one-of-a-kind experiences can take place as free pop-up performances, private house shows, corporate event highlights and more. Using a keen eye for composition and understanding of her movement, Robyn continues to extend her voice as a director, making and translating work for film and live performance.

Inspired by a lifelong, ever-evolving love of music, film, dance, and pop culture, Robyn is excited to continue working and creating in the many lanes and intersections of art, culture, and performance.

Tickets for Echo Mine at Thalia Hall, December 15 at 8:30 PM available HERE.

Podcast Episode 14: Taryn Kaschock Russell

My guest for Episode 14 is Taryn Kaschock Russell, a dancer, teacher, director, mentor, wife, mother, sister, friend, and all-around wonderful human.

In September of 2019, Taryn embarked on a new journey as the Director of the Harkness Dance Center at the 92nd Street Y. Before making her way to the Upper East Side, she served on the Artistic leadership team of the Juilliard Dance Division as Associate Director in the 2016-17 and the 2018-19 academic years, and as the Acting Artistic Director in 2017-18. Education is one of her passions, and since relocating to New York in 2013, she has taught both as part of the faculty of the Juilliard School and as a lecturer for the Conservatory of Dance, SUNY Purchase. She has also worked as a guest teacher with Abraham in Motion, Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, Lar Lubovitch Dance Company, Ballet Hispanico, Ballet BC, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago (HSDC), and as a regular company teacher for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater when they are in NYC.

Photo by Guiliano Correia

From 2008-2013, she directed Hubbard Street 2 programming and staffing the HSDC summer intensives and curating HSDC’s National Choreographic Competition. During that time, she also oversaw the production of its first full-length children’s program, Harold and the Purple Crayon: A Dance Adventure, which had its premiere at the Kennedy Center to a sold-out house in October of 2010.

Taryn also performed for 12 years in Chicago with both HSDC and The Joffrey Ballet, performing works by George Balanchine, John Cranko, Agnes de Mille, Martha Graham, Lar Lubovitch, Jiří Kylián, Nacho Duato, Ohad Naharin, and William Forsythe. You can read her full bio here.

92Y’s Harkness Mainstage Series at the Kaufman Concert Hall opens tonight with FLOCK (Alice Klock & Florian Lochner). In-person or digital ticket information is here.

Photos by Cheryl Mann, Todd Rosenberg, Guiliano Correia, and gingerb3ardmen.

Podcast Episode 13: Randy Duncan

Episode 13 features Chicago-based teacher/choreographer Randy Duncan. We discuss the beginning of his dance career, transition into leadership, and natural talent for choreography. Duncan is known for his famously difficult and inspiring finales for Chicago’s Dance For Life finales.

Randy Duncan, a native of Chicago, who began his dance training with Ms. Geraldine Johnson and credits much of his artistic development with Harriet Ross, has the unique privilege to be a three-time recipient of Chicago’s prestigious Ruth Page Award for Outstanding Choreographer of the year. He has received numerous other awards including the Artistic Achievement Award from the Chicago National Association of Dance Masters, three Black Theatre Alliance Awards, and the Gay Chicago Magazine After Dark Award. He earned an American Choreography Award Nomination for his choreography in the blockbuster movie Save the Last Dance starring Julia Stiles.

Mr. Duncan’s work has been seen in the companies of The Joffrey Ballet, Giordano Dance Chicago, Ballet Met, and many others. He has created choreography for such theaters as The Goodman, Manhattan Theatre Club, South Coast Repertory, Actor’s Theatre, Court Theatre, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Washington Shakespeare Theatre, and Portland Opera. Most recently, his work can be seen in season four of Showtime’s The Chi.

For the past 28 years he has been on the faculty of the Chicago Academy for the Arts, where he now serves as Dance Department Chair and received the 2019 Faculty Legacy Award. He has been choreographing the finale the Chicago’s annual Dance For Life gala since 1994 and received the 2013 AIDS Foundation Chicago Civic Leadership Award for his work with Dance For Life.