Preview: Chicago Repertory Ballet Turns 10

CRB’s Akilah Harris. Photo by Todd Rosenberg.

Chicago Repertory Ballet (CRB) celebrates its 10th anniversary this weekend with three performances of TEN at the Athenaeum Center for Thought and Culture (2936 N. Southport Ave.) featuring two CRB favorites and three world premieres. This will also be the company’s 10th main stage performance. I asked artistic director Wade Schaaf how it feels to have reached this milestone. “It’s fucking huge,” they said. Agreed.

It was at the end of their career with Thodos Dance Chicago (TDC) that they had the idea to start a company. TDC’s New Dances program gives dancers the tools to do just that. They have the opportunity to choreograph, have mentors, learn how to create in a safe environment with talented dancers and a bevy of other resources. The last piece Schaaf choreographed for New Dances became the “anchor piece” for the premiere performance of CRB. “It was time for me to be done. My back was done and I’d been thinking a lot about how I was going to keep doing choreography,” they said. “I wanted to be able to create what I wanted to create. To me, it just made sense to open a company.” After taking time to get the “nuts and bolts” together, including registering as a 501c3, CRB incorporated in November 2011 and had its first show in September 2012.

CRB’s Vernon Gooden. Photo by Todd Rosenberg.

CRB is a small, tightly-run ship with 10 full company members, three performing apprentices, a guest artist, and one non-performing apprentice. One of the dancers helps Schaaf with social media and the five-member board assists with additional administrative work like marketing and donor management. The rest is up to them. Schaaf come out as non-binary in 2020 and reflected on how that affects their work. “I think understanding myself on a deeper level has reshaped or reframed the way I look at all of ballet: my work, storytelling, training…all of it.” they said. “In my work in the organization, I’m focusing on DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) because gender identity or gender expression is a facet of DEI as well as the issue of race. How can we make fundamental change to free up space for people of various gender orientations or racial makeup so they can walk in the studio like mine and say that’s a place where I belong or could belong.” One idea that was implemented is dancers have a choice of four different recommendations for attire. Schaaf doesn’t give “boy” or “girl” combinations in class and has been playing with the concept of partnerships. “I come from that ballet place where there is a pas de deux that is a male and a female,” they said. “I just try to make partnerships that work. Why should all partnerships be male and female? Anyone can be anyone. It starts to open your mind. There are many possibilities. It’s an evolution.”

CRB’s Eliza Weekley. Photo by Todd Rosenberg.

TEN showcases two works by Schaaf, excerpts from The Four Seasons and Grand Pianola Music: On The Great Divide, as well as a new neoclassical ballet set to the presto section of Mendelssohn’s First Piano Concerto. Other world premieres on the program from LA’s Mike Tyus and South Chicago Dance Theater’s Kia Smith round out the show. “It’s going to be a feast lovers of CRB and a good entry point for people who haven’t experienced the company before,” said Schaaf. “It’s great for all ages. There’s going to be an exciting variety.”

Tickets are available here or by calling 773.935.6875. A limited amount of free tickets for each performance are available through CRB’s Ballet For All program by calling the Athenaeum box office.

Preview: Meet Winning Works Choreographer Derick McKoy, Jr.

Photo by Mariah Gravelin.

It’s that time of year again. Spring is almost here and as we anticipate longer, warmer days and the budding of new foliage, the Joffrey Academy of Dance presents their group of budding dancers paired with four emerging choreographers in their annual Winning Works (WW) program. After a covid cancelation in 2020 and move to digital in 2021, this year’s four world premieres will take place on the intimate stage at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) debuting this weekend over four performances March 18 – 20. I hope you have your tickets, because the shows are already sold out! That said, keep reading to meet one of the winning choreographers who you need to know. Pay attention: you will be hearing his name more and more.

Derick McKoy, Jr. is busy, talented, and ambitious. Currently he is in grad school studying performing arts administration at New York University (NYU), works full-time as the Individual Giving Assistant in the development department at Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, and runs his own company McKoy Dance Project. A natural choreographer who has been creating dances since he was a kid, he didn’t start his formal dance training until age 14, but earned a position in the second company of Jubilee Dance Theatre by age 15. “In middle school I thought I was going to be a t.v. actor, but my school started a dance team and I changed my mind – I’m going to do that,” McKoy said. “I quickly became dance captain and was choreographing routines with the coach. I was also student council president so I launched a talent show for the whole school.” This drive and quick rise continued through college.

He received a scholarship to the Ailey School BFA program at Fordham University. “I love ballet, Horton, and Graham. That’s the perfect place to get those three,” he said. “It was very intense. Burnout was real, but it made me strong.” He capitalized on many opportunities there including dancing in the Ailey Spirit Gala, the groundbreaking of Vessel on Hudson Yards, and on t.v. shows Conan and Pose. He then performed with Nimbus Dance for two years and freelanced with The Black Iris Project before incorporating his own company in 2020.

Photo by Mariah Gravelin.

McKoy is in Chicago this week for the premiere of his new work Road to Flames created on 20 dancers from the Joffrey Studio Company and Academy Trainees. We spoke via Zoom last week about his career and choreographic process. Here are excerpts of our conversation.

Why did you decide to start your own company?

I always wanted to have a company and be an artistic director. I just thought it would be later in my career. When the world shut down during Covid, I went home to Miami for a few months to recalibrate. When I came back George Floyd’s murder happened. It was the first time I self-reflected as a Black, Queer person – that could be me. It awoken something within me. I made a commitment. I can no longer use my choreography to not say something authentic about real issues. My work before that was performative. It was still dramatic and told a story, but now I can really get to authenticity and real human stories. Humanism, but also social justice. I was commissioned to do an evening-length work. Looking Out: A Stonewall Memorial incorporated two 45-minute pieces (Bloom and Pride). We performed it with the Opus 87 Piano Quartet in 2019. The dancers said they liked dancing under the name McKoy. The next year I incorporated.

How is being the leader, the artistic director?

It’s important to me. I’ve been frustrated by the lack of opportunities for people of color. Even the opportunities that do come are few and far between. You see the same choreographers getting the same opportunities. A mentor told me, “If you aren’t getting the opportunities you want, go make them.” I took that and ran with it. If no one is going to allow me to make dance, I’ll just do it. I expanded it to other people. I realized that dance is not my passion. Mentoring is my passion and dance is the vehicle in which I do it. I feel so confident in that intention. I mentor through dance. My company is big on allowing emerging choreographers the chance to work with professional dancers and dancers the option to explore other facets of their identities and talents. I like talkbacks. I like hearing the audience and the dancers conversate about the process and what they discovered about themselves. That’s the fulfilling part for me. I’m trying to create a nurturing environment.

How did you come to apply for Winning Works?

I was introduced to Winning Works fairly early. I wanted to apply when I was still in school, but couldn’t find the application. I haven’t told many people this, but when I pictured where my career track would go…Joffrey was one of the companies I was pulled to. The environment was like a company I wanted to be in, like a family. Now, I feel like I’m part of the family. I met everyone – Greg Cameron (CEO & President), the Board of Directors, the Executive Team…the Community Engagement department came and introduced themselves to me. I’ve never experienced that before. It’s usually mainly transactional. You come in, do your work, and leave. To have real conversations with people who are concerned with the field and where we’re going…it really spoke to the level of investment and wanting to do it the right way. It was apparent in the students, in the Studio Company, and the Trainees. That level of care was there from the top down. That breeded a very open and warm environment with the dancers. I think Joffrey created an environment where they can be their optimal best.

Talk about your piece Road to Flames.

It’s in three movements. I’m in a transition period in my life. A lot of my works texturally and sensationally go off of my emotions…how they feel physically in your body. How does passion feel? Your temperature rises and you feel hot, so that image of fire came up. Each section goes through a phase of fire. The first section is “Spark.” We played with the texture of combustion like the flicking of a match and then it fizzles out. There’s a lot of accented initiations with smoking or decay after. That section runs up the energy with speed. That goes in contrast to the second section “Ember,” a smoldering flame. The quality being like a candle flame that has this mesmerizing flicker or little dance that it does. The section has more partnering and romance. The last section is called “Wildfire,” It’s kind of crazy. The music is very fast and staccato, chaotic and dynamic. Then there is a pseudo fourth section (no title) that transitions to this airy, elongated sound that goes in and out like how the spark of a flame can grow into a fire and that fire can be destructive and bring chaos, but it can also bring change and rebirth. There’s always this glimmer of hope and change of good that can come out of hardship or drastic changes.

What do you want the audience to take away?

I really want them to feel the sense of energy and urgency that’s built on stage. I don’t want them to feel anxious but pressurized so that at the end they feel a sense of relief. To show that tension can build but you can also breathe. I want the audience at the end to exhale. The dancers are amazing. I’m really proud of the work they put in. I want the audience to see their power.

You can learn more about McKoy’s Road to Flames in this Inside the Studio video. And view the full piece on The Joffrey Ballet’s YouTube Channel beginning March 31st.

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 auditoriumtheatre.org 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.

Podcast Episode 18: Sara Bibik

Episode 18 marks the first episode of Season 2 of the Rogue Ballerina podcast. Who knew? Thanks for sticking with me. Or is you’re new, subscribe and catch up on Season 1. My guest today is Sara Bibik.

Sara Bibik was a founding member of River North Dance Chicago (RNDC) and danced with the company for 10 years.She was named Workshop Director and Artistic Administrator at RNDC, working in that capacity for another 16 years, transitioning seamlessly after retiring from the stage.

Passionate about training and mentoring future generations of dancers, Sara has served as guest faculty for Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, Chicago National Association of Dance Masters, and the Virginia School for the Arts, where she was honored to have been a commencement speaker. She spent a semester as guest faculty at Western Kentucky University and currently teaches full-time in the Chicagoland area as well as guest teaching throughout the country.

Sara is the Dance 360 Program Director at DanceWorks Chicago, producing holistic workshops for aspiring professional dancers. Working to normalize diversity in ballet, she created Skin Tones, a project that provides educational fine art prints and posters featuring dancers of all skin tones performing classical ballet positions. Sara is also the Producer and Owner of JOY: Ballet Coloring Pages celebrating all humanity for young dancers, which is featured on SaraBibikDance.com, the platform to distribute educational and joy-filled activities for dancers and their support teams.

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 15: Margi Cole

My guest for episode 15 of the Rogue Ballerina podcast is Margi Cole, a good friend, dancer, teacher, mentor, and choreographer.

Margi Cole, founder and Artistic Director of The Dance COLEctive, received a BA in dance from Columbia College Chicago and an MFA in dance from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She has taught for several educational and professional organizations nationally and internationally and performed with many well-known choreographers and companies. In 2011, Cole participated in the Deborah Hay Solo Commissioning Project. She has received two Illinois Arts Council Individual Artist Fellowships, a 2005 Chicago Dancemakers Forum Lab Artist Award, three Individual Artist Program Creative Project Grants form Chicago’s DCASE, an American Marshall Memorial Fellowship, and most recently, a 2018 Art Omi Dance Residency.

Photo by William Frederking

Active in the Chicago dance community, she has served as a Chicago Dancemakers Forum Consortium member, on grant panels, in public forums and is on the board of See Chicago Dance. Cole was on faculty at Columbia College Chicago, where she has served as a Lecturer and Associate Chair and as the Program Manager of the Dance Center Presenting Series. Currently, she is a faculty member in the Dance Department at the Alabama School of Fine Arts. Read her full bio 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.

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.