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.