Field Notes: Dance & Performance in Chicago

CAR's dance researcher reports on the dance scene around Chicago.

Starting September 2013, I'll be reporting weekly from places like the American Rhythm Center, part of the Chicago Human Rhythm Project, venues like Links Hall at Constellation, or events like Moving Dialogs, an initiative of Audience Architects. The goal is to bring CAR's online resources to more diverse populations. Social media and websites can only do so much. With the support of a grant from The Joyce Foundation, we're putting boots on the ground and bringing CAR to the people. This article will be updated weekly with reports on classes, rehearsals, events and dialogs, culminating in a series of workshops hosted at ARC and led by CAR on common topics of concern to the dance artist: finding institutional partners and fiscal agents, developing documentation habits, maintaining a studio/work/life balance. Hope you'll check in frequently.

— Victoria Bradford, Dance & Performance Researcher for CAR


Sunday, October 13th, 2013, 9:39AM

Dearest Dance Community,

I am exhausted. What a weekend, a whirlwind of dance performance in this city. It is Sunday morning and I am only now recovering from seeing and hearing about so much to be seen that will not be seen again. That’s right: not be seen again. From the single weekend runs of Hubbard Street and Peter Carpenter/Same Planet to the final of two weekends for Lucky Plush and Zephyr Dance, I’m finding that dance in Chicago just doesn’t have enough of a shelf life for my social stamina! I realize this is nothing new, and there’s no one to blame in particular, but I just want to bring the issue to the forefront. Perhaps if you, dear readers, know that each and every dance concert is a fleeting opportunity, just maybe you’ll leap more readily at the chance to go out and see the work!

As for specifics on my experiences this weekend, Thursday night was Hubbard Street at the Harris Theater. I had two performers seated to my left and two season ticket holders seated to my right. What divergent receptions! The program featured four pieces from four different choreographers with the intention of highlighting the diverse  skills of the company, according to Communications Director Zac Whittenburg. Despite the “unique vocabulary” of each work, however, there was continuity across the program. A very gendered approach to using the body was present if not adamant throughout the works, due in large part to the cultural and generational bias of the choreographers.

Hubbard Street Dancers Kellie Epperheimer, left, and Johnny McMillan in Passomezzo by Ohad Naharin. Photo by Todd Rosenberg.Overall, though, the goal to feature the skill set of the Hubbard company was definitely achieved. They danced beautifully, especially Kellie Epperheimer and Johnny McMillan in Ohad Naharin’s Passomezzo.  The gendered interplay between these exquisitely costumed characters was so balanced, humorous, and engaging—a near perfect duet in form, function, and folly. Passomezzo exceeded my expectations, whereas Fluence, Cloudless and Casi-Casa exemplified the traditions of the Hubbard Street company: sublime skill, virtuosic contemporary movement and a clever integration of a diverse set of choreographers. Hubbard Street opens Chicago audiences to unique movement styles and visual phenomena. Nothing to balk at; rather, a great thing to embrace.

Friday. I arrived at the Columbia College Dance Center a half hour early to get my tickets for the double-billed Same Planet Different World/Peter Carpenter Project. As soon as I got in line, I was approached by a woman with a hand full of surveys and a basket of candy. “Fill out a survey and get a piece of candy,” she said. I took a survey.

Others around me were all diligently filling out the survey, apparently craving chocolate. Audience Architects, a dance service organization, partnered with the Peter Carpenter Project on a grant concerning audience engagement. This survey is part of the deliverables. Audience Architects will be at a number of other events like this by way of partnership grants, so be on the look out for surveys and chocolate at the Logan Center and other locations soon!

Following my own indulgence with a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, I entered the theater. I was seated next to a young man, perhaps 10 years old. Apparently he comes to the theater often; he likes dance, takes classes. I asked if he was any good. “Yeah. I’m good," he replied, "but that’s because I’m a beginner.” Throughout the performances he was a consummate audience member, shushing the rowdier children seated behind us.

Same Planet started the program with White Out. I could see just the end on repeat. There is a moment when the dancers exit, leaving on stage one of the mobile screens. For a few seconds or a minute, an abstract projection or moving landscape scrolls across the rectangle. Someone pulls the screen off stage, and then the entire back scrim is awash in projection and the floor lights up. It has the feeling of sand or a dirt road. A female dancer is on stage, everything beautiful, framed, every movement feels intentional. A male dancer joins her. I’m sitting in my seat, saying this is the dance. This is all I needed. The lights go out.

Peter Carpenter is next. I love it. Almost everything, I love. The talking, the tape, the fighting, the audience members seated at the edge of the stage—holding hands. He calls it “dance and physical theater,” but I want us to be able to call this just "dance." I want capital-d-Dance to be able to call this just dance. The talking is dance. The taping is dance. The holding hands is dance. Every detail of this work was considered, from the costumes, to the tone of voice, to the choice of the cast members and their movement qualities. Matthew McMunn is someone to watch, singing or dancing, or being gagged for singing too much so then stomping. Really, the only question here is what’s next for Peter Carpenter Performance Project?

Green Jumpsuits. Wait. I’m not being specific enough. Sea foam green. Sea foam green workman style jumpsuits. In your face. If you were on the front row. This was how Same Planet/Different World greeted us with The Force Backward—at the start, in the middle, repeatedly throughout, and definitely at the end. More cohesive than White Out, this ensemble piece made much use of unison movement, the structure of the stage, and partnering bodies. The dancers played peek-a-boo with the audience via the wings and threatened to take your front row seat via the non-existent apron of the Dance Center stage. These were engaging artifacts of a bursting at the seams, playful score. Same Planet Different World found its footing right when it fell off its rocker!


Saturday, October 4th, 2013, 4:00pm.

"They dance, and talk, and sing," said the executive chef sitting beside me at Links Hall this past Saturday for the double feature of Cinderbox 2.0 and The Better Half, presented by Lucky Plush. This gentleman was apparently more than a fan, having seen both these productions in past iterations, he was also a friend of some of the dancers. "Once you are friends with one dancer, then you meet another," he elaborated. "Then you know them all, it seems." He was excited to see the shows again, feeling the work made dance so accessible to audiences less familiar with dance and performance. Singing, talking, dancing—so many things happening. He was right!

I was lucky to snag this seat close to the front of the house, as when I arrived at Links about 20 minutes early, I was informed that the show was oversold. Many of the who's-who in the dance scene were in the crowd: Baraka de Soleil, Zac Whittenburg, Bonnie Brooks. Choreographer Julia Rhoads was also seated in the audience, playing a surprise role in Cinderbox 2.0 by taking a phone call from one of the dancers on stage. Her clever score was fortuitously enhanced by the evening's thunderstorm, a downpour falling just as exhausted dancer Francisco Avina reached for a big gulp of water.

Cinderbox 2.0 ended with a video of the cast taking a bow and choreographer Julia Rhoads making an announcement about refreshments and a talk with the cast in the lobby. The crowd seemed hungry for the food, but also hungry for more performance. I spoke with another audience member who had never seen Lucky Plush perform, but works as a graphic designer on their promotional materials. She enjoyed the work and thought it really diverse in its use of media. A nice way to enter the world of dance.

As we all snacked and had a drink ($35 for two shows, food and a drink), the chef, the designer and I all began to realize how long this day-into-night would be. A double feature is a journey. We started at 4 p.m. and the second show didn't begin until 7 p.m. The cast was milling among the audience. Some would dance again in the second show, a unique take on the play Gas Light. The "talk" with the artists consisted mainly of the choreographer explaining the reasons for remaking these two works, with the two dancers who performed in the originals commenting on the differences between casts. Bonnie Brooks, former Chair of the Columbia College Dance Center stood by, commenting about what's next for Lucky Plush. There were few if any questions. We returned to the theater for The Better Half. Still a full house. The work was humorous, engaging, surprising, visceral, and emotional—not to mention getting to see choreographer Julia Rhoads perform herself. Overall, this was a treat!


Monday, September 16th, 2013, 6:00pm.

I had been looking forward to Moving Dialogs, a program of Audience Architects curated by Baraka de Soleil at Hyde Park Art Center.  This first of the season was to focus on "HYBRID" forms of dance or movement art. A list of terms thrown out by the large circle of attendees included "performance," "cross-disciplinary," "trans," "body art," and so on. I walked in at 6 p.m., maybe, just maybe, I was the first to walk in. Organizers were still scuttling about setting up projectors and turntables. Was I coming to a discussion panel or a dance party? I was not to be disappointed on either front. For the first hour and a half, the Hyde Park Art Center was an immersive movement landscape, with Susan Marshall's Stop video piece inviting audience to dance, Anthony Romero's students from Columbia College nearly forcing the audience to stutter and step as their dance bounded up and around the stairs and catwalk through an improvisational score, and Tony Orrico inspiring something of stillness in us all, as we sat captive by his repeated falls. Finally, when Tony had fallen for the last time, everyone gathered in a that large circle that I previously mentioned to discuss these ideas of movement off the stage, out of context, in our bodies in new ways—ways we may not initially call dance, but perhaps should or could. I didn't walk away learning anything particularly new about "HYBRID" forms of movement art, but I did learn some new names, see some new gestures and absorb some bodily knowledge previously untapped.


Wednesday, September 11th, 2013, 6:30pm.

Flap flap flap stomp, went the tap class moving across the floor. Chatter from the hallway, came the students for the upcoming Bollywood class. It's 6:30pm at the American Rhythm Center, a shared, affordable and sustainable education, rehearsal and administrative facility for several leading Chicago arts organizations. This new institution is located in renovated spaces on the 3rd floor of Chicago’s historic Fine Arts Building, 410 S. Michigan Avenue. 

Lane Alexander's beginning tap class is in full swing in Studio B while a classical Indian dance class is finishing up in Studio A. A new student who walked in with me from the elevator asks, "Are you the teacher?" I reassure her, "no, not at all." More Bollywood arrivals cluster, buying class cards, eager for Studio A to empty and class to begin. One young man tells me that he has only taken the Bollywood classes before, that he thought it wise to "start in a beginning class, get some culture" before moving on to something more advanced.

Students begin trickling out of the tap class, but some remain in the studio working through specific steps with Lane. Eventually the studio is empty except for Lane, working through a series of tap steps on his own. He asks the desk attendant to come in and video him—or more precisely, video his feet. It sounds as if this video will go up on the ARC website for students to learn from remotely.

The Bollywood class is warmed up and moving in sequence. Five students and the teacher are gesturing up and down, moving in a circle, laughing even. I engage a conversation with the desk attendant, a senior in the dance program at Columbia College. He's not dancing with a company right now, "just trying to live." Everything suddenly rushes to a close with the end of the Bollywood class, so I pack up my bags and end this evening session at ARC.


Tuesday, August 27th, 2013, 12:30pm.

It's a quiet day at the American Rhythm Center. The summer months here are populated by the occasional dance class but mostly filled with the rehearsals of one of ARC's partner organizations. ARC operates not only as a dance studio with classes in tap, contemporary, swing, flamenco, African and Indian, but also as an administrative co-op for emerging arts organizations. Partnership with ARC offers a physical home base and the administrative resources to support an organization's development, marketing and operations. One of these community partners that holds regular sessions in the ARC studios is Cerqua Rivera Dance Studio, and today, tucked away in the largest ARC studio, the company rehearsed.

I walked in midway through a five-hour rehearsal being held in preparation for the Fall 2013 Concert Series (September 14–15, 2013). Choreographer Raphaelle Ziemba was workshopping the fourth and final movement of her new piece while artistic director Wilfredo Rivera sat on the sidelines working his laptop. A soundtrack of uncanny jazz music resounded in the background as the six dancers sauntered into place, sock-footed. From the back left corner, their huddled bodies moved outward, each dancer dispersing into formation and making way for a solo movement center stage. "Don't jazz it out," shouts Ziemba as the soloist thrusts her arms down and back to accent a lunge break. This particular piece of music seems to challenge choreographer and dancers alike to keep to a more natural, grounded movement.

During a lull, I asked Ziemba about her process in developing choreography. "I am interested in how everyday sounds affect our bodies and our movement," she says. "Natural sounds, city sounds, different tones of voice and music. I am also interested in how the affect of these sounds on our bodies may alter our relationships with others." This is merged into the formal structure of her piece: "The four sections of my piece are different times of our days," she observes, "the early morning; afternoon downtown, at work; early evening and then late night."

While Ziemba and soloist perfect the combination, the other dancers keep to the side, stretching, working through previous combinations. Some watch attentively. They have been developing the piece since July. It is one of four new works developed as part of the Cerqua Rivera creative model— a collaboration between a choreographer, a composer and a visual artist.

In my upcoming notes look for a conversation with artistic director Wilfredo Rivera as well as an artist story from choreographer Raphaelle Ziemba.


Tuesday, August 27th, 2013, continued.

After watching the dancers rehearse for about 45 minutes, I turned in my seat to ask a few questions of artistic director Wilfredo Rivera.  Specifically, I was curious about the uncanny music composed for this particular dance piece. “Does Cerqua commission an original score for every new work?” Wilfredo then explained to me how each work is actually a collaboration amongst three artists of three different disciplines—a choreographer, a composer, and a visual artist. The company started this way, he said, with himself as the choreographer, Joe Cerqua as the composer, and Matt Lamb as the visual artist. After two years of working together in this way, Cerqua Rivera was in full swing and ready to put on their first evening-length production.

Fifteen years later, here we are. While the art still comes first, Cerqua has transitioned from a small collaborative art practice into a full-on dance company. With diversity and community at the core of its mission, Cerqua Rivera Dance Theatre has taken on an institutional framework for operation, expanding its work in development, marketing, and education. Being situated at the American Rhythm Center offers not only rehearsal space but also administrative offices and support. Cerqua gives back by teaching classes in contemporary jazz as part of the ARC curriculum, reaching a diverse community of Chicagoans, many of whom have never danced before. Cerqua continues its teaching mission through a well-developed schools program. Working with two high schools serving disadvantaged or alternative students, Cerqua is more than just a troupe of dancers, but truly an urban gateway into the art of movement.

Published by CAR_Dance on Tue, 08/27/2013 - 7:13am
Updated on Tue, 07/15/2014 - 9:29pm