There's a well-known dance theater whose web site describes with pride -- and justifiably so --- how more than twenty new choreographic works have been commissioned by the space over fifteen or so years. An impressive accomplishment, considering the complexity and challenge of sponsoring and staging even a single new work. It puts into vivid perspective, though, the incredible achievement of the Thodos New Dances series, which in its eleventh year is approaching its one hundredth new work, many of which have gone on to achieve impressive success beyond the New Dances program.
The process that transmutes an idea from experimental to iconic is long and improbable, and a careful look through the program for the ever-more-impressive 2011 edition of New Dances gives some idea of what that process involves. It requires a substantial community of shared enthusiasm, working hard to make everything work successfully.
In a great article called Together With A Gift at 4dancers.org, Kimberly Peterson talks about the latin roots of the word "communiity", which comes from the latin words for "together" and "gift". New Dances 2011 is a community of more than forty dancers, ten choreographers, a distinguished advisor panel, the Thodos Dance Chicago staff and technical organizations, and several independent lighting, sound and costume designers. Over its eleven year history, New Dances has probably been the shared creation of four or five hundred artists, and now regularly performing to packed houses, in its various editions it has played to an audience several thousand people too large to fit in any dance theater. It's an astonishing achievement, of course in the multi-faceted success of nine different choreographic visions, but even more significantly, in the multidimensional gifts shared by the unique community that makes it happen.
Jacqueline Stewart describes Jaxon Movement Arts as "a project-based company that creates dance art inspired by current events and active collaborations with adjacent artistic mediums". The full-length work Dance Gallery 2011 is an especially successful expression of this philosophy. Presented in collaboration with JMT/JLS choreographer Jessica Miller Tomlinson, Dance Gallery 2011 is an embracing journey through the myriad landscapes of artistic collaboration. Naturally, like the JMT/JLS 2010 production that was the first coproduction by the award winning choregraphers, Dance Gallery 2011 moves through the series of unique choreographic visions that Stewart and Tomlinson always manage to conjure. Unique to this project though was the presentation of Concert as Gallery, with each individual work set in a different section of the art gallery-style space. The inevitable interaction between a constantly-moving audience perspective and the inspired performances highlighted ever more vividly the richness of collaborations --- dance, production, design and performance --- woven into the work.
Each year, the United States announces the selection of 141 outstanding high school seniors as U.S. Presidential Scholars -- a tremendous accomplishment for each of the young people recognized. Twenty of those honored are Presidential Scholars in the Arts, and in 2011 Max Perkins, a brilliant young performer and member of aotpr.com-favorite Extensions Dance, was named by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan as one of only two dancers selected from among several thousand candidates around the country. Each U.S. Presidential Scholar is invited to nominate his or her most inspiring and challenging teacher to travel to Washington, D.C., to receive a Teacher Recognition Award from the U.S. Department of Education and to participate in the award ceremonies, which take place at the White House and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Joining Max in D.C. and receiving a 2011 U.S. Presidential Scholar Program Teacher Recognition Award is Extensions Dance Company Artistic Director, Lizzie MacKenzie.
To be selected for such an award from such a vast number of talented candidates is of course extraordinary, but in a remarkable way, maybe not all that surprising to aotpr.com. We know Max Perkins' work from his performances with Extensions Dance, and the quality of his contribution to everything we've seen him be a part of has always been extraordinary. "Passion" and "Intensity" are words that are often used to describe an exceptional dedication to artistic expression, and although they could be used to describe Perkins' work, neither word does so adequately. Both "passion" and "intensity" imply a commitment to artistic effort, but in ways that are often either intermittent or short-term. A more complete description of Perkins' work has to include that unusual quality that some artists achieve when an exceptional level of commitment is maintained continuously, in rehearsal as in performance, in struggle as in success. It's a quality that transcends the drama of passion and the transience of intensity, but achieves the mesmerizing artistic effect of both, and Max Perkins brings that quality to everything we've seen him do.
Extensions Dance will perform May 22 and May 28 at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts in their Extensions 2011 Showcase.
For seventeen years, Dance For Life's Next Generation has showcased the work of the very best young dance companies. The concert is a major project in support of The Dance For Life Fund and The Children's Place Association, and this year's show at the Sang Theater was more than impressive. DFL's Next Generation is an extravagantly generous display of talent and accomplishment --- eighteen diverse and compelling works by twenty choreographers, performed by ten companies, it would hardly seem right, and probably wouldn't be possible to try to identify standouts from such a successful event. The show featured The Arlington Dance Ensemble, The Chicago Academy for the Arts, Chicago Ballet Arts, Civic Ballet of Chicago, Dance Exchange, aotpr.com and 'ohana Dreamdance friends Extensions Dance (and for more about them check out some of our stories about Extensions and about Artistic Director Lizzie MacKenzie), Forum Jazz Dance Theatre, Loyola Academy, Matrix and Wheeling HS Orchesis. If you missed this year, make plans for next year, or better yet, see if you can see any of these companies before then.
The Thodos Dance Chicago Winter Concert, featuring major new works by Ann Reinking and Melissa Thodos ("The White City: Chicago's Columbian Exposition of 1893") and by multi-talented choreographer Ron De Jesús ("Shift"), has received a very impressive crictical response. The show begins with Reinking and Thodos's work, and in the second act, which closes with "Shift", audiences also get to see the return of two audience and critical favorites from 2010 New Dances series: "Quieting the Clock" by Francisco Avina and Stephanie Martin-Bennet, and "Dancer, Net (Solo 1)" by Wade Schaaf, as well as a second world premiere by Thodos, "Getting There", a sequel to the signature work that began her choreographic career. Here are some excerpts from a few of the reviews:
Hedy Weiss, The Chicago Sun-Times: "The program, whose second act contained four other works of exceptional quality ... is a must-see for anyone intrigued by Chicago history, by the power of dance to spin a story, and by the sight of a dance troupe clearly in the throes of a major breakthrough.
... “The White City” is a sophisticated, utterly involving blend of ingeniously imagined, superbly executed movement (with echoes of everything from “The Green Table” ballet to Broadway’s “Ragtime”); ravishing music (Bruce Wolosoff’s seductive “Songs Without Words,” played thrillingly by the Carpe Diem Quartet, perched in a balcony box); film (clever use of archival material by Christopher Kai Olsen, with deft narration by Chris Multhauf); haunting lighting (by Nathan Tomlinson, whose artistry was on display throughout the evening), and period-perfect costumes (by Nathan Rohrer)."
Accomplishment and serenity are not always traveling companions. The continuous effort that an unending series of challenges and successes demands often occupies most of the space in life that might have been reflection or relaxation. Ron de Jesús knows something about that, because nobody accomplishes what he has without working hard and working a lot. Every line in a long list of credits and awards --- dancing from Hubbard Street to Broadway, work in film, work in theater, choreographing for many of the world's great dance companies --- every credit and every award is its own list of meetings, cab rides, rehearsals, and airports, of meals missed and sleep forgone. On the other hand, you can't create original choreography that is as thoughtful (and thought-provoking) as his unless you can somehow find a way to stop. To look. Or as De Jesús says, "to respect all that this grand, delicate world has to offer".
Wade Schaaf's "Dancer, Net" is a truly daring work; conceived as a series of studies of the same subject in different lights, it was inspired by Monet's Haystack paintings, but Schaaf's interpretation of "same subject" and "different lights" is so blisteringly imaginative that the reference to the French impressionist paintings becomes quite an understatement. The original work featured the same dancer (Jacqueline Stewart) in more or less the same amazing costume (the Net) by Nathan Rohrer, performing in three separate solos, and at its World Premiere in July, 2010, the three solos were placed at different stages throughout the program. The wildly expansive variety of music, movement and staging that Schaaf conceived stretched the fabric of his original concept in ways that seemed essential to the success of the work.
In 1988, Melissa Thodos presented her first major professional work, a solo she also performed, at the Internationale Dance de Paris competition. "Reaching There" was innovative and elegant; it featured a brilliant original electronic score and a large (almost as big as her) wood cylinder, the Wheel, that she danced through, around, and with in what turned out to be an award-winning work. "Reaching There" also defined the beginning of an important career; it brought the talented dancer recognition as a choreographer, and began a trajectory that led not long afterwards to the founding of the Company that is now Thodos Dance Chicago. In the twenty years that followed, Thodos' career expanded; while it always included successful and award-winning choreographic work, it began to be even more defined by the development of a very different concept in what a Dance Company can be. Her idea of emphasizing equally performance, choreography and education led to a Company of artists who now include several award-winning choreographers in their own right.
Before Francisco Avina and Stephanie Martinez Bennitt were asked by Thodos Dance Chicago to be the guest choreographers for the Tenth Anniversary of the New Dances series, they had already begun the discussion and reflection that would lead to "Quieting the Clock". When the work premiered it was an audience favorite, perhaps because of its embracing visual elegance, and a critical favorite, perhaps because of the integrity of its ambitious architecture. "Quieting the Clock" is inspired by a simple and profound question, or rather, by an endless series of interrelated questions. How does the passage of time effect who you are? As time progresses, what is the relationship between who you are now and who you once were --- and may never be again. As the passage of time changes what you are capable of, where do you find balance, and hopefully continuity, in a redefinition that is gradually forced into your life? Avina and Martinez Bennitt expand their exploration to embrace all of the ways in which identity is defined by the logistics of time, by the pressures of schedule and obligation, and more gradually, of age.
Artistic collaboration is an art of its own, and a successful collaboration can achieve a level of artistic expression that is very different from what either of the artists individually might have found without the other. It seems like this would be particularly true of large, daunting artistic projects, but with collaboration, as with any art, the larger the undertaking, the more complicated the challenges become. In Ann Reinking and Melissa Thodos' "The White City: Chicago's Columbian Exposition of 1893", the two choreographers present an intricate, large-scale work that embraces a daunting series of artistic challenges, and in their collaboration manage somehow to bring all of them together into a single, convincing presentation.
It might seem surprising that a renowned Jazz and Broadway choreographer and an innovative and respected Contemporary choreographer would together make a ballet, but to call the work a ballet isn't entirely accurate. The richly costumed, story-driven work, framed by a compelling, classically textured score, creates an experience that is certainly ballet-like, and the scope of the work is also on that scale. Yet the movement vocabulary is multi-disciplined, and while there is a framework of the classical in the movements that portrays story, "The White City" is too complex to classify. The Thodos Dance performers bring such unrelenting commitment and ability to the thirteen scenes, and the entire concept is so intricately interwoven with Nathan Tomlinson's lighting, Chris Olsen's video, Nathan Rohrer's costumes, Gary Chryst's staging, and the Carpe Diem String Quartet's impeccable presentation of Bruce Wolosoff's "Songs Without Words" that there may not be any real reason for (or any real chance of) categorizing the work. More intriguing is to speculate about where this comes from, about how Reinking and Thodos found this, imagined this, made this.