Although many Dance Companies now present a program at some point in their year that features choreography by the members of the Company, very few have done so for as long, and perhaps none do so with as much commitment and creativity as Thodos Dance Chicago. Thodos Dance's New Dances Choreography Series, described by Time Out Chicago dance writer Matt de la Peña as "one of the best in-house choreographic showcases", is in its thirteenth season, and on Friday and Saturday, July 19-20 at 7:30 PM, and again on Sunday July 21 at 5:00 PM, the series will feature nine new works in performances at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts in Chicago.
There are quite a few reasons why these programs are so uniquely effective. One of them is that Thodos Dance company members are hired as choreographers, not just as dancers. Because of Melissa Thodos' emphasis on the development of company members as choreographers, Thodos company members have the opportunity, and the experience, to put together a consistently eclectic and successful program, but that same emphasis on choreography among the dancers has another significant effect. New Dances is a uniquely collaborative phenomenon.
It's remarkable that telling a story, one of the things that people everywhere do most naturally, can be one of the most challenging to do well. That's probably the reason why, after dominating the world of concert dance for centuries, it's not really that common any more. Even in ballet, and still less in dance's many other forms, modern choreography doesn't often try to bring an audience through an actual story, telling them about what happened and how it happened, and most of all, making them feel that they actually know the people who the story is about.
To begin with, you have to have a really good story to tell, and in their one act dance theater piece A Light in the Dark, Ann Reinking and Melissa Thodos have one of the best. It's about a seven year old girl in Tuscumbia, Alabama who is both blind and deaf, wild and alone. She's desperately isolated from the family that surrounds her by her inability to communicate with them, with hardly any idea that such a thing as communication even exists. A young teacher, only twenty years old and herself visually impaired, not only dares to defy this hopelessness, but actually succeeds in saving the young girl from the shadows of her isolation. Even if almost everyone thinks they already know the story of Helen Keller and Ann Sullivan, this story will always be an astonishing inspiration.
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.
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.