The Path of Excellence, An Inroads to Diversity: A conversation with Chicago Dancing Festival’s Co-director Lar Lubovitch

diversity’s considered a hot topic within the dance community. nationally, it has been the bedrock of compelling forums and presenter gatherings such as Nyc’s APAP. sparked by controversial discussions at the 2012 Dance USA conference in San Francisco, this potentially overwhelming subject matter has permeated Chicago conversations inside convenings hosted by dance service organization Audience Architects; out of which led to a loosely formed committee comprised of arts organization leaders aligned with independent artists and has inspired a series of humanities discussions entitled Moving Dialogs of which i curate.  these discussions attempt to tackle the complexities of its multi-dimensions by looking at body type, ability, gender, sexuality, aesthetics, cultural concepts and race. to me race, racism has been the seed to the intentional consciousness raising surrounding diversity…why people of all types have come together…have formed life changing coalitions and landmark movements.  foundations have further illuminated how ‘hot’ this topic can be, by instituting financial grants to companies & individuals who seek to expand their exploration of diversity or deepen its meaningfulness to a cross-section of communities.

last year i reflected on the communal exchange aspects of the 2012 Chicago Dancing Festival; enjoying the opportunity to share insights into the beauty and joy of witnessing multiple ways ‘everyday’ Chicagoans participated beyond being an audience member.  this year my focus is on how ‘diversity’ is embraced, explored or communicated via the presence & presentations of the festival. from The Harris Theater to Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and Millenium Park’s Jay Pritzker Pavilion, there are many reflections as to what diversity could look like on and off the stage. to support this exploration i spoke with acclaimed choreographer & co-director of the festival Lar Lubovitch; gaining much needed context into the selection of artists, companies & works that are part of the 2013 line-up.

Lar Lubovitch - photo by Nan Melville
Lar Lubovitch – photo by Nan Melville

before speaking with Lar, i looked up the mission of Chicago Dancing Festival[CDF]: to present a wide variety of excellent dance, enrich the lives of the people of Chicago and provide increased accessibility to the art form, thereby helping create a new audience.  Its vision is to raise the national and international profile of dance in the city, furthering Chicago as a dance destination.

and a bit of its history:

On August 22, 2007 at 7.30 pm, seven leading American dance companies from Chicago and across the nation took the stage at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park and 8,500 people came to see the presentation.

This was the beginning of the Chicago Dancing Festival.

Six years later, through the combined curatorial expertise of Lar Lubovitch and Jay Franke, the Festival has become synonymous with excellence…has presented more than 55 exceptional dance companies from Chicago and cities throughout the country as well as abroad…and performed before more than 60,000 people while maintaining free admission for all.”

excellence. this is a ‘key’ word that comes up frequently during our conversation. when i ask Lar about diversity and whether it’s an “intentional or a deciding factor when looking at a company for possibly inclusion”, he shares:

“My eye is on what is great in dance; especially since it maybe the first time for some of our viewers.  It is important that they see the best in the art form. The bottom line of art – dancing – is excellence. And excellence comes in all colors. excellence comes first.”

i ask pointedly whether there is an intention of including different “colors”, to which he responds: “it is not color-conscious but color-blind excellence. Excellence arises in many shades.

referring back to the mission of CDF,  he believes the evidence is clear that there is no question that the festival has struck a bright & loud chord that resonates throughout the city”.   this resonance, he feels, carries beyond festival’s performance attendance. it impacts various theatre & dance companies attendance throughout the city.  looking at the truly impressive record-breaking numbers, i truly understand his summation.

it’s about what’s onstage. that excellence. so i discuss with him the curatorial process:

We [himself and Jay Franke] go to see a lot of dance. We look for it to be distinctive. We see it for its excellence.  When we see something we believe in, we go to the company,  we ask them for that specific dance with those specific dancers who danced it when we saw it.  We make little room for chance.  When we have  a “collection” of works we are interested in, we create like a storyboard. A journey [told] through a story.  The key to programming is to tell that story; not a literal one [but] a story of energy, dynamics & flow. This “story” may bring about an epiphany….brings someone to a place that is more lifted.

it’s also about who’s onstage. the intriguing eclecticism of distinct forms & artists. on the SAME stage.   Lar concurs. “On the same night you can see this with companies as diverse as rhythmic tap, ethnic dance, ballet.  and then, moving beyond the eclectic concept, he goes to the essence –  Dance is coming from the same place. from the spirit.”  is that it? respective of their difference it all draws from the “spirit”? i have to recognize the profundity of this remark. within my own aesthetic i create from the ‘spirit’. and while it’s not necessarily something i haven’t heard other choreographers say before, it’s gratifying to hear an artist of his stature in the dance community, speak to this concept.”Dance is coming from the same place. from the spirit.” the spirit. the transcendental nature of dance.  as well, Lar connects with how it should transmit to someone watching the performance. it also influences why they select a particular work : “...if it sparks, wakes up someone’s imagination…  as he puts it “seeing live art – well good live art – is a sensational high.” If someone can take away a meaningful moment, that is great. It is what I want.  –

i ask him: “what are some of the past highlights of the festival?” Lar intentionally does not speak about one company or artist but goes to the first festival as a whole:

“We had no idea what to expect. Chicago had not had a festival like this. We knew we wanted it to be accessible (free) as art belongs to everyone. We got the best dance at that time. he goes on to speak about “that first night at Pritzker.” –  We [speaking on behalf of the festival company of artists] had a rehearsal the night before, then a tech that afternoon.  We [Jay & Lar] went on to a pre-reception where some of the supporters of the festival were gathering. When we left the Pritzker it was empty.  When we came back not too much later, there were 8000 people watching dance… the dancers who performed said it was like nothing they experienced. The audience was hollering &  rooting. It was like a rock concert!”

inside our continued conversation here are some other reflections he shared:

in response to “why dance?”–

It’s something I invest & believe in. I love dance. It is my operational moment [modus operandi].  I like to believe it can be that for other people.

speaking on intentional inclusion of more Chicago dance companies this year–

“We made a decision to look at Chicago dance this year & let audiences know it’s really happening in this city.”

we return back to the subject of diversity. Lar brings it back up because “the subject of diversity”, as it relates to ‘what’ or ‘whom’ is seen onstage, is not necessarily what he’s concerned about.  He is more concerned about the lack of diversity in the audience. Why is this?” we both wonder and think on this... given the rich diversity here in Chicago why isn’t this reflected in the attendance?…the focus should be on the audience.“he goes on to say that “this is not just for the festival but throughout the city. I have gone to many dance performances here and witnessed this.  It’s one thing when we have someone who only wants to see ballet, but here – at this festival – is an opportunity to see more than that, all on the same night.”

“It’s good to awaken thoughts, provoke questions. The ideas of this festival are larger than one dance, a dancer. it is about the “collection[of artists & works on a given evening] bringing meaningful experiences to those who witness it.”

we go on to explore some theories as to why diversity is lacking in the audience; such as marketing and how the images may or may not reflect how diverse the performers and works can be. genuinely, he shares that this is not his expertise, but is willing to look at that. as well is the notion that reflection of who and what is onstage has a correlation with who is coming to the festival. again with sincerity he responds with We shall see.”

our final exchanges bring up thoughts surrounding how the concept of diversity is reflected:

in his personal life— 

he being born on near southside on maxwell street to immigrant parents.  having lived there first 8 years, they then edged up north landing in Rogers Park – my present hood – which, as he puts it seems to be one of the most if not most richly diverse neighborhoods in Chicago”

in the city–

The city is a patchwork quilt, not yet quite as blended, but there is a movement in that direction that is slowly unfolding.” 

in ‘political’ or ‘larger societal’ aspects —

“I’m not a social worker.  i’m an artist. Often the argument around diversity is one of social concerns. Yes it can go that way. That’s not my position. i hold a position that excellence in art automatically ensures diversity.

true to himself,  Lar’s focus remains consistent with his premise regarding the standard of excellence…of what will resonate on stage.”

What WILL resonate on stage? in what ways will this 2013 Chicago Dancing Festival resonate?  i”ll reflect more on this & the complex subject matter of diversity inside the August 20th 7:30pm performance at The Harris Theater soon….

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Author: Barak adé Soleil

creative practitioner, independent consultant and curator. making dance, performance art and theatre. working within community.

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