The Necessity of Reflection: A Conversation with National Artist Camille A. Brown Performing at 2013 Chicago Dancing Festival

Camille A. Brown.  photo by Grant Halverson
Camille A. Brown. photo by Grant Halverson

“Is art enough?”

Camille A. Brown, one of the national artists performing a solo for Chicago Dancing Festival‘s Solitaire event at Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago [MCA], raises this question inside our conversation.  it’s a rhetorical question Camille deeply considers when developing work such as Mr. TOL E. RAncE or “TOL”;  from which she shared an excerpt* on Wednesday and Friday, August 21st and 23rd to varied Chicago audiences. TOL is a large scale dance theatre piece that explores unsettling & provocative legacies of ‘African-Americana’.  with this work, she intentionally engages her audiences in dialogue  that goes beyond just the dance of it…for her it’s about what moves us to action.  “Can it be enough to just create art around Trayvon? we’ve got to take it further.” the cultural implications  of  Trayvon Martin’s tragedy resonate a contemporary reflection of the continued devaluation of brown and black bodies. Inside TOL, Camille fluidly reflects haunting past images of blackness; reminding us of how far we have gone, and where we may need to go, in order to craft authentic intercultural discussions on race, equity and social stereotyping.

with striking pose

a black body flows

she wears the gloves

and dons the gestures

the face that bares

receives the stares

the music plays

a shifting gaze

in this spotlit

she is a reflexive lens

for those who may also wear the mask

referring back to her mention of Trayvon, Camille cautions “we can get caught up in the sensationalism”,  but there is a necessity to go deeper.  she is willing to go deeper.  that “necessity” is a guiding force in her current creative practice. TOL allows her to examine “these masks we wear”  and, in revealing them, invite those who witness into an opportunity for meaningful dialogue.

distinguished Poet Paul Laurence Dunbar eloquently articulates the metaphor of the mask:

“WE wear the mask that grins and lies, 
    It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,— 
    This debt we pay to human guile; 
    With torn and bleeding hearts we smile, 
    And mouth with myriad subtleties.

    Why should the world be over-wise, 
    In counting all our tears and sighs? 
    Nay, let them only see us, while 
            We wear the mask.

    We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries 
    To thee from tortured souls arise. 
    We sing, but oh the clay is vile 
    Beneath our feet, and long the mile; 
    But let the world dream otherwise, 
            We wear the mask!” 

Wednesday’s performance at MCA was a gala; drawing in a predominately white audience. an attendee comes up to her: “i don’t mean to be offensive but what was it about”.  it’s not the first time a black artist has been asked that by a white audience member.  this person genuinely –  in Camille’s recanting – searches for more than a simple answer; and this becomes one of those “opportunities”.  throughout the evolution of TOL, its development and performances nationally, she has become accustomed to “not always preaching to the choir” . new audiences open up new possibilities for fostering educational and enlightening exchanges between artists and those who bear witness. “There’s a vulnerability that comes with that newness for both audience & artist.  We bring up race, black history and we can shut down. But everyone wears a mask. Mask is universal”  Finding that mask cannot occur from the outside, we must go within.  it’s challenging when we do so…and when artists make choices to do so in front of others.  for Camille and her company of artists, that kind of challenge is not only present when there are majority white attendees; it can been even more challenging when they perform for black audiences.  “they see themselves reflected. it’s not necessarily something they want to see…” she recalls a performance where the audience was so close the dancers could see their faces change when certain images were recognized. the “putting on of the white gloves” recalls past historical moments of minstrel and servitude that Americans still grapple with today.  interestingly in sync, The Butler – Lee Daniel’s film loosely based on true-life story of Eugene Allen‘s tenure serving eight USA presidents – is currently out in theatres nationwide.

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“A woman like me”

i ask “what does diversity mean to you?” what SHE shares reminds me of comments a female associate made regarding the opening Chicago Dancing Festival concert on Tuesday, August 20th.  inside a male-centered choreographic world, Camille brings a woman’s history…a storyteller not to be pidgeon-holed. this kind of representation inspires me to suggest how exciting it maybe for a young girl to come to this festival and see Camille.  it’s potentially empowering for her – the young girl – to create, to feel affirmed.  Camille shares a story; one of being a young woman, 16 & the first time seeing “a woman like me…with bodies that celebrated full curves, hips…oh and natural hair.” it was a profound personal epiphany. well, while here in Chicago, she went to a class led by members of Deeply Rooted Dance Theater, then witnessed their rehearsal  AND THERE SHE SAW HER++  – the SAME woman dancer Camille had seen perform when she was 16!

as a self-identified black female choreographer, this necessity of reflection radiates. as well it permeates: the dance world when “seeing Judith Jamison on stage” ; within the academic institutions system looking at “how we teach people about the history of dance with educators like Brenda Dixon[Gotschild]“; and within the context of black representation – ” president Barack Obama“.

“Glimpses are not enough”, Camille states. she’s right.  we need to embed the legacy of diversity within the academy. “we do that and it will ripple throughout the larger society”

in speaking on the ‘company of Solitaire soloists‘, Camille relishes the convergence of all these diverse bodies & forms: “We are in our own worlds so the performers are having this experience as well, experiencing the diversity of who’s in the room…the pleasure of getting outside our separate dance worlds…seeing the men of Hubbard Street, connecting to the east Indian dancer’s footwork & rhythm… the ‘arch’ of how this all fits in…how we compliment each other inside the Solitaire performances…connecting to the sameness, celebrating the difference”  i sense her joy and enjoy her vibrant enthusiasm. it is a perfect testament to her enterprising character. “i can sit here all day and talk about diversity”  indeed. the more ways we can explore diversity…the many many more expansive conversations unfolding…

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*the excerpt Camille presented at the festival, was a solo that is performed at the very end of the full length TOL.

++the “HER” who inspired Camille at 16 is the lovely Elana Anderson.

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Camille A. Brown performed a solo from MR. TOL E. RAncE for 2013 Chicago Dancing Festival’s Solitaire performances on Wednesday and Friday, August 21st and 23rd at Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago .

more to come on the actual Solitaire performance…

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Between Chaos & Calm: Diversifying Form Within Tradition – Reflections From a Conversation With Natya Dance Theatre’s Krithika Rajagopalan Performing At 2013 Chicago Dancing Festival

“There is something that happens in the ‘in between’

A moment, nanosecond, that exists between chaos & calm

Between yesterday & tomorrow

When you decide to be at peace…until you decide not to

When your mind is absolutely clear.

There’s almost nothing that CAN’T happen…

[Sthithihi] literally came to life when deliberating [on the in between]

Krithika Rajagopalan
Krithika Rajagopalan

Krithika Rajagopalan, associate artistic director and principal dancer with Chicago-based Natya Dance Theatre – one of the leading Indian dance companies in the USA – speaks eloquently about her newest solo exploration, Sthithihi – in the stillness; a shortened version presented at the Solitaire performances on the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago‘s stage, as part of Chicago Dancing Festival’s 2013 season.

“It’s a great honor to be part of this festival.”

Krithika, having a background in both traditional and contemporary movement, navigates the chaos of creation; crafting out of it, a conceptual dance that diversifies it’s classical form through not only its movement vocabulary but by incorporating “brand new music that is as cerebral as creativenot 4×4 but a 9 beat patterning.”

Bharatanatyam or Bharata Natyam, as she speaks on it, is a highly codified art form;  telling the story with not just the rhythm that is present but using eyes, articulating body to convey the intended expression.  there is structure; but within this framework she’s interested in the conceptual flow…this flow is where Sthithihi’s premise lives…

traditional…classical

“what’s traditional? it’s not just about preservation…what’s classical?” i offer my thought that classical form stands the test of time, is always noted for it’s authentic self.  this authenticity may come under scrutiny when one explores the form as Krithika does, is doing  with Sthithihi… when,she allows her self  to discover, to evolve, to be truly present in the moment. and even if that moment is structured, one can find freedom. Krithika seeks this freedom inside the structure of Bharat Natyam. and basks in being able to make distinctive choices; such as including a particular piece of 8th century piece of text, set to music, that references Parvati: the goddess of mountains serving to create, protect & destroy.  as i look up this goddess, i note that while she has been known to be benevolent, Parvati can be wrathful…

“let the emotions lead”

in discussing Parvati, i sense an emotional shfit that carries her to a poetic place… she begins to revel in the mountain image and its relation to the waters on top, descending..

“Look at the mountains…like the Himalayas

The waters that move from top to bottom

Gushing down at moments

Trickles at others

These same waters that could potentially kill you when rapid,

Are nourishing your being when still.”

“She (Parvati) is stillness. the stillness between creation & destruction. it’s all within us. the ability to destroy or nurture. where is that place where we can clear both the chaos & the calm?”

Krithika Rajagopalan
Krithika Rajagopalan

Nature’s roots, our roots, a clearing of mind

beyond the image of mountains, Krithika offers other elements of nature as metaphors for connecting to each other, to our humanity, to embracing diversity:

in order to see where our roots are, we need to open up the earth and show them.  the roots reach out as much as the branches… 

however it’s all about clearing the mind. for Krithika, in looking for this clarity, one should deepen their connection to our roots,  to nature. this being a process, one which requires practice. the practice of observation.  through observation comes inspiration… the impetus for this piece and others to come, can be found in her garden… sitting there, contemplating and being present…

i look at nature and it tells me what’s the goodness in the world…how to reach for it…like the trees that lean towards the sun.

when being present, one finds stillness, the potential to explore anything…the possibilities that can come up. as she co-exists with nature, Krithika strives to find that, in this beginning solo exploration… a gesture inside that possibility

Krithika Rajagopalan
Krithika Rajagopalan

Expanding perceptions, looking at the details…

“This is the first time Indian classical dance has been presented at this festival.”

given this opportunity at Chicago Dancing Festival to share this tradition with audiences who may not have viewed Indian dance before, rather than cater to contextualization, Krithika suggests viewers just soak it in.

to look at it for its dimensions, the nuances… the eyes, the tilt in the head, shift of torso, the beauty by which she diversifies the from; dancing the in between place of chaos & calm…within Sthithihi…

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Krithika Rajagopalan performed Sthithihi as part of the Solitaire performances for Chicago Dancing Festival 2013 at  Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago on August 21st & 23rd. more to come on that performance, as well as reflections on a conversation with enterprising choreographer Camille A. Brown… who also performs a solo for Solitaire.

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Luminosity of Variation: Questions of Diversity & Representation at Chicago Dancing Festival’s 2013 Performance at The Harris Theater

there’s something truly luminous about witnessing variant styles of live art on a shared stage.  it’s not about which form, which variation of dance should be upheld and viewed… all forms present are affirmed and held with regard to what Lar Lubovitch referred to as a standard of excellence”. within the concept of variation i’m thinking of it as a ‘tool’ of choreography (a basic movement theme is stated and then altered in various ways) and in terms of the diverse traditions that flowed across The Harris Theater on Tuesday, August 20th; as part of Chicago Dancing Festival‘s[CDF] 2013 season.  when witnessing ‘diversity’ unfold in a coexisting space, much comes up for me.  here are some of my reflections on that evening; illuminating the beauty of that coexistence….

serenely projected blue cloud-like textures rest on the stage as we wait…slowly but surely seats fill with bodies and ambient socializing. joining me is a dear associate whom i have had the pleasure of seeing prior dance performances with…in fact we came together to The Harris for the opening of the 2012’s CDF season as well. it is a joy to have her by my side to witness and offer some thoughts that may challenge or align with my own… hers is a distinctive knowledge base from mine; having invested as a student and dancer in more ballet, more traditional modern forms such as Horton & Graham than myself.  when i ask  “what comes up for her when thinking of ‘diversity'”, she echoes sentiments akin to Lar’s [noted in my earlier blog reflection] –  “When I look around the audience, i’m looking at ‘who’s here’…where’s the cross-pollination?” where are ‘We’[people of color]?”  she goes on to share her belief that the “intention of the fest [CDF] is for Chicago to have access to some of the finest dance, but WHO of Chicago actually has access?”  it’s a great question. interestingly, just then, a trio of young women of color happen to sit right next to us.  i think about what diversity means to us in this moment, as we are about to witness this concert?  will it be about color? style? variations on the style? Lar pointed out that the bottom line of his and Jay Franke‘s curatorial selection is “excellence. Excellence comes first.”  to me that excellence comes through the rich diversity and forms, the panorama of workmanship and artists expressing themselves…from the rhythmical to the classical.

tonight, on the stage, i felt a diverse presence of form, content and culture that was satisfying to me on many levels.  beginning with the presence & introduction of the full company of artists who would perform on stage.  when the lights came up it was indeed a beautiful way to let us know that, as a composite, here was a true multiplicity of bodies, shades & stylistic forms (evident in the kinds of costuming displayed):

Chicago Human Rhythm Project [CHRP]

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago [HSDC]

-Guest Artists Brooklyn Mack of The Washington Ballet & Tamako Miyazaki of Columbia Classical Ballet / Dortmund Ballet 

Lar Lubovitch Dance Company w/ Le Train Bleu (music ensemble) 

Brian Brooks of Brian Brooks Moving Company

The Joffrey Ballet [TJB]

In the beginning… a welcome addition to the CDF line-up this year, CHRP opens the concert with this work –  a collective choreography of  Lane Alexander and  Bril Barrett, with improvisation from the most racially diverse ensemble of the line-up – feels like a ‘primer’ on tap; a way to navigate how simple it can begin and how complex it can be. it’s possibilities seemingly endless…though the tap flooring & boxes placement along with constricted lighting felt limiting to their expansive artistry.

 Little mortal jumpHSDC is no stranger to the festival or The Harris.  it’s no wonder that their connection & ways of performing in it are effortless… and, through the choreographic conventions of Alejandro Cerrudo , magical.  their strikingly unison moments underscore how deeply this company is an ensemble. the pairings & solo allow for opportunities to examine the strength of their individual technique…the particular silky way they lingered with a leg or gesture…many compelling aspects to this company’s presentation… most subtle were the visible threads of ‘diversity’…

Diana and Acteon pas de deux — my associate gives me much needed insight into the Vagonava legacy, as we both savor the spellbinding effects of the performance. guest artists Brooklyn Mack and Tamako Miyazaki bring impeccable technique and exquisite expression to the oldest work of the evening. Masterfully crafted by Vaganova/Alonso, the duet feels calibrated perfectly for these two artists. in light of the concept of racial diversity, i have to acknowledge my perception of them as a Black/of African descent male and  Asian/of Japanese descent female. important because when this work was first created in 1935, what chance would either of them have had to perform it? to study ballet? what audience would have invested in or gone to see a duet with these two performing at that time?  so as classical as the work is, it feels contemporary in its ‘casting’. and transcendent! there’s no question they have transcended the form, and any thought around their color, with their superlative performance.

Tamako Miyazaki and Brooklyn Mack
Tamako Miyazaki and Brooklyn Mack

at intermission i engaged in conversations with others who bring further fuel to the dialectic of having these two artists perform.  one which will not be resolved by the end of this performance, the performers or presenters…. a dialectic to be considered when audiences, artists & administrators present or see dance.

What also came up was what does it mean to ‘track’ diversity across ballet & other dance forms? what will that awaken for those with this knowledge? how will it support the efforts to expand the concept of diversity while upholding excellence?

The Crisis of Variations —  fragmented parts of body in a series of shifting tableux vivants, evolving to unabashed throws of whole bodies through space, on top of each other, colliding & orbiting; abstractly aligning with the live sounds of the refined Le Train Bleu, to create a dissonance that is palpable and intriguingly post-modern. it’s a challenging work for his dancers and for us as audience to experience.  i admire Lar‘s choice to include this piece. to expose keen ways modern, contemporary dance are distinctive.  i appreciated the variant body types inside his company. the body ‘diversity’.  subtle yet visible.

I’m Going to Explode —  the lone solo of the evening, Brian Brooks conveys the ‘everyday business man’ in private moments… their idiosyncrasies…a queering of the ‘straight-laced’ white normative…the way they may ‘groove’ when no one’s watching. the music narrative. his singular body. the chair he leaves the suit jacket he releases. the explosion that is the dance that he can longer repress.

Son of Chamber Symphonic the rigor. placement of leg, foot, arm, neck. the clarity of the form that is the body expressed so clearly in Joffrey dancers’ technique and within this piece.  precise & poised with the complement of lovely costuming; a texturing that further pronounced their form…

TJB finishes off the evening with this articulate workmanship. yes workMANship… as the choreographer is Australian Stanton Welch… it had eluded me until my associate brought it up –  the absence of female choreographers? i was perplexed.  looking at my notes, it seems to be one aspect of diversity i never brought up… ok, revisiting the program, there’s the discovery of one recognized female choreographic contribution – Vaganova. it lists Alonso as well…don’t know who that is or their gender but will be diligent in finding out… ***found out that the Alonso noted is Madame Alicia Alonso, Cuban prima ballerina assoluta whom, i deduce, worked with the dancers on their performance of it & maintaining the integrity of the work.  the choreography is attributed to Vagnova with the music composed by Cesare Spugni.

of the six pieces presented, there is only one perceived woman acknowledged as a creator of work.  to some this may not seem a big deal, but have heard from independent dancemakers – specifically throughout Chicago – who have attested to this exclusion on the established regional level of being represented…again i will be diligent in looking at this concern myself.  in witnessing such beauty & dimensions diversity throughout the evening, my consciousness, most directly awakened by my female associate, compels me to put forth this question: Do we need to ‘track’ gender in as it relates to choreographers/creators of work when thinking of diversity?   where is that representation in the larger companies? why is it important to make note of it?

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Chicago Dancing Festival at The Harris Theater Tuesday, August 20th 7:30pm

with:

Chicago Human Rhythm Project’s In the beginning…(2013) [male choreographers Lane Alexander & Bril Barrett]

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago Little mortal jump (2012) [male choreographer Alejandro Cerrudo]

Guest Artists Brooklyn Mack of The Washington Ballet & Tamako Miyazaki of Columbia Classical Ballet / Dortmund Ballet  Diana and Acteon pas de deux (1935) [female choreographer contributor Aggripina Vaganova / with credit to Madame Alicia Alonso***]

Lar Lubovitch Dance Company w/ Le Train Bleu [music ensemble] Crisis Variations (2011)[ male choreographer Lar Lubovitch]

Brian Brooks Moving Company  I’m Going to Explode (2007)[male choreographer Brian Brooks]

The Joffrey Ballet Son of Chamber Symphonic (2012) [male choreographer Stanton Welch]

more to come on how  Chicago Dancing Festival explores the complex subject of ‘diversity’ soon…CDF13_BP_Button_120x60

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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Bad Boys, Back Beats & Best Bets: Closing Reflections on 2013 Rhythm World Festival’s Final Performance

Chicago Human Rhythm Project’s (CHRP) Lane Alexander and Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago’s (MCA) Yolanda Cesta Cursach   onstage of 2013 Rhythm World Festival’s final performance on Saturday, August 3rd at Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, like proud parents, offered introductions to not only this evening’s artists, but to what’s to come… CHRP’s upcoming fall Global Rhythm 2013 presentation of Che Malambo gave Lane opportunity to express his excitement for this Argentine company’s ‘flavor’; inspiring him to further utilize flavors and food metaphors when discussing the “cornucopia of different dishes” we will savor tonight.

Lane Alexander
Lane Alexander

True to previous performances, there were distinctive flavors going on in this collective performance gumbo; however to ‘whet our appetite’ we were first delivered musical samplings from Greg Spero Trio [Greg SperoJunius Paul & Makaya McCraven].  they set the tone for what’s to come…inviting us to ease back into our seats and welcome the opportunity to attentively listen to their masterful  sonic artistry. i did just that.  Lane came back on, proud parent that he is, to announce who’s up next on the menu – “two former scholarship students [of CHRP], now world class professionals” – Nico Rubio and Jumaane Taylor; each offering a solo dish.  i’m inspired to keep on using food metaphors even though Lane begins to move into the tap language when further sharing insights on these two artists or the binary world of tap.  “it’s either toe-heel or right-left” he theorizes…but what they creatively do with those limited binaries inside their rhythm making….that’s a world without limits!

“hola” Nico greets us as he feels out the floor.  he dances about; drawing us into his subtleties, his turns…the way he toe- heels.  then comes the music of the trio…they play, he plays. both with such confidence & comfort; relaxing into the interplay between their sounds, his sounds…and the sounds being made by the audience. we clap and laugh and daresay are giddy at points when he adds a little extra ‘spice’ to a step.  a crowd pleaser!

Nico Rubio. photo by Cristiano Prim
Nico Rubio. photo by Cristiano Prim

distinguished, sporting a jacket & crisp white collared shirt, Jumaane at first seems a bit reserved….pensive perhaps.  he lays ‘low” &  hangs back close to the musicians…the trio begin jetting a rhythm that almost makes me jump out of my seat. he remains low… until he cannot anymore. alit by their music, his feet deliver a tight well-knitted battalion of percussive steps; echoing textures i’ve heard in music from East AND West Africa. this diasporic sound carries into his taps and becomes the jazz; the density of the trio’s ambient waves allows him to solo on top; adding a lick, other times an accent, smacks, stomps and shuffle….gliding he lifts up his pants and lays into the edge of a phrase; never missing a beat.

moving on to tell us about the next performance, Lane injects this quote: 1 % inspiration, 99% perspiration. Einstein may have said it. Thomas Edison noted for originating it when referencing  ‘genius’. Lane aligns it with  the rigor of tap….”putting in those hours on the wood”.  With over 20, 000 votes cast, he next introduces the choreography winner of CHRP’s Virtual Rhythms tap competition. performed by Hannah Rickman,  Seattle-based Shauna Mindt’s  choreography is very in sync with the recorded composition. Hannah shows off her ‘port a bras’ and polished patterns…finishing with a very on-point turn.

Northwest Tap Connection follows.  fresh urban rhythms danced by Alex Jackson & Shaina Mitchell lead to the youth ensemble overtaking the stage. i catch glimpses of James Brown & MJ signature moves as well as current popular steps inside their performance. they gleefully strike a pose. an audience member calls out “the party’s on!” and Ne-Yo’s Closer fills the whole theatre. back of the house, audience members roar and the young performers eat it up; ham it up as they lip-sync to Ne-Yo, ending with a final gesture: “get closer”.

a ‘break’ from the tap steps us into the hip-hop world, where Monty Rezell of Stick & Move Dance Crew exhibits his liquid grooves. Monty, an instructor with American Rhythm Center, was one of the teachers inside the festival workshop programming. as part of the “non-tap” experience [along with Tai-Chi & Isadora Duncan technique] he contributes valuable enrichment to the student’s ‘education’ –  and to this evening’s mix – in delivering stylistic shades of urban dance that continue to inform & intermingle with the tap world.

closing out the first half, the  dynamic duo of Jumaane &  Jason Janas skillfully take on the compositional complexities of Stravinsky’s Sacrifice with aplomb, humor and utter finesse.  their shared costume choice of white & black, stylized tap patterning & theatrics combined with the dramatic score evoke cinematic-like images oddly akin to James Bond movies in my mind…i’m half-expecting agent 007 to show up at any moment!

and……………………………………………………………………………………………………………..blackout!

during the intermission i took in and saw a bit of  ‘who’s who’ of tap in the audience including the esteemed tap pioneer Lady Di Walker and some of  the vibrant Brazilian Cia Trupe TOE  performers from Thursday. love how they’ve come to support, witness and affirm the other tap artists…

Bad Boys, Back Beats & Best Bets titled this evening’s performance. definitely got the “bad boy” vibe, felt the back beats ripple throughout the space….and it’s only half-way through! no wonder every time Lane comes on stage to announce the next performer(s), he is beaming….

but back to this concept of  bad boys? BOYS huh? well SHE may have something to say about that…

Starinah Dixon. Photo by Andrea Bauer
Starinah Dixon. Photo by Andrea Bauer

Starinah Dixon comes out in gold lame pants & tresses of multicolors to prove that the ‘boys’ are not the only one who are among the ‘best bets’ tonight!  the “tap darling of Chicago” meets Chaka Khan in this solo; utilizing Chaka’s arrangement of My Funny Valentine to soften the mood and our hearts with the softness of  her tap phrasing…resisting any potential sentimentality with a rapid-fire display of footwork & sounds defiant to the final sustained notes.

continuing on with this smorgasboard of tap offerings…..it seems that Lane proffers no more food analogies, so i will discontinue as well; rather he speaks of time when introducing the soloist Daniel Leveille.  Swiss time that is. how exacting the Swiss can be….Swiss watches known for their precision and detail.  “a reputation for being great time-keepers” Lane remarks.  Daniel does not disappoint in his precise, exacting footwork. in keeping time with feet that tip not tromp. with arms that slice through space like a Swiss army knife and swift turns, his style transmits the age-old elegance of some of the finest time mechanisms.

Jason Janas! as if he didn’t perform an exhausting duet at end of first half, Jason comes on stage looking fresh and ready.  no time like the present, he jumps in and starts ‘playing’ the ‘drums’ like he had a drum kit, but all he’s got is a foot. a foot holding down one pattern that is, while the other foot taps another.  rub the stomach while tapping the head?  that’s nothing to trying to simultaneous hold down a polyrhythm with two feet! arms existing on a whole other qualitative plane…flowing and undulating ala Swan Lake in one  moment…or relaxed and pedestrian at another moment, as the feet take on a feverish repetition.  the classical & pedestrian collide in ways that keep us guessing and truly see tap’s mercurial nature….urban street hoofer or Earl “Snakehips” Turner? Jason transforms from one ‘persona’ or ‘instrument’ into the other in an instant…tips and tickles the floor like piano keys then lays into a beat like the drum against the drummers fierce motiffs. his is a liberated journey…and we are along for the ride!

Jason Janas
Jason Janas
Tre Dumas
Tre Dumas

back to the concept of ‘time’…. Lane had earlier mentioned one notion of time when referring to Daniel’s Swiss bred exactitude.  when speaking on Tre Dumas, Lane talks about how this tap artist “bends the framework of time”.  it sounds mysterious and almost as supernatural as the symbolic spiderman shirt that Tre wears. “yeah i heard that Tre” Lady Di calls out to him at a particular moment.  he has stopped to listen for how he is going to relate to what is being musically played….the rhythmic possibilities he can achieve… how  he might lay into the edge of his tap shoe in order to achieve that right tone. you feel how his spidey senses are tingling. i start to listen in a whole new way, witnessing how Tre tunes in to what he hears and “bends the time” of the pattern with his accents, shifts of feet against the sounds of the trio and/or the floor.  in all this he remains cool in that way you see Chicago steppers float around as they step….

And to close?

perhaps we’ve seen all the best bets for the evening. so who could possibly close? Sam Weber, “grandmaster” tap artist with grace like Fred Astaire. that’s who…. i am reminded of the elders of Africa who dance inside a Bantaba. they possess an authentic quality that speaks volumes through a side step or a shift of an elbow. a legacy of the lived experience.  Mr. Weber is so light on his feet. there’s no rush in the way his shoes touch the floor.  no rush at all. you must savor the moment. i do just that. put my pen down and see and hear how he steps, patterns, builds patterns, communicates with the musicians, with the floor, with the audience. such exquisite adornments – the way he hits his foot against the surface. the embellishments that surprise us at times…yet still allowing us to be purely present with him and further listen, savor

to exhale.

Sam Weber
Sam Weber

Chicago Human Rhythm Project’s Bad Boys, Back Beats & Best Bets  was the final performance of  their Rhythm World Festival 2013 at Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago on Saturday, August 3rd at 7;30pm.

CHRP is part of the 2013 Chicago Dancing Festival‘s line-up…more on that and Chicago Dancing Festival soon!

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Resonance: The Further Depths Of Tap Artistry On View In Chicago Human Rhythm Project’s Berkshires and Brazil

the more i experience tap dance, the more i seek to discover the further depths of its artistry – history, traditions and influences…thankfully the artists on view in Chicago Human Rhythm Project’s [CHRP] August 1st Berkshires and Brazil performance at Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago allowed me, those who attended, much opportunity to experience its dimensions…feel the resonances of its history and tradition through the diverse artistry on display… resonance carried over from the previous performances i have reflected on…but unique.

Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards
Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards

unfortunately i was running late and didn’t have the chance to hear Lane introduce the line-up and share initial insights…or to again experience Michelle Dorrance’s Push Past Break which opened the evening. i did however arrive in time for Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards‘ …who’s solo contribution to the evening illuminated the myriad of ways tap artists would “enter” the space – how one might decide to simply walk in and begin tapping….no lights needed at first. just the sound of her taps against the resonant stage.  casual and sophisticated, in a fitted jean outfit, heel taps, Dormeshia first floated around the stage without music…as if  it was enough to just enjoy being in the space… testing out the textures, potential rhythmic or ambient possibilities. “That’s cute” she comments, speaking on a musical entry phrase the trio [Greg SperoJunius Paul & Makaya McCraven] offers… but not yet…not yet does she bring them in… in this moment she is her own music….and it’s clear when the musicians do enter into the rhythmic landscape that her tapping is at the forefront.  walking, strutting, skipping and jogging, Dormeshia invites a conversation…how will she interact with them? the bass? drum? a pause, a stop shows how she’s listening in on what they have to offer to the conversation. she then responds so thoughtfully, so effortlessly that it feels like it could go on forever. then she simply walks off…

and just as easily, Nicholas Young enters.  what newness, other tap dimension will he bring? i’m at first skeptical… then i notice how he shifts in his posture to get more grounded. a slap on the thigh methodically escalates to powerful rhythm making, beat-boxing with multiple parts of his body… dripping down into the fronts of his black trimmed white taps. it is exquisite to watch & hear how he can make his taps sing!

Nicholas Young
Nicholas Young

CHRP’s Virtual Rhythms videography contest winner Rhythm of Life followed Nicholas.  over 20, 000 votes were cast from 21 countries to determine which one would be shared tonight. congratulations to Dean Hargrove, videographer and Chloe Arnold, choreographer!

North Carolina Youth Tap Ensemble, under the direction of Gene Medler, with choreography by Michelle Dorrance, tap into her abstract patterning with joyful precision. Michelle then takes the stage in a solo…we spend time in the darkness with just the sounds of her taps. not at all the kind of darkness that led to Dormeshia’s playful “conversation” opener… it’s a darkness that we can’t escape. seemingly neither can she. deprived of being able to see, all we can do is hear those patterns reverberate throughout the space… finally a hint of light and all i can make out is a shadow…it is Michelle, hooded, her back to us…. a tightness in her stance, she is relentless; demanding that we listen, not see or try to “look” at what is happening on stage.  the music is as relentless. a voice pushes forward. it is Martin Luther King, Jr. speaking; Michelle’s postmodernist expression rigorously working against his profound eloquence. “freedom” “justice” is heard again and again as Maladjusted beautifully dissolves towards its potent but unresolved end.

Michelle Dorrance
Michelle Dorrance

The “tightness” i may have felt from  witnessing Michelle is quickly released once Derick Grant appears in the closing solo to the first half.  He is loose and confident…at times igniting the floor with a blazing run of tap riff walks and pattering like chattering of teeth….you can’t help but smile.

Derick K. Grant
Derick K. Grant

Aye BRAZIL.

not sure of what or whom the Berskhires might have referred to… it is clear who and what is the Brazil connection to this evening… though at first you may not have a sense who’s going to tap and who are the musicians… The second half features the stylings of Cia Trupe TOE and their work Recriando Linguagens.   all are around a table, some sitting, as one sets off the beat…others add on. a clave pattern is heard. a clap. the bell. who’s going to tap? who are the musicians? Dancers as musicians, musicians making their instruments dance, this is the beauty of their tradition…it is so natural they way both relate – the tap to the music and vice versa – that i have to wonder if the full company has been trained in both… a synergy that is  symbiotic.  with rhythms indigenous to their heritage, they infuse the American tap form with their own flavor! and Samba! 4 musicians, 3 dancers fluidly move through solos, duets, trios and musical pairings. along the way we are fortunate to experience tapping to remixed version of The Girl From Ipanema…. a capoeira tap joda complete with berimbau… a pandero skillfully executed and counterpoint to a male soloist’s fancy footwork…the loveliness of acoustic guitar softly underscoring the tender textures of tap.  it feels lik Cia Trupe TEO has lived with these rhythms since they were born….the way they carry them not only in their feet, or through their playing of instruments…it’s in their hearts…it’s bone-deep.

Charles Renato of Ciao
Charles Renato of Cia Trupe TEO

Chicago Human Rhythm Project’s Juba! Masters of Tap Berkshires and Brazil Thursday, August 1st, 7:30pm at Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.

more reflections to come on CHRP’s 23rd annual festival’s closing performance on Saturday, August 3rd at MCA –  Bad Boys, Back Beats and Best Bets.

The Feet The Song The Music: Chicago Human Rhythm Project Steps All The Way Into Broadway

after witnessing the exceptional sampling of tap artists at The Jazz Showcase on Monday, i look forward to the extended works being presented by Chicago Human Rhythm Project [CHRP] in association with Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago[MCA].

the curtain is closed, the seats are full, MCA’S Edlis Neeson Theater is packed!

Juba! Bronzville and Broadway attempts to encapsulate the range of ‘perspectives’  this evening.  it’s “a collection of ‘perspectives'” Lane Alexander informs the audience, as he shares the stage with Peter Taub, MCA’s director of performance programs; giving us background into how MCA & CHRP came together as well as other insights… ‘intense, dense and exciting” is Peter‘s description of what’s in store for us a viewers, some aficionados of tap. together they stand representing a valued collaboration.  Lane commends Peter for providing a space where the tap community to gather…a platform for Chicago to see some of the best tap around!

curtain opens…

stage is revealed. first a light on a tap soloist, a luminous voice of a woman is heard, the vocalist sings “My man….” it is live, the band behind her comes alive…NYC-based choreographer Michelle Dorrance’s Push Past Break lays bear the pulse of indigenous rhythms; layering blues, hip-hop, house & jazz performed by an ensemble of five with musical support from Greg Spero, Junius Paul & Makaya McCraven [trio]. from startling soloist’s Star Dixon‘s captivating footwork to thrilling polyrhythmic landscapes, they flow through duets, trios and a quintet that pushes the performers to dig deep into the emotional paradoxes of these steps; wherein the histories of the past collide with the future. i see images of field workers dissolve into tap krumping. a ‘chain-gang’ breaks forth into hollered transcendent moments sung by the dancers, led by Star; exposing rich rooted legacies, impassioned struggles and dare say joy that the ensemble embodies…explosive.

Sarah Savelli
Sarah Savelli

Next, Sarah Savelli enters…at once easy going and pedestrian. she puts her foot down and feels out the possibilities for ‘play”… what will it be this time? keep it simple? the trio, now joined by a saxophonist,  brings forth a jazz standard. all seems like this will be a simple moment where tap meets jazz and they live harmoniously ever after? except this is Sarah Savelli!  her low fast feet patterning is anything but simple… the musicians are offering their own push against her phrasing. who will outshine who? in the end they both come out shining.

Spoken word meets stomp. Lisa La Touche collaborates with Discopoet Khari B on this duet.  “They called you crazy” Mr Khari B shouts…. Ms LaTouche takes on the frenzy, the uncharted terrain of madness…the highs & lows…but it’s a madness that sets you free.  When he let’s go of a thought, the music catches it; propelling her into a labyrinth of sweeps and gestures. Lisa responds in ways that you can sense her deep listening…. not so much the language itself as his intonation… how he lays into the side of a word.  it’s like she’s dotting his ‘i’s’ and crossing the ‘t’ but more than that…it’s synergy.

Lisa La Touche
Lisa La Touche

Bronzville? what about West Side?

“whatever he’s putting in the kool-aid, it’s working!” indeed Lane speaks highly of Bril Barrett when introducing this culmination to the first half. rightly so. Mr. Barrett is one of a kind in Chicago. This west-sider is the force behind M.A.D.D. Rhythms[Making a Difference Dancing Rhythms], his ensemble comprises not only members like Star, Ian Berg and Jumaane Taylor, but promising youth from his educational program – a fertile hub that has brought forth some of the best tap artists in Chicago…. an all star crew of 7 including Star, Ian, Jumaane and Donnetta Jackson leads off Heartbreaks, Freestyles, Rhythm Symphonies and an African Mailman. Polyrhythm is broken down to its sublime essence with this crew. the patterning precise & bold. adding on and layering both sound and style.  A community of students follow, determined to win us over…then a quartet [of the first 7] invoke foot rhythms akin to global Africa against a recorded score…such bravado. A solo by Ian makes way for a octet with a bit of Latin flavor. Mr. Barrett solos. like a boxer called out onstage, he is formidable when it comes to his distinctive nuance of steps.  “We keep passing it on so it keeps living”  indeed, what he states he does…it’s walk the walk with this gentleman and his students, members of the ensemble prove worthy of this legacy.  a legacy he speaks of when mentioning the late great Dr. Harold Cromer. it’s like he saying to these performers make him proud.  They do!

————————————————————-intermission————————————————————

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Broadway! second half offers a Salute To Sammy Davis Jr.  Tony award nominated Ted Louis Levy transforms this stage to Broadway concert with his performance as ‘Sammy”.  this is not an impersonation but a beautiful embodiment of all that Sammy Davis Jr. stood for. with multimedia projections and a classy sextet of musicians including the earlier trio, Mr. Levy graces the stage with a beguiling presence. he croons, he taps, he belts out some of Mr. Davis’s signature songs, he almost plays an instrument [Mr. Levy shares a story of how the quintuple-threat Sammy  did a set where he not only danced and sang but then got a hold of some of the instruments!] and as one might expect from all of that ‘quintupling’, Mr. Levy like i’m sure Mr. Davis would need a break!  a break where Mr. Levy has to ‘only’ sing while  Jessica Chapuis, Lisa, Star (i’m dubbing the “tap darling of Chicago”), Michelle Dorrance, Tre Dumas  captivated us once again with scintillating tap solo after solo….the ‘break’ ending with power duo Jumaane and Jason Janas taking on a remix of “who can take a sunrise…”

Ted Louis Levy
Ted Louis Levy

by the end of this salute,  even though this was only an excerpt, Mr Levy –  a true showman himself- showed us quintessential Sammy!

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Chicago Human Rhythm Project’s

Bronzville to Broadway: Juba! Masters of Tap & Percussive Dance 

7:30pm, Wednesday July 31

At Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago 

soon reflections on:

Berkshires and Brazil, August 1st 7:30pm

also at MCA