Not That Will Rogers

Reconstructing Dance History: “The Rite of Spring”
Dancers in traditional Himalayan costumes in "The Rite of Spring"

Dancers in traditional Himalayan costumes in "The Rite of Spring"

You have until March 1 to make it to Joffrey Ballet’s Winter Program.  Totaling four works in all, the cornerstone of this season’s program is Vaslav Nijinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring), originally danced by the famed Bellets Russes. The work reenacts a sacrificial fertility rite in which a young woman dances herself to death.  Tribal and raw, Nijinsky’s dance is set to Stravinsky’s iconic score with scenery and authentic Himalayan costumes by Nikolai Roerich.  When the work premiered in 1913, audiences were so outraged they rioted and stormed the streets.  When was the last time you experienced that in a theater?  The Rite of Spring disappeared after its debut and was only revived by Robert Joffrey in 1987 with the meticulous research of husband and wife dance historian team Millicent Hodson and Kenneth Archer.  Presented as part of the centennial celebration of the Ballets Russes, if you are into dance you have to see this.  It changed ballet forever and paved the road for modern approaches to a classical form.  If you are just into history that’s another great reason to go.  Visit the Joffrey Ballet website to watch a short video on the history of the work.

While we are on the topic of The Rite of Spring, I would be remissed if I didn’t include a link to a piece done on the riot it caused by my friends at WNYC’s Radiolab.  What could be better than learning more on The Rite of Spring from one of the most exciting shows on the radio (or iTunes)?  Well stop asking questions so I can tell you.  Not only will you hear about the dance, but you will also hear one of my favorite Radiolab degments, “Sound as Touch”.  Click here and enjoy!


Stupid Kids far from stupid

Go see "Stupid Kids"

I must admit, I went into About Face’s production of  Stupid Kids with very high expectations and knowing it would be hard to meet my standards.  I read John C. Russell’s play in high school and it stuck to me.  As a young gay kid from Alabama coming to terms with my sexuality, the show’s stylized pining and frenzy of bad poetry was the answer to my classmate’s 90210 and Dawson’s Creek.  What co-directors Bonnie Metzgar and Megan Carney gave me was a multimedia, teen angsty, dancing ball of kinetic energy that churns up those gloriously provocative and vomit inducing memories of high school.   I loved it. The story is of a gay kid that goes by Neechee, played balls to the wall by Patrick Andrews.  Neechee has a hard on for Jim (Tony Clarno), the new guy in town with a major attitude and a motorcycle.  Neechee’s best friend is Erin Neal’s Kim, a Patti Smith obsessed revolutionary with a crush on Judy (Whitney White), an A-lister with a totally rad wardrobe.  Jim and Judy are going out and Neechee and Kim are determined to break them up through a 1980s rollercoaster of self-discovery, first kisses, and killer bongs.  It’s way complicated, way hilarious, and way to close to home.  And taking a big risk, Metzgar and Carney have added a contemporary cast of high schoolers using text messages and video diaries to offer a counterpoint to the insane proceedings.  Though it took me a bit to buy into this shadow cast, I came out feeling like its use made the show relevant to an entirely new generation.  For that I’m grateful. I hope this show hangs around.

At the Hoover-Leppen Theatre at Center on Halsted,  3656 N Halsted ,773.784.8565, through March 8.

Ideas as Currency: Chicago theater reacts to hard times
Anthony Moseley

Anthony Moseley

“With this new reality we thought it would be important to make sure arts organizations weren’t becoming isolated, burrowing in, attempting to go it alone in meeting their financial and operational challenges,” shares Peter Kuntz, executive director of the Arts & Business Council of Chicago. Last month his organization, along with the Department of Cultural Affairs and the Illinois Arts Alliance, hosted a forum titled “Break on Through: The Creative Response to Tough Times.”  The objective was to get the arts community to jumpstart a dialogue that might lead to innovation in product and infrastructure.  Though Chicago has not escaped the quake of the economic landscape, the creative vitality that has distinguished the city’s art makers for so long may lead the way out of the financial muck.

“We are a receptor,” says Kuntz, “a community of common experiences, a collective resource if and when we want to be that.”  His sentiments echo the larger conversations currently facing our nation. Our new administration’s mission to restore transparency and encourage bold action may create trickle-down inspiration that gives some Chicago groups the optimism to make it out alive.

“I firmly believe that Barack Obama plus the economic crisis does equal a revolution and it is one we needed badly,” says Anthony Moseley, executive artistic director of Collaboraction, a multidisciplinary performing arts organization that is best known for the Sketchbook Festival of short performances. Moseley’s unusual title positions him in charge of the creative and administrative strata of the company.  A concept he believes to be integral to weathering financially turbulent times ahead.

“I think it is finally time to dissolve the imaginary line between the business and art sides of our company.  It does not exist so stop pretending it does,” asserts Moseley.  “We need more creative thinking in the business meetings and more savvy business smarts in our creative meetings. Ideas are our currency.”

Collaboraction has seen creativity turn directly into dollars by developing a profit center based on existing assets.  The company calls it Experience Design.  Event conceptualization, design, casting and management form the bones of this project that has already proven to be a profitable venture.  The program follows a similar path to Redmoon Theater’s event work, work that is transitioning to a primary focus for the company. This year will see an annual calendar of public events for Redmoon.  Less emphasis on producing shows in their space. Both Collaboration and Redmoon see public engagement as critical steps to ensuring long-term viability and maintaining importance within the community.

In addition to strategic creative moves, companies are also faced with establishing infrastructure that can withstand the turbulence.  As belts tighten, individual giving will decrease and the hunt for foundation, corporate and government money will become increasingly competitive. For the past eleven years, Timeline Theatre has operated with a cash surplus, a record the Timeline staff intends to carry on despite these difficult conditions.  The staff believes transparency is vital to establishing resiliency.

“You can’t avoid it.  It wouldn’t be prudent to not talk about it,” tells Timeline director of marketing Lara Goetsch.  “We created ‘Inside Story’ for people we consider to be investors.  This document gives the supporters an honest assessment of what is going on.”

“Inside Story” is a brief newsletter, financial report and call to arms.  The document will be published quarterly throughout 2009 as a way to keep the general perception of this smaller mid-sized company accurate.  With Timeline’s fortunate economic situation and consistently high quality of production, it would be easy for patrons to turn their attentions elsewhere when making contributions.  Timeline wishes to make it abundantly clear that sustained growth is only possible with the continued support of such individuals.  This and other strategies recently garnered the company the Richard Goodman Strategic Planning Award in the nonprofit category by the Association for Strategic Planning.

“Timeline has always been a calculated risk taker,” says Goetsch. “We don’t want to pare down. We want to be smart and do things we hope stand out. At the end of the day we aren’t being safe, we are being realistic and planning carefully so that we are in good shape.”

In the coming weeks, months and perhaps years, stories of arts organizations scaling back, merging or shutting down will be told. However, stories of nimble, creative problem solving, like the ones above, will also surface.  It is this creativity that will prove Chicago organizations are properly suited up with realistic optimism that will define the city’s cultural DNA into the future.

Don’t Let “Not Enough Air” Suffocate.
February 4, 2009, 11:58 pm
Filed under: Companies, Shows | Tags: , , ,
Tom Howards famous photograph of Ruth Snyders exicution

Tom Howard's famous photograph of Ruth Snyder's exicution

I often agree with Chris Jones but this is not one of those times.  I don’t mean to say that all the negative assesments of Timeline Theatre’s current production of Masha Obolensky’s Not Enough Air were wrong.  There were some flaws in the play but I think that he missed the mark a bit.  The compelling components of the production far outweigh those that would bring it down.

The show is the story of Sophie Treadwell, pioneering journalist-turned-playwright responsible for giving us the play Machinal in 1928.  We follow Treadwell as she becomes obsessed with the trial of Ruth Snyder, the murderess that inspired the landmark play.  Finally sentenced to death, Snyder infamy is due in large part to a photograph of her being electrocuted taken by a hidden camera strapped to the ankle of Chicago Tribune’s Tom Howard.  There is much more to it, but your best bet is to visit the Timeline website and take advantage of the bounty of historical knowledge you will find there.

Nick Bowling’s direction is magical.  The opening montage had me hooked and when there were dips in the story he certainly found a way to keep it moving and intersting to watch.  Down to the sound of the large metal doors, the detail really stroked the part of me that might otherwise focus on flaws.

Also don’t miss the chance to watch Janet Ulrich Brooks work for two hours.  I’ve followed here through many of Timeline’s shows where I’ve only had the pleasure to watch her ins upporting roles.  She is a craftsman, er craftswoman.  I have to admit I love her in juicy character roles.  She can certainly put on an accent and make you laugh out loud.  But with Sophie Treadwell she commands a much difernt power.  She is strong and vulnerable and delightful

And in the grand traditioin of Timeline shows, I left smarter than I came in.  I will admit to moments of confusion, due largely to my ignorance of Machinal.  But never fear.  Starting this Sunday, Timeline will be presenting concert readings of the play every Sunday and Monday through March 2. Get tickets here


Janet Ulrich Brooks as Sophie Treadwell

Not so gaga for Batsheva
February 3, 2009, 11:38 pm
Filed under: Dance, Events | Tags: , , ,

Ad from "This Week in al-Quds

Ad from "This Week in al-Quds

This was posted on the blog This Week in al-Quds on January 27th (I’m just becoming aware of it today):

“Israel’s latest brutal war on Gaza killed over 1300 people and injured over 5000; with over 400 children killed and another 1500 injured. These numbers are expected to rise as more bodies are discovered beneath the ruins. Meanwhile, Israel’s ongoing and illegal siege still does not allow crucial necessities into Gaza.

Israel’s leading dance company, Batsheva, is touring the US and Canada starting January 28th through March of 2009. As cultural ambassadors and representatives of the Israeli state, Batsheva was asked to denounce the racist and brutal policies and crimes of their government against the Palestinian people, and refused.

“Writing October 26, 2008, in The Independent of London, Jenny Gilbert reports that the dance company is “funded by Israel’s government, its performers include none of Arab extraction, and it is ‘proud to be considered Israel’s leading ambassador.'”

Activists across the country have been planning and organizing a boycott of Batsheva Dance Company for several months. The most recent Israeli atrocities in Gaza have added another sense of urgency and another layer of public anger towards Israel. In 2005, hundreds of Palestinian civil society organization called on activists and institutions around the world to organize and join the movement of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions against Israel. The calls for boycott include commercial, academic, and cultural aspects, and have been echoed by numerous Israeli and international artists, academics, and thinkers.
I offer this…

Are the arts the thing to boycott?  This concerns a major conflict that has political and social ramifications that I’ll probably never understand completely.  But perhaps some solice can be found in the fact that Israel’s leading ambassador is a dance company.  The arts are a place for healing and catharsis and conversation.  The language of dance should reach across political divides and the borders of countries.  For those that would criticize or demonize Israel, maybe honoring a dance company as a national treature can stand a reminder to their humanity.  For those who would sympathize with the demonstrators you can read more at Next Year in al-Quds or Palestine Think Tank.

Gaga for Batsheva: The Israeli dance company give us ten
February 3, 2009, 10:33 pm
Filed under: Companies, Dance | Tags: , , , ,
Batsheva Dance Company

Batsheva Dance Company

Batsheva Dance Company may be one of the most fascinating companies in the world.  If  that is so, then Ohad Naharin, the company’s artistic director, must be one of the genius choreographers of that world. Naharin’s work is familiar to Chicago.  His “Minus 16” has become an audience favorite in Hubbard Street Dance’s repertoire.  Based in Tel Aviv, this weekend the Israeli company will be at Auditorium Theatre bringing selections from ten of Naharin’s  best creations in a program called “Deca Dance.” I caught up with Brett Batterson, Auditorium’s executive director and a man who shares my excitement for this company.  We put together this short list of just a few reasons to go see Batsheva.

1. “Anyone who creates a new style of movement and has it accepted around the globe is obviously unique,” says Batterson.  The style is called Gaga and it was developed on the bodies of this company so no one does it better. The company’s Web site describes it like this: “At once we, the users, can be involved in moving slowly through space while a quick action in our body is in progress.”  The best way I know to describe it is it has characteristics of one of those inflatable waving tubes you see by car dealerships…but beautiful.

2. “The company is not afraid to try new ideas in their work and challenge the status quo a little bit.  For instance, Batterson explains, “the upcoming performances at the Auditorium include some brief nudity and mature language, but both are used to emphasize the message of the work.  It is not about simply shocking the audience or as an attempt to be hip and trendy.”

3. “The company helps build bridges between Israel and other communities around the world,” Batterson feels.  It has been fifteen years since Batsheva came to Chicago and it seems to be an opportune time.  Just when the entire world could use a few bridges.

If you want to know more, visit Batsheva’s website (, or go on opening night (February 7) for the opportunity to hear Naharin speak at a post-show discussion.

At Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress Parkway, (312)902-1500. February 7 & 8, $30-$89.

Ricky Ian Gordon has three first names and he’s wonderful!

Ricky Ian Gordon

Ricky Ian Gordon

For my feature on Eric Reda and Chicago Opera Vanguard in this week’s NewCity I had the pleasure of speaking with Ricky Ian Gordon, the composer and lyricist of Orpheus and Euridice.  He was so nice and gracious. Because of space restrictions I couldn’t use much of our talk, so I thought I would share more of what he had to say about opera and  Orpheus, and Project Runway.

Ricky Ian Gordon on…

the inspiration for “Orpheus and Euridice”, written as a tribute to his lover, who died of AIDS in 1996.
At around  four in the morning I woke up and had a vision, literally.   It is sort of an important, seminal moment in my life.  I don’t think I ever completely understood how we study things like myths and we wonder where they go.”

“I immediately saw Todd as a kind of Orpheus playing a pipe. I saw him dressed as a French apache dancer  and Euridice was in a yellow dress. I ran to the dining room table. In about an hour I had written the entire libretto. It flew out of me”

Eric Reda and companies like Chicago Opera Vanguard
“I just heard form Eric one day and he said, “I’ve fallen in love with your piece and I want to do it.  And I said, “Okay, do it.”

“The idea that any new company has come along and has the balls to begin in this (economic) climate. I support anyone that wants to do new work and smaller pieces in any environment beyond the big opera houses.  How courageous and how wonderful. I think every city in the world needs more smaller companies doing small operas.”

Project Runway’s Steven Rosengard costuming his show
“I’m an out-and-out, full-fledged, total Project Runway addict. When I saw this piece was  announced on the Project Runway blog I almost fainted.”

opera and writing
“To me the operatic repertoire has to grow.  It think we are in a complete renaissance  for American composers. There is such a freedom of style and enormous pluralism. A lot of critics are still holding on to various traditions but it doesn’t necessarily stop the productivity.”

“These are hard times and greater expressiveness happens when times are difficult. I have a greater need to write right now because the world is in so much pain.”

Ricky Ian Gordon will be at the opening of the Chicago premiere of his Orpheus and Euridice, Thursday, Jan. 29.  If you want to know more about the production or the composer here are some links that might be interested in:

Chicago Opera Vanguard Website: Production information and tickets
Ricky Ian Gordon on Wikipedia
Ricky’s official website
Ghostlight Records (Sh-K-Boom): Buy the Orpheus and Euridice recording or download it from iTunes