Who was on stage?
This past weekend was one of my favorite events, Chicago Human Rhythm Project’s Juba! Masters of Tap at the MCA. One of a kind, the festival celebrates world class tap dancing with stars from around the world with multiple nights of programming. I saw the Friday night performance and found myself focusing on the “human” element of Chicago Human Rhythm Project.
I was looking to this performance for a while. I went to the festival for the first time last year and left in complete amazement and bought a new pair of tap shoes that very night (previous time I tap danced was 6th grade!). With performers such as the legendary Derrick Grant to rising stars like Cartier Williams, dance melds with song pushing the boundaries of human expression.
Not to rant too much, but what I find so amazing about tap dance is the way the human body can say so much through rhythm and gesture. Coming from a marching band background, all you do is think about music and movement on the field. It is a marvel to watch these great tap dancers perform as PART of a jazz combo or with a grand scale conceptual piece. It really shows how tap combines two artistic disciplines of music and dance closer than hardly any other form.
It is not just dancing with music, but dancing as music
Back to Friday night’s performance.
One of the things that is most striking about this festival is the crowd. Both shows I’ve gone to have sold out. Everyone there is edge of the seat engaged. A lot of them have stake in the game in town for the Rhythm World programming, master classes or the Youth Tap Ensemble Conference. The enthusiasm is striking and surely one of the factors leading to this year’s 25th year celebration.
At one point, Artistic Director, Choreographer and Host Extraordinaire, Lane Alexander noted that dancers cling to the wings backstage learning from each other, trying out each other’s moves. (And sure enough, they jokingly popped their heads out from the curtains). But afterword, even in the lobby, audience members are moving their feet, compelled to try out the rhythms they’ve just seen on their own feet. I’ll never forget the first time I saw the festival, audience member lining the Chicago ave. red line platform flinging their feet around with skill, taking in for themselves what they had seen on stage.
The environment of the 300 seat Edlis Neeson Theater at the MCA feels like a living room filled with great tap dancers and fans.
Juxtaposed with extraordinary artistry, some unavoidable errors popped up. Cloths fell, shoes came untied. At one point, the curtain got stuck on the drum set and to much applause from the audience, someone working back stage entered to fix it. These moments humanized the performance. Yes, we are watching master craftsmen at work, but we are all human and can’t control everything. One of the most important lessons tap has taught me is that if you relax, you perform better by listening to the groove, instead of being a robot and trying to over control to the point of rigidity. This can be applied to many settings in life. The small errors only magnified the precision of the dancers on stage and brought the audience closer to the dancers; not seeing them as legendary gods, but extremely skilled humans.
I decided to play with rhythm in the principles of design. (check out this video that goes in depth about rhythm in visual art) But I thought, what is more human than actually touching the paint? I fingerpainted repeating lines in bold colors to articulate a rhythm. As I started with the red, it was more difficult than I thought to make the lines look the same each time. Go ahead, try it! Then i added the blue intersecting lines starting with a fixed amount of paint on my pinky finger and then stopping once it was all off my hand and on the paper. This gave the image a sense of movement. The blue reminded me of sound waves, hitting the surface strong, then fading as they spread out over time. Then I added some variety with the oozing irregularity of the yellow to attract the eye to the bold area of the painting.
Humans aren’t perfect
The human element couldn’t even escape my artmaking. The tools I was using suggested life, “BioColor,” but oppositely, no need to add human creativity, it’s included! The marketing of this paint shocked me a little as I embarked on this project. The paint takes on life like characteristics in its name “bio.” But in buying it, the creativity “comes in the bottle,” so why bring your own? I bring it up because I think this is often how we see art. We know humans make art, but we think it is only reserved for a select few those “gifted with creativity.” We want to buy something to replace the thousands of hours practicing an art form. Or we give up entirely, thinking art is only something for the “creative.” Let’s challenge that notion! You don’t have to be a professional to be an artist.
And I leave you with this:
“Gentlemen, we will chase perfection, and we will chase it relentlessly, knowing all the while we can never attain it. But along the way, we shall catch excellence.” -Vince Lombardi
Art isn’t about perfection, it’s about excellence. Excellence reduced to it’s Latin route, to excel. Pursuing perfection excels the art of today into tomorrow.
Beethoven’s 5th, Beyonce’s Single Ladies, Thin Lizzy’s The Boys are Back in Town…
So opens Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s Shakespeare’s Greatest Hits in the Park! The show juxtaposed great scenes from some of Shakespeare’s most popular productions.
I’m using the term “mix tape” to apply to the super rad Shakespeare DJ used in the promotional materials and as a way to touch on the ways the production engages with variety to create overall impact.
Track 1: Mix of Audience
After a short hustle down the lakeshore, the crowd in Loyola park was staggering. Families, people of all ages, lots of cute dogs. Upon walking up, everyone is handed a program and a Shakespeare face fan.
The Shakespeare fans then became a way for the audience to talk back and respond to informal polls. They first asked who was from Rogers Park, raise your fan and then who was here in Loyola Park for the first time. There was some overlap, but a striking number of people had come out to the park for the first time to see this performance. The arts were able to draw people out to connect together as neighbors or fellow Chicagoans all united in the same space– through Blackhawks jokes and all.
What happened next was the most interesting to me. They asked “who’s first time seeing Shakespeare is tonight?” A little less than half of the audience raised their fans. There were a lot of children and families there, but also several adults new to the bard. What about this performance drew them out to experience something new? The approachable marketing with Shakespeare scratching discs at the dj booth? Reputation? Free ticket price? It is hard to say. But what a great sampler platter to get a taste of Shakespeare and a triumph for community engagement.
Track 2: Mix of Cast
People are the focus of the production. The dynamic cast forms a band of characters that seamlessly jump between playing different Shakespearean icons with ease. The diversity of cast members across different ages and races seemed well thought out and gave resonance to a diverse audience.
They reach out to the audience, actually touching them, making contact. A “fed-ex deliverer” climbs his way through the audience dropping off his last package for the day. He gives the box to a kid in the crowd and it has a Chicago Shakespeare Theater t-shirt inside, a memento of the performance to keep (at least until he grows out of it).
One moment particularly untied the audience was in As You Like It as Phebe runs from Silvius. The audience cheered as she leaps through the crowd. “Run Phebe Run!” one audience member cries out. We have been drawn in; cheering for our favorite characters. Like a studio audience watching a sitcom filmed live, we laugh, we cry, we ooh and ahh in between bites of our cheese platters. It was great to watch Shakespeare which can sometimes be seen as antiquated or stuffy, appealing on such a large scale to such a mixed crowd.
Track 3: Mix of Media
A major factor tying the production together was the role of music. We were laying down the mix with DJ Shakespeare with a wide range of styles of music.
On top of that, some performances are ASL interpreted! Expanding the audience members that can be reached, sign language further delivers Shakespeare in ways that are often not seen. From a dance perspective, sign language converts language to gesture; a type of translation and artistic interpretation.
Playing with “mixed media” I adapted my Shakespeare mask into a collage. Different elements from different faces brought together in one piece seemed to reflect the experience of Shakespeare’s Greatest Hits. Collaboration and a variety of strengths from different individuals makes Shakespeare’s Greatest Hits special. I have Shakespeare some beautiful manga eyelashes, Bradley Cooper’s perfect coif, Kanye’s bling. In someways, his modern update makes him look fresh (major bling, no more bald spot, on point make-up), but in some way silly, even grotesque with his new technicolor transformation.
Is collage the only way to hold our attention in modern society?
30 minute sitcoms are certainly more popular than Wagnerian operas. Our attention span for art is adapted in the world we live in. Something about having snippets of different storylines appeals to us and one rarely sees a Shakespeare production in which the full text is kept intact. We love abridging, cutting and piecing together.
Upon further reflection in my collage, I also thought about popular conspiracy theories that Shakespeare plays are actually written by various other people and not one master “Shakespeare.” (Read more about these theories here). Especially when seeing a variety of vastly different “clips” from shows, it was crazy to think one person wrote all of these masterworks by hand hundreds of years ago. Maybe we do like the idea of having a unified figure to celebrate. Having “a Shakeapeare” makes it possible to have exclusive outdoor performances of his work in parks in the summer and elevates his work to being essential to the canon. You don’t often see “Tennessee Williams in the Parks” festivals… Both in part and in full, Shakespeare grabs us still today, perhaps due in part to such groups as the Chicago Shakespeare Theater.
Track 4: Mix of Parks
With the same show traveling around the city, this piece truly connects around a common art experience. The breadth of this performance is the most impressive ways it engages community in Chicago.
There are still many shows left! (I might even go again). Mix it up, unite with the city, and enjoy the show!