Does art represent life?

Dance for Life represented an important cause and brought together elite dance companies in Chicago for a night of dancing and a night of living. The big companies showcased their signature styles demonstrating Chicago’s leadership in the field.
There was a recording breaking crowd, over 2000 people, with various relations to the Chicago dance community.
They were pouring into the Auditorium Theatre with force like I’ve never seen before. It was remarkable to see so many adamant supporters of dance brought together for good.
Different from just a performance, the central cause of the evening was benefiting the AIDS Foundation of Chicago and the Dancers Fund. What stood out to me was representation.
Who was on stage? 
The answer to this question is both simple and complex.
1) Leading companies representing the variety of Chicago dance.
 Joffrey Ballet, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, Chicago Human Rhythm Project, Giordano Dance Chicago, Same Planet Different World, River North Dance Chicago, and an Finale with dancers from different companies across Chicago. Each individual company’s style was represented in their most signature presentation. Stylistically excellent. Joffrey danced to Vivaldi showing their traditional technique. Giordano Dance had a classically jazzy number with costumes of black and red. As a big fan of Chicago Human Rhythm Project, the had a great ensemble number with improvisatory tap licks passed around the big group.
River North Dance wowed with their piece. “In the End.” Dancers held hands in a line and one by one, would make movements jutting out from the form, all while staying linked by the hand. It was emotional and the controlled explosions of movement were staggering. Inventive and poignant; this was my favorite piece of the night (and that’s a tough decision…)
The Finale put perfect punctuation to the evening. “Stand By Me” was choreographed by Randy Duncan in honor of a friend he lost. The performance radiated hope and showed the power of connection between the people shapes our lives. Whether our loved ones are with us or not, they are always “standing by us.” It was particularly nice to see the connection between dancers from different companies and stylistic background across the city. You never know who will touch your heart. This conclusion was a piece of art that unified the audience, especially for an event that brought so many people together.
2) Lots of men in roles of power
85% of choreographers were male, the emcees were male, Joffrey’s soloists, the piece by River North Dance fully male…you get the picture. I was a little put a back that men dominated when the dance scene is highly saturated by females.
Often HIV/AIDS is classified as an issue prevalent in gay men. When dance for life was founded in 1991, it was the height of the AIDS crisis. Our society has changed in many ways since then. Now, in America, approximately one in four people living with HIV are women. And this proportion has more than tripled since the AIDS crisis. Worldwide, women are more than half of people living with HIV ( More than half. The demographics are changing quickly.
Dance diversity representation has been fairly slow to change. Misty Copeland was just named the first African American principal dancer with the American Ballet Theater. This has been a huge devleopment a long time coming. But wait, ABT had a male African American dancer, Desmond Richardson, as principal in 1977. Nearly 40 years ago! So not only are issues of race at play, but gender as well. (I remember reading this great article in exploring the struggles of Black Ballerinas when it was published in 2014 in Pointe magazine).
Both of these examples show women on the outskirts of focus. Particularly in dance, the field does seem to have many females. There are high standards of what a female dancer should be and look like. And with a surplus of female dancers for a set amount of roles, competition is high.
But who actually makes up the dance community? These audience demographics from Audience Architects give a glimpse into the Chicago dance community.
Those majorities are staggering. Nearly 40% of those audience members polled were professionals in the dance field. Audience members were 82% white and 78% female.
Women are often put in dance class to express themselves physically, while men are pushed to sports. If you’ve seen Amy Schumer’s latest romcom, Trainwreck, this is painfully obvious. All the men are involved with sports and to get the man she loves, she dresses up as a dancer at a basketball game. Girl’s rooms have ballerinas and bows, boy’s rooms basketballs and racecars. I think these stereotypes enforce that men who dance are “effeminate” and often mocked for being gay.
There is still a long way to go in terms of gender and race equality in America and in dance. And in the case of HIV or homosexuality, the representation of minorities cannot always be seen, which is challenging with such a visually driven medium as dance.
In re-framing representation at Dance for Life, in this arena, males are the minority in dance. Particularly gay males.  Almost exclusively the top classical ballets feature a heterosexual love story with a male/female pas de deux. Really only the nutcracker came to my mind as one that doesn’t necessarily have a love story to it, but it is often implied romance between the prince and Clara or the sugar plum fairy. Females often take the lead role too, Coppelia, Cinderella, sleeping beauty etc. Our western dance canon is built upon heteronormativity.
Dance for Life featured male dancers in roles that challenge that heterosexual norms. With stunning male pieces, romantic male duets. This type of representation needs space in the field of dance. What would a gay male take on Swan Lake be like? Perhaps one day, representation in dance can be challenged further across gender, sexulaity, and race.
My well loved, slightly beaten up program displays a visually diverse group with exactly the same amount of males and females (as clear from the types of outfits they are wearing, shirts v. skins) :)

My well loved, slightly beaten up program displays a visually diverse group with exactly the same amount of males and females (as clear from the types of outfits they are wearing, shirts v. skins) 🙂

I thought about the representation of AIDS in visual art while trying to discover what would be an effective response to Dance for Life.
In the same year dance for life started, 1991, Cuban-American artist Felix Gonzales-Torres created the piece below. The art institute Chicago has an stunning collection of his work (…though not currently on display).”Untitled” (Picture of Ross in LA) is comprised of 175 pounds of candy that represents the ideal body weight for Gonzales-Torres’ partner, Ross Laycock, who died in 1991 of AIDS related illness. Viewers are encouraged to take a piece of candy as they pass by and the slowly disappearing weight of candy mirrors Ross’ experience. But on the Art Institute Chicago website, the artist sentiment is rather beautiful; “Gonzalez-Torres stipulated that the pile should be continuously replenished, thus metaphorically granting perpetual life.”

“Untitled” (Picture of Ross in LA)

One of my favorite Gonzales-Torres pieces is also in collection at the Art Institute, “Untitled” (March 5) #2. The two light bulbs are like two lovers, nestled next to one another. They share a glow and give off warmth. But light bulbs can’t stay lit forever which makes this simple choice of an everyday object so poignant.

“Unititled” (March 5) #2

For my piece, I wanted to honor the meaning behind Dance for Life, so I latched onto the symbol of the red ribbon for HIV/AIDS. Admiring Gonzales-Torres’ work, I thought an obeject art piece would be appropriate. Not only does a scarf provide warmth and comfort. I chose this medium because this scarf brings together mixed ribbons, fabrics and yarns coming together intertwining. Our lives are interconnected. The final stand by me piece of dance for life shows how truly we depend on the people around us. And when it is worn, the cause and the people are close to the heart. I wanted to focus on the celebration and coming together that was this year’s Dance for Life.
In summary, my hope is that the space of art is one that can represent all walks of life, male, female, LGBT, genderqueer, HIV positive, of all races and nationalities, everyone all together. At core, art makers are human and though our lives take many different forms, life is something we share.

Putting the Human in Humanities

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.

Finger painting rhythm

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.

Bio color paint

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.

Mix Tape

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.

Chicago Shakespeare

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.

Mask Revamped

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.

Check out where and when Shakespeare's Greatest Hits is coming to you!

Check out where and when Shakespeare’s Greatest Hits is coming to you!

There are still many shows left! (I might even go again). Mix it up, unite with the city, and enjoy the show!