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 (amfar.org). 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.
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.”
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.
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.