Chicago’s Nutcracker

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photo by Cheryl Mann

The Joffrey Ballet’s new presentation of The Nutcracker came in with a flash, but fully demonstrated its intention to become a fixture in the Chicago performing arts scene. Choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon, the production will run until December 30.

I appreciated the connection to Chicago with the production taking place during the construction for World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893. It’s a musicologist and dramturg’s dream. Continue reading

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Dance Theatre of Harlem: Return

I’m still feeling energized and thankful for a stunning production by Dance Theatre of Harlem at the Auditorium Theatre last weekend.

It’s the time of year for valuing the people in our lives. I’ve been having a relaxing time with family away from the city for Thanksgiving, but part of my heart is still at the Dance Theatre of Harlem student matinee with my students. Continue reading

Age to Stage

Last weekend I saw Gotta Dance a Broadway in Chicago musical about starting a senior dance group to entertain at half-time for a professional basketball team.

It was a blast! I really was reminded of how much I love musical theater because it brings together the best of story, music and dance.

At the center of the story, a group of older people led the action. Continue reading

Seeing Eye to iPhone

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Before Turkey Day, I went to another Thursday event at the Harris Theater, Mix at Six featuring Lucky Plush Productions.

The Mix at Six structure is interesting. Affordable, short performances on a weeknight so people can attend after work at 6pm. They build enthusiasm for the artist’s other full length performances at the Harris Theater.

A social event for young, hip artistic types that otherwise don’t have plans on a Thursday. It’s a smart move to increase audience awareness, but are there some flaws? But what about people who don’t work in the loop? Is the concept popular?

Seats were general admission, which would make it easy to invite friends at the last minute with tickets only $10 at the door. But, everyone at the performance fit on the orchestra level. Considering there are 3 balconies, it certainly wasn’t a full house.

I’m in full support of low ticket cost and promoting theatrical events to make them more accessible to the community. Mix at Six is an excellent test case to see what this type of series could do for a community. I think much smaller scale cities would see brilliant results from this type of program with not a lot of competition for a Thursday night slot. I’m curious to see what it looks like as the series continues.

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Lucky Plush Productions seemed to be a great fit for the evening as well. I’ve wanted to see them perform for a while and admire their mission to create “work that is richly complex while also being broadly accessible.” It’s a challenge to strike that balance, which makes the troop especially intriguing in my mind.

Their work has a delightful fusions of dance with theatrical, comedic story arcs. I was impressed with the honesty of the performance.

Especially the second number, struck me as an inventively realistic critique of reality tv. A part that really stuck with me was one of the performers dancing with her phone between her ear and her shoulder all while carrying on a conversation.

We are drawn to watching one another in “real” form on tv and on stage. This is essential to performing arts, but also eery with technology observing our every move. Even the first piece “The Queue” set in an airport also had awareness of being watched as inherently important.

Lucky Plush reminds us that the performing arts are about being watched. And in our world full of technology, it’s trickier to define what it means to watch or be a consumer of performing arts. And they do so with an affable sense of humor mixed with a critical eye to deliver very entertaining work.

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I’m a fan of this Lucky Plush clip from “Punk Yankees” in 2012    Watch it!

The pervasiveness of technology is used a lot as a theme these days. We are both drawn in and creeped out by all that the capability of the technology we use everyday. Especially for the arts, artists can use technology to help create/stage their work (youtube, garageband, vine etc.), but art can’t be done without humans at all. Different from the work of engineers, artists can’t be replaced by computers because their work is inherently humanistic. And that’s the important part.

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I drew on this theme of technology and the ever watching eye. I recreated the iphone with signature background as a pencil drawing. We spend so much time staring at our phones like little zombies. I thought, what if the phone looked back at us? (…besides from the obviously creepy “periscope”-esque camera functions). So I added a subtle face in the stars peering back at the viewer.-

How much art is around us everyday that we don’t really see? How much art could there be around us if we were just looking in the right ways?

Lucky Plush shows the beauty, the humor and the poignancy of real life. When we engage with the world around us, art can be anywhere from an airport to the cell-phone in our pocket. Mark your calendar for their show Trip the Light Fantastic: The Making of SuperStrip at the Harris Theater on March 3!

If you can move, you can dance. If you can see, art is all around you.

Twyla Tharp. I had been looking forward to this 50th anniversary tour performance at the Auditorium Theatre for a while now!

One of the first texts I read in college was the introduction of Tharp’s book The Creative Habit. Just stepping into my own routine for the first time in my life, I thoroughly embraced her thoughts on rigor and routine in developing creative ideas. This text really was formative for me. So with this performance coming, I checked the book out from the library to grow closer to her thoughts on creativity and to what had enthralled me as a college freshman.

The performance

Even in the program notes, she lets us into her creative process yet doesn’t let the dance become overwrought with conceptual narratives. Dance is simply movement.
The Bach pieces had a exquisite balance of formal ballet influence mixed with signature “Twyla” moves. In contrast to the rigidity of ballet, they seem to be how the body wants to move. Especially the coupling. The pair work was innovative and fluid. There would be tight arabesques and then bodies swaying together at the hips, as if you popped into a Latin night club.
The conclusion tied together the piece and united the dancers in a circle. (Which called to mind this image of a Matisse painting, that was an influence to her (I read that after I saw it at intermission)). Free and jubilant. The dancers went through a journey and came back together, united in doing the choreography from the opening. The work came full circle. I also think it goes to show how powerfully visual images resonate in this piece.
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 After intermission, Yowzie exploded in full, vibrant color.

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RIka Okamoto

Twyla Tharp

 

 

 

Rika Okamoto is simply remarkable. It is clear watching her that she has worked with Twyla Tharp in diligent study. Something about the joy she exhibits and an indescribable nature of her movements reminds me of videos and photos of Twyla Tharp herself.

Check out this side by side. It really is remarkable how well she exhibits the style.

I simply couldn’t take my eyes off of her when she was on stage, particularly in Yowzie.

Lack of precision gave way to really show how individual dancers move. Even the bows were differentiated. I really think her work shows us about life as simple as it can be whole also hinting at the complexities of the relationships and the people around us. She lets her dancers be themselves, embody their character and life and then juxtaposes them together like a breakfast club of dance personalities.

What is the future of dance?

Especially in dance and classical music, today we start to expect robotic precision. Recording technology fights for our attention and the market for dance companies becomes even more elevated. During the performance, I thought about how great it is that this type of free-form performance can be sustained. But for how long? With video streaming and our dependence on technology, where is the place for live performance?

Perhaps grass-roots performance organizations can fight against this stigma of art-making being only reserved for the perfect.

I went to see The Luna Troop‘s dance concert the following night after I saw Twyla Tharp. Their mission is to include non-professional dancers and give them performance opportunities reconnect them to the joy of dance. Their age range spans 5 decades!
J. Lindsay Brown and dancers of Ensemble Espanol also graced the stage with Rogers Park High School dancers too. It was really inspiring to see these Chicago community organizations coming together
Twyla Tharp’s company is not the standard ballet troupe. The age range of dancers is wider and they are not forced to blend in with precise synchronization like a band of robot soldiers. Her work makes bounds to challenge what we think of as a professional dance group.
Seeing these two performances back to back, I felt delighted that a variety of dance groups can exist doing innovative work on a large scale and a small scale. (Keeping in mind this is Chicago and large, urban cultural hub) Though so many activities vie for our attention, dance is still something that is electrifying live and can move us at many different levels on precision, especially when love of the craft guides the movement.
Everyone can be an artist!
 Something beautiful about the world of technology that we live in is that we are given so many opportunities to get our art out there. Immediately iPhoneography came to mind when thinking of how to transfer the idea that art doesn’t have to be high-brow precise to be good art to visual art. We don’t need Michelangelo technique to capture a moment. We have cameras, filters, tilt shifts and ways we can make the art of everyday, fantastic with a device we carry around with us all the time.
There are even large scale awards and competitions. http://www.ippawards.com/ Not to mention instagram! @artofchi recently had a contest for the best scene of a chicago landmark taken in an innovative way.
Check it out!
I took a few picture that I thought the design aesthetic was pleasing. And I liked the unity of the circle like Twyla Tharp used in the Finale of the Bach piece.
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As a culture, embracing everyday art more gives more opportunities to enrich our lives with sharing human experience. The arts should not be a craft only for a select few, the more people they can reach, the more we are connected. Let’s innovate and keep creating no matter what level, because there are always more ways we can engage with art.
We are all artists, no matter what age, skill, or ability. 
I’m particularly looking forward to the aMID festival this Winter that “celebrates the underserved performative body of the aging artist and challenges commonly held views regarding the age demographic of a dancer or physical performing artist.” This will be an exciting show and I think a lot of these themes of countering precision and celebrating that age can’t even hold back the joy of dance. It’s one to put on the list!

Reigniting the Fire(bird)

I’m still in awe of the Chicago Sinfonietta’s 2015-16 season launching program “Tap in. Turn Up.” The performance featured Clinard Dance Theater’s Wendy Clinard and Tap Master Cartier Williams layering rhythmic dance to the symphonic texture.

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Wendy Clinard was simply divine. Her every move award-winning photograph worthy. In her solo, she struck beautiful poses that layered intensity to the music. Movement and sound struck a balance in her work.

Cartier Williams’ Firebird adaptation brought down the house and roused a standing ovation (which was not even the last performance before intermission!).

He came on the stage with arms flapping and giggles circulated through the audience. He must be making some literal mockery of Firebird. But after several minutes of repeating the flapping gesture and elaborating upon it, the audience saw more clearly that movement was in bold reference not in gest. It reminded me of Michel Fokine’s (also main contributor to Firebird) famous choreography for Saint-Saens’  Dying Swan. Williams seemed to be referring to the ballet tradition of Firebird through this winged movement. For the whole opening sequence, he moved swiftly without even tapping.

For the infernal dance movement, he erupted. Tapping almost unfathomably quickly, hitting syncopations with ease. His technique and focus were stunning. His rhythms sounded derived from the percussion score (signature Stravinsky, notoriously unnatural in complexity), but added something more. Accentuated the rhythmic elements and turned them to something visual.

Elements came back that he incorporated in the beginning and throughout the piece in a flurry in the Finale. Recapping and going beyond. (sometimes literally as at one point he jumped off the stage into the audience): There was one moment in the Finale that really got me. When he transitioned from pull backs to pop up to a beautiful arabesque, reality was suspended.

Tap in
He adapted The Firebird by drawing on its history, but reinventing it in his characteristic style.
While watching the performance, I couldn’t help but think, this will forever change the way we think about Firebird and I really hope there is a video, A) because I want to watch it over and over again and B) because this evolution should be documented and shared.
Music and Dance found new harmony on this evening. It was an inspiration to watch The collaboration exhibited in this performance also resembles the history of The Firebird‘s conception. Diagliev and the Ballets Russes set out to commission a piece of music. The story combines the mythical Firebird with the tale of Koschei the Deathless. When completed, the ballet fused together story, dance and music.

 Art can thrive and come alive for us in new light when interdisciplinary connections are made. Adapting The Firebird through different mediums is a challenge that has captivated many.
Like Disney in Fantasia 2000. Animated along to the Firebird Suite, the Fantasia version of the story tells of a “spring sprite” through the forest. A fire explodes and then the forest is reborn. Animation, meets music, meets story.
For my piece, I adapted the characters of The Beautiful Tsarevna, The Firebird, and Koschei as a cast of could be punk high school kids. Then I overlayed their transformation into the characters of the ballet using a clear sheet (..and whole of lot sparkles). They can forever flip between their alter egos.
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As an extension, the transformation of the characters from everyday to magical resembles the transformation art undergoes when seen through the filter of another art form.
Collaborating on adaptation is not always an easy feat, but when art overlaps, shared qualities between forms reveal shared qualities among ourselves. We are multipulous human beings as artists and audience members and when our many interests combine, we can find commonality and push existing forms further.