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.

Fearing the Storm

“How long will you stay in your comfort zones?”

-Chicago Tap Theatre, Circo Tap

Approaching storm, change to new, threat of power, all things that evoke fear were central to Walkabout Theater Company‘s adaptation of The Tempest, Storm. The troupe pushed audience engagement by nearly sending a wrecking ball through the fourth wall.

Walkabout Theater Company's STORM

Walkabout Theater Company’s STORM

The show starts with the beckoning of an actor through entering though the the front door, making his way through the lobby stride by stride, drawing out glances leading the audience into the theater. Actors leap, move through and direct the audience all through body movement. Beckoning engagement while using their force to make it seem natural, toeing line just next to the comfort zone.

With some main characters and the general structure of the tempest, but fear and change guided thematically. The feud between Prospero and Caliban becomes a central piece.

What do audience members fear the most?

Fresh on my mind from seeing Chicago Tap Theatre’s latest, Circo Tap.  Combining tap dance with circus performance made for a daring combination. Tap dancers turned acrobats, turned clowns, turned escape artists! Something about the novelty of circus acts evoked that edge of the seat fear. They reached out, engaged by utilizing surrounding balconies to echo sound, spewing down aisles with gymnastic feats, even literally reaching out and shaking audience members hands. The whole performance was strikingly narrated by Marc Kelly Smith as the ring master seeking inspiration for a new act. The audience gasps with fear at tightrope walkers at lion tamers, but his fear draws them in and makes it impossible to look away. After storm, I had a new lens to examine what is intriguing about circus is that fear involved in live performance.

circo tap

One can often see the fear course through an audience when an actor is going to pull someone up on stage. You know this scene; a comedy club, audience members sink deeper into their chairs dreading that contact with the performer.

Engaging can be scary.

Both storm and Circo tap evoked this fear strongly, but once the audience was in, the emotional investment was apparent. Like a ritual, the audience had just enough fear to unite and invest fully to the performance.

I couldn’t help but think of my own fear and how what I dreaded most was also engaging. I DID NOT WANT TO WRITE! Like really did not. It was great thinking about this blog, imagining what it could be like, but the fear of an audience reading it made me freeze in my tracks. There is a fear mounting inside of myself that I can’t please my toughest audience member, me.

Fear drawing

I drew this picture simply with a sharpie (that had “write!” written on the cap). It shows the tension of being held back by fear and the cusp of breaking away. Tempestuous clouds, many forces pushing and pulling. I placed the sharpie in the frame with its shadow weighing down, just at the grasp of the hand. Reaching out of the comfort zone compelled me to do something that may not be good, but helped engage others in something more important, art.

Sometimes a healthy push towards that limit of the comfort zone is what pushes art, what engages community. Perhaps in this realm, the dreaded fomo (fear of missing out) can be greater to get more butts in seats enjoying daring performances like Storm and Circo tap. It is better to be there, to be present than to stay stagnant.

And lucky for you, it’s not too late! Walkabout theater performs The Wild at Links Hall July 8 and 9. More audience gripping fear this time with dionsyian elements is sure to engage at the Physical Festival!