5 Questions with Kevin Iega Jeff about Deeply Rooted Dance Theater and Chicago’s South Side Dance Center
…what happens when you are at the helm of an artistic operation for decades? How do you stay inspired, motivated and fight the burnout?
If you happen to be the Artistic Director of a dance company, your responsibilities are monumental and seemingly endless. Those responsibilities are centered around the all-important preservation and growth of the company’s artistic vision, which can mean lending your own choreographic voice to the repertoire. This is in addition to finding other dance makers, both seasoned and up-and-coming, to keep the season’s programming diverse while still functioning in support of the original vision. Then comes curating a training program that will best serve your company of dance artists, mentoring those artists in their developing careers, creating community/outreach programs, doing final approvals on lighting, costume and production… the full list would take up another publication.
So, what happens when you are at the helm of an artistic operation for decades? How do you stay inspired, motivated and fight the burnout? If you are Kevin Iega Jeff of Deeply Rooted Dance Theater, you accomplish this by surrounding yourself with innovative and thoughtful collaborators and by keeping a keen, careful and creative eye on the future.
Just over twenty years ago, Kevin Iega Jeff and Gary Abbott founded Deeply Rooted Dance Theater in Chicago. From the time of its inception, Iega has led the company as Artistic Director with Gary as Associate Artistic Director. Together, these two powerhouse artists and innovators have contributed their choreography to the company’s vast repertoire of carefully curated works, but more importantly they continue to preserve and nurture DRDT’s legacy and its mission – “to re-imagine and diversify the aesthetics of contemporary dance by bringing together modern, classical, American and African-American traditions in dance and storytelling.” If you have ever been to a Deeply Rooted dance concert, then you have seen this mission in motion; what you may not have seen is what happens behind the scenes and in the offices of DRDT.
This season, Iega and the team at Deeply Rooted Dance Theater re-imagine the structure of artistic leadership and bring a diverse set of individuals to take the helm. They also begin the journey for a shared vision with the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts Executive Director Bill Michel to begin plans for a South Side Dance Center – a home for dance on Chicago’s south side that will welcome and embrace the diversity of its community. DancerMusic’s Kristi Licera spoke to Iega to get the first look at the new rotating artistic leadership model and to learn more about the tremendous and inspired undertaking that is the South Side Dance Center. Here’s what he told us:
Our process welcomes collaboration, and the collaborative process is an effective way to develop leadership. So it was organic to consider the rotation model.
Kristi Licera: Deeply Rooted Dance Theater’s upcoming season brings with it a number of new and exciting things, including the introduction of a rotating artistic leadership team. Most professional dance companies have one, sometimes two, artistic directors who hold their positions for an extended length of time (some directors even carry the title to the grave!). Can you tell us what sparked the idea for this leadership structure and about the work you have been doing to ensure that it continues to support the growth of the company?
Kevin Iega Jeff: For the last 20 years, the fruit of the company’s labor has certainly been artistic, but also building a community to support our work, a community that understands our needs artistically, operationally, financially, and in terms of leadership and governance. Through that process, we could see who was naturally rising to points of leadership. While it remains an ongoing process, there’s fulfillment in knowing that we’ve laid a strong foundation for that leadership to occur.
In light of the talent and growth of our artistic team, I’d been reflecting on the possibility of a rotating leadership model for a few years now. Our process welcomes collaboration, and the collaborative process is an effective way to develop leadership. So it was organic to consider the rotation model. There’s already a rich history of repertoire that people connect to so we don’t want to cut loose and move away from that. So in developing this model there has to be continuity so we can bring our audiences on this journey. Additionally, after serving as artistic director for 20+ years, and executive director as needed intermittently throughout the period, it’s important to challenge myself and the company with a fresh approach that enhances creative development. I’m hoping this model will afford renewal for me and the company, since there are inherent implications when leading that can inhibit creativity overtime.
Our process requires all of us to be informed about what’s happening in the organization so team members learn about the planning and decision-making process. As a result, the artistic team becomes stronger in each of their artistic identities and values…
Iega: The idea of this shift also comes from some of my professional history. Upon founding JUBILATION! Dance Company in New York, I was inspired to consider alternative organizational structures in light of my experiences at the Foundation for the Education and Development of the American Professional Theater (FEDAPT). FEDAPT was ardent about embracing operational practices that were organic to an organization, as long as the practices honored legally compliant operations. I was exposed to alternative models a lot earlier in my career, yet I was challenged to trust my instincts to implement them. Ultimately, I realized my instinctual leadership would best serve the company, so I began to rethink the company’s structure with the support of my colleagues.
The artistic leadership rotation model, specific to the dance company, is a natural outgrowth of the collaborative nature of Deeply Rooted’s artistic team process. Our process requires all of us to be informed about what’s happening in the organization so team members learn about the planning and decision-making process. As a result, the artistic team becomes stronger in each of their artistic identities and values, which helps strengthen the team and our collaboration as a whole. In light of that growth, the rotation model seeks to provide a platform for all creative voices to flourish.
Participants [in Arts Management Workforce Development Program] may not come to Deeply Rooted with real-world experience, so our program provides a forum for that coaching via weekly meetings with key senior staff, board members and consultants.
Iega: To make sure we have a management structure that supports the leadership, I developed our Arts Management Workforce Development Program (AMWDP) to address the fact that we didn’t have enough funding to hire seasoned staff; we had to become more creative in devising a dynamic internship program that could effectively meet the company’s management needs. The program comprises six interns in various areas—executive assistant, operations, marketing, production, dance education and business management. From relationships we’ve cultivated with Chicago-area colleges and universities, we seek entrepreneurial self-starters whose decision making is developed for relevant use within the company and field at large. Participants may not come to Deeply Rooted with real-world experience, so our program provides a forum for that coaching via weekly meetings with key senior staff, board members and consultants. A desired outcome of AMWDP is to hire entry-level management staff from the program whenever possible, so to that end, AMWDP has proven very effective.
I’m especially excited about the energizing effect of the artistic team’s intergenerational composition, which intentionally ranges from the baby boomer to millennial generations.
Kristi: Artistic Team members Nicole Clarke-Springer (DRDT Dance Education Director) and Joshua Ishmon (Artistic/Producing Director of DRDT’s Emerging Choreographers Showcase) will be co-artistic directors, followed by DRDT Co-Founder and Associate Artistic Director Gary Abbott. Can you tell us more about each of these members of your artistic team and how their vision will inspire, create and celebrate the legacy of DRDT?
Iega: The 2018-19 season is a transitional period, when my artistic leadership, specific to the dance company, will continue to gradually shift. Nicole Clarke-Springer will lead Deeply Rooted’s 2019 performance season supported by Joshua L. Ishmon, who will serve as her associate. Gary Abbott will lead the 2019–20 performance season supported by Nicole. I will shift my primary focus to capacity building and planning for the South Side Dance Center, in partnership with UChicago/The Logan Center, and developing Deeply Rooted’s Special Projects division. Gary, Nicole, Josh and I all serve on the artistic team and collaborate on the development of all program areas.
Each rotational leader of the dance company is charged to deepen, explore and broaden Deeply Rooted’s repertoire in the following areas: Contemporary Innovations, Classical Modern Forms and Repertory Classics. Leadership will seek choreographers creating in the following aesthetics: Black/African-American Dance, American Dance and International Innovations. I’m especially excited about the energizing effect of the artistic team’s intergenerational composition, which intentionally ranges from the baby boomer to millennial generations. These parameters and influences will help guide artistic leadership when presenting their unique treatment of the company’s mission, vision and values.
Deeply Rooted needed a state-of-the-art, affordable performance home on Chicago’s South Side. With the opening of the Logan Center, the fulfillment of that need became possible.
Kristi: While you may be stepping out of the role of Artistic Director (for the time being), you will still be actively involved in the inner workings of the company, as well as contributing your choreographic voice. One of the major projects that you will be working on is developing a center for dance on Chicago’s South Side. The project launches this year in partnership with several organizations, including the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts and the University of Chicago. Can you tell us more about how you became connected with the Logan Center and how this partnership came to be?
Iega: Deeply Rooted needed a state-of-the-art, affordable performance home on Chicago’s South Side. With the opening of the Logan Center, the fulfillment of that need became possible. Therefore, the decision to partner with Logan during the past six years was intentional, and I hoped an ongoing space partnership would evolve over time. So when the Logan Center opened an appropriate facility, it provided the option we needed.
In late 2017, Deeply Rooted began planning for a new home with two initial partners, including Studio One, an avocational dance studio in its 35th year, with which we’ve had an informal partnership for about 20 years; and the Chicago Community Loan Fund. In the spring of 2018, Logan Center Executive Director Bill Michel contacted me about his vision to build a dance center on Chicago’s South Side with Deeply Rooted as a lead company. Our vision for a cooperative dance home aligned with Bill’s vision for a dance center and our collaboration with UChicago/The Logan Center was formally established with Deeply Rooted’s planning proposal submission to the ArtsWork Fund.
We believe Chicago deserves a center that embraces its diversity, where everyone can experience the communal enrichment of world-class dance education and performances.
Kristi: Whether dance is done as a hobby or chosen as a career path, it undoubtedly enriches the lives of those who are involved in countless ways. Can you tell us more about your vision and goals for the South Side Dance Center?
Iega: The goal is to create a state-of-the-art resident home where the ecosystems of professional, academic,and avocational dance (including instruction, creation and performance) share space and interface creatively where organically possible. These divisions are often separated by space and resource limitations, yet they’re critical to each other in the dance ecosystem. The vision is to create a space where these divisions can thrive in an environment that supports institutional independence, partnerships and creative collaboration.
The Arts Work Fund of Chicago graciously funded the initial planning process, a think tank to vision with a consortium of core partners and stakeholders, and build relationships as we plan for the facility’s architectural design, operations and financing. We believe Chicago deserves a center that embraces its diversity, where everyone can experience the communal enrichment of world-class dance education and performances.
Deeply Rooted envisions the center as a focal point for artistic exploration, holistic interaction and collaboration among artists and organizations from diverse disciplines and sectors.
Kristi: Let’s imagine for a moment that we are 20 years in the future. If all goes according to plan, how do you envision the South Side Dance Center and Deeply Rooted Dance Theater? What effect do you hope to have on the South Side community, the city of Chicago, and the dance community at large?
Iega: For the center, we will have led the creation of an internationally revered state-of-the-art home that includes a division for African-American dance. The center, established in partnership with other organizations committed to diversity and culture, is a vibrant community and intergenerational hub for dance and cultural engagement. It welcomes hundreds to its model dance education program that emphasizes technique and life lessons for novice and professional dancers. The center includes dance studios, rehearsal/black box theater performance space, production space, offices, meeting room, library/resource center, garden and green room/spaces for community gathering. It is the catalyst for Creative Communities, a collaborative initiative with civic, corporate and community partners devoted to fostering and supporting healthy and humane living in beautiful, affordable and equitably serviced South Side neighborhoods. We have grown community—artistically, culturally, economically and spiritually—through broad inclusion and commitment to connecting art and creativity with social change.
Deeply Rooted envisions the center as a focal point for artistic exploration, holistic interaction and collaboration among artists and organizations from diverse disciplines and sectors. Our ongoing investment in emerging choreographers and interdisciplinary artists/art makers and mentoring future arts administrators/workers will have shaped new generations of leaders. At the same time, we will continue to be a premier Chicago dance company of full-time dancers creating and performing works by African-American, American and international artists that excite and resonate with audiences all over the world.
To learn more about the company and show your support, visit deeplyrooteddancetheater.org. Keep up with latest developments by following Deeply Rooted Dance Theater on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.