5 Questions With Lou Conte About Creating A Legend
“… Lou will forever hold a special place in my heart.” (In the photo: Lou Conte with Claire Bataille in rehearsal for the 25th anniversary version of “The 40s” with Monica Trogani and Hubbard Street dancers — photo courtesy of Cheryl Mann)
Lou Conte not only has a name that is important to the Chicago dance community, but as the founder of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago he is someone who has changed the history of contemporary dance. He created what is today an internationally acclaimed company that dancers from all over the world dream of being a part of.
I myself was one of those young dancers, and Lou helped make my dream come true by bringing me into the company just before he stepped down as director in 2000. Lou will forever hold a special place in my heart, and not only by having initiated my entire dance career. With his values and the standards to which he held his work and company, he helped shape who I am today as a dancer, artist, and now choreographer.
Lou is being honored at Chicago’s Dance for Life this year, and when I was given the opportunity to talk with him and ask him a few questions, I couldn’t help but be thrilled at the thought. Here’s what he shared with me:
I looked out the window and saw the Hubbard Street sign and thought ‘we’ll use that. Only the seniors will ever hear of it anyway’. (In the photo: Hubbard Street Dance Chicago’s 2017 Company in the 40th anniversary revival of Lou Conte’s “The 40s” — photo by Todd Rosenberg)
Shannon Alvis: What drove you to create a company, and then to keep building it?
Lou Conte: I never had a burning passion or strong desire to create a dance company. I just liked working with dancers because they are a disciplined and committed group. After a satisfying performing career I chose to make Chicago my home, a city I thought big enough to support a school and have various opportunities to make a living from my dancing. I was choreographing in various theaters around town and teaching full time.
I opened the Lou Conte Dance Studio in February 1974 on Wabash Ave. and after 8 months found a large loft space at the corner of Hubbard Street and La Salle Streets and started to build a faculty to accommodate the growing number of students. By 1977 I was teaching just the advanced classes in tap and my ballet based theater dance that I called jazz even though it really wasn’t jazz. In the summer of 1977 I went back to my roots and taught a beginning tap class for adults. In that class was a woman named Barbara Cohen. Barbara worked for Urban Gateways, an arts advocacy agency and her job was to create arts programs for the Chicago public schools.
Barbara would come to her tap class early, sit on the floor and watch the advanced jazz class. After watching the class for a couple of weeks she came up to me and asked why I didn’t do something with these talented dancers. I had been trying to have workshops and sessions to work with the dancers but without an identified audience it seemed vague.
Urban Gateways got a one time grant from the mayor’s office to create a program to take out to senior citizen centers and Barbara asked me if I would be interested in creating a 35 minute program to fullfil that need. I asked four of my best female dancers if they would be interested in working on this and they responded with an ethusiastic yes. Now we had that identified audience, senior citizens to be entertained during their lunch hour, so it had to be highly entertaining.
We called the ensemble of four women ‘Hubbard Street Dance Company’ from the beginning. In order to be paid from the city of Chicago we had to have a not for profit status and a name. I was going to keep it simple and call them the Lou Conte Dancers but because my studio was a for profit organization there was a conflict of having my name on both entities. I looked out the window and saw the Hubbard Street sign and thought ‘we’ll use that. Only the seniors will ever hear of it anyway’.
We performed for the seniors from January to June 1978 and then that was supposed to be the end of it. Barbara decided that this group should perform in a space where the general public could see it so she booked the company for a free lunch time performance at the Chicago Cultural Center in July. It was the first time they danced on a proscenium stage and had lights. Definite growth.
Soon afterwards Barbara and the dancers asked me what I thought about giving this group a chance to keep growing. Everything was working so smoothly and effortlessly I thought why not try it.
It didn’t take long to have a lot of people volunteering to help with everything. Barbara quit her job at Urban Gateways and became the first executive director of Hubbard Street Dance Company. Barbara formed a working board of directors and was very hands on with the administration of this small group. By then I realized we were indeed making a commitment to have a company.
It would take an entire book to explain the process after that but there was no way I could walk away from something that seemed to have a life of it’s own and was special and positive to so many people.
I’m particularly pleased by the many collaborations and people working together to propel the company forward. (In the photo: Lou Conte rehearsing The 40’s At Hubbard Street Dance Chicago Studios, photo Courtesy of Cheryl Mann)
Shannon: Would you share your feelings about having created something so important in the history of contemporary dance?
Lou: I take great pride that Hubbard Street has made significant impact on dance in Chicago and that we played an important role as a cultural ambassador from Chicago to the rest of the country and eventually the world. In less than three years we were performing in major downtown theaters and pulling huge crowds and creating a bigger dance audience. We also attracted foundation and corporate support as well as individual support.
I was the sole choreographer in the first few years but it became clear to me that if the company were to continue to grow I had to bring in other choreographers and create a more diverse and interesting repertoire. Founding dancer Claire Bataille was the the first choreographer besides me. We got a New York agent who booked and routed our tours and we eventually toured throughout the United States, Europe, South America and Asia.
I’m particularly pleased by the many collaborations and people working together to propel the company forward. I felt a truly creative atmosphere throughout the entire organization with the dancers, staff, production team, agents and our presenters and enthusiastic audiences.
I can’t look backward and say I would have done anything different because everything we did allowed us to be celebrating our 40th anniversary this year. (In the photo: Lou Conte, photo by Todd Rosenberg)
Shannon: Looking back, why do you feel the company was so successful and would you have done anything differently?
Lou: I think the company was successful because it was a combination of good dancers doing good choreography being well presented in good theaters that allowed the audiences to be connected with us. At the time we were unusual and something new to the dance scene.
I never took “advice” from anyone although I would listen to people’s ideas. Of course good luck and good timing along the way helps.
An example of good luck and good timing was the confluence of three people who helped us in 1981. We performed at the Athenaeum Theater in the spring of 1981. Roche Shulfer, executive director at the Goodman Theater, Richard Carter, producer director for WTTW PBS television in Chicago and Richard Christiansen Chicago Tribune critic all saw us at the Athenaeum. Roche expressed interest in presenting us at the Goodman, Richard Carter wanted to do a PBS special performance with us and Christiansen gave us another glowing review. We filmed the PBS special in July, it was aired in September and we opened at the Goodman in November. Based on the high visibility of the TV show we were sold old before we opened at the Goodman in November. That kind of good luck and timing doesn’t happen often. Then the Chicago Sun Times wrote a spirited editorial congratulating this new arts organization on it’s downtown debut. Things were going well. I think the company continued to evolve and grow and we paid attention to what audiences wanted to see on stage.
I’m not saying I didn’t make mistakes but mistakes can often be a good teacher.
I trusted my instincts most of the time and went with my gut. I can’t look backward and say I would have done anything different because everything we did allowed us to be celebrating our 40th anniversary this year. If I had done things differently that may not be the case. I’m not saying I didn’t make mistakes but mistakes can often be a good teacher.
Shannon: I would love to know your thoughts on dance as an art form … Why dance? How do you see its significance in our lives today?
Lou: Dance has been and always will be an integral part of people’s lives. Not just the kind of dance that is presented on stage but the kind of dance to make it rain and promote fertility rites—all kinds of reasons to dance that effect us on a fundamental level… so dance will always be around feeding our soles and enriching our lives.
I think of myself as an artist but I also think of myself as a showman and craftsman. I believe that if you perform for people there must be an element of entertainment involved. After all we are not doing this on some mountain top somewhere we are doing it for people. I don’t think there is a conflict between art and entertainment except for the people who think of it as a conflict.
Shannon: What do you hope for the legacy of the company? And how do you see your personal continued involvement with dance in the future?
Lou: Hubbard Street was born and bred in Chicago and has that Chicago personality no matter how versatile the work is, there is connective tissue that runs though it. If the company continues to evolve, adapt, grow and do it well I see no reason why it shouldn’t be here for the future.
As Hubbard Street is celebrating it’s 40th anniversary this year artistic director Glenn Edgerton wanted to acknowledge the company’s history so he included my choreography of The 40s in this years programming. The 40s was originally done by the four women for the senior citizen shows so this piece goes back to the beginning. This gave me the opportunity to work with the current dancers all year long and get to know them well, and I must say it was a rewarding experience. I try to see as many seasons as they do over the year, go to benefits and other Hubbard Street happenings. I feel thrilled that the company is doing so well under Glenn’s leadership and still so popular both at home in Chicago and on tour.
One day I hope to write a book about the history of Hubbard Street but that seems more difficult than creating a dance company. We’ll see.
I don’t think there is a conflict between art and entertainment except for the people who think of it as a conflict. (In the photo: “The 40s final clump with the dancers bathed in the Dead Sea Mud in Israel in 2000. A great memory.” — Lou Conte. Photo courtesy of Cheryl Mann)
Hubbard Street Dance Chicago appears in the 27th annual Dance for Life celebration on Saturday, August 18 at 7:30pm at Chicago’s Auditorium Theatre (50 E. Congress Parkway, Chicago, IL). Tickets are available online from the Auditorium Theatre or by phone from the Auditorium Box Office at 312.341.2300.