Frank Chaves is entering a new choreographic world – one filled willed with pointe shoes and pink tights. In his twenty-three years choreographing for River North Dance Chicago, Chaves created stunning works, but never for a cast exclusively of purely classical ballet dancers. In celebration of the 20th Anniversary of Ballet Chicago’s Studio Company, Chaves was commissioned to create Ascension. This romantically haunting pas de deux features an original score for piano and cello by Josephine Lee, who will join the dancers onstage with cellist Meena Cho this Saturday at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance.
DancerMusic’s Kristi Licera recently had the honor of talking to Mr. Chaves about his work with Ballet Chicago:
Kristi: What inspired you to create ‘Ascension’?
Frank: I had this image of the very end of the piece, of the dancer ascending into the sky. That is where the title came from, and it is very odd for a piece to begin in this way for me. Ascension just happened and something was coming. My father passed, and I had come up with Ascension before that – was there something prophetic about it? The universe works in mysterious ways – you just never know. It is about ascending to another level, in your spirit, in your heart, and in your everyday life.
When you can come up with something that works for everyone – that is what I consider a real success.
Kristi: This was the first choreographic work that you have created en pointe. Was there anything particularly challenging or different about working in this style?
Frank: So much of my stuff is ballet based anyways, it transitioned easily. The only speed bump I ran into was getting the dancers to move in a different way. It was a learning curve for them and for me. I gave them something way out of their comfort zone and then I had to reel it back in a little bit to make sure it suited them and their capabilities.
For them, in the beginning of what might be their professional careers, and from a Balanchine heavy school, this was very different. It was different for Dan and Patricia as well, and I think they could not have hoped to get anything more out of this collaborative experience. I want me to be happy, the dancers to be happy, and to create an environment to make work. The dancers could not be more into it, and it has been something so special for them and very, very special for me. It’s a win-win in that respect.
Sometimes you get a dancer’s favorite piece to do and the audience hates it. When you can come up with something that works for everyone – that is what I consider a real success. Those are sometimes hard to come by, and I really felt it when bringing in choreography for my dancers. In this case, it has been just a beautiful experience.
Kristi: Was Josephine Lee’s score created before, after, or during the choreographic process?
Frank: I got the idea for the music a few weeks before we started. I am a big music guy and I am big on having an intimate relationship with it. It was challenging because we were getting closer and closer and still did not have any music. But from the beginning, the music was so beautiful and lush that it made it very easy to choreograph. This (score) makes me dance. This makes me feel. This has all the ingredients I need.
I think (Josephine and I) are both cut from the same cloth and we talk about bringing more music into the world. This score is still classical in nature but, it’s contemporary classical. Classical people will be drawn to it, but so will people who like more contemporary music.”
I have never known a hungrier creature than a dancer – for body information, for new ways of expressing.
Kristi: Each of the works in the Anniversary program represent the history of the Studio Company in some way. In what way do you feel ‘Ascension’ represents the history of the Studio Company?
Frank: Ascension is a real testament to what Ballet Chicago is open to. The other pieces are from different time periods in the company’s history. Ascension is the only new thing – as new as a world premiere. It couldn’t be more different. I have gotten impressions to what the other works are like. Ascension is right before the Duke Ellington suite in the program, which is interesting because I’m the jazz guy bringing in this ballet.
I am really happy with what it is and who it is on the program comparatively. The opportunity to work with these dancers and being open to these kinds of opportunities will be huge for them. I can tell from the dancers that it’s something very new. It’s part of the reason why they are so gung ho. I have never known a hungrier creature than a dancer – for body information, for new ways of expressing.
Know what you are getting yourself into, do your research, and be as knowledgeable as you can about your profession.
Kristi: What is the most important piece of advice that you can give to the next generation of dancers?
Frank: One thing that I always found so much throughout the years as a director was that I was quite surprised at the lack of education as to what else was out there (in the dance community and industry). That is a really big one. Do you even know what’s really out there? Have you looked at what else might be available to you as a job opportunity?
Make sure that you’re aware of all of the elements that are part of your profession and being educated to the dance world in general. The more educated you are, the better off you will be in terms of making choices and your direction. Every now and then you get those who do their homework and bust it out, and they will get to make some great informed decisions. Styles, trends, companies – I had so many dancers audition for me that didn’t even know what my company was about. Know what you are getting yourself into, do your research, and be as knowledgeable as you can about your profession.
It seems that this is only the beginning of Frank Chaves’s exploration of choreographic works en pointe. The World Premiere of Ascension will take place Saturday, May 6 at 2PM at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance, with an additional performance at 7:30PM. To learn more about Frank Chaves’s musical collaboration with Josephine Lee, read the DancerMusic article here.