Their efforts and successes in building the audience for concert dance are not only invaluable to dance community at large, but are also invaluable to those audience members whose lives are enriched by the art of dance.
There is nothing like summertime in Chicago. The city embraces every moment of sunshine, and its solar powered citizens take to the streets and beaches as if rediscovering a long lost land. It is a special time for the dance community in Chicago as well, as some of the dancers that have made their home in studios and theaters venture out to bring their art outdoors for the masses. This is especially true of the dancers at Dance in the Parks, who celebrate their 11th season of touring high caliber concert dance in neighborhood parks across the the city.
From the beginning, McCann has had innovative choreographers work with a company of seasoned professional dancers to produce concerts that remain free to the public.
From the beginning, Founding Director of Dance in the Parks Katie McCann knew she had created something special. While exciting, summer can also be a precarious time for the working professional dancer; company contracts come to a close, and for the many dancers that teach, dance studios either close or run at diminished capacity. Many dancers turn to jobs outside of the industry to make a living during this time and often struggle to find paid opportunities to hone and showcase their craft. Eleven summers ago, McCann, surrounded by the incredible but wasted talents of her peers, decided to take those talents and put them to good use. From the beginning, McCann has had innovative choreographers work with a company of seasoned professional dancers to produce concerts that remain free to the public.
Over the years, Dance in the Parks has introduced countless audience members to the world of concert dance and continues to add different Chicago neighborhoods to its tour. Their efforts and successes in building the audience for concert dance are not only invaluable to dance community at large, but are also invaluable to those audience members whose lives are enriched by the art of dance.
This year, Dance in the Parks Founding Director Katie McCann brought together a fresh mix of choreographers to create a lush, entertaining and diverse program. DancerMusic Dance Editor Kristi Licera caught up with McCann to get an inside look at DIP’s growth over 11 seasons as well as a sneak peek of what this summer season holds. Here’s what she told us:
…those are the artists everyone wants to work with. They love it. They want to keep doing it. They jump in to help where they can.
Kristi Licera: Dance in the Parks is celebrating its 11th year of presenting concert dance at no cost to audiences across Chicago. Summer tends to be the off-season for most companies in the city; not only is DIP a unique opportunity for current and new audiences to experience dance outdoors, but it also gives dance professionals work in a time when paid opportunities are scarce. Can you tell us more about the beginning years of Dance in the Parks? How has the company grown, and what have been some of the challenges and triumphs of adding new park partnerships?
Katie McCann: Our first few years were tiny and a struggle, as it is with any new endeavor, especially a tiny cultural non-profit. For the first three years, we only did four performances per summer. No one knew who we were, so financial support was minimal. There was no infrastructure at Chicago Park District to support more than a couple of performances. Our small season made it hard to build recognition as a summer event to come see, and we were sort of an anomaly to begin with. Outdoor cultural performances weren’t a common thing in the parks back then, nor was any kind of dance programming in the summer. Contracts ended in May, and everyone went off to their teaching or table-waiting gigs until August.
I couldn’t pay anyone very much, so I begged friends and found artists who really just wanted to work in the off-season, even if it wasn’t going to pay very well. Luckily, those are the artists everyone wants to work with. They love it. They want to keep doing it. They jump in to help where they can. So, it worked out that though our budget was tiny, our heart was mighty. In our first season, we had works by Cheryl Mann, Autumn Eckman, Brock Clawson and Keesha Beckford – all well-known and well-beloved in the Chicago dance world, though many have now moved on to other cities.
Audiences showed up and had a great time. And a bunch of our artists came back the next year because they loved it so much…
It was a little crazy since I had to piece things together where I could. There were 13 dancers that year – the biggest cast we’ve ever had – because choreographers conned their favorite people into working with them rather than having a set company of dancers that choreographers come in to work with. I had to spread my very few dollars farther. I am eternally grateful to August Tye at Hyde Park School of Dance for being so generous with her studio space to allow us to rehearse and rent her marley floor for a screaming deal. I think I remember renting a cargo van for each individual show day so it would be cheaper than keeping it for the length of the season. That means I completely loaded and unloaded that truck every time. Into my dining room. That part was miserable.
That said, so many parts of it should have been miserable and weren’t. We didn’t have enough rehearsal time with everyone present. We borrowed sound equipment we weren’t sure would work on any given day. I don’t even remember what our promotional plan was. But, we made a show. All the dancers worked together and took care of each other. We had so many people in our personal communities rooting for us and supporting us in whatever little ways they could, and we ended up making a pretty good show. Audiences showed up and had a great time. And a bunch of our artists came back the next year because they loved it so much (or because there was no other summer work? Maybe, but they also loved it… really, they told me!).
Chicago Park District’s Night Out in the Parks initiative has been a game-changer for helping us reach more communities. The jump in funding for all cultural programming helped us grow our reach…
Since then, we’ve built every year. We jumped up to 6 shows, then 8, 10, and were up to a 16-show season in 2015. We got better at doing what we do. Things got streamlined to better fit into our very short timeline and budgets. Choreographers began to trust that they would be working with dancers who really CAN help co-create a dance in three days of rehearsal. Dancers kept coming back because they loved the mission and the professional, fast-paced, supportive culture of the company. With a little more funding, we bought better equipment. With the establishment of DIP fans, we got donations to buy a better floor. Artists get paid more than they did in 2009 (though still not what they’re worth, in my opinion). Everyone still pitches in. Current company dancers also serve as rehearsal director, social media coordinator, youth performance coordinator and costume assistant – for which they get paid a little extra money.
Chicago Park District’s Night Out in the Parks initiative has been a game-changer for helping us reach more communities. The jump in funding for all cultural programming helped us grow our reach, which helped us gain recognition, which helped us raise funding from individuals and foundations (not to mention, be inspired by the crew in the Culture, Arts, and Nature department at the park district). The crew who run Night Out in the Parks work incredibly hard through an overwhelmingly busy summer season to make sure everyone in Chicago near a park has access to cultural programming. Dance in the Parks is a heavy lift, but Krista Bryski Richard and her Night Out crew are superhumans. Night Out dance concerts aren’t limited just to ours – other dance companies have partnered with the program, so there is more dance happening in the summer than there used to be, and a lot of it is in the parks. Night Out programming has helped extend the dance season a bit, but has really elevated the entire park district, and in my mind, the city’s cultural capital.
The Chicago dance landscape has changed since we started in 2009. Joffrey and Hubbard Street have just gotten better and better, but the smaller companies a tier down from them have disappeared – Thodos, River North, Luna Negra. There is so much interesting dance happening in the city, but a person really needs to actively look for it because it’s easy to miss Giordano or Visceral’s night at the Harris, or even know that some dance thing is happening at Defibrillator Gallery. Since 2013, we’re proud to have given away free donated tickets to see more Chicago dance at every performance. Companies including The Joffrey Ballet, Hubbard Street, Giordano Dance Chicago, Chicago Repertory Ballet, Chicago Tap Theatre, Winifred Haun and Dancers, Lucky Plush and presenters including The Harris Theater, The Auditorium Theatre, and Broadway in Chicago have donated tickets.
In our 10 performance seasons, we’ve reached more than 10,000 audience members, hired 58 choreographers to create or set 86 dance works on 59 dancers.
We love when people come up to us after a show to tell us that they saw us last year and looked up where we would be this year to make sure they made it to a show. It’s gratifying to know we inspired a trip out. However, we’re just a tiny bit of the community, and we want to build bridges back into the dance community for these dance newbs. If we can make it even one step easier to get people into dance shows, we are happy to do it.
We’re still not a big company. I still constantly worry we won’t make fundraising goals that just cover the season, not even grand plans for future years. We’re far better at doing this very specific thing that we do than we were 10 years ago. I’m proud of how much our reach has grown. In our 10 performance seasons, we’ve reached more than 10,000 audience members, hired 58 choreographers to create or set 86 dance works on 59 dancers. We’ve performed in 42 parks in 38 neighborhoods, partnered with 45 youth performance groups, and given away tickets to 83 dance shows. Those numbers seem so impressive to me, and I’m incredibly proud, but I AM still the one loading the truck and driving it to the venues to lay down the marley. At the end of the day, it’s still just me and my friends putting on a show.
…we have always been a place where the not-yet-up-and-coming choreographers can have space to work with professionals (instead of students) without having to self-produce.
Kristi: This year, Dance in the Parks features the work of eight choreographers – some of whom have worked with you before, as well as some fresh faces. Can you tell us more about each of the choreographers and share some insights to some of the pieces in this year’s program?
Katie: For last year’s 10th season, I celebrated by asking back as many ‘favorite’ choreographers as I could get. I wanted to fill the show with pieces of choreography from veteran choreographers who would make beautiful and thoughtful works. I also wanted to bring back DIP veterans who knew the drill. We work fast. You need to come in prepared and trust that it will work. So, it was a strong show with works by Peter Carpenter (a 5-year DIP veteran), Joshua Blake Carter (2nd year), Thomas Mattingly (3rd year), Paige Caldarella, Lizzie MacKenzie (3rd year), Mariana Oliviera and Becca Lemme – all well-established or beyond-up-and-coming choreographers.
For our 11th season, I felt I needed to bring in fresh faces. It is always DIP’s goal to create a quality, professional dance concert. We hire professionals who are good at their jobs to make sure we are successful. However, we have always been a place where the not-yet-up-and-coming choreographers can have space to work with professionals (instead of students) without having to self-produce. If you’re not a dancer in a company that specifically offers opportunities to choreograph on your colleagues, it’s often hard to find venues to practice and hone choreographic skills. Young choreographers need to spend time developing their voices and skills, not figuring out how to self-produce a show just to be able to showcase their work. DIP is happy to offer our space, time, dancers and production abilities so fresh faces can just do the work.
There is so much interesting dance happening in the city, but a person really needs to actively look for it because it’s easy to miss…
So, it’s more of a mix, this year. Becca Lemme, Jessica Miller Tomlinson, and Paige Caldarella are returning 2019 choreographers, and we will repeat our company finale, Our Town, choreographed by Joshua Blake Carter. Becca Lemme created a paired bookend to last year’s Brassy set to brass band music with this year’s, Grassy, set to bluegrass. Jessica Miller-Tomlinson created a beautiful, driving duet called Bells on Stephanie Cihlar and Jesse Hoisington. Paige Caldarella made a beautiful quartet based on discussions with her students about human relationships and social media.
Our fresh faces include long-time company dancer Craig Miller, plus new-to-DIP choreographers Todd Rhoades, Paige Fraser and Ela Olarte. All four have been dancers in Chicago for a while. Craig has danced with Inaside Dance Chicago, Chicago Repertory Ballet, and the Seldoms. Todd has danced with the Lyric Opera, Luna Negra Dance Theatre, and Ron DeJesus Dance. Paige is a founding dancer of Visceral Dance Chicago where she came after leaving Alvin Ailey Dance Theater’s second company. Ela danced with CocoDaco Dance Project.
Everything is super fresh at the moment, but here’s an overview of what these talented people are making: Craig Miller has created a jazz quartet for four ladies. We haven’t featured a truly jazz work since 2010, and we’re excited that Craig is getting to stretch his artistic wings. Todd created a fun, theatrical quartet showing three different facets of love.
Dance in the Parks 11th season runs July 9 – 27 in select Chicago Park District locations. To see the full 2019 season line-up and find the next Dance in the Parks performance near you, visit danceintheparks.org/performances. Learn more about Katie, the dancers, and choreographers by reading their bios at danceintheparks.org/artists.