He knows about dance because of all of the dance he’s been a part of, all of the experiences he’s shared as dancer, choreographer, marketing professional, arts administrator and dance writer.
A relationship is what you share. Family or frendship, artistic or romantic, just beginning or together forever, the mutual understanding and awareness that we call a relationship is composed of shared experience — that’s what it’s made out of.
Relationships are important in dance, because collaboration builds — and is built from — relationships. Collaboration, in turn, is always important in dance, not just because dance is the most collaborative of the arts, but because community builds — and is built from — collaboration. That’s even more important, because in concert dance, collaboration and community are much of what creativity is made out of.
Which explains, at least in some measure, the unfailingly enchanting festival of creativity that is New Dances. Originally founded by Chicago Repertory Dance Ensemble in the 1980s, New Dances was revived and given a much broader scope by Melissa Thodos, who for seventeen years produced the program. Now a joint project of Thodos Dance Chicago and DanceWorks Chicago, New Dances has for decades been the source of an unchartable complex of relationships — friendships, collaborations, and unforgettable community. Along the way, Zachary Whittenburg has seen much of it, shared much of it, and been an important part of building the community of creativity that is New Dances.
Zachary Whittenburg knows about collaboration in dance, about community in dance, and about creativity in dance. He knows about dance because of all of the dance he’s been a part of, all of the experiences he’s shared as dancer, choreographer, marketing professional, arts administrator and dance writer. He’s been an important part of the New Dances experiences that others have shared, as a dancer and choreographer, friend and supporter.
For many years, he has served on the advisory panel (this year with Kristina Fluty and Jeff Hancock) that is such an important part of the New Dances process — advising choreographers and dancers on every part of what makes dance succeed. In the process, he’s shared in many of the most important experiences that make the relationships that make the collaborations that make the community that is New Dances. As if that were not enough, he’s also one of the most informative and respected voices in dance writing, so we couldn’t imagine anyone better to give us an inside look at what we’ll see in NEW Dances 2019. Here’s what he told us:
In a lot of ways, that’s the point at which my dance education really began, about forms and techniques beyond those I had practiced myself …
Johnny Nevin: You’ve seen more dance — and from more different perspectives — than most people ever will: You’ve been a performer and a choreographer, and you’re a widely read dance writer. With “New Dances” in particular, you’ve been unusually generous with your time, serving as a member of its advisory panel for many years with Thodos Dance Chicago and now with Thodos Dance Chicago and DanceWorks Chicago. What have you seen in the showings from the “New Dances 2019” program? Is there anything in particular that you think audiences might find especially engaging?
Zachary Whittenburg: That’s very flattering, thank you, although I must say for the record there are many out there who have seen much, much more dance than I have. One of the greatest frustrations for a lot of working performers, I think, is that you’re constantly missing opportunities to see your peer artists and ensembles — to really come to understand the shape of the field that you’re in. For so many of us, that doesn’t happen until after we’ve left the stage.
While I was dancing full-time, from about 1996 to 2006, I actually didn’t see a whole lot that I wasn’t personally involved in. I remember making huge efforts to see a couple of shows I knew I would kick myself forever if I missed, such as the time I flew to New York to see my friend perform with Ballett Frankfurt at the Brooklyn Academy of Music; that would have been late 2001, I think, or in 2002. But it wasn’t really until I started writing about dance, in early 2007 for Flavorpill Chicago, that I had the time and the resources to attend multiple performances per week. In a lot of ways, that’s the point at which my dance education really began, about forms and techniques beyond those I had practiced myself — and that was just 12 years ago. Not a long time, if you’re comparing me to Chicago writers who’ve seen multiple generations of local artists, like Sid Smith for the Chicago Tribune or Laura Molzahn for the Chicago Reader and also the Tribune. But, as usual, I digress. [Laughs]
As a dance journalist, I also really enjoy how often “New Dances” has tipped me off to young talents before they gain much exposure.
That said, you’re right: I have been involved in “New Dances” for quite a while now, first in 2008 as a guest choreographer and in most of the years since as a member of the mentorship panel, or feedback group, or whatever you want to call it. It’s a unique and longstanding program that’s really important in many ways, and I know that in part because of the creative collaborations I’ve seen born during “New Dances” and thrive on their own afterward. The community ensemble aspect of the program — rather than being presented by a year-round company of dancers, each “New Dances” gathers an ad hoc group of artists either freelance, on break, or between contracts during the summer — facilitates a lot of cross-pollination, and so you have dancers meeting and working closely with one another who might not do so otherwise. Over the years I’ve seen this lead to all sorts of movement in the local community, I’ve seen this create pathways for early-career artists into jobs that may not otherwise have been accessible, I’ve seen it push dancers to expand their skill sets and familiarities with other styles… Things that either wouldn’t happen otherwise, or wouldn’t happen as quickly or as easily and so, for these reasons and more, “New Dances” is a program I’m always delighted and honored to participate in.
As a dance journalist, I also really enjoy how often “New Dances” has tipped me off to young talents before they gain much exposure. A recent example might be Luis Vazquez, selected to be one of the Joffrey Ballet’s “Winning Works” choreographers in 2018. A friend of mine caught that program and was telling me how much they liked Vazquez’s work, and I was able to respond with some satisfaction, “Oh, yeah — he’s got a great voice. I saw his choreography last year at ‘New Dances.’” [Laughs] I’ll readily admit to doing whatever I can to be among the first to know about something new and exciting. “You heard it here first!” [Laughs]
… how, in one moment, a dancer can move as if she is made of cast iron and, in the next moment, seem as if she is as light as a feather. It’s magic.
In terms of what we’ve seen so far out of the “New Dances 2019” group, I mean, lots and lots of exciting stuff. It may be in part a function of this specific combination of dancers on whom the choreographers are making their works, but there’s a thrilling athleticism, strength, and stamina that runs through the entire program. I was offering my feedback to one of the choreographers, Jana Bennett, and almost immediately began talking about what I called “the spirit of badass, punk-rock women of dance,” specifically here in Chicago and in Montréal, where I danced for a short time — artists like Marie Chouinard, Atalee Judy, and Louise Lecavalier — as well as those whose work has either toured or been commissioned here, like Shannon Gillen of VIM VIGOR and Andrea Miller of Gallim Dance. Now, I didn’t want to set up a comparison between what Bennett is doing and what those artists do, but rather just note how I saw a kind of affinity or resonance there, and encourage Bennett to dig into some of their portfolios if she hasn’t already.
LOUD BODIES, which is a partnership between two women choreographers, Maria Blanco and Yariana Baralt Torres, has a similar quality where, to my eye, the work is not so much representing things outside of dance through dance, but rather it’s plainly about dancing itself — about the joy and the challenge of constructing a system of movement, and about the joy and the challenge of operating within that system as a mover. With the two of them and their ensemble, we talked a lot about states of being, how choreography can be used to represent or unveil those states of being, and how to transition from one to the next. One of my fellow panelists, Kristina Fluty, who’s an incredible dancer and instructor and researcher, noted in her comments the “tissue change” that she observed during that showing, which I thought was spot-on. She and I both love that sense of feeling like you’re watching the material of which a dancer is made actually change in front of you, in real time — how, in one moment, a dancer can move as if she is made of cast iron and, in the next moment, seem as if she is as light as a feather. It’s magic.
From there, though, things quickly get messy — in a good way.
This “New Dances” group also includes, as it often does, the chance to watch and to guide an early-career choreographer through finding their own voice amidst the influence of what they’ve seen and danced themself. Francesca Baron, who’s working with the title Idiosyncrasy Frequency, has great instincts for a sort of casual classicism. You see some elements, some DNA of classical ballet and that upright, elegant carriage, that are kind of softened or disrupted. It comes and goes as other, more contemporary or more aggressive movement qualities cross-fade in and out. Rigoberto Saura isn’t as much working with a balletic or Western tradition but rather digesting and finding his own path through what I might say is the most influential and paradigmatically “new” approach to choreography for the proscenium stage, which is the Gaga technique developed at Batsheva Dance Company in Tel Aviv, now taught by certified instructors around the world. Gaga dances can be incredibly, almost shockingly strenuous and physically risky, but also surprisingly subtle and tender, too. Saura has a good feel for both ends of that spectrum; during his showing we talked quite a bit about how gender is represented or subverted through movement, and the optics of a male artist creating work for an all-female cast.
There’s always at least a bit of humor in every “New Dances” and it’s pretty clear that Lauren Blane is this summer’s comedian. Her project brought to mind former “New Dances” choreographer Hattie Haggard and also some of the earlier projects I saw choreographed for “New Dances” by John Cartwright, among others. Nonverbal comedy is of course so difficult to do and that conversation was I thought really productive and hopefully helpful, in terms of putting a finger on when, why, and how a “dance joke” works well and reads clearly. I also brought up the FX miniseries Fosse / Verdon, which I just finished watching and enjoyed quite a bit, since Blane has a natural tendency to shape gestures and rhythms in a stylized, almost two-dimensional way, not unlike how Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon would. In contrast to the mode in which Jana Bennett is working, for example, Blane especially in the beginning of her piece is really in the realm of precision and specificity, in that way that some choreography is almost like sign language for the entire body. From there, though, things quickly get messy — in a good way. There’s a playful violence to her project, which as I understand it is also inspired in part by the journey toward self-actualization, which is an interesting twist.
… Catching one of the shows and seeing each one of these sketches come fully, vividly to life. I can’t wait.
I think Katie Carey is the only “New Dances” artist I haven’t talked about with you yet, and since this year’s performances are in more of a “black box”–type venue than on a proscenium stage, Carey’s project should be particularly memorable. I don’t want to divulge too many details, especially since the works we saw were in progress and development still, but I thought Carey had found some fascinating ways to explore the stage as a container. So many types of dance will have you pretend that the stage is infinite space, with a center of gravity at the center of the stage floor, so everything orbits and is pulled toward the middle of your field of view. Carey’s piece in some ways is almost centrifugal, where the center of the space almost seems to repel the dancers away toward the margins. It’s like an escape room, maybe, although with just a really mature and nuanced understanding of interpersonal dynamics, and an otherworldly atmosphere. Like all of the “New Dances” projects, we won’t really know what Carey’s is until we see it in performance, with costumes and makeup and lighting and all of that. Which might be my favorite part of this process every year, overall: Catching one of the shows and seeing each one of these sketches come fully, vividly to life. I can’t wait.
NEW Dances 2019 will be presented in four performances at at Chicago’s Athenaeum Theatre Studio 2, on Wednesday, June 19th at 7:30 pm, Friday, June 21st at 7:30 pm, Saturday, June 22nd at 7:30 pm, and Sunday, June 23rd at 3:00 pm. Tickets are available online from OvationTix.
NEW Dances 2019 features new works by choreographers Francesca Baron, Jana Bennett, Lauren Blane, Katie Carey, LOUD BODIES, and Rigoberto Saura. CLICK HERE to read more about these NEW Dances 2019 Choreographers. Performing these new, original works are: Quincie Bean, Tara Charvat, Kristen Donovan, Abby Ellison, Sarah Fluegel, Jade Hooper, Sarah Jones, Cameron Lasater, Racquel Mar, Erin Quigley, Elijah Richardson, Tori Rumzis, Simone Stevens, Jack Taylor, Kallie Tierney, and Imani Williams. CLICK HERE to read more about the full Company.
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Colorado native Zachary Whittenburg spent ten years as a professional dancer with companies including Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, BJM Danse Montréal, Pacific Northwest Ballet, and North Carolina Dance Theatre, now Charlotte Ballet. His subsequent freelance career in Chicago included performance, teaching, and choreographic work with, among others, Lucky Plush Productions, Molly Shanahan / Mad Shak, DanceWorks Chicago, Luna Negra Dance Theater, Mordine & Co. Dance Theater, River North Dance Chicago, and Thodos Dance Chicago. As Associate Director of Marketing and Communication at Hubbard Street, he represented the company on the Chicago Dancemakers Forum consortium, and he was most recently Communications and Engagement Director at Arts Alliance Illinois. Whittenburg contributes regularly to Dance Magazine, is a panelist and guest speaker, and tweets @trailerpilot about contemporary culture, politics, and the performing arts. He is a founding board member for the Chicago Dance History Project, and a member of the artistic advisory council for High Concept Labs.