Jessica Deahr, Chicago Dance Crash and “The Cotton Mouth Club”
Chicago Dance Crash is so accustomed to doing something new that even when they do something for the first time, it’s like they’ve done it a lot already. It’s a unique talent for an entire Dance Company to have, but the performers and staff who make up Dance Crash all seem to have a set of abilities — audacity, imagination, and multi-disciplinary performance skills — that make it possible for them to keep doing new things well.
Beginning Saturday, May 25 (there’s no Friday performance the opening weekend because Dance Crash is on tour) and running for three weeks, Dance Crash is presenting their new full evening work The Cotton Mouth Club, choreographed by Crash’s multi-talented Artistic Director Jessica Deahr and Robert McKee, who also performs the male lead in the work. Jessica Deahr tells aotpr.com’s Johnny Nevin about how all of that creativity comes together when Crash converts Chicago’s famous Biograph Theater (now The Victory Gardens Biograph Theater because it’s part of the award winning Theater Company) into The Cotton Mouth Club.
Johnny Nevin: The Cotton Mouth Club is another full evening dance play, like last year’s Gotham City, which turned out to be such a success, except this is a very different way of looking at a story. How did you come up with the idea of telling the same story twice, but set in two different decades and with two different endings?
Jessica Deahr: I was set on the idea of using one artist, and finding an existing story within their music that I could weave together. Sort of like what Twyla Tharp did with Billy Joel’s music in Movin’ Out. I was deciding between a Michael Jackson show or an Outkast show when it dawned on me that both artists had songs that could potentially tell the same story in a different way. Neglected girl leaves guy, tension between two groups, decisions and regrets, the idea of time and memories, etc. It just clicked, what if I used both? Tell the story twice in two different eras, in two different ways? I stumbled upon the idea and then built on it from there with the idea of one decision changing the outcome the second time through.
Johnny Nevin: As you wrote the story line, were you imagining some of the movement architecture as you constructed the idea, or did that come later? How did the movement design happen in your collaboration with Robert McKee?
Jessica Deahr: I knew right off the bat what I pictured to each song… battles between the gangs are really athletic, showy and in the vein of hip hop, ups and downs of the lovers’ story are flowing contemporary and partnering, female speakeasy dancers are sassy seductive kind of hybrids, Father Time is an abstract story weaving popper. Robert and I both sort of naturally draw on a lot of fusion of athletic contemporary movement with hip hop timing or emphasis, so we really didn’t even need a lot of discussion. It flowed naturally based on the given piece’s song, what characters we were working with, what we knew the piece had to accomplish, etc. It was a really easy, natural collaboration.
Johnny Nevin: Although this builds on Crash’s success with Gotham City, you’re actually in a very different situation. For one thing, you’re now the Artistic Director of Dance Crash, and for another, in “The Cotton Mouth Club” you’re collaborating with Robert McKee. Did either of those changes have any effect on what the experience has been like for you?
Jessica Deahr: Yeah, definitely. There was a little more of an unspoken pressure to prove myself in Gotham City. With that under my belt and my new title, I felt a little more freedom to experiment with this sort of strange time warp story line and also to bring on people I wanted to collaborate with. Now that I felt I had presented an evening length work by myself that I was happy with, it was really exciting to take things in the opposite direction: from a dark show to a more presentational show, from a small black box theater to a glamorous renovated stadium seating theater, from a completely solo choreography venture to more of a team collaboration
Johnny Nevin: Robert also plays the lead role of Rooster, the night club owner who gets caught up in the excesses and dangers of that world, opposite Mary Tarpley as his wife Zora. With those two both being so multi-dimensional in their dance and performance abilities, there was a very wide range of movement possibilities available to you. How much did you take advantage of that? What are some of the different dance styles in the story?
Jessica Deahr: It’s fun and simultaneously daunting to choreograph on two dancers with so much ability. The possibilities are endless with their backgrounds spanning such a broad spectrum, from classical ballet to acro and hip hop. The speakeasy scenes provide the show’s flash and wow, so I wanted to keep Zora and Rooster’s relationship as the heart of the show. Their interactions are full of contemporary, partnering, gestures, back and forth, push and pulls and misses to convey the real ups and downs of relationships. The rest of the show, spans everything from swing to flips off garbage cans!
Johnny Nevin: A really unusual feature of The Cotton Mouth Club is that you’re at the Biograph Theater in Chicago. What are the practicalities of staging a full evening dance work at a legendary movie theater from the early twentieth century?
Jessica Deahr: I actually chose the theater before I chose the concept of the show, so I feel like I was really influenced by the history of John Dilinger seeing his last movie here and being shot in the alley in a sting. It sort of got me obsessed with the whole prohibition era and there was no going anywhere else with the story line once I was hooked. When you walk into that theater, you will agree. You can feel the history, even after remodeling. That theater was a huge part of a crazy time in Chicago’s history so it feels like the perfect theater for our show’s setting.
Johnny Nevin: Chicago Dance Crash covers a broad spectrum artistically, but unlike other multi-disciplinary dance companies, they’re not a group where each individual specializes in one style, but rather where everyone is competent across a wide range. Is that a significant feature of The Cotton Mouth Club, especially considering the very different styles called for in the two acts, with one set in the 1920’s and the other in the 1980’s?
Jessica Deahr: Oh my goodness yes! We didn’t always rehearse in chronological order so the dancers never knew what they were going to walk into from one rehearsal to the next. I knew the guest artists we hired would have to match the style range of our company dancers, and no one disappointed. They pull off jazz, hip hop, contemporary, swing, tango, even dancing on crates of moonshine! It was a huge task, but a lot of fun with an energetic cast that always came in swinging.
Chicago Dance Crash presents The Cotton Mouth Club for three weekends at The Victory Gardens Biograph Theater, beginning Saturday, May 25, but the way Dance Crash shows usually go, once the word gets out it can be hard to get in, so the first weekend might be the best time to go. Tickets are available from Victory Gardens