Ask a dancer to jump, and they’ll ask, “How high?” Chances are you will get a graceful, elegant leap. Ask a dancer to turn, and they’ll ask, “How many times?” Ah, look at those lovely, effortless pirouettes. Now, ask that dancer to climb up a twenty-foot piece of fabric with the same grace and poise, and the most likely outcome is that dancer will say nothing, and all you will be staring at is one very, very skeptical and confused face. Unless, that is, that dancer happens to be one of the artists at Aerial Dance Chicago. These gravity defying dancers not only possess the strength and skill to ascend various apparatus, but do so with the same prowess and finesse they have on the dance floor.
For the last two decades, Aerial Dance Chicago has taken flight in some of Chicago’s most loved performance spaces. On July 14 & 15, ADC will grace the theater at the newly refurbished Ruth Page Center for the Arts with the premiere of their evening-length work, Blackbird. It is a fitting space for the performance not only because of the Ruth Page’s face lift (if the entryway doesn’t impress you enough, you will love the new theater seats!), but also because ADC made the investment over a decade ago to equip the theater with a rigging system. The cast of 11 dancers, led by Artistic Director Chloe Jensen, had just four months to create Blackbird and are ready to take flight. DancerMusic’s Kristi Licera caught up with Chloe to learn more about Blackbird, ADC, their dance school, and her vision for the future. Here’s what Chloe told us:
As challenging as it is to engage in a collaboration for artistic work, my sense is that the outcome is far richer and deeper than the piece would be if any one of us three were to create the entire evening length work on our own.
Kristi: Aerial Dance Chicago’s upcoming premiere of Blackbird features choreography that was created collaboratively by three choreographers. Dance artists are used to collaborating, but we most often see this happen in pairs. Can you give us some insight into the challenges and advantages of incorporating the aesthetics and ideas of three choreographers into a single work? How did you all work together to create the movement for Blackbird, which your press release describes as an investigation of “darkness versus light, vulnerability versus strength and the impetus to move beyond a bound existence toward the discovery of flight”?
Chloe: Blackbird was created by myself, Associate Artistic Director Karen Fisher Doyle and long-time ADC choreographer, Tracy Von Kaenel. The dancers also played a very important role in the development of this work. This group of dancers is not just strong technically, but their strengths in improvisation and exploration and their sense of individual expressiveness made for an ideal artistic team for this project.
As challenging as it is to engage in a collaboration for artistic work, my sense is that the outcome is far richer and deeper than the piece would be if any one of us three were to create the entire evening length work on our own. In addition to that, in aerial dance, there is so much more work to actually create. You not only have the surface of the traditional dance floor, but you also have the entire three-dimensional space from ground level to rig point height. To create airborne choreography adds quite a few unique challenges and can take longer to develop, so it is helpful to have multiple choreographers working on the project together.
The blackbird represents potential and freedom. It carries with it the wisdom to understand both dark and light sides of energy.
For the collaboration, we discussed ideas and researched the various cultural significances of the blackbird. Each of us were inspired by different ideas. But I think the resulting choreography really clicked well, perhaps because the overall approach was very abstract. To start the piece, I created a rigging design from which we built the show around. The music was selected by all of us and melded into a soundtrack. Some sections were created by one individual choreographer at a time, others with two choreographers working together in the studio. Tracy contributed some of the full company choreography with a focus on very fast-paced movement. Karen and I both focused a lot on the airborne elements as well as choreography that moved from air-to-ground and ground-to-air. We worked in small sections at a time, and about halfway through the process, we started to order the sections and find moments where smaller sections could be overlapped or sewn together. Both Act One and Act Two each have about ten smaller sections that flow together seamlessly. In terms of the overarching theme of the show, we came together to find where our inspirations united, and we created this paragraph for the program:
“The blackbird represents potential and freedom. It carries with it the wisdom to understand both dark and light sides of energy. Ingrained in our culture is the notion of good versus evil and the idea that within us is the good energy, and within others is the evil. But the blackbird uncovers the truth that the potential for darkness and the potential for light exists within each of us. It reminds us of the importance of awareness and intention with every breath we take. The ability to choose our own path is a power that resides within each of us in the flight of life.”
The school is a unique asset to the professional performing arts community in Chicago and moving forward, I really want to find a way to engage more of the professional and pre-professional dance community in our unique approach to concert dance.
Our school is a warm and welcoming space for people of all walks of life to experience the joys of dance and aerial arts. Rather than being a competitive environment, we really set out to help each student rise to their potential.
Kristi: Alongside the company, Aerial Dance Chicago also has a school which has been providing instruction in dance and aerial arts for nearly twenty years. Can you tell us more about how the school started and has evolved over the years, as well as your vision of the future for both the company and the school?
Chloe: The school started very small, with only two classes per week: one for youth and one for adults. Eventually we added a third class, geared specifically toward professional dancers interested in taking their artistry beyond that of the traditional dance floor. Slowly but steadily the school grew, partly due to the support of dance community member Margaret Reynolds, owner of Belle Plaine Studio, where ADC rented hourly rehearsal and class space for the first fourteen years.
In 2014, ADC opened Chicago’s first dance center dedicated to work in the field of aerial dance. Our space is near Irving Park and Pulaski on Chicago’s northeast side, just a block off of 90/94 and the Blue Line El, so we are situated at a nice cultural and transit hub in the city.
When we first opened, I envisioned a new dance center in Chicago where the community would have access to the highest quality training in dance and aerial dance. Today, ADC offers 30 classes each week for youth, teens, adults and professional dancers. Our students range in age from pre-school through senior citizen, beginner through professional. Our school is a warm and welcoming space for people of all walks of life to experience the joys of dance and aerial arts. Rather than being a competitive environment, we really set out to help each student rise to their potential.
My vision for the future of the company is to continue to create live, athletic artistry on both the horizontal and vertical dance floor that will inspire, invigorate and help bring people together.
The school is a unique asset to the professional performing arts community in Chicago and moving forward, I really want to find a way to engage more of the professional and pre-professional dance community in our unique approach to concert dance. One challenge is that dancers are used to being really good at what they do, and to learn a whole new dance form is intimidating at first. But I think to experience art in flight is one dream every dancer has, so here we are, ready to help dancers explore their craft and potential for expression beyond the traditional dance floor.
As for the company, we are headed into our 20th Anniversary season (1999-2019) and are planning for some big moments in the spring and summer of 2019 to celebrate all these years of taking dance into flight. My vision for the future of the company is to continue to create live, athletic artistry on both the horizontal and vertical dance floor that will inspire, invigorate and help bring people together.
Aerial Dance Chicago presents Blackbird Saturday, July 14 at 7pm and Sunday, July 15 at 5pm at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts (1016 N. Dearborn St, Chicago IL). Tickets are available at www.aerialdancechicago.org/events-and-tickets/blackbird.
For more on Aerial Dance Chicago and to learn more about their school, visit www.aerialdancechicago.org