PRE-View: Hyde Park School of Dance Presents “Amira: A Chicago Cinderella Story”
It’s time to introduce a new princess into the world. She cannot shoot icicles out of her fingers nor is she as famed as Sleeping Beauty, but one thing will be certain the moment you meet her: you will feel like you have already met. It may be because this new character is a fresh iteration of a princess we already know and love, Cinderella. But the more likely cause of your familiarity is that this princess, like so many of us in the city of Chicago and in our country, is an immigrant. In this day and age, we all either know someone who is an immigrant or are immigrants ourselves, and with today’s sociopolitical climate it is high time that we begin to celebrate the journey that so many have taken to get to this land of opportunity.
[Amira] is a modern spin on the classic tale that follows the journey of a young, teenager coping with the stresses and excitements of adjusting to a new country, a new school and new people, ultimately leading to the realization that “some human experiences are shared the world over”.
The name of our princess lives in title of Hyde Park School of Dance’s upcoming premiere of their evening-length ballet, Amira: A Chicago Cinderella Story. The production, led by HPSD Artistic Director August Tye, is a modern spin on the classic tale that follows the journey of a young, teenage Amira coping with the stresses and excitements of adjusting to a new country, a new school bband new people, ultimately leading to the realization that “some human experiences are shared the world over”. Our Dance Editor, Kristi Licera, had the chance to speak to August about the inspiration behind the ballet and what differences there are in this tale that are sure to make it a modern day classic. Here’s what August told us:
Kristi: Hyde Park School of Dance’s production of Amira: A Chicago Cinderella Story is a modern take on the classic tale. Can you tell us about how you were inspired to put your own take on this beloved story and how it represents and celebrates the city and culture of Chicago?
Every story can look different if you’re willing to change your perspective, and I knew we could find a fresh angle to tell a Cinderella story our students could take pride in.
August: I was inspired to create a new modern Cinderella story after going to a performance of the classic version, which includes some typical sexist stereotypes, including a woman forced to do housework and a Prince who gets to choose from any of the women he fancies at the ball. Additionally, the stepsisters are portrayed as truly awful people. It hit me that I just could not use this story in a world of “me too” and blended families that have great relationships with their stepbrothers and -sisters. Every story can look different if you’re willing to change your perspective, and I knew we could find a fresh angle to tell a Cinderella story our students could take pride in.
It hit me that there are many Cinderella stories out there that do not include the elements I was hoping to avoid. Most of us began our family history in the United States as immigrants. So I made Cinderella an immigrant!
During the summer, I had the opportunity to teach dance to a couple young dancers who had just immigrated to Chicago from Syria. They didn’t speak much English and had come from a place so far away and so different that I couldn’t help thinking of what it was like for them and their family. It hit me that there are many Cinderella stories out there that do not include the elements I was hoping to avoid. Most of us began our family history in the United States as immigrants. So I made Cinderella an immigrant!
I changed her name to Amira because it means “princess.” She will be a high school student who just immigrated to Chicago, and her “prince” will be a courageous young man she meets at school named Ordell. Amira is portrayed as a young lady with immense courage who makes her own decisions. Her mother Vida is also a strong influence on her as she visits her in spirit throughout the piece as the Fairy Godmother. I am hoping that this strong feminist approach tells a different story than the original.
I chose to set the piece in Chicago as sort of a love letter to the place where I have lived my own “Cinderella” tale, which is a whole different story.
I moved to Chicago in 1992, and have always loved this city and all it has to offer, particularly Hyde Park, because it is such a multicultural neighborhood. I chose to set the piece in Chicago as sort of a love letter to the place where I have lived my own “Cinderella” tale, which is a whole different story. I have always loved visiting the city’s various neighborhoods and soaking in their beauty, charm and awesome food! In the original story, the prince searches many different countries to find Cinderella after she abruptly leaves the ball. It was a perfect fit to have our story’s Ordell search many different Chicago communities to find Amira.
The dancers are doing the storytelling with classical and neo-classical movement as Ordell and his friends visit each neighborhood searching for Amira.
The Prokofiev score includes references to the countries the prince visits, so I had to match some Chicago neighborhoods to the music. I ended up with Little India, downtown, Humboldt Park, Chinatown and Bronzeville. My main reference to the neighborhoods comes in the form of scenic projections. I am working closely with photographer Damien Thompson and illustrator Sara Petrolis to create iconic images of these neighborhoods. The dancers are doing the storytelling with classical and neo-classical movement as Ordell and his friends visit each neighborhood searching for Amira. Along the way, his friends are distracted by those they meet, but Ordell persists in searching the city to find Amira. His expedition is a key part of the story, and it’s also the vehicle I used to pay tribute to Chicago’s incredible diversity.
We have 125 cast members in “Amira”, and they range from adult students to age seven. They are all working on choreography that challenges them and highlights their skills.
Amira is our fifth story ballet creation. We started years ago with Alice in Wonderland, followed by Carnival of the Animals, Wild Things and The Nightingale. During auditions, we give every dancer a part. There are no cuts. We then cast them in roles that are age- and skill-appropriate. Sometimes, depending on the auditions, we create new parts to accommodate the many dancers. We have 125 cast members in Amira, and they range from adult students to age seven. They are all working on choreography that challenges them and highlights their skills. Getting to perform on stage is a great privilege that inspires dancers to keep training and strive to put forth their best effort. Amira is truly a team effort. We have eight choreographers and a costume team of five people led by our creative Wardrobe Mistress Jacquelyn Sanders, putting together more than 300 costumes. I feel lucky to lead such an amazing team in the creation of Amira.
Kristi: Hyde Park School of Dance is celebrating 25 years of “providing opportunities for students of all ages to study, perform and create classical and contemporary dance at the highest levels of discipline and artistry.” How do you feel that Amira represents this milestone?
“Amira” is a celebration of our school’s own Cinderella story, as we started long ago with only 30 students on a shoestring budget in a church on the South Side of Chicago.
August: It’s difficult to believe we are celebrating our 25th anniversary this season. The school was founded in 1993 as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit with the simple belief that anyone should be able to study dance at the highest levels of discipline and artistry regardless of race, gender, body type, sexual orientation or ability to pay. Amira is a celebration of our school’s own Cinderella story, as we started long ago with only 30 students on a shoestring budget in a church on the South Side of Chicago. Often, board members had to write generous donation checks to ensure we could pay our small staff and rent. Now we have four studios in Hyde Park, a million-dollar budget and nearly 500 students. This is due to the perseverance and strong belief that dance changes lives and everyone should have that opportunity.
Hyde Park School of Dance will premiere Amira: A Chicago Cinderella Story on Friday, June 15 at 7pm, with additional performances Saturday, June 16 at 1pm and 6pm, and Sunday, June 17 at 2pm. All performances take place at the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts, 915 East 60th Street Chicago, IL 60637.
Tickets are available online at hydeparkdance.org/tickets or in person in the HPSD administrative office (located at 5650 S. Woodlawn Avenue, Chicago) during open office hours (3 pm – 6 pm weekdays, 8 am – 1 pm Saturdays). To purchase tickets via phone, call the HSPD office at 773-493-8498 during open office hours (3 pm – 6 pm weekdays, 8 am – 1 pm Saturdays).
To learn more about Hyde Park School of Dance, visit hydeparkdance.org.
PHOTO CREDITS: courtesy of Hyde Park School of Dance, Photography by Damien Thompson