One of the last things you would expect to experience during a contemporary dance concert at a prestigious theater is Lil Wayne’s hottest new single, bass bumping over the speakers, as some of the world’s finest dance artists take the stage. Well, that is only part of what you are in for if you can make it to the Harris Theater for Music and Dance December 6, 8, or 9 in Chicago for the world premiere of Rena Butler’s latest choreographic work for Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, III.Third.
Aside from training, rehearsing, and performing with Hubbard Street in the US and abroad, Rena has stayed busy taking advantage of every opportunity to express and share her choreographic voice. After joining the company in 2017, she was named Choreographic Fellow the following spring. We can only imagine just how busy she has been, but to try and put it in context, let’s consider this: III.Third is the final installment of a three-part series, and all three premieres take place within three weeks of each other. That means an immense amount of research and development on the series’ overarching theme of exploring identity, interpreting that information into movement, and finally getting the material out and choreographing on three different groups of dancers. Some of us find it difficult to pick one dance move to do at the club on Saturday night, so imagine creating thousands of movements for several dozen dancers. That’s the task that Rena has given herself these last few months, and if the results are a reflection of the work behind the scenes, it is clear that she has given it nothing short of her very best.
Each of the works in the series approaches identity through a different lens; The first of the three was created for Loyola University and deals with identity through gender and sexuality. The second, which premieres in New York in tandem with III.Third, was created for Purchase Dance Company at SUNY Purchase and uses race as its entry point to identity. Lastly, Rena and the dancers of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago use III.Third to examine identity through culture and customs, using references to popular urban culture.
DancerMusic’s Kristi Licera caught up with Rena during the final week of rehearsal for III.Third to learn more. Here’s what Rena told us:
I aim to make work that can speak to a lot of different people — people representative of all cultures and places.
Kristi: Concert dance is something that can be incredibly intimidating, especially for new audience members. We live in a day and age where we often judge our own opinions, oftentimes causing those opinions to remain unspoken. That in turn can morph into being timid, and this certainly can influence our overall ability to be bold (especially in the younger generation – the very people we hope to take a chance and join the concert dance audience). You have done something rather bold in III.Third, which is using current, popular music in the form of Lil Wayne’s “Uproar” in your sound design. Most concert dance relies on more abstract, instrumental music to help frame the movement, so why break tradition and go for something that is hot on the radio?
Rena: When I create, I am just trying to reach more people. At times, concert dance may be inaccessible to people who aren’t regularly exposed to classical dance or music. Ticket prices tend to be on the more expensive side, so it is hard oftentimes to reach a larger demographic. In choosing more accessible music, I am bringing the work to the people. I knew I would be able to do this with the agency that Hubbard Street is giving me. The company itself is known for bringing in works from highly sought-after choreographers, and those works sometimes lend themselves to a specific crowd. I aim to make work that can speak to a lot of different people — people representative of all cultures and places.
Right now, social media has a large influence on pop culture. And a lot of that material available to the masses are music videos and social dance challenges. While it still acts as a gateway into dance, you’re still only getting glimpses into the multi-faceted art form we know as dance. It’s one of the reasons I chose to include “Uproar” in III.Third; Lil Wayne often creates dance challenges his fans on social media, and I thought it would be fun for the Hubbard Street dancers to take that challenge on themselves. Beyond that, I chose the song because I want to open up dance to being more than just, “I saw that in a music video once” – I want to bring people more culture and know that the opportunity to experience it is there for them.
Taking a bold musical approach to my work isn’t the only way to reach people, but in the end, it’s about trying to reach people through different avenues.
I want people of color to be able to recognize themselves in concert dance – to see themselves in and as part of the theater.
Kristi: You have had the opportunity to perform with different professional dance companies and create an incredible career performing dance all over the world. After more than a decade of being onstage, you have been spending more and more time finding your choreographic voice. What is it that you hope to achieve in developing and presenting your own personal language of movement?
Rena: I want people of color to be able to recognize themselves in concert dance – to see themselves in and as part of the theater. I want to normalize black culture in spaces that don’t necessarily welcome people like me. Growing up, it was rare for me to see many people of color in a concert dance performances other than Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and it gave me the impression that maybe that was the only place to aspire to. There’s always something or someone that will always try to spell out what your limits are. It was cool, because I was lucky enough to have parents who encouraged me to be different and to do things differently. Their fight against stereotypes got me playing water polo in my youth, and that ease in the water eventually transformed into a love of surfing. My parents’ encouragement made me more curious and continues to fuel my love of travel and experiencing new cultures (and finding new surf spots).
My parents words always stayed with me, and from what I know, I am the first an African-American female choreographer that Hubbard Street has commissioned in its 41-year history. It makes me think of what Misty Copeland has done for ballet – I had never seen so many black people of color at The Met in New York City, for a ballet performance of all things! I am trying to be another role model for young people so that they can see a door or gateway for themselves.
See the world premiere of III.Third in dance(e)volve, presented by Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance (205 E. Randolph St., Chicago). The program also features premieres by fellow Hubbard Street dancers Alice Klock and HSDC 2019 Choreographic Fellow Florian Lochner. Performances take place on:
Thursday, December 6 at 7:30PM
Saturday, December 8 at 8:ooPM
Sunday December 9 at 3PM
Tickets are available online at hubbardstreetdance.com or by calling the Harris Theater Box Office at 312-334-7777 (M-F 12-5PM/on performance days until curtain).