Chicago Repertory Ballet is a new company with a very new perspective, and the careful architecture of ideas that it is built from promise a lot. The Company’s much anticipated premiere performance is September 21st and 22nd at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts; it features what is likely to become a characteristically rich set of dance visions, including works by Jacqueline Stewart, Autumn Eckman and Artistic Director Wade Schaaf.
This would have been an intriguing story no matter what. Schaaf has always brought a wide and balanced creativity to his choreography, and he’s known for moving easily across a wide choice of styles and ideas. That would already have been a compelling story; the founding of a new independent ballet company is an unusual and complex event in itself, and Chicago Repertory Ballet’s premiere includes an attention-worthy blend of established audience favorites and important premieres, performed by an impressive cast of accomplished performers.
As you get more into it though, the story gets even more interesting. Much of the Company’s literature features the phrase “Everyone has a story to tell”, and the narrative of how and why Wade Schaaf started all of this is, and how he intends to keep building it, makes for an unusual and engaging chronical.
It starts with Schaaf’s own artistic breadth; he can move easily from the heart of classical formality to the edge of what you’ve never seen; his “Dancer, Net”, an unusually imaginative concept work for a solo dancer in three different settings, includes a section as rough and loud as any underground scene, and yet in the same work he explores an achingly elegant classicism. His works can be large scale and full length, or as precise and minute as something shared in a personal conversation. His works are conceived in a uniquely careful conceptual space, and they’re always based on an intensely thorough process of thought. It’s not at all surprising that his newest work, a free-standing independent Ballet Company, turns out to be just as wide in its outlook, and just as attentive in its construction.
“I seek to steer my company forward using the contemporary choreographic voice on stage,” Schaaf says. “As we go along I will produce performances that really harken back to the essence of ballet: telling stories in dance.” His understanding of the term “ballet” is original in two ways. He points out that initially ballet was not really a movement vocabulary or a specific set of visual expectations as it has since become, and in that sense, Schaaf’s insistence that ballet is essentially the art of storytelling in Dance is original in its consciousness of historical origins. Yet this approach leads to an exciting new take on what a ballet company can be, an approach whose freshness is original in the brightest creative sense. “While people may not see much “Ballet” in the sense of a movement vocabulary that they are familiar with or an aesthetic that they’re used to seeing,” he explains, “I will look to push the repertory of the company by producing told stories, or ballets with which we are familiar, from a new or modern perspective.”
Schaaf’s idea of ‘repertory’ is just as insightful. He’s a convincing proponent of artistic openness and of the encouragement of new choreographic visions. Schaaf describes the Company’s “dedication to the contemporary choreographic voice” as essential to its mission, an approach that adds a dimensional richness to the Company’s emphasis on story. In some ways, the Company’s two guiding principles — the importance of story and the importance of encouraging new choreographic voices — are actually the same vision, but seen in different lights. As Schaaf says, everyone has a story to tell, and what is perhaps most promising about the careful lighting of Chicago Repertory Ballet’s perspective is that it is built on a complex but coherent idea — that what is most worth seeing in art are the details of the vivid, storied panorama of individual experience.
It’s the beginning of an intriguing story, the story of how to build an entirely new way of looking at the story and stories of Dance. Seeing Chicago Repertory Ballet begin its history is very likely to be one of those stories that you would want to see from the beginning.