Getting in the Way: thoughts on dance in St. Louis since 2014

FeaturedGetting in the Way: thoughts on dance in St. Louis since 2014

Earlier this year I got to read this piece by St. Louis dance educator and writer Betsy Brandt, and it resonated with me on numerous levels. St. Louis, our Midwestern neighbor, may offer lessons for our own organizing, educating, or reflecting in Chicago, within the concert dance communities or in other circles. In the movement for black lives, around gender equity, or gun control, Betsy’s call to “apply pressure to the cracks in a breaking system” seems not just appropriate, but imperative. — Ellen Chenoweth, Interim Director, Dance Presenting Series


Getting in the Way: Thoughts on dance in St. Louis since 2014
by Betsy Brandt

18-year-old Michael Brown was shot by police officer Darren Wilson on August 9, 2014, in Ferguson, Missouri. As a devoted St. Louisan, I never considered Ferguson as a separate place from the city I loved. It was just another neighborhood, known for harsh highway speed traps and its proximity to University of Missouri: St. Louis (UMSL, pronounced “um-zull”). Crowds gathered as Brown’s body remained in the street for hours. Over the next few nights, the community’s unrest escalated, sometimes erupting into looting and alleged gunfire. The infamously militarized police responded with tear gas and rubber bullets. Police delayed releasing the name of the officer involved in the shooting, sparking more conflict. Armored vehicles arrived. Protesters and reporters got arrested. The Missouri Highway Patrol took control of law enforcement. Governor Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency.

Edward Crawford Jr. throws a container of tear gas back at police officers during a protest against police Aug. 13, 2014, in Ferguson, Mo., four days after a white police officer fatally shot unarmed black teenager Michael Brown. The photo was part of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's Pulitzer Prize-winning photo coverage of the protests. (Photo: Robert Cohen, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, via AP)
Edward Crawford Jr. throws a container of tear gas back at police officers during a protest against police Aug. 13, 2014, in Ferguson, Mo., four days after a white police officer fatally shot unarmed black teenager Michael Brown. The photo was part of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photo coverage of the protests. (Photo: Robert Cohen, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, via AP)

 

I was working in New York City when all of this happened, the dramaturg on a new dance piece by Sara Hook and Paul Matteson. I spent my days in the tiny West End Theatre, nestled inside St. Paul and St. Andrew church on the Upper West Side. I even spent my nights in monastic conditions, taking cold showers and sleeping on a hard twin bed in another nearby church. It was the ultimate cliché residency experience—getting “away from it all” in order to make work. I felt very, very far away from home, and my heart ached.

I came home. Protests, ranging from peaceful organized actions to impromptu violence, continued all over the city. Friends and family were increasingly getting involved in the protests. I started a new semester, teaching technique and theory courses in the dance departments at Webster University and Lindenwood University, both in the greater St. Louis area. Struggling to find a way to engage the students in the conversation surrounding the events of Ferguson, I constructed an assignment for my improvisation class that asked them to consider protest as a kind of improvisational score. This made sense to me. Protests are organized around actions (or inactions) that put physical bodies in specific times and places, usually with a goal or desired outcome, but without knowing exactly how it will end. You don’t know how they will turn out, and that’s the point. Sounds like an improv score, right? This is what I told my students: “Identify an action/idea that warrants protest, develop a score for how you will embody resistance against that action/idea, then do it.”

Results were mixed. A few students struggled to separate the abstraction of the score from their suspicions that I was trying to secretly radicalize them. But we got there in the end, after a few false starts and long discussions. One student decided to protest collegiate expectations of how women dress on a daily basis, going through an entire day in full homecoming/prom getup. Another student had questions about everyone’s habitual obedience to pedestrian pathways on campus, so she sat in the middle of one of the busiest thoroughfares during “passing” times between classes, just to disrupt the normal flow. Were they the most courageous or artistically inventive projects ever conceived? No. But the big takeaway? They were terrified. Their hearts were pounding the entire time, and they were each surprised by the intensity of the experience. After all, they were well on their way to professional dance careers, experienced with performances both onstage and off. But they felt vulnerable and engaged in a different way. It was scary. This wasn’t about “building” choreography or even fulfilling a traditional improvisational score. It was about breaking something. Disrupting something. That was new. And they felt it.

I wrote a blurb about the experience and posted it on Facebook. It garnered a few comments and shares, and the post ultimately drew the attention of Sara Burke, the founder of The City Studio Dance Center and one of the organizers of a series of events entitled “Dancers React to Ferguson.” She invited me to their second meeting. Discussions were passionate. The community clearly needed the event for the sake of getting together to heal as much as for charting specific plans. I remember Keith Williams, now a teacher at Grand Center Arts Academy, doing a kind of real-time devising of a dance in which one dancer would stand over the still body of another in horror. Burke, Williams, and a number of the other organizers (including Heather Himes, an alumna of the dance program at Columbia College) had roots in the Katherine Dunham company and its longstanding presence in East St. Louis. A civil rights activist as well as a choreographer and performer, Dunham’s legacy loomed large in the room. We were gathering to organize. To speak out and fight back. To build something. There was talk of a viral video, or the creation of a shared choreographic experience that could “bring everyone together.”

St. Louis Public Radio produced a piece about the meetings that was later picked up by The Dance Enthusiast. A year later, a collaborative event entitled “Dance Speaks Volume I” was presented in cooperation with the Grand Center Arts Academy Theatre Department. A few other projects popped up in the subsequent months and years, but to me, it felt like the potential energy that was in the room during those meetings was never fully realized. Now I wonder—were we trying to figure out what to build when we should have been talking about what still needed to break? In a moment of cultural trauma and upheaval, were we too eager to use our art to heal rather than choreograph and perform our dissent?

Ferguson October protest on Friday
Protesters drop a mirrored casket in front of a line of police officers in front of the Ferguson Police Department on Friday, Oct. 10, 2014. “Look at what you’ve done,” yelled one man. (Robert Cohen/St. Louis Post-Dispatch, via Twitter)

As the protests in Ferguson continued in October 2014, a team of seven community artists and organizers known as Artivists STL walked from the site of Brown’s death to the local police department, carrying a casket covered with broken mirrors. Mirror Casket, now in the collection of the National Museum for African American History and Culture, asked bystanders to confront their own reflections as “both whole and shattered, as both solution and problem, as both victim and aggressor.” It was designed to create empathy, a theme that had been passionately championed throughout those dancer meetings. But this work prompted empathy by embracing fragmentation and failure. It wasn’t trying to universalize, but individualize. It wasn’t trying to fix anything. And it was powerful. Perhaps, as Hal Foster says, the contemporary avant-garde is most effective when it “seeks to trace fractures that already exist within the given order, to pressure them further, even to activate them somehow.”

A lot of changes have swept through the St. Louis dance community in the years since, and many related directly or indirectly to conversations about race and power sparked by Ferguson. Joanna Dee Das, a Katherine Dunham scholar (with a new book on Dunham’s activism recently published by Oxford University Press) joined the faculty of the dance department at Washington University in 2016. Kirven and Antonio Douthit-Boyd, former Alvin Ailey superstars, are also now St. Louisans, teaching at Washington University and heading up the dance program for the Center of Creative Arts. Alicia Graf Mack, another Ailey alum, is now an Artist-in-Residence at Webster University. From my perspective in academia, there is a palpable new urgency about the idea of supporting and empowering diverse research and artists of color in our educational institutions, and you can see it in increasingly diverse student populations, class offerings, faculty, and guest artists.

MADCO_Freedom_SteveTruesdell
Photo from Modern American Dance Company’s (MADCO) 2017 production “Freedom.” Photo: Steve Truesdell

Non-academic institutions are responding too. Dance St. Louis, the major presenter in town, geared its 2016 New Dance Horizons program to focus on the work of black choreographers, including Bebe Miller, Robert Moses, and Dianne McIntyre. The McIntyre piece got particular attention, featuring performances by the aforementioned Ailey dancers. The Modern America Dance Company (MADCO) produced a show entitled “FREEDOM” in 2017. Featuring the choreography of Cecil Slaughter, Nejla Yatkin, Jennifer Archibald, and Gina Patterson, the program was inspired by a collaboration with the civil rights archive at Washington University’s Olin Library.

There are many other makers and movers who are responding to issues of race and power in the St. Louis dance landscape. I point to Dance St. Louis and MADCO’s programming as not the most “important” examples, but rather as two clear instances of work being done by existing dance institutions, privileged with established organizational and financial support. These kinds of changes, like those occurring inside of academia, are operating well-inside of sanctioned constraints, often to the point of being incentivized by well-intentioned funding organizations.

I suspect that a more substantial and lasting wave of change in the St. Louis dance community is likely to come from outside of the safely established power players like MADCO and Dance St. Louis. Work stemming from a spirit of disruption and intervention may threaten established funding structures, audience loyalties, and artistic expectations. Doesn’t that sound a little more like resistance? Like dissent? In the first of a series of recent articles about St. Louis for Art in America, James McAnally offered a generous overview of local visual artists whose work is rooted in social practice. A number of these artists, including St. Louis native and Webster-trained dancer Katherine Simóne Reynolds, are using performance as one of their media of choice. Local institutions are also increasingly bringing in performance-based artists from outside of St. Louis, and again, an exciting number of black artists have been involved in these projects. Lygia Lewis’s Bessie-award winning Minor Matter came through now-shuttered White Flag Projects as a work-in-progress in 2016. The AUNTS performance platform took over the Pulitzer Foundation in April 2017, featuring (among its many overlapping performances) Jennifer Harge’s powerful solo cussin and prayin. Leslie Cuyjet brought a revamped version of her duet Fossil through the Luminary last summer as part of Alexis Wilkinson’s exhibition about time and corporeality.

This past September, three years after the initial protests in Ferguson, I was again in New York City working as a dramaturg on another project. Coincidentally, I was working with the same collaborator, out of the same theatre, and sleeping in the same hard twin bed. Back in St. Louis, a police officer was acquitted in the 2011 shooting death of Anthony Lamar Smith. Protestors blocked highways, gathered at the courthouse, marched the downtown streets, shouted “no justice, no peace,” threw rocks at the mayor’s house, got in fights, got arrested, prayed, and held hands.

When I got back home a few days later, there was a protest walkout scheduled at Webster University. I went. In the crowd, I saw half-a-dozen dance majors in their leotards and tights walking the line and chanting as we shut down a public intersection. I walked a few feet behind them, trying to give them space to do their thing and attempting to keep my mama-bear instincts in check as the police loomed menacingly, putting on their bulletproof vests. Later, I asked the dancers how it felt. It was different than they thought it would be, they said, even in the light of a sunny day in a familiar location. Ever-obedient “bunheads,” they were keenly aware that participating in organized disruption felt different than performing on a stage. They knew they were applying pressure to the cracks in a breaking system. They knew the stakes were high. They felt it.

Remember Mirror Casket. It took muscle. It forced the witness into an acknowledgement of their own immediate corporeality, reflection, and participation. It showed the cracks. We need to remember this as we envision the future of dance in St. Louis. We must clearly see what systems are crumbling and resist being surprised when and if they fall apart. The traditional role of the presenter, the administrative machinations of the sanctioned non-profit structure, the generationally and demographically-lopsided distribution of artistic programming and funding, and the very who/when/where/how of our performances are all up for grabs. There are plenty of cracks that still need to widen and plenty of questions that still need to be asked. We should figure out how to get in the way, and we should do it. And it will be scary. When we do, we’ll feel it.

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Dance Musings: Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan

Dance Musings: Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan

For the spring semester at the Dance Center, there is a small cohort of dance writers viewing, discussing, and writing about each performance in the Dance Presenting Series (DPS), guided by DPS Interim Director Ellen Chenoweth. Comprised of Columbia College students and recent alums, cohort members were nominated by faculty members and applied for a position in the group. Here are a few excerpts from their writings about the recent Dance Center presentation of Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan, performances March 2 & 3, 2018 at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance in Chicago. 


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Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan in Formosa

Andrea Torres
Cloud Gate’s movement vocabulary fluctuated between physicalizing mountains and rivers, creating architectures that were heavy and strong, embodying swifter, wind-like movements, and identifiable pedestrian gestures such as an embrace or preparing for a fight. Their range was truly a testament to their dancers’ seemingly infinite capabilities. One of the most striking images from the beginning of the piece was when the dancers swung their torsos, side to side, as a group as if they were encroaching upon unsuspecting victims located downstage left.


fom-01-1577-1Haley Dennis
The sonic elements supported the execution of the dancers’ physical ability to utilize their weight and body in captivating ways. Jumps with controlled landings that echoed throughout the space, reverberating back to the viewers in ways that emphasized groundedness and strength.

I think about what it means to engulf the mind and body into complimentary practices, supporting the breath and its physical response. Floating, agile, and focused…beauty is revealed and celebrated.


Aaliyah Christina

When I think about the performance of Formosa…I am relieved. For a while I’ve been in a complete anti-ballet, anti-modern, anti-Western headspace. The only dances that could gratify me were those of the diaspora. This rich, Easternized dance has completely replenished my hunger for something fresh and devoid of all Western tendencies and habits. Formosa captured a culture at its purest form and splayed it out with smooth abandon.

Bodies form a flock-like entrance onto the stage. One after the other makes their debut as the dance begins. In comes various lines of dancers overlapping with their silent footfalls creating a solid rhythm with a favorable serene urgency as if they’re birds taking to the sky with light flutter of their wings. The overlapping bodies create an interwoven arrangement.


formosa2Brianna Heath

Characters begin to form on the screen. The characters have a life of their own. They interact with the spoken text (in the form of song, humming and speech forms). At points they engulf the dancers in a sea of memory and history. They seem to extend past the stage into the audience, wrapping us into a circular pattern of time.


Morgan Cutler

The combination between Eastern and Western movement patterns and styles was evident throughout the choreography, but it was the control the dancers had over their bodies that stuck with me the most. There was not a single point during the performance when I did not believe one of the dancers was not one hundred percent confident with the choreography that had been set on them. This sureness that they all carried in their bodies allowed them to move with a soft strength.


Images: Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan in Formosa. Photos: Liu Chen-hsiang

What Does the Artist Do

What Does the Artist Do

As part of the Process v. Product Festival, we are featuring writings from three Chicago dance/movement artists exploring their processes. Anna Martine Whitehead continues the series.


HoldYourselfInMidAir - Anna Martine

What Does the Artist Do by Anna Martine Whitehead

In 2015 the BBC produced a short documentary on Tracey Emin as part of their “What Do Artists Do All Day” series. In it, the painter/drawer/fibers/conceptual artist — one of the breakout Young British Artists of the 90s and a personal hero of mine as a young woman studying painting in undergrad — talks about how she gets grounded before approaching a large blank canvas. Throughout the episode, she makes references to needing to feel “confident” or “bold” or “strong in [her] head” in order to step into such a wide open space successfully.

For me, stepping into the wide open empty studio with a new project is like that, every time.

When I think of the moments I’ve felt boldest, there’s a certain aspect of unreality, or ultra-reality, which allows access to that fire; an internal voice of encouragement that is certainly mine but mic’d, with the bass and reverb turned up and distorted beyond decipherability. It’s a sort of other-self boldness that allows me to make without interference. Meditation helps. Turning my phone off helps. Anything that keeps the outside world from getting in helps.

What’s tricky is that my work is informed by the outside world. I make work about prisons, black culture, police violence, queer sociality. I frequently work with others. I suppose there’s a sort of schizophrenia at play in my practice: an un-delicate balance of inward-lookingness and outward-drawing-in which outputs itself in a shuffle between drawings, objects, movement, writing, video, and hanging around. Hanging around helps: with others, I get to practice receiving and producing knowledge dynamically, verbally or otherwise. At rest with myself, my body absorbs the day’s research, and becomes a more accessible site of knowledge production.

As I get older, I’ve come to value hanging out more and more. Aging in America is antithetical to hanging out, and what I once did as unconsciously as breathing air or eating carry-out Chinese three nights a week, I now have to intentionally make space for. There’s always work to be done; hanging out can always be put off ‘til next week. There’s always more external incentive to be legibly productive. One of the gifts I received from my graduate education was the mandate we all have as contemporary artists to reframe hanging out as work. This not only keeps us working but it keeps us present to ourselves, to the (only occasionally commodifiable) value of our own actualization. My time in school, now a decade ago, happened to coincide with the rise of social media, which further encourages a practice of documenting leisure and reframing the mundane as not only desirable but consumable. Indeed, Instagramming my studio practice from time to time has served as shorthand publicity and helped me as I test out new ideas—the most affirming studio visit with close friends that I could imagine. Yet again, that urge to turn away from the public—the compulsion to turn off my phone and look inward—takes over. All that public, that framing of my self as an ever developing project, is a useful site of production to visit for a short while, but stay too long and it becomes a trap, leading me away from the pure unconscious state of being that derives from doing nothing in particular. The work is always there to be presented as the work, but as Jill Scott taught us (to paraphrase), it is often getting in the way of what we’re feeling.

In one of my favorite tracks off of her Grammy-nominated first album, Scott sings to another woman who’s stepping to her man, for whom Scott has developed “feelings… I see your intentions / You can’t handle the truth / …it’s time to turn him loose” she sings. I listen to this song whenever I feel overwhelmed by adversity. I listen to this song a lot. For me, the other woman can operate as a metaphor for any threat, the song a warning to the devils you don’t want to smack down but will if you must. Scott identifies herself as well as the other woman as a queen, before threatening to throw punches. It’s a song you sing to a formidable opponent, one you have enough respect for to let her know you respect yourself over everything. Listening to songs like Scott’s is part of how I access that fiery boldness that lets me step into that wide open empty space, my mind echoing with a woman’s voice that could be my own. It is how I remember that—despite the beautiful, horrible, unbelievably powerful world all around me— ground zero is me and my feelings. If I can be that brave, that down for my own ultra-real self, the work will figure itself out.


Above: Anna Martine Whitehead’s Hold Yourself In Mid-Air (2010). Photo courtesy of artist.


This blog entry is part of the Dance Center’s Process v. Product Festival (March 28-April 7). This two-week festival examines how concert dance presentation can be a document of process rather than a consumable product. Molly Shanahan/Mad Shak and Bebe Miller Company headline the festival through a series of performances, artist discussions, panels, workshops, and more. The Process v. Product Festival invites dance-makers, dance lovers, and other artists to reflect on the process of creation. Learn more about the festival.

on beginnings

on beginnings

As part of the Process v. Product Festival, we are featuring writings from three Chicago dance/movement artists exploring their processes. Jane Jerardi has the second of our featured writings on process.


 JaneJerardi_in_againagain_image 1_PhotoBy_MatthewGregoryHollis (3)

on beginnings by Jane Jerardi

When I was at the beginning of studying choreography, I worked with a teacher who would tell our class these confounding aphorisms that at first, didn’t make sense. Things like: “The worst thing for a new project is a good idea.”  (…what?)  But, pretty much ever since then, I remind myself of that statement whenever I start a new project.

It’s less that it’s a bad idea to have ideas.

It’s more that it’s actually perfectly okay to not have any idea.

In fact, in the realm of performance, this might be preferable, lest you get too attached to your really brilliant, yet right now, very imaginary idea.

Most of the work of making a dance or performance is going to the studio and the ritual of getting to the studio. This sounds ridiculous, but I find it true. There’s a method to being in a process. Which, what does that mean? It’s permission to give yourself authority to take time and use free time to let your mind wander about making – be it a dance, a song, a film.

JaneJerardi_in_againagain_image 1_PhotoBy_MatthewGregoryHollis (1)Because no one will ever tell you or give you permission to make. You have to convince yourself it’s a good idea to be making anything at all. Or, maybe it’s more reverse psychology – you have to convince yourself that it’s not a bad idea. And by you here, I mean me. Let’s be honest: I have to convince myself it’s a good idea. That’s half the work right there.

It would be nice to think that this gets easier. But, so far in my experience – which to be fair, may still be limited – this does not get easier, only more familiar.

Once I start, there is something to work with. And, then you can convince yourself that you’re still not making anything at all – you’re just playing with something or kind of doodling, or improvising, or changing, or editing. You get kind of curious about it and then you’re on a roll.

My convincing myself it’s a good idea involves:

very long warm-ups
I love warming up…I could spend an entire rehearsal warming up. Sometimes I realize this is an elaborate mode of procrastination. But, sometimes the procrastination serves an odd purpose: you start breathing, you’re a bit less distracted, you feel the back of your body that you’ve been ignoring all day, and weird ideas come into view. You get curious and you start.

collaborating with other people
You’re obligated to show up, because they showed up.

going for walks
This could just be around the block or through the park, but mostly to disrupt the usual routine and to allow my mind to wander.

switching mediums to something I know nothing about
Sometimes I write or jot down things I see in the world and pretend I’m a writer. The notes eventually become lists.  The lists become writing, or scores.  The less I know about the medium I’m working in the better – because then it’s okay that it’s terrible.

weird rituals
There’s a lot of ritual to making – elaborate set-ups to get yourself to start (see also: warming up).

short daily acts
Take a particular photo or write every day in response to a prompt.

improvising
I video myself improvising and then watch the improvisations and then teach myself the improvisations. I find it difficult so I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this. I usually only manage to learn a little. But, I really only need a little.

showing up
especially when you don’t feel like it.

In other words, I find making is a lot about getting out of the way. Sort of in a stubborn way. Convincing the parts of you that want to procrastinate and the part that thinks your ideas aren’t very good – to tell them to just slowly step back. And, you keep going despite them, while they’re there waiting in the background.

Then once you have something – that’s usually kind of terrible – you at least have something which is certainly better than nothing. And then you start to negotiate with it and then get weirdly into it and wonder about it and expand it, change it, or manipulate it and multiply it, or teach it to a friend, and get them to change it into something better. And then, you start having strong opinions about it – that it needs to be a certain way and you’re not really sure why but you’re fairly convinced of it.

And then, the project has somehow become bigger than you and you’re just following its JaneJerardi_in_againagain_image 1_PhotoBy_MatthewGregoryHollis (2)lead.

And you’re still not sure if you’re worthy – or your ideas are any good, but you do it anyway for some reason. It’s weirdly addictive.

And despite it all – you realize that what’s beautiful about this is that you can make something without really much of anything at all. There are dances waiting to be made, photos waiting to be taken with your phone, your dollar-store notebook waiting to be written in, music waiting to inspire. Your art is as worthy as anyone else’s and we certainly need it. More is more. You might not believe quite how abundant you are, but that would be a mistake. Because you are.


Above: Jane Jerardi in again (again) Photos: Matthew Gregory Hollis


This blog entry is part of the Dance Center’s Process v. Product Festival (March 28-April 7). This two-week festival examines how concert dance presentation can be a document of process rather than a consumable product. Molly Shanahan/Mad Shak and Bebe Miller Company headline the festival through a series of performances, artist discussions, panels, workshops, and more. The Process v. Product Festival invites dance-makers, dance lovers, and other artists to reflect on the process of creation. Learn more about the festival.

letter to my ma

letter to my ma

As part of the Process v. Product Festival, we are featuring writings from three Chicago dance/movement artists exploring their processes. Jenn Freeman starts off the series.


Jenna Freeman in_ThankTheLorde_180218-106_PhotoBy_Greg Inda (3)

letter to my ma by Jenn Freeman

i am writing because i recently put together a service of gratitude called Thank the Lorde! it was a re-imagined church service praising audre lorde and featured singing, dancing, poetry and more. it was an incredible experience. now, two weeks later i’ve found myself stuck with a box of leftover programs. i have decided due to the sheer cost of ‘em to send ‘em to folks who didn’t come.

i am not sure how you will respond once reading this letter and the enclosed program. this is something we don’t talk about. the art i create. the how and why. but, it seems, people wash away from my life like shores. i’m told mamas ain’t suppose to go nowhere and figure if that’s true you might as well truly see me.

it is hard for me to write this to you. knowing that you are a preacher’s wife. knowingJenna Freeman in_ThankTheLorde_180218-106_PhotoBy_Greg Inda (5) you are gonna think “i didn’t raise you to be this Jennifer.”

i am not a christian anymore. i can’t deny tho’, that some of my fondest memories were created within a church. i loved church. i loved the black history month marches. the blue and white choir robes. the red leather bound hymn books. the after church dinners with tables of food and rushing women aiming to serve. the telephone with the long spiraling cord that reached around the entire fellowship hall. it was a culture where black folks edified, loved and believed in each other. amen. since falling away from christianity i’ve seeked faith that centered experiences like mine.

i think it is hard to read about the work and life of audre lorde and walk away not believing in her. it ain’t gonna hurt us to find ways to love and praise black women. can i get an amen? there is so much of audre lorde’s work that i think you’d connect with. reading the cancer journals made me think of grandma. audre was among the first to openly speak on her journey with cancer. she died in 1992 just a year before grandma.

so much has changed since then.

Jenna Freeman in_ThankTheLorde_180218-106_PhotoBy_Greg Inda (4)these last two years, since my divorce, i’ve found myself in rehearsal rooms undergoing more changes. i have been looking at how i create. an ugliness has revealed itself, when i am left in a room alone to create. by ugliness i mean the mouth of my fears. it was so much easier to be in rehearsal rooms with another set of eyes. someone affirming and pushing my creative choices. now it is just me. at first the loneliness was pulsing and maddening. i would lay on wooden floors overtaken by depression and spirals. allowing the echoing of my self-doubt to consume me. a friend. or rather one of those people who now have washed away gave me audre lorde’s “a litany for survival”. much like grandma did with psalms 23. i’ve imprinted this poem into my spirit.

i started reciting “a litany for survival” each rehearsal. over and over until i wasn’t weeping. but standing on my feet. body ready to move.

fear’s mouth would open and over time i learned to answer it by searching for movements that reminded me of those days in the church. thinking of the usher’s gestures. of prayers. the choir procession. pausing from this quest only to read more about audre lorde and to dig deeper into her writing. i would journal about my findings, and write directly to my fear.

“breathing. softening spine. worshiping and praising. be present and let go sis. can you trust your voice? trust your movement. believe in your movement. dear lorde. be in this space. show myour spirit. guide me. where are you holding your fear today? can you let go of your spine? your shoulder? you neck? you are not alone.”

you are not alone.

i know ma, that there will be parts of this letter and program that you will reject or ignore, but i hope the parts that you come to love and appreciate reflects how much of you and my love for you has shaped Thank the Lorde! and my art.

I love you

J Freeman

p.s. if you would like, next time i write i can send you some pictures from the service. there were some stunning moments captured.


Above: Jenn Freeman in Thank the Lorde! Photos: Greg Inda


This blog entry is part of the Dance Center’s Process v. Product Festival (March 28-April 7). This two-week festival examines how concert dance presentation can be a document of process rather than a consumable product. Molly Shanahan/Mad Shak and Bebe Miller Company headline the festival through a series of performances, artist discussions, panels, workshops, and more. The Process v. Product Festival invites dance-makers, dance lovers, and other artists to reflect on the process of creation. Learn more about the festival.

Asia’s leading contemporary dance company returns to Chicago

Asia’s leading contemporary dance company returns to Chicago

The Return of Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan

What comes to mind when you think of your homeland? If you were to create a dance that was a love letter to your homeland, what would it look like?

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Artistic Director of Cloud Gate Dance Theatre Lin Hwai-Min has created an evening-length work dedicated to the island of Taiwan, Formosa. The new work, which will be performed at the Harris Theater on March 2 and 3, celebrates the multicultural history of the island nation.

Mr. Lin Hwai-min uses typefaces of Chinese characters as material for the projection design and poetry as part of the soundscape. Three years in the making, Formosa blends music by contemporary composer Kaija Saariaho, musician Liang Chun-mei and singer Sangpuy Katatepan Mavaliyw.

When Cloud Gate last performed in Chicago, the Reader raved: “…the dancers’ movement CloudGateatTheBeanmight be grounded and glacial, almost imperceptible, or it might be quick and airborne, but it’s always breathtaking.”

Mr. Lin has announced that he will retire from his company by the end of 2019, leaving behind a remarkable legacy. His many awards include Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters from the French Ministry of Culture and a lifetime achievement award from the American Dance Festival.

Catch the Chicago premiere of Formosa at the Harris Theater on March 2 and 3. Tickets available now.


Banner and in article: Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan at artist Sir Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate in Chicago’s Millennium Park. Photo: Lindsay Schlepper

Above: Cloud Gate founder, Lin Hwai-min. Photo: Liu Chen-Hsiang

diving into our 44th season

Chicago, Chicago Human Rhythm Project Stomping Grounds Gand Finale

Welcome to the 44th season of the Dance Center.  I’m thrilled to be here, and have been enjoying diving into Columbia College dance and learning some of the ins and outs and ways and means of the Dance Center.

I’m currently reading Marmalade Me, the groundbreaking work by the late Village Voice dance critic Jill Johnston, covering downtown dance in the 60s.  Early in the book, she quotes her fellow critic at the Voice, John Perreault: “poetry breaks up the ordinary use of language to let more reality come through.”  This feels like a moment where we could use more of this kind of reality, and I think you’ll find it in our fall offerings here.

We’re beginning the season with the Chicago Human Rhythm Project, a joyful way to inaugurate the fall.  This will be the company’s first-ever, full-scale appearance at the Dance Center, and the program has been curated by the company’s artist-in-residence Dani Borak in collaboration with director Lane Alexander.  This ensemble of highly trained percussive dancers will be joined by musicians, including Reginald Robinson.

Next month, we’ll be presenting Reggie Wilson, with his Fist and Heel Performance Group, and their work CITIZEN.  I saw the work when it premiered at the Philadelphia Fringe Festival last year, and can still feel some of the sensations it provoked.  There’s space to meditate on the themes of belonging and inclusion, of citizenship and diaspora.  There are long, luscious solos from each of the dancers, giving time to sink in to the movement.

As someone new to the city, and to the Chicago dance scene, I’m thrilled to be here in time for next month’s Elevate Chicago Dance festival.  I hope you’ll come to the performances that we’re hosting on October 20 and 21, which feature Ayodele Drum & Dance, Hedwig Dances, Lucky Plush, Ayako Kato, Barak ade Soleil, ATOM-r, The Seldoms, and Visceral Dance Chicago.  I encourage you to check out some of the other offerings around town, as this is a rare and rich festival.  I think there’s no better way to get to know a city than through the art that is created there, and there should be much to savor whether you’ve been here for decades or only a few days.

I look forward to meeting you in person at one of our performances very soon.