Onstage, their names are Abbot and Viv.
At first, the glass bowl is resting precariously on Viv’s lap. Abbot is sitting next to her, both of them in wooden chairs. They balance the bowl on different body parts; first on her head, then on his back. It wobbles dangerously, but someone is always there to steady it. A long, rectangular table sits in the middle of the stage; its presence is heavy, menacing and eventually lures the movement downstage, toward, around, over, under and atop the table - some times emphasizing their separation, other times allowing for stillness and comfort, yet other times becoming a platform for aggression, arguments and misunderstandings. When their bodies collide, it creates emotion and tension. When apart, the estrangement is tangibly disconcerting.
The glass bowl never shatters.
Offstage, their names are Lucy Riner and Michael Estanich. Lucy is strong in more ways than one and not afraid to be the left-brained spokesperson. Michael is responsive, pensive and full of thoughtful observations. In 2009, after twenty years of navigating the Chicago dance scene, performing in independent works and spending time with Chicago-based Molly Shanahan/Mad Shak, they decided to experiment with a long-distance partnership. With Michael teaching at The University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point and Lucy anchored to Chicago by family, teaching and dance projects, they knew it would be challenging; however, the idea of creating work in a new way—generating movement while together and deepening character development while apart— seemed promising.
While Chicago and its abundance of artists, foundations and presenters offered an attractive setting, not to mention enough Midwestern hospitality to make any emerging artist feel welcome, they’d be walking into a scene of 80-plus dance companies all trying to reinvent the wheel. A distinctive perspective was needed, something re-imagined.
“I love the idea of collage— how seemingly disconnected episodes of physical information can rub up against each other to reveal something very pure about a given idea,” says Michael, who draws inspiration from Merce Cunningham and Pina Bausch, two choreographic giants of twentieth century dance. “I feel my job as an artist is to reveal something about the world in which I live.”
With that, RE| Dance Group was formed and “Abbot and Viv” came into being. Using a dance-theatre approach, they agreed to focus on the human spirit and how relationships unfold in a contemporary and volatile world. Studio sessions allowed for movement play, but it was the between-rehearsal ‘alone time’ that enabled deep idea growth. On January 15-17, 2010, they produced a three-piece concert centred on “Abbot and Viv” at Links Hall. While the venue had all the trappings of a small storefront theatre, Lucy knew it would create a very particular environment: “You really feel like you are inside of a room, and all of our pieces happen within the confines of closed walls, so it was perfect.”
Family, friends, dance peers and hibernating Chicagoans emerged from their wintery holes and local press raved about “the two expatriates of Mad Shak who had come together!” With all the support and interest, they started to wonder: “Are we just going to put on shows as independent artists or are we going to lay the foundations for a company?”
According to Michael, there has been recent debate in the artistic sector about whether non-profit status is more advantageous than operating as an independent artist. Umbrella organizations such as Fractured Atlas provide fiscal sponsorship so artists can solicit tax-deductible donations and apply for grants without going through the laborious process of launching a 501(c)(3). Many artists choose to function independently, but RE| Dance decided to face the paperwork.
“Becoming an Illinois company is seamless, but to become a federally recognized organization involves lots of forms, the biggest one being Form 1023,” says Lucy, whose face darkens as she remembers that behemoth of an application. The IRS suggests the 1023 will take about eight hours, and Lucy’s sigh confirms as much. To top it off, their submission coincided with IRS staff cuts, which meant fewer people filing forms and a prolonged wait time.
It took almost a year and a half to hear back about their company's status, but luckily foundations understood the delay and still considered their grant proposals, allowing RE| Dance to forge ahead and perform in San Francisco, Stevens Point and Minneapolis within its first year. Michael, however, was engrossed with the notion of a group. He was sitting on a bed of resources in Stevens Point, where the university and students were open to participating in “first drafts” of pieces, so he asked Lucy if she’d be interested in taking these drafts, extracting successful components and setting them on RE| Dance, which would ideally become eight people, including themselves. She agreed, and they enlisted a team of dancers they both knew and respected.
“We were not so interested in having an audition,” says Michael, who believes auditions showcase technique but don’t really shed light on a dancer’s creative process. “We’re interested in how they work, not just what kind of moves they can do.”
The distance factor remained, and learning from a video with intermittent Skype instruction from Michael was far from the real thing. So when Michael visited, he would bring a few students who knew the work and could help teach material. Post-graduation, Michael and Lucy offered them positions with the company, which increased their number to ten and produced a mixture of “Chicago dance people” and newcomers. It was a learning experience at first, since the ex-students felt ownership over certain choreography but then had to surrender as it developed and changed. Yet, their understanding of Michael’s movement was vital and, over time, relationships came into balance.
The group rehearses once a week and for almost twelve hours every third weekend of the month when Michael visits. Additionally, they use his school breaks for intensive rehearsals, which involve back-to-back days and long studio hours. Affordable rehearsal space is plentiful if you know where to look, but finding inexpensive venues that suit the choreography and are not totally rogue is another challenge. So far, they’ve performed at small to mid-sized venues, including studios, storefront spaces, indie theatres, black boxes and stages within converted historic buildings. Festivals also provide an encouraging environment, so they participate in local events such as the Chicago Fringe and Harvest Chicago Contemporary Dance Festivals and have appeared in Brooklyn’s Dumbo Dance Festival and Kalamazoo’s RAD Fest.
“Dance is often perceived as this abstract form that people can’t understand, which seems so silly because we all understand motion; it’s how we operate in our lives most of the time,” says Michael, who usually creates a narrative thread for his audience so the work becomes personal and less indulgent. “It’s not about display, it’s about the audience coming inside and existing in the same world as us.”
This transference of meaning between artist and audience is an on-going concern for art-makers, who face a competitive marketplace and pressure to attract and retain patrons. RE| Dance's blending of theatrical elements, visual art, movement and storytelling is only possible if funding, resources and audience remain strong. So Lucy and Michael spend hours applying for grants, tweaking their website, updating social media, designing posters and sending out e-newsletters. They engage in a vicious cycle of planning, marketing, contextualizing and delivering. They question, assess and revise their values and goals. Is it hard, tiring and thankless? Sometimes. But on the brink of their fifth year anniversary, it’s worth it.
Across town, Margi Cole is in her eighteenth year of running The Dance COLEctive. She meets her dancers at the Drucker Centre, a multi-purpose recreational centre, to rehearse for an upcoming show. Their space is a small gym turned studio with one wall of mirrors and a high ceiling roped with rehearsal lights. The room is abuzz with conversation until Margi instigates her sit-up and push-up regimen: five minutes of muted concentration and flushed faces. Every rehearsal begins with a company class of the Margi variation, which is balletic in sequence but infused with modern ideals, such as curving the spine, dropping weight and voraciously moving through space. A rapport exists, and the dancers react playfully to Margi’s witticisms and choice of music for the dégagé combination: Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines.” “I have to maintain my coolness factor,” says Margi with a twinkle in her eye. Despite occasional quips, the work at hand is deeply human and collaborative, which is probably why the group’s efforts have been widely recognized as authentic and socially relevant.
This convergence happens every Tuesday, Thursday and alternate Sunday, when the all-female cast breaks away from varied lives of waitressing, teaching, advertising, babysitting and legal work to come together and make work. While having multiple jobs and lengthy commutes can breed delirium and exhaustion, the intimate camaraderie and creative processes of The Dance COLEctive provide a second wind.
Margi’s schedule is also unthinkable. She teaches at Columbia College Chicago, dances with various choreographers, serves on grant panels and in public forums and is a member of various consortiums and committees. Occasionally, she travels to guest teach and choreograph for various organizations including the Alabama Ballet, the American College Dance Festival, Ballet Tennessee, and the Joffrey Academy of Dance.
“I started out as a dancer; I owned first and foremost that I was a performer, but that’s changed,” says Margi, who has danced with well-known choreographers and companies such as Ralph Lemon, Joe Goode Performance Group and Mordine & Company Dance Theatre. “I’m still a performer, but now I’m a leader and a mentor too.”
After eighteen years as artistic director of The Dance COLEctive, she has seen dancers come and go. She has watched grants come in, audiences grow and work develop. She has become a teacher, mentor and supporter within the dance community, but it all started as an accident.
“I didn’t set out to start a company,” says Margi, who after graduating with a Masters of Fine Arts in dance from the University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign in the mid-90s started using personal funds to produce work with friends. “But I thought it would make sense to work like an umbrella with a communal pot of money to make work.”
In 1996, The Dance COLEctive became a non-profit organization and fundraised an initial budget of $10,000. Especially in those early days, the endeavour was centred around altruistic collaboration rather than a single artistic vision: “It was really more about being practical: part of the reason I wanted an umbrella structure was because I didn’t feel ready to be the sole choreographer of a founder-driven company,” says Margi, and then chortles, “I sometimes wonder if I still am…” an unwarranted concern considering she’s earned numerous fellowships, grants and awards since starting the company. Further affirmation is her 2005 Chicago Dancemakers Forum grant, a coveted $15,000 award that focuses on process rather than product and is known to elevate choreographic visibility. Its resources allowed her to travel abroad for the first time and research “Written on the Body,” a piece about the Brontë sisters and their use of pseudonyms. With ample time to research, Margi contemplated gender roles and stereotypes and developed images of strength, vulnerability and intimacy.
“Because I had the resources, I took risks in areas I wouldn’t normally,” says Margi, who commissioned an original score, created a videoscape and had more money for costume collaboration than usual. “So that was a pivotal point— it pushed things for me.”
As a result, Margi ended up getting a National Endowment for the Arts Access to Artistic Excellence grant to tour the Southeast; an eighteen-day tour of four cities with six performances and 25 outreach activities. The touring experience created momentum and excitement, which led to a second version of “Written on the Body” at The Dance Centre of Columbia College Chicago in 2008, followed by another tour. Everything was going well, so The Dance COLEctive made a long-range plan to elevate status and double budget.
Then the economy tanked.
“It made it virtually impossible to grow,” says Margi, sinking into her seat as if to embody the impact of reduced arts funding and curbed grant allotments. Funders want to see quantifiable proof of growth in visibility and budget, but with foundation money shrinking, grant criteria becoming more pointed and certain programmes disappearing completely, it’s a double-edged sword. “I’m good at what I do: I’m resourceful; I’m thoughtful; I’m strategic; I’m a risk taker; I’m an entrepreneur,” says Margi, “Yet, I can only think in survival mode.”
Easing the burden is FlySpace, an agreement between four female-led dance companies to share marketing and audience-building resources. It started two years ago when Marcia Festen, director of funder collaborative Arts Work Fund, called a meeting with eight dance companies to brainstorm non-profit survival ideas. Eventually, four dropped out and The Dance COLEctive, Hedwig Dances, Same Planet/Different World Dance Theatre and Zephyr Dance remained. The goal is to share and improve data management, ticketing, marketing and patron engagement while bringing visibility to contemporary dance and lesser-known venues.
According to Margi, venues attach a level of credibility to one’s work. The further a venue is from downtown’s notable theatre circuit, the more apprehensive viewers become. Margi is interested in turning the spotlight to smaller venues and purposely chooses space that supports her intimate style. “Just because we are performing at a 60-seat venue doesn’t mean we didn’t write our ideas down and take time to investigate and shape them in the space,” says Margi, who believes certain portrayals of dance in pop culture have added to the notion of bigger is better. “It’s kind of like that old adage: sex sells. I’m not willing to go there. I don’t want to compromise my artistic values to have a giant audience.”
From the beginning, Margi has wanted to challenge assumptions about how dance is presented. With her latest Arts Work Fund grant, she plans to stage site-specific work and cross it into the social media stratus; whether that means through live streaming or audience participation, she has yet to decide. If the bombardment of media and sound bites faced daily is in fact shortening attention spans, then site-specific work could be just the ticket, allowing viewers to choose length of engagement - two minutes or ten, drop in or stay, watch online or attend in real time - the options are endless and, most importantly, give the viewer power.
This knack for reinvention and go-getter flair make Margi a sought-after expert in the worlds of communications, business and dance. Her willingness to share ideas, collaborate and mentor others is infectious and has infiltrated the community at large. “I remember very vividly people climbing the ladder and knocking each other down on the way up,” says Margi. “Over the last 25 years, I feel like the community has changed and people recognize that when somebody has success, the water rises for everybody. It’s a romantic idea, but maybe my generation of people has helped change the culture of the dance community.”
At the Harris Theatre, 1,500 seats are filled. The proscenium is about to be consumed by “Fluence,” a Chicago premiere by Robyn Mineko Williams. The initial mood is shrouded in quiet curiosity. Eight of the nine dancers walk upstage in a cluster, while they move slowly and collectively, gestural nuances allow for a touch of individualism. A female remains downstage and starts to introduce wild gesticulations and skewed pedestrian movement. Blackout. Suddenly that world is gone. Red lights and an urgent beat accentuate the shift that follows, as crazed idiosyncrasies transport Fluence into a place of pandemonium. Eccentricities abound, and movement flickers and stutters like a glitchy computer programme. As far out as Williams’ abstractions veer, they remain tethered to some base of reality, thus creating a stylized dystopia that parallels our technologically obsessed world.
In its 36th year, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago is part of a four-pronged organization comprised of two performing companies, the Lou Conte Dance Studio and education and community outreach programmes. The organization reaches more than 80,000 people each year, and Hubbard Street Dance Chicago and its second company, Hubbard Street 2 (HS2), have toured 44 states and over seventeen countries. The company boasts a robust portfolio of repertoire and has performed 53 world premieres by choreographers such as founder Lou Conte, Daniel Ezralow, Jirí Kylián, Twyla Tharp and Jorma Elo.
Glenn Edgerton remembers his interview for the artistic director position when he was asked: “Who are your favourite choreographers?” His answer came without hesitation: “William Forsythe, Jirí Kylián, Mats Ek, Ohad Naharin and Nacho Duato.” To him, these choreographic geniuses represent the best of contemporary movement, and so Hubbard Street’s 2013-2014 season will feature work from all five. “There are not many choreographers who are raising the bar of dance,” says Glenn, who has been leading the company since 2009. “If choreographers are pressured into making the next great masterpiece or commercial hit, they never will. They need freedom to try and explore.”
Finding what’s next in dance is tricky business. Art should resonate and seep deep into the psyche, but Glenn believes fear of failure often prevents work from reaching greatness. Hubbard Street wants to create a safe space for experimentation where time, resources, input and mentorship flow freely. With choreographic efforts in mind, the company has in recent years started National Choreographic Competition, Inside/Out Choreographic Workshop and danc(e)volve: New Works Festival, all of which highlight Hubbard Street’s spirit of exploration through cultivation of new choreography. The annual National Choreographic Competition takes submissions from around the world and awards two to three winners with artistic residencies and a chance to collaborate with Hubbard Street 2. Meanwhile, the Inside/Out Choreographic Workshop, which allows company members to choreograph one another, has resulted in success stories like Robyn, who spent the majority of her twelve seasons participating in Inside/Out and was eventually chosen to co-choreograph a full-length work for HS2. Now with several pieces for the main company and a 2013 Princess Grace Choreographic Fellowship under her belt, she’s moved from choreographic protégée to full-blown emerging artist.
This idea of exploration has been around since the company’s inception. In 1977, three years after opening a studio at 125 West Hubbard Street, Lou Conte started rehearsing four female dancers. He’d already choreographed several shows in Chicago, so the public was familiar with his balletic yet theatrical style. Their first gig came through Urban Gateways, who wanted the company to perform at senior citizen centres for $100 per performance. Claire Bataille, one of the founding dancers and now director of the Lou Conte Dance Studio, recalls Lou not taking salary for years but insisting the dancers take home $20 per performance. “Lou was a firm believer that no matter what you do, you should get paid something; that artists should not work for free,” says Claire. To this day, Hubbard Street is one of the few dance companies to offer a full-time, 52-week performance contract.
In the summer of 1978, the company performed at the Chicago Cultural Centre. By that time, the studio had a large population and built-in audience. Despite the noontime slot, the theatre was standing room only. “We were finally on an actual stage with curtains and lights,” says Claire. “It was one of the best days of my life!” In that single performance, Lou established an audience and showcased his ability to shape a well-rounded programme.
The eclecticism of Lou’s choreography caught on and led to publicity. The company made its television debut in a one-hour special for WTTW Channel 11 in 1981 and was performing in Paris by 1982. The 1980s continued to introduce opportunity, as the company produced a variety of repertoire, started to tour domestically and internationally and launched its first major fundraising campaign for new works and initiatives. “Timing was a great force for the company, and we established a national reputation very early on,” says Claire.
While the Chicago Theatre District was willing to house performances, the company found itself touring extensively. By 1995, they’d performed throughout the United States, South America, Europe and parts of Asia. “For most of the company’s history, the focus was on the company’s life as a touring organization,” says executive director Jason D. Palmquist. “In fact, so many things that make Hubbard Street wonderful and unique are driven by that fact.” Touring led to choreographic connections, which resulted in The Tharp Project, a ten-year acquisition of seven Twyla Tharp pieces, and work by international sensations Nacho Duato and Jirí Kylián, both of whom became long-standing collaborators even after Lou’s retirement in 2000.
In 2004, under the new artistic leadership of Jim Vincent, a partnership with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) was formed and led to performances at the newly constructed Harris Theatre for Music and Dance at Millennium Park. Finally having a permanent home for the company exposed the skeletal nature of their Chicago programming. Jason remembers their old way of advertising the blitzkrieg of home performances: “THREE WEEKS ONLY… you’ll need the other 49 weeks to catch your breath,” says Jason. “Or you could also say: You’ll have the other 49 weeks to forget about us.”
Pushed to innovate after the economic breakdown, the company expanded its home performances to four times per year in addition to increasing side engagements with the CSO and The Art Institute of Chicago. The company continues to travel and has performed at many noteworthy venues and events including The Joyce Theatre in New York City, the Kennedy Centre in Washington, DC, and Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival in Becket, Massachusetts; however, its relationship with Chicago is paramount. Now, whether it’s a mélange of symphony and dance or performance backdropped by a Jackson Pollock painting, Chicagoans can see multiple shows a month. As a result, their audience has increased by 50 percent in the past five years.
Meanwhile, the dancers continue to be the company’s foremost distinguishing asset. They hail from all over the world, bringing fierce technical ability and unparalleled ingenuity. With Hubbard Street copycats emerging left and right, Glenn knows the dancers will preserve Hubbard Street’s individuality. To keep them engaged, he continually brings in work to push their capabilities. “When you challenge the dancers, they become invested and will project a certain aura of commitment and investment,” says Glenn. This was especially evident in 2011, when Twyla returned to set Scarlatti on the company. “You could see they are capable of doing so many different things—very versatile, classically and technically sound but can do just about anything,” says Claire.
In the early days, Lou struggled to name his company. People suggested Chicago Dance Theatre, but he said: “That’s too big. Let’s just represent our street.” Humbly, he chose Hubbard Street Dance Company never predicting that in 1992 they’d change “Company” to “Chicago” and forever become a city treasure and leader of dance.
Sarah Osterman Myers is a writer, dancer, and arts administrator in the Chicagoland area, where she initially moved to pursue Dance and Journalism at Columbia College Chicago. Originally from Lincoln, NE, Sarah has spent time living in some of the most arbitrary nooks and crannies of the country, including Sandpoint, ID, Laramie, WY and Erie, PA.
As a writer, Sarah is interested in the arts/culture world and has published work in ECHO Magazine and Today’s Chicago Woman Magazine. As a dancer, Sarah is open to all types of movement experiences and has performed with Laboratory Dancers and Mucca Pazza.
Cover image: Hubbard Street Dancers Jesse Bechard and Jessica Tong in Petite Mort by Jiří Kylián. Photo by Todd Rosenberg.