A conversation between Links Hall’s Roell Schmidt and Suzanne Connor of the Chicago Community Trust was the catalyst for the Chicago Teen Dance Festival, a new initiative mirroring the Chicago Jazz Lions Pavilion and kicking off tonight at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance. The Jazz Lions brings together young jazz musicians to perform at the Chicago Jazz Festival, and a similar format has shaped the Teen Dance Festival.
“Dance is falling to the side in high school programs,” said Kristina Isabelle who was recruited by Schmidt as the festival’s Program Manager. “Just working with us, their eyes and their spirit and their energy rises,” she said. Deeply Rooted Dance Theatre’s Joshua Ishmon was brought in to collaborate with Isabelle to create an all-cast finale with well over 100 young performers.
A mass notification was sent out late last year as a call to teachers who might be interested in participating in the festival. The application stipulated that each program must be free to participants, resulting in a wealth of applicants primarily from Chicago Public Schools (of which only four have certified dance teachers), After School Matters, and Chicago Park District programs.
From the pool of applicants, a consortium of community partners selected ten programs through an adjudication process specifically focused on creating a diverse program including different styles of dance. Selected groups perform a piece they’ve created, and participate in a full-cast finale created by Isabelle and Ishmon, who visited each group to provide feedback and instruction.
Isabelle and Ishmon explained that each site visit left them inspired and motivated, taking the two choreographers to all corners of the city. They discovered some wonderful facilities, and inspired instructors who are making amazing things happen with no money and very little support. “The products that they’re making, with a complete lack of resources, is amazing to see,” said Ishmon. “Most of these programs are tucked away. They are hidden gems in these little coves of the city. To bring them together will say, ‘this is actually what the city is producing.'”
The finale brings all of these individuals together, from different parts of the city, from an array cultural and economic backgrounds for a performance that could prove very powerful for the participants and the communities they represent. It might not be perfect; Isabelle and Ishmon had a handful of hours to visit each of the 10 programs over the course of 2 weeks, and the dancers will not meet or dance with one another until hours before the performance. With 100+ dancers, and only a few hours of rehearsal onstage at the Harris Theater, it will be a miracle if everyone involved can pull it off. It may turn out to be chaotic and stressful day, however, the Chicago Teen Dance Festival is an experiment worth trying.
As the first in a three year grant initiative, Isabelle and Ishmon have ideas about how to grow the festival in scope and length. They imagine partnerships with professional dance companies and an affiliation with the Chicago Dancing Festival that would give the youth dancers opportunities to take master classes and learn choreography from the professionals they see throughout the festival. The youth performers will venture out in the park for the closing night of the Dancing Festival tonight, and Ishmon said that “going to see them, the connection would be even stronger if they had met them.” Isabelle agreed. “We’re all learning a lot about what this program needs to thrive.”
Perhaps the most critical product of the Chicago Teen Dance Festival is not the performance, but the conversation that has been initiated between professional dance companies and dance educators who are working tirelessly to foster the next generation of performers. Many of the youth participating in the festival are, for the first time, made aware that dance can be a viable option for them in the future, whether they become dancers, choreographers, teachers, or something else entirely. More importantly, the festival has the potential to create young advocates for a vital artform that shapes the character of all who have the opportunity to participate.
The Chicago Teen Dance Festival takes place one day only, Aug. 29, at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance at 5:00pm. The Festival takes place during the Chicago Dancing Festival, with the closing night performance also on Aug. 29 at 7:30pm at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion at Millennium Park. Tickets for both performances are free!