CHICAGO – “Time goes by quickly,” said Kevin Iega Jeff reflecting his tenure as Artistic Director of Deeply Rooted Dance Theater, “but we figure it out as we go along.”
“Figuring it out” hasn’t been easy, but Jeff and co-founder Gary Abbott have remained hyper-focused and vigilant toward the company’s mission to diversify concert dance by joining ballet and modern aesthetics with African dance traditions to tell stories rooted in the African diaspora and the experiences of African-American people. Kicking off the 20th season at the Reva and David Logan Center in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood Dec. 3 and 4, each of the works on the program strikes a balance between old and new, masculine and feminine. Two world premieres from Deeply Rooted veterans Joshua Ishmon and Nicole Clarke-Springer in particular pit yin against yang with When Men and Femme.
It’s a dichotomy that wasn’t initially planned, said Jeff in an early morning phone interview. In electronic correspondence, Ishmon wrote how When Men was created as part of the company’s annual Emerging Choreographers’ Showcase. “My inspiration for the piece began around Oct 2015 during a collaborative project between Deeply Rooted and [Chicago-based Indian dance company] Kalapriya.
Originally titled “Satyagraha,” the Sanskrit word for peaceful resistance, the work was a collaborative choreographic effort, with the two companies drawing similarities between the political activism of Martin Luther King, Jr and Mahatma Gandhi. Ishmon drew additional inspiration from Charlie Chaplin’s iconic speech in the film The Great Dictator.
“[Chaplin’s] speech directly speaks to men,” he said. “I was asked [by Jeff] to consider building on what I created to make a full-length work for Deeply Rooted’s summer intensive. At that time I was deeply embedded in an empathetic depression due to a number of tragedies that occurred around that time – a few examples being the Pulse Massacre and the many cases of police brutality affecting my community… As opposed to falling victim to a chaotic rage, I chose to focus my frustrations and disappointment into this work… The men have moments of being militaristic, overwhelmed with thoughts and emotions and complete abandonment of every stigma associated with being a ‘man.'”
Clarke-Springer’s Femme also began to develop through the company’s annual summer intensive. “Femme is a celebration of the allure, strength, courage and beauty of womanhood,” she wrote in electronic correspondence. “The choreography…is simplistic in form yet heavily dependent upon the techniques of ballet, Horton, and African-based movement.” Jeff concurred: “Nicole’s passion in life is to celebrate women. It’s a really challenging work.”
In a sense, each choreographer touches on the opposing side of his/her topic. Clarke-Springer draws out the strong, resilient, fearlessness of womanhood, while Ishmon revels in the complexities and sensitivities of men. “I think what has occurred,” wrote Clarke-Springer, “is that two pieces have been created out of what is so natural for us both: the ability of both Joshua and myself to be able to speak to who we are as men and women inside/outside of the Deeply Rooted process. I believe our need to speak to who we are, how we navigate thru our lives and the individuals we want to to become strikes a cord with many.”
Also on the program is Jagged Ledges, a revival from 2004 about the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and other favorites that will appear throughout the season. Jeff and Abbott reached into the archives to pepper the season, seeking to identify works that are indicative of Deeply Rooted’s mission and audience favorites.
Though much effort will be spent justifiably reveling in the past, Deeply Rooted’s founders are committed to the next generation, and planning for some major transitions in the not-too-distant future. With Abbott based in Kansas City and Jeff working on projects throughout the country and world, the future of the Deeply Rooted will likely fall to Clarke-Springer and Ishmon. “That’s something I welcome,” said Jeff. “I’m less focused on choreography and more focused on anchoring the organization… [Clarke-Springer and Ishmon] are challenged to work not just artistically but are also working on funding, budgeting… learning those pieces.”
With the leadership poised to venture forward into the next two decades of Deeply Rooted, changes at the helm are not likely to move the ship in a different direction. In the future, Clarke-Springer believes “the work will reflect the times but still hold to the mission that is at hand.” Ishmon predicts that “Deeply Rooted will play a significant part in the rebuilding of how dance, and the arts in general, are valued in this country and world,” and seeks always to “aid the next generation in their growth and development so that they can work healthily and intelligently toward self-actualization.”
“I would love for us not to be a ‘hidden gem,”’ wrote Clarke-Springer, “and to have more support financially for the company. Artistically, I think we will just keep doing us: being human, touching lives, being DEEPLY ROOTED.”
Deeply Rooted Dance Theater’s 20th anniversary season kickoff performances take place Dec. 3 and 4 at the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts, 915 E. 60th Street, on the University of Chicago’s Hyde Park campus. Tickets are $25-150, available on brownpapertickets.com.