Rockford Dance Company: Thoughtful, Talented Dancers Who Are Really Far Away

544214_10151372031584234_464014959_nOnce a thriving small city in the middle of all that corn, Rockford, IL has been hit hard with an economic downturn that has been infamously compared to Detroit and Flint, MI. Add to this a total lack of public transportation from the Chicago metro area, and Rockford is a place that most Chicagoans only pass through on road trips to Wisconsin.

The state of Rockford appears to drive Matthew Keefe (a NY transplant and Artistic Director of the Rockford Dance Company) that much harder.  He knows that the underbelly of the city is abundant in arts, and this, in part, is what inspired RDC’s spring concert: Bold Moves.  There is a surprisingly healthy arts scene in Rockford, and Keefe smartly collaborated with partnering organizations on this project. While Appalachian Spring might not seem such a “bold move” by our standards, Keefe has reached beyond the comfort zone of the typical, suburban, pre-professional company, and, subsequently, RDC’s audience can expect to be stretched too.

The Rockford Dance Company has a lot that’s going right. The technically sound dancers and high production value are on par with any Chicago-land pre-professional company.   This, plus, they have a gorgeous 5-studio facility, the biggest of which is 50 x 50 (!) and overlooks the river.  It doesn’t hurt that they are in residence at the Coronado Performing Arts Center either (one of the most beautiful venues I’ve EVER seen).

It was at the Coronado on Saturday afternoon that I got the privilege of watching the dress rehearsal for Bold Moves, a program performed only once the same evening. Of the 3 premieres (along with Carnival of the Animals and Appalachian Spring), The Rite of Spring was, by far, the most unconventional work on the bill.  A completely new interpretation of the original Stravinsky score was the collaborative effort between Keefe and Prince Alonzo Russell’s Fatally Unique Dance Crew (a Rockford-based Hip Hop company that competed in America’s Got Talent).  RDC’s Rite asks the question: can two fundamentally opposed groups coexist, or even cooperate?  The implication is that who and where these groups are doesn’t matter, but it’s hard not to notice that all the Hip Hop dancers onstage are black and all the ballet dancers are white. Can Rockford’s residents see beyond racial and socio-economic disparities and cooperate to put their city back together?  Could the arts potentially serve as a neurotransmitter for them?

Can Ballet and Hip Hop really share a stage?

In this case, I was pleasantly surprised.  Most of the time, I couldn’t tell where the ballet stopped and the Hip Hop began.  I couldn’t distinguish which sections were choreographed by Keefe and which were by Russell.  I expected Hip Hop and Stravinsky to be mortal enemies, and that just wasn’t the case.

Matthew Keefe pretty much begged me to come out and see what they are up to at the Rockford Dance Company, and, I have to say, I wasn’t disappointed.  Even though it’s a student company, in the middle of a corn field, performing new interpretations of classical standards, Bold Moves made me think.

Quite honestly, I wasn’t anticipating that.

It seems, perhaps, that the biggest problem with the Rockford Dance Company is Rockford.  Rockford is far, really far – like, you lose XRT on the radio far. I’m not sure if programs like Bold Moves are enough to bring Chicago’s dance patrons to Rockford, but RDC’s gorgeous facilities might be the golden ticket Keefe is looking for.  He spoke briefly of a desire to start a residency program and bring in guest artists or even whole companies to stay awhile.   I’m sure he doesn’t need to hear it from me that this is a really good idea.  Giving RDC’s dancers some professional exposure will introduce them to connections and influences that may help them down the line, since, many of them will likely come to Chicago for work.

I don’t think Matthew Keefe has any delusions of RDC becoming part of the pulse of the Chicago dance community; I think his motive in inviting me to Bold Moves was more along the lines of “Hey, we are doing some neat things out here, and we’d like for the Chicago dance scene to know about it.”

Agreed, Mr. Keefe.