Secret Experiments in Ballet


Emily Stein is not an emerging artist.

With more than two decades invested in the Chicago Dance Community, Emily Stein is perhaps best known for her dual roles as Associate Artistic Director of Zephyr Dance and one of the best ballet teachers in the land.

I was more than a little surprised to hear that she resigned from Zephyr, especially given its recent momentum as a part of the Flyspace consortium.  So, naturally, when I got the chance to have coffee with Emily my first question had to be:
“Why did you do it?”

It was a friendly parting of ways, and Stein continues to teach for the company.  The break from Zephyr Dance had more to do with the increasing differences between the works created by its directors.  It became harder to maintain a unified brand as a company while the directors’ aesthetics were polarizing. Stein also felt she needed a break from the regimented rehearsal schedule and constant pressure to produce new work.  Having made the break over a year ago, she viewed 2012 as a sort of sabbatical – a time to read, reflect, travel, and immerse herself in the always familiar territory of ballet vocabulary that was piquing her interest artistically.  These were things that weren’t possible on Zephyr’s rigid schedule.  She took a three-week residency in Florida and, at times, didn’t even know what day it was.  In a good way.  All of that affirmed her decision to leave Zephyr, plus,

“18 years is a really long time….”

Touché, Emily.  I totally get it.

It’s kind of like Emily Stein is an established artist, who has already emerged, and is now RE-emerging. So, what does that look like in practice?  From her press release:

“Playing in the intersection of ballet vocabulary and improvisation, Emily Stein is interested in deeply investigating the meaning of the ballet tradition in the contemporary dance world, including who, where and how the vocabulary is used.”

After spending a couple decades protected by the infrastructure of an established dance company, Stein took the year to consider questions about who makes up her audience, and what she wants to say to them.  As her ideas slowly started to take shape, Stein saw a performance emerging, but knew she didn’t want to do a show at any of the usual haunts for small contemporary dance.  When considering her options, budget, and 20+ years of dancemaking, doing a standard show at a standard small venue didn’t appeal to her.  “I’ve already done that,” she said.  So she chose the entirety of Visceral Dance Center instead, taking her Experiment into the studios, hallways, dressing rooms, and lobbies.  Why in a dance studio rather than onstage?  Stein was intrigued by the idea of showing dancers in their natural habitat: among teachers, other dancers, and lots and lots of mirrors.  The studio, for many of us, is our home, and pays further homage to the Experiment.

There are strongly differing opinions about the future of ballet:

Some think it’s dead, others think it’s thriving, still others feel it’s shrouded in antiquity and can’t or won’t change.  Current attempts at “Contemporary Ballet” aren’t really sticking, but what if the future of ballet is not about ditching the tutus and doing ridiculously high arabesques off our legs.  Frankly, that already happened (like, 30 years ago).  Maybe the future of ballet is more about reinterpreting familiar vocabulary in an unfamiliar way – rejecting the aesthetic altogether while preserving the core.  Secret Experiments in Ballet is Emily Stein’s investigation into the steps that are part of her body’s language and history, and what happens when that language is manipulated.  The self-proclaimed nerd is reveling in having the time to dive into derivatives of the technique that she knows through and through.

This weekend at Visceral Dance Center is the result of that investigation.
Secret Experiments in Ballet #2 takes place May 4 (8pm) and May 5 (2 and 6pm) at Visceral Dance Center (2820 N. Elston).  Tickets are $25 ($15 for students/seniors) available here

Author: Lauren Warnecke

Lauren Warnecke is a reporter for NPR affiliate station WGLT and freelance arts and culture critic, primarily reviewing dance for the Chicago Tribune. Lauren enjoys cooking, cycling and attempting to grow things in her backyard. She lives in central Illinois.