Frank Chaves’ Swan Song

Even on the heels of a highly successful 25th anniversary season, the announcement of Frank Chaves’ retirement as Artistic Director of River North Dance Chicago (RNDC) was not wholly unexpected. Over much of the last decade Chaves has managed to lead and maintain the company despite facing some serious personal challenges. A degenerative spinal cord condition has resulted in several surgeries and full-time use of a wheelchair, and yet, last season the company was looking better than ever.

“Celebrate the past, define the future,” turned out to be a prophetic tagline of RNDC’s silver anniversary that would take the company into its 26th season as well. Chaves stepping down after 23 years at the helm leaves the Artistic Director’s seat vacant; combined with Gail Kalver’s exit in 2014, RNDC is now without executive and artistic leadership.

On Saturday evening’s one-night-only performance at the Auditorium Theatre at Roosevelt University (RNDC’s only engagement for the season) the Auditorium’s Executive Director Brett Batterson and RNDC’s board president Marcus Boggs made statements indicating that all signs point to the company rebuilding under new leadership after a season on hiatus. While the future of the company remains to be seen, there’s no doubt that Frank Chaves built and maintained a legendary and integral piece of Chicago’s dance community, and this, his final fall engagement as Artistic Director, celebrated that legacy.

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River North Dance Chicago in ‘Turning Tides’ | courtesy of River North Dance Chicago

“One of the things I will treasure the most is the incredible years I had co-directing the company with Sherry Zunker,” said Chaves in an email interview. “It was a very special time for the company and for us both…. of course, the many generations of talented dancers that I had the opportunity to nurture, coach and see develop into amazing artists… That, along with bringing in new and very talented choreographers and developing quite the extensive repertoire — all highlights I will cherish forever!”

The focus of Saturday’s program, however, was not centered Frank Chaves or the future of the company, but on the dancers. On this particular occasion, Chaves would not be the only one taking his final curtain call. Dancers Jessica Wolfram and Lauren Kias also danced their last RNDC performances after remarkably long tenures with the physically demanding company. Dances selected for the evening highlighted Wolfram and Kias, and video clips reminded us of all the phenomenal dancers (Cheryl Mann, Lizzie MacKenzie Pontarelli, Michael Gross and Ahmad Simmons, to name a few) who have passed through Chaves’ hands. Indeed, there are few dancers in Chicago who haven’t crossed paths with River North as a dancer, apprentice, workshop attendee, or neighbor in residency at the Ruth Page Center.

Jessica Wolfram in her signature solo 'Renatus' | photo by Cheryl Mann, courtesy of Carol Fox & Associates
Jessica Wolfram in her signature solo ‘Renatus’ | photo by Cheryl Mann, courtesy of River North Dance Chicago

In a way, River North has always been about the dancers. The company has undergone a few re-brandings and several changes in aesthetic, but there’s no doubt about the quality of its dancers. Saturday’s program showed off their technique and largely unmatched facility while illustrating how versatile the rep requires them to be. A few classics like Randy Duncan’s Turning Tides (1997), Chaves’ Temporal Trance (1998) and co-Artistic Director Emeritus Sherry Zunker’s 1991 The Man That Got Away didn’t exactly blend with Chaves’ newer Habeneras, the Music of Cuba (2005) or Hanna Brictson’s tour de force performance of an excerpt from Robert Battle’s 2008 Train, but honestly, that might be the point. Showing decades of rep on the same program only went to prove that RNDC was and still is interested in what’s current. While any one program over the years could get a little same-same, showing the rep in this type of retrospective truly highlighted the variety they’ve brought to the table over the past 25 years.

Upon retirement, Chaves plans to focus primarily on his health. If the new vision of the company aligns with his choreography, he plans to continue creating for RNDC and take additional projects with other companies, as well.

“River North will continue on with new leadership that is scheduled to be in place by January of 2016,” said Chaves. “What happens next is a great question! It really will be determined by the new Artistic Director’s vision and the direction they want to see the company go. I would love to see it hang on to its roots… but we’re all going to need to wait and see. It is time to hand the reins over to someone else and let whatever is meant to happen happen.”

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.