A Mixed Bag at Winifred Haun’s ‘First Draft’

Winifred Haun & Dancers in "Your nearest exit may be behind you" by Winifred Haun. Photo credit: Matthew Gregory Hollis, lighting by Julie Ballard

CHICAGO — “You are really going to love this show,” said Winifred Haun onstage at the Ruth Page Center for the Performing Arts, “especially if you love chairs.”

Indeed, chairs or some form thereof were coincidentally a part of all the dances on the program in First Draft, Haun’s two-day engagement featuring new-ish dances from five Chicago companies. Aside from the omnipresence of things to sit on, each dance shared little in common, offering audience members the dance version of an American Asian-fusion Mexican restaurant. In other words, there was something for everyone.

Haun’s ensemble of dancers opened the show with a premiere, Your Nearest Exit May be Behind You. One of a handful of choreographers still playing with Martha Graham’s lexicon, Haun’s demanding, technical choreography challenged these dancers, sometimes unfairly. Your Nearest Exit…, has many beautiful moments, however (complimented by Jeff Hancock’s willowy sheaths over earth tone unitards bathed in Julie Ballard’s elegant moonlight), and is most successful in its quiet times.

Following Haun’s work came a duet, a trio, and a solo from Sarah Gonsiorowski & Alyssa Gregory, Elements Contemporary Ballet, and Vershawn Ward/Red Clay Dance Company. Gonsiorowski and Gregory’s work-in-progress called PartnHERships contained more chairs than dancers, and the two shuffled them about the stage while exploring different degrees of proximity to one another amidst some serious passes of dancing. At the crux of the piece seems to be the question of women in leadership roles, and the oft-perpetuated stereotype that a woman in charge, who asks for what she wants, is perceived as bossy. A heavy subject, to be sure, but the ladies approach it with humor and levity. In the Ruth Page Center’s intimate performance space, their attention to detail shows in the subtle gestures and masterful gazes, and as this work evolves I can only hope it will keep the audience’s proximity in mind too.

Vershawn Ward presented a revised version of her solo, #SAYHERNAME, a multi-media work with literal references to the imprisonment and/or killing of black women. Ward, dressed in an orange jumpsuit, spends the entire piece behind a metal set representing a jail cell. She incorporates movement, text, and video projection to weave the past with the present, tieing images of Angela Davis and Assata Shaker with the more recent case of Sandra Bland. An onstage reading questions whether these women’s sacrifices were in vain, as when Ward quotes “you will be in jail wherever you go.”

Vershawn Ward of Red Clay Dance Company performs #SAYHERNAME, with choreography by Vershawn Ward | photo credit: Matthew Gregory Hollis, lighting: Julie Ballard
Vershawn Ward of Red Clay Dance Company performs #SAYHERNAME, with choreography by Vershawn Ward | photo credit: Matthew Gregory Hollis, lighting: Julie Ballard

It’s a lot to take in, but magnificently balanced as an artistic statement. Ward has, for years, been a vital link between Chicago dance and the community she serves by tirelessly promoting consideration for and collaboration between the north and south sides, where she is in residence at Fuller Park. When placed beside Elements’ quirky vignettes in The Misfortunate Beauty of Joe Danek, and RE|Dance’s The Lonely Visitors, a darker echo of last season’s It’s About Love Again this Year, it seems as though Wini Haun accomplished exactly what she set out to do: diversify her audience, celebrate Chicago’s broad dance spectrum, and put stuff onstage that maybe isn’t quite fully cooked.

Everyone there, in one sense or another, took a risk: Haun with the show’s format and venue on a congested dance weekend, Gonsiorowski & Gregory in a debut choreographic pursuit, Ward in her content, Elements in a total departure from their choreographic m.o., and RE|Dance in live singing and some super risky chair moves.

For this viewer, First Draft wasn’t so much about the dances, but the conversations that could arise from having shared the evening with an eclectic audience to watch dances with room to grow; dances that, more importantly, have a huge amount of potential. In program notes written by Lizzie Leopold, she brings up the ephemeral nature of dance: it’s here and then it’s gone. Unlike other art forms, we don’t have the privilege of hanging dance on our walls, or playing it on repeat. It is the responsibility of archivists and writers to seal a dance’s fate in the memories of its audience, and the job of choreographers to ensure that dance is a living, breathing, art form by doing the thing, fixing it, and then doing it again.

Header photo: Winifred Haun & Dancers in “Your nearest exit may be behind you” by Winifred Haun | photo credit: Matthew Gregory Hollis, lighting: Julie Ballard

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.