The long game of elevating Chicago dance

CHICAGO — Elevate Chicago Dance came and went in October, and here I find myself near the end of November and still mulling over it.

The one-time-only, three-day dance extravaganza known as Elevate Chicago Dance was organized by the Chicago Dancemakers Forum as a culminating festival signaling the end of the multi-year Regional Dance Development Initiative (RDDI), a personalized artist development program for twelve local companies and choreographers. The goal of RDDI in Chicago was to provide some of our established artists who are relatively unknown outside the city with tools to build their professional networks and develop language and strategies for expanding their artistic impact.

po’chop / Jenn Freeman participated in a private studio showing for presenters, RDDI mentors, and special guests | Photo: Carrie Meyer

To that end, the framework of Elevate Chicago Dance was centered around a series of studio showings — some private, some public — in which artists could show snippets of their work, explain their processes, and invite questions. Including the RDDI artists, a roster of nearly 40 choreographers and companies gathered over the three days, curated by Peter Taub, former director of performance programs at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. Several formal presentations were included as part of the festival too, with mainstage concerts at the Dance Center of Columbia College Chicago and South Shore Cultural Center, plus late-night showcases at Links Hall and Defibrillator Gallery, and these were, perhaps, better received by members of the public who chose to dip their toes into the festival.

Each performance was carefully curated to show a wide-ranging view of Chicago’s dance scene, so if you only saw one thing, you’d still get a sense of the scope and diversity of what it has to offer. Where else can one see contemporary dance theatre by The Seldoms, the high-tech oddities of ATOM-r, BraveSoul’s hip hop and Visceral Dance Chicago‘s “Ruff Celts” on the same evening?

Nowhere, that’s where.

And that’s the thing that I’m still mulling about. Those three days offered a mostly rosy picture of Chicago dance, showing off our city’s lesser-known talent and lesser-known venues and providing a platform for choreographers to be seen by an impressive gaggle of presenters, the public, and even their colleagues within Chicago’s own dance community who might have previously never heard of the artists with whom they were now sharing a stage.

Last year, I took a workshop for indoor cycling instructors at a fitness convention in Rosemont, IL  — which, in case you didn’t know, is something I do at ungodly hours of the day, because, freelance life.

Anyway, the workshop leader was talking about the fitness industry’s current obsession with high intensity interval training and made a case for class formats that employ moderate intensity drills for a longer amount of time, rather than short, self-deprecatingly high intensity drills followed by a lot of rest.

I’m getting to how this relates to dance. Stay with me. From her perch on the spin bike, the workshop leader told us something her husband said to her that ultimately inspired that workshop:

“You know, not everyone cares about this as much as you do.”

For those of us who have been paying attention, Elevate Chicago Dance was less about discovering new artists — we already knew Chicago has a spectacular range and over-abundance of excellent art. But what we forget sometimes is that most people aren’t paying attention.

My Tribune colleague, Steve Johnson, wrote a summary of the WTTW documentary on the Joffrey Ballet’s new Nutcracker, which premiered last night on our local PBS station. “Those of us in the ballet-averse or ballet-ignorant community can go months if not years without thinking of the Joffrey Ballet. … Shame on us.” he wrote.

Sara Zalek’s “Les Chanteuses Du Rien” opened the festival on the stairs of the Chicago Cultural Center | Photo: Gustavo Martin

It was a painful reminder that, like indoor cycling, people don’t care about dance as much as I do. To succeed in dance is to divert the attention of laypeople — not just from other dance companies, but from all of it: football, family, parades, traffic, couches and pajamas. I personally found my experience at approximately half of Elevate’s offerings akin to a big dance reunion of wonderfully familiar faces and chock full of exhilarating performances, but also totally exhausting.

Do I want Steve Johnson to think or care about dance? Sure, but what’s really the goal here? A frequent turn-off about contemporary dance and performance art is that people “don’t get it.” Sometimes even I — a person who objectively chooses dance diversions far more often than others — would sometimes rather not have to work really hard to have an enjoyable experience.

Elevate Chicago Dance was a great opportunity for artists to engage with the public, share how they make their work, and invite audience members to understand the artistic process. But the studio showings largely consisted of familiar faces — those already bit by the dance bug. Indeed, I witnessed people walking out of the first showing, perhaps not quite understanding what they were seeing or expecting the razzle dazzle of a polished, heavily produced dance performance. Does the public’s expressed desire to understand dance trump the discomfort of looking inside an artist’s process at something that is wholly unfinished? Dance of this type, in this format, is laborious. It’s unentertaining. It’s work.

So what is elevating Chicago dance post-Elevate Chicago Dance really about? Is it about bringing new audience members in and getting people like Steve to care?  Is it about engaging funders and presenters to specifically care about Chicago? Is it about Chicago recognizing itself as a force to be reckoned with? When I think about dance in this city, and its fractured communities that are passionately grasping at scarce and unavailable resources to do what they do, I think we’ve got to consider the long game.

With only one shot at Elevate Chicago Dance, maybe the point was to boost Chicago’s ego a bit, and allow those competing dance communities to relax and enjoy each other’s company — to let dance win for a weekend, until each respective party goes back to their hidey hole to squabble over DCASE grants and CDF awards once more. Or, maybe the experience of having been there to witness such an amazing collection of artists will inspire someone else to take up the charge, someone who’s willing to play the long game and fund Elevate Chicago Dance for years to come.

For more on Elevate Chicago Dance, including interviews with curator Peter Taub and CDF executive director Ginger Farley, please see my dance card on the festival written for the Chicago Tribune.