Northwestern’s ‘Danceworks’ presents 3 world premieres by 3 of Chicago’s strongest female choreographers

EVANSTON, Ill. — Northwestern University’s dance department has presented Danceworks, its annual showcase of contemporary choreography, since the 1980s. A few years ago when Joel Valentín-Martinez took over artistic directorship of the concert, he designed the Danceworks programming as a vehicle to create more choreographic opportunities for faculty whose primary interest was dancemaking, and to create more opportunities for Northwestern students to work with local, national, and international choreographers who are impacting the field of dance in meaningful ways. Through this initiative, Danceworks programs have complemented the choreography of its talented faculty with a number of venerated dance artists, including Tony Award-winning choreographer Garth Fagan and Ballet Hispanico artistic director Eduardo Villaro.

This year, Valentín-Martinez took a different approach by curating a bill comprised wholly of independent, Chicago-based, women choreographers. Danceworks 2018 @ Hi-Speed features innovative new works from one of Dance Magazine’s “25 to Watch” Nejla Yatkin, Carrie Hanson, founding artistic director of the critically-acclaimed dance company The Seldoms, and Vershawn Sanders-Ward, founder and executive artistic director of Red Clay Dance Company.

When asked about his decision to commission these artists specifically, Valentín-Martinez said he felt that Yatkin, Hanson, and Sanders-Ward represented some of the strongest women choreographers working in Chicago today. A choice apropos of the theme identified by Valentín-Martinez for this year’s show:

“I proposed an all-women themed concert given our current political climate and the social and cultural dilemma that we’re going through with women in power or lack thereof. … Not necessarily to tell the choreographers what to do, but to let them know where I was coming from. … I also encouraged them to consider that we’re living in the age of the Internet where information comes at us at a fast rate – whether it’s bad information or useful information – it’s the world that we’re living in. In doing so, I didn’t say ‘I want you to do a piece on women or the Internet.’ I said ‘I want you to reflect about what is happening now and I want to see what you bring to the table as an artist.’ In the end, I told each choreographer that they have an open canvas and the opportunity to work with our graduate students, some of whom are already active in the national and international dance scenes, and our undergraduate students, who are still growing as dancers and artists themselves.”

Since the choreographers are local, the participating students were able to engage more deeply with Yatkin, Hanson, and Sanders-Ward during the creative and rehearsal processes over a greater period of time. This was a shift from previous guest artist commissions, which are usually time-restricted when working with artists outside of the Chicago area due to travel and scheduling constraints. The result is a concert rich with imagery and beautifully crafted dances in which choreographer and performer alike are fully invested.

When junior Rachel Hughes, who is a dual major in dance and mechanical engineering, reflected on working with choreographer Nejla Yatkin, she expressed how this intensive process enhanced her overall experience. She stated that Yatkin “took into consideration the way our bodies move as individuals. She brought them into moving together as a group, but maintained the power of the individual. … We did a lot of improvisation at the beginning with very clear directives and tasks so we were all being motivated by the same prompt. It let the movement resonate in our own bodies instead of saying ‘here’s the choreography, go.’”

NU dancer Rachel Hughes in “On The Eve Of…” by Nejla Yatkin | photo credit: Justin Barbin

This level of engagement extended beyond movement generation and organization and into the dialogic elements of creating her work. As part of Yatkin’s ongoing creative process, she ritualistically engages her dancers in a reflective discourse about the topic or issue being explored. According to Yatkin in the case of her Danceworks piece, On The Eve Of…, her and her dancers explored the “repercussions of misogynistic mandated myths and fairytales on self-identifying women.” This exchange took place in conversation as well as in form through the dancers’ embodiment of these ideas. The culmination is a work that “reflects expressively how normative constraints continue to influence the psyche of becoming and being seen as a woman.”

Through a diverse blend of movement, projection, spoken word, and carefully selected costuming, On The Eve Of… supplies us with juxtaposing images of the feminine. By way of this contrast, Yatkin confronts the age-old and often times conflicting constructs that many women must learn to navigate. The initial set of images that we are presented with are a female figure cloaked in a red sheath, who moves seamlessly between vulnerable abandon and candid strength, and a woman in a black “power suit,” who is situated amongst a line of microphones while moving seductively and devouring an apple, an allusion to biblical character Eve that is interwoven throughout the work.

As we are simultaneously presented with dueling feminine characterizations, Yatkin challenges us to delve into the female experience of negotiating between the imposed tropes of the virgin/whore dichotomy, in which a woman is simultaneously perceived as pure, selfless, and sacrificing while also evil, selfish, and vain. By the end of the piece, the all-female cast comes together, bound not only by purpose but also audibly by breath, in a stir of virtuosic athleticism and subtle gesture that truly embodies the complex nature of the female internal experience.

— Alyssa Motter

Yatkin’s “On the Eve Of…” along with the dynamic works of Hanson and Sanders-Ward will be gracing the Josephine Louis Theater’s stage, 20 Arts Circle Dr., Evanston, in “Danceworks 2018 @ Hi-Speed” March 2 – 11. Tickets are $25, available online at (Use promo code INDUSTRY for a professional dancer discount) or by calling 847-491-7282.


Author: Guest Contributors