The forecast for Tuesday, June 5 in Chicago is mostly sunny with a high of 70 degrees. At 6:30pm, River North Dance Chicago will perform, free of charge, at the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park. It’s the first of many dance events scheduled at the Frank Gehry–designed amphitheater this summer. Others include a live simulcast of the Paris Opéra Ballet performing Giselle (June 27, 7:30pm) at the Harris Theater — indoors, directly underneath the pavilion — and the now-annual “Celebration of Dance” blowout closer for the all-free Chicago Dancing Festival (August 25, 7:30pm).
Tuesday won’t be the first time RNDC has appeared at the Pritzker; last summer’s “Celebration” featured the company in Charles Moulton’s Nine Person Precision Ball Passing (1980). That’s a difficult, intricate piece of choreography — but unusual in that each of its performers stays rooted in a single spot, on risers. I wrote in my review of that performance that RNDC handled the work “as if it were a walk in the park (although I look forward to watching these powerhouse dancers perform full-bodied again, rather than sit and trade balls as they have all week).”
They get their chance Tuesday in full-company works such as Evolution of a Dream (Sherry Zunker, 2009), Risoluta (Sidra Bell, 2010) and Habaneras, the Music of Cuba (artistic director Frank Chaves, 2005). Star turns will come courtesy of solos and duets including Ella (Robert Battle, 2007) and At Last, an excerpt from Misson (Chaves, 1999).
The outdoor show, titled “World Class, Home Grown,” lands between a big season for the company, just ending; and another slated for 2012–13. I spoke recently by phone with Chaves about River North Dance Chicago, as well as with dancer Lauren Kias, seven years old when the company was founded in 1989.
Kias and her dozen colleagues signed on for 35 weeks of work for 2011–12, but shortly thereafter, Chaves explains, a significant extension began to take shape: four weeks of touring in Russia. “We started talking about it just last fall and, for everything to happen within the same season like that, for a big tour, is pretty unusual.… Our season was pretty much set, and then a month in Russia, as an add-on? Wow. We ended up with a 43-week contract [for the dancers], which is great, in this day and age.” It was the longest overseas engagement in the company’s history. “Some of the younger dancers had never experienced that kind of a tour,” says Chaves, “and I think that, in some ways, those kinds of tours are a thing of the past.”
The trip wasn’t a cakewalk, says Kias. Some days began at 5am, included six or seven hours of travel by bus on bumpy roads, and ended with a performance on a dimpled stage. “I never would’ve gone to Russia, though, if it wasn’t for the company. I never would’ve gone to South Korea, either,” she adds. During the dancers’ one stretch of free days — a short week off in Moscow — “I really took advantage of the city and what it had to offer. I went to the Bolshoi [Theatre] to see ‘Jewels,’ which is a Balanchine ballet.” (Her favorite part of the triptych was Diamonds, with David Hallberg and Svetlana Lunkina in the principal roles.) Kias attended the performance with Laura Wade, one of two coaches from Chicago who tag-teamed in rehearsal-director duties during the tour. Kias and Wade’s tickets cost 2,000 rubles each, or about $60. “I was willing to pay double that, just to get in. We were up in the fourth balcony and had to lean over the edge just to see. But it was one of the best experiences of my life.”
The Pritzker Pavilion, with its capacity of about 11,000, split between open-air chairs and a Great Lawn, is most similar among venues RNDC played in Russia to Kias’s favorite: a converted arena. “Toward the end of the tour, we performed at this place pretty much like the Staples Center, like, a basketball court slash hockey rink. They set up our stage like for a rock show, in the center of the court, with a huge curtain covering the ‘backstage’ area. I got to perform [Battle’s solo] Ella in that show. It was such a different experience, to have the audience all around, and there were so many people.… Hanna [Brictson, another RNDC dancer] made a joke: ‘I feel like I’m Janet Jackson right now.’ ”
Other whistle stops ranged from intimate playhouses to ornate state theaters, says Chaves, who had to stay behind but kept in touch with the company via his “eyes and ears”: Wade, company executive director Gail Kalver, and coach and massage therapist Patrick Simoniello. Kalver “has experience with this kind of touring from her time at Hubbard Street [Dance Chicago],” as former executive director there, Chaves notes. “She knows how to be in the trenches.”
Positive responses kept Kias and her fellow dancers going. “We’d do two encores almost every night, just in response to the applause, which we’d done before, in Germany. I think that’s just a European thing, to keep dancing if the audience is asking for more.”
Bell’s choreography went over particularly well with Russian dancegoers, Kias says. “I found that they really enjoyed Risoluta, probably because it’s a seductive piece. There’s a lot of things going on, and a lot of diversity, in terms of what’s onstage. We’re not all moving as a group, and there are different connections between people at different times, throughout. And it showcases each dancer and what they have to offer, their style, who they are. I think [Russian audience members] might’ve enjoyed connecting with us that way, as individuals.”
Kias says that RNDC’s diversity of styles also appeared to engage. “I don’t think that they’d ever seen anything that River North provides before. Every piece [we performed] was different, and I think that was probably fun for the [Russian] audience, to get that kind of variety. Oh: And Ahmad [Simmons, another RNDC dancer] was like a superstar over there. Everyone wanted to take his picture. He got a very warm welcome. All of us did.… People would just come backstage, Russian kids wanting to take pictures with us and get our autographs and talk to us.”
That may recur soon, with American kids: Kias is slated to perform Ella again next week. It’s a showcase role, and her indefatigable take has earned roars of applause at the Harris. She sounds ready. “I think I’ve never been more excited to perform in my life, than at the Pritzker Pavilion. I’m excited for the possibility that a bunch of people in Chicago who’ve never seen us perform before will be there. I’ve performed at Ravinia before, and I love that feeling of being out in the open air, feeling it hit your body.”
Chaves says the number-one goal of the aptly named “World Class, Home Grown” is appreciation for the company in the city where its artists live and work. “We’re always wanting more visibility here at home. I would hope that people who’ve never seen dance, or maybe have but don’t know about River North, are out there on the lawn and turned on by what they see, and [that they] want to come back. It’s a great way to get the word out.”
Chaves notes Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s stated aim to get the word out about dance in Chicago, too. Emanuel will be honored at Tuesday’s event. “We offered a [River North Dance Chicago] Dream Maker Award and the mayor accepted it, and we’re hoping he can be there. Knowing how behind dance he’s saying he wants to be, and what he’d like to see happen in the city — We all want to see that come to life.”
River North Dance Chicago presents “World Class, Home Grown” at 6:30pm on June 5 at the Pritzker Pavilion in Chicago’s Millennium Park. Admission is free. The company performs August 21 at the Ravinia Festival, and Chaves visits Cuba this fall with composer Orbert Davis, in preparation for “The Cuban Project,” April 13, 2013 at the Auditorium Theatre, in collaboration with Roosevelt University and the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic. During its 2012–13 season, RNDC will host dancer Nunzio Perricone, who won an apprenticeship with the company as a contestant on Amici Serale, a competition on Italian television. River North returns to the Harris Theater this November 16 and 17.