It’s a mild and beautiful summer evening on Chicago’s North Side. Thirty-some people have trickled into the vast, light-filled gymnasium at Nicholas Senn High School in the city’s Edgewater neighborhood. “WELCOME TO THE HOME OF THE BULLDOGS,” says a mural opposite the gym’s entrance. The hand-painted block letters accompany a picture of a mean-looking pooch wearing a spiked collar and sailor’s “Dixie cup” hat, surrounded by 31 championship banners and an American flag.
Dancers Gary Schaufeld and Ashley Browne, both of New York troupe Keigwin + Company, wear plain white tops with royal blue bottoms (shorts for Schaufeld, jeans for Browne). The two swear it’s a coincidence. They’ve met with a group of Chicagoans six times before at Senn to create and rehearse choreography to Ravel’s Bolero, for next week’s sixth annual Chicago Dancing Festival. Bolero Chicago will be featured twice: on August 20 during “Chicago Dancing” at the Harris Theater, whose capacity is roughly 1,500; and on August 25 during “Celebration of Dance” at the Frank Gehry–designed Pritzker Pavilion, which can accommodate about ten times as many people.
Browne and Schaufeld have sketched about half of the dance; choreographer Larry Keigwin’s about to watch what the group’s accomplished so far and start filling in the remaining blanks. Keigwin calls for everyone — including me, another reporter from Gapers Block, and other observers — to convene in a huge ring in the middle of the gym. Counterclockwise, everyone in the circle shouts his or her name and does a little dance, made up on the spot. Everyone else echoes back.
Festival cofounder Jay Franke lunges forward and chops upward with his right arm. “JAY!” I put my right foot in and do a little twist like John Travolta in Pulp Fiction. “ZAC!” A woman hops once, looking up, with both arms over her head. “SKY!” The rehearsal begins.
Chicago is the seventh of Keigwin’s Boleros; the project dates back to 2007. He tells me that, each time, he tries to identify and play up his cast’s strengths and special talents. “It’s about making everyone look good. I excavate the personalities.” Lamar, a tall black man wearing a University of Illinois T-shirt, plays trumpet as a kind of overture. When he finishes, Keigwin asks him to repeat the tune while strolling across the floor from left to right. “Like you’re coming home from a club late at night.” As if on cue, Lamar’s encore is accompanied by the faint wail of a siren in the distance.
Keigwin later asks the Bolero group to raise their hands if they rode a bicycle to Senn. About a dozen arms go up. He chooses Julie, a slim brunette with a high ponytail, in a black T-shirt that reads “I ♥ VOLUNTEER.” (The URL for City Church Chicago’s website is printed on the back.) Keigwin pulls Julie aside and explains how many six-count phrases of Ravel’s music she can use to bike onstage, circle another performer, and exit the opposite side.
Another vignette, which Keigwin creates in about 90 seconds, is “like Busby Berkeley spokes,” he explains to the five women who dance it. Lamar gets another starring role, as a guy mobbed by female fans. He lets them chase him backward, egging them on by flexing and kissing his biceps.
Larger groups fill the floor, using their own umbrellas and cellphones as props. Delicia, who wears a summer dress dyed brown, copper, orange, Navy and light blue, and who has a magenta flower tucked behind one ear, follows Lamar’s opening trumpet solo. As Ravel’s theme begins to play softly, Delicia mimes frustration with a losing battle between her Chicago Tribune and a stiff breeze. She’s got some acting chops.
As rehearsal winds down, a few stretches of music remain in need of action.
“Anyone else have tricks up their sleeves that they’re dying to tell me about?” Keigwin scans the group intently, his eyebrows mischievously raised.
Choreographer Larry Keigwin’s Bolero Chicago premieres on opening night of the 2012 Chicago Dancing Festival, August 20, and repeats August 25 at its finale. Click here to learn how to participate in the project. Full disclosure: I’m hosting a festival event, “Chicago Now,” at the Museum of Contemporary Art on August 24. Fun fact: Festival cofounder and renowned choreographer Lar Lubovitch attended Nicholas Senn High School.