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Participants size up the 2012 Chicago Dancing Festival

MarthGraham Dance Company performs 'Chronicle.'  |  Phoby Michele Ballantani

Martha Graham Dance Company performs "Chronicle." | Photo by Michele Ballantani

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◆ Aug. 20-25

◆ Multiple venues

◆ Tickets: Free (see guidelines on website)


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Updated: August 17, 2012 2:42PM

‘Whenever we dance outdoors I tell my dancers to use the site, to switch into the mode of the landscape,” said Janet Eilber, artistic director of the Martha Graham Dance Company, thinking about her company’s upcoming visit to the Chicago Dancing Festival at the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park.

Eilber recently accompanied her fabled troupe as it performed in a great Greek amphitheater on the island of Sicily. So she is well-versed in the joys and challenges of dancing in the open air.

“It can be tricky, because depending on the time of the performance you have natural light rather than stage lighting, and that can make focusing difficult,” said the former dancer. “Also, while it’s thrilling to see a vast audience stretched out before you, the sound of the applause is not always acoustically focused, so you’re not really sure of the response you’re getting.”

If you think about it, Frank Gehry’s dramatic Pritzker Pavilion is Chicago’s ultra-modern version of a Greek theater. And the admission-free Chicago Dancing Festival, now gearing up for its sixth season, Aug. 20-25, has become almost as sacred a rite of summer as the ancient Greeks’ annual Festival of Dionysus with a week of indoor performances at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance (205 E. Randolph), the Auditorium Theatre (50 E. Congress) and the Museum of Contemporary Art Theatre (220 E. Chicago) capped by a gala finale in the park.

Anyone who has seen the crowd, up to 15,000 strong, that gathers in Millennium Park for that gala can sense the passion and enthusiasm this event attracts. Further evidence comes from clocking the speed with which the “sold out” label is quickly appended to the festival’s website after the release of the free seats for the indoor performances each year.

This year’s festival, co-produced by its founders, choreographer Lar Lubovitch and dancer Jay Franke, will again serve as a showcase of a broad spectrum of companies, from Chicago and across the country, performing classical ballet, modern dance classics and contemporary work. The lineup also will feature a couple of innovative “community-driven” pieces, including New York-based choreographer Larry Keigwin’s “Bolero Chicago,” set to the Ravel score, which is being built around 80 local volunteers of all shapes, sizes and dance experience, and a new work by Nicholas Leichter for the youthful members of the Hip Hop Culture Dance Ensemble, part of Chicago’s “After School Matters” program. A full day of screenings of outstanding recent films about dance will be part of the mix, too.

The many dancers and artistic directors involved in the Festival tend to get caught up in travel, classes, rehearsals and performances, so their ability to catch the work of their fellow artists is often frustratingly limited. But I asked a number of the participants to give me dream lists of things they’d like to see (by companies other than their own), and to talk about “dancing outdoors.” Their observations might serve as “the insiders’ guide to Festival events.

JANET EILBER (artistic director, Martha Graham Dance Company):

“I’m looking forward to seeing Larry Keigwin’s ‘Bolero Chicago’ because I think he has an amazing gift for working with large groups of varying dance skills, and for making fresh, nuanced, emotional work. With only 10 hours of rehearsal he created an exceptional variation on Martha Graham’s ‘Lamentation’ piece for us that we’ve performed around the world.

I’m also intrigued by the Aug. 22 program at the Auditorium Theatre, titled ‘Dancing East and West of Chicago.’ Rather than seeing the lineup geographically [the companies performing are from Chicago and both coasts], I am intrigued by the chronology. There’s a pas de deux from the 19th century ‘Sleeping Beauty’ on the same program as Graham’s 1936 modern masterwork, ‘Chronicle,’ Jerome Robbins’ mid-20th century ‘Afternoon of a Faun,’ Balanchine’s 1967 ‘Rubies’ and Brian Brooks’ 2011 ‘Descent.’

In terms of the films, I’ve already seen Wim Wenders’ ‘Pina,’ which I loved. But it would kill me to see ‘First Position’ [a documentary about a ballet competition], because I couldn’t stand to see the young dancers who lost.”

ASHLEY WHEATER (artistic director, Joffrey Ballet):

“I am intrigued by the work of Alexander Ekman, and look forward to the performance of his world premiere ‘Two Become Three’ for Giordano Dance Chicago. Ekman is young [Swedish-born in his twenties], talented and largely unknown to American audiences. And he is someone whose work, part visceral and part cerebral, I will follow. Larry Keigwin’s company is imaginative, quirky and interesting. ‘Scarlatti,’ by Twyla Tharp [to be danced by Hubbard Street Dance Chicago], is one of her best works. So the Aug. 20 concert (at the Harris) offers rich and diverse programming.

“I’ve seen both ‘Pina’ and ‘First Position,’ and they are excellent films. ‘Pina’ is a celebration of the life and work of Pina Bausch, one of the most original and compelling choreographers of recent time , as well as a lamentation on her early and unexpected death. ‘First Position’ looks at several young dancers competing in the Youth American Grand Prix ballet competition. The film is honest, and sometimes unflattering, but the young dancers have ambition and heart; two necessary ingredients.”

RORY HOHENSTEIN (dancer, Joffrey Ballet):

“I am a huge fan of Hubbard Street, and I’m really looking forward to seeing their performance of [the first movement of Israeli choreographer] Ohad Naharin’s ‘Tabula Rasa.’ The Graham company is legendary, and always stunning. Pacific Northwest Ballet is performing ‘Afternoon of a Faun’ — one of my personal favorites among Jerome Robbins’ pieces — quiet, beautiful, full of emotion and a definite must-see. And of course the soloists from San Francisco Ballet and New York City Ballet will be brilliant.”

JASON HORTIN (dancer, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago):

“I’m most curious to see ‘Two Become Three,’ Alexander Ekman’s new piece for Giordano Dance Chicago. I’ve seen bits of Ekman’s work online and really enjoy the movement and theatricality of it. He spent his dancing career with the Nederlands Dans Theater, so his movements are heavily influenced by their pantheon of choreographers, and I’m interested in seeing how someone of the younger generation might put a new take on their vocabulary.

As for dancing outdoors, in a traditional theater the audience is shut-off from the outside world to become immersed in the work, whereas outside the landscape is incorporated into the experience, so there’s less of a separation between the real and make-believe. Hopefully it will be dark when we perform because for me, without lights it’s just a showing. Dancing outdoors should be like movies in the park, starting at dusk. Also: We (the dancers) can see you (the audience), so please, don’t leave in the middle of a piece.”

MAEGHAN MCHALE (Giordano Dance Chicago dancer):

“Looking at the amazing festival lineup I was immediately drawn to ‘Bolero Chicago’ by Larry Keigwin. Last summer I participated in the Dancin’ Downtown program in New York and my young student dancers had the opportunity to share the stage with Keigwin + Company who performed their ‘Bolero NYC’ piece. Keigwin’s 80 ‘performers’ transformed the stage into the streets of the city with cyclists, jugglers, balloons and umbrellas, plus the talented dancers of his company. I can hardly wait to see how he will embrace Chicago.

If I had the time to see a film my choice would be ‘First Position,’ not just because I am a ‘bun head’ at heart, but because for the past few years I’ve had a wonderful relationship with Youth America Grand Prix.”

SETH ORZA (dancer, Pacific Northwest Ballet):

“I’m excited to see everyone sharing the program with us on Wednesday (Ballet Arizona, Martha Graham Dance Company, Brian Brooks Moving Company), and especially the stars of the San Francisco Ballet [Sofiane Sylve and Vito Mazzeo], because I always love watching Sofiane dance. We will be dancing inside, but I can tell you that performing outside is all about the temperature. If it’s too cold you worry about your muscles cramping up on you, and if it’s too hot you’re sweating up a storm in your costume.”

NOTE: If you were unable to get reservations for the indoor performances, chances are good that if you line up at the box office early on the day of the performance you will get lucky with no-shows and turned-back tickets. For the complete festival lineup and ticketing information visit

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