A spotlight on ‘modern women’ in 2015 Chicago Dancing Festival

SHARE A spotlight on ‘modern women’ in 2015 Chicago Dancing Festival
SHARE A spotlight on ‘modern women’ in 2015 Chicago Dancing Festival

It was George Balanchine, the great Russian-born choreographer and founder of the New York City Ballet who said: “Ballet is woman,” by which he meant that traditionally, most of the attention in that art is focused on the ballerina. What he failed to say was that ballet choreography, as well as the artistic direction of major ballet companies, has long been the preserve of men.

Balanchine also neglected to mention this crucial point: Modern dance, particularly its “creation” in the earliest decades of the 20th century on, was the preserve of women —from Isadora Duncan, Ruth St. Denis, Martha Graham and Doris Humphrey to Twyla Tharp and countless others. These women not only danced, but established their own companies and choreographed their own repertoire.

In a number of different ways, the 9th annual Chicago Dancing Festival —the much-loved late summer series of free performances by companies from Chicago and around the nation — will shine a spotlight on women who have made their mark in dance.

CHICAGO DANCING FESTIVAL 2015

When: Aug. 25 – 29

Where: Harris Theater for Music and Dance, the Museum of Contemporary Art, and the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park

Tickets: Free (but visit website for details as all venues except Millennium Park have a reservations policy)

Info: www.chicagodancingfestival.com

Most crucially there is the “Modern Women” program (6 p.m. and 8 p.m. on Aug. 26 at the MCA, 220 E. Chicago), which will feature pieces from the reps of Lori Belilove & Isadora Duncan Dance Company (Duncan’s “Valse Brillant”); the Martha Graham Dance Company (Graham’s “Deep Song”); Hubbard Street Dance Chicago (in “A Picture of You Falling,” by the brilliant Canadian, Crystal Pite); and pieces by two New York-based dance-makers, Kate Weare and Pam Tanowitz.

“At the start of the 20th century women were beginning to find their public voice,” said Belilove. “Isadora Duncan [1877 – 1927], embraced the wholeness of the body based on the revival of all things Greek, and she used dance as the essential medium to express freedom, beauty, and power. In ‘Valse Brilliant,’ she used images of water, wind and waves as powerful forces in nature. She saw women as a link in the chain of life, with her movement at one with the great movement that runs through the universe.”

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago’s Jason Hortin will perform Crystal Pite’s “A Picture of You Falling” at the 8 p.m. performance of “Modern Women” on Aug. 26. (Photo: Todd Rosenberg)

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago’s Jason Hortin will perform Crystal Pite’s “A Picture of You Falling” at the 8 p.m. performance of “Modern Women” on Aug. 26. (Photo: Todd Rosenberg)

Martha Graham (1894 – 1991), the choreographer whose influence on dance is often compared to Picasso’s on the visual arts, developed the essential technique of modern dance. Her solo, “Deep Song,” choreographed in 1937, was a response to the Spanish Civil War, and was created the same year Picasso painted “Guernica,” on the same subject.

“Women’s essential role in the development of modern dance grew out of a combination of things,” said Janet Eilber, the Graham company’s artistic director. “It was the shift from corsets to bloomers, the changes that grew out of the Industrial Revolution, the interest in social eurythmics. And in the 1930s modern dance blossomed as a way by which women could make political statements.”

“The distortion of the body and face, and the torquelike movements in ‘Deep Song’ are Graham’s lament and outcry against the rise of fascism, and the way wives and mothers are the ones left behind to deal with all the loss,” said Eilber. “Martha was just such a powerful, radical game-changer.”

The “Modern Women” program also will feature a special screening of the one-minute film “Butterfly Dance,” by Loie Fuller (another modern dance pioneer, born in 1862 in what is now suburban Hinsdale, Ill.), plus additional historical footage and photos.

Beyond that program there is the hint that things also might be changing (if slowly) in the ballet world. Since 2012, Lourdes Lopez, formerly a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet, has been artistic director of Miami City Ballet. Few women in any country hold such a post.

Blakeley White-McGuire of the Martha Graham Dance Company will perform Graham’s “Deep Song.” She is seen here in another work.

Blakeley White-McGuire of the Martha Graham Dance Company will perform Graham’s “Deep Song.” She is seen here in another work.

“The rarity of it only really dawned on me once I got to Miami,” said Lopez. “Ballet has a long history and holds on very strongly to tradition —which is part of its beauty, but it also keeps it stuck. Plus, as a female ballet dancer there are probably 99 others like you in the studio, so you spend all your time striving to succeed, and then at some point you have to decide about having kids [Lopez has two], so your focus changes. I also think the boards of many ballet companies feel that without a man at the top you can’t do successful fundraising.”

In addition to performing Balanchine’s “Allegro Brilliante” (Aug. 27 at the Harris), Miami City Ballet will dance Twyla Tharp’s 1996 work, “Sweet Fields” (Aug. 29 at the Pritzker). Tharp, 74, has created scores of works for her own company, other modern troupes, major ballet companies and Broadway during a career spanning five decades, and is unquestionably another “exception to the rule.”

“I first saw ‘Sweet Fields’ more than 20 years ago and was blown away by it,” said Lopez. “It’s very different from much of Twyla’s work —incredibly spiritual, and set to beautiful hymns by William Billings. And it gives our corps something they can really grab hold of.”

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