‘Billiken,’ new short film about Chicago’s Bud Billiken Parade, spotlights parade’s young dancers
The film — being projected nightly through Sept. 7 on the mammoth Chicago River-facing facade of the Merchandise Mart — centers on the largest and longest-running African American parade in the United States.
He wasn’t preparing the film for a screening inside a theater. He was getting ready for something bigger, with the movie to be projected onto the mammoth, 340,000-square-foot facade of the Merchandise Mart.
Glasspiegel wasn’t sure the film was even finished yet. He had been working around the clock for weeks to edit and complete it by a deadline that had been moved up from fall to summer on short notice.
Selected as the centerpiece of Art on theMART’s summer programming, “Billiken,” which premiered Thursday, will be projected onto the outside of the Merchandise Mart every night through Sept. 7.
Young dancers featured in the movie — from teams including The Jesse White Tumblers, Dance Force, Geek Squad and Bringing Out Talent Dance Co. — were there for the opening.
“Footwork is this grounded dance that’s focused on feet, but yet there’s also a metaphor of flight, of taking off,” Glasspiegel said of a Chicago-born dance style that’s featured prominently in the movie. “The poetics of that have been really inspiring to me as an artist.”
And the projection onto the building makes the film “look like the children and the performers are really on the horizon of the city,” he said.
The architectural features of the historic Art Deco building, marked by clean geometric lines, add a dimension to the film’s theme of flight.
Young dancers appear to glide through blue skies. Colorful rotoscope animation accentuates their movements as the sounds of the Rich Township Marching Machine band are sampled on a soundtrack made by RP Boo, the legendary creator of the footwork music genre.
It’s an art film that gives viewers the impression they’re flying too, as screens and geometric shapes slide on and off screen with ease.
Calhoun said he hopes audiences seeing the short film will think: “Nothing else in the world even exists. Just like, ‘We here. This is amazing. These kids are dancing. This is the parade. This is our city. We feel proud that this is our city.’ ”
“Billiken” honors the youth dancers of the Bud Billiken Parade, the largest and longest-running African American parade in the United States. Started in 1929, the parade, which goes down South Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive in Bronzeville, heralds the start of the back-to-school season.
It takes its name from the fictional character Bud Billiken, created by Robert S. Abbott, founder of the Chicago Defender. The character, portrayed as a guardian angel for children and drawn by Willard Motley, appeared in the pages of the paper’s Defender Junior children’s section.
Despite the scale and longevity of the Bud Billiken Parade, which happens this year on Aug. 13, Calhoun said many people outside of Chicago might not have heard of it.
“People don’t think this type of stuff exists in Chicago because of the national news Chicago gets about the violence, not about the celebration, not about the history of our city on the South Side,” he said.
Though Glasspiegel, Stewart and Calhoun began working on “Billiken” about a year ago, the idea for it emerged from the three filmmakers’ other creative collaborations centered on Chicago’s rich dance and music history, particularly African American youth dance teams. Glasspiegel and Calhoun co-directed the film “Footnotes,” which played at Art on theMART last summer. It focused on the story of footwork in Chicago. Stewart, a fourth-generation youth dance group leader at the Bud Billiken Parade, manages the Bringing Out Talent Dance Co., for which she has taught kids as young as 5 years old.
At that age, “They’re not perfect dancers, but you can see them grow,” said Stewart, who for several years has partnered with the Chicago nonprofit Open the Circle, for which Glasspiegel is co-executive director.
Stewart said dance “gives the kids something to look forward to, especially during the downtime with no school, when they’re out for the summer. And we do have a goal of protecting the kids.”
Between the two organizations, Glasspiegel and Stewart have worked together for years, hosting dance events and performances. Calhoun is a co-founder of The Era Footwork Crew, which promotes footwork and leads discussions about racism, inequity and supporting women in footwork.
“Billiken” ties together a lot of the performance and community work that Calhoun, Glasspiegel and Stewart have engaged in. The Bud Billiken Parade has had a central role for most of the Chicago areal dance groups the filmmakers have collaborated with.
The filmmakers’ ties to the parade and the troupes involved extend even beyond that: Calhoun and Stewart have long participated in the parade themselves.
Calhoun and Glasspiegel are now co-directing a documentary about footwork called “Body of the City,” which has gotten grants from the MacArthur Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. Glasspiegel said he expects the location will add a meaningful layer to the experience of watching the movie, particularly for many of the young dancers who appear in the film.
“These are kids that are sometimes coming from environments where they don’t get invited to the downtown space,” he said. “They don’t get invited to perform on our city’s most-seen stages. And so this is a way to change that and, for those who are often most encumbered by inequality in the city, to try to take away some of those borders and boundaries and open up the playing field for everyone’s benefit and everyone’s joy.”
“Billiken” features footage of the Bud Billiken Parade that’s been filmed over the years in addition to studio shoots done in April and May with the dozen or so youth dance groups.
Stewart said setting up these scenes was her favorite part of making “Billiken.”
“Seeing the kids doing a lot of costume changes, they were using props,” she said. “Some of the kids have never done a photo shoot, it was just the excitement of it, just new things being done with the youth in the community.”
Community is what the film is really about, the filmmakers say.
“Being able to bring not only people from our community together but others that are in the downtown area, curious about the film,” Calhoun said. “Conversation has been a spark. It’s just like, it’s just a natural community builder, a good film.”
On the night of Glasspiegel’s test screening at the Mart, “There happened to be some kids out there with their mom, and they were dancing at the end of the projection, kind of a continuation of it,” he said. “That’s when I knew it was done. It was making people dance. It’s doing a good thing for the city.”
IF YOU GO
“Billiken” is being projected nightly through Sept. 7 starting at 9 p.m. onto the Chicago River-facing facade of the Merchandise Mart downtown.
If you want to sit, you’ll need to bring your own chair.