By Emily Yewell Volin.
DanceWorks Chicago is a contemporary dance company committed to working in a “culture centered around a generosity of spirit and building community,” says Artistic Director and Co-founder, Julie Nakagawa. The company is currently celebrating its 5th anniversary season of working within the model of bringing together people with a “wide range of skills, approaches, and experience”, shares Nakagawa. “I think that many dance companies select dancers based on who would be good for them, who is best able to serve the repertoire. For us the conversation also goes the other way. How can we at DanceWorks Chicago serve these dancers?”
DanceWorks Chicago’s commitment to service pervades every aspect of their work. From audiences being invited into the audition process, to the reciprocal mentorship of dancers and choreographers within the company, DWC is all about “illuminating the work of art”, Nakagawa explains. “We are about investing in the future. So many of us individually and collectively are really focused on today, because if we don’t have a good today we’re not going to have a good tomorrow. And, I totally get that. But if you’re lucky enough to have a tomorrow, what’s it going to look like if you don’t think about it today? I’m going to be optimistic and work towards having a tomorrow. You might as well think about the future and invest in a positive future for everybody. For us it’s beyond DWC. We promote personal responsibility within our dancer contingent but we also feel as an organization that we need to have a responsibility to the bigger picture and our art form. We try to lead by example. We work to create an atmosphere conducive to young artists doing their best work by listening, challenging, stimulating, supporting, and encouraging them to own their time here.”
DanceWorks Chicago artists come from all different kinds of backgrounds. “They look different, they approach dance differently, they have different goals in terms of dance and different ways they want to fit into the dance community. They are learning about those ways as they go through their journey, of which DWC is just going to be a small part”, says Nakagawa. “The opportunity to gather together diverse individual artists makes us richer and stronger as a group. With lots of different voices in the studio and on stage, DanceWorks Chicago has so many points of view, and energy to catalyze vibrant art-making and connections with the audience.”
DWC alumni present a convincing track record for the viability of training within this model. The company is proud to have 15 DanceWorks Chicago alumni out in the world in places ranging from Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, The Lion King on Broadway, the national tour of The Color Purple, Chicago’s Luna Negra Dance Theater, Los Angeles Ballet, the freelance dance scene and cruise ships to even Chicago Public Schools.
One shining example of DWC’s commitment to gathering individuals is its Dance Chance event. This event, which DWC hosts in partnership with the Ruth Page Center, attracts and supports the work of Chicago-area choreographers. “It’s meant to be the start of a conversation”, says Nakagawa. Dance Chance presents three choreographers a month. Following the event, names of self nominated choreographers are randomly drawn from a fishbowl to present work, in the order drawn, during the next Dance Chance event. “Each person has 15 minutes to show work or talk about work”, adds Nakagawa. The event is totally non-curated though there is a guest moderator to catalyze connections between the artists and the audience. Dance Chance attracts both those who already have a relationship with dance and those for whom dance may be a new curiosity.
Equally interesting are DWC’s modifications to the dance audition process. The DanceWorks Chicago annual open audition is conducted on stage, which removes the judgmental mirror and adds the audience component. Nakagawa explains, “It’s an unedited, very authentic experience. We talk about the muscle of courage and how it’s important to make sure that gets a work out every day. We start with a ballet class, with eliminations, and move on to repertoire selections taught by DWC dancers so that the auditionees, and audience, get more of a sense of who we are as well as our culture of inclusion and personal responsibility. The DWC dancers are responsible for sharing the information and are included in the audition process, which gives them a different vantage point. Feedback from the auditionees has been very positive. They seem to appreciate the presence of a supportive audience and, while difficult, they also take advantage of the opportunity to join the audience if they are excused from the audition and use it as a chance to observe and continue the learning process.” DWC welcomes a diverse audience into the audition. “Reaching for a dream and making yourself vulnerable – these are things we can all relate to”, says Nakagawa.
DanceWorks Chicago enjoys being part of a community as an in-residence company at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts in Chicago’s Gold Coast. The company partners often with River North Dance Chicago on combined company classes and even events like potluck lunches. “There are connections that happen behind-the-scenes that reflect our mutual respect and appreciation of one another. In fact, Monique Haley, a former dancer with River North, participated in Dance Chance as a choreographer and subsequently created new work for both River North as well as DanceWorks Chicago. Her new work See(in) Me is actually a DWC collaboration with another Chicago company, Muntu Dance Theatre of Chicago! The collaborations and the energy continue!” shares Nakagawa.
DanceWorks Chicago’s 5th year includes many performance highlights. They are excited to debut in Italy with a three-city tour from April 17-19 and for collaborative performances with Muntu Dance Theater, which will take place at the North Shore Center for the Arts, Skokie, IL May 11-12. DWC also looks forward to their debut at the Spring to Dance festival in St. Louis on May 25 and to their 5th anniversary benefit, which will be held in their home at the Ruth Page Center on June 3rd.
To learn more visit www.danceworkschicago.org