Modern Innovators: Pushing Boundaries

Twenty-first-century modern dance is wildly diverse, encompassing innovators of every stripe. What these innovators have in common, in Chicago and in the dance world as a whole, is a commitment to questioning established definitions of dance. Contemporary choreographers draw inspiration from every genre—ballet, jazz, tap, street, and social dance, as well the modern traditions of twentieth-century masters such as Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham. From such diverse sources they craft their own idiosyncratic aesthetic identities.

Just as early modern pioneers turned the movement vocabulary of ballet on its head, early postmodern choreographers questioned the established conventions of modern dance. In the 1960s and ’70s, radical experimentalists aimed to strip dance of virtuosity and theatricality, creating works built on everyday movements, like walking and skipping, and performing them in street clothes and in nontraditional spaces. The goal: to make dance accessible to all, and to marry it to the era’s ideals of social and personal transformation. From its founding in 1974 until it folded in 1989, the MoMing Dance and Arts Center promoted postmodern dance to Chicago, with performances by leading choreographers such as Trisha Brown and Meredith Monk. Today, the tradition lives on at venues like Links Hall, a Lakeview performance space founded in 1978 and dedicated to independent dance and performance. Links programming includes workshops in dance-theater techniques like the avant-garde Japanese art of butoh as well as weekly contact improvisation "jams" and public performances by an array of local fringe artists.

Unlike early postmodern dancers, today’s technical innovators do not shun virtuosity. Rather, many have developed their own unique—and at times radical—movement styles. The acrobatic Chicago Dance Crash fuses contemporary dance with techniques drawn from breakdancing, aerobics, and the Brazilian martial art of capoeira. The company’s smash-hit 2007 "movement play," Tiger Prawn: The Mountain Mover, employed a high-powered blend of kung-fu and modern dance to create a full-length performance accessible to an audience new to dance. Similarly, for her Breakbone DanceCo, founder Atalee Judy had developed her own signature "Bodyslam Technique"—a bold, punishing style inspired by punk rock. Breakbone’s apparently fearless dancers crash into each other, the walls, and the floor with abandon. Judy’s work is often dark and challenging, exploring emotionally and politically charged issues such as sexual violence to convey her passionate worldview to an audience outside the mainstream.

Breakbone joins other Chicago companies in challenging the notion that dance performances must take place in a theater. Breakbone has staged work on a rooftop and in a sculpture garden. But that’s nothing compared to local company, the Seldoms. This small, coolly intellectual company focuses on site-specific work in unorthodox spaces, including the Cultural Center’s Preston Bradley Hall, Millennium Park’s Lurie Garden, and a parking garage. In 2005 the Seldoms premiered GIANT FIX, a full-length work staged in the empty swimming pool at Hamlin Park. By creating work for nontraditional performance venues, the Seldoms and others seek to challenge the traditional relationship of performer to the stage, and that of audience to performer.

Dance has always been a collaborative art form, and the Seldoms and other contemporary Chicago companies pursue active partnerships with cutting-edge artists in other media. In 2007, for example, the Seldoms joined forces composer Richard Woodbury, who created the score for the Hurricane Katrina-inspired Overflow using sound produced by the pipes from a demolished church organ. Molly Shanahan/Mad Shak drew together three composers (including pop-violinist Andrew Bird), School of the Art Institute-trained costumer Heidi Dakter, and theater artist Leslie Buxbaum Danzig (500 Clown) to create the 2007 evening-length solo performance My Name Is A Blackbird. Other groups, such as the all-female Zephyr Dance, Thodos Dance Chicago, and Lucky Plush Productions create visually striking work through close collaboration with set and costume designers. Lucky Plush also works with video and other new media artists to explore the potential of new technologies in performance.

These and many, many other dance artists are continually breaking new ground, paving the way for Chicago’s next generation of dancers and choreographers with the help of institutions like the Auditorium Theatre at Roosevelt University, the Athenaeum Theatre, the Museum of Contemporary Art, and the Harris Theater—all significant venues that support the city’s vital dance community. And young dancers interested in exploring the potential of dance as a vehicle for creative expression are well served by college-level programs at Columbia College Chicago and Northwestern University, vital training grounds for the next generation of innovators.