The Joffrey's Choreographers of Color

March 7, 2013
WBEZ 91.5 Online
Britt Julious


Contemporary dance is an underrated art form, even in Chicago, where the breadth of companies and performers is as diverse as the population it seeks to entertain. For many people, dance performances are inaccessible because of stereotypes regarding social class and age. Unlike theater or film or art, the most visually recognizable and misunderstood genre of dance is ballet. This identity, born out of the precision of the movements and its long history as an evening activity of the upper classes, overshadows the multitude of dancers and choreographers creating unique, experimental, and important new works.

One such company that seeks to showcase emerging performers and choreographers is the Joffrey Ballet. On Sunday, March 10, the Joffrey will premiere their "Choreographers of Color" program featuring performers from a new generation of dancers in the Joffrey Training Academy. The show begins at 4 p.m. and tickets may be purchased online. In its third year, the Joffrey’s Choreographers of Color Award recognizes young minority choreographers in order to provide a unique perspective to the world of dance. Featuring four world premieres, this annual performance is both a welcome introduction to the world of dance as well as an important moment for the choreographers and the Joffrey.

High above the constant frenzy of the corner of State and Lake, Chicago native William McClellan spoke briefly about the influences in his work, Rise/Rebuild to the Occasion. Bill T. Jones, dancer, choreographer, and artistic director once said, “When the gauntlet falls, how do we rise to the occasion?” This quote became a driving basis for McClellan’s work, a reflection of the numerous recent social, cultural, and environmental tragedies such as the Japanese tsunami, the earthquake of Haiti, and the recent shootings in Chicago. McClellan, a South Side native, asks, “How do we build ourselves back up?”

As evident from the earlier preview, moving on requires a total immersion of the body. Rise/Rebuild to the Occasion is a deeply athletic and strong work featuring forceful and powerful movements from its dancers. Featuring elements of ballet, modern dance, hip-hop, and what (at times) looks like footwork, the piece is almost aggressive in its visuals. It is a way to explore and explain the severity of what has happened and to counter what is ultimately needed to move forward. McClellan understands something fundamental to the human experience. One imagines that progress comes easy, but the everyday is not as easy to maneuver as one would like. Moving on takes the whole body; it takes everything you’ve got and then some.

In many ways, the work ties into Black Iris, another chosen choreographic work by Jeremy McQueen. Featuring a moving lead female performance by Nardia Boodoo, McQueen’s work is a tribute and testament to Black womanhood. Like McClellan’s work, McQueen asks how one navigates the world around them. It is about change and our reactions to the changes and world we can not control. McQueen’s work is in dedication to the women he grew up who “exemplify the perseverance, determination, confidence, and faith that is uniquely Black and woman.”

It is a work about what it means to be a modern Black woman, the push and pull of the beauty and the groundedness, and the pursuit of a fulfilling existence against adversity and struggle.

In the debate about the need for more diversity in varying artistic fields, it is encouraging to see the Joffrey both attempting to address this issue and doing so on a regular basis. For a field that is often maligned for its inability to connect with younger or different audiences, the ongoing presence of the Choreographers of Color Award is a refreshing treat for Chicago audiences.

One might wonder why it's only a one-off performance once a year and why such a diverse line-up is relegated to the its own show rather than incorporated into the regular line up from the company or the Academy. As a whole however, some effort is better than none at all. As long as other companies and artists refuse to acknowledge their homogeneity, we will continue to see the same degrees of storytelling. It is a cycle that needs to be broken.