PBS.org’s Child Development Tracker lists the characteristics of an average five year old: creative and enthusiastic problem-solvers, language is well-developed, speak in complex and compound sentences, and recognize that art can tell a story. As Chicago Repertory Ballet (CRB) celebrates its fifth anniversary, it is tracking right along in its development. Artistic Director Wade Schaaf is nothing if not creative and enthusiastic, and by keeping his ensemble functioning, clearly he is a problem solver. Most of the works performed by CRB are created by Schaaf and his choreographic language has developed over the years culminating in the critically successful, full-length ballet Macbeth, where the troupe clearly told the complex Shakespearean tale through movement in a transformed Ruth Page Theater.
“That was a ‘mountaintop moment’ for me,” said Schaaf of his 2016 work. “Not only did we make an artistic statement, but we hit a home run with the reviews and reception we got for Macbeth.” Starting out with shorter pieces, Schaaf and his dancers have grown over the years from mixed programs with multiple smaller works, to one-act ballets like The Four Seasons, to taking on the ever-complicated Stravinsky score to create The Rite of Spring, before attempting the full-length Macbeth. “In some ways, a full-length ballet is easier than creating a shorter work,” he said. “The structure is really broken down into smaller vignettes, so I look at it in a compartmentalized way. I’m really only making five or eight-minutes pieces that all have a different emphasis or idea. It’s more palatable that way. It’s the forethought and planning, where the devil is in the details.”
The 5-year anniversary program – FORWARD: past, present, future – provides a glimpse into CRB’s work over the past five years with excerpts from The Four Seasons and Macbeth, his lighthearted Bolero, and a duet he created for the 2015 gala. Also on the bill is Still Life by Tenley Dorrill, who won CRB’s choreographic competition in 2015. The pièce de résistance is a world premiere by Schaaf - A Symphony for Hope -was inspired by his reaction to the 2016 presidential election. “I went through a grieving process after the election,” he said. “I was out in a public place and everyone was there to celebrate. Watching a room full of people finding out the news…it was a huge downward spiral. It was like a funeral. The work asks ‘what do we have to do as a people, as individuals, to harness our strength and determination and to have hope’.”
Sustaining a company for five years is no small feat, particularly in a climate where many dance organizations are closing or creatively restructuring. One such company with close ties to Schaaf is Thodos Dance Chicago (TDC), where he danced for three years. Although TDC will no longer have a dancing ensemble after their New Dances performances this summer, the legacy and impact on the dance community, particularly Chicago’s, will be long felt. “I am so grateful for the opportunities I had there,” said Schaaf, “and for being able to really hone my skills choreographically and shape a body of work through the New Dances program. Essentially, you’re already running a company. Being able to work in that capacity helped me realize I could do it on my own.”
For the first three and a half years of CRB, he really did do it on his own. Eventually the budget grew, the board expanded and he was able to get help hiring a treasurer and costume designer. He acknowledges the down side of trying to do it all, citing 2014 as a “rough year” when he had to question his work/life balance. But for Schaaf, it was all worth it.
What do the next five years look like for CRB? “I want to continue creating story ballet and push the boundaries of what we can create,” Schaaf said. “Creating dance that defies labels.” And at five years old, that’s exactly where CRB should be.
Chicago Repertory Ballet presents FORWARD: past, present, future at The Biograph Theater (2433 N. Lincoln Ave.), Friday March 24 through Sunday, March 26. Tickets are $25-$35. For more information and to purchase tickets; visit chicagorepertoryballet.com.
CRB is also offering a shortened Children’s Matinee on Saturday, March 25th at 2:00 PM for children ages three to nine. Tickets are $10 for kids; $15 for adults.
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