By now, fans of the Chicago dance scene know about South Chicago Dance Theatre. We’ve seen them on some of the biggest stages—The Harris Theater, The Jay Pritzker Pavilion—but one famous stage has thus far eluded the company. No more! SCDT performs “Memoirs of Jazz in the Alley” at the Auditorium Theatre on June 10th at 7:30pm, a milestone for the company and a potential highlight of the summer season of dance.
“Memoirs of Jazz in the Alley” is one complete work by SCDT’s Executive Artistic Director Kia S. Smith, based on her life history of living around jazz music. “I grew up in the music side of the jazz community,” said Smith in an interview with See Chicago Dance. “My dad was a saxophonist. I grew up going to jazz festivals and my mom was like a permanent fixture at the Jazz Showcase, so I was always around the music.” Jazz music plays a big role in “Memoirs,” with Isaiah Collier & The Chosen Few performing a live score of newly arranged jazz standards including John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” and Dizzy Gillespie’s “A Night in Tunisia.”
The premise is based on the jazz battles that happened every Sunday in the alley between St.Lawrence and Champlain, which came to be known as “The Alley,” a jazz jam hosted by Smith’s father, Jimmy Ellis, featuring such players as Jimmy Smith, Lester Young, and Gene Ammons. In the photo journal “Jazz in the Alley: Portrait of a Chicago Community 1966-1976,” photographer Kevin Harris said, “I was introduced to “The Alley” by Jimmy Ellis who hosted a live jam session in the garage once a month. Jimmy also introduced me to photography.”
It is these photographs by Harris and Ellis that in part inspired Smith’s “Memoirs.” “I discovered some photos on Google arts and culture of ‘Jazz in the Alley’ around four to five years ago when I was in grad school while looking up articles about my dad,” said Smith. “I found this enthralling gallery of beautiful pictures of people in the community that I grew up in, but from, like, sixty years ago—kids, families, all kinds of people—listening to music together. It freaked me out a little to read about ‘Jazz in the Alley’ and how my dad used music to build community all those years ago, because here I am with a dance company doing the same thing!”
The work itself looks at this time in Chicago music history through a retro-futurist lens, as if it had existed today. Twenty dancers perform contemporary jazz dance in front of an original projection design by Rasean Davonté Johnson, which Smith describes as “designed to explore and amplify the emotion of the dancers.”
“A lot of people see jazz dance as a codified movement,” said Smith, “but I feel that it’s ever evolving. It’s not boxed in; it’s always growing.” Smith refuses to be pigeonholed into either a modern/contemporary or jazz dance style, preferring an either/and approach to her choreography. “There are bigger sections which are fun and easier to digest, a typical jazz dance vocabulary with my own flavor on it. That’s one side of it. The other side is meant to expound on the emotion of the characters of the piece—gesture-based, fluid spine, a grounded connectedness to the floor that moves the whole body.
When asked if she was excited about SCDT performing at the Auditorium, Smith’s voice lit up. “I’ve been dreaming about having a show at the Auditorium forever! I’m grateful and this feels surreal.” Smith acknowledges the responsibility that comes with such a big event, saying that “I’m a little bit nervous because the scale is so large! It’s all my choreography, all my conception, all on me! But I’m excited and appreciate the challenge.” Despite the pressure, Smith is bursting with enthusiasm. “It’s our biggest show yet!”
No obstacle is insurmountable with the proper motivation. Smith’s driving force is her urge to pay homage to her heritage, especially that of her father, Jimmy Ellis. “When he passed away two years ago, I was at a loss on how to feel any kind of connection to him. I was applying for the Lab Artist grant from the Chicago Dancemakers Forum, and after receiving it I was speaking with program director, Shawn Lent, about making an evening-length work. She knew about my jazz lineage and said, ‘Why don’t you make a jazz work?’ So, I took that idea and ran with it!” It’s the familiarity with the subject matter and the quest to learn about the history of Chicago and her family’s role within it that gives her the confidence of the most experienced spelunker before ascending a great mountain. “For my first evening-length work it should be something that I really know.”
“Memoirs of Jazz in the Alley” by South Chicago Dance Theatre performs ONE NIGHT ONLY on Saturday, June 10 at 7:30pm at the Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Ida B. Wells Dr. Tickets are available by clicking the event link below or by visiting auditoriumtheatre.org. Receive a 25% discount by entering the promotional code “kia25” at checkout.