On July 1, American Ballet Theatre (ABT) rolled out of New York City on an eight-city bus tour of outdoor performances covering 3,100 miles. Chicago is the third stop, where they will perform on the Pritzker Pavilion stage in Millennium Park this Thursday. Presented free to the public by the Auditorium Theatre, where the company usually dances when in town, “ABT Across America” is a “gift to Chicago” and thank you to the Auditorium’s supporters, according to a released statement from CEO Rich Regan. For an uninterrupted 50-minutes, local fans will finally get what they’ve been waiting a long time for: live dance!
The tour ends later this month at Rockefeller Center where ABT had its first public performance in 1940. In a nod to the troupe’s past, 20 dancers, six sleeper buses, three production trucks with 28 crew members and the assistant artistic director and company manager will travel across 14 states with a mixed-repertory show that’s sure to satiate the hungry dance masses. I spoke with two of the dancers last week just before the tour kicked off and the overwhelming message is of gratitude for being able to dance in front of an audience again.
“We’re so grateful to be back on stage,” said Corey Stearns, a principal dancer who has been with ABT for 16 years. Last month 10 ABT dancers performed at an outdoor venue in Orange County, California, marking the first time back on stage in a year and a half. “We did five shows, so I’m up to eight now. With the experience of COVID and having our jobs taken away from us, it gave us time to reflect on our lives,” he said. “Most of us have expressed a significant increase in the recognition of gratitude we feel in what we do.”
Corps de ballet dancer Hannah Marshall agrees. “We’re all really excited to perform again,” she said. “It will be a great experience dancing for a live audience again. Bringing our passion to the people is very exciting. It’s such a gift.”
Touring by bus is new for both Marshall and Stearns and provides some challenges, like occasionally having to sleep on the bus. “I’m definitely packing differently and bringing some dishes and my own pillow,” Marshall said. “It feels a little like sleepaway camp.” Stearns thinks they will spend as much energy recovering as they will preparing to perform. “I’m just going to try and keep a sense of humor and be as tolerant and patient as possible,” he said. “You’ve got to roll with the punches.”
Another common theme is they both love of Chicago. This stop in the Windy City is brief, but previous trips have included walks along the lake and golfing for Stearns and enjoying pizza for Marshall. “I love Chicago. I think it’s one of the greatest cities,” Marshall said. Stearns who has a long history of performing here, including at the now-defunct Chicago Dancing Festival, has a deep connection to our city. “I respect that the audience appreciates our art form. I have almost a nostalgic feeling getting to dance in Chicago again on the Pritzker stage. It’s a unique experience to see all those people on the lawn. That’s going to be special,” he said.
Stearns, along with his off-stage partner and fellow principal dancer Devon Teuscher, will be dancing Jessica Lang’s “Let Me Sing Forevermore,” a jazzy pas de deux to songs by Tony Bennett. The piece was originally set on ABT dancers Aaron Bell and Catherine Hurlin, another real-life couple and, according to Stearns, “certifiable prodigies known for their physicality and strength.” Lang worked with Stearns and Teuscher to reset her work on them. “We’re more romantic dancers, more lyrical,” said Stearns. Going into the studio with Lang made him nervous. “After being off for 14 months, you lose a little bit of your identity. You start to doubt yourself. It was a real psychological road trip to get our heads around doing this piece. It’s very physically demanding. Being in the studio with Jess…we felt very naked.” But with an empathetic choreographer, they now have a new version that is distinctly theirs. “It’s a special piece and a different story being told. I think the audience is going to love it.”
Marshall is one of eight dancers performing Darrell Grand Moultrie’s “Indestructible Light,” a jazzy ballet piece set to the music of Duke Ellington. “It’s a really positive, uplifting ballet and that feels good after what has been a hard year and a half,” she said. “That feeling of just dancing and moving…it’s joyful.”
Other pieces on the program include Lauren Lovette’s “La Follia Variations” and a classical pas de deux from “Don Quixote.”
ABT Across America, presented by the Auditorium Theatre, will take place at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park. This event is free and open to the public on a first come, first-served basis in the seated bowl area and lawn. For more information, visit https://tickets.auditoriumtheatre.org/production/3358 or click the event link below.